In the garden of Academus – A philosophical and artistic encounter

1When we speak of the origin of the places where philosophy is taught – the university, the art school, even the high school – it is important to recall that they came from the garden. Philosophy, which is typically assigned to the agora, and art, understood as a handcrafted creation linked to the Greek polis, are in fact products of the garden. Here I will discuss what seems to us to be the most obvious garden, predating even the Epicurean one: Academus’s garden.

Who Was Academus?

2In Greek mythology, he was an Athenian hero. Just before the Trojan War, Theseus, an Attic hero, was recognized as king of Athens. His name comes from the same root as thesmos (θεσµός): that which is established, assured. The word thesis also comes from this root: the action of laying down, instituting, the position of a city according to established laws. The same Theseus, who built the Acropolis, abducted a girl – beautiful Helen, still a child – and hid her in Aphidna, near Athens. Helen, who became the wife of Menelaus, was later abducted by Paris, and her suitors went on to wage the Trojan War. She was between five and ten years old… According to other versions, she was old enough to give birth to Theseus’s daughter. After this abduction, her brothers, Castor and Pollux – the Dioscuri – set off to look for her: Academus was the very hero who revealed her hiding place to them, and they came to free their sister. Helen returned home. Following this incident, to thank Academus for preventing a war with the Lacedaemonians, the Athenians named a plot of land after him near the river Cephissus where his tomb would be built. This would become the garden of Academus.

3We should point out that the prefix aka means "soft," "quiet," "light," while démos means "place," but more specifically "place inhabited by a people," "land," "country," and just "people." "Academus" [1] would then mean "the quiet region," but also "the calm people." We then have Theseus, he who institutes, who founds, versus he who delivers justice [2] in the calm manner of the people: Academus.

4The poetic scenography of Phaedrus gives us an example of what the Attic landscape was like, helping us to get a sense of the open-air environment of Plato’s teachings:


By Hera, it is a charming resting place. For this plane tree is very spreading and lofty, and the tall and shady willow is very beautiful, and it is in full bloom, so as to make the place most fragrant; then, too, the spring is very pretty as it flows under the plane tree, and its water is very cool, to judge by my foot. […] Then again, if you please, how lovely and perfectly charming the breeziness of the place is! and it resounds with the shrill summer music of the chorus of cicadas. But the most delightful thing of all is the grass, as it grows on the gentle slope, thick enough to be just right when you lay your head on it. [3]

6The first institute of higher learning known in the West, before the Lyceum and the Cynosarges, was Plato’s Academy, one of Athens’s three gymnasia. Plato belonged to a rich family of landowners. He took great advantage of his wealth by traveling and by holding lavish feasts. He acquired his garden after his political downfall in 387 BCE in Syracuse during the reign of King Dionysius I the Elder. The philosopher founded his garden academy upon returning to Athens. Plato, 40 years old at the time, taught there for 40 more years. During this period, twenty years after founding his school, he returned to Sicily: after the death of Dionysius I, his brother-in-law Dion of Syracuse – who had been won over to philosophy during Plato’s last stay – had asked him to become the tutor of Dionysius II, Dionysius I’s son. Plato had agreed, thinking he could create a city governed according to his philosophical principles. He had finished writing The Republic, filled with innovative ideas, in 372 BCE, and sought to apply them in real life. In his Seventh Letter, seen as a biographical text, we read that Plato, during his second stay in Syracuse, lived in a garden. In his attempt to make a philosopher of Dionysius II, Plato became the prisoner of the king, who locked him up for a year in the citadel of Ortygia, an island near Syracuse. Eventually freed, Plato returned to Athens, from where he made a third and final journey to Sicily in 360 BCE at the age of 68, on Dionysius II’s invitation. But the relations between the two soured, and a Pythagorean, Archytas of Tarentum, was obliged to send a war vessel to Syracuse in order to free Plato. Once again, the philosopher was caught in a trap. He died in Athens at the age of 80 during a wedding banquet.

7A century later, one of Plato’s philosophical heirs, Lacydes of Cyrene, became head of the Middle Academy. According to Diogenes, Lacydes had moved the Academy from its former location to a hall near King Attalus’s garden, which contained a great quantity of exotic plants. [4] This botanical garden became a new philosophical meeting place called the Lacydeum after Lacydes, whose name is itself the contraction of two words: laos, meaning "people" or "crowd," and kydes, meaning "glory" or "reknown." Lacydes (Λακύδης) therefore means he who embodies the glory of the crowd, of the people.

8For Plato’s garden, then, we have two etymologies that differ while completing each other: one for Academus and one for Lacydes.


9As our purpose is not to recount the history of Plato’s Academy, we will jump forward to the 15th century when the name "Academy" reappeared. The renaissance of the academies participated in the contemporary rediscovery of Plato’s writings. There were academies of painting and sculpture in L’Accademia neoplatonica founded in Florence in 1459 by Cosimo de Medici the Elder, who invited intellectuals to translate Plato’s texts into Italian and add commentary. In 1563 in the same city, Cosimo I de Medici and Giorgio Vasari founded L’Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. In Rome in 1577, Pope Gregory XIII founded L’Accademia di San Luca, which was initially linked to a religious congregation.

10At the end of the 16th century, there was an Accademia degli incamminati in Bologna, devoted to the training of painters.

11In 1648, the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture was founded in Paris, on the initiative of the painters Philippe de Champaigne and Charles Le Brun, as the first French art school. Today’s École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts on the quai Malaquais in Paris is its descendant.

Contour of the World

12What, then, did the term "Academy" mean in the context of teaching? The practice of artistic instruction had its origins in Plato’s garden of Academus. Was it initially intended to assemble artists in order to "draw" and "paint" a contour, a line isolating them from the rest of the world? Or rather one bringing them closer to it? If a school is ultimately nothing but a matter of shared practices, what grounds does this sharing have in the Academy?

13The vocation of these academies was to distinguish artists, painters and sculptors from craftspeople. Their purpose was to separate painting and sculpture from the mechanical arts so as to place them among the liberal arts. Drawing, as a body of knowledge on how to represent the world, made this possible. Instruction no longer meant learning the techniques of painting from a master, but rather learning within a school. The master-as-teacher was replaced by teachers who created and accompanied an encounter with a perspective in motion. The assertion was that painting and sculpture were first and foremost intellectual and speculative activities.

14Leon Battista Alberti, one of the Platonists of the Renaissance, had centered his treatise, De pictura ("On Painting," 1435), on perspective – I italicize "perspective" because it was dependent on geometry, and therefore on one of the liberal arts. The discursive model was mandatory: in order to move forward, a discussion took place. Thus the Academy, in Plato’s time as well as in the 17th century, was simultaneously linked to teaching a body of knowledge and to being able to discuss that knowledge. This was precisely Cosimo the Elder’s plan when he turned the proper name "Academy" into a noun, to such an extent that he had a legendary phrase engraved upon the entrance to his academy:

"Let No One Ignorant of Geometry Enter Here."

15We know that the inscriptions at Plato’s Academy, at Aristotle’s Lyceum, and at the Garden of Epicurus look much more like rhetorical devices than a historical tradition recounting a true fact. Still, that does not prevent us from wondering: who then are these people learned in geometry? In an attempt to answer this question, let us return to Antiquity.

16We associate the Greeks with the birth of the agora, the center of the city where the citizens gathered together to talk. The space opened by politics is a space of shared words: it exists only through public discussion between citizens who, by means of this place, transform their subjective opinions into elements of an objective consideration of the common good. The Greeks invented the city, the polis, to preserve the political conditions of existence: the polis with the agora in its center as the first space of the political. Deleuze wrote: "If we really want to say that philosophy originates with the Greeks, it is because the city, unlike the empire or state, invents the agon as the rule of a society of’friends,’ of the community of free men as rivals." [5] Within the framework of an agon, tragedies, satyr plays and comedies were performed. It was a framework that could already be seen in the Iliad and the Odyssey. [6] Humans are not naturally political beings, since the agora, and politics, define them as the creation of a human world, external to nature. Once removed from a political context, humans return to an animal state in a way. But on the way, they stop in the garden where their human nature finds its form. The creation of a political space – insofar as it makes the foundation of a shared world ruled by the nomos possible – does not produce the only real place where the humaneness of humanity can be expressed. Alongside the agora, where men recognized each other as citizens, there is the garden where men assembled beneath the horizon of a communal world of "togetherness." [7]

17The problem with teaching is to take charge of the environment of the world with its surroundings, with its relationships that are constructed and that give meaning to those surroundings. This makes it possible to conceive this environment, to confer a form to it. In the eyes of some Hellenists, the garden of Academus – the birthplace of philosophy – fades away completely. For those specialists, the contemplation of monumental Greek architecture – temples, theaters, porticos, located amidst mountainous landscapes – overshadows the modesty of the gardens, excessively fragile constructions that have been rescued from the heroic era of the Greeks. The garden, more than the stones assembled for the walls of the city, harbors the elemental forces of heaven and earth to an astonishingly intense degree.

18The notion of the garden’s borders must be reimagined. Rather than a line of separation, it is a relation in motion, a horizon in motion, a perspective in motion: in Greek, peras (πέρας). The Greeks noted that the limit, πέρας, was not the place where something stopped. On the contrary: from that starting place, something came into being. The thinking of the Greeks commenced with that border, which marked the beginning of the intellectual journey, not its end. Let us ask ourselves: doesn’t the garden, something traditionally enclosed, seem fairly open among the Greeks? Aren’t these limits more of a refutation of enclosure than anything else? Aren’t they the negation of the function of an enclosure restricting the visual field? [8]

19The concept of the garden, the garden as concept, constitutes an enigma in the geography of appearing. After using the word "concept," we should add that the Greeks gave the name horismós (ορισµός) to the concept itself, in other words the limit, peras (πέρας), the place where something comes into being. This change in perspective, however, allows us to move forward in the concept of the garden. Teaching in the garden would therefore be a consideration of reality as interpretation, assuming that any given interpretation exists only as perspective. We must then reconsider instruction in the garden. We must continually extend the form of the garden and try to understand that it is always in a state of becoming. Herodotus himself was surprised to see a nomadic garden, typical of the Libyans, [9] because for passersby, any garden is a perspectival effect, endlessly modifying the horizon. For Herodotus, the relationships between semantic invariants were already at stake. The Indo-European languages do not agree on the notion of the "garden," to such a point that any will to associate the term exclusively with a bounded enclosure seems excessive, problematic. [10] The Greek words for "garden" – kepos (κῆ͂πος), alsos (ἄλσος), leimon (λειµών), khora (χώρα) – draw the gaze to the horizon, where we find our aporetic place, from which there is no way out, to which there is no way in, no route, no point of entry, no exterior, no interior. The garden represents that horizon.

20Some own a garden so they can feel settled. They derive enjoyment from their property rights, their fenced-off garden that leads them to display unbearable arrogance. Sedentary philosophers are one example of this. They have no other goal than to persuade us of their glory and their certainty.

21The Greek city favored internal citadels, spiritual exercises, philosophical factions, itinerant predications, strolls in gardens. A form of wandering. Strolling as act, as politics, as experiment, as life. A stroll onto pathways of thought, like grass that grows from its middle. [11] A stroll that holds the promise of an encounter.

22Instruction in the garden participates in the study of this displacement and this encounter. In taking up the question of the garden, teaching places itself, from the outset, beyond the categories that seem the most ready to address the main theme of the agora. The city, the agora that we take to be the form of the universal course of things, objectifies our thoughts. We must then establish a movement to what lies beyond the city, in order to exit the agora, to walk into the garden. Epicurus taught that "nature’s wealth has its modest limit." [12] But the notion of the garden’s borders must be reconsidered afresh. It is not a line of separation, but a horizon in motion.

23To the extent that the garden was in Antiquity a paideia, an introduction to reflection that signified humanity and that summarized the Greek ideal of human perfection, of that which is κάλος και αγαθός (beautiful and good), it accomplishes a sort of rite of passage whose goal is to educate by domesticating the man capable of facing up to the city and the agora. The objective of instruction in the garden is to make these students inhabitants of an acropolis, but also of its surroundings.

24To conclude, I will mention the story of Theages in one of the dialogues attributed apocryphally to Plato on the nature of knowledge. Demodocus brings his son Theages, an aspiring sophist, to Socrates so that he may receive advice on his education. Socrates offers to speak to the son directly and asks him what he would do if he himself had a son who wanted to become a good painter or musician: "Would you know what to do with him, and where else you should send him if he refused to learn from these [practitioners]?" [13] Do our respective institutions of learning, with their experts – philosophers, artists, theoreticians – let the paths of their acolytes cross?

25The communal garden of philosophical and artistic instruction, this garden of Academus that embodies the gentleness of the people even before the Homeric Wars, is a garden of encounters and resistance. A garden that reminds us that the only shared reason for philosophy and art (if one exists) is the encounter. Concerning the state of philosophical education today, we often notice that philosophy no longer consists in the art of dialogue and encounters, but in the art of commentary.

26Art schools, the direct heirs of the Academy, maintain this tradition of dialogue, of the one-on-one relationship at the heart of teaching.

And to Answer the Question: Who Is Learned in Geometry?

27Perhaps it is a student who becomes a designer, an artist, a gardener, who measures in order to push back the limits of the world, so as to reach the horizon in motion. The one who asks the right questions at the right place, the place where philosophical and artistic encounters are possible, the place that echoes with creative encounters, where the philosopher and the creator resist: the garden.

28To that end, and to counter the temptations of nationalism or fundamentalism, my advice is to reopen the book of philosophical knowledge and to follow the paths of Greek thought as far as life’s brevity allows us to risk this sort of daring repetition. So let us finish with a quote from Plutarch taken in turn from Giorgio Agamben’s last book:

figure im1


Most people think […] that those are philosophers who sit in a chair and converse and prepare their lectures over their books; but the continuous practice of […] philosophy, which is every day alike seen in acts and deeds, they fail to perceive. […] Socrates at any rate was a philosopher [who] jested with [his pupils], and drank with them, served in the army or lounged in the market-place with some of them, and finally was imprisoned and drank the poison. He was the first to show that life at all times and in all parts, in all experiences and activities, universally admits philosophy. [14]


  • [1]
    According to various sources, the name of the Academy comes from that of Hekademos. Other sources say that while Academus was the Athenian who revealed where Helen was hidden, Hekademos was a Laconian companion of the Dioscuri.
  • [2]
    "Delivering justice" is to be understood as the act of handing back the child, thereby avoiding war with Sparta.
  • [3]
    Plato, "Phaedrus" [230 BC], I: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, trans. Harold N. Fowler (Cambridge MA / London: Harvard University Press, 1953), 423. To bring to life the image of the garden of Academus and its surroundings, featuring thick vegetation nourished by the river Cephissus, see André Motte, Prairies et jardins de la Grèce antique: De la religion à la philosophie (Brussels: Palais des Académies, 1973), 412. The author insists upon the devotion to the Muses to whom Plato had dedicated that space. Even at the time, then, there was evidence of the tight bond between philosophy and the arts.
  • [4]
    Diogenes Laertius, "Lacydes" (book 4, section 60, line 1), Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, trans. Pamela Mensch, ed. James Miller (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 206.
  • [5]
    Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (Paris: Minuit, 1991), 14 [What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia UP, 1994), 9].
  • [6]
    Between the assembly of warriors, the assembly of citizens in the oligarchic state and the democratic Ekklesia that assembles on the agora, there is a clear continuity. For political debate is a codified struggle that recalls the one put into practice during the funeral games, of which the various competitions organized by the city are avatars.
  • [7]
    In the Laws, the last Platonic dialogue, which deals with the question of an ideal political constitution, three characters – an Athenian (Socrates, who is not named), a Cretan named Clinias and a Lacedaemonian (Spartan) named Megillus – leave Knossos, the city of King Minos, in order to visit the garden on Mt. Ida. This mythic place makes reference to the paradigmatic marriage of Zeus and Hera. This garden of the sacred marriage and the temple of Zeus is presented as the objective to be reached. The friends leave the city and walk toward the garden in order to arrive at truth together.
  • [8]
    Malgorzata Grygielewicz, Le Jardin grec, rencontre philosophique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2017).
  • [9]
    Herodotus, Book IV, chapter 181, Histories Books III and IV, trans. A. D. Godley (London: William Heinemann / New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928), 385.
  • [10]
    It is true that the Persian word pardëz, meaning "enclosure," or in Ancient Greek paradeidos (παράδεισος), appears for the first time in Xenophon’s writings before reappearing in the Septuagint.
  • [11]
    Henry Miller said that the grass always has the last word: "Grass only exists between the great non-cultivated spaces. It fills in the voids. It grows betweenamong the other things. The flower is beautiful, the cabbage is useful, the poppy makes you crazy. But the grass is overflowing, it is a lesson in morality." Quoted in Gilles Deleuze, Dialogues, avec Claire Parnet (Paris: Flammarion, 1977), 38 [Dialogues II, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 30].
  • [12]
    Diogenes Laertius, "Epicurus" (book 10, section 12, line 2), Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 497.
  • [13]
    Plato, "Theages," VIII: Charmides, Alcibiades I & II, Hipparchus, The Lovers, Theages, Minos, Epinomis, trans. W. R. M. Lamb (London: William Heinemann Ltd / New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927), 369.
  • [14]
    Plutarch, "Whether an Old Man Should Engage in Public Affairs," Moralia, vol. 10, trans. Harold North Fowler (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1936), 145-7, quoted in Giorgio Agamben, Pulcinella, or Entertainment for Kids in Four Scenes, trans. Kevin Attell (London / New York / Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2018), 1.