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Aristotle's Lyceum

Page history last edited by Carrie Heffner 12 years, 5 months ago


The Lyceum Before Aristotle

Although the term “Lyceum” is usually associated with Aristotle, the location had been a cultural center for over a century before he set up his school there.  The Lyceum was likely founded by Pericles in the 5th century BCE or by Pisistratus in the 6th century BCE, so it was a flourishing cultural site long before Aristotle founded his school there in 335 BCE.

Located just outside the eastern wall of Athens, the Lyceum was a multi-use location with indoor and outdoor spaces that were used for gymnastic, religious, military and educational purposes. Named after the god Apollo Lyceus, the Lyceum served as the sanctuary of Apollo, housed shrines to the Muses and served as a gathering place for the cult of Hermes. In the earliest years, its primary uses were military and gymnastic. The site hosted military exercises and the office of the head of the army, in addition to hosting government assemblies. The gymnasium building and the Palaistra (a wrestling school and the location of Plato’s Euthydemus) were both rebuilt in 330 BCE according to Plutarch.


Prior to Aristotle’s arrival, other philosophers and rhetoricians were already lecturing on the grounds of the Lyceum, most notably Socrates, Protagoras and Isocrates, who is said to have taught there. Rhapsodes, or performers of epic poetry, also taught and performed there.

Aristotle’s School

After Aristotle’s student Alexander the Great conquered Athens in 338 BCE, Aristotle returned to Greece from his time in Macedon to found his school at the Lyceum. Although referred to as a school, the curriculum here was much less formal than the term indicates, with Aristotle frequently giving lectures while strolling around the campus. Possibly for this reason, his school and followers came to be called "peripatetic". Peripatetic education at the Lyceum during Aristotle's time included military, religious and philosophical education for upper-class young men. Both Aristotle and the Lyceum itself boasted a formidable reputation that drew the attention of the upper-class Athenians and brought many students from abroad as well.


In addition to heading the school until almost the end of his life, Aristotle composed the majority of his works here and created the first major library in European history. Unfortunately, much of the library was lost after the death of his successor, Theophrastus. Theophrastus was one of Aristotle's closest students and friends - they had studied together at Plato's Academy, and some sources say Theophrastus may even have traveled with Aristotle when he went to teach Alexander in Macedon. Theophrastus was only about 13 years younger than Aristotle (born around 371 BCE while Aristotle was born in 384), and he lived to about 85 and was thus able to continue and even expand Aristotle's mission at the Lyceum after Aristotle's death at age 62. Under Theophrastus's 35 year tenure as scholarch, the school was expanded and new property purchased for it, the library was temporarily preserved, and many of Aristotle's works were reproduced and commented on.  


In 288 BCE, Strato took over as scholarch of the Lyceum and led the school for 18 years. After him, there were several additional scholarchs, though they mostly failed to continue developing Aristotle’s scientific and philosophical theories, although they did work to defend them. With the sacking of Athens by Sulla in 86 BCE, the school at the Lyceum came to an end. It was briefly revived around the 2nd century CE under Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, but was closed down again (along with all other Greek philosophical schools) by the emperor Justinian in 529 CE.


Because of Aristotle’s importance as a teacher and lecturer, his Peripatetic school is deeply intertwined with the history and creation of his writings. Most of Aristotle’s surviving works are thought to be lecture notes he may have used with students, not fully-edited treatises intended for publication. Additionally, some of the pieces that were attributed to him in the Middle Ages are now thought to have been composed by his Peripatetic successors.


The Peripatetic Tradition

During and after Aristotle's time, Aristotle's followers were known as the Peripatetic School. Andronicus of Rhodes was one of the most influential; as a  later scholarch of the Lyceum, he took great responsibility for disseminating Aristotle's works and is largely responsible for them being handed down through the Middle Ages. He was primarily responsible for bringing Aristotle's writings to Rome in 84 BCE, although at first the works gained little traction because Aristotle was relatively unknown there. Julius Caesar and Augustus encouraged Aristotelian ideas, but later Roman emperors were not as supportive, so the Peripatetic traditions splintered as Aristotelian scholars pursued their work elsewhere. However, many of their ideas about Aristotle's philosophies were handed down through the ages via their commentaries on his work.


The Peripatetics' most significant academic contribution was the creation of a new literary form: the philosophical commentary. In their commentaries,the Peripatetics analyzed, explained and occasionally extended Aristotelian ideas in philosophy and the natural sciences. These works indicate that there was no specific Aristotelian doctrine of philosophical belief to the Peripatetic movement at this time, but nevertheless his followers both reproduced and extended the reach of Aristotle's work. Their efforts ensured the influence of Aristotle as central to Medieval western thought.


Unearthing the Lyceum

In 1996, workers in east Athens were excavating an unpaved parking lot as part of an expansion project for Athens’ Museum of Modern Art. The area turned out to be the site of Aristotle’s Lyceum. The construction plan was revised to allow for excavation of the site, but the process took 14 years and unfortunately did not go unimpeded.


Despite financial and political difficulties, the site was finally opened to the public in late 2010.


Influence of the Lyceum in Modern Times

Beginning in the 1820s was an American “Lyceum Movement.” Inspired by the informal and philosophical qualities of Aristotle’s Lyceum, the movement promoted adult education in the years before the Civil War and hosted some of the era’s most notable thinkers, including abolitionists, suffragettes and literary figures like Emerson, Thoreau and Mark Twain. Lyceums were established in many different cities, from Florida to Ohio, and intellectuals would tour them giving speeches on what was called the “lyceum circuit”.

After the war, the Lyceums were used more often for entertainment than serious educational purposes. Still, the legacy of this movement largely influenced the development of community colleges in the 20th century.


For More Information:

Waggoner, Ben. Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.E.). http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/aristotle.html

Turner, William S.T.D. History of Philosophy, Ch. XII The Peripatetic School. http://www2.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/hop12.htm

The American Lyceum. http://www.americanlyceum.neu.edu/directors_letter/

"Peripatetics." (n.d.): Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. Web. 15 Nov. 2011.
"Lyceum Movement." (n.d.): Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. Web. 15 Nov. 2011.

Aristotle’s Lyceum. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyceum_(Classical)


Web links with information and photos of the excavation site:




Comments (6)

Dionne Blasingame said

at 7:52 am on Nov 17, 2011

This is an interesting entry on Aristotle's Lyceum.In the past, I had associated Aristotle with Lyceum. I did not realize that it had been in place for over a century.

Dionne Blasingame said

at 3:15 pm on Nov 17, 2011

Hi Carrie, we are suppose to give more critique to the Wiki pages. These are some aesthetic changes that i would make: 1) Look over all spacing and make sure that it is even. Note the space between the two paragraphs in "The Lyceum Before Aristotle" and the spacing between the " The Peripatetic Tradition" entry and the "Unearthing the Lyceum." Otherwise, great job!

Carrie Heffner said

at 11:56 pm on Nov 17, 2011

Thanks Dionne - it took a bit of coding but I was finally able to standardized the spacing.

William Lorick said

at 5:52 pm on Nov 17, 2011

Really good work, pretty extensive it seems to me. I would second Dionne's critique, but that is too much piggy backing, so I'll come up with something of my own. The organization could maybe be a little tighter, I got a bit confused at one point. But again, that probably says more about me than it does your post. Great job.
Cliff Lorick

Danielle Weber said

at 6:30 pm on Nov 17, 2011

Something that I came across when reading about Aristotle and his experiences as Plato's school was that when the "founder" dies, the person who takes over really has full reign. I find it sort of odd that major changes would happen, like you show after Strato's tenure. In my modern mind, I would assume that these men would be idolized and their message would be the be all and end all, but it doesn't seem to be that way. We look at these men as the greatest thinkers of civilization, but just as we see now, once people get into power its not about preserving the "message," but their own agendas. Additionally, I think you should definitely link up to the Aristotle page.

Carrie Heffner said

at 11:57 pm on Nov 17, 2011

Link to Aristotle inserted. :)

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