The essence of a university


There are officially twelve days to go until I start my new academic post. I don’t have an office yet but my books, stationery and papers are packed: eight boxes of books, four boxes of papers, two boxes of stationery and a little coffee machine. Ironically, I may well be returning to an office I occupied back in 2009! I wonder how Aristotle felt when he returned to Athens to found his philosophical school after twelve years abroad. In the interim, he had spent three years conducting intensive scientific fieldwork in the coastal regions around Lesbos. He had also been at the Macedonian court tutoring the young Alexander the Great! The day of his return to Athens is a remarkable one that is retold in the ancient sources, but my favourite dramatic summary is by the historian Felix Grayeff:

Aristotle’s return to Athens in 335 after twelve years’ absence attracted a great deal of attention. He came with ample means; with books and teaching materials of all kinds, maps, models etc., and a staff of assistants, the most important of whom was Theophrastus. All this is reliably recorded; in addition it is related that personally too he was splendidly equipped, luxuriously attired, with gold rings on every finger; that he dined like a prince and was waited on by an unusually large number of slaves. Such accounts may of course be based on later gossip, of the kind directed against other school heads and philosophers. What is certain is that he did not return to Athens as a travelling Sophist, unsure of the future, but as a man appointed to his task by Alexander, then the ruler of Greece, soon to be master of the world. Consequently, everything he needed in Athens was readily placed at his disposal.(1)

I will be located in the AD Hope Building on the ANU campus. At present, it is surrounded by the dust and noise of construction as workmen desperately try to complete temporary cafes and shops in preparation for major demolition works in Union Court. The heart of the University is due for a complete overhaul in the next few years. Every time we lose more slices of beloved green space, tree-lined walks, gardens and fountains on the lovely ANU campus, my heart mourns but they have promised to replant the trees and landscape around the new buildings and the new Union Court will have a pool! The environs of Aristotle’s school were the essence of its identity:

Since Aristotle as a non-Athenian – a metic – was not permitted to own land, the Athenian government under Lycurgus acquired for him the site essential for his undertaking. He was assigned the grove consecrated to Apollo Lyceus, which probably lay to the north-east of the centre of Athens, between the mountain Lycabettus and the river Ilissus; a spot which Socrates himself had liked. In it stood shrines to Apollo and the Muses, and perhaps other smaller buildings or huts which could be used immediately; very soon, we hear, Lycurgus spent great sums on embellishing the shrines or temples and on having further buildings erected in the grove. A covered colonnade led to the temple of Apollo, or perhaps connected the temple with the shrine of the Muses; whether it had existed before or was only now built, is not known. This colonnade or walk (peripatos) gave the school its name; it seems it was here, at least at the beginning, that the pupils assembled and the teachers gave their lectures. Here they wandered to and fro; for this reason it was later said that Aristotle himself lectured and taught while walking up and down. (2)

There will be plenty of walking up and down while I teach Ancient Greek, but no covered colonnade! The main classroom has maps, a projector and an automated lecture recording system for those occasions when students can’t attend class! Just nearby is the stunning Classics Museum, as well as the Classics Centre and Library where students study and socialise. Back to Aristotle’s Peripatos/Lyceum:

Never before had there been an institution with studies on a comparable scale. Thus Cicero wrote (De Fin. V, III): ‘From the Peripatetics’ writings and teachings can be learned all liberal arts, history and style; indeed, so great is the variety of subjects treated by them that no one ventures to approach any significant matter without prior knowledge of their works.’ Rightly, therefore, one sees the Lyceum as the first university in the full, modern sense of the word, while this cannot be said of the two great schools which preceded the Peripatos, the Pythagorean and Platonic schools. Similarly, the library which Aristotle installed at the school was the first comprehensive collection of books in history, and later served as a model for the famous State libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum. (3)

Classics : the beating heart and essence of the modern University! It is interesting too that even among the early universities, there was a great deal of competition and comparison. The Stoic Zeno reluctantly admitted that the Peripatetics had more students but he added that his students were more harmonious! Meanwhile, the ANU has just been ranked Australia’s No. 1 and No. 22 in the world (QS World University Rankings 2016-17). But surely competition with others is less important than fostering the true spirit of common purpose, learning and enquiry:

The garden and the walk and all the dwellings next to the garden I give to those of my friends listed below who wish at any time to study and to philosophize together in them – since it is not possible for all men to be always in residence – on the condition that they neither alienate them nor anyone appropriate them for his own private use, but rather that they possess them in common, as if a shrine, and that in matters of mutual concern they use them in a familiar and friendly manner, just as is fitting and just. (4)

I am looking forward to joining my friends and colleagues in the Centre for Classical Studies, to philosophizing and working together in the spirit of Classics.

(1) F. Grayeff, Aristotle and His School, Duckworth, London, 1974, pp. 37-38.

(2) Grayeff, p.38.

(3) Grayeff, p. 39.

(4) Portion of Theophrastus’ will as recorded by Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of the Philosophers 5.52-53 in W. Fortenbaugh et. al., Theophrastus of Eresus: Sources for His Life, Writings, Thought and Influence, Brill, Leiden, 1992, fr. 1.

(5) Header image: an example of a covered colonnade, from the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos in Athens.

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