David Fideler: A Short History of Plato’s Academy

Why did Plato start the Academy? And what went on there?

Plato’s Academy marked a revolution in ancient Greek education and was the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. It also inspired the creation of Aristotle’s school, which, like the Academy, became a center for scientific research. While Plato’s Academy was structured less formally than a modern college or university, the fact that so many schools today bear the name “academy” highlights the lasting influence of Plato’s school, which existed for an unbroken period of 300 years.

In this article, I will describe why Plato (427–347 BC) founded the Academy, its physical setting in Athens (which one can still visit today), and what took place there based on the ancient sources that have come down to us.

Figure 1: Stairway near the site of Plato’s Academy, by the gymnasium.

Why Plato Founded the Academy

Around the age of twenty, Plato met the philosopher Socrates. As a young man, Plato wanted to contribute to society, so he seriously thought about pursuing a career in politics. But he was personally disillusioned by the unjust and corrupt political events that unfolded around him in Athens. When Plato was twenty-eight, his dear friend and mentor Socrates was executed on trumped-up charges of impiety. Then, earlier, there was the case of the Thirty Tyrants, who ruled Athens for a period of eight months. At first Plato had been hopeful about the Thirty—but he misjudged their character. The unhappy truth was revealed when they unleashed a reign of terror. Despite their brief rule, the Thirty executed 1,500 Athenians without trial, confiscated the property of citizens, and sent people into exile.

Based on these events, Plato reasoned that the political situation in Greece could only improve if politicians came to understand the nature of Goodness and Justice. Socrates had explored these questions earlier, and they were central to Plato, too.

Plato concluded that political troubles would never cease until either philosophers became rulers or rulers became philosophers. This, in short, was Plato’s famous idea of the so-called “philosopher king.” In his view, only a properly educated ruler, who understood the true nature of goodness and justice, would have a genuine vantage point from which he or she could govern well.

Plato was in touch with members of another philosophical school, the Pythagoreans, based in South Italy, including his friend Archytas of Tarentum (d. 360–350 BC). Archytas was a Pythagorean philosopher, mathematician, inventor, scientist, and statesman. He was a much-loved leader of Tarentum, being elected seven years in succession, even though the law only allowed one term. He most likely served as the model for the “philosopher king” or political guardian in Plato’s Republic. Another political figure from South Italy, Dionysisus I, who Plato didn’t admire, probably served as a model for the tyrant in the same dialogue.

Plato made several trips to South Italy. On the first trip, Plato met Archytas, other Pythagoreans, and sought to acquire Pythagorean manuscripts. These meetings almost certainly inspired Plato to start his own philosophical school, the Academy, because he founded the school immediately upon his return to Athens.

Prior to the Academy, the schools in Athens were for children or adolescents. Students would learn basic subjects, including gymnastics, reading and writing, literature, arithmetic, and works of the lyric poets. Students, then, were expected to receive their remaining education by participating in civic life.

Aside from those elementary schools, the primary providers of education were the Sophists (“wise ones”), who taught the art of persuasive public speaking for a fee. In a city like Athens, persuasive speaking was an essential skill for professional advancement. Unfortunately, the Sophists were like polished courtroom attorneys who would argue either side of a case to win an argument without reference to the underlying truth. Dubiously, the Sophist Protagoras had said, “Man is the measure of all things,” while Thrasymachus claimed, “Justice is the rule of the stronger.”

Because of their questionable ideas—and what often appears to be outright moral relativism—the Sophists frequently came under the scrutiny of Socrates, who would engage with them in dialogue and test their ideas and teachings. In his conversations with the Sophists, Socrates would use his famous method of dialectic, which employed systematic question and answer, the careful definition of terms, and a careful exploration of logical contradictions. By using this method, Socrates would, in the end, leave the Sophists dazed and reeling, feeling dumbfounded, and realizing at the end of a dialogue that their actual beliefs were flimsy or incoherent.

Against this background, Plato founded the Academy in the Park or Grove Academus, from which the school took its name. Significantly, he started it with a belief that philosophy could direct people’s minds toward a knowledge of goodness and virtue, which, in turn, would benefit all of society.

The Park and Grove Academus: The Setting of Plato’s School

It was common for philosophers to meet in the public parks of Athens, especially those with gymnasia, to engage in discussions. The Sophists, similarly, would use such public spaces to give speeches, display their rhetorical skills, and seek out students.

The Park Academus, located a short walk outside the northern gate of Athens, was famous for its beautiful setting, tall plane trees, and shady walks—a perfect place to linger with friends and have meaningful conversations. In what must be a historical miracle, the ancient park has now survived for 2,500 years in its original location, in a densely populated neighborhood still called Akedēmia Platōnos (Plato’s Academy), without being built over or destroyed. In fact, the tall trees and shady pathways of the present-day park give visitors today an almost perfect experience of the pathways that existed there during Plato’s lifetime, which, as Cicero said, “are so deservedly famous” (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Shaded pathways at Plato’s Academy Park in Athens today, near the ancient gymnasium.

As a child, Plato grew up not far from the park, which contained a Sacred Grove. According to ancient account, the small grove of olive trees in the park originated from the sacred olive tree of Athena atop the Acropolis. In addition to the Sacred Grove, there were altars dedicated to Athena, Prometheus, Hephaestus, Eros, the Muses, and Heracles. And of course, it goes without saying that the park contained a gymnasium, the foundations of which can still be seen today (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Archaeological remains of the ancient gymnasium at the Academy Park.

Plato founded the Academy in the year 387 BC, at the age of forty-one, after returning to Athens from his first trip to southern Italy. According to the accounts that have come down to us, Plato first bought a kēpos—an orchard or garden—near the Academy Park, which also contained a house. This provided the school with a center for its private activities, including symposia or drinking parties, during which philosophical conversations would occur.

Plato’s second act was to create a shrine dedicated to the nine Muses—the goddesses of learning and education—in the Academy Park. This probably contained statues of the nine Muses, and it’s also likely that there was a small mouseion, or place sacred to the Muses, on Plato’s property. These shrines to the Muses were standard features of all Greek schools, including elementary schools; and this ancient word, mouseion, is the source of our modern term museum: a place devoted to learning.

While Plato’s orchard and house may have been small by later Roman standards, philosophy scholar John Dillon suggests the orchard could have been up to a couple of acres. Plato’s house must have had several rooms, including an exedra—a place for conversations. It almost certainly contained a library for the school’s books and manuscripts

Plato’s strategy in setting up the school was brilliant, since it gave the school both a public and a private dimension. Many of the school’s activities took place in the Academy Park, where members would meet and then converse, walking along the pathways. Other activities took place at Plato’s house and garden. It was like having the best of both worlds: the school had its private property while also having access to a beautiful, free-to-use campus, open to all. The arrangment, however, also creates confusion for us today, because when ancient writers speak about “the Academy” as a school, it’s not always clear if they are referring to the park or to Plato’s private property.

The Activities of Plato’s School

In the Republic, Plato presents a detailed philosophy of education with a corresponding curriculum. In Plato’s plan, the would-be guardians of the state should study mathematics in-depth. This would purify their insight, allowing them ultimately to understand the nature of Goodness—and the classical virtues of justice, wisdom, courage, and moderation. Plato, in fact, was the first individual to describe a systematic philosophy of education.

Because of the educational blueprint detailed in Plato’s most famous work, one might (wrongly) assume this was the type of training a student would receive at the Academy. Also, because we modern people are products of the present-day educational system, it’s easy to assume that Plato’s Academy would have offered regular “classes,” just like we have today, complete with lectures. But both of these assumptions are false. First of all, while Plato had strong philosophical views of his own, the whole purpose of the Academy was not to teach students a specific philosophical doctrine, dogma, or what to think; the point was to teach students how to think. Second, during Plato’s life, there’s no evidence that regular classes were offered there, or at least anything that would resemble university classes today. In fact, during the entire forty years that Plato taught at the Academy, he only offered one public lecture, entitled “On the Good.” While Plato’s closest students, including Aristotle, took careful notes on the lecture, most people who came to hear the talk left in confusion because it ended up being about mathematics!

While there’s no question that Plato wanted his students to understand the Good and many other things, too, it’s to his credit that the educational approach of the Academy was based on Socratic questioning and not focused on teaching a philosophical doctrine. As John Dillon describes it,

Despite Plato’s strong views on many subjects, it was not his purpose to leave to his successors a fixed body of doctrine which they were to defend against all comers. What he hoped that he had taught them was a method of enquiry, inherited by himself from his master Socrates, which, if correctly practised, would lead them to the truth; but, if so, it was a truth which everyone would have to arrive at for himself.

While some informal courses might have been taught on geometry or mathematics, the overall emphasis of the Academy was on Socratic dialogue and dialectic: question and answer, arriving at sound definitions, testing unproven assumptions, and searching for logical inconsistencies. (While Plato preferred dialogue, his student of twenty years, Aristotle, preferred the lecture format and would later found his own school where he could, and would, lecture endlessly.)

Plato’s published dialogues reportedly attracted new students to the school, who would read his work and then travel to Athens. Supposedly, one student even came from Chaldea. One of Plato’s most famous and enjoyable dialogues, the Symposium, in which people give speeches about the nature of love, may have been (at least in part) a marketing document for the school, advertising the kind of intellectual stimulation and companionship one could find there. The Academy also attracted two female students, Lasthenea of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius. Reportedly, Axiothea became a student after reading the Republic, while Nerinthos, a Corinthian farmer, joined the school after reading Plato’s Gorgias. Aristotle, who came from Macedonia, joined the Academy at the age of eighteen.

In addition to Plato, some Academy members also wrote dialogues, including Aristotle, Speusippus, and Heraclides. These dialogues, we might imagine, would have been shared with others or even performed out loud for other students to discuss. Some of Plato’s dialogues could have been used in a similar way to teach the Socratic method.

Aside from its emphasis on Socratic inquiry (which would have investigated the nature of virtue and what it means to live a good life), the Academy was also an institute for scientific research into mathematics. Plato was familiar with the most advanced mathematical discoveries of his time. But it’s astonishing to realize that every single advanced mathematician during Plato’s lifetime had some relationship with the Academy. This group included Theatetus of Athens, Eudoxus of Cnidus, Heraclides of Pontus, Menaechmus, Dinostratus, Hermotimus of Colophon, and Philip of Opus—a true who’s who of Greek mathematics. The famous saying supposedly inscribed over the Academy’s entrance, “Let No One Ignorant of Geometry Enter Here,” is surely a myth. But the serious mathematical research that went on at the Academy during Plato’s lifetime was significant and widely known. Looking back from today, it makes Plato’s Academy resemble a private think tank with its own board of advanced scholars. It also appears that the mathematicians of Plato’s time worked out most of the material in Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, which Euclid would have then compiled, edited, and published.

One of the best documented and most interesting reports to reach us from the ancient world is that Plato acted as “an architect” or a “director of studies” for the mathematicians of the Academy. What this means is that he would raise specific questions or problems for the mathematicians to solve. In one famous case, Plato raised “the problem of the planets.” In visual astronomy, which we perceive with our eyes, the movement of the planets does not appear to follow regular, mathematical patterns when mapped out over time. But based on his belief that the planets do follow regular mathematical patterns in reality, Plato challenged the Academy members to discover, or at least model, what those regular patterns are. Plato’s challenge gave birth to mathematical physics: study of nature’s mathematical laws.

This story offers, I believe, a profound insight into Plato’s actual role at the Academy: he was not an instructor or a lecturer, but someone who set out problems for the students to investigate. If he played this role in mathematical research, it suggests he worked the same way in other areas, too, like ethics and political philosophy. In fact, we can see him working this way in his dialogues, like the Republic. For example, Plato raises questions about the nature of goodness and virtue. He then tries to solve those questions by using Socratic inquiry.

The Afterlife of Plato’s Academy—and the Spirit of Philosophy Today

Plato lived to be eight-one years old, dying in the year 347 BC. He was buried in “the Academy”—presumably his orchard—which, while near the Academy Park, has yet to be discovered. After his death, a sculpture of Plato was erected at the Academy by the famous sculptor Silanion, copies of which survive today (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. A Roman copy of the bust of Plato by the sculptor Silanion.

The Academy was designed to be a permanent institution, headed by a scholarch or “head of school.” When Plato traveled to Italy, Eudoxus, a famous mathematician, was a temporary scholarch. When Plato died, he was followed as scholarch by his nephew Speusippus. Following Plato’s death, Aristotle set up his own school in 335 BC at the Lyceum, another famous park in Athens, which has now been excavated and is open to visitors. Aristotle, who Plato had humorously called “the brain,” carried on the Academy’s work in his own unique way, suited to his own temperament. While Plato favored mathematics, geometry, and dialogue, Aristotle favored biology, systematic research programs, and declarative arguments. Aristotle’s comprehensive research programs, in fact, helped to inspire the formation of the Library and Museum at Alexandria.

Over the decades and centuries, Plato’s nephew Speusippus was followed by a long line of scholarchs at the Academy, too many to list here. But because the Academy had no philosophical doctrine, aside from stressing the importance of critical inquiry, the character of Academic thought changed over time. Certainly, the most exciting time to be at the Academy would have been during Plato’s lifetime when Aristotle was there too.

In the year 86 BC, the Roman general Sulla sacked Athens. During the attack, he cut down the tall plane trees and the Sacred Grove of the Academy Park, using the wood to build machines of war. That was the physical end of the Academy as a teaching center. As an institution in Athens, it probably ended a couple of years earlier when Philo of Larissa, the last scholarch, fled to Rome to escape the Mithridatic wars.

Despite these setbacks, Plato’s philosophy remained unharmed. It continued to influence and inspire countless thinkers in the ancient world. It influenced the Stoics and Cicero, it inspired Neoplatonism, and it resurfaced in the Renaissance to help fertilize a reawakening of culture, classical values, and the humanities.

As Alfred North Whitehead famously said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” That is because the big questions Plato raised are still actively explored and debated today. Likewise, the search for Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and virtue has never gone out of style (even if it is still often absent in the modern political sphere, just as it was in Plato’s day).

Sulla destroyed the trees of the Park Academus in the name of war. But through the power of natural regeneration, those trees have returned to their former beauty. Today, we can once again walk along the peaceful, shaded pathways of the Academy Park in Athens, while cicadas and crickets sing in the background. For someone interested in ancient philosophy or the deeper aspects of education, making this journey is an unforgettable experience. By walking along those pathways, it’s literally possible to walk in the exact footsteps of some of history’s most inspiring people: Plato, Aristotle, and the greatest Greek mathematicians; those who came later, like Cicero, Plutarch, and Marcus Aurelius; and everyone else who has been drawn to this birthplace of Western philosophy and science—those who believe that the unexamined life is not worth living.

David Fideler holds a PhD in philosophy and the history of science. He has a long-standing interest in the philosophy of education, has written a textbook on the history of Plato’s Academy and other Greek philosophical schools, and is a contributor to the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. He’s also the editor of The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library and author of the book Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Dillon, John. Chapter 1, “The Riddle of the Academy,” in John Dillon, The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347–274 BC). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Fideler, David. Platonic Academies: The Educational Centers of Athens, Alexandria, and Renaissance Florence—Their History and Contribution to the Philosophy of Education. East Hampton, New York: Ross School, 1996.

Kalliga, Paul, Chloe Balla, Effie Baziotopoulou-Valavani, and Vassilis Karasmani, editors. Plato’s Academy: Its Workings and Its History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Photo credits: Photos from Plato’s Academy Park (stairway, pathway, and gymnasium) copyright by David Fideler. All rights reserved. Other public domain photos from Wikipedia.