Athens, the first University, Card. Newman continued

Today one cannot conceive of a university without many libraries filled with books and data bases. But what is essential in a university? What is at the very heart of university education? Newman continues describing the life of students at Athens, the first university.

The student goes out of his poor lodging early in the morning and until night he goes out to “imbibe the invisible atmosphere of genius, and to learn by heart the oral traditions of taste.” He spends his time at the Acropolis or the Areopagus. He studies the sculptures at the Parthenon or the painting in the temple of Dioscuri. He spends time in the theaters to hear “drama literally in action.”

From there the student goes out the city to some groves called the Academe, and there he has lessons from a teacher, but one thing above all others captures his complete attention, the very presence of Plato. Newman writes: “He does not hear a word that he says; he does not care to hear; he asks neither for discourse nor disputation; what he sees is a whole, complete in itself, not to be increased by addition, and greater than anything else. It will be a point in the history of his life; a stay for his memory to rest on, a burning thought in his heart, a bond of union with men of like mind, ever afterwards. Such is the spell which the living man exerts on his fellows, for good or for evil. ”

But Plato is more than something to see; he brings to the students the realm of philosophy. This is “a philosophy that lives outdoors.” It is not something taught in classrooms as it will be done centuries later. There are other teachers, other schools in the city. “Epicurus is reclining in his garden; Zeno looks like a divinity in his porch; the restless Aristotle, on the other side of the city, as if in antagonism to Plato, is walking his pupils off their legs in his Lyceum by the Ilyssus.” Athens draws a very large number of students. They come because there are great teachers who come from many lands: “Anaxagoras was from Ionia, Carneades from Africa, Zeno from Cyprus, Protagoras from Thrace, and Gorgias from Sicily. Andromachus was a Syrian, Proæresius an Armenian, Hilarius a Bithynian, Philiscus a Thessalian, Hadrian a Syrian.” Newman explains that genius and talent were the qualifications for teachers. Athens welcomed them, and with time the teachers achieved honor and wealth. Students followed them and called themselves their countrymen. The University was divided by the middle of the fourth century into “four nations”: “Proæresius was the leader or proctor of the Attic, Hephæstion of the Oriental, Epiphanius of the Arabic, and Diophantus of the Pontic.” The professors became patrons of clients, hosts of visitors and masters of schools, all at the same time.

When the schools at Athens were less than a hundred years old, Plato enjoyed otium cum dignitate. He had a villa at Heraclea and left his patrimony to his school which survived for eight centuries. Epicurus also had the property of the Gardens where he taught. Later, under the Romans the chairs of grammar, rhetoric, politics, and the four philosophies were endowed by the State. The professors were statesmen or high functionaries.

Newman recounts the philanthropy of a very wealth man, Herodes Atticus, who became a patron of education at Athens. He built a stadium and a theater; in his two villas he often entertained philosophers, students and visitors. There were other outstanding personalities in Athens. One was a young student by the name of Basil, who was surrounded by others such as Sophronius, Eusebius and Celsus. Before departing from Athens, Basil and Gregory, who were intimately connected to Christianity, held the esteem and affection of these youth who later became influential men.

This Athens was the first University. It brought together great thinkers and eager students. Private enterprise and individual labor as well as State funds supported schools that developed into established centers of education; initially only with the oral exchange of knowledge from teachers to students, and the example of masters.

 

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