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Greek Academy


Academeca was the name of a public park, equipped with a gymnasium and lecture facilities, located about a mile northwest of the Dipylon Gate of ancient Athens. There, probably shortly after 387 BCE, Plato bought a house and estate and began to teach, so successfully that his school dominated the facilities of the area, was named after the park, and continued until Justinian's closure of the pagan schools of philosophy in 529.


The main philosophical contributions of the Academy had been made by the time of Antiochus's death (c. 68 BCE); the different phases in this period were classified into Old Academy and New Academy or, by some ancients, as Old (Plato and his immediate successors), Middle (marked by Arcesilaus in the middle of the third century BCE) and New (dominated by Carneades in the second century BCE). To this were sometimes added a Fourth Academy (Philo of Larissa, head 110/10980 BCE) and a Fifth Academy (under his successor, Antiochus). Broadly speaking, the Old Academy was occupied with problems posed by Plato, Middle and New with aspects of skepticism, and the Fifth with the eclecticism introduced by Antiochus. The history of Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism is distinct from that of the Academy, which was, however, a notable Neoplatonic center under Proclus in the fifth century.


Plato is the only leading Academic whose published works have survived, and they are not primarily internal documents of the school; our knowledge of the doctrines of his successors and of the functioning of the Academy is tantalizingly limited to fragmentary references, opponents' criticisms, and later summaries.


At first the organization may have been informal and fluid, with Plato's personality and interests forming the center of gravity. At some point this fused into a nonfee-paying (fees were instituted by Speusippus), nonresidential corporate society, possibly in the form of a religious guild (thiasos ), joined in the common worship of the Muses and in pursuit of truth at their shrine of learning (Mouseion ), which Plato built on his estate. There were regular dining and other formal ceremonies. Plato appointed his successor; thereafter, the members elected their head, who held the original estate for the society and who governed until his death.


Apparently the teaching varied to some extent among the junior and senior members of the society. Plato's own writings indicated that he had a practical aim in training young men and inspiring them with his political ideals, but he also suggested that the process required much time and study; thus, we find that the most important members remained within the school, researching and teaching, for years or for a lifetime (for instance, Aristotle and Speusippus). Practical political contributions of the Academy therefore came from senior members who were advising rulers or drafting legal codes rather than from former students who had chosen political careers. See, for example, the details given by Plutarch in Moralia (1126 CD); however, the extent of Academic influence is in dispute (see E. Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen II, 420, n. 1). The Republic declares mathematics and dialectic to be the fundamental studies, thereby placing the Academy in opposition both to the literary education of the rival school of Isocrates and to the training in techniques characteristic of some professional sophists. These subjects were chosen not only because their object was real Being, as Plato thought, but also because their method forced students into a Socratic self-learning and willingness to follow a communal discussion wherever the rational argument led.

What is certain is that instruction did not consist in the propagation of orthodox doctrine. There is a hostility to the lecture system in Plato's dialogues, which, together with the notorious failure of his public lecture on the Good, suggests that the main activity of the Old Academy lay in discussions and seminars (of which there is also some contemporary evidence in a comic fragment of Epicrates). Aristotle's mention of unwritten tenets and ascription to Plato of certain doctrines which do not appear in the dialogues (such as the equation of Forms and Numbers, the principles of Unity and Indeterminate Duality, mathematical entities of intermediate status between Forms and phenomena) have led some scholars to posit an esoteric oral teaching of Plato's, and others to suggest that Plato did no oral teaching at all in the Academy.

Both extremes, however, run counter to evidence. Aristotle may be reflecting Plato's part in some exploratory debates with senior members, for while the young and inexperienced had to be nursed and stimulated along educational paths by Plato, it is clear that no consideration of orthodoxy froze research. For such stimulation Plato posed problems, such as accounting for the movements of the planets, which produced a variety of answers including, according to Simplicius, Eudoxus's famous hypothesis of concentric heavenly spheres. We have evidence of equally lively and uninhibited debate in the Old Academy on the theory of Forms, mathematical metaphysics, classification, soul, good, and pleasure. It was at this higher level that the Academy was most successful and influential; in the conflict of educational ideals for schooling the young, the literary education of Isocrates and the rhetorical schools completely defeated in the elementary and state schools the philosophical, scientifically based Academy. However, the latter throughout its history preserved the high ideals of a society dedicated to the disinterested and independent inquiry after knowledge, ideals that succeeding agesfrom the Lyceum of Aristotle to the present dayhave recognized as models and standards for their own institutes of advanced study.

Old Academy

The head of the society naturally influenced all members, so the history of the Old Academy is largely an account of Plato's pupils. The most brilliant was Aristotle, a member from his eighteenth year until Plato's death in 347 BCE; his philosophy stems from the Academy, where his earliest works were written. There is some evidence that he was still being considered for the headship at Speusippus's death in 339 BCE and that he finally broke away to found his own school four years later.

Mathematical research was particularly distinguished in the Old Academy. Theaetetus of Athens, tragically killed in battle in 369 BCE, succeeded in generalizing the theory of irrationals and in constructing and circumscribing the five regular solids, thereby laying the foundations of Euclid's solid geometry in Books 10 and 13. Still more important was Eudoxus of Cnidus, who with his pupils joined forces with Plato (c. 367 BCE) for a few years. Apart from the influential astronomical theory of concentric spheres, he is credited with a general theory of proportion and a method of exhaustion fundamental to Greek geometry. He criticized Plato's theory of Forms, arguing that Form, to be a cause, must be immanent in phenomena, as white is the cause of whiteness of that in which it is mixed. He apparently regarded Form as a kind of substance. This seems to have drawn reactions from Plato and Aristotle. Eudoxus's championship of hedonism likewise produced opposing arguments from Plato and Speusippus. Another astronomer, Philippus of Opus, is reported to have edited Plato's Laws and to have written its appendix, the Epinomis ; whether written by him or by Plato, the latter is an important document of a stage in the Academy at which mathematical astronomy advanced from a propaedeutic science to the central science of Being and theology.

Heraclides of Pontus (c. 390c. 310 BCE), temporary head of the Academy during Plato's third Sicilian journey, unsuccessful candidate in the election of 339 BCE, and later associated with the Lyceum, had a Pythagorean bias and was a prolific, learned, and elegant writer on a wide variety of subjects rather than an original thinker. He appears to have responded to the problem of the planets' motion, but it remains uncertain whether he partially anticipated Aristarchus's heliocentric system and posited the rotation of Earth on its axis, as was thought. He posited an atomic theory of irregular units of mass but attacked the mechanical atomic theory of his day, holding that matter was subject to a divine teleology.

Speusippus, who succeeded his uncle Plato in 347 BCE, may well have been the senior member or even a founder of the society. He and the third head, Xenocrates of Chalcedon (c. 396314 BCE, head 339314 BCE), another pupil of Plato's from his earliest years, were thought by Aristotle and others to be concerned with similar problems. Although neither was a great philosopher, a study of fragments of their writings reveals a development of trends apparent in Plato's later work, some positions between Plato and Aristotle, and some foreshadowing of later Platonism. Both, but especially Speusippus, were strongly influenced by the current Pythagorean fashions in the Academy. In the school debate over the division of Being into the three spheres of Forms, Mathematicals, and Physicals, Speusippus replaced Plato's Forms with mathematical entities and Xenocrates identified Forms and Mathematicals. Both were preoccupied with the derivation of a hierarchy of substances from mathematical first principlesSpeusippus disjointedly, according to Aristotle, in that he abandoned the uniform interdependence of the whole universe on one set of first principles and assumed different principles for different kinds of substance in series. Xenocrates posited the Platonic Unity and Indeterminate Dyad (or continuum of opposites such as great and small). Good, which was derivative for Speusippus (coming at the end of becoming), was distinguished from both Unity and Being. Soul fell into the mathematical classificationas self-moving number for Xenocrates and seemingly as a form of extension for Speusippus, a theory of great importance for the later Stoic, Posidonius.

Another Pythagorean trait was the strong theological interpretation of their mathematical cosmology, also hierarchical in treatment, Xenocrates advocating the influential doctrine of daimones, animate beings between gods and men. In dealing with the Academic problem of real definition by diaeresis (division) and classification, Speusippus suggested in an important work, Homoia (Resemblances), that definition by division was impossible without knowing all existing things, the essential nature of any one concept being constituted solely in its relation of likeness and difference to every other concept. Xenocrates foreshadowed Aristotle by asserting the logical and ontological priority of species over genus. In epistemology both continued the trend of allowing more cognitive importance to perception; Xenocrates, who had a weakness for triadic systematization, worked out spheres of the universe corresponding to cognitive powers: the sphere within the heavens as perceptible, that outside the heavens as intelligible, the heavens themselves as a mixture of both and thus objects of opinion. Both men were prolific writers on practical ethics; they held that happiness can come into being from virtue alone but that virtue is not the only good. Speusippus campaigned against pleasure as being contrary to both pain and good.

The next head, Polemon of Athens (elected 314 BCE), concentrated on conduct, elaborating Xenocrates's conception of happiness as life "in accordance with nature," a phrase which, especially through the Stoa, became the center of ethical debate. Polemon had more personal influence than philosophical originality, but he is of some importance for the Academy of the first century BCE. His friend, Crantor of Soli in Cilicia (c. 335c. 275 BCE), wrote a famous work, Peri Penthous (On grief), a prototype of an ethical genre later popular, directed against the extreme views of the Stoics on pain and the affections.

Middle and New Academies

Crantor's reaction to the Stoa heralded a major change in the school. Until Crates of Athens (elected head 270 BCE), the main topics of inquiry were Platonic questions and developments. The next head, Arcesilaus of Pitane (316241 BCE), is reputed to have concentrated on an attack on the Stoic theory of knowledge. He was probably reacting not only to an ontology and epistemology inimical to the Platonic tradition but even more to the dogmatic character of Stoicism, which he countered by an exaggerated form of Socratic skepticism: Not only did he know, like Socrates, that he knew nothing, but he is also said to have doubted whether he could ever know that he knew the truth. He imitated Socrates in writing nothing and taught mainly in open debate, introducing to the school the system of arguing on both sides of a question. Nevertheless, he saw to it that Plato's works were studied; and in the controversy with the Stoa, the Academy maintained that by "suspension of judgment" (epoche ) they were not inhibited in their main philosophic task of a continual search for truth, however unattainable, or from moral action, as a guide for which Arcesilaus recommended "the reasonable." The dialectical influence of Arcesilaus set the Academy firmly in the main stream of Greek skepticism, but it was an age of formalization through controversy. Arcesilaus helped to produce Chrysippus, the great fortifier of Stoicism; Chrysippus was in turn the whetstone of the most brilliant figure of the second century BCE, Carneades of Cyrene (214129 BCE), who systematized a comprehensive and devastating skeptical attack against the whole philosophy of the dogmatic schools. But while Carneades had penetrating observations on sense perception, probability, causation, fatalism, and anthropocentric theology, he seems, both in method and content, to have drifted some way from the original Socratic-Platonic tradition.

Reaction began with Philo of Larissa (160/15980 BCE, head from 110/109), Cicero's teacher, who, while maintaining skepticism against Stoic epistemology, reclaimed his Platonic ancestry. It was completed with Philo's pupil and opponent, Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 130c. 68 BCE, head from c. 79 BCE), who came to think that the representatives of the New Academy had perverted the teaching of the Old Academy by maintaining that no truth could be grasped, thereby destroying any criterion of true and false and, in Antiochus's opinion, inhibiting action through denial of certainty. Antiochus reinstated a dogmatism whereby a criterion of truth arising from but not contained in the senses was grasped by the mind as self-evident. His reinterpretation of Platonism was marked by an eclecticism in ethics that enabled him to propose that the Stoa and Peripatos had merely followed the lead of the Old Academy, differing from it in terms rather than in substance.

In fact, the theories of morals of the three schools were all naturalist, and Antiochus's distorted arguments were facilitated by certain shared areas of discussion, covered by Polemo and the early Peripatos and Stoa, based on "the things according to nature" (ta kata physin ) to which human beings had a natural affinity (oikeiosis ). Doubtless there had been interchange of ideas, which was fostered even by the New Academy's insistence on arguing on both sides of the question, but Antiochus blurred the quite different approaches of the schools to a common area of dispute.

His thesis may have been further encouraged by the early "Platonic" works of Aristotle which were then popular, and influenced by the Stoic Panaetius, who had admired Plato and who gave greater prominence in his teaching than had earlier Stoics to the "intermediate natural things" (health, wealth, etc.), which, although the material of ethics, were held by Stoics to be in themselves of only relative value and morally neutral compared with the absolute value of the rational operation of virtue. Antiochus, however, maintained that the end of action, the happy life (beata vita ), although possible through virtue alone, was completed (beatissima ) by bodily and external goods. Thus Antiochus shared a graded axiology with the Old Academy and Peripatos; for him the difference between virtue and other goods was one of degree, for the Stoa there was a difference of kind. In a manner similar to some Stoic arguments, he held that the chief good was based on natural instincts for self-preservation and self-development, so that from the germ of virtues in the impulses of childhood man gradually attained knowledge of his own nature; but for Antiochus the perfection of human nature involved all parts of it, not only the highest, and also man's relationship to others and to the community.

This attempted dogmatic synthesis of the three great schools was of minor philosophical interest in itself, but of major importance for subsequent Greek thought. Apart from professional Academics, Antiochus profoundly influenced the popular expositor Cicero, some Stoics with doxographic interests like Arius Didymus, who taught at the court of Augustus, and Middle Platonists such as Albinus of Smyrna, whose lectures Galen attended in 151/152. Albinus's markedly eclectic epitome of Platonism (the Didaskalikos ) still survives. Indeed, without the growth of syncretism initiated by Antiochus, the fusion that created the final explosion of ancient thought in Neoplatonism would not have been possible.

Throughout the long history of the Academy, the founder's works were studied and his birthday revered with celebrations. It is a remarkable tribute to his personality, philosophy, and educational ideals that through the very different phases of the school all members considered themselves his true heirs, so that one man's ideas stimulated his pupils over nine hundred years without in any way rigidifying their thought.

See also Alcinous; Antiochus of Ascalon; Arcesilaus; Aristotle; Carneades; Good, The; Neoplatonism; Philo of Larissa; Plato; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Plutarch of Chaeronea; Proclus; Sextus Empiricus; Simplicius; Skepticism, History of; Stoicism.


Some continuous texts are Diogenes Laërtius, Lives, Books III and IV; Aristotle, Metaphysics, Books A, M, and N; Cicero, Academica and De Finibus, Books IV and V; Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism and Against the Dogmatists ; Siegfried Mekler, Academicorum Philosophorum Index Herculanensis (Berlin: Weidmann, 1902).

Fragments include P. L. Lang, De Speusippi Academici Scriptis (Bonn, 1911); Richard Heinze, Xenocrates (Leizpig, 1892); Fritz Wehrli, Herakleides Pontikos (Basel: Schwabe, 1953); Georg Luck, Der Akademiker Antiochus (Bern: Haupt, 1953); and C. J. de Vogel, Greek Philosophy, Vol. II (Leiden, 1953; 2nd ed., 1960) and Vol. III (Leiden: Brill, 1959).

A standard work is Eduard Zeller, Die Philosophie der Griechen in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung, 6th ed. (Hildesheim, 1963), II.1.2 and III.1.1 and 2.

Introductory works on the Old Academy include G. C. Field, Plato and His Contemporaries (London: Methuen, 1930; 2nd ed., 1948); Werner Jaeger, Aristotle (Berlin: Weidmann, 1923), translated by Richard Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934); A. E. Taylor, Plato, the Man and His Work (London: Methuen, 1926); Sir David Ross, the introduction to Aristotle's Metaphysics (Oxford, 1924; 2nd ed., 1953); Hans Herter, Platons Akademie (Bonn, 1952); and C. B. Armstrong, "Plato's Academy," in Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical Society (1953): 89ff.

Important works of detail include Léon Robin, La théorie platonicienne des idées et des nombres (Paris: Alcan, 1908); Julius Stenzel, Zahl und Gestalt bei Platon und Aristoteles (Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner, 1933); H. F. Cherniss, Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and the Academy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1944) and The Riddle of the Early Academy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945); Sir David Ross, Plato's Theory of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon, 1953); Philip Merlan, From Platonism to Neoplatonism (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1953) and "Zur Biographie des Speusippos," in Philologus, 103 (1959): 198ff.; Paul Wilpert, Zwei Aristotelische Frühschriften über die Ideenlehre (Regensburg: J. Habbel, 1949); and Shlomo Pines, A New Fragment of Xenocrates and Its Implications (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1961).

See also H. J. Krämer, Arete bei Platon und Aristoteles (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1959), and Konrad Gaiser, Platons ungeschriebene Lehre (Stuttgart: Klett, 1968). The latter contains a very convenient collection of Testimonia Platonica: Quellentexte zur Schule und mündlichen Lehre Platons, on pp. 441557.

For works on the Middle and New academies, see Victor Brochard, Les sceptiques grecs (Paris: Nationale, 1887); Albert Goedeckemeyer, Die Geschichte des griechischen Skeptizismus (Leipzig: Dietrich, 1905); M. M. Patrick, The Greek Skeptics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1929); Léon Robin, Pyrrhon et le scepticisme grec (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1944); Olof Gigon, "Zur Geschichte der sogenannten Neuen Akademie," in Museum Helveticum 1 (1944): 47ff.; Max Pohlenz, Die Stoa, Vol. I (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1948) and Vol. II, 2nd ed. (Göttingen, 1955); R. E. Witt, Albinus and the History of Middle Platonism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1937); and A. Weische, Cicero und die Neue Akademie (Münster: Aschendorff, 1961).

I. G. Kidd (1967)

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