In a certain sacred grove outside of Athens, Plato founded a school. Because of the legendary original owner of the land, the hero Academus, the school was called “the Academy.” We don’t really know what the day-to-day program was like in this school despite the many suggestive, colorful, and sometimes fantastic passages that discuss education in the Platonic dialogues.

We do know that Aristotle was a student in this academy for a long period during Plato’s own lifetime. An amusing story, probably apocryphal relates that Plato referred to Aristotle by the nickname “Nous,” as though a teacher today called one of his students “the Brain.”

After the death of Plato in 348, the headship of the Academy passed to his nephew, Speussipus, the son of his sister Patone. Perhaps Aristotle felt some bitterness that she should not be chosen as the successor, motivating him to accept Philip of Macedon’s invitation to leave Athens in 347 shortly after Plato’s death. For all we know, however, he may have left the Academy itself for other reasons before the death of Plato. Perhaps his Macedonian connections and lack of landed Athenian legal status posed other obstacles to his inheritance of the Academy.

In any case, Speussipus was the first “scholarch” (σχολάρχης) or “headmaster” of the Academy in a long line that lasted for several hundred years. The first four scholarchs are grouped together under the later label of “Old” Academy because there was eventually a break with a skeptical “New” Academy. After Speussipus, we have a period under Xenocrates, a long tenure under Polemon, and a very short period under Crates.

The philosophy of the Academy in this period is rather hard to make out because we do not have any complete works from these men. Instead, we are left with fragmentary quotations and doxagraphic reports by later authors. Speussipus and Xenocrates seem to be focused upon profound metaphysical speculations about ultimate first principles, while Polemon seems to have emphasized the more down-to-earth ethical concerns of Socrates. About Crates we know very little at all.

The next scholarch, Arcesilaus broke with the dogmatic systematizing of his predecessors and sought to return the Academy to what he saw as its genuine Socratic roots. According to this perspective, the dogmatic metaphysicians had forgotten the Socrates who claimed to know nothing and found wisdom precisely in knowing that he didn’t know. Because of this sharp turn, “Academic” in the following centuries became synonymous with “skeptical,” i.e. systematically drawing into question human claims to knowledge.

Those who succeeded Arcesilaus are known as the “Middle” Academy, eventually followed by a fresh skeptical movement championed by Carneades, known as the “New” Academy proper. This period lasts until the final scholarch, Philo of Larissa (not to be confused with the famous Jewish Platonist, Philo of Alexandria).

In 88 B.C., Philo fled Athens taking refuge from the First Mithridatic War. Two years later, Sulla laid siege to Athens, and in the ensuing destruction, the Academy itself was damaged so severely that its doors were never reopened when philosophers began trickling back to Athens a few years later.

There continued to be a Platonic “school” in the loose sense, however, throughout antiquity. Philo’s student, Antiochus of Ascalon, rejected the skeptical direction that the Academy had taken for many years and returned things to a more positive teaching along Stoic lines. Antiochus was the teacher of Cicero, through whom we know much of this history, but sadly Cicero was never wholly brought into the Platonic fold.

The loose tradition of Platonism continued on for centuries and still continues to this day (I count myself as continuing that tradition forward in my own small way). The concrete institution of the Academy, however, never recovered from the Mithridatic Wars.

Old Academy Speussipus 347–339
Xenocrates 339–314
Polemon 314–269
Crates 269–266
Middle Academy Arcesilaus 266–241
Lacydes of Cyrene 241–215
Evander and Telecles ~205–165
Hegesinus ~160
New Academy Carneades 155–129
Clitomachus 129–110
Philo of Larissa 110–88