In what follows is an essay on Plato’s educational vision displayed in the Republic, and of classical education more generally.
THE NATURE OF PLATONIC EDUCATION
In the Republic, Plato essentially espouses an educational system that focuses on establishing virtue in the soul. The soul, according to Plato, is tripartite, meaning it is made up of three parts — reason, spiritedness, and appetite. He uses a thought experiment as a metaphor for the soul. This metaphor consists of a tripartite city, consisting of guardians (or philosopher-kings), auxiliaries to assist the guardians, and workers. In other words, the guardians correspond to reason, the auxiliaries to spiritedness, and the workers to the appetites.
Following, we will look at the purpose, arts, and censorship of the educational system Plato details in the Republic. It concludes with a discussion of the cave analogy, which represents the educational journey, and the need of a classical education today.
Its Purpose. Plato does not view education as primarily a means for building practical skills, which is the emphasis of today’s education with its orientation toward career. If distilled to a motto, Plato’s would be, “Souls first; careers second”. We especially see this contrast in his treatment of mathematics (see below). Instead, he wants to produce good citizens who will exhibit the virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom and justice (Santos 3, see especially Book IV). Further, justice, more than being just another virtue, is thought of as the overarching virtue (LeBar), putting each of the other virtues in their proper place (Clark and Jain 221n20). This virtuous education produces harmony in the soul, of which temperance especially plays a part (430e, 432a). Indeed, temperance results in spirit and appetite submitting to the “ruling principle of reason” (442c-d).
Its Arts. The guardians of the good city are to be educated in what are known as the liberal arts, with the first aspect being described in Books II-IV and constituting what was considered traditional Greek education (Nightingale 136). The first aspect is divided into two parts, “gymnastics for the body, and music for the soul” (376e). The terms gymnastic and music are somewhat misleading, communicating only a part of what is originally intended. According to White, gymnastic is better understood as “physical training” and music as “training in the arts” (91). Plato’s emphasis on gymnastic and music, especially in the early years of education, shows his recognition of man as both body and soul, which both require cultivation if the whole person is to be addressed (Clark and Jain 26-27). The second aspect consists of mathematics.
Music. The term “music” is derived from the ancient Greek belief in the Muses, the goddesses who bestowed knowledge of the arts. This training in the arts consisted of poetry, drama, the fine arts, literature, and of course music (Clark and Jain 25-26).
The order in which I am treating music and gymnastic is intentional; for Plato thought music should be taught first. His reasoning was that “we begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious; and these stories are told them when they are not of an age to learn gymnastics” (377a). According to Nightingale, the emphasis placed on poetry is due to it being the most influential in the formation of character (137). This is interesting considering our culture’s emphasis on sport in the formation of character.
Gymnastic. Lawlessness creeps into the mannerisms and habits of children who engage in lawless amusement – lacking rules or boundaries. These early-developed habits follow them into their adulthood, negatively influencing their engagements with others. Therefore, there must be rules to be followed in children’s activities if they are to grow up being law-abiding citizens (424e, Reid). In short, sport is a means of producing discipline in children, which follows them into their adult years. This recognition that lessons learned (or not learned) in youth create a character within us that is difficult to shake in adulthood is a key aspect behind Plato’s censorship (see below).
It is important to note that Plato did not see the result of sport – a good body – as improving the soul, but the soul improving the body (403d), although he does not supply an immediate argument for thinking in this way. Plato’s later development of the politics within (of the soul) giving rise to politics without seems to follow this same line of thought, however. While sport has its place of importance, and like musical education is to be continued throughout life, music is of first importance (403d-e).
Mathematics. This constitutes the second stage of Platonic education. The second stage is different from the first in that its purpose is to guide the soul “to an apprehension of the Forms” (Nightingale 148). The mathematical education consists of arithmetic, plane and solid geometry, astronomy, and harmonics. Mathematics, as Plato intends its use, is again different from the modern usage. We tend to think of mathematics in a purely practical manner. Plato’s concern was primarily contemplative, leading the mind, not the eyes, to look up and arrive at reality (529b-c). The philosopher’s vision, then, is not sensual or physical but mental or soulish (Nightingale 146).
Arithmetic, for instance, is to be studied, not only for its military use, but especially for its philosophical use – assisting one to pass “from becoming [or changing things] to truth and being [or eternal/unchanging things]” (525c). Geometry, too, can guide us toward the idea of the Good, as it pertains to eternal things, as opposed to transient things (527b). “Geometry turns us away from perception and towards the intelligible, eternal nature, contemplation of which is the goal of philosophy” (Mueller 103). No wonder Plato required those wishing to enter his Academy to be skilled in geometry. Harmonics is included with mathematics because of its mathematical nature, both in music and in the world/creation. The mathematical nature of music is related to the mathematical proportionality (or harmony) of the universe (Clark and Jain 88-92).
Virtuous Censorship. It must be borne in mind that Plato’s censorship is not quite a political censorship in the way that we often think of it today – “I disagree with your political view on this, therefore you should be banned from speaking at this college or posting your view on social media.” He did not want to censor the poets because of contrary thought, but due to certain negative ethical implications. He saw certain elements of epic and poetic literature as potentially disrupting the souls of youth, encouraging vice rather than virtue. It should, therefore, be understood as a virtuous censorship.
The poets are called out, so to speak, because of the special place poetry held in the education and formation of youth. Youth tend to mimic, or act like, those around them, especially those they look up to. This is as much true of the ancient Greeks as it is of us today; human nature has not changed. His concern is with youth mimicking the vice-like aspects of poetry; and therefore, certain portions of poems, such as those by Homer, should be expunged due to their falsehoods about the gods and heroes (377d-e). After all, the lying and murdering committed by the gods may appear to justify the same actions by man. This is one of the elements of Plato’s educational philosophy that makes him unconventional (Nightingale 137-38, Naddaff 12).
Naddaff asserts that Plato saw censorship as an opening up rather than a closing down of new forms of discourse by counteracting “the poets’ own exclusion and the silencing of all other voices,” particularly the philosopher’s voice (6). By this she is referring to the cultural stigma of philosophers as contributing little or nothing to society (487e).
Plato recognized how impressionable children are, that the early years are those in which character is formed (377b). In his Politics, Aristotle articulated a similar concern: “We always prefer what we come across first. The young must therefore be kept from an early familiarity with anything that is low, and especially anything that may suggest depravity or malice” (1336b22). Since children lack discernment, censorship is to be the mechanism by which children are exposed to model behavior and safeguarded from reprehensible behavior (Naddaff 30).
The things we learn through song, story, and art contribute to the formation of our souls (Clark and Jain 32). Virtuous censorship is therefore a part of virtuous education that promotes justice in the soul. Whether or not one agrees with the particular application or extent of Plato’s censorship, there is certainly something worth considering in its recognition that the youthful mind is highly impressionable, and therefore wisdom should be used in discerning what they should and should not be exposed to, especially in an educational context.
The Good, the Shadow and the Cave. The analogy of the cave (Book VII) is the Mount Olympus of the Republic’s discourse. Though it begins in darkness and shadows, as we do (515a), it ends with a basking in the sunlight of the Good. It represents the educational journey of the guardian (the philosopher-king), of the soul ascending upward to the intellectual world. In this world of knowledge is attained, although with difficulty, a vision of the idea of the Good, from which all things beautiful and right derive their being; and “this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed” (517b-c). Put more colloquially, the well-ordered life is not achieved by a fixation on what is seen in this world, but by an enthrallment and knowledge of the ultimate Good that is behind it. A similar exhortation is found on the pages of the New Testament: “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col. 3:2, NKJV).
The cave is a picture of the mind’s ascension to comprehend the reality of things (cf. Lee 375). It is about encountering the truth, goodness, and beauty of “realities not of our making” (Smith 58), teaching us to choose the life of substance and meaning over the life of shadows and images. It is to go from the world of becoming to the world of being (521c-d). That is, if we are to reason aright, our minds must be enraptured by the transcendent. As Rosen articulates it, the cave depicts the state of the soul both without education (chained inside the cave) – particularly philosophical education – and with education (the ascent outside the cave) (269). As the guardian is compelled to descend back into the cave to communicate the truth to those yet in chains, so reason must descend to the lower parts of our soul to enlighten and rule. The return is, in other words, not political but epistemological (Rosen 270), and I would add ethical.
CLASSICAL EDUCATION OVER MODERN EDUCATION
We are a nation in the Western civilization tradition. This is something to be proud of, not balked at. The Platonic tradition is central to Western civilization, and the continuance of our heritage largely depends on its continual embrace (Kreeft 3).
The seven liberal arts – the Trivium: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric; and the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music – are rooted in the educational philosophy we just reviewed from the Republic. Indeed, “Plato’s Dialogues are the original textbook for the art of dialectic” (Clark and Jain 56). Classical education is essentially a Platonic education, though it has certainly been built upon by others.
A classical education, contrary to the progressive/utilitarian/specialization education that dominates our schools today, recognizes that man is a soulish creature in need of a moral order. This, again, is what Plato means by justice in the tripartite soul – the higher part of reason ruling the lower parts of spiritedness and appetite, resulting in a life that is well-lived in relation to the Good. Children cultivate reason through song, story, and art, gaining a proper sense of duty and respect for God, parents, community, and heritage – what the ancients called piety (Clark and Jain 15-16). It is this kind of education that produces virtuous people – courageous, wise, temperate, and just – who may then become honest leaders in society (Kirk 401). Education should seek to instill in the child a wonder for the created order, drawing on their inborn imagination. Wonder will create in them a desire for learning, thereby opening the heart and mind to future educational pursuits and the accumulation of wisdom: “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom in learning from books as well as from nature” (Adler and van Doren 123). This is what classical education cultivates in young minds.
Classical education brings out the moral imagination in young souls. Using the same imagery found in Plato’s Republic, Russell Kirk defines the moral imagination as aspiring “to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth” (Kirk 207). It transcends personal experience for the accumulated wisdom of past generations. Bildad understood this long ago, calling on Job to inquire of ages past who could impart to him wisdom, for we are but of yesterday (Job 8:8-10). Charlotte Mason gave similar words of wisdom:
The educational thought we hear most about is, as I have said, based on sundry Darwinian axioms, out of which we get the notion that nothing matters but physical fitness and vocational training. However important these are, they are not the chief thing. A century ago when Prussia was shipwrecked in the Napoleonic wars it was discovered that not Napoleon but Ignorance was the formidable national enemy; a few philosophers took the matter in hand, and history, poetry, philosophy, proved the salvation of a ruined nation, because such studies make for the development of personality, public spirit, initiative, the qualities of which the State was in need, and which most advance individual happiness and success. On the other hand, the period when Germany made her school curriculum utilitarian marks the beginning of her moral downfall. History repeats itself.A Philosophy of Education, 5-6.
In a nation steeped in the slough of vice, a virtuous education can help lead us out onto solid ground yet again. We must stop trying to cut our own paths, being always feverish for something new. Instead, let us return to the well-worn, ancient paths. Wisdom resides there. She calls to us, waiting to bestow on her companions bountiful gifts. Awe and wonder are with her. As Kreeft has said, we do not think of awe and wonder when we think of modern philosophers (6). No, they have forsaken and forgotten the transcendent nature of life. If we wish to experience such things, we must go back, way back. Why not start with Plato’s Republic and the virtuous education found therein? In an age of vice, Plato calls us back to a discovery of justice in the soul by means of a rigorous, wonderful, and virtuous education. Clark and Jain’s words are therefore a fitting exhortation to our educational leaders: “The seven liberal arts [the Trivium and Quadrivium] are the established paths that tutor the reason and train the mind in virtue. Our schools would do well to hearken to them” (43).
Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles van Doren. How To Read a Book. Touchstone, 1972.
Aristotle. Politics. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Clark, Kevin and Ravi Scott Jain. The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education. Classical Academic Press, 2019.
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LeBar, Mark. “Justice as a Virtue.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2020. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-virtue/#:~:text=Plato%20in%20the%20Republic%20treats,under%20the%20notion%20of%20justice.&text=Individual%20justice%20first%20and%20most,distributions%20of%20goods%20or%20property. Accessed 28 October, 2020.
Lee, Desmond. “The Philosophical Passages in the Republic”. Republic, by Plato, Penguin Books, 1987.
Mason, Charlotte. A Philosophy of Education. Living Book Press, 2017.
Meuller, Ian. “Mathematics and the Divine in Plato”. Mathematics and the Divine: A Historical Study, ed. By T. Koetsier and L. Bergmans. Elsevier, 2005.
Naddaff, Ramona A. Exiling the Poets: The Production of Censorship in Plato’s Republic. The University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Nightingale, Andrea Wilson. “Liberal Education in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics.” Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity, ed. by Yun Lee Too, BRILL, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=253479.
Rosen, Stanley. Plato’s Republic: A Study. Yale University Press, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=3420151.
Smith, Thomas W. “Love of the Good as the Cure for Spiritedness in Plato’s Republic.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 70, no. 1, 2016, pp. 33-58. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/1817087114?accountid=8289.
White, Nicholas P. A Companion to Plato’s Republic. Hackett Publishing, 1979.