Category: Historical subjects

The Academy of Plato (structure and organization)

According to the literary sources and the archaeological evidence, the Academy founded by Plato at Athens is distinguished as the first organized intellectual centre of university level in human history.

Plato probably founded the Academy in 387 BC or the following year, after his return to Athens from his first visit to Sicily. From the outset, Plato was put in charge of the Academy, which he directed until his twilight years, when he retired to his own house and “garden”, in order to write Laws. During his absences in Syracuse (in 367 BC and 361-360 BC) and the period of his abstention from teaching, he was replaced successively by Heraclides Ponticus, Aristotle and Eudoxus of Cnidus.

The Academy Centre

The Academy was established on a 1.5 ha. tract of land in the area where the “hero” Hecademus or Academus was worshipped, hence the name of the school. This area was reached by exiting Athens through the Dipylon and proceeding along a road lined on either side by tombs of a civic cemetery. Indeed, the Academia sanctuary, with its renowned olive grove, had been enclosed by a wall since the time of Pisistratus. The building complex of the Academy is dated to the middle years of the fourth century BC and its architectural design was attuned to the school’s curriculum. It differs from all other educational centres or gymnasia built in the Hellenic world, as its characteristic symmetry and proportions allude to mathematical theorems. The external measurements of the complex, which comprised two contiguous buildings of rectangular plan, are 30 x 60 m. The Academy was entered through a doorway with propylon, carved above which was the inscription: Μηδείς αγεωμέτρητος εισίτω (Let no one ignorant of geometry enter) – if this testimony is true. A free-standing rectangular portico surrounded the atrium, at the centre of which was an impluvium. The marble slabs uncovered at regular intervals along the length of the portico were probably bases of benches used for studying and copying books. Two spaces created at the ends of the northeast part of the portico were probably the apartment or oecus of the “anagnostes” (reader, lector). This side of the portico also delimited the rooms that were arranged symmetrically on either side of the central hall, which functioned as a “temple of knowledge”, that is, a library and an assembly hall. At the centre of this hall stood the statue of Athena or Hermes (or Hermathena according to Cicero). Constructed in the side walls were marble recesses to accommodate the bookstands. Most probably an exedra of at least two steps ran along the length of the side walls, serving as a seat and giving access to the bookshelves. The rooms on either side of the central hall were for the storage of papyrus rolls. That there were classrooms in the Academy is attested indirectly, by none other than Aristotle (Prior Analytics 43α).

Last, in the atrium, and again on the central axis of the building, statues of the Nine Muses had been set up on a pedestal.

The teaching of the episteme of mathematics (mainly geometry and astronomy) in the Academy presupposes the existence of a suitably equipped and guarded room. Geometric symbols, teaching aids and boards were the essential instruments for the proof of theorems.

The establishment plan of the School

Very little is known about the school rules, Plato’s seminars and the teaching methods. Plato taught orally and his students kept notes, as first step for the further research and study of the object, as he believed firmly that knowledge was not acquired by a simple teaching of “lessons”. The only method of obtaining true knowledge, on “epistemic” criteria, is to study beside a genius who will lead you towards truth. Objective aim of Plato’s teaching was to broach and to define by epistemic methods all areas of knowledge: both the so-called theoretical disciplines and the positive sciences (to use today’s terminology). Prerequisite for the cultivation and conquest of genuine knowledge was to walk along the path of virtue.

Although Plato is not distinguished by his contribution to mathematics, from the dissolution of the Pythagorean School, around the mid-fifth century BC, to the great Alexandrian mathematicians of the third century BC, progress in this episteme was due to graduates of the Academy or to individuals associated with its milieu. At the level of mathematical research, the arrival of the distinguished Eudoxus of Cnidus, who settled in the Academy accompanied by his students, played a decisive role. The Academy opened up new roads in this sector, mainly in the separation of the study of geometry from arithmetic, while systematic research was conducted in music and harmony in conjunction with astronomy. Outstanding figures in this direction were Theaetetus, Leon, Neoclides, and others.

One other innovation in the curriculum of the Academy was the role of the “anagnostes”, which seems to have been decisive for its operation. This role was not confined to the reading aloud of philosophical works and Sophist diatribes, which were the starting point for more thorough discussion and the central theme of many Dialogues, but extended to the reading aloud of the actual Dialogues of Plato. However, from the time the Academy began to operate more systematically, the role of the “reader” must have been upgraded and in addition to reading aloud he must have exercised criticism, both factual and literary. Indeed, from the moment Plato entrusted this role to Aristotle, the “reader” was turned into inquisitor, with exceptionally severe criteria.

Plato’s teaching in the Academy should be classed into two categories: instruction to a close circle of his students and lectures to a wider audience. Purpose of his seminars was to form the setting with the protagonists of the discussion, which would lead, through dialectics, to commonly accepted values or to negative and deadlock conclusions. Aim of his lectures to the general public was to promote methods that every thinking person should follow, so as not to be led astray by the self-proclaimed omniscience of the Sophists. His famous lecture “On the Good”, for which we have the vivid testimony of Aristoxenus, as well as the reactions of the public, should be included in the framework of this “exoteric” teaching.

The Library of the Academy

Apart from the free-standing roofed portico of the Academy, which functioned as a reading room and a scriptorium, an important role was played by its library, which held not only Plato’s personal book collection and copies of his Dialogues, but also works published and circulated in the market by Plato’s pupils, such as the so-called exoteric discourses of Aristotle. Many of these writings were of the nature of commentaries on fundamental dialogues by Plato, such as the Symposium, Parmenides, Republic and, later, Laws. There were also Academy publications of programmatic character, such as Protrepticus, which was written by Aristotle c. 362 BC, as the Academy’s answer to the criticisms by Isocrates and members of his school of the standard of teaching in the Academy.

If we bear in mind the extent of the library of Speusippus, Plato’s successor as scholarch of the Academy, which ran to 224,239 lines, as Diogenes Laertius attests, then we can appreciate the reasons that led the Academicians to organize this library, the first in an advanced intellectual foundation in the Hellenic world, and not only.

There does not seem to have been a formal set of regulations for the operation of the Academy and in addition to the male members there were also female students. Many of Plato’s pupils were boarders and there must have been communal dining facilities, so creating a school of esoteric ethos, model of which was the Pythagoreion.

Ownership status

Plato did not have the financial means to purchase the land on which the premises of the Academy were built, nor did his relations with the political leadership of Athens presume the support of the state, although it may well be that the Academy had been recognized by the state also as an official cult centre. Nonetheless, testimonies and data from Plato’s epistolography allow us to posit a working hypothesis. According to Plutarch, while returning from Syracuse in 387 BC, Plato was forced to disembark at Aegina, because the Aeginetans were at war with the Athenians, and was taken captive to be sold as a slave. However, thanks to the intervention of Annikeris from Cyrene, or according to others of Dion, he was bought back for thirty mna. Plato’s supporters collected this sum with the intention of returning it to the person who offered the ransom, but he refused to accept it and so the money was used to purchase the land where the Academy was “housed” and later built.

Plato may not have had a large fortune, but as he himself states in his Seventh Letter, Dionysius I had entrusted to him a considerable sum of money, which he managed as he wished and which was deposited in the “bank” of Andromedes. Indeed, Satyrus recounts that the money available to him amounted to the excessive sum of 80 talents. Plato reveals that he gave regular reports on the money he spent, but nowhere is there mention of the money expended for the Academy

Author: Konstantinos Sp. Staikos


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