The Platonic Academy originated as Plato's school of philosophy, founded approximately 385 B.C.E. in Akademeia, then a northern suburb six stadia outside of Athens. The site of the academy was sacred to Athena and other immortals and contained a sacred grove of olive trees. Plato possessed a small garden there in which he opened a school for those interested in receiving his instruction. Details of the organization of the academy are unknown, but it appears to have employed a method of teaching based on lectures, dialogue, and seminars.
Scholars distinguish the Old Academy (Plato and his immediate successors) from the New Academy (beginning under the leadership of Arcesilaus). Cicero listed the founders of the Old Academy, in order, as Democritus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Parmenides, Xenophanes, Socrates, Plato, Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemo, Crates, and Crantor; in the New, or Younger, he included Arcesilaus, Lacydes, Evander, Hegesinus, Carneades, Clitomachus, and Philo (Acad. Quaest. iv. 5). The academy continued in existence until it was closed in 529 C.E. by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I.
In the mid-fifteenth century, Gemistos Plethon introduced Plato to scholars in Florence, Italy. Cosimo de Medici was inspired to establish the Accademia Platonica in Florence, under the direction of Marsilio Ficino, who translated all the works of Plato into Latin. The Academy of Florence had a powerful influence on the Italian Renaissance.
Before the Akademeia was a school and even before Cimon enclosed its precincts with a wall (Plutarch Life of Cimon xiii:7), it contained a sacred grove of olive trees, watered by the Cephisus, about six stadia outside the city walls of ancient Athens (Thucydides ii:34). The ancient name for the site was Hekademeia, which by classical times had evolved into Akademeia and was explained, at least as early as the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., by linking it to an Athenian hero, a legendary "Akademos."
The site of the academy was sacred to Athena and other immortals. Since the Bronze Age it had sheltered a religious cult, perhaps associated with the hero-gods Dioscuri (Castor and Polydeukes); the hero Akademos associated with the site was credited with revealing to the Divine Twins where Theseus had hidden Helen. Out of respect for its association with the Dioskouri, the Spartans would not ravage these original "groves of Academe" when they invaded Attica (Plutarch, Life of Theseus xxxii), a piety not shared by the Roman Sulla, who felled the sacred olive trees in 86 B.C.E. to build siege engines.
Among the religious observations that took place at the Akademeia was a torchlit night race from altars within the city to the Promemeikos altar in the Akademeia. Funeral games also took place in the area as well as a Dionysiac procession from Athens to the Hekademeia and then back to the polis (Paus. i. 29.2, 30.2; Plut. Vit. Sol. i. 7). The road to Akademeia was lined with the gravestones of Athenians. The olive trees of Akademeia, according to Athenian fables, were reared from layers taken from the sacred olive in the Erechtheum, and from them came the oil given as a prize to victors at the Panathenean festival.
Within the enclosure of Akademeia, Plato possessed a small garden in which he founded a school for those who wished to listen to his instruction. The name Academia is frequently used in philosophical writings to refer to the followers of Plato. The Platonic Academy is usually contrasted with Aristotle's own creation, the Lyceum.
Famous philosophers entrusted with running the Academy included Arcesilaus, Speusippus, Xenocrates and Proclus. Sextus Empiricus described five divisions of the followers of Plato. Plato was the founder of the first Academy, Arcesilaus of the second, Carneades of the third, Philo and Charmides of the fourth, Antiochus of the fifth. Cicero recognized only two Academies, the Old, beginning with Democritus, and the New, commencing with Arcesilaus. He listed the founders of the Old Academy, in order, as Democritus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Parmenides, Xenophanes, Socrates, Plato, Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemo, Crates, and Crantor. In the New, or “Younger,” he included Arcesilaus, Lacydes, Evander, Hegesinus, Carneades, Clitomachus, and Philo (Acad. Quaest. iv. 5). According to Diogenes, the Old Academy consisted of those who taught the doctrine of Plato without corruption; the Middle of those who made certain innovations in the Platonic system; and the New began with those who relinquished the more questionable propositions of Arcesilaus, and restored the declining reputation of the Platonic school. Beginning with Carneades, the New Academy was largely skeptical, denying the possibility of arriving at absolute truth or any definite criterion of truth. During this period philosophy was increasingly becoming a vehicle for dialectic and rhetoric rather than a serious pursuit of truth.
After a lapse during the early Roman occupation, the academy was refounded (Cameron 1965) as a new institution by some outstanding Platonists of late antiquity who called themselves "successors" (diadochoi, but of Plato) and presented themselves as an uninterrupted tradition reaching back to Plato. However, there cannot have actually been any geographical, institutional, economic or personal continuity with the original academy in the new organizational entity (Bechtle).
The last "Greek" philosophers of the revived academy in the sixth century were drawn from various parts of the Hellenistic cultural world and suggest the broad syncretism of the common culture (see koine): Five of the seven academy philosophers mentioned by Agathias were Syriac in their cultural origin: Hermias and Diogenes (both from Phoenicia), Isidorus of Gaza, Damascius of Syria, Iamblichus of Coele-Syria and perhaps even Simplicius of Cilicia himself (Thiele).
In 529 C.E., the Byzantine emperor Justinian I closed the school in because he considered it a pagan institution, which date is often cited as the end of Classical antiquity. According to the sole witness, the historian Agathias, the remaining members of the academy sought protection under the rule of Sassanid king Khosrau I of Persia in his capital at Ctesiphon, carrying with them precious scrolls of literature and philosophy, and science. After a peace treaty between the Persian and the Byzantine Empire in 532 guaranteed their personal security (an early document in the history of freedom of religion), some members found sanctuary in the pagan stronghold of Harran, near Edessa. One of the last leading figures of this group was Simplicius, a pupil of Damascius, the last head of the Athenian school. The students of the academy-in-exile, an authentic and important Neoplatonic school surviving at least until the tenth century, contributed to the Islamic preservation of Greek science and medicine, when Islamic forces took the area in the seventh century (Thiele). One of the earliest academies established in the east was the seventh-century Academy of Gundishapur in Sassanid Persia.
Raphael painted a famous fresco depicting "The School of Athens" in the sixteenth century.
The site of the academy was rediscovered in the twentieth century; considerable excavation has been accomplished. It is located in modern Akadimia Platonos, in Athens. The Church of St. Triton on Kolokynthou Street, Athens, occupies the southern corner of the academy, confirmed in 1966 by the discovery of a boundary stone dated to 500 B.C.E.
After Justinian closed the Neoplatonic School in Athens in 527 C.E., the teachings of Plato and the Neoplatonists disappeared from Christian Europe for almost nine hundred years. In 1438, an ardent Platonist, Gemistos Plethon, visited Florence, Italy as part of the Byzantine delegation to the Council of Florence, and gave lectures on Platonism to interested scholars. Cosimo de Medici became inspired to found a Platonic Academy in one of his villas in Careggi, and selected Marsilio Ficino, the son of his personal physician, as its first director. Ficino translated all the works of Plato into Latin and left translations of Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus and Synesius. He is also said to have originated the term “Platonic love.”
Ficino became tutor of the grandson of Cosimo de Medici, Lorenzo, and instilled in him a reverence for the ancient Greeks. Lorenzo de Medici raised the Platonic Academy to a high academic standard, established a University in Pisa, and founded an academy in the gardens of San Marco where the best examples of ancient art were displayed for the students. Together with Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Lorenzo de Medici and Marsilio Ficino initiated a revival of Neoplatonism which strongly influenced the Italian Renaissance.
After the death of Lorenzo, the Academy of Florence ceased to exist. In its place arose the Fratres Lucis, or Brothers of Light, a mystical fraternity founded in Florence in 1498 which continued in existence until the eighteenth century and included among its members Paschalis, Cagliostro, Emmanuel Swedenborg and St. Germain. Due to the tradition of intellectual brilliance associated with this institution, many groups have chosen to use the word "academy" in their name.
The Renaissance drew potent intellectual and spiritual strength from the Academy at Careggi. During the course of the following century many Italian cities established an Academy, of which the oldest survivor is the Accademia dei Lincei of Rome, which became a national academy for a reunited Italy. National honorary academies of strictly limited membership include the Académie Française; the Royal Academy of the United Kingdom; and the International Academy of Science.
Other national academies include the United States Military Academy; the United States Naval Academy; United States Air Force Academy; and the Australian Defence Force Academy. In emulation of the military academies, police in the United States are trained in police academies. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents the annual Academy awards. In Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, the term "academy" was reserved to denote a state research establishment, such as the Russian Academy of Sciences, which still exists, although other types of academies have now appeared there as well.
A fundamental feature of European academies that trained artists was regular practice in making accurate drawings from ancient sculptures, or from casts of them, and deriving inspiration from the human form. Students assembled in sessions to make drawings of the draped and undraped human form, and such drawings, which survive in the tens of thousands from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, are termed académies.
In the early nineteenth century, the term "academy" began to be used for a school that was less advanced than a college (for which it might prepare students) but considerably more than elementary. Early examples are the two academies founded at Andover and Phillips Exeter Academy. Amherst Academy expanded with time to form Amherst College.
When Mozart organized public subscription performances of his music in Vienna in the 1780s and 1790s, he called the concerts "academies." This usage in musical terms survives in the concert orchestra Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and in the Brixton Academy, a concert hall in Brixton, South London.
Academies proliferated in the twentieth century, until even a three-week series of lectures and discussions would be termed an "academy." In addition, the generic term "the academy" is sometimes used to refer to all of academia, which is sometimes considered a global successor to the Academy of Athens.
Privately funded academies first became popular in the United Kingdom during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. At that time the offer of a place at an English public school and university generally required conformity to the Church of England; the academies or dissenting academies provided an alternative for those with different religious views, called nonconformists.
University College, London (UCL) was founded in the early nineteenth century as the first publicly funded English university to admit anyone regardless of religious adherence. In the early years of the twenty-first century, academies were reintroduced as a type of secondary school, partially supported and controlled by the state, though they had a significant measure of administrative autonomy.
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