This is the eighth in a second series of essays and reflections about politics and the moral life. The themes of the essays are drawn from Plato’s ‘Laws.’ his last and longest philosophical dialogue written shortly before his death in 347 bce. Laws is a fictional account of a conversation involving three old men with long experience in politics: Cleinias, from the Cretan city of Cnossos, Megillus, from Sparta, and an Athenian stranger who is not named, but who may be Plato himself. This essay treats the important theme of education.
By Victor Nuovo
There are differences between male and female that are obvious. Women bear children and nurse them, and, because of this, they more easily gain an early intimacy with their children. Men do not. However, Plato believed that with respect to the talents and capabilities on which a civil society depends, there is no difference between male and female. They are equal.
Therefore, a city that did not include women in every part of political life would deprive itself of half of its talent. But talent must be trained. Therefore, the education of citizens, which is a city’s chief responsibility, must not discriminate between men and women, boys and girls. The argument is compelling, and the policy it prescribes is sound.
However, Plato isn’t always consistent in applying the principle of equality. He seems to hold back or revert to the false prejudice of difference, speaking only of men and boys and giving them priority over girls. And he reserved government offices to women only in matters concerning marriage and the education of children up to five years old. The remaining government offices went to men.
But he is clear and unambiguous that there should be no discrimination or exclusion in schooling, or with respect to the right to vote, and he insists that women like men should bear arms and be ready to defend the city. To prepare them for these civic duties, they should receive proper training the same as men.
Education of children, girls and boys together, has the highest priority in Plato’s draft constitution for Magnesia. No expense should be spared for facilities or teachers. The Superintendent of Education holds the most important post in the city. Candidates for the position must be Law Guardians, over 50 years of age, and parents. The Superintendent is elected to a five-year term by secret ballot by the city’s public officers rather than by popular election.
Education encompasses nurturing and childhood play as well as formal schooling. A good citizen is an individual physically and mentally accomplished, a person as perfect in mind and body as nurturing and schooling can accomplish. Perfection is measured in terms of nobility or beauty (the same Greek word has both meanings) and goodness. A noble body is not one that just happens or is made to look good, its nobility is evident in the gracefulness, agility, strength, and the precision with which it moves; its movements are expressions not only of inner physical control but also of goodness residing in the soul. Plato was aware that physical gracefulness depends upon intelligence. Grace, beauty, goodness and understanding all converge in the aims of education.
The Athenian Stranger observes that because physical growth proceeds most rapidly during the first five years of age, and because a person’s attitude towards life and disposition is formed very early, education should begin in earliest childhood, even before.
Nurturing begins with prenatal care. Motion is the means. Pregnant women are encouraged to go for walks, to give their fetuses the sensation of movement. After birth, infants should be rocked and carried about. A living body in motion learns to stabilize itself. This regular gentle movement quickens the soul. It is a first lesson in self-control.
Motion is also therapeutic. Spontaneous motion originating from within drives out fear and induces courage and creates a sense of adventure. Throughout this earliest stage the gentleness of mother love—not to be confused with indulgence—superintends a child’s development.
Public education begins for three year olds. Play schools are established in every village. Their activity consists mostly of spontaneous play that unite body and imagination. Children are encouraged to be inventive and to frolic. Like nurturing, the aim of pre-schooling is to insure a happy even joyous childhood for all, altogether free from imaginary fears, although not incautious and with a measure of moderation always gently and subtly applied.
Formal schooling begins at age six and continues through adolescence. It consists mainly of gymnastics and music. The former includes wrestling, and boxing, and dance, involving a young child in trials of strength and self-expression. Here contests begin, but the contest is mainly with one self. Strength, agility and suppleness are its results.
By means of these powers of self-control, one learns to engage the whole body and to move it in every which way. No part of the body is neglected. Control is everything. Ambidexterity is encouraged. The latter is particularly beneficial for athletes and warriors, who require strength and facility of movement in both arms. Children learn to ride horseback and throw the javelin (a primary weapon of war), for one of the aims of gymnastics is to make sure that all able-bodied citizens possess the skill and courage to defend their homeland, if necessary until death.
Next children are taught reading, writing and arithmetic; they also learn to play the lyre, to sing and dance and to mimic noble characters and their virtuous lives. And having become literate and acquired a variety of arts that enable them to excel in the performances of life, their formal preparatory education ends, for they now have become endowed with the means and abilities to govern themselves and therefore to perform all the duties of citizens and to participate in the public life of the city.
The aims of education: physical agility, self-control, courage, the ability to read, write and calculate, to sing and dance and play a musical instrument, and to perform on festive public occasions—these all converge in the formation of character, enabling citizens to be free and equal members of society, in whom the rule of law is seated. From all this, it is clear why so much, if not most of a city’s wealth and energy, should be devoted to education. Once educated, all citizens are supposed to engage in public life, which is their chief vocation.
Author’ note:Some unsolved problems remain. I have said nothing about Plato’s unwillingness to make higher education universal. Nor have I mentioned a seeming inconsistency in the education of children prescribed by the Athenian Stranger, whereas in early childhood free play and innovation prevail, but once formal education begins, especially in literature and the arts, novelty and innovation is supposed to give way to tradition. Nor have I mentioned Plato’s paradoxical reliance on sanctified custom. It is paradoxical, because customs, although convenient, claim authority without providing reasons.