The World’s First University?

The World’s First University?

November 6, 2019 7 By Stanley Isaacs


One of the most striking things about ancient Athenian life, is the availability of lectures and talks on Philosophy even to quite ordinary people. One particular site in Athens, Aristotle’s Lyceum gives us the opportunity to visit an ancient university where not only did specialist students study but we know that ordinary Athenians were invited along in the afternoons to listen to the great man Aristotle, the incomparable philosopher of the mid to late 4th century. Aristotle’s Lyceum is exactly as it’s described in ancient sources as a beautiful garden and it has got a colonnade with pillars that allowed the philosophers to walk as they talked, even in the rain. And the ancient Greek for that sort
of colonnade is the Peripatos. Which is why it’s called Aristotle’s School of Thought Peripatetic Philosophy. You can go there today. It’s an absolutely open free of charge site and the birdsong, despite all the traffic in the centre of Athens, is deafening. And I love to think of Aristotle walking there with his students in the morning and with the Athenian public in the afternoon. Now why did Aristotle set up this Lyceum? He’d actually been a student at Plato’s Academy and Aristotle loved it there, he spent 20 whole years there he was promoted from undergraduate to graduate student and then to colleague. But a terrible crisis happened when he was 37. Plato died, Aristotle was heartbroken but absolutely could have expected quite justifiably to be appointed his successor. He was by far the most brilliant of Plato’s students and the envious, mediocre other members of the Academy did not appoint him. He had to leave Athens for about twelve years. The minute he could get back to Athens he did and he opened his own university, he didn’t try to go back to the academy. He said I’m going to do one bigger and better and more important and and teach my philosophy there. And that’s exactly what he did. The reason why the Lyceum is so important is it did three things the academy never had. One was it taught science as well as what we call Arts and Humanities and Philosophy. Aristotle was a magnificent natural scientist, the founder of Zoology so this was a really was a ‘university’ what the Greeks called a Panepistímio, a place for all the different arts and sciences. Secondly, he founded the first great academic library in world history. He had an enormous private book collection and then he started supplementing it. And of course his own graduate students were writing the equivalent of doctoral theses we’ve got quite a lot of them things like local histories, so those were written on papyrus roll and added to the library. The third reason why it was so important was it was teaching as well as research. This was not just a lot of professional philosophers talking to each other, he taught his basic methods, He taught them both to undergraduates also to people who were going to do sort of more like postgraduate work and go off and found their own universities in other parts of Greece and he taught the public. This is the model for what university education should look like is the public dissemination of knowledge.