Greek Schools

How to study the history of philosophy? Whereas recently, this study is done by seeing continuities, development, course, historians of philosophy have not always been so assiduous in giving an account of these evolutions, of these sequences.

The history of philosophy was first told in a more punctual, more targeted way: through the study of Sects. What do we mean by sect? It is definitely not the same acceptance that we recognize today when speaking about religious sects.

You will discover on occasion:

  • Where does the name high school come from?
  • What does peripatetic mean?
  • Where does the name academy come from?

Sects or Schools?

The CNRTL definition of the word sect will enlighten you better than we can on the link between school and sect:

A group of people who claim to belong to the same master and profess his philosophical, religious or political doctrine, his opinions.

By the words “master” and “doctrine”, the relation between sect and school is immediately established. And for good reason, here is the definition of the word School according to the CNRTL:

All the disciples of a master.

P. ext. Doctrine, current, systems, advocated by a master or a group of people.

Here is what Émile Bréhier says about schools and how these sects – words he seems to use almost synonymously – have shaped views on the history of philosophy in a scattered, ad hoc, and disordered way:

Our history of philosophy was really born in the Renaissance period, when the compilers of late antiquity were discovered in the West, Plutarch, whose writings contain a treatise On the Opinions of Philosophers, Sextus Empiricus, Stobée, the Stromates of Clément of Alexandria and especially the Lives of the Philosophers of Diogenes Laërce which gathers in an inexpressible disorder the debris of all the ancient works of history of the philosophy since the works of the disciples of Aristotle. Through these authors, perspectives on the diversity of the ancient sects, on the succession of the school leaders and of the schools themselves, were opened which had entirely escaped the medieval thought.

History of Philosophy – Émile Bréhier – Volume 1

In this swarming of schools, which you can more easily imagine by referring to the table at the end of this article, two schools stand out, because they also formed two famous words in the educational vocabulary: Plato’sAcademy and Aristotle’s Lyceum.

It is these two sects, the Academy and the Lyceum, that we will now detail.

Focus on Plato’s Academy

Dates of the Academy: about 387 BC to 86 BC

Founder: Plato

The Academy was first and foremost the name of a piece of land, located in the vicinity of Athens. There were at least two different places of learning:

  1. the gymnasium (for beginners)
  2. the garden (for the initiated)

In these places, Plato gave philosophical and even esoteric lessons, like a famous lesson on the Good. But more precisely, what did Plato’s teaching consist of?

This is what is difficult to know, because most of his works, intended for a large audience, should not be the reflection of it; we must, however, except these kinds of logical exercises which are the second part of the Parmenides and the beginnings of the Theaetetus and the Sophist; if we pay attention that these exercises are intended to test the logical vigor of the student, which; moreover, Plato considers the influence of the living word as much superior to that of the written word (Phaedrus), finally that the word, such as a Socratic understands it, is less a lecture than a discussion, we can undoubtedly conclude that the doctrinal lecture should not have had the place it took in Aristotle’s work.

History of Philosophy – Émile Bréhier – Tome 1 –

The Academy gave rise to a very important legacy. However, disagreements as to what to do and retain from Plato’s doctrine seem to have caused its loss quite early:

The Academy, after Plato, had successively for leaders, Speusippus, the nephew of the master (348-339), Xenocrates (339-315), Polemon (315-269). (…) at that time, there was no Platonic orthodoxy, and this was even the occasion for a sharp reproach that the Neo-Platonists made to Plato’s direct successors. Also Platonism, undermined by the divergences of school, is ruined by the attack of the new dogmatism in formation; Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicurus agree to fight it.

History of Philosophy – Émile Bréhier – Volume 1

> Focus on Aristotle’s Lyceum

If Aristotle was also a teacher for Plato’s Academy, he also founded his own divergent school, as mentioned above: the Lyceum.

Dates of the Lyceum: 335 BC to 47 BC.

Founder: Aristotle

The Lyceum is also called the “Peripatetic school”, simply because Aristotle walked around teaching his students. This is the meaning of the word “peripatetic”:“one who likes to walk and talk”.

Under what circumstances was the Lyceum created? It is necessary to go back to the political context of the time to clarify this question.

When he returned, in 335, in Athens where the national party, reduced to silence after the political decline of the city, however, still remained, this metaclete was to be known as partisan of Macedonia. He did not enter the Academy, but founded a new school in the Lyceum, where he taught for thirteen years. At the death of Alexander (323), the Athenian national party led by Demosthenes forced him to leave the city; he retired to Chalcis, in Euboea, in a property inherited from his mother, where he died in 322, at 63 years old. (…) of Aristotle, on the other hand, only tiny fragments remain of works written for a wide audience; what we have of him are lectures he wrote either for teaching at the Lyceum, or perhaps for lessons he probably gave at Assos, before becoming Alexander’s tutor: notes written by a teacher for himself, without any search for literary perfection, sometimes mere reference points for oral development, where even, when these collections were published after his death, notes from students could have slipped in.

History of Philosophy – Émile Bréhier – Volume 1

Just as Plato taught in at least two different places depending on the level of the students, Aristotle gave two types of lessons:

  1. An “exoteric” course in the afternoon (for all)
  2. An “achromatic” course in the morning (for the initiated).

These first Greek philosophical schools had a great posterity and were of decisive importance for Western philosophy. Later philosophers will regularly position themselves in relation to this period.

→ General Knowledge: the school