Saturday, January 26, 2013

The End of the Academy


You may be aware that Plato's Academy in Athens, closed c. AD 529, some 900 years after its establishment c. 387 BC.  The end came after the emperor Justinian issued an edict "permit[ting] only those who are of the orthodox faith to teach and accept a public stipend." (In fact, there is some uncertainty as to the scope and meaning of Justinian's decree and whether it forced the closure of the Academy.  See the article here, which is also the source of the translation of the decree quoted above.)



But what happened to the Academy's last members? What became of them, and were they able to reconstitute the institution in another form and continue their studies and teaching? The sources suggest that there may have been a postscript, in the East.



The historian Agathias (c. 530 - c. 581) tells a delightful story in his Histories in which the last members of the Academy traveled to the Persian court of Chosroes I in search of a "philosopher king," much as Plato himself had voyaged a millenium before to the court of the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius the Younger (see Plato's famous Seventh Letter):
Not long before Damascius of Syria, Simplicius of Cilicia, Eulamius of Phrygia, Priscian of Lydia, Hermes and Diogenes of Phoenicia and Isidore of Gaza, all of them, to use a poetic turn of phrase, the quintessential flower of the philosophers of our age, had come to the conclusion, since the official religion of the Roman empire was not to their liking, that the Persian state was much superior. So they gave a ready hearing to the stories in general circulation according to which Persia was the land of "Plato's philosopher king" in which justice reigned supreme.

Apparently the subjects too were models of decency and good behaviour and there was no such thing as theft, brigandage or any other sort of crime. Even if some valuable object were left in no matter how remote a spot nobody who came across it would make off with it, but it would stay put and, without any one's guarding it, would be virtually kept safe for whoever left it until such time as he should return.

Elated therefore by these reports which they accepted as true, and also because they were forbidden by law to take part in public life with impunity owing to the fact that they did not conform to the established religion, they left immediately and set off for a strange land whose ways were completely foreign to their own, determined to make their homes there.

But in the first place they discovered that those in authority were overbearing and vainglorious and so had nothing but disgust and opprobrium for them. In the second place they realized that there were large numbers of housebreakers and robbers, some of whom were apprehended while others escaped detection, and that every form of crime was committed. The powerful in fact ill-treated the weak outrageously and displayed considerable cruelty and inhumanity in their dealings with one another. But the most extraordinary thing of all was that even though a man could and did have any number of wives people still had the effrontery to commit adultery. The philosophers were disgusted by all these things and blamed themselves for ever having made the move.

The opportunity of conversing with the king proved a further disappointment. It was the monarch's proud boast that he was a student of philosophy but his knowledge of the subject was utterly superficial. There was no common ground either in matters of religion since he observed the practices I have already described. Finally the vicious promiscuity which characterized Persian society was more than the philosophers could stand.

All these factors, then, combined to send them hurrying back home as fast as they could go. So despite the king's affection for them and despite the fact that he invited them to stay they felt that merely to set foot on Roman territory, even if it meant instant death, was preferable to a life of distinction in Persia. Accordingly they resolved to see the last of barbarian hospitality and all returned home.

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