Athens: The Athenian Schools of Philosophy

The Ancient Athenian Schools of Philosophy and Their Proponents

As Athens become democratized it became necessary for individuals wishing to get ahead politically in this new society to be able to express themselves and expound convincing arguments. No longer was brawn a substitute for brain. Wealthy Athenian parents wanted their male children to be educated in order to succeed. Educators called "sophists" came to Athens to fill this need. Today we still use this word in English in one form or another as in "sophisticated", "philosophy", and "sophistry".

Athens spawned several noble or ignoble professions besides professional athletes depending on how you look at it: actors, playwrights, lawyers and politicians.

Socrates was perhaps the first to awaken the impressionable young minds of Athenian youth with his critical thinking in the form of philosophical dialogue. Most of his students were aristocratic young men. He insistently questioned their beliefs in the conventional wisdom of the times. This particular technique did not sit well with the parents of these young men as it was at odds with their own beliefs. Some of these attempted an anti-democratic coup in 399 BC and Socrates was naturally held responsible and brought to trial for failure to worship the Gods and corrupting youth by his criticism of democracy. Since he was so well respected by many Athenians he was allowed to commit suicide by drinking hemlock. He calmly did this with great dignity.

Plato was one of Socrates students and his disciple. Plato set up his own school on land sacred to the muses at the Hekademos a few kilometers north west of Athens. For 40 years he wrote and taught all who were interested at what became known as Plato's Academy. Plato's style was to walk about while lecturing and he had quite a pleasant grove of olive trees within which to teach.

Aristotle became the most famous of Plato's students at the Academy and in 335 BC, he founded his own school at the Sanctuary of Apollo Leceus. It became known as the Lyceum and its whereabouts only conjecture until its recent discovery under today's Byzantine Museum. Plato also walked about while lecturing and his style of philosophy became known as Peripatetic which stems from the ancient and modern Greek word for walking. A "peripato" is a walk in modern Greek.

The school of the Cynics was founded by Antisthenes in a gymnasium called the Kynosarges which means the "dogs tail". Cynic translates to "Dog" in ancient Greek and would have been written with a K as there is no letter C in ancient Greek. A later disciple of Antisthenes called Diogenes taught that animal life was a model for mankind. Diogenes advocated holding wives and children in common and was given to rather remarkable public gestures. He lived in a barrel placed on its side, much like a dog kennel, in the ancient agora for a spell.

A Cypriot named Zeno came to Athens and lectured in the painted stoa, also in the agora, and founded the school of philosophy known as stoic. The original stoics were materialists who believed all knowledge to be founded on sense perception and taught that moral freedom from passion was the basis of ethics.

The island of Samos gave Athens the philosophy of Epicurus who opened a school in a garden and taught that all things are made of atoms in space and that the goal of all human endeavor was ultimately pleasure. His school of philosophy is today known as Epicurean.

Last among the great schools of philosophy was that brought to Athens by Pyrrho, from Elis in the Peloponnese. He founded the school of Skeptics based on the belief that true knowledge was unattainable. Man cannot really know how things are, only how they appear.

Students came to Athens from all over the ancient world. Newcomers were met at quay side by recruiters and urged to join the various schools by passionate devotees and disciples of their chosen master. These various schools had an enthusiastic rivalry with other schools much like the students of today's universities with their fraternities and sororities. Ancient schools also had bizarre initiation rites and frequently engaged in practical jokes and demonstrations some times resulting in lawlessness such as kidnapping students of another school.

Even when Athens later lost its ascendancy its schools of philosophy kept it a vibrant and well respected center of learning for many centuries. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed all the schools in 529 AD and sounded the death knell for Athens for over a thousand years. Also see Who's Who in Ancient Greece

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