Opinion | Athens in Pieces: The Stench of the Academy

The weekend traffic in the center of Athens was awful on the late January day I decided to visit the site of Plato’s Academy. Each of the narrow, slightly dog-legged streets in Plaka, the old city, was completely jammed, because recent angry protests, some of them violent, had forced the closing of roads around Syntagma, or Constitution Square.

Still, pedestrians were out in impressive force, filling the streets, intent on enjoying their Saturday shopping. Athenians take their weekends very seriously. Pantelis, my cabdriver, threaded his way delicately around people suddenly lurching, seemingly semi-oblivious, into the street and the constant chorus of motorcycles appearing out of nowhere and disappearing noisily into the distance.

Once past the clogged junction at Monastiraki Square, we pushed more easily along Ermou Street and headed northwest. We came to an area scattered with warehouses and former factories. The cab stopped by a huddle of abandoned buses. Ahead of us was what looked like an open area of greenery. Pantelis pointed and said, “Akadimia Platonos.” This must be the place, I thought.

Plato’s Academy is now a public park in a not particularly nice part of town. It is just next to Colonus, Sophocles’ birthplace and, according to the legend he helped to invent, the final resting place of Oedipus. The day was cool and sunny, but the previous 48 hours had been filled with storms, strong winds and intense rain.

As I entered the park from the south, the ground was muddy with large puddles. My boots slipped and slid underfoot as I made my way past a man talking loudly on a cellphone in what I think was Bengali. A couple were playing in the distance with their dog. There was an empty playground and a rather nice gravel area for playing pétanque, which is apparently popular with the locals. It was also deserted.

I oriented myself with notes and guidebooks and made my way to the ruins of Gymnasium, which is thought to have been the main building of the Academy. A large grassy hollow indicated the site of a former archaeological dig. I peered through some trees into the open, green area of the ruins. There was a solitary man standing, very reflectively, smoking a huge joint with what appeared to be a bottle of water at his feet. In fact, the only people I saw around the various ruins were doing exactly the same thing as this man: quietly getting wasted on a Saturday lunchtime. I began to doubt whether the liquid was water or some kind of clear alcohol, as these men didn’t have the appearance of compulsive Brooklyn yoga hydrators. Ah, the sacred groves of academe!

After a moment’s hesitation, I walked down into the ruins, exchanged a brief “ya sass” (hello) with the man, who didn’t seem to care in the slightest that I was there. It was very quiet, and all around was a calming, low chatter of birds. No riots here.

I began to try to imagine the Academy.

The school, founded by Plato around 387 B.C.E., was named the Hecademia and later Academia after the nearby sanctuary dedicated to the hero Hecademus. In Plato’s time, the area occupied about 1.5 hectares (about 3.5 acres) and was reached by leaving the city of Athens by the Diplon gate and walking along a road flanked by a public cemetery. The Gymnasium was a rectangular complex, approximately 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. Standing in the ruins, the scale of the building felt larger than I had anticipated. The site was excavated in 1929-39 and a plan of the main building was published.

An open courtyard or atrium was surrounded on three sides by a single-story, roofed colonnade or peristyle, which may have provided shelter for academicians engaged in reading and copying papyri or perhaps just passing the time. In the middle of the atrium stood a cistern, which supplied water, and farther north are the remains of a pedestal on which stood statues of the nine muses, the protectresses of the arts and letters.

The Academy is literally a museum, a temple or a sacred space, an association that is continued in Aristotle’s Lyceum and on into the most famous library of the ancient world: the Museum of Alexandria (which contained its famous and famously destroyed library), founded by the Ptolemies after 297 B.C.E.

Behind the muses was the main building of the Academy, divided into a number of rooms. We are not exactly sure of their function, but it is highly likely that they were used for teaching and were equipped with boards, writing materials, geometric instruments, globes and celestial spheres. But the center of the Academy was the library, well stocked with texts, stacked papyri, possibly with labels, on which the titles were inscribed. The library was the first of its kind in Athens.

To delve a little deeper, here’s an intriguing question: What was on the shelves of Plato’s library? What had he read and what did he give his students to read? We can only guess, but it’s likely there would have been writings on mathematics, geometry and medicine, volumes by Homer and Hesiod. From the evidence of the Dialogues, it is clear that Plato had read the long-lost works of pre-Socratic thinkers like Heraclitus (“On Nature”) and Anaxagoras (“Nous”), and texts by the Eleatic thinkers like Parmenides. It is also said that Plato made an extremely expensive purchase of three works by Pythagoras. There would also have been works by the Sophists, whom Plato loathed, and possibly the widely read works of the atomists, like Democritus, whom Plato completely ignored, possibly out of envy.

In addition to the bookshelves storing these texts, there was possibly a wooden dais for the readings, lectures and discussions that took place daily. Most intriguing perhaps in the design of the Academy is the House of the Reader, or anagnostes. It is said that a young Aristotle served as Reader or Lector during his 20 years in the Academy. Apparently, he was nicknamed Nous or Mind by Plato, which seems appropriate. It would appear that the agnostic Reader was responsible for reading aloud every treatise submitted for publication in the Academy.

What is striking is the wholly geometric nature of the design of the Academy, which my new friend, Mr. Staikos, thinks was due to the influence of the Pythagorean school that Plato encountered on his trips to Sicily and that had been revived by Archytas of Taras, a friend of Plato’s and some say the model for the philosopher king described in the Republic. Legend has it that the motto of the Academy, written over the entrance, was “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.” For the Academy is not just a building. It is an idea, in accordance with Plato’s theory of the forms, but also the Pythagorean view that ultimate reality is expressed by number.

But the Academy was also a privately funded research and teaching facility, situated outside the city. Most of us have a rather whimsical idea of philosophy as a bunch of men in togas having a chat in the agora. And we think of Socrates as a gadfly, philosophizing in the street and somehow speaking truth to power. It’s an attractive idea. But this is the literary conceit of philosophy — one that is still in circulation today. It is the fiction that Plato wants his readers to believe.

Behind that fiction stands the library, the editing and copying rooms, and the entire research engine of the Academy, which was devoted to the careful production and dissemination of knowledge through texts and teaching. Much as we may flinch at the idea, philosophy has always been academic and linked to the activity of schools since its inception.

At this point, a rather vulgar question comes to mind: Who paid for the Academy? According to Mr. Staikos, the cost of construction is estimated at 25 to 30 talents. As a wild modern-day estimate, we could say that the Academy cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars to build. How did Plato get this money? We don’t know. It is said that he was captured on his return trip from Sicily in 387 and sold as a slave on the island of Aegina, which Athens was at war with at the time. According to one account, Anniceris of Cyrene paid a ransom of 30 minas. But he refused to be paid back after Plato was returned to Athens, and the money was used to pay for a plot of land where the Academy was built.

Although the splendidly unreliable Diogenes Laertius says that Plato possessed no property other than what is mentioned in his will, he received a large sum of money from Dionysius I. Plato had a significant fund of money at his disposal (the exorbitant figure of 80 talents is mentioned). Indeed, Plato is also said to have had a banker called Andromedes. In other words, Plato was rich and had wealthy patrons and very probably wealthy students.

We are less attracted to the idea of the wealthy Aristocratic philosopher sequestered in his research facility and making occasional overseas trips to visit foreign tyrants than the image of the poor, shoeless Socrates causing trouble in the marketplace, refusing to be paid and getting killed by the city for his trouble. But our captivation with this image, once again, is overwhelmingly Plato’s invention.

And behind his extraordinary inventiveness, Plato performs a characteristic disappearing trick. Truth to tell, we know very little about Plato. According to Plutarch, he was a lover of figs. Big deal! Plato is mentioned only a couple of times in the many dialogues that bear his name. He was present at Socrates’ trial but — in a beautifully reflexive moment that he describes in the Phaedo absent from the moment of Socrates’ death, because he was sick.

In fact, we don’t even know that he was called Plato, which might have been a nickname. Laertius claims that he was actually called Aristocles, after his grandfather. “Plato” is close to the word “broad” in Greek, like the broad leaves of the platanos or plane tree under which Socrates and Phaedrus sit and talk about eros. Some think that Plato was so called because he was broad-shouldered because of his prowess in wrestling.

I began to ponder and wandered from the Gymnasium, across the park and a street to the scant remains of another building in the Academy complex, which is approximately 130 feet square. It has the typical dimensions of a palaestra, or wrestling school. In my mind’s eye, I saw an elderly Plato sitting watching his academicians wrestle, occasionally offering coaching advice and encouragement.

Sometimes the less we know, the more space is open to the imagination.

Plato worked at the Academy until his death in 347 B.C.E., interrupted only by two more extended trips to Sicily. The Academy survived for a few more centuries until it was destroyed by the Roman general Sulla in 87 B.C.E. during the sack of Athens. The buildings were probably burned along with many other sanctuaries, and the trees from the grove of academe were felled to provide timber for his siege machines. So it goes, I thought.

A faint but clearly perceptible smell of urine hung in the air of the palaestra. On the corner as I looked up, two men were rummaging carefully and quietly through a baby-blue refuse bin.

What was striking was how exposed and all these remains were: no fences, no border walls and no security cameras.

It was time to go. On the corner of Hodos Platonos, Plato Street, I noticed a bar unsurprisingly called Platon. I thought about having a quick glass of red wine in Plato’s honor, but lost courage, took two photos, and left.

Simon Critchley is a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research and the author of several books, including “What We Think About When We Think About Soccer” and the forthcoming “Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us.” He is the moderator of The Stone.

Now in print:Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.

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