Suppression of the School of Athens

The extraordinary flowering of thought in Athens in the fifth century before Christ has demanded an explanation but has defied submitting to one. People have suggested all sorts of reasons from the development of the Greek economy to the availability of exceptionally nutritious shellfish.

But whatever it was that got it going, it certainly had staying power. The reputation of philosophers like Socrates and Plato resounded around the ancient world and especially the Greek speaking world – which with the conquests of Alexander was considerably bigger than it had been. Students flocked to learn the arts of rhetoric in particular, which was the key to getting on, in the same groves that had been walked by the ancient masters.

The demand for education was rapidly turned into a money making business. It may well be the case that the School of Athens was indeed founded by Plato himself. That was certainly how the sales pitch went. But it is rarely the case that the people who produce the content also set up the revenue generation, so I am inclined to attribute the foundation of the school to unknown entrepreneurs rather than the great masters themselves, but who knows.

But whoever it was they were certainly on to something. The school went on to become both a commercial and an intellectual success. When the Romans rose to power they became the masters of Greek politics but the customers of the School Of Athens.

Leading figures in the Roman republic like Cicero were highly interested in Greek philosophy. The emperors were often significant patrons – with the most munificance coming from the most obvious pair, Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian.

The school certainly had its ups and downs. The Goths sacked it along with the rest of the city during the crisis of the third century. But it provided a service that was valued and it continued to attract private custom and public patronage.

It was the rise of Christianity that posed the greatest threat. Greek philosophy was so deeply embedded in paganism that it was hard to adapt to the new intellectual environment. But equally the school and pagan philosophy was simply too big and culturally significant to be quickly or easily dismissed by the new kid on the block. Ancient philosophy was rather more deeply embedded than its modern counterpart. People went to Athens to do a lot more than just learn stuff. Networking was also important. And they continued their study afterwards via groups in other cities. This was something that the Epicureans were particularly strong at. The whole thing was something like a combination of a trade association, a self help group and a social network.

This brought them very much into conflict with the church.

The church was concerned not only with their souls, which had been brought perilously close to false idols, but the pagan philosophers were very much in competition for a lot of the things that Christians wanted to be in control of.

But there wasn’t any immediate direct challenge. Proclus, a deeply pious pagan and a leading light of late Neoplatonism was able to operate as a highly productive teacher deep into the Christian era. He was coming out with works like the click baity 18 Things Wrong With The Christian Account of Creation without any hindrance.

But some forty years later Justinian was closing down the school. His decree brought an end to what was called the Golden Chain – the unbroken succession of teachers and pupils who in turn became teachers stretching back to Plato himself.

The last seven teachers rejected by Justinian travelled to Persia which they for some reason believed to be run on Platonic principles. Sadly they were to be disappointed finding the Persians to be even less virtuous than the Greeks and deciding to return. The Persian king did however turn out to at least be philosophical about this very public insult to his kingdom. He wrote in a clause to his treaty with the Byzantines to ensure their good treatment when they got back home. But they took no students so were the last in the line of succession. That at any rate is how the story appears in the book.

Quite why Gibbon gave this last story any credibility is hard to fathom. It hardly has any ring of the truth about it at all. How many kings go to any trouble to protect people who have publicly snubbed them? And are we really to believe that Justinian would take kindly to being patronised by his neighbour?

The facts of the actual suppression of the School are well enough established. The decree itself has survived. So we know it happened, and when it happened. What we don’t know is the exact motivation Justinian had for moving against the School Of Athens at this exact point. Gibbon portrays it as an example of his megalomaniac character and also insinuates that wass part of the long term battle between rationality and superstition. This puts it nicely into his enlightenment narrative. This framing quite appeals to modern atheists as well. Here we see the Church using its power to prevent intellectual scepticism and enquiry via its influence on the top politician.

I think there is something in all this. Priests down the ages have been happy to use the coercive power of the state to get rid of rivals. But I don’t think that was the main thing that was on Justinian’s mind at the time. I think it’s much more likely that an emperor with something of a legitimacy issue would be inclined to see the pagan philosophers and their network across the Empire as a something of a challenge to his authority rather than an offence against religious principles. He might well have disliked their air of unworldly intellectual disdain. Practical people usually do. But I think he was probably being more political than ideological. And if it pleased the ecclesiastical crowd well that was all to the good.

Support for this interpretation comes from the fact that he also suppressed the post of Consul at the same time. This was a role with a history at least as long as that of the philosophical school. And again it was the source of potential legitimacy to any potential opponent of Justinian. It was an affront to any lover of tradition to lose this link with Rome’s great past. It also raised a practical problem because the Consuls’ names had been used as de facto year numbers in the absence of any agreed system. It wasn’t until the eighth century that the birth of Christ was adopted as the cornerstone of keeping track of the passage of the years.

We cannot know how well founded justinian’s insecurities were. Byzantine politics were unpredictable at the best of times. Justinian’s actions may well have had no foundation beyond paranoia. But in the world he lived in paranoia probably gave him survival value.

But whatever the reason the result was that an ancient intellectual tradition had ended. With it went some of the last vestiges of paganism. We don’t tend to think of the dark ages as applying to Byzantium. But the times were certainly not as bright as they had been.

Next time I will get started on the big story of Justinian’s reign, his wars in Africa, Persia, Italy well quite a lot of places. That might take a while, and in the meantime thanks for listening.

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