Cardinal Newman on University Life: Athens

Ch. 4. University Life: Athens

Now Newman turns to provide a portrait of university life at Athens. It is a more realistic description of city and the students who went there to study.

Athens attracted men of quite different conditions:

Cleanthes, who had been a boxer in public games, arrived in Athens and did manual work to pay his master Zeno the daily sum of one obolus to attend lectures. He succeeded him as the head of the school. And then like a monk, even as head of the school (Stoa), he continued his manual work. Newman writes “he is the author of a hymn to the Supreme Being, which is one of the noblest effusions of the kind in classical poetry. ”

Marcus, Emperor of Rome and philosopher visited Athens. “Professors long since were summoned from Athens for his service, when he was a youth, and now he comes, after his victories in the battlefield, to make his acknowledgments at the end of life, to the city of wisdom, and to submit himself to an initiation into the Eleusinian mysteries.”

Cicero, as a youth of great promise as an orator, spent a short time in Athens. Years latter sent his son to study in Athens at an earlier age than when he had gone there himself.

Gregory goes there from Alexandria and spends 8-10 years in Rome. In time he will become one of the principal doctors of the Greek Church.

Horace, a youth to whom his father gave an education in Rome above his rank, was sent to Athens to complete his education. Campaigning with Brutus and Cassius he died on the battle field of Philippi.

Newman recounts the story of Eunapis, a fifteen year old, who developed a fever aboard a ship, and was taken to the home of Proaeresius, one of the philosophers at Athens, a friend of the ship’s captain.

Life was not easy for students or teachers at Athens.

“Strange introduction for our stranger (Eunapis) to a seat of learning, but not out of keeping with Athens; for what could you expect of a place where there was a mob of youths and not even the pretence of control; where the poorer lived any how, and got on as they could, and the teachers themselves had no protection from the humours and caprices of the students who filled their lecture-halls? ”

Eunapis was taken by a party of youth who frightened and teased him with a sort of initiation after which they gave him a pallium (university gown). The youths would not give up having some mischief. A friend of Gregory, Basil, escapes the initiation of the youth because of the protection of his friend. However, he does not escape from a different attack: “He finds himself seized, before he well knows where he is, by another party of men, or three or four parties at once, like foreign porters at a landing, who seize on the baggage of the perplexed stranger, and thrust half a dozen cards into his unwilling hands. Our youth is plied by the hangers-on of professor this, or sophist that, each of whom wishes the fame or the profit of having a housefull.” Basil, like Gregory would later become a saint and doctor of the Church.

Just as bad is the very poor condition of dilapidated houses and streets traversed by open sewers. But what is even more striking is that there are no books nor any bookstores in the Athens of the time. “I doubt whether Athens had a library till the reign of Hadrian. It was what the student gazed on, what he heard, what he caught by the magic of sympathy, not what he read, which was the education furnished by Athens.”

How will these students learn? Why does Athens draw them to study there?

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