Skip to content

Found in Athens, lost in translation and in lore: Lyceum

January 14, 2012

Found in Athens on this very day, fifteen years ago, was the lost Lyceum.  The old web page of the Greek Embassy in New York still has this announcement:

“Important Archaeological Sites, Aristotles’ Lyceum And Cave Of Euripides, Found in Greece Archaeologists Say / 14 January, 1997”

The opening – tentative – paragraph went like this:

Three days after archaeologists claimed they had finally found the cave where Euripides retreated to write his classic tragedies, construction works for a modern art museum unearthed a large ancient complex yesterday, complete with a central yard and a wrestling arena approximately 600 meters from Parliament – which, according to initial assessments may be the famed Lyceum where Aristotle is believed to have taught.

That and the rest you can still read here.  If you visit the Lyceum site today, it looks like this:

This is downtown Athens, where the dig continues.  The website where you find the photo of this now-public archeological site gives this fairly typical lore and history:

   The Lyceum, named after its 6th century BC sanctuary to Apollo Lyceus (the “wolf-god”, from the word “lykos”, or wolf), had long been a place of philosophical discussion and debate, and had had been the meeting place of the Athenian assembly before the stablishment of a permanent meeting area on Pnyx hill in the 5th century BC.

But the Lyceum is mostly renowned for the philosophical school founded there by Aristotle upon his return to Athens in 335 BC after being the private tutror of the then young prince Alexander of Macedon, the future Alexander the Great, since 343 BC.

After his return to Athens in 335 BC and up to his death in 322 BC, Aristotle rented some buildings in the Lyceum and established a school there where he lectured, wrote most of his philosophical treatises and dialogues, and systematically collected books that comprised the first library in European history. Since Aristotle liked to walk around the grounds as he lectured, surrounded by his students, the philosophical school he founded was called Peripatetic (from ‘peripatos’, which means stroll or walkabout in Greek).

Similarly, the wikipediaists expand on some of these speculations and facts, to talk about the Lyceum before Aristotle (naming philosophers who taught there) and to mention the Lyceum of Aristotle after Aristotle (naming Theophrastus in particular, whose name is the pseudonym of one of the BLT bloggers here).  In the historiography, the unearthed facts in the lore, I only want to recover just one thing.

This thing is something related to Euripides (whose cave coincidentally was also re-discovered 15 years ago this month):   the ancient Greek word, Λύκειον, “Lykeion,” didn’t necessarily have anything to do with “Apollo Lyceus.”  Now, it’s true that Aeschylus, in his play Suppliant Women (line 686), has his dancing Chorus refer to Apollos as ὁ Λύκειος.  But Euripides does something else with the word.  In the play Rhesus, Euripides has his character Dolon declare:

λύκειον ἀμφὶ νῶτ’ ἐνάψομαι δορὰν
      καὶ χάσμα θηρὸς ἀμφ’ ἐμῷ θήσω κάρᾳ,
Translator E. P. Coleridge renders that in English as:
I will fasten a wolf-skin about my back,
and over my head put the brute’s gaping jaws;
Now, if we know our Greek history and lore, then we know that Dolon was not a good guy.  He’s a Trojan spy and a sneak.  His very name is the Greek word for trickster.  And, in Euripedes’ play, what does this sneaking, spying trickster do?  He hides himself in the Λύκειον, “Lykeion,” which has nothing to do with the Greek God Apollo so much.  It has more to do with deceit.  Instead of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, this Deceiver is a Trojan turncoat in wolf’s clothing.  (And the English translators —Coleridge, Murray, Way, Lattimore, and Theodoridis — all agree that Euripides’ λύκειονmeans “wolf” or “wolf skin” and that that is what Dolon is deceiving others by.)So today we still call it Aristotle’s Lyceum.  And now we can visit there because — lost after all of these centuries and decades and years — it’s found right in the middle of Athens!  And yet we might have lost more than was meant by the name of the place.  We might have lost some of the nuance, some of the suggestion, the bit that Euripides’ play might have brought in.  This place might have been the suggestion of a place of Greek wolves, or a place of deception rather than enlightenment, rather than some place only referring to the divine Apollo.  Who knows, right?  And so what, really.  Except we do know it has to do with wolves, and that surely meant something that’s still lost on us today.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 14, 2012 11:51 pm

    The Talmud in Yevamos 87a says that when a teaching by a scholar is repeated after his (or her) death, his lips move in the grave.

    The true Lyceum — it is not in Athens (or rather, not only in Athens) but everywhere where philosophy is done.

  2. January 15, 2012 8:45 am

    Well said Theophrastus (repeating the Talmud)!

    To Aristotle’s disciple named Theophrastus, we all owe very much, for helping his teacher produce many of his works and for later preserving them — right there in that wolfy place, the Lyceum in Athens — so that Aristotle and his place and his method of teaching can live on through them.

    (One thing we may want to note is how the Lyceum was the place of separations for Aristotle. He sets up his school in contrast to Plato’s Academy, and his teachings there were in contrast. Aristotle needed to do this, it seems, to make even clearer how distinct his doctrine was from even Socrates but also from Isocrates and Protagoras and Heraclitus and so on. I believe Aristotle — in the Lyceum, in his Metaphysics, actually coined the term “logic” — as a precise term for his “either/ or” middle-excluding separational epistemology.

    Historian Edward Schiappa notes (in Protagoras and Logos: A Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric, page 52) :

    Aristotle consistently sought to contrast his philosophical system with that of his predecessors even if the contrast required distortion of his predecessors’ doctrines.


    The word Schiappa uses – “distortion” – may sound a little disparaging of Aristotle. But if you track what Aristotle did — contra his predecessors — you can find that they also committed their own distortions of others’ teachings, and so you might argue that Aristotle is correcting in a more positive sense. What nobody disputes is that Aristotle is doing things in a completely new way. And to this day, the West follows it.)

  3. January 15, 2012 2:25 pm

    In fact, it is interesting to me to how in almost every single area in which Aristotle wrote: psychology, political theory, mathematics (Aristotle rejected infinity), astronomy, physics, ethics, literary theory, theology, metaphysics (and categorialism), anatomy, biology, etc. we do not follow Aristotle. Even in philosophy departments and traditional religious schools (that practice medieval philosophy) he is not required reading.

    I read him anyway, and learned from him anyway (and even named my blog “what I learned from Aristotle” and gave my avatar a name based on Aristotle’s disciple (and also a student of Plato.) But, strangely, even though I’ve studied and taught at major universities, I’ve never been required to read him. In fact, I should probably write a post: “why read Aristotle?”

  4. January 15, 2012 6:52 pm

    Theophrastus (my co-blogger),
    I think scholars of “psychology, political theory, mathematics, astronomy, physics, ethics, literary theory, theology, metaphysics (and categorialism), anatomy, biology” and of “philosophy” and of cosmology, poetics, economics (I think he invented the term Oikonomike), animal sex and procreation, mechanics (i.e., akin to mechanical engineering) would have something to say about your first paragraph above. “Following” Aristotle may not be like following Moses or Jesus or Freud or Einstein. Rhetoricians (i.e. scholars of rhetoric) in many cases, nonetheless, do follow Aristotle. Even politicians and communications specialists and speech writers and such still look to Aristotle for his advice against sophistry and his counsel on persuasion.

    You should write the post, “Why read Aristotle,” and I should write that post too. You know I follow Aristotle and have not only to write my dissertation but also for many other reasons before and after that project read Aristotle’s corpus (in translation and in Greek).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: