Education in Plato’s Republic

It’s been a while since I’ve written my last blog post on Plato’s Republic, but I’ve continued reading, not merely the Republic but several other dialogues that might have some bearing on some of the ideas in Republic that I found interesting. This has included Symposium, Hippias Major, Ion, Parmenides, Cratylus, and Sophist. For Republic, I’m sticking with the Penguin translation by Desmond Lee; for the others, I went to my distinctly less portable Plato: Complete Works.

For this post, I’ll stick mainly to Republic, which considers the question of what justice/righteousness is (same word in ancient Greek, dikaiosyne), and whether the just are happier than the unjust (spoiler: they are). He starts with trying to find justice in the individual, and when that proves difficult, he then takes another tack by trying to discover its nature in the state. To a Greek of his era, that would be the polis or city-state, and Plato creates a thought experiment of what such a state would look like if it were built around the concept of justice.

Education is a subject Plato tackles in Republic, and a large section of the work is dedicated to outlining the education of a philosopher ruler, someone who truly understands the Forms, particularly the Good and Justice. The end goal is to produce rulers who care more about justice and good government than their own power and wealth: “The indispensable condition is that political power should be in the hands of one or more true philosophers. They would despise all present honours as mean and worthless, and care most for doing right and any rewards it may bring; and they would regard justice as being of paramount importance, and, throughout their reorganization of society, serve and forward it.” (540d-e)

To that end, Plato presents a rough curriculum to foster the progression of abstract thinking. That curriculum starts with arithmetic and moves from there to geometry (plane, then solid) to astronomy to music and finally to philosophy. Intertwined with mental training is the physical training required for soldiers; in Plato’s outline of the ideal state, rulers are chosen from the protector or guardian class.

Plato’s primary teaching method involves “dialectic,” a back-and-forth discussion or rational argument – what we generally call now the Socratic method (and not to be confused with “Hegelian dialectic”). “So when one tries to get at what each thing is in itself by the exercise in dialectic, relying on reason without any aid from the senses, and refusing to give up until one has grasped by pure thought what the good is in itself, one is at the summit of the intellectual realm, as the man who looked at the sun was of the visual realm.” (532a-b).

Dialectic is slightly later in Republic described as the method which “sets out systematically to determine what each thing essentially is in itself.” (trans. Lee; the Paul Shorey translation on Perseus translates this as “attempts systematically and in all cases to determine what each thing really is.”). Basically, dialectic is the method by which you pare away the things that are extraneous to a particular thing – or to put it another way, to determine what all the modifiers are to the noun.

It’s important to note that Plato was very much a rationalist who disdained empiricism – it is through reason alone, not study of the physical world, that one gets closer to the truth. To refer to a quote I used in my last blog on Plato, “If anyone tries to learn anything about the world of sense… I don’t reckon that he really learns – there is no knowledge to be had of such things.” (529b-c).

To Plato, education is really a life-long exercise. Some subjects are best started in childhood, such as arithmetic. Philosophy, however, is something he would reserve only for mature minds; Plato considered dialectic a powerful and potentially destructive intellectual tool. “It fills people with indiscipline,” he wrote (537e).

Building on that, Plato’s Socrates lays out how young men trained in dialectic will just argue with anyone about anything. “So when they’ve proved a lot of people wrong and been proved often wrong themselves, they soon slip into the belief that nothing they believed before was true; with the result that they discredit themselves and the whole business of philosophy in the eyes of the world.”

“But someone who’s a bit older,” he continues, “will refuse to have anything to do with this sort of idiocy; he won’t copy those who contradict just for the fun of the thing, but will be more likely to follow the lead of someone whose arguments are aimed at finding the truth.” (539b-d).

The study of philosophy would be taken up around age thirty-five, and those mature students would study for fifteen years before they would be ready to rule. “And when they are fifty, those who have come through all our practical and intellectual tests with distinction must be brought to their final trial, and made to lift their mind’s eye to look at the source of all light, and see the good itself, which they can take as a pattern for ordering their own life as well as that of society and the individual. For the rest of their lives they will spend the bulk of their time in philosophy, but when the time comes they will, in rotation, turn to the weary business of politics and, for the sake of society, do their duty as Rulers, not for the honour they get by it but as a matter of necessity.” (540a-b).

Plato’s conception of the idea state built around justice is a rather meritocratic one, with rulership going to whoever is best educated and best suited to the task. His meritocracy goes to the point that his Socrates states something that would have been shocking to Greeks of his time, that women be just as capable as rulers: “All I have said about men applies equally to women, if they have the requisite natural capacities.” (539c). And because rulers are drawn from the soldier or guardian class, that means exercise and military training – in the nude, as was the Greek way at the time.

One has to wonder whether those statements about women were intended to shock, to show that the ideal state couldn’t really exist, or maybe to illustrate that a society in single-minded pursuit of justice would subordinate all other considerations to that goal. I’ll write more about the ideal state later. My next stop, though, will be on philosophical essentialism in Plato.

Education in Plato's RepublicBill Hornbostel
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