What was Plato's academy and why did it influence Western thought?

Plato made be Silanion in 370 BC for Academy of Athens

The Academy, founded by the philosopher Plato in the early 4th century BCE, was perhaps one of the earliest institutions of higher learning. While it was not like a university where people would enroll and obtain advanced degrees, it functioned as one of the first places for dedicated research into scientific and philosophical questions, at least in Europe, took place by gathered scholars. Its main function was to teach Plato's philosophical understanding, but it also challenged its scholars to develop a new understanding of our universe. This makes it one of the first known institutions that dedicated itself to fundamental discovery about our universe.

The Establishment of the Academy

Plato founded the Academy sometime between 390-380 BCE in Athens. Fundamentally, the school served as a place where Plato's philosophies would be taught.[1] The Academy was initially located in area that was a grove or garden of olive trees that included statues and nearby buildings. The term academy derives from Academus or Hecademus, a mythical hero the garden was dedicated to. This term becomes both the term for Plato's school but also our word for academy and academic.

The idea of the Academy was to have an institution where dedicated scholars would meet, discuss, and lecture about the nature of the universe.[2] Plato believed that knowledge was not attained by only contemplation but through discussion, teaching, and research. Plato initially gave many of the lectures and seminars, where he would also field questions from his select audience of scholars. The subjects focused upon were mathematics, natural science, astronomy, dialectics, philosophy, and politics. Plato was joined by other well known philosophers at the academy, including Aristotle before he founded his own Academy after he had a falling out with Palto's philosophies. While initially the academy functioned as a school that taught Plato's philosophies about the natural world, this changed by the mid-3rd century BCE.

Continuity of the Academy

The Academy as depicted in a mosaic.

In around 266 BCE, Arcesilaus became the Scholarch or head of the Academy.[3] He developed what became known as the Skeptical school of Platonism. This period saw influences by the Skeptics and Stoics on many philosophical ideas, although both were criticized by the Platonist skeptics. Skepticism saw that the universe was unknowable and it was folly to pursue it. Arcesilaus, on the other hand, taught that skepticism should be measured with degrees of probability. While it might be true that certain things are unknowable, one can pursue knowledge such that a degree of probability could be ascribed. This, therefore, makes the pursuit of knowledge worthwhile since it allows us to know more and some degree of knowledge about any given topic, although we may not fully attained total knowledge about a topic. Having an agnostic attitude towards knowledge were central to the new philosophy.

In the era of the so-called "New Academy," the school continued to be dedicated to Platonic Skepticism. However, the philosopher Carneades took over at around 159 BCE.[4] Although he maintained the Skeptical philosophy, in that he asserted knowledge was not fully knowable, he asserted there are greater degrees of likelihood. He asserted that one has to live and to live means we need to have guiding principals. Those principals should be led by knowledge that is most likely to be true, even if we are never certain. Therefore, one should pursue knowledge so that we have the greatest amount of understanding of a subject's likelihood, even while we acknowledge that we cannot fully understand the topic and must have a degree of agnostic attitude. This philosophy was slightly more liberal than Arcesilaus' beliefs, in that it tried to ascribe more certainty in knowledge.

The Skepticism philosophy continued to have a strong influence on the Platonic school until 90 BCE, when Antiochus of Ascalon began to lead the school.[5] By this point, the Stoic influences began to have more of an influence on the school. Antiochus' main belief was that the mind can distinguish truth from falsehood. He believed the grounds for knowledge, its moral and understanding, needs to be examined and seeking truth were critical and the essence of our being. In many respects, Antiochus believed he was reviving the Old Academy that had been established by Plato's initial ideas. Antiochus' thoughts become influential and he became one of Cicero's chief teachers and influences.

Destruction and Reconstitution

Archaeological Remains of Plato's Academy in Athens

In 86 BCE, the school itself was destroyed in a fire that likely occurred during the siege of Athens. The Academy proved impossible to reconstruct; however, teaching resumed in Athens by 84 BCE in a gymnasium called Ptolemy. The teachings continued to thrive in the Roman Era, as Roman officials and others were even influenced by its teaching. By the 5th century CE, there was now an movement to reestablish the Academy itself. The Neoplatonists, as they were called, established the new Academy by 400-410 CE.[6] The Neoplatonists believed they were reviving Plato's original ideas; however, they were now influenced themselves by a wide variety of ideas, indicating that there philosophy was not just one central theme. Common beliefs of this new philosophy were that the soul or person was a microcosm of the universe and that this microcosm should strive to making the divine and natural world work better. There are a series of rituals that one goes through that help create a core dedicated to a pure and ethical life that then brings us closer to the divine nature of our existence. The One is seen as the divine source where we must strive to achieve understanding and unity with this source. Many of these ideas were influenced by Eastern mysticism, which blended with emerging concepts of a unified and single universe. This philosophy later becomes very influential in the Medieval period as it gets merged with Christian thinkers and philosophers. Others within this school, however, did not ascribe to all of this or even much of this philosophy, so it is somewhat doubtful that the Neoplatonists were actually one unified school of thought.

Nevertheless, the presence of the Neoplatonists revived the academy until the reign of Justinian I, who closed all philosophical schools in 529 CE.[7] Justinian believed the philosophical schools, which had their origins in the polytheistic past, were heretical and, therefore, must be closed. The philosophies of Platonism, however, did survive in the East, as the Eastern Christians adopted many of the philosopher refugees that left the Byzantine Empire during the closure of the philosophical schools. This eventually led these schools to once again influence the West through the later Medieval period, when some of the philosophies began to merge with Christian thought through a reexamination of the old Classical works.

Legacy of the Academy

The legacy of the Academy was through the fact it was the first known place where scholars could gather, debate, discuss, and teach about the universe and its understanding.[8] The concept of higher learning was a new idea when the Academy was established. This is why ultimately the word academy is adopted in our own vocabulary. During the Renaissance, a revival of interest in Greek philosophies in general led many to reexamine the old texts and teachings of the Greek philosophers and the academy. Some of the philosophies, such as Neoplatonism, also influenced Christian and later thought. The concepts of the academy began to influence the developing notion of science and philosophy in the West in the late Medieval period. This led to the eventual establishment of new or modern academies and influenced the development of universities in later periods. Although the Academy itself went through different philosophical leanings, the concept of gathering scholars to debate, teach, and learn became a profound influence on Western ideas of creating institutions of higher learning and knowledge.


  1. For more on the founding of the Academy, see: Press, Gerald A. 2007. Plato: A Guide for the Perplexed. Guides for the Perplexed. London ; New York: Continuum.
  2. For a history on the Academy, see: Reale, Giovanni, John R. Catan, and Giovanni Reale. 1990. Plato and Aristotle. A History of Ancient Philosophy, Giovanni Reale ; 2. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press.
  3. For more on Arcesilaus, see: Algra, Keimpe, ed. 2005. The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy. 1st pbk. ed. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, pg. 324.
  4. For more on Carneades' philosophies, see: Furley, David J., ed. 1999. From Aristotle to Augustine. Routledge History of Philosophy, v. 2. London ; New York: Routledge, pg. 271.
  5. For more on Antiochus and his philosophies, see: Sedley, D. N., ed. 2012. The Philosophy of Antiochus. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  6. For more on the Neoplatonists, see: Gregory, John. 1999. The Neoplatonists: A Reader. 2nd ed. London ; New York: Routledge.
  7. For more on Justianian philosophical school closures, see: Adamson, Peter, and Peter Adamson. 2014. Classical Philosophy. First edition. A History of Philosophy without Any Gaps, Peter Adamson ; Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pg. 259.
  8. For more on the legacy of the Academy, see: Power, Edward J. 1991. A Legacy of Learning: A History of Western Education. SUNY Series, the Philosophy of Education. Albany, N.Y: State University of New York Press, pg. 29.


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