Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 801d–814d

“Greek vase with pentathlon athletes, 490 BC” Photo by Matthias Kabel, own work. CC BY 2.5.


If you spend any time at all around a child, you quickly find that they are crafty little devils who will quibble with every argument, impede every decision, and stab you in the back the second you turn it toward them. At least, that’s what the Athenian suggests when describing the responsibilities of the educational system:

Of all wild things, the child is the most unmanageable: an unusually powerful spring of reason, whose waters are not yet canalized in the right direction, makes him sharp and sly, the most unruly animal there is. That’s why he has to be curbed by a great many “bridles,” so to speak. (808e)

The job of the educational system—ultimately under the direction of the minister of education—is to shape and direct the development of children according to virtue. This spring of reason must be tapped and channeled appropriately.

Yet, this is not just the job of the educational system. Raising children does, in a very literal sense, take a village:

…both the boy and his tutor or teacher must be punished by any passing gentleman who finds either of them misbehaving… (808e)

Accountability to all means that all have the responsibility of disciplining errant children and teachers alike. This is quite a different take on education than that which we find in something like the Common Core approach…

Speaking of a unified curriculum, what should be taught in the schools in the first place? So far we’ve covered poetry and military service, and we have general guidelines and goals; what else is there? For that matter, in any given subject we need to know exactly how much instruction is appropriate for children. Do they need complete mastery of the topic or just the basic introductory tools?

The Athenian’s answer is a bit muddled but seems to be that the educational system must make a good-faith effort to convey basic skills to all children in all areas. There may eventually be provision for those who wish to go into greater depth, but that is not to be a part of early education no matter how brilliant the natural abilities of the child may be. On the other hand, those who simply lack the disposition and ability to master any given skill are not to be pressed too hard on the matter. The overall picture here is one of the abilities of the state being somewhat equalized, with the standards for weaker students being softened a bit and those for the best students being pulled down at least temporarily. The Athenian doesn’t explain why this is, but I like to think that the Athenian is taking a holistic view of virtue here and assuming that one part of being a good student is learning how to be patient with and sympathetic for those who struggle academically. A part of the development of a school age child is learning to be respectful of his peers, which could hardly be the case if the virtuosos are cheered and the weaker students disdained. But again, the Athenian does not actually say this in so many words.

The conversation now begins to cover specific topics, focusing first on literature. “What books should be read in the schools?” was a pressing question then as much as now. Yet there is a slightly different spin on the Athenian’s version of this question. There seems to be a general agreement on which authors were worthwhile and which were not. The problem was that many of the “worthwhile” authors had also produced large amounts of rubbish. How, then, do we assign their works? Is it better to read all of the works by any given author (including the wretched works) or only selections and “greatest hits” (thus not getting the full “taste” of the author)?

The Athenian answers by apparently breaking the fourth wall and suggesting that anything ever quoted in Plato’s works is what ought to be taught in the schools—and anything similar which he had not yet come across. In other words, read through the complete works of Plato, pull out the quotations from other authors, and you’ve got your elementary reader. It is an interesting approach, to say the least…

From literature the Athenian turns to music. More specifically, this means teaching children how to play the lyre. Greek music was quite different from ours, so rather than get bogged down in the details (which I don’t particularly understand anyway—there’s a reason the “music” sections of the Republic are often abridged) we should just note that unison rather than harmony is to be the order of the day. The unity of virtue ought to be displayed in music as much as everywhere else, which means that the modern tendency to alternate tempo, pitch, etc., ought to be forbidden. Simple, straightforward melody is to rule the discipline.

In addition to culture and the life of the mind, we’ve already seen that P.E. is an essential part of education. The part of physical education related to music is dance, but the other physical arts have to be included as well:

We are establishing gymnasia for all physical exercises of a military kind—archery and deployment of missiles in general, skirmishing, heavy-armed fighting of every variety, tactical manoeuvres, marches of every sort, pitching camp, and also the various disciplines of the cavalryman. In all these subjects there must be public instructors paid out of public funds; their lessons must be attended by the boys and men of the state, and the girls and women as well, because they too have to master all these techniques. (813e)

The women must be included because if nothing else, they are the last line of defense of the state if the army is beaten and an enemy is at the doorstep. Instead of finding weak women and children it will find half the state in arms and well-trained. This particular physical education program makes dodgeball seem pretty tame by comparison.

More on dance as physical education in the next post.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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