Caves in Paradise: The Elite School of Aristotle
Thirty kilometers (18.6 miles) from Vergina, a place where the tomb of Philip II is located, there is a city called Naoussa. Naoussa was a place where nymphs were worshiped for centuries, and the location of many beautiful landscapes, it was also the site of a school where the famous philosopher Aristotle provided his lessons to some very important students.
The School in a Paradise
Aristotle was a student of the great philosopher Plato. His philosophy was a continuation of works by his famous teacher and possibly by Socrates too. Due to his fame as of one of the greatest minds of his times, Aristotle was asked by the King of Macedonia, Phillip II, to teach his son Alexander. The school of Aristotle was located at the Nymphaion of Mieza.
The school’s surroundings looked like they came from a mythical story about nymphs and gods. The landscape was full of plants and racing waters, and the deeply-shaded caves seemed to be a perfect place to learn philosophy and many other sciences. In this beautiful location, the students of Aristotle were provided with all of his knowledge that was available in the 4th century BC.
Aristotle's School, a painting from the 1880s by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg. (Public Domain)
When Aristotle created a school in caves, the area, apart from sanctuary dedicated to the Nymphs, was been already full of ancient relics. Some of them, including the wall prop of a two-floor arcade of Ionic columns forming a Π, have been preserved until now.
The school was a combination of three natural caves. According to Aristotle, it was a perfect ground for the school. The rock had a vertical surface, and today the openings for supporting the roof's girders are still discernable. The tiles and clay from the porch roof are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Veroia.
The landscape where the great philosopher wandered with his students and taught them about the ethical and political world, hasn’t changed too much through the centuries. It's still on the riverbanks, full of paths with dense vegetation, while surrounding cool streams gush from the springs and serenely flow.
The School of Aristotle (The Lyceum) (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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The Master of Naoussa
Aristotle was probably born in 384 BC in the city of Stagira, Chalkidice, on the northern periphery of Classical Greece. His father was Nicomachus, who was a doctor, and his mother was Phaestia, who was probably also connected with medicine (although details are unknown.) Apart from Aristotle they had a son named Arimnestus and a daughter named Arimneste. Aristotle’s parents died when he was very young, but he had a guardian who took care of him. Proxenus of Atarneus educated Aristotle for a couple of years before sending him to Athens to Plato's Academy.
When Aristotle was eighteen, he joined Plato's Academy in Athens and remained there until the age of thirty-seven. When he left it 347 BC, he became very popular in the capital city of Pella and amongst the nobles.
In the beginning, Aristotle contributed to his views of Platonism, but after the death of Plato, he immersed himself in empirical studies and shifted from Platonism to empiricism.
Aristotle believed in concepts and that the knowledge was ultimately based on perception. His views on the natural sciences represent the groundwork underlying many of his philosophies. The writings by Aristotle covered many subjects, including: biology, zoology, metaphysics, psychology, physics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, and politics. The results of his analysis created a view on the physical sciences which profoundly shaped medieval scholarship, and the influence of which extended into the Renaissance.
Moreover, they were not replaced systematically until the Enlightenment and theories such as classical mechanics. Many of Aristotle's zoological observations, such as on the reproductive arm of the octopus, were not even confirmed or refuted until the 19th century. Some of his works also contain the earliest known formal study of logic, which in the 19th century became a base for the modern formal logic.
Head of Aristotle. Copy of the Imperial era (1st or 2nd century) lost bronze sculpture made by Lysippos. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Regarding his appearance, Aristotle was rather a short man, he was bald, and his eyes were small. He had a weakness to expensive clothes and items. His personality was charismatic and magnetic to his students. If he hadn’t been like this, he would probably never have been able to become such an influential teacher for his demanding students.
The Students of Aristotle and His Teachings
Shortly after Plato died, Aristotle left Athens and, at the request of Philip II of Macedon, tutored Alexander the Great starting from 343 BC. Aristotle was a teacher of some of the other important men of Alexander's generation too. Apart from the great Macedonian king, he taught other nobles of the Macedonian court, including Ptolemy (the founder of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt) and Cassander (the future King of Macedon).
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Raphael, School of Athens, fresco, 1509-1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Papal Palace, Vatican) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Aristotle taught his young students all of his knowledge. He shared with them many topics he learned in Plato's school, but also talked about other themes which fascinated him. They read his books on metaphysics, which were written in a style that made them useless for ordinary teaching. However, his goal was to teach them to create an independent point of view, so he used books which were instructive only, in the way of memoranda, for those who were already conversant in his style of teaching.
Aristotle was a great lover of Homer's Iliad, and he taught Alexander and his friends according to the copy corrected by him, called the casket copy. They also read many of the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and some dithyrambic odes by Telestes and Philoxenus.
Undoubtedly, Aristotle also tried to teach them some aspects of medicine, such as how to recognize illnesses and how to solve health problems. This knowledge was very important to Alexander during many battles. He was also always caring his copy of the Iliad.
Iliad, Book VIII, lines 245–53, Greek manuscript, late 5th, early 6th centuries AD.(Public Domain)
Alexander loved and cherished Aristotle no less than if the philosopher were his father, saying that he had received life from the one and the other had taught him to live well. When Aristotle returned to Athens in 335 BC, his former pupil was preparing for the conquest of the Persian Empire. In Athens, Aristotle founded a school called the Lyceum and gave lessons at the school for more than a decade.
He died in 322 BC, one year after the death of Alexander. His testimony contains many books and the story about the important king of the Hellenistic world – Alexander the Great. Nowadays, many tourists visit Naoussa every year. These visitors take a seat in the place where Alexander and Aristotle once spoke of philosophical themes and try to feel the wisdom of the ancient masters.
Featured image: The School of Athens, fresco by Raphael (1509–1510), of an idealized Academy. Photo source: (Public Domain)
By: Natalia Klimczak
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Kiernan, Thomas P., ed., Aristotle Dictionary, 1962
Whiting, J., The Life and Times of Aristotle, 2006
Natali, C., Aristotle: His Life and School, 2013