Quiet museums of the mind

Something is stirring in Athens’s relationship with its ancient past. The New Acropolis Museum will open its doors in a month, the National Archaeological Museum has been refurbished and now, due to the pressure of local residents and renewed interest from the Culture Ministry, the desolate ruins of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum will be added to the map of places worth visiting in the capital. All is not rosy, of course: Visitors to Athens still risk finding the crown jewel of Greek civilization, the Acropolis, closed because of strike action, while the National Archaeological Museum stands out like an island of a lost civilization in the decaying city center. Still, adding to Athens’s important archaeological sites is a triumph of a present that is all too often the scene of one defeat after another. The Academy and Lyceum are, on the surface, empty lots with a few stone ruins and both are in highly developed parts of the capital. The Lyceum is more fortunate, so to speak, in being located in perhaps the most prestigious part of the capital, next to the Byzantine and Christian Museum, in the open space between Rigillis Street on one side and the National Gallery and the Athens Hilton on the other. The site was intended for a new museum of contemporary art when archaeologists discovered (or, more likely, confirmed) that this was the location of Aristotle’s famous school of philosophy. From then on, the Lyceum appeared to be condemned to the fate of so many ancient sites: sealed to the public, abandoned to the elements. Now, according to the Culture Ministry’s plans, the grounds of the Lyceum will be joined to those of the Byzantine and Christian Museum and will be opened to the public. The site of the Academy was identified in 1966, after which time the area was allowed to decay without hindrance. Residents are now trying to block a high-rise office block planned by the Athens Prefecture. But today citizens have a much greater awareness of environmental and cultural concerns and they demand that business interests and their government contribute to the common good rather than make a bad situation worse. Abandoning important sites is perhaps a sign of the embarrassment of archaeological riches that Athens possesses and a confession that perhaps these particular sites do not have something especially impressive to show in terms of ruins. Indeed, they are not much more than an outline of stones on the hard ground. But their importance has very little to do with their physical ruins and everything to do with what they symbolize: Plato taught in the Academy and Aristotle, his student, passed on his wisdom at the Lyceum. We know both philosophers through words – both theirs and those of others. Their names and the names of their institutions have come to us through the centuries, as foundation stones of Western intellectual civilization. The world – and its languages – is full of academies and lyceums. Anyone who studies the history of civilization knows of Plato and Aristotle and their great teachers and students. Their greatest achievements – their eternal presence – is in the mind, in the world of ideas. It really does not matter if the Academy and the Lyceum are not great monuments of stone, something to inspire awe on a par with the Parthenon. Their glory lies in their very simplicity, in the fact that they are the sites where sparks of thought, in an unprecedented intellectual ferment, set the world on fire. There can be no greater museum – in the mind and on the ground – than the quiet spaces that helped shape the concepts that govern how we think and how we see our world.