Secular pilgrimages: the Academy, the Lyceum, and the Stoa

(Sharing olives, bread, and wine by the site of the Stoa Poikile)

I’m writing this while flying back to New York after having spent a few days in Athens, on the occasion of the annual Stoicon event, where I conducted a workshop on practical exercises in Stoicism. While there, my wife and I did what can only be described as the secular equivalent (neither of us is religious) of a pilgrimage. Three of them, in fact. I think it may be worthwhile to reflect on why we did it, and more in general on the meaning that these sorts of things add to our lives.

The three Meccas in question were the place were Plato established his Academy; the one were Aristotle, a bit later on, founded his Lyceum; and the location of the Stoa Poikile, the open space to the margin of the ancient Agora, where the Stoics used to preach their practical philosophy to whoever would listen.

Together with a friend, Jennifer and I first went to the Stoa poikile, simply because of its proximity to the Agora, which we visited on that afternoon. A stoa is a columnated porch, a standard feature of pretty much any ancient Greek city. It was a multi-purpose structure, where people would gather to buy merchandise or just to hang around friends and acquaintances, discoursing of this and that. The term “poikile” means painted, because this particular Stoa in Athens was graced with a number of hanging paintings depicting, among other things, the taking of Troy and the battle of Marathon.

It was here, around 300 BCE, that the Phoenician merchant-turned-philosopher Zeno of Citium (modern day Cyprus) began to teach a new philosophy of life. It was originally referred to as Zenonianism, but mercifully eventually people came to call it Stoicism, from the place, rather than the man.

The remains of the Stoa poikile are not much too look at (see photo), though excavations are (slowly) proceeding. It’s situated in the middle of a restaurant and bar district, populated by tourists strolling off the Agora or just looking for a watering hole. We found a bar with outdoor seating and direct view on the Stoa, and settled down to sip wine and eat olives and bread while occasionally glancing at it and talking about Stoicism.

The following day, despite forecasted rain (which, thank Zeus, never materialized), we headed for the Lyceum, only a few hundred yards from the hotel where we were staying. The site is, again, rather unimpressive (see photo), but better curated than the Stoa. It’s open to the public, but you have to pay to get in, and there are a number of explanatory plaques to give you a minimum background to understand what it is that you are looking at.

Aristotle established the Lyceum on the location of a gymnasium, which was typical for ancient schools of philosophy. Mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), as the Romans later said. Today the very word “lyceum” stands for a particular kind of high school that is preparatory to college, either in humanistic or scientific disciplines (e.g., in both French and Italian). Aristotle used to teach advanced subject matters in the morning and do lectures for the general public in the evening. The advanced lectures were delivered while walking around the perimeter of the school, which is why the Aristotelians were known as peripatetics (“those who walk around”). Needless to say, I took a picture of my friend and I walking along the paths of the Lyceum, Aristotle style. The name, Lyceum, by the way, means “wolf-god,” because the place was dedicated to the version of Apollo with that attribute. And while the Lyceum is famous as the location of Aristotle’s school, Socrates also wandered there at times, and Chrysippus (the third head of the Stoa) apparently guest lectured on location.

We then took a taxi to head to Plato’s Academy, which is situated further out from the town’s center. The Academy also was housed at the site of a gymnasium, the name referring to the legendary Greek hero Akademos, and today, of course, indicating the very concept of a university.

It wasn’t easy to find the exact spot, as it isn’t protected, and anyone can wonder into it (and, once more, it isn’t much to look at — see photo). However, there is a cute little interactive museum, aimed at elementary and middle school children, which features a surprisingly well done series of exhibits on Plato’s life and philosophy. Plato’s Academy was the first formal school of philosophy and allied disciplines to be established in the Western world. It featured a sign at the entrance that said that no one will be allowed inside unless they knew geometry, as Plato was impressed by the advances of the Pythagoreans, and wanted to put philosophy on the same firm footing as mathematics and geometry (much later on, Kant similarly wished to establish a new philosophy on the model of Newtonian physics — it seems like math or physics envy have been a recurring disease among philosophers. Here is why that’s misguided).

Why did we spend hours locating and visiting these three places? Because they are “sacred,” in a non-religious way. None of us three thinks of Zeno, Aristotle, or Plato as the equivalents of Jesus. We don’t revere them as gods, and we certainly don’t think that The Republic, The Nicomachean Ethics, or The (other, written by Zeno) Republic is gospel, not to be questioned or else. While all three of us are followers of Zeno, indirectly, who knows if we would agree with Zeno himself, since none of his books survive in anything but fragments. And certainly we find plenty to disagree with both Plato and Aristotle.

Yet, there was something special, “magical,” about those places. In the span of 36 hours we visited three major locations that shaped the entirety of Western thinking, and that still have relevance today at the level of global culture. We felt a thrill drinking our wine a few yards away from where Zeno and Chrysippus defended Stoic doctrines 23 centuries ago. Or walking like Aristotle and his students did, in the very same place. Or standing where Plato — arguably the most influential philosopher of the entire Western canon — once stood.

I even felt that I understood why Muslims go to Mecca, or Christians to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, despite the rather important “caveat” mentioned above about sacredness vs secularism. I understood why people want to be connected to those who came before them, whether they were related to them or not. The ancient Romans used to have a family temple, the Lararium, in their houses, to worship their own ancestors. I’m not sure they really thought of them as gods, but it was a deeply felt way to acknowledge where they themselves came from, who was there before them and made it possible for them to be there.

My wife, my friend and I similarly wished to acknowledge not our genetic ancestors (though, of course, all humanity shares pretty much the same DNA), but our cultural and philosophical ones. As Seneca aptly puts it:

“I spend my time in the company of all the best; no matter in what lands they may have lived, or in what age, I let my thoughts fly to them.” (Letters to Lucilius LXII.2)

Of course, we could spend our time in the company of Plato, Aristotle, Zeno and the rest simply by downloading e-book versions of their works and reading them in the comfort of our homes. Yet, there is something special about having seen these places, having walked where they walked, sharing the experience with your loved ones. I feel very fortunate to have been able to do so, and the experience has redoubled my commitment to do my best to make philosophy accessible and useful to everyone. Plato and Aristotle would probably agree this is a good idea, and Zeno would be positively enthusiastic about it!

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