I am always fascinated by the concept of philosophical schools–especially when applying that philosophy to leadership. The last school we looked at was the Jedi Praxeum, I am sure no one will have any trouble connecting the Praxeum to Plato’s Akademia.
The Akademia was a school outside the city walls of ancient Athens. It was located in or beside a grove of olive trees dedicated to the goddess Athena. The site of the Academy was sacred to Athena; it had sheltered her religious cult since the Bronze Age.
Plato’s school probably originated around the time Plato inherited the property at the age of thirty. The Akademia was perhaps one of the earliest institutions of higher learning. There is no historical record of the exact time the school was officially founded, but modern scholars generally agree that the time was the mid-380s, probably sometime after 387 BC, when Plato is thought to have returned from his first visit to Italy and Sicily. Originally, the meetings were held on Plato’s property as often as they were at the nearby Academy gymnasium.
Though the Academic club was exclusive and not open to the public, it did not, at least during Plato’s time, charge fees for membership. Therefore, there was probably not a “school” in the sense of a clear distinction between teachers and students, or even a formal curriculum. There was, however, a distinction between senior and junior members.
In Plato’s time, the school did not have any particular doctrine to teach; rather, Plato posed problems to be studied and solved by the others. There is evidence of lectures given, most notably Plato’s lecture “On the Good”; but probably the use of dialectic was more common. The school’s main function was to teach Plato’s philosophical understanding, but it also challenged its scholars to develop a new understanding of the universe.
Many have imagined that the Academic curriculum would have closely resembled the one canvassed in Plato’s Republic. “Leadership” is central in Plato’s Republic. Writing the Republic, Plato’s aim as he says, was to write a “theoretical constitution” in order to “establish a good society.” A good society, according to Plato’s theory, is the one which is founded on a good principle and grounded with good leadership, that is to say the principle of justice and the leadership of the philosopher. Plato and his version of Socrates believed that one ought to be a philosopher to govern.
For him ‘philosophy’ is not to be understood in a narrow sense. It is not a compartmentalized subject disconnected from worldly affairs, as today’s academic philosophy may be, but it is a passionate desire to understand all there is. The main thrust of Plato’s argument in The Republic is that those who lead must do so with the relevant expertise, but the philosopher king must be trained in the following in particular: (a) physical education, (b) music, and (c) mathematics (Republic 398b-412b, 522c-e, 525b-526c).
PHYSICAL EDUCATION: For Plato, as for most Greeks, physical education was as important as cultivating the mind. This attitude inspired the later classical Roman saying, mens sana in corpore sano: ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’. Physical education enhances general health and fitness, which is often a precondition of a sound mind. It is difficult to disagree that a healthy body is crucial to efficiently carry out the daily tasks of leadership. He who would defend justice or the people must first have the power to defend himself.
MATHEMATICS: The physical is not sufficient for good leadership. Brute force, if unconstrained, is dangerous. As Plato says, our leaders should never be ‘savage masters’ – more like “wolves attacking the sheep than dogs looking after them”. So physical power must be tempered with reason.
For Plato training in mathematics was necessary because it enhances one’s logical and reasoning faculties. In order to formulate effective policies and pass appropriate measures generally, those in leadership must be able to sift through, prioritize and ascertain the truth of information from multiple sources, for example think-tanks, research institutes, consultants or political lobbyists. Only leaders who understand the delicate balances involved can have the capacity to subsequently render these problems manageable. Logic allows one to perceive propositions with clarity. The development of the logical faculty thus enables leaders to better analytically unpack the myriad problems facing governments.
MUSIC: Proceeding to the last discipline required for a leader, the requirement of a training in music is consistent with Plato’s association of justice with harmonious order. Music teaches us the harmony of sounds. The coordination of sounds in music also illustrates the delicate coordination required of leadership, where the state/organization exists to work towards the common good. The formation of a cohesive society involves the prioritization of issues across various entities, as well as the efficient utilization of available resources. Harmonizing these needs is not unlike the process of composing a musical piece.
Only with the acquisition of the skills that this tripartite form of education provides would one become fit to lead, according to Plato, since with such an education one is able to transcend the shadows of uncertainty, go beyond the cave of ignorance and into the light where one would be able to determine what is for the common good (Republic 514a-520a).
We can intuitively agree that a person with a well-rounded education is better equipped to face and engage the world, and so our choice of leaders should be from among such people. Studying these three fields increases one’s aptitude in other fields, and the skills they inculcate are applicable across many disciplines. They are foundational disciplines upon which other forms of expertise may be built on.
Plato’s Academy is often said to have been a school for would-be politicians in the ancient world, and to have had many illustrious alumni. Plato was joined by other well known philosophers at the academy, including Aristotle before he founded his own Academy after he had a falling out with Plato’s philosophies.
In 86 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla laid siege to Athens and conquered the city, causing much destruction. It was during the siege that he laid waste to the Academy, as Plutarch relates: “He laid hands upon the sacred groves and ravaged the Academy, which was the most wooded of the city’s suburbs, as well as the Lyceum.”
The destruction of the Academy was so severe as to make the reconstruction and re-opening of the Academy impossible.
Despite the Platonic Academy being destroyed, the philosophers continued to teach Platonism in Athens during the Roman era, but it was not until the early 5th century (c. 410) that a revived academy (which had no connection with the original Academy) was established by some leading Neoplatonists.
The legacy of the Academy was through the fact it was the first known place where scholars could gather, debate, discuss, and teach about the universe and its understanding. Further, the Academy was one of the first formal entities where one might undertake the study of leadership. The concept of higher learning was a new idea when the Academy was established. This is why ultimately the word academy is adopted in our own vocabulary.