Plato’s Successors

Most students of ancient philosophy are a bit spoiled by their study of such lofty thinkers as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. But even the great Academy at Athens, the school founded by Plato, produced some uneven results. Upon Plato’s death, Speusippus (407-339 B.C.) took up the teacher’s mantle.  “He adhered faithfully” to his master’s doctrines, at least in theory one supposes, since in character “he was unlike him, being prone to anger and easily overcome by pleasures.” We are told by Diogenes Laertius that on one occasion he threw his favorite pet dog down a well. When not having temper tantrums he spent much of his free time as a party-goer.

While the first successor to the Academy was an obvious disappointment, the next in line, the long-lived Xenocrates (396-314 B.C.), proved a more worthy heir to Plato. He was reputedly slow and clumsy, but persistent and of such grave demeanor that rabble of the city would make way for him as he passed. A tale is told that one time a famous courtesan took refuge in his home under the pretence of seeking safety. Xenocrates “admitted her out of ordinary humanity and, there being but one small couch in the room, permitted her to share it with him, and at last, after many importunities, she retired without success, telling those who inquired he whom she quitted was not a man but a statue.” He was brave in the face of Dionysius the Sicilian tyrant, who threatened the life of Plato, and immune to the flattery of King Phillip of Macedon who admitted that he was one of the few men he could not bribe.

Polemo (314 – c. 276 B.C.) was the third in line to Plato and interesting for his sudden conversion to the “good life.” As a rich young man he spent all his money on idle entertainment. One day on a drunken bet he burst in on a lecture by Xenocrates. The philosopher continued his discoursee without interruption and Polemo was so impressed that he went on to become a very serious student, eventually living a reclusive life in a philosophers’ hermitage. Diogenes Laertius provides the the following observation:

Polemo used to say that we should exercise ourselves with facts and not with mere logical speculations, which leave us, like a man who has got by heart some paltry handbook…. able, indeed, to win admiration for skill in asking questions, but utterly at variance with ourselves in the ordering of our lives.

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