I walked to the ruins of the Platonic Academy in Athens this morning. Founded by Plato himself around 387 B.C., it persisted through many generations under a variety of scholarchs (i.e., heads). It finally came to an official end during the reign of the emperor Justinian in 529 A.D., who ordered the closure of all the pagan institutions of higher learning.
I could not spend time in Athens without walking this sacred ground. For me it was a very short walk: first along Elefsinion Street, then Lenorman, then Alexandrias, and then finally the Academica Platonica itself. The ruins are located in a public park in a residential area; in early morning it is serene and quiet, with dog-walkers, joggers, and elderly people starting their days. We are told that the site was only discovered in the 20th century; before that, scholars had a general idea of its location, but not a precise one. In classical times it was located in the midst of groves away from the city; now, of course, it is within the city, since Athens is far larger now than it was then. Instruction was offered on a variety of subjects at the Academy, including philosophy, mathematics, rhetoric, and probably others, including music.
I walked the site and took the photographs you see below. The only site that was marked was that of the gymnasium; this palaestra dates from a later period, probably the 1st century A.D. There is even a cistern for the students’ bathing. Book learning and physical fitness thus went hand-in-hand, a lesson that should not be lost on us today. The site is still largely unmarked. It deserves restoration, but this is likely to have to wait future generations. It appeared to me that the Academy had different clusters of buildings, possibly lecture-halls, classrooms, or libraries.
To me this place was sacred ground. I could not help my romantic inclinations from getting the better of me. Cicero himself studied in Athens as a youth in 79 B.C. and certainly would have attended lectures here. So did countless other great names. Cicero recalls these memories fondly in the opening part of Book V of On Moral Ends. The following thoughts I turned over in my mind as I walked the grounds and studied the ancient stones beneath my feet.
O stones, ye have here rested three and twenty centuries! Ye sturdily kept a continent’s foundation when Europe was young; ye heard the laughter of youth, the pleas of truth’s seekers, and the disputations of the great; ye have witnessed the Master speak of the Divine Forms, and of the secrets of their emanations; ye knew Aristotle in his noble prime, and felt the learned perambulations of Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemo, and a hundred other names now lost in time’s swirling mists; and ye laughed at the follies of empires and kings. Speak, ye stones, and say what secret lieth within ye!
But there was no reply, of course. As I walked through the place, the bees still hummed, the birds still tweeted and chirped, and the groves still rioted with tangled trees and bushes. Life has inherited the Academy; its stones speak not, but the living envelop them, and speak for them in their own animated and reverential tones. And so we may say that the Academy is, in its own way, still alive. I walked back to my hotel, and reflected much on these things.
Read more in On Moral Ends: