The odd couple: students and academics


It is the eve of a new university semester. Students are busy sourcing texts like honeybees; academics are hurriedly finishing their research and attending last-minute conferences before teaching commences; and administrators are quietly bracing themselves for a veritable tsunami of enquiries and course changes. There is just a moment to pause, reflect and draw together some light hearted ancient (and modern) reflections on teaching, students, and academia. What was it like for students and teachers at the ancient philosophical schools? The following sources refer to Aristotle’s philosophical school in Athens (known as the Peripatos or Lyceum) which was broadly analogous to the modern university.

First, a note about punctuality and dress code (note to self: don’t be late for class and wear jewellery!). Theophrastus, head of the Lyceum for thirty-six years, seems to have had a great sense of style:

“Theophrastus used to arrive punctually at the Peripatos, looking splendid and all decked out. Then, sitting down, he (used to) present his lecture, refraining from no movement nor any gesture.” (1)

Next, a note about the standard that was expected of students and the teaching methodology (note to self: we are gardeners, not teachers, planting seeds in the minds of our students and expecting abundant crops):

“Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle and Theophrastus, who did indeed preside over philosophy, appeared inclined to anger toward those who esteemed their studies lightly. They did not pour forth a fountain of words ungrudgingly, but set certain principles and seeds before their students and then indeed demanded back much more than what they put down.”(2)

Thirdly, a complaint about the difficulties of finding an audience who will a) listen and b) not ask too many questions (note to self: not to advertise my upcoming seminar too widely):

“Not only is it not easy to get a public assembly, but not even a small company of listeners such as one would like. Public readings lead to revisions. The present generation no longer tolerates the deferring of everything and lack of care.” (3)

Fourthly, a reference to students burning their lecture notes (after the exam, of course!):

“some people say that as [Metrocles] was burning up the lectures of Theophrastus, he chanted: ‘Hephaestus, come hither. Thetis now has need of you.’ “ (4)

NB: I never burnt any of my lecture notes from Classics (quite the opposite actually, I have hoarded them for seventeen years). I did however burn some of my notes from Law school (particularly Constitutional Law) and I am happy to report that they burned very nicely.

Last of all, but certainly not least, I just can’t help including  a very amusing character sketch of a philologist, written at the end of the nineteenth century by German classicists, mimicking the style of Theophrastus’ character sketches. Beware: don’t read this sketch while drinking hot coffee. It’s just too funny.

“The Philologist”

(1) Philology is to be sure an excess of desire for ancient writings and things. The philologist is one,
(2) who will overvalue and revere books and papyri and inscriptions and other such items simply because they are old. And he will be delighted when they are found not intact but rather corrupted by many mistakes and gaps, saying that the restoration and correction of such items is his most pleasant and worthwhile activity.
(3) And when ancient writings are discovered somewhere, if they are written on paper he will be pleased, if on parchment he will dance, if on papyrus he will shout aloud with joy, if on stone he will chant a song of victory, if on bronze he will make obeisance.
(4) And he will admire nothing produced by contemporary craftsmen, repeating always the following verse of Homer: “Such are men now,” but whenever he sees either one of those statues without a nose and mutilated and lacking extremities or a fragment of a worn out old pot picturing the rump of a young boy, he will leap up with pleasure and shout out: “This here, how excellent it is.”
(5) And he will spend more time in the libraries than at home and will have the bedroom, the den, the playroom full of books.
(6) And he will forbid the maid to clean and straighten up his desk.
(7) And meeting one of his many children while walking on the streets, he will not recognize him but will ask kindly: “Child, why do you cry? Your house and your parents where are they?”
(8) He is apt also to compel his children at five to learn epics by heart and his wife the Greek alphabet.
(9) And he will know the ancient laws of Greece and Rome more accurately than those of his own country.
(10) And he will put on old fashioned cloaks and will wear trousers shorter than his legs.
(11) And he will always teach something and will be angry at the individual who is not convinced.
(12) And he will fight continuously and terribly with his colleagues, insisting in a loud voice against the shouts of others that only what he himself said is correct.
(13) And he will use such expressions as: “I don’t believe” and “That’s illogical” and “The day before yesterday I clearly demonstrated the opposite” and “Haven’t you yet read what I recently wrote on these matters?”
(14) And he will go abroad especially to Athens and Rome and will praise the sky there and earth and sea and the men there and women and young girls. And constantly carrying pictures of all these things he will regard them with admiration. And purchasing spurious or base coins and sherds and pebbles and little oil-flasks and trash, he will spend his travel money without noticing it. And returning home he will promise his wife to take her with him in the future. (5)

Does this remind me, or you, of anyone? Paragraphs 5, 6 and 13 are just too close to the truth in my case! Oh dear. As George Eliot wrote in her Impressions of Theophrastus Such, “It is my habit to give an account to myself of the characters I meet with: can I give any true account of my own?”.

(1) Athenaeus, The Sophists at Dinner 1.38 21A-B.

(2) Michael Psellus, Oration 24.14-18.

(3) Theophrastus, letter to Phanias, recorded in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 5. 37.

(4) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 6.95.

(5) W. W. Fortenbaugh, ‘The Thirty-First Character Sketch’, Classical World Vol. 71, No. 5 (Feb., 1978) pp. 333-339.

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Header image: The School of Athens by Raphael, (1509-1511), Fresco, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. Source:

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