One of the goals of the Plato’s Academy Centre is to bring ancient Greek philosophy and literature to a wider audience by making it more relevant to modern life. This Prada advert directed by Ridley Scott shows one creative way that an ancient text can be brought to life:
The words are from Thunder, the Perfect Mind, a 3rd century Gnostic mystical text, discovered in Egypt and written in the Coptic language, but believed to have originally been composed in Greek.
In the video below, Akira the Don, has put the words of the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, to music.
I think that there’s plenty of opportunity for other ancient Greek texts to be utilized creatively in ways that potentially introduce them to a new audience.
The lord whose is the oracle at Delphi neither reveals nor conceals his meaning, but shows it by a sign.
Translators can play a crucial role in this, though, by working with artists to create new translations, or even paraphrases, of ancient texts, which are both faithful to the original but also complemented by the music. There are many ways we can, and should, continue to work with ancient texts to keep them alive by making them more accessible and relevant to a wider modern audience.
Aphorisms like the sayings of Heraclitus or poems like Empedocles’ On Nature or the work of the same name by Parmenides, perhaps lend themselves to creative modern presentations like those above.
It is all one to me where I begin; for I shall come back again there.
Another interesting opportunity for keeping Greek philosophy alive and reaching a new audience is through street art, such as the large portrait of Solon, one of the Seven Sages, found in Metaxourgeio in Athens.
Images of Greek thinkers are great but it would be nice to combine these with some of their words. There’s a backstreet in Kypseli, Athens, where artists have covered the walls with quotes from ancient Greek literature.
The Plato’s Academy Centre could, for instance, organize events to raise funds for street art projects to celebrate Greek philosophy.
Feel free to comment below if you have any suggestions for ways in which music or artwork could be used to bring Greek philosophy to a wider audience. You may also want to check out our forthcoming virtual event: Ancient Philosophy Comes Alive!
He who does not prevent a crime, when he can, encourages it.
The British historian and politician Thomas Macaulay wrote a collection of poems in 1842 called Lays of Ancient Rome. These recount heroic episodes that go beyond the emperors, generals, and senators, to highlight the actions of ordinary footsoldiers, who otherwise would be lost to history.
One of the poems, called Horatius, is about Publius Horatius and two fellow soldiers who were assigned to hold the Sublician Bridge over the Tiber river from the Etruscan Army. These three elected to go forward and fight the enemy, allowing their fellow soldiers the opportunity to dismantle the bridge behind them, sacrificing their lives in the process.
This is such a moving poem that many, including Winston Churchhill, memorized every verse. But this type of heroism is not confined to ancient times. It is happening right now in Ukraine. From their President on down, Ukrainians have proven that courage and tenacity, though intangible factors, can have an exponential impact on the battlefield.
Going into battle takes courage. Many of my closest friends and I have done so on many occasions. We always went, though, with overwhelming force on our side. The courage to go into battle wholly outnumbered is of another kind. I believe it exemplifies the type of fortitude that the ancient Stoics held as one of their fundamental principles and cardinal virtues. It is courage in the face of oppression, in defense of liberty, even if death is the most likely outcome.
On February 25, 2022, the Ukrainian government issued a statement that Vitaly Volodymyrovych Skakun, a Ukrainian Marine combat engineer, had voluntarily undertaken a mission to mine the Genichesky Bridge near Kyiv before Russian forces could cross it. Vitaly did not have time to flee the blast zone before detonating the explosives. He informed his battalion, by text message, that he would be blowing it up regardless. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the Gold Star by Ukrainian President President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He became, through his actions, a modern-day Horatius.
To every man upon this earth Death cometh soon or late. And how can man die better Then facing fearful odds, For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his Gods.
Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul, With all the speed ye may; I, with two more to help me, Will hold the foe in play. In yon strait path a thousand May well be stopped by three. Now, who will stand on either hand, And keep the bridge with me?
This type of heroism needs to leave behind more than a poem; it should inspire action. Ukraine is a young democratic country fighting to hold on to its freedom. Vitaly’s courage, his Stoic stand, is what the free world must remember to ensure that we do not return to the past.
About the author
Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a retired U.S. Marine, a retired paramilitary operations officer in the CIA’s Special Activities Center, and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. He is now a national security and defense analyst for ABC News, a senior fellow for national security and defense policy with the Middle East Institute, a co-founder of the Lobo Institute, and on the board of advisors for Plato’s Academy Centre.
The four main principles of Stoicism — wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance — are best used to conduct self-assessments, not to “preach” to others. Stoics should therefore not insist that Stoicism is superior to other philosophies. Instead, these principles should be employed as personal markers to improve continually.
With the hope of being helpful to others, the remainder of this writing details some things I have done and the standards that I try and hold to that help me do that. No matter where you are on your personal development, everyone is better off if we are all trying to better ourselves. Being a self-assessing Stoic will also help prevent you from becoming what may be the worst — a hypocrite.
Wisdom is not just knowing lots of information. Artificial intelligence and Google are making that ability less and less important. Instead, true wisdom is all about the ability to be creative and innovative. To be creative and innovative, you have to be able to admit when you are wrong and adjust as you receive new information.
Being adaptable is becoming a rare skill in today’s world, where people have developed immutable beliefs based on information pushed for political or self-serving reasons. If you cannot admit you are wrong, you will essentially never be innovative, especially when circumstances change. When was the last time you admitted you were wrong to someone?
Courage is knowingly deciding to act for the good of others regardless of the consequences to yourself — even if those consequences could be dire. I have seen courage in traditional settings (e.g., in the military and on the battlefield). But courageousness is found in many other capacities every day.
Do you walk past the person being bullied or attacked on the street? Do you look the other way when someone is wrongfully discriminated against or do you stand up for them — even if it means those discriminating turn on you? Do you pull someone out of a burning car on the highway or do you standby watching it burn? Every day is a test, whether you like it or not.
Look at justice and your pursuit of it. What are you doing for others? Yes, you should fight for your rights and the rights of those like you. But, that is basically righteous self-interest. The true pursuit of justice should be for others regardless of whether they are like you or not.
Human rights after all should be, by definition, universal. We should strive to promote human rights for others regardless of whether we personally benefit. This is what it means to be a true proponent of justice, to be a humanitarian. When is the last time you took a stand for something that did not benefit you for someone that wasn’t like you?
As an Irish-American myself, I have a theory on the Irish. During the famine and the troubles in Ireland, many families had to send some of their children to the “New World” to try and make enough to survive for the whole family.
Yet, the United States was not very receptive to the Irish. In fact, they it was in many ways hostile. Most Irish chosen to be sent across the ocean were selected based on their tenacity and boldness (there are other names I could use but I am trying to be polite). They weren’t necessarily sent abroad for their temperance.
Whether this theory is true, I have always viewed temperance as the most challenging. Aristotle may have said moderation in all things, but that is easier said than done for many people, Irish or not.
I have found that the best way to improve in this category is to well, cheat. If you eat and drink too much at night, go to bed early. If you turn hostile every time you talk politics with your parents or a certain friend, even after you tried to have a civil discussion, talk about something else. But a person’s temper may not be in their total control.
Deciding to go into situations that trigger your temper is in your control. To be blunt, if it is your choice to avoid, then the consequences of not avoiding it are your fault. When was the last time you were the one that walked away from an unproductive argument?
These principles are the building blocks that make up a more complicated whole — your integrity. Your integrity is the only thing that can’t be taken from you and is, therefore, the only thing you truly own. Self-assessment, if done honestly, is an investment in your integrity.
Like climbing a mountain, there will be hardships, there will be peaks and valleys, and there may even be some false summits, but it is worth the effort for you and everyone you know.
Whether you agree with or use what I utilize for self-assessment is not what’s important. What is important is looking carefully at yourself in the Stoic’s mirror. Many people are their own greatest fans. Be your own harshest critic.
Mick Mulroy, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, retired CIA officer, and U.S. Marine, on the board of advisors for the Plato’s Academy Centre.
Sir John Templeton (1912 – 2008), an American by birth who later became naturalised as a UK citizen, was an extremely successful investor and fund manager. He was also one of the 20th century’s most notable philanthropists, reputedly giving away over a billion dollars to charity. In 1987, he founded The Templeton Foundation, describing its goal as follows:
We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.
Templeton was a lifelong member of the Presbyterian Church. He had a very diverse interest, though, in spiritual and philosophical classics from other traditions. His writings are full of quotes from famous Stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. He also quotes frequently from Cicero, an orator and Academic philosopher who was himself heavily influenced by Stoicism. Templeton also liked to refer to Socrates, the most famous Greek philosopher of all, who preceded and greatly influenced the Stoic school.
I counted about 22 references to Stoicism in Worldwide Laws of Life, his most popular book on Amazon. To save me repeating “Templeton quotes xyz as saying”, incidentally, bear in mind that every one of the quotations below is used by Templeton in this book.
Templeton derived two major themes from his reading of the Stoics, which run throughout his writings:
Our own thoughts shape our character and emotions
Our happiness depends upon having self-discipline, and living consistently in accord with our true values
We’ll explore each of these in turn before discussing a third Stoic theme, death reflection, which Templeton only touches upon indirectly.
1. “Your life becomes what you think.”
Templeton uses this quote from Marcus Aurelius as the title of one of his Worldwide Laws of Life. He also includes another quote, which better explains its meaning: “Such as are thy habitual thoughts,” says Marcus, “such also will be the character of thy soul—for the soul is dyed by thy thoughts.” Marcus is also quoted as saying:
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thought: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.
Marcus was steeped in the teachings of Epictetus, an earlier Stoic philosopher, whose most famous saying was:
Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinion of the things that happen.
Templeton quoted Epictetus because he understood that our emotional life depends much more on our opinions than we normally tend to realise. Our spiritual progress requires taking responsibility for our own thinking, and bringing our actions more into alignment with the goal of living wisely and virtuously.
Recalling that we can always view events differently helps us to cope with setbacks in a wiser, more constructive manner. Epictetus is quoted as saying, “On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.” One who has mastered this ability has overcome fortune.
Happy is the man who can endure the highest and the lowest fortune. He who has endured such vicissitudes with equanimity has deprived misfortune of its power.
Templeton also quoted with approval Epictetus’ remark:
Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things are either what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases is the wise man’s task.
We are unlikely to be deceived when things are as they appear to be. However, often the contrary is true. Something might be healthy, on the one hand, without appearing to be so. On the other, something may appear to be healthy, without, in fact, being so. Appearances, in short, are distinct from reality, and can therefore be quite misleading. This might seem obvious but we’re naturally inclined to forget the distinction between appearance and reality. Philosophers like Epictetus want us to be more mindful of this distinction throughout our daily lives, as a safeguard against being deceived by superficial impressions.
We have to make a commitment to the truth as it requires intelligence and effort to see clearly, without letting our feelings get in the way.
The great teacher Seneca said, “Eyes will not see when the heart wishes them to be blind.”
He also quotes Seneca saying “Live among men as if God beheld you; speak to God as if men were listening.”
Socrates, the godfather of Stoicism, as it were, was the first to really emphasize that we need to question our own thinking very deeply, every day, if we want to achieve wisdom and learn to see life clearly. Templeton relates the famous story of the Delphic Oracle, or priestess of Apollo, also known as the Pythia. She once, controversially, announced that Socrates was the wisest of all men. This prompted Socrates to respond by insisting that he was only wise because he realized that he knew nothing, at least nothing certain about things of great importance. “Surely,” writes Templeton, “these are the words of a teachable man.”
Socrates reputedly said at his trial “The unexamined life is not worth living”, words which Templeton also notes approvingly. After the Delphic Oracle’s remarkable proclamation of Socrates’ wisdom, the Athenian philosopher dedicated his life to following the most famous prescription engraved outside her shrine. It consisted of two simple words: Know thyself. For Templeton this was emblematic of Socrates’ mission to urged Athenians “to live noble lives, to think critically and logically, and to have probing minds”, although as we’ll see it also has another meaning.
2. “No man is free who is not master of himself.”
Templeton used this quote from Epictetus as another of his Worldwide Laws of Life. Philosophy, philosophia in Greek, literally means “love of wisdom”, including the wisdom that comes from studying our own nature. Striving to truly know ourselves, following the maxim of the Delphic Oracle, is the essence of Socratic philosophy, and of Stoicism. It means realizing that our minds shape our emotions and that our happiness therefore depends, fundamentally, upon our thinking, our beliefs, and our overall philosophy of life. Knowing yourself is the key to your freedom, in other words. Templeton quotes Seneca on this: “A good mind is lord of a kingdom.” That’s because self-knowledge leads to self-control, which we need in order to free ourselves from our own unhealthy desires and emotions. “No man is free”, according to Epictetus, “who is not master of himself.”
Ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism, was not an abstract bookish or “academic” diversion but a whole way of life, similar in some ways to a religion such as Buddhism. Templeton knew this and used the words of another Stoic to illustrate the point.
Wisdom does not show itself so much in precept as in life—in firmness of mind and mastery of appetite. It teaches us to do as well as to talk; and to make our words and action all of a color.
Of course this requires an unusual degree of dedication to the goal of living wisely. “No man”, says Epictetus, “is able to make progress when he is wavering between opposite things.” We all too easily risk wasting our time otherwise. “Part of our time is snatched from us,” as Seneca puts it, “part is gently subtracted, and part slides insensibly away.” Yet when we focus ourselves on our fundamental goal in life, the goal of attaining wisdom and virtue, we can achieve a great deal. “Better to do a little well,” says Socrates, “than a great deal badly.” Templeton also liked to quote Cicero, who was influenced by the Stoics, in this regard:
Diligence is to be particularly cultivated by us, it is to be constantly exerted; it is capable of effecting almost everything.
The secret to achieving this level of diligence and focus lies in self-knowledge, though, and the realization that we already have an overriding goal in life: the goal of wisdom. For Socrates and the Stoics, wisdom and virtue are the same. The supreme goal in life is to become wise and good, or to improve and ultimately perfect ourselves. Nature gave us the capacity for reason and self-awareness, and left us to finish her work by using these faculties well throughout life. “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature”, as Seneca put it. We’re constantly tempted to stray from the path, though, by endless diversions in life. “No longer talk at all about the kind of man a good man ought to be,” says Marcus Aurelius therefore, “but be such.” We know we’re on the right track when we can look back on our life and feel that we’ve actually spent our precious time well. “The life given us by nature is short,” said Cicero, “but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.”
The goal of life is to act consistently in accord with our fundamental goal, of seeking wisdom and virtue. The Stoics doubted whether any mortal had ever achieved perfection but they still thought it was a goal worth aspiring toward, although we should be grateful for making even small steps in the right direction. Templeton quotes a stunning passage from Seneca on this:
The greatest man is he who chooses right with the most invincible resolution; who resists the sorest temptation from within and without; who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest in storms, and most fearless under menaces and frowns; whose reliance on truth, on virtue, and on god is most unfaltering.
This is the famous “Sage” or Sophos of the Stoic philosophical tradition: their knowingly idealistic definition of the potential for greatness implicit in human nature.
Templeton and the Stoics on Death
As we’ve seen, the words “Know thyself” were engraved at the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, near Athens. Inside was seated the Pythia, who not only spoke on behalf of her patron god, but channelled his very presence, so it was believed, through a form of possession. Those standing outside the temple were reminded, therefore, to show humility because they were about enter the presence of an immortal being, the god Apollo himself. In other words, the inscription “Know yourself” originally meant “Know your place” or “Remember that you are a mortal.”
Here’s a quote from the ancient Stoics, which you don’t find inTempleton’s books:
Those whom you love and those whom you despise will both be made equal in the same ashes. This is the meaning of that command, “Know thyself”, which is written on the shrine of the Pythian oracle. — Seneca, Moral Letters, 11
“What is man?”, asks Seneca. Nothing more than a potter’s vase, which can be shattered into pieces by the slightest knock.
You were born a mortal, and you have given birth to mortals: yourself a weak and fragile body, liable to all diseases, can you have hoped to produce anything strong and lasting from such unstable material? — Moral Letters, 11
Contemplation of our own mortality is a major theme in Stoicism. It was known in Greek as melete thanatou, or training for death, following a saying of Socrates. It’s better-known today, perhaps, by the Latin phrase memento mori meaning “remember thou must die”. This phrase, as Epictetus noted, was one of several traditionally whispered in the ears of victorious Roman generals and emperors, by attendant slaves, in order to protect them against delusions of immortality and godhood. The Stoics believed that by contemplating our own mortality on a daily basis, in the right way, we could overcome our fear of death, and this would liberate us from many other unhealthy desires and emotions in life.
John Templeton does, in fact, describe a similar practice. “Many people have a fear of change”, he says. He therefore advises his readers that, in the form of a spiritual practice, they may come to accept change and loss, without upset, by learning to view such things as part of nature. We should remember that “nature’s great scheme involves change”, as Templeton puts it. This sounds just like Stoicism as does Templeton’s remark: “We can choose to flow gracefully or to resist and become immobilized in fear.” In part, this comes from accepting change as natural and inevitable, as the Stoics say. Our suffering can also be helped, according to Templeton, by viewing every ending as also a beginning.
We generally like beginnings—we celebrate the new. On the other hand, many people resist endings and attempt to delay them. Much of our resistance to endings stems from our unawareness, or inability, to realize that we are one with nature. Often we don’t feel the joy of an ending, perhaps because we forget that in each ending are the seeds of beginning. Although endings can be painful, they are less so if, instead of resisting them, we look at time as a natural process of nature: as leaves budding in the spring, coming to full leaf in the summer, turning red and gold in autumn, and dropping from the trees in winter. It can be comforting to comprehend that we are an integral part of the great scheme of nature.
This leads to Templeton’s sage advice with regard to losses we experience in the course of life: “The more we allow ourselves to trust that every ending is a new beginning, the less likely we are to resist letting go of old ideas and attitudes.” His own Christian faith, however, meant that he also viewed death as a new beginning, because he had faith, personally, in an afterlife. He compares human life to the existence of a lowly caterpillar, and death to our soul’s emergence from a spiritual cocoon, into a more resplendent life in Heaven.
Yet, if you are willing to trust, as caterpillars seem able to do, the end of your life as an earthbound worm may be the beginning of your life as a beautiful winged creature of the sky.
Death is not something to be feared, therefore, because we may be reborn as beings of pure spirit, living on in a better place.
We can see each ending as a tragedy and lament and resist it, or we can see each ending as a new beginning and a new birth into greater opportunities. What the caterpillar sees as the tragedy of death, the butterfly sees as the miracle of birth.
That belief is not as widely held today, though, at least in those countries where agnosticism and atheism are common.
In the ancient world, perhaps surprisingly, a somewhat more agnostic attitude toward death was also quite common. Socrates, in Plato’s Apology, expresses belief in the gods and hope that he will enjoy a happy existence in the afterlife. However, he admits his uncertainty about such things, and adopts a philosophical attitude, preparing himself for the possibility that death may, instead, resemble an endless sleep, a state of total nonexistence or oblivion.
Many people share Templeton’s interest in using “the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities”. They don’t all share his Christian faith in spiritual life after death, though. Some of these individuals would struggle to interpret their own death as the “seeds of beginning” an afterlife in Heaven. I think this is an area where the Stoic position could arguably serve Templeton’s overall aim of a rational and “scientific” investigation of spirituality better.
As we saw earlier, Templeton used perhaps the most widely quoted of all passages from the Stoics… Epictetus says that it is our own opinions, ultimately, that disturb us. In the next sentence, though, Epictetus applied this insight to the fear of death, using the example of Socrates, because he considered this the most important fear of all to overcome.
Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing.
Epictetus, Handbook 5
It’s easier for some non-Christians, especially the atheists and agnostics, to accept uncertainty about life after death. The guidance they’re usually seeking from ancient spiritual traditions today is more about maintaining their values while coming to terms with that very uncertainty, and adopting a philosophical attitude toward their own mortality, such as the one exemplified by Socrates and the Stoics.
The Academy’s name is synonymous with the philosophy of Plato but it also plays a part in the history of Stoic philosophy. Zeno of Citium studied at the Platonic Academy for at least a decade before founding his own Stoic school, located in the Agora of Athens. Toward the end of his life a monument was erected in the grounds of the Academy. It was a pillar with an inscription commemorating Zeno’s exemplary virtue and temperance, and honouring his contributions to philosophy.
The Academy was one of Athens’ ancient gymnasia or recreational grounds. It contained a wrestling school, libraries, shrines, etc. (It was described as a pleasant wooded grove, until the Roman dictator Sulla cut down its trees to rebuild his siege engines in the 1st century BC.) The Academy was most famously associated with Plato’s philosophy, with which it quickly became synonymous after he set up his school and began teaching there. However, other philosophers also taught in the grounds of the Academy. Socrates appears to have walked there discussing philosophy, while Plato was still a young student of his, and his rivals the Sophists probably gave speeches there.
Centuries later, Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, spent ten years attending lectures in the Platonic school at the Academy, which at that time was headed by a successor of Plato called Xenocrates of Chalcedon. Over the years, Zeno began to build a reputation himself as an expert on dialectic, however, he continued to attend lectures at the Academy, delivered by Xenocrates’ successor, Polemon of Athens, a rebellious youth who turned his life around and became renowned for his temperance as a philosopher. Zeno was therefore admired for showing intellectual humility by attending the public lectures of a famous rival philosopher. Nevertheless, Polemon is said to have joked: “You do not escape my notice, Zeno, slipping in by the garden door, stealing my doctrines and clothing them in a Phoenician style!” In other words, he borrowed ideas from Polemon’s Academic philosophy and incorporated them into Stoicism.
After founding the Stoic School, Zeno earned such a reputation as a teacher and role model to the youth that when he reached an advanced age, the Athenians passed a decree publicly honouring him and had it inscribed on two stone pillars “one in the Academy and the other in the Lyceum”. It begins with the words:
Whereas Zeno of Citium, son of Mnaseas, has for many years been devoted to philosophy in the city and has continued to be a man of worth in all other respects, exhorting to virtue and temperance those of the youth who come to him to be taught, directing them to what is best, affording to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation in perfect consistency with his teaching, it has seemed good to the people – and may it turn out well – to bestow praise upon Zeno of Citium, the son of Mnaseas, and to crown him with a golden crown according to the law, for his goodness and temperance, and to build him a tomb in the Ceramicus at the public cost.
This information seems to be derived by our source, Diogenes Laertius, from an earlier author Antigonus of Carystus, whose Successions of Philosophers was written in the 3rd century BC, shortly after Zeno’s death. Antigonus of Carystus adds that to the inscription were added the words “Zeno of Citium, the philosopher”, as Zeno had insisted that his status as a foreign immigrant at Athens should not be forgotten.
Articles on Stoicism
You’ll find several articles on this website from leading academics and well-known authors who specialize in Stoic philosophy.
by Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy, Adam Piercey, and Donald J. Robertson
George Washington was influenced by Stoicism. He was so fond of the Stoic philosopher and Roman statesman, Cato the Younger, that he actually arranged for a play about him to be performed for his soldiers before the battle of Valley Forge. Perhaps the most famous line in that play was:
Better to die ten thousand thousand deaths, Than wound my honor.
Jospeh Addison, Cato, a Tragedy
A founding father, the first General, and the first President of the United States, Washington understood the importance of honor. The Stoics derived four virtues from the teachings of Socrates as the fundamental principles of their philosophy. These were wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. They believed that people who exhibited all of these principles were honorable.
These four main aspects of virtue or excellence (arete in Greek) each held a specific value for the different activities that a Stoic would carry out in their day-to-day lives.
Wisdom was not just knowledge but also the opposition of folly or thoughtlessness, and included the pursuit of reason.
Justice meant lawfulness and integrity but also included acts of public service and opposition to injustice or wrongdoing.
Courage (or fortitude) was meant to represent brave-heartedness and endurance, but also the opposition of cowardice.
Moderation stood for the opposition of excess, and the pursuit of orderliness.
A Stoic would hope to embody all of these traits in their day-to-day activities as they strove to pursue a life of good, and right. As Stoicism became more widespread, the actions of its followers grew in influence, including in the political sphere. As each person’s actions cause effects in those around them, they begin to see the impact of those actions on a greater scale.
The reputation of a nation is made up of the collective actions of its leaders and its people. Does it uphold the principles set out above, how does it treat its allies and partners, does it keep its word? If it does not uphold these principles, it will never be a great nation; if it does not treat its allies and partners with respect, it will soon be without any; and if it does not keep its word it, will have no standing as a leader in the international community.
The attacks in New York and Virginia on September 11, 2001, by the terrorist group Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, mobilized international support for the United States. The Star-Spangled Banner played in capitals around the world and NATO united behind the U.S. where it matters the most, going to war.
This led to the invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban who had allowed Al Qaeda to operate there. The invasion included the Northern Alliance, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, and Germany. These other countries were not attacked. This threat if left unchecked could become a serious problem for them, but they went to war because they had made a promise to do so. They kept their word and they did so for twenty years.
They then started to build the Afghan military, intelligence service, and police force. Afghans had seen superpowers come and go throughout history, from Alexander the Great to the British, the Soviet Union, and now the United States. The “graveyards of empires” is a quote many have heard about Afghanistan. Afghans have heard it as well. It was difficult to get them to trust us, but they did.
Would the U.S. and its allies be there for the long haul? America had promised that if we were to leave the country, and Afghans met the standards we laid out, they would have the opportunity to come to the United States. These standards included risking their lives fighting along with U.S. forces, against those who would oppress their people, and for the human rights of all. Would the U.S. honor its promise, though? Thousands took that chance.
Courage and Justice is Honor
Acts of courage alone are not inherently honorable, they must instead take into account two things: the reason for the action, and the intended effect of the outcome. As Marcus Aurelius wrote:
Let it make no difference to you whether you are cold or warm if you are doing your duty. And whether you are drowsy or satisfied with sleep. And whether ill-spoken of or praised. And whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of life, this act by which we die. It is sufficient then in this act also to do well what we have in hand.
To do what is right is what matters, and whether or not you are praised or pummeled is irrelevant.
In any organization with strict ethical and honor codes, a prevailing culture of the men and women serving in that organization will be focused upon protecting and providing refuge or assistance to those in need. As Tamler Sommers, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, put it in a recent interview with Ryan Holiday:
Honour cultures tend to attach great value to acts of courage that benefit the group.
The culture of these organizations to oppose wrongdoing and injustice shows virtue, and it is the duty of that organization’s members to carry out those actions.
Aiding and protecting those in need is certainly an important part of honor cultures, but there is also a secondary practice within those cultures as well; to honor and uphold the agreements formed by those organizations. Sometimes, agreements can be positive and provide added value, or be beneficial to both sides. Other times, agreements can be challenging, one-sided, or even costly. However, the presence of an agreement, pact, or partnership means that those participating parties must act to uphold the terms of that agreement. To do something with integrity, especially in the pursuit of public service and to uphold those agreements made before, is honorable, and must be pursued as best as possible. To break from an agreement would mean to bring dishonor on an organization, and that dishonor can have rippling effects into the future.
The Standard set by Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius led the Roman Empire for 19 years, until his death in 180 CE. Throughout that time, Marcus would face serious challenges in the empire including plague, uprisings, and war but he would do so with honor and integrity. Upon taking the throne, Marcus inherited an empire whose borders surrounded much of Europe, bringing with them the dangers of warring tribes and enemies on several fronts. During his reign, Marcus’ experiences spoke much to the honor and reputation that an organization can gain or lose through its actions.
At many points in the wars between Rome and the tribes of northern Europe, Marcus found himself dealing with tribal leaders with whom Rome had existing agreements. Marcus did not tolerate allies who broke treaties and failed to keep their word. For example, when several Germanic tribes proposed an armistice with Rome, during the First Marcomannic War, Marcus did not trust them, viewing the armistice as a ruse - something that would only have remained in place while it was convenient for the enemy. Marcus was proven right to be skeptical as the tribes kept aiding one another in raids against Roman provinces. When the time came to dole out the rewards from the wars or seek new agreements, you can bet that Marcus had trepidation towards those with poor reputations.
At other points, Marcus would be faced with the difficult position of having to decide whether to push for a peace treaty or pursue Rome’s enemies and continue fighting at the cost of more troops and resources. When fighting a Sarmatian tribe called the Iazyges, Marcus faced this dilemma and needed to decide whether to grant peaceful terms or continue to fight. Ultimately, Marcus chose to continue fighting and by the war’s end, these enemies returned an incredible number of Roman captives back to Rome. If Marcus had just agreed to peace and walked away, over a hundred thousand captured Roman subjects would have been abandoned, left as slaves of the enemy. We can infer from this outcome that Marcus chose to fight on in hopes that he could rescue those Romans, and not leave them behind even though peace would have been much easier.
As emperor of Rome, Marcus also had to face sedition from one of his prized commanders, as a betrayal occurred when Avidius Cassius was declared emperor by his troops in Egypt and sought to take the Roman throne for himself. At that moment Marcus had a choice: crush the rebellion, or choose a more peaceful alternative. Instead of launching into outright war with Cassius, Marcus chose instead to offer a pardon to Cassius and his troops if they would lay down their arms. Cassius’ own officers turned against him and sent Cassius’ head to Marcus as an offer of penance. Marcus would honor his word and not punish the rebels for their actions. As emperor, it would only have taken Marcus one order to commit the entire army of rebels to death but he chose instead to act with restraint and clemency. Many times in history this restraint has been noted by historians and contemporaries as a true sign of Marcus’ character.
Veterans Step up and Step in
The U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan without leaving a residual force was against the advice of the military chain of command. Many veterans disagreed with that decision, but many did agree. Where there was almost unanimous agreement among veterans was the need to keep the promise made by their government to those Afghans who fought alongside U.S. troops. The chaotic withdrawal, the seeming lack of a plan, and the very real possibility that many would be left behind motivated many veterans to take action. They volunteered to do what they could and help those whom the U.S., not honoring its promise, was leaving behind.
These volunteer veterans formed groups with like-minded civilians and they soon were moving Afghan partners around Taliban checkpoints into the airport. Even when the final U.S. presence left, these groups did not stop, they moved to try to get people out by other means. They felt compelled to honor a promise made by their country. To them it wasn’t a political calculation, it was an oath.
The honor of a nation has to actually come from the nation, though, and its representatives. History will record it and our allies will remember it, as will our adversaries.
About the Authors
Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA officer, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, an Analyst for ABC News, on the board of directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a co-founder of End Child Soldiering, and the co-founder of the Lobo Institute. He writes and speaks often on Stoicism, especially its applicability to the military. For other publications please visit here.
Adam Piercey is an Engineering Technologist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is currently working in the industrial, medical, and space industries, and has previously worked in green energy, and biometric security. Adam has been implementing Stoic practice into his career for over 8 years, has authored articles on Stoic practice, and is also the host of the Modern Stoicism Podcast, the official podcast of Modern Stoicism.
Donald J. Robertson is a cognitive-behavioural therapist and writer, living in Athens, Greece, and Ontario, Canada. He is the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, including Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.