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THE systematic teaching of philosophy at Athens had its origin in the dialectic of Socrates, whose mental bias impelled him to a persistent search after the fundamental truths which underlie the sociological organization of mankind. His constant effort was to discover what principles should be instilled into young men in order to render them worthy members of the community; and in pursuit of this object he made a practice of perambulating the city intent on applying his method of question and argument to all persons accredited with any kind of knowledge. Thus he laboured unremittingly in earnest effort to elicit sound opinions or to convict of fallacy. Every Greek town was adorned with a gymnasium, and large cities, such as Athens, possessed several institutions of the kind. Established for the physical training and athletic development of youth, a gymnasium consisted of covered halls, of porticos provided with sculptured stone seats, and of a small park or exercise ground shaded with plane and olive trees. Ultimately the gymnasiums assumed something of the form of the colleges of a modern university, and were resorted to habitually by teachers of young men, sophists, rhetoricians, and philosophers, in order to procure pupils, and to lecture to classes already formed. In such localities Socrates found most scope for his activities, but, after his death by a judicial sentence in 399 B.C. as an innovator and theological sceptic, his system of inciting the youth to seek after genuine knowledge was not publicly professed for a number of years. In the course of a decade, however, the Athenians repented of their severity, and Plato, who had been his principal disciple, was allowed to resume Socratic instruction in a suburban gymnasium called the Academy, situated on the north-west of the city. This institute proved to be the first permanent school of philosophy founded at Athens, and was always known as the Academy, although Plato soon removed his classes to a private garden which he acquired in the vicinity, where he built a Museum, or Hall of the Muses, for their accommodation. Plato had numerous successors, all of whom continued to teach in the same garden, which was inherited regularly for many centuries by the chief of the Academy.

The most remarkable pupil of the original Academy was Aristotle, a native of Stageira, but he, after protracted studies, finding that his thirst for knowledge remained unsatisfied by the dreamy and inconclusive philosophy of his master, determined to follow a more practical path of inquiry according to the bent of his own genius. Observation and correlation of facts, sociological, zoological, and physical, assumed the greatest importance in his eyes, and he thus became the founder of natural science in the widest sense. The Stagirite essayed to teach in various places, and was successful in impressing his views on many of those with whom he came in contact. His growing reputation attracted the attention of Philip of Macedon, who soon claimed his services for the tuition of his son Alexander, and embellished his native town as an inducement for him to open a school there. In a few years, however, the young prince passed from his class-rooms to the throne, and Aristotle migrated to Athens, where he fixed on the Lyceum, a gymnasium in the eastern suburbs, for the scene of his prelections (c., 355 B.C.). More than half a century had elapsed since the foundation of the Academy, and Plato had now been dead for many years. In the shady walks of the Lyceum Aristotle continued to give instruction for a dozen years, and it is understood that he usually kept on foot, moving about while discoursing with his disciples, whence the sect received the name of Peripatetics, that is “promenaders”.

The third philosophical school at Athens was established, about twenty-five years later than that of the Peripatetics, by Zeno of Citium, in Cyprus, who is reputed to have been inspired by reading treatises emanating from the followers of Socrates. Zeno convened his disciples in the heart of the city, in a colonnade called the Painted Stoa or Porch, whence the name of Stoics became attached popularly to his philosophical coterie. As the founder of Stoicism was an immigrant from the near East his mind was overcast by the Oriental sense of resignation under oppression; and an ethical doctrine of doing and suffering in a world of adversity was the gift of the Porch to the humanity of the period. The circumstances of the times created and gradually increased the need for such a philosophy in the West. Grecian liberty passed under the despotic sway of Macedon, and later, under that of Rome, whilst the Latin Republic at length succumbed to the ambition of its military chiefs, and an arbitrary emperor usurped the place of a spirited democracy. Thus the tenets of all those ardent souls who shunned the servility of a court, and chafed under political restraints which they were powerless to throw off were derived from Zeno.

The foregoing schools were essentially of a theological cast, and inculcated more or less dogmatically an attitude of veneration and piety in respect of a divine providence, but the leading feature of a fourth, founded about the same time as that of the Stoics, was a frank repudiation of any form of religious ritual. Epicurus was an Athenian by blood, but his youth had been passed abroad; and he claimed to have originated, without the aid of a master, the rule of life which he taught to his disciples. At the age of thirty-five he settled in his ancestral city (306 B.C.) within which he purchased a garden for the reception of those whose inclinations were in harmony with his peculiar doctrines. The vanity of human effort, and the superiority of a simple life of ease and contentment, formed the burden of the Epicurean didactic. In seclusion the tranquil mind might apply itself to intellectual pleasures, as oblivious of the gods as they themselves evidently were of the restless race of mortals. Death was merely the term of life, and no anxiety as to a hereafter should ruffle the placidity of a man of philosophical temperament. As “Know thyself” was the germinal thought of the Socratic school, so “Live unknown” was that of the Epicurean. An asceticism of this hue, which advocated the suppression of all energy, whilst allowing a mild, but aesthetic indulgence of the passions, was extremely acceptable to the average man of the period, for whose sensuous nature it afforded the consolations of Stoicism without the strain inseparable from that vigorous doctrine.

The philosophers of these four sects maintained their position at Athens as dictators of human thought for more than five centuries before their vitality began to be chilled into immobility by the new life which was arising in the widely Christianized Empire.. When Marcus Aurelius halted at Athens in 176, on the return from his Asiatic expedition, he found the schools in a flourishing condition, and gave them a firmer constitution by bestowing a fixed salary of 10,000 drachmas, payable by the Imperial treasury, on the heads of each of the four. It is improbable that this subsidy was assured to them for long after the death of that emperor (180), or that they could have claimed it successfully in the disorganization of the Empire which followed the murder of his son Commodus (192). But Pagan philosophy was still independent of state aid, and the first step in the dissolution of these schools had its origin within when their individuality was submerged by the tide of eclecticism, upon which Neoplatonism rose to pre-eminence about the middle of the third century. Henceforward Athens had a serious rival in Alexandria, and somewhat later in Pergamus, whence the mysticism and theurgy of Plotinus and Iamblichus enthralled the senses of almost all non-Christians by the fervent hopes to which they gave birth. The teaching of the Academy, of the Peripatetics, and of the Porch, were the soul of Neoplatonism, but the Epicureans were abhorred by the new school as being most hostile to their vivid theistic aspirations, and at this juncture that sect must have rapidly become extinct. Subsequently to 425, the year in which the Auditorium at Constantinople was founded by Theodosius II, the Athenian rhetoricians, so famous in the youth of Julian and Gregory Nazianzen, appear to have suffered greatly in prestige, but long before that date the teaching of philosophy was in the way of becoming a lost art at Athens. The disappointment of Synesius at finding no trace of the schools, when he landed in Attica about 410, has already been adverted to. If, however, he had carried his investigations a little deeper he would have discovered that in at least one quarter the traffic in the honey of Mount Hymettus was not the sole care of the dwellers on the Cephisus. The garden of Plato, even at that date, was still possessed by the philosophic succession, and the actual occupant, the venerable Plutarch, had achieved a reputation which deserved the devotion of several eminent disciples. Yet the school was languishing, and even after the murder of Hypatia, the holder of the professorial seat, Syrianus, was apprehensive lest he should find no worthy successor. But a movement of recuperation was at hand, and surviving Neoplatonists soon began to turn their eyes towards Athens as the appointed retreat of the sect. A new votary had arisen, gifted with the genius to revive their hopes, and to infuse a fresh enthusiasm into their almost moribund philosophy.

One evening in the summer of 431 a youth of nineteen, having made the voyage from Alexandria, disembarked at the Piraeus and was received on the shore by Nicolaus, a countryman of his own, and some other friends who had been apprised of his coming. Proclus belonged to a Lycian family, but was born at Constantinople, and he had already won a reputation as a student of extraordinary powers and promise. This youth was regarded as the last hope of the expiring school, and when the custodian at the entrance of the city exclaimed, “I should already have shut the gates, had I not seen you approaching”, the utterance was hailed as an omen symbolical of its resuscitation. Before entering Athens, Proclus complained of thirst and fatigue, and by a fortuitous circumstance rested in a seat and had a drink from a fountain, which were known as those of Socrates. Such auspicious occurrences redoubled the expectations which were kindled by his advent, and even the aged Plutarch issued from his retirement to superintend the initiation of the new pupil.

The general doctrines of Neoplatonism, as a practical religion, had been fixed by Plotinus and his immediate successors, and nothing remained for later devotees but to elaborate the details of the system by analysis and disquisition. The execution of this task fell to the Athenian school, and for more than a century its members busied themselves in spinning a fine web of scholasticism around the fundamental principles of their faith. Its roots were traced backwards to Plato and Aristotle, and the complexity of every fibre was demonstrated by the aid of certain mystic hymns, supposed to be of ancient date, termed Orphic and Chaldaean oracles. Proclus, as had been anticipated, succeeded to Syrianus, and from his labours in this field resulted a second summer of Neoplatonism, which bloomed for fully fifty years.

The theology of Plotinus had been comparatively simple, but it became more complicated in the hands of Iamblichus, whilst in those of Proclus it assumed a comprehensiveness and extension which enabled it to find a place for all metaphysics and mythology within reach. The great conception of the Lycian philosopher was his ternary system, by which he succeeded in deducing the whole invisible world, as well as the objective universe, in a series of triads from the supreme One to the remote apogee of matter itself. All these speculations he embodied in a number of vast treatises, several of which are extant and have been rendered into modern languages by some thinkers of the last century, who found his cosmology more illuminating than that of the creed of Christendom.

The life of Proclus was written by his disciple and successor Marinus; and from this document we gain some insight into the mode of life of a pious Neoplatonist. The Athens of that day seems to have retained at least the external aspect of the classical capital as it has been described by the early topographers. The principal monuments of polytheism were still erect, and Proclus had the satisfaction of occupying a house between the temples of Aesculapius and Dionysus, from which he could behold the Parthenon. The sect was strongly inclined to vegetarianism and abstinence from animal food, though not strictly enforced, was advised in deference to the possibility of metempsychosis. They worshipped the heavenly bodies and practised daily a set form of adoration to salute the sun and moon at their rising, meridian, and setting. Every month a ceremonial bath in the sea was considered to be essential as a tribute of respect to the divinity of that element, Poseidon. Although celibacy was not enjoined, it was approved by the example of the great lights of the sect, who never married, but they were not on that account precluded from illicit sexual indulgence to a moderate extent. The life of Proclus was an exceptionally busy one owing to the interminable ritual he imposed on himself; for, in fact, he declared himself to be the “priest of all religions”, and he laboured incessantly to act up to that character. As a teacher he was indefatigable, lecturing five times daily, apparently to crowded audiences in a theatre, whilst his evenings were devoted to philosophic colloquies. He was, of course, reputed to be highly favoured by the gods, and his biography is almost as full of marvels as a Christian Gospel. Celestial visions were frequently vouchsafed to him, especially on the occasion of the sacrilegious removal of the statue of Athena from the Parthenon by order of the state officials. The goddess incontinently appeared to Proclus and announced that henceforth she would dwell with him in his own house.' He was an adept at incantations, by means of which he procured a rainfall in time of drought and arrested the progress of an earthquake which threatened destruction to Athens. The sick were often restored by his prayers, which, however, he seems to have relied on merely for the purpose of invoking success on the orthodox medical treatment Proclus attempted to wield some power in local politics, and at one time incurred the enmity of the predominant party, doubtless the Christians, so that he deemed it wise to retire into exile for a twelvemonth. He died at the age of seventy-three (485) and was buried near Mount Lycabettus in a bilocular sepulchre with his master Syrianus, for whom he always entertained the greatest veneration.

After the death of Proclus, the Neoplatonic school of Athens was probably somewhat eclipsed, but considerable activity was still maintained, and votaries continued to be drawn to it from Alexandria and other parts of the Empire. Although it was recognized by the devotees that the evolution of metaphysical doctrine had reached its final stage, the endless task of commenting on Plato and Aristotle still kept their pens busy, and they continued to exercise their ingenuity in reconciling the views of those masters. In 529, however, their labours were abruptly brought to a conclusion by a decree of Justinian that there should be no more teaching of Pagan philosophy at Athens. The piety or enthusiasm of Proclus had led him to declare that he would welcome the destruction of all writings except the Timaeus of Plato and the oracular hymns, a confession which reminds us that devotion to some special study is apt to blind our perceptions to the value of all extraneous knowledge. An Imperial Proclus would doubtless have emulated the example of the Emperor Julian and aimed at the suppression of Christianity. Justinian was a devout student of the Nicene theology, and arrogated to himself the chief place among the doctors of the Church* He was naturally proclive to fanaticism, and it could scarcely be expected that his mind would be less warped by his restricted studies than that of the Pagan philosopher, nor that he would display a tolerant disposition on finding himself in the seat of power. It became his settled conviction that profane learning was an idle pursuit, and he decided to enrich his treasury by forfeiting the grants which still continued to be paid to physicians and professors of liberal education. As the result of this policy a general illiteracy began to pervade the Empire, but ultimately Justinian was induced to restore the stipends.

When the philosophers of the day found themselves reduced to silence by an Imperial prohibition they took counsel together and resolved to desert an empire in which their only prospect for the future was isolation. As they glanced around them in search of a new sphere of activity, the West, almost relapsed into barbarism, presented no aspect hospitable to philosophy. From the East, however, a ray of illumination had recently penetrated to their classic retreat and warmed them with the hope of being received as welcome immigrants at the court of the Persian monarch. In that kingdom, it was rumoured, the posture of affairs was one of such ideal felicity that the dream of Plato, as to the occupant of a throne being at once a prince and a philosopher, was fully realized. Everything was under the sway of the just and honourable; thieves and bandits and perpetrators of iniquity were no longer born there; so that the most precious property might be left unguarded in the desert with the certainty of its remaining intact until the owner should reclaim it. The youthful Chosroes, whose accession had lately been announced, was the author of this beatific revolution. An enthusiastic student of Greek literature, he had applied himself to the study of Aristotle with a zeal equal to that of Demosthenes when he made repeated transcriptions of Thucydides. The works of Plato were not less familiar to him; nor could the subtleties even of the Timaeus and the Parmenides escape the acuteness of his intelligence. This alluring picture determined the most eminent representatives of the proscribed school to seek their fortune in Persia. They formed a band of seven, the chief among them being Damascius and Simplicius, who are known to modern philosophers through some treatises of value which have survived to the present day. But no sooner had they crossed the Euphrates than their disillusionment commenced. Everywhere criminals were numerous and crime was very imperfectly repressed. Those in authority showed themselves to be pompous and arrogant, and oppressed their inferiors without measure; whilst, although polygamy was permitted, the sexual instinct could scarcely be gratified without the added zest of adultery. Already they felt repentant of their migration, but they pushed onwards until they arrived at the court. There, indeed, they were received with marked distinction by the the Shahinshah, who condescended to converse with them affably, and encouraged their attendance on his person. In philosophy, however, they found that he had tasted merely the rudiments, and had never approached the sublimities of their fine conceptions. The political views common to barbarian monarchs had been in no way modified by his superficial knowledge, nor did it avail to induce even a semblance of agreement during the discussions they held with him. Chosroes was proud of their apparent homage, and would have retained them with him at any cost, but the ethics of the Orient were insufferable in their eyes, and the party gave the most convincing proof of their sincerity by declining his generous proposals and electing to return to the precarious life of their native land. At the moment of their departure the peace negotiations with Justinian were pending, and Chosroes showed no little magnanimity by insisting that the treaty should contain a clause granting them the right to occupy their former abodes and to indulge their metaphysical speculations secure from official molestation.

No long time elapsed before the Shahinshah was consoled for the loss of Damascius and his companions by another Byzantine immigrant, who was more fitted to play the part of court philosopher than the earnest Neoplatonists. A certain Uranius, nominally a physician, having skimmed the works of the philosophers, pretended to a profound acquaintance with them, and made a somewhat unenviable reputation at Constantinople by his garrulous and argumentative disposition, as well as by his usually dissolute mode of life. Having managed to attach himself to Areobindus, the ambassador elect to Persia, he arrived there in his suite, and soon captivated the ear of Chosroes by the glibness of his rhetoric and his pliability in adopting fulsomely the sentiments of the despot. He discoursed with the Magi, and flattered them by admitting that their ontology was in perfect accord with that of the deepest thinkers of the West. Chosroes avowed that he had never met with his equal, and made him the recipient of the unprecedented distinction of sharing his viands with him at the royal banquets. After Uranius returned to Constantinople the monarch opened a familiar correspondence with him, and retained him as his intellectual adviser. The glorification of this charlatan at the Persian court guides us to estimate accurately the extent of the philosophical acquirements of the Shahinshah, and indicates how far his amateur studies contributed to his mental elevation.

The extinction of the Neoplatonists as a religious fraternity followed the compulsory closure of the Athenian school The surviving members continued to work in seclusion at their favourite theses, and even produced some commentaries to which students still resort in order to elucidate the history of philosophy. But, although Neoplatonism was objectively defunct, the soul of the movement was irrepressibly vital, and many of the Catholic ecclesiastics had long been in secret sympathy with the mystical tenets of the sect. Some of the Christian fathers had been nurtured in the same intellectual atmosphere as the first Neoplatonists, and had sat in the same class-room with Plotinus as hearers of Ammonius at Alexandria. A stealthy admirer of Proclus had adapted his ternary system with great ingenuity to the Christian hierarchy, and produced his treatise as the composition of Dionysius the Areopagite, who was known to have been a companion of St. Paul. The Pagan triads of the Athenian scholarch reappeared under Biblical names, and a long array of Cherubim, Thrones, Principalities, Virtues, Powers, Archangels, and Angels, were ranged in orderly sequence as a heavenly host proper to intervene between the homoousian Trinity and the earth. The moment Neoplatonism became obsolete as a visible creed, the Greek fathers did not recoil from giving a welcome acceptance to this gorgeous fabric, which in due time travelled westwards to be promulgated among the Gallic churches by the famous Scotus Erigena. Throughout the Middle Ages the spirit of the Alexandrian School was rife among the German mystics, and later even among English Platonists. Nor scarcely was it repressed in the nineteenth century until the growth of physical science and evolutionary philosophy gave a death-blow to the belief that knowledge could be drawn from our inner consciousness by processes of mental incubation in the closet.