Aristotle had a reputation as a dandy. According to ancient biographer Diogenes Laërtius, the father of scientific philosophy lisped fashionably, and was known for his schmick wardrobe and bling.
The impression, bolstered by his ties to the Macedonian royals, is of a metropolitan bon vivant with a taste for opulence. And this makes historical sense: as Aristotle himself noted, philosophy arose in big, rich cities, which gave literate upper classes the leisure to converse and write.
But Aristotle’s school was not in the Macedonian court, Athens’ prestigious suburbs like Kerameikos, or the agora, the busy marketplace. The philosopher preferred to give his famous lectures in a park.
His school, the Lyceum, was named for the shaded groves where the philosopher rented his buildings. Situated east of the city walls, the Lyceum was dedicated to Apollo Lyceus, the son of Zeus in his “wolf god” guise. It had walks, running tracks, change rooms, wrestling schools, temples and stoa- porticoes, shaded from sun and rain. Military parades were held there, along with cult rituals. It was an all-purpose reserve for sports, religion, politics – and philosophy. Aristotle taught his students as they strolled around the peripatoi, the colonnades – hence their name, the “peripatetics”. His Lyceum also housed the first botanical garden (probably stocked by the Macedonian empire), which undoubtedly contributed to his lost book On Plants.
In this, Aristotle was following his teacher, Plato, whose Academy was also in a sacred grove, and who similarly taught on the hoof. (“I’ve been doubting long, and walking up and down like Plato,” gibed playwright Alexis, “but only tired my legs.”)
This devotion to gardens lived on in Classical philosophy. Aristotle’s own student and successor, Theophrastus, wrote the first systematic treatise on botany, and bequeathed the Lyceum gardens to his colleagues “as may wish to study philosophy and literature there . . . on terms of familiarity and friendship”.
The Lyceum and Academy schools remained at the heart of Mediterranean intellectual life for over two centuries. One of the great Hellenistic critics of Plato and Aristotle, Epicurus, retired to his backyard in suburban Athens for a life of grumbling austerity. His school was called “The Garden”: a symbol of his independence, and a means of realising it. “He who follows nature,” Epicurus was quoted by Porphyry as saying, “is in all things self-sufficient.”
Educated Romans also took to gardens for scholarship and conversation, often in a knowing nod to their Greek forebears. Shoved from public office, Cicero wrote of opening an “Academy” in his own Tusculum villa. He and his students worked while walking outdoors, and Cicero noted the particular joy of watching plants grow. “I am principally delighted,” said Cicero’s Cato in On Old Age, “with observing the power, and tracing the process, of Nature in these her vegetable productions.”
At the end of the Classical era, more than 700 years after Aristotle opened his school, the Platonic theologian Augustine was converted to Christianity in a garden. “I flung myself under a fig tree,” he wrote in his Confessions, “and gave free course to my tears.”
SERENITY AND STIMULATION
Philosophy was often alfresco. There are many reasons for this. Most obviously, gardens are a bulwark against distraction. Philosophy is a gregarious pursuit, which thrives on social ferment. But too much stimulation leads to madness, not meditation. Even in Classical and Hellenistic Greece, cities were noisy, busy and full of interruptions. Athens’ streets were small and winding, with residents walking at all hours (often drunk, stumbling home after symposiums). Wagons rumbled and squeaked all day, and if the comic playwright Aristophanes is to be believed, the roads were often dumping grounds for emptied bladders and chamber pots.
But Athenians couldn’t flee the streets’ chaos by heading home, as they often had donkeys, goats and other livestock as housemates. The Lyceum let Aristotle and his students escape the commotion of urban life and focus on the finer points of logic and metaphysics.
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
The ancient Greeks were also a physical people, for whom study did not mean a sedentary life. The first schools were gymnasiums for sports like sprinting and wrestling. A public park was a place to stretch their legs, flex their oiled muscles. And gardening itself was, as Socrates reportedly pointed out, an exercise.
“Quite high and mighty people find it hard to hold aloof from agriculture,” he was reported to have said, in Xenophon’s Economist, “combining as it does a certain sense of luxury with the satisfaction of an improved estate, and such a training of physical energies as shall fit a man to play a free man’s part.”
ARISTOTLE THE BOTANIST
Aristotle, like many of his students, was also an empirical philosopher. That is, he was not content to merely theorise – he wanted hard evidence. “Those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts,” he wrote in On Generation and Corruption, “are too ready to dogmatise on the basis of a few observations.”
Hence his cultivation of a botanic garden, and his studies abroad. His work on biological classification was detailed, rigorous and unparalleled for millennia – so much so that Charles Darwin referred to the great taxonomists Carl Linnaeus and Georges Cuvier as “mere schoolboys to old Aristotle”.
For the philosopher, the Lyceum garden was most likely a regular source of philosophical material, for dissection, analysis, synthesis and lecturing – a field trip and laboratory demonstration in one.
NATURE AND NURTURE
But there are more intellectual reasons for philosophy’s plein-air tradition. The garden is not simply a retreat or source of physical exercise. It is intellectually stimulating in its own right, because it is a fusion of two fundamental philosophical principles: humanity and nature. This is suggested by the word itself, and its cognates in German and the Romance languages: Garten, jardin, giardino.
Like the English “yard”, they refer to enclosure, which requires two things:something cordoned off (nature), and someone to do the cordoning (humanity). Beginning with sacred groves like the Lyceum, every garden is a union of this kind: nature separated, bordered, transformed by humans.
What makes gardens unique is the explicit character of this fusion. Nature is regularly and radically transformed by humans. As Aristotle pointed out, this is the very definition of craft: realising natural possibilities that cannot realise themselves.
In art and manufacturing alike though, the contributions and combinations of nature and humanity are often hidden. For example, trees become timber; ore becomes metal, zooplankton and algae become oil then plastic – they are natural in origin, but no longer “nature”. Nature is understood as wilderness, disease, esoteric symbols – as distant “other”. Meanwhile, human labour is also invisible: we see products and services, but not necessarily the people who produced them.
The garden overcomes this double alienation, by displaying human and natural processes together. Plants and stones remain recognisably plants and stones, but they are arranged, cultivated and maintained artfully. In this, they demonstrate our specific relationship with nature – what we make of it, physically and intellectually.
Aristotle saw nature as something of an organism, full of growth and movement. Plato’s nature was a divine blueprint, Epicurus’, a random strife of atoms.
There is no final word on what nature is – what “is” is. Precisely because of this, mankind is also a puzzle. Our existence is enigmatic, because human nature is not universal or eternal, and we are opaque to ourselves. There is not only nature, but also second nature – the first given, the second made.
RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX
Yet what humanity makes of itself is often unclear and unpredictable. These were the unspoken points of the riddle of the Sphinx, the premise of one of Athens’ premier tragedies, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
“Man” is the answer to the Sphinx’s question: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening, yet keeps its voice?”– but this is a deceptively simple reply. The species continues, but we keep transforming. As individuals and societies, we are works in progress, with novel perspectives and trajectories. And as poor Oedipus discovered, these are rarely completely clear. Humanity is an ongoing question, not an answer.
These riddles, nature and humanity, combine in the garden.
AIR OF SANCTITY
For all Aristotle’s speculative flights, he recognised that humans are embodied creatures: ideas are often inspired and expressed physically. This is doubly so when they are given some organic or primal form, like plants or rocks.
The garden gives basic concepts a vital dynamism or dense gravitas. This intellectual and sensory richness is why gardens still have an air of sanctity to them.
Many religious buildings – from the Lyceum’s “wolf god” temples, to Buddhist monasteries, to medieval cathedrals – have gardens attached or nearby. But these are simply the more notable examples.
The garden is not strictly a theistic or spiritual phenomenon. It has its roots in more basic impulses: to carve off a portion of the landscape, and distinguish it from ordinary places.
This is suggested by the origins of the word “sacred”: from the Indo-European sak, meaning to separate, demarcate, divide. The opposite of the sacred is not the secular but the ordinary, from which it is set apart. In this light, the garden is one of the original sacred sites, preceded by groves like the Lyceum: an area cordoned off from purely natural or human activity, but which explicitly unites both. While perfectly secular, its walls, fences, ditches or hedges symbolise a break from “common sense”.
The garden is, in other words, an invitation to philosophy.
This invitation is not only for professional philosophers – as if reflection were a private club for tenured academics. Starting with the Greeks, philosophy has a long amateur tradition, which flourishes as much in literature, poetry and fine art as it does in philosophy seminars.
It does not require a university, but rather the balance of society and solitude that universities, at their best, provide. Like Aristotle’s Lyceum, the garden is a companion to the life of the mind.
Aesthetically, it caters to varied tastes: colourful or muted, geometric or serpentine, busy or austere. But more importantly, in an era of acceleration, over-stimulation and interruption, the garden is a chance to slow down, look carefully and think boldly – it is an antidote to distraction. ‘The human race lives,” wrote Aristotle in Metaphysics, “by art and reasonings.”
Over two millennia on, the garden remains a rare refuge for both. Gardens can be beautiful – sometimes overwhelmingly so. They can console, calm and uplift. But they can also discomfit and provoke, and this is often their philosophical value. For all their common themes – order and disorder, growth and decay, consciousness and unconsciousness, stasis and animation – gardens reveal conflict: the conceptual strife in every civilisation, and every civilised mind.
For this reason, the story of the garden – told through my book – involves varied characters, with jarring sensibilities.
Jane Austen looked to her cottage garden for the comforts of perfection. Leonard Woolf’s frozen apple trees suggested exactly the opposite: a taste of the world’s precarious brutality. For Marcel Proust, stuck in his musty, latrine-smelling bedroom, three bonsai symbolised a search for lost time. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Italian thought-tree gave the sickly philosopher a surge of strength and bravery: forget the past; keep creating and destroying.
The scandalous French author Colette discovered contemplative peace in roses. A generation later, her cafe-haunting countryman Jean-Paul Sartre described the nausea provoked by a chestnut tree – an existentialist cry that rallied a generation.
In this way, gardens make the truth of philosophical discord easier to identify, and harder to ignore. “Piety requires us to honour truth,” wrote Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, “above our friends.”
In this spirit, this exploration offers an increased intimacy with nature, human nature, and their mysterious fusion: the garden.