Ancient philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 16, 2022, from

6. Schools and movements

The early Pythagoreans constituted the first philosophical group that can be called even approximately a ‘school’. They acquired a reputation for secrecy, as well as for virtually religious devotion to the word of their founder Pythagoras. ‘He himself said it’ (best known in its Latin form ‘ipse dixit’) was alleged to be their watchword. In some ways it is more accurate to consider them a sect than a school, and their beliefs and practices were certainly intimately bound up in religious teachings about the soul’s purification.

It is no longer accepted, as it long was, that the Athenian philosophical schools had the status of formal religious institutions for the worship of the muses. Their legal and institutional standing is in fact quite obscure. Both the Academy and the Lyceum were so named after public groves just outside the walls of Athens, in which their public activities were held. The Stoics too got their name from the public portico, or ‘stoa’, in which they met, alongside the Athenian agora. Although these schools undoubtedly also conducted classes and discussions on private premises too, it was their public profile that was crucial to their identity as schools. In the last four centuries bc, prospective philosophy students flocked to Athens from all over the Greek world, and the high public visibility of the schools there was undoubtedly cultivated partly with an eye to recruitment. Only the Epicurean school kept its activities out of the public gaze, in line with Epicurus’ policy of minimal civic involvement.

A school normally started as an informal grouping of philosophers with a shared set of interests and commitments, under the nominal leadership of some individual, but without a strong party line to which all members owed unquestioning allegiance. In the first generation of the Academy, for example, many of Plato’s own leading colleagues dissented from his views on central issues. The same openness is discernible in the first generations of the other schools, even (if to a much lesser extent) that of the Epicureans. However, after the death of the founder the picture usually changed. His word thereafter became largely beyond challenge, and further progress was presented as the supplementation or reinterpretation of the founder’s pronouncements, rather than as their replacement.

To this extent, the allegiance which in the long term bound a school together usually depended on a virtually religious reverence for the movement’s foundational texts, which provided the framework within which its discussions were conducted. The resemblance to the structure of religious sects is no accident. In later antiquity, philosophical and religious movements constituted in effect a single cultural phenomenon, and competed for the same spiritual and intellectual high ground. This includes Christianity, which became a serious rival to pagan philosophy (primarily Platonism) from the third century onwards, and eventually triumphed over it. In seeking to understand such spiritual movements of late antiquity as Hermetism, Gnosticism, Neo-Pythagoreanism, Cynicism (see Cynics §4) and even Neoplatonism itself, and their concern with such values as asceticism, self-purificaton and self-divinization, it is inappropriate to insist on a sharp division between philosophy and religion.

‘Ancient philosophy’ is traditionally understood as pagan and is distinguished from the Christian Patristic philosophy of late antiquity (see Patristic philosophy). But it was possible to put pagan philosophy at the service of Judaism (see Philo of Alexandria) or Christianity (see for example Clement of Alexandria; Origen; Augustine; Boethius; Philoponus), and it was indeed largely in this latter capacity that the major systems of ancient philosophy eventually became incorporated into Medieval philosophy and Renaissance philosophy, which they proceeded to dominate.

This extensive overlap between philosophy and religion also reflects to some extent the pervasive influence of philosophy on the entire culture of the ancient world. Rarely regarded as a detached academic discipline, philosophy frequently carried high political prestige, and its modes of discourse came to infect disciplines as diverse as medicine, rhetoric, astrology, history, grammar and law. The work of two of the greatest scientists of the ancient world, the doctor Galen and the astronomer Ptolemy, was deeply indebted to their respective philosophical backgrounds.

Citing this article:
Sedley, David. Schools and movements. Ancient philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A130-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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