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The Concept of Education in Plato: Political and Psychological Implications

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No one will understand Plato without grasping the importance of ‘paideia’, though the concept evolves throughout his work; its role is essential. In the first book of Laws, education ‘is training from childhood in goodness, which makes a man eagerly desirous of becoming a perfect citizen, understanding how both to rule and to be ruled righteously. This is the special form of nurture to which, as I suppose, our argument should confine the term education; whereas an upbringing which aims only at money-making or physical strength, or even some mental accomplishment devoid of reason and justice, it would term vulgar and illiberal and utterly unworthy of the name education.’

Goodness is intellectual and ethical excellence, following the Socratic principle of know-thyself. Opposing that, we find a Spartan voice reflecting criticism of Athenian society. Laws is a late work in which the Spartan voice prevails, but certain elements of the Socratic voice are also found. Most of the Spartan argumentation is a reaction to Socratic key points. 

Socratic education is not professional, vocational, commercial training. The means of survival they teach are irrelevant to the Ancient Greek citizen – his livelihood is secured through slave work. His leisure should be devoted to virtue. That virtue did not comprise criticism of slavery did not seem to bother Plato. Paideia requires the greatest leisure. As only a few can afford this, society should be guided by leisured free men well trained in civic virtue, ruling the working element not entitled to citizenship. The ruler is master of his slaves and teacher of the uneducated. In this understanding, the best possible education leads to justice, yet society has to be unjust for such education to arise. Only thus can the work of the many support the leisure of the few.

We inherited the Socratic concept from humanism. Yet in a world of free equals, it thrives only where nobody needs to work, since further occupation will consume the leisure required for the life-long training. The aporia does not make the concept unsound. Professional training as a technocratic alternative also comes with problematic assumptions, such as this: that the majority of citizens cannot learn through abstract thinking. They should only learn the necessary for survival. The proponents consider it a social progress that some are trained in professional skills, some in intellectual excellence. This, however, is but an updated form of the polis. The many are still serving instead of learning

The vicious circle is apparent: The best possible society is only conditioned by the best education, which on its turn only comes from the best possible society. Despite the dystopic aspect, the theory of paideia leads Plato to an important conclusion. Political judgement requires knowledge, and knowledge education. Even in a society of free equals, there is no mature democracy where future voters are only taught the narrow matters of their specific trade. Does Socratic education create a better society? Little knowledge does not always lead to inaccurate judgement.

Great erudition is no guarantee of great leadership. In the Victorian establishment, the classical world was an ideology. The quality of debate in the House of Commons was unparalleled.

Whether its laws reflected the interest of the majority, is another question. Even in educated people, political judgement is often led by an appeal to instincts – rational argumentation is powerless. Freud observes the phenomenon in Zeitgemäßes über Krieg und Tod from 1915. In all belligerent countries, also people of humanist erudition and cosmopolitan standards were blinded by the war propaganda. We have just witnessed a similar case in the Brexit debate. The problem may not lie in the shortcomings of Socratic education, but in the fact that it is a privilege of the few. Moreover, not everyone who went to school or university qualifies as ‘educated’ in the Socratic sense. A ‘mental accomplishment devoid of reason and justice’ is excluded from the understanding of paideia, not regarded as an incentive to civic virtue. Knowledge of medicine alone and as such, however accurate it be, does not enable accurate political judgement. 

Translating paideia into the modern state is difficult. Different regimes claim to provide the best possible system.

Some will teach everyone to obey authority, and the Spartan discipline requires one not to question the rulers, also when it rephrases the concept: ‘Education is the process of drawing and guiding children towards that principle which is pronounced right by the law and confirmed as truly right by the experience of the oldest and the most just.’

Russia and China would welcome a statement that opposes what the Socratic voice mostly stands for; the existential duty to enquire – which does entail political scrutiny. The assumption of the Spartan voice is that in the best possible state scrutiny is superfluous. The ruler’s wisdom is unquestionably conspicuous. This is not convincing. Even with universal consensus about a ruler’s unparalleled wisdom, it remains to be shown that the excellence comes only from itself, with no critical input from an opposition. As a matter of principle, not even the best possible ruler is to be exempt from scrutiny. 

An education that enables accurate judgement must discuss: the meaning of democracy, the place of civic virtue, the danger of populism. It must debate what can be enforced legitimately. The difference between dogmatic and critical thinking, rational and emotional judgement must be treated. Yet this is of little profit where the political campaign is based on manipulation. The very use of the word ‘campaign’, from a military vocabulary, is disturbing: It implies political persuasion is a war of rhetoric contenders, cheap entertainment for an uneducated audience. In the UK and the US, attempts to introduce ‘democracy’ as a school subject are opposed. Apparently, in a free state people should know for themselves what democracy is. This is a major fallacy. You cannot have democracy where the education that enables democracy is suppressed. Political education does not come from nothing.


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Gregory Name is the editor-in-chief of The Carolingian

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