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Plato's Academy: The First Organized School of Political Science in Antiquity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Tradition has it that upon returning from his first Sicilian voyage in 388/387 B.C. Plato founded the Academy. It is also commonly held that, following the example of the Pythagorean brotherhoods with which he had come in contact in Southern Italy, he intended to make the Academy a center of philosophicor scientific studies, as well as a cult society (thiasos) dedicated to the worship of the Muses. Plutarch points out that “in his writings Plato advanced some excellent arguments concerning the laws, the government and the commonweal. But even more important is the fact that he inspired his pupils to positive political action.“ This suggests the further possibility, hardly ever considered, that the Academy itself was indeed a school for aspiring statesmen — perhaps the first organized “institute of political science” in the Western world.

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Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1967

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1 See, for instance, Usener, H., “Organisation der Wissenschaftlichen Arbeit: Bilder aus der Geschichte der Wissenschaft,” Preussische Jahrbücher, 33 (1884), 10 ff.;Google ScholarZeller, E., Die Philosophie der Griechen, II, part 2 (Leipzig, 1889), 982986;Google ScholarRitter, C., Platon: Sein Leben, Seine Schriften, Seine Lehre, I (Munich, 1910), 187193;Google ScholarLandsberg, P., Wesen und Bedeutung der Platonischen Akademie (Bonn, 1923), p. 31;Google ScholarImmisch, O., Academia: Eine Rektoratsrede (Freiburg i./Br., 1924);Google ScholarRobin, L., Platon (Paris, 1935), p. 12.Google ScholarHerter, H., Platons Akademie (Bonn, 1952), p. 22;Google ScholarJaeger, W., Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development (Oxford, 1948), pp. 1123;Google ScholarStark, R., Aristotelesstudien: Philologische Untersuchungen zur Entwicklung Ethik (Munich, 1954), pp. 93102.Google Scholar

2 See Laertius, Diogenes III. 25; IV. 1; IV. 19; and V. 5152.Google Scholar

3 See Howald, E., Die Platonische Akademie und die Moderne Universitas Litterarum: Eine Rektoratsrede (Zürich, 1924).Google Scholar

4 Plutarch, , Adversus Coloten 32. 1126C.Google Scholar

5 There are a few exceptions in this general situation, however. Aside from von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U., Platon, I (Berlin, 1920), 357 ff.,Google Scholar and Stenzel, J., Platon der Erzieher (Berlin, 1928),Google Scholarpassim, the following scholars have touched upon the political implications of the Old Academy: Schuhl, P. M., “Platon et l'Activité Politique de l'Academie,” Revue des Études Grecques, 59/60 (1946/1947), 4453;CrossRefGoogle ScholarSchuhl, P. M., “Une École des Sciences Politiques,” Revue Philosophique de la France et de l'Étranger, 84 (1959), 101103;Google ScholarIsnardi, M., “Teoria e Prassi nel Pensiero dell'Accademia Antica,” La Parola del Passato, 11 (1956), 401433;Google ScholarIsnardi, M., “Nomos e Basileia nell' Accademia Antica,” La Parola del Passato, 12 (1957), 401438;Google ScholarIsnardi, M., “Studi Recenti e Problemi Aperti sulla Structura e la Funzione della Prima Accademia Platonica,” Rivista Storica Italiana, 71 (1959), 271291;Google ScholarBerti, E., La Filosofia del Primo Aristotele (Padua, 1962), pp. 147151.Google Scholar

6 See, in general, Plato, Republic 519A ff.; 534D ff.; and passim.

7 See Jaeger, , Paideia, II (New York, 1944), 273 ff.Google Scholar

8 Isnardi, M., op. cit., 404405.Google Scholar

9 The fact that within the Academy itself there existed a strong trend to translate pure theory into concrete action is attested by Dicaearchus of Messene who insisted that the essence of man is action rather than theoretic contemplation. For details see Jaeger, W., “On the Origin and Cycle of the Philosophic Ideal of Life,” Appendix II to Jaeger, Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, pp. 450 ff.Google Scholar

10 See, for instance, Plato, Republic 376C ff., and 484B ff.; 501A ff.; 520Aff.; 525B ff.; et passim.Google Scholar

11 Ibid., 473CD; 487E; 501E.

12 Ibid., 499C.

13 Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, , op. cit., I, 357 ff.Google Scholar

14 Stenzel, , loc. cit.Google Scholar

15 See, for instance, Chroust, A.-H., “A Second and Closer Look at Plato's Political Philosophy,” Archiv für Rechts- und Sozialphilosophie, 48, no. 4 (1962), 449486.Google Scholar

16 Plato's dislike of democracy and democratic institutions is a matter of common knowledge. Ibid., 455–456; and Plato, Republic 359A ff.; 488D;558C; 557A; 560D; 558B; 553A; 563BC; 565D; 557C; Statesman 303A ff.

17 Quite a few friends, disciples or associates of Plato subsequently became notorious tyrants and villains. One should also bear in mind that the infamous Critias, the “leader” of the Thirty Tyrants (404–403 B.C.), was a close friend of Plato. In Laws 710D, Plato seems to approve of Critias' political methods, but blames the ultimate failure of his venture on the fact that a commission of thirty men was too large a body to be successful in the political arena.Google Scholar

18 Stenzel, , loc. cit.Google ScholarSee also Gentile, M., La Politica di Platone (Padua, 1940), pp. 811.Google Scholar

Plato envisioned two “ideal cities,” Callipolis (in the Republic) and Magnesia (in the Laws). The task of the philosopher is to realize these two political ideals. See Davis, M., “Some Imputed Possibilities of Callipolis and Magnesia,” American Journal of Philology, 85, no. 4 (1964), 394411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 Marrou, H., Histoire de l'Éducation dans l'Antiquité (Paris, 1948), pp. 103104.Google Scholar

20 See Plato, Seventh Epistle; Plutarch, Dion; Diodorus Siculus XVI. 36.Google ScholarSee also von Scheliha, R., Dion: Die Platonische Staatsgründung in Sizilien (Leipzig, 1934), passim.Google Scholar

21 In memory of Eudemus, about 353/52 the young Aristotle wrote the Eudemus or On the Soul. It will be noted that Plutarch's chronology of these events, Dion 58, connecting the death of Eudemus with the expulsion of Callippus in 353 B.C., is probably incorrect. See also Plutarch, Dion 17, and 56–58; Diodorus XVI. 31. 7; Valerius Maximus III. 8. 5; Cornelius Nepos, Dion 8–9.

22 Plato, Republic 500D ff., and 541A.

23 See, for instance, Plato, Statesman 305C, where we are told that the majority of the necessary or indispensable political functions of any city are of an “auxiliary,” that is, secondary, nature. This, then, would explain why during the last phase of his literary and political activities Plato assumes a more “positivistic” or “realistic” — really a half idealistic, half realistic — attitude towards law and politics. See Plato, Laws, passim.

24 The close relationship that bound together Hermias, Erastus, and Coriscus is borne out by an inscription in which “Hermias and his companions” (Erastus and Coriscus) commemorate the alliance between Atarneus and the Greek city of Erythrae. See Dittenberger, W., Syllogae Inscriptionum Graecarum, I. 3, 307.Google Scholar Areius Didymus, In Demosthenis Commentaria, col. 5. 27(edit. Diels-Schubart, 1904), makes it abundantly clear that the “companions” referred to in this inscription are Erastus and Coriscus, who were parties to the treaty with Erythrae. See Wormell, D. E. W., “The Literary Tradition Concerning Hermias of Atarneus,” Yale Classical Studies, 5 (1935), 55 ff.Google Scholar

25 See Jaeger, , Aristotle, pp. 113115.Google Scholar

25 Didymus, Areius, op. cit., col. 5. 52.Google Scholar

27 This situation also led to the establishment of what might be called a foreign branch of the Academy, in Assos. In the year 348/47 Aristotle settled in Assos, and soon this “school,” which apparently became very active, numbered among its members such men as Theophrastus, Callisthenes, and Neleus, the son of Coriscus. It is also held that Aristotle's stay in Assos from 348/47 to 345/44 represented one of the decisive stages in the intellectual development of the Stagirite. See Diogenes Laertius III. 46; Strabo XIII. 608.

28 Hermias was crucified. His last wish was that the following message bedelivered to the Academy: “Tell my friends and companions that I have donenothing weak or unworthy of philosophy.” Areius Didymus, op. cit., col. 6. 15.

29 See. Chroust, A.-H., “What Prompted Aristotle to Address the Protrepticus to Themison?” Hermes, 94 (04, 1966), 202207.Google Scholar

30 Aristotle was a close personal friend of Eudemus of Cyprus, the Cypriot exile and member of the Academy (died in 354 B.C.). Aristotle, through Eudemus, may have established connections with some Cypriots, including Themison. See Cicero, , De Divinatione ad Brutum I. 25;Google Scholar Plutarch, Dion 22.

31 See Hirzel, R., “Über den Protreptikos des Aristoteles,” Hermes, 10 (1876), 9699;Google ScholarJaeger, , Aristotle, p. 54.Google Scholar

32 Plutarch, , Adversus Coloten 32. 1126CD.Google Scholar

33 Ibid., 33. 1126E.

34 Euphraeus of Oreus was sent by Plato to Perdiccas. He “persuadedPerdiccas to portion off some territory to Philip.” Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae XI. 506EF. Athenaeus, citing a letter of Speusippus to Philip of Macedonia, maintains that it was thus “that Plato acquired the beginning of Philip's kingship through Plato's agency.” Ibid. See also Plato, Fifth Epistle, passim.

35 Athenaeus, op. cit., 508E.

36 Athenaeus, op. cit., XI. 508D–509B. —Athenaeus is definitely a “hostile” witness. See here also Plutarch, Dion 28.

37 Diogenes Laertius III. 46.

38 Ibid., III. 23.

See also Aelian, , Varia Historia II. 42;Google Scholar Plutarch, Adversus Coloten 32. 1126C.

39 Ibid., 32. 1126C.

40 Plutarch, Ad Principem Ineruditum I. 779D. See also Aelian, , Varia Historia XII. 30.Google Scholar — Plato, as is known, advocated a “community of all property” for the ruling class. See Republic 416D, and 417A; 420A ff.; 422A; 464A; 543B; et passim: Timaeus 18C; Laws 739C, and 807B. He believed that the abolition of private property would prevent both poverty and affluence. Affluence, aside from its softening effects upon people (Republic 422A), might induce them to change their habits of life and, hence, cause social and political changes. Poverty, on the other hand, might compel people to resort to drasticor revolutionary social action. Republic 417A, and 421D; 422A. Affluence might also cause “divided allegiance” (Republic 422E ff.), in that wealthy people might put property interests above the communal interest.

41 Athenaeus, op, cit., XI. 508E. This poses an interesting problem. In Gorgias 471A ff., which is usually dated shortly after 390 B.C., Plato makes out Archelaus to have been a villain and a person of ignominious origin. See also II Alcibiades 141D. In the light of all this it has been suggested that we should read “Perdiccas” rather than “Archelaus.” Some manuscripts read asfollows: “Plato … was on very friendly terms with Philip [not Archelaus], and was the cause of his becoming king.”

42 Athenaeus, op. cit., XI. 506EF. See also Plato, Fifth Epistle, passim; Bickermann-Sykutris, , “Speusipps Brief an König Philipp,” Berichte der Säcksischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (1928), pp. 3 ff.Google Scholar Athenaeus' account is based on Carystius of Pergamon, Historical Notes. See Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum (edit. F. Jacoby), IV. 412. For an analysis of the political influence which the Early Academy had on Macedonia, see also Momigliano, A., Philippo il Macedone (Florence, 1936), pp. 132 ff.Google Scholar

43 Athenaeus, op. cit., XI. 508E. This account is likewise based on Carystiusof Pergamon. See Fragmenta Histor. Grace. IV. 357, and Demosthenes, Oratio IX. 5962.Google Scholar

44 This seems to follow from Demosthenes, Philippica III. 33, 59, and 63; Demosthenes, Philippica IV. 8.Google Scholar

45 Until the deplorable Callisthenes affair in 327 B.C. — Callisthenes, the nephew of Aristotle, was foully murdered by Alexander — Aristotle seems to have been on good terms with Alexander. After the death of Alexander in 323 B.C., Aristotle maintained excellent relations with Antipater.

46 This story has not been universally accepted. See Chroust, A.-H., “Was Aristotle Actually the Preceptor of Alexander the Great?” Classical Folia, 18, no. 1 (1964), 2633.Google Scholar

47 Plutarch, Ad Principem Ineruditum 1. See also Aelian, , Varia Historia XII. 30.Google Scholar

48 Diogenes Laertius III. 24;

Proclus, , In Primum Euclidis Elementorum Librum Comment. (edit. Friedlein, G., Leipzig, 1873), p. 211, lines 19–23.Google Scholar It appears that Plato, in keeping with his educational program, insisted that all studies of politics must be preceded by the study of geometry (and philosophy). Thus, while at the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, Plato introduced the tyrant and his close associates to geometry. According to Elias, Comment, in Porphyrii Isagogen et in Aristotelis Categorias, in: Commentaria in Aristotelem Graeca, 18, part 1, (edit. A. Busse, 1904), 118, line 18, the following inscription was written over Plato's door: “No one who does not master geometry may enter here.”

49 Plutarch, Adversus Coloten 32. 1126C; Diogenes Laertius III. 23; Aelian, , Varia Historia II. 42.Google Scholar

50 Plutarch, Adversus Coloten 32. 1126C. See also Epicrates, frag. 11 (287 Kock).Google Scholar

51 Ibid.. See also Plutarch, Praecepta Gerendae Reipublicae 10. 805EF; Aristotle, Politics 1306 a 15 ff.

52 Plutarch, Dion 13.Google Scholar

53 Didymus, Areius, op. cit., col. 5. 52.Google Scholar

54 Academicorum Philosophorum Index Herculanensis (edit. Mekler, S.), col. VI, 15 ff.; Aristotle, Politics 1311 b 20; Plutarch, Adversus Coloten 32. 1126C;Google ScholarPhilostratus, Vita Apollonii VII. 2; Demosthenes, Contra Aristoclem 119;Google Scholar Diogenes Laertius IX. 65; Plutarch, Praecepta Gerendae Reipublicae 816E.

55 Suda, Clearchus; Diodorus Siculus XV. 5 ff.; Memmon, in:Google ScholarFragmenta Historicorum Graecorum (edit. Jacoby, F.) III. 526, and 527;Google ScholarAcademicorumPhilosophorum Index Herculanensis col. V. 13. — If this Leon is in fact Leon of Byzantium, then he is also the man who subsequently directed the defense of Byzantium during the siege of 340 B.C. by Philip of Macedonia. He held out until the city was relieved by an Athenian fleet under the command of Phocion. See Plutarch, Phocion, 14 ff.; Bibl. Phot. (Memnon) 222Google Scholar(Frag. Histor. Graec, Jacoby, III. 526); Justin XVI. 4. 4 ff.; Polyaenus II. 30. 1 ff.; Diodorus XVI. 27. 3.Google Scholar

56 Athenaeus, op. cit., XI. 509D;Google ScholarPausanias VII, 27, 3, and 7;Google ScholarAcademicorum Philosophorum Index Herculanensis col. XI. 2830; Demosthenes XVII. 10.Google Scholar

57 Athenaeus, loc. cit. Diogenes Laertius III. 46, mentions a Timolaus of Cycicus among the disciples of Plato, but no Timaeus.Google Scholar

58 Athenaeus, op. cit., XI. 509A. Athenaeus, who relies here on the report of Demochares, adds that subsequently Timolaus was apprehended, tried, convicted and disgraced.Google ScholarSee also Diogenes Laertius III. 46;Google ScholarDiodorus XVIII. 51.Google Scholar

59 Ibid., XI. 508F. See also Diogenes Laertius III. 46.

60 Ibid., XI. 509D, and 504–509E, Pontianus enumerates some of the less attractive deeds of Plato's disciples and associates.

61 Plato, Third Epistle 315D. — The same holds true as regards Hermias of Atarneus, whom Erastus and Coriscus turned into an enlightened ruler; and in the case of the rising Macedonian dynasty. See Plato, Fifth Epistle, passim.Google Scholar

62 Academicorum Philosophorum Index Herculanensis col. X. 29.Google Scholar

63 Diogenes Laertius III. 14; Plutarch, Adversus Coloten 32. 1126D. It has been suggested that Alexander asked Xenocrates to write this book in order to offend Aristotle. See A.-H. Chroust, “A Brief Analysis of the Vita Aristotelis of Diogenes Laertius (DL V. 116),” Antiquite Classiqué, 34, fasc. 1 (1965), 114 ff.Google Scholar

64 Diogenes Laertius IV. 9.Google Scholar

65 Ibid., IV. 9, and 11.

66 See, in general, Chroust, A.-H., op. cit. supra note 63.Google Scholar

67 When in 335/334 Aristotle returned from Macedonia to Athens, he left his nephew Callisthenes with King Alexander, presumably to keep alive his personal influence with the king. See Diogenes Laertius V. 45.Google Scholar

68 Plato, Laws 908A and 909A; 951A ff.; 961A ff.; 968A; Plato, Critias 119E ff.Google Scholar

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