The Lycaeum the Aristotelian School of Leadership–Neo DeMarcoian Thought

We had a post a few months back pondering what Aristotle teaches us about leadership, but at the same time we have been pondering ancient schools of leadership—we’ve pondered Plato’s Academy, The Jedi Praxium, and today we will ponder Aristotle’s Lyceum.  


The Lycaeum was a temple dedicated to Apollo Lyceus (“Apollo the wolf-god”).

Sanzio_01_croppedIt was best known for the Peripatetic school of philosophy founded by Aristotle in 334 BC. Aristotle fled Athens in 323 BC, but the school continued to function under a series of leaders until the Roman general Sulla destroyed it during his assault on Athens in 86 BC.

The remains of the Lyceum were discovered in modern Athens in 1996 in a park behind the Hellenic Parliament.

In 335 BCE, Athens fell under Macedonian rule and Aristotle, aged 50, returned from Asia. Upon his return, Aristotle began teaching regularly in the morning in the Lyceum and founded an official school called “The Lyceum”. After morning lessons, Aristotle would frequently lecture on the grounds for the public, and manuscripts of his compiled lectures were circulated. The group of scholars who followed the Aristotelian doctrine came to be known as the Peripatetics due to Aristotle’s tendency to walk as he taught.

Aristotle’s main focus as a teacher was cooperative research. His students were assigned historical or scientific research projects as part of their studies. Before returning to Athens, Aristotle was tutor of Alexander of Macedonia, who became the great conqueror Alexander the Great.

Throughout his conquests of various regions, Alexander collected plant and animal specimens for Aristotle’s research, allowing Aristotle to develop the first zoo and botanical garden in existence. It is also suspected that Alexander donated what would be the equivalent of more than 4 million dollars to the Lyceum. In 322 BCE, Aristotle was forced to flee Athens with his family when the political leadership reacted against the Macedonians again and his previously published works supporting Macedonian rule left him a target. He passed on his Lyceum to Theophrastus and died later that year in Chalcis, near his hometown


As in previous posts—I ponder what was being taught at these schools in terms of leadership.  We really don’t have “leadership schools” today as much as we have a bunch of theories or concepts—or in worst cases—someone that experienced success and figures—worked for me—I am sure it will work for you.  These are not schools so much as random advice from a retired Navy SEAL or former CEO or a large company. 

Of course—not being able to actually attend the Lyceum, we have to look at the works of Aristotle and imagine his classroom. The Nicomachean Ethics is a core Aristotelian text— the most influential book on moral philosophy. From Kant to John Rawls, all philosophers have discussed the issue with Aristotle on the good life and on happiness. Aristotle proposed that humans are social, rational animals that seek happiness or to “live well.” To that end, he proposed a system of ethics designed to help us reach eudaimonia.  Eudaimonia is a Greek word literally consisting of the words “eu” (good) and “daimōn” (spirit) commonly translated as happiness; however, human flourishing is probably a more accurate translation.

Eudaimonia is reached by living virtuously and building up our character traits until we don’t even have to think about our choices before making the right one. The concept of eudaimonia or happiness here is not just the internal emotional state as we know it, but includes the externalities of prosperity, friendships based on character, and “an unimpeded life of thought and action.”

This action comes about through having good traits of character or the virtues. As Aristotle stated, the highest human is activity “according to the best and most complete virtue.”

Virtue for the Greeks means excellence. A person of virtue is someone who performs human activities well. In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, the man with character excellence does the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.  Is it a stretch to see these concepts in terms of leadership?

aristotle-success-small-imageSuch a person–such a leader will be happy, but not in the same way as a hedonistic person. We will strive for self-improvement and will live life to the fullest. We will flourish—and as leaders—we will help other flourish as well.

Aristotle saw virtues as character traits and tendencies to act in a particular way. We gain them through practice and by copying ‘moral exemplars’ or other virtuous leaders until we manage to internalize the virtue. We become temperate by practicing temperance, courageous by practicing courage, and so on. Eventually, the virtue becomes a habit.


There are several virtues Aristotle taught in Nicomachean Ethics, but I believe there are four core virtues:

1: Courage/Fortitude: The midpoint between cowardice and recklessness. The courageous person is aware of the danger but goes in any way.

2: Temperance: The virtue between overindulgence and insensitivity. Aristotle would view the person who never drinks just as harshly as the one who drinks too much.

3: Justice: The virtue of dealing fairly with others. It lies between selfishness and selflessness. This virtue can also be applied in different situations and has a whole chapter dedicated to the various forms it can take.

4: Prudence, Wisdom, Common Sense—The fourth is a bit of an interlocutor:  


As organizations become more complex, specialized, and bureaucratic, the opportunity to exercise practical wisdom is increasingly been replaced with reliance on rules, regulations, and incentives to achieve goals. But rules don’t always work as intended.

However, Aristotle teaches—successful leaders always ensure that while rules and processes should be powerful enough to command discipline and commitment—at the same time, should be flexible and nimble to act effectively in unforeseen or unusual circumstances.

Flexibility to adapt comes from common sense. AND—I know—increasingly common sense is anything but common.  Common sense is really a form of practical decision-making and the ability to imagine the consequences of something we do. It stops us from making irrational mistakes and makes it easier to make choices on what to do.

We are not born with common sense, we develop it over time and with repeated practice.

  • Practical wisdom combines action, accompanied by reason and ethics required to prevail over a difficult situation.
  • It does not depend on knowledge of the person. Rather it depends on a particular situation and a particular situation requires specific action.
  • Practical wisdom is critical for decisions promoting Eudaimonia (mentioned above—happiness, flourishing, or leading a good life).

In a nutshell, deliberation, reasoning, and action equate to practical wisdom.

Aristotle considers common sense—prudence—wisdom as the master virtue as it is the only virtue which keeps the other virtues in “check” or in balance.

table-of-virtuesAristotle taught each virtue is a “golden mean” between a vice of excess and deficiency. For example, too much “courage” in an impossible situation is foolishness. Or—temperance, if we have the vice of deficiency we will be intemperate but if we the vice of excess we will never drink at all. Aristotle sees both traits as vicious. The virtuous person will know how much they can drink without having too much or teetotaling.

Fundamentally, ethics or virtues are a standard of behavior for leaders in the many situations in which we find ourselves. This includes the various roles we play in our lives as parents, friends, citizens, businesspeople, teachers, professionals, politicians, warriors, and so on.

Although Aristotle believed eudiamonia/happiness could only be found through the pursuit of virtue, he did not suggest that human emotions and feelings should be denounced and ignored. He was a realist. Nevertheless, he did contend that our passions must be tempered. They must be controlled by the mind. The irrational must be directed by the rational. There must be balance. Accordingly, the golden mean became Aristotle’s guide for the achievement of excellence. Nothing in excess. Whether our action be toward the moral virtues of courage, temperance, and self-respect, or the intellectual virtues of art, scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, or intuitive reason, excellence lies at the mean. It lies between the extremes.


Aristotle developed a leadership dyad. Basically, he taught that there are two types of human beings (leaders). Those whose lives are virtuous and rational, and those whose lives are directed by passion, whim, and social convention. To the former he bestowed citizenship within the community, for they had the ability to enable the community to achieve its purposes. Accordingly, they were assigned roles in order that they might contemplate and act upon the ultimate good.

To the latter, however, he denied citizenship. Instead, they were subjugated to the rule of the former.  The later were driven by lust, gluttony, and physical necessity, and lacked virtue. They lacked the ability as well as the time to contemplate the ultimate good.

Aristotle’s leaders were people of wisdom, courage justice, and temperance. They were learned. They were compassionate. They sought the ultimate good, not only for themselves, but for all who were under their leadership. They were undaunted by private interest and the pursuit of trinkets. Free from the tyranny of passion, their leadership was rooted in virtue.

Aristotle’s proposition that leaders should be people of virtue has provided us a philosophical foundation that has served us well. Although we are often disappointed, we denounce self-serving behavior among our leaders. For the most part, we have little tolerance for opportunistic demagogues pursuing personal gain at the expense of others. Without question, if Aristotle were to lead a large organization, we would find leadership seeking to unify the unit toward the ultimate good common to all humans. We would find trust. We would find truth and honesty. We would find beauty and goodness. We would find focus on those qualities of our souls that separate us from animals.


As head of the Lyceum, Theophrastus continued Aristotle’s foci of observation, collaborative research and documentation of philosophical history.  Theophrastus continued his own work while teaching and demonstrated his devotion to learning and education by leaving the land of the Lyceum to his friends to continue their work in education in philosophy in the non-private tradition of the school upon his death.

During the era of Theophrastus and his successor, Strato of Lampsacus, the Lyceum experienced a decline until it fell with the rest of Athens in 86 BCE.


During a 1996 excavation to clear space for Athens’ new Museum of Modern Art, the remains of Aristotle’s Lyceum were uncovered. Descriptions from the works of ancient heirs hint at the location of the grounds, speculated to be somewhere just outside the eastern boundary of ancient Athens, near the rivers Ilissos and Eridanos, and close to Lycabettus Hill. The excavation site is located in downtown Athens. The first excavations revealed a gymnasium and wrestling area. Upon realizing the magnitude of the discovery, contingency plans were made for a nearby construction of the Art Museum so that it could be combined with a Lyceum outdoor museum and give visitors easy access to both. There are plans for canopies to be placed over the Lyceum remains, and the area was opened to the public in 2009.

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