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Plato –B.C.) (427?) (347 ) - The Ideal State, The Dialectical Method, Educational Programs, The Cultivation of Morals

knowledge soul possessed philosopher

Plato (427?–347 B.C.E.) was a prominent Athenian philosopher who posed fundamental questions about education, human nature, and justice.

A student of the famous philosopher Socrates, Plato left Athens upon his mentor's death in 399 B.C.E. After traveling to other parts of Greece, Italy, and Sicily, Plato returned to Athens in 387 B.C.E. and founded a school of mathematics and philosophy called the Academy, which became the most prominent intellectual institution in all of ancient Greece. Plato authored a number of dialogues that often depicted Socrates engaging in the educational mode of dialectic. Like his mentor, Plato suspected that most people did not know what they claimed to know, and hence wondered why rigorous qualifications for rulers did not exist. Challenging the Sophists' claims that knowledge and truth were relative to the perspective of each individual, Plato developed an epistemology and metaphysics that suggested an absolute truth that could only be gleaned through rigorous self-examination and the development of reason–skills crucial for enlightened political leaders.

The Ideal State

Plato's educational ideas derived in part from his conception of justice, both for individuals and for the ideal state. He viewed individuals as mutually dependent for their survival and well-being, and he proposed that justice in the ideal state was congruent with justice in the individual's soul.

Plato's ideal state was a republic with three categories of citizens: artisans, auxiliaries, and philosopher-kings, each of whom possessed distinct natures and capacities. Those proclivities, moreover, reflected a particular combination of elements within one's tripartite soul, composed of appetite, spirit, and reason. Artisans, for example, were dominated by their appetites or desires, and therefore destined to produce material goods. Auxiliaries, a class of guardians, were ruled by spirit in their souls and possessed the courage necessary to protect the state from invasion. Philosopher-kings, the leaders of the ideal state, had souls in which reason reigned over spirit and appetite, and as a result possessed the foresight and knowledge to rule wisely. In Plato's view, these rulers were not merely elite intellectuals, but moral leaders. In the just state, each class of citizen had a distinct duty to remain faithful to its determined nature and engage solely in its destined occupation. The proper management of one's soul would yield immediate happiness and well-being, and specific educational methods would cultivate this brand of spiritual and civic harmony.

The Dialectical Method

Plato's educational priorities also reflected his distinct pedagogy. Challenging the Sophists–who prized rhetoric, believed in ethical and epistemological relativism, and claimed to teach "excellence"–Plato argued that training in "excellence" was meaningless without content and that knowledge was absolute, certain, and good. As a result, teachers assumed a high moral responsibility. Plato doubted whether a standard method of teaching existed for all subjects, and he argued that morally neutral education would corrupt most citizens. He preferred the dialectical method over the Sophists' rhetorical pedagogy. For Plato, the role of the teacher was not to fill an empty reservoir with specific skills, but to encourage the student to redirect his or her soul and to rearrange the priorities within it to allow reason to rule over the irrational elements of spirit and appetite.

In the Meno, Plato examined a paradox that challenged the dialectical method of education: if one knows nothing, then how will one come to recognize knowledge when he encounters it? In response, Plato's Socrates proposed a different idea. Through a geometry lesson with a slave boy, he attempted to demonstrate that all possessed some minimal knowledge that served as a window into one's eternal and omniscient soul. Through dialectic, the teacher could refute the student's false opinions until the student pursued a true opinion that survived the rigors of critical examination. Unacquainted with the storehouse of knowledge in one's soul, a person needed to learn how to access or "recollect" it. Plato distanced himself further from the Sophists by distinguishing knowledge (eternal and certain) from opinion (unreliable and ephemeral).

Plato developed this idea more fully in the Republic, declaring knowledge superior to opinion in both an epistemological and ontological sense. Opinion reflected a misapprehension of reality, while knowledge belonged to an essential or "intelligible" realm. In particular, Plato proposed a linear hierarchy of knowledge starting with the "visible" realms of imagination and then belief, and moving to the "intelligible" realms of reason, and ultimately, knowledge. In his celebrated cave metaphor, Plato's Socrates depicted chained prisoners, who presumed shadows of representations cast by artificial light to be real. The first step of education, then, was to turn one's soul away from this artificial world of shadows and toward the representations of objects and ideas themselves–leading one to the realm of belief. The objects of belief, however, were still empirical, and thus, ephemeral, relative, and unreliable. Beyond the cave lay the intelligible realm of reason and knowledge. Plato asserted that ideas did not possess any physical qualities, and to ascend beyond the world of tangible objects and ideas, one needed to develop the power of abstract thinking through the use of postulates to draw conclusions about the universal essence or "form" of an object or idea. Mathematics constituted a particularly useful tool for the development of reason, as it relied heavily on logic and abstract thought. The ultimate stage of awareness for Plato was knowledge of the "form of the good"–a transcendence of all postulates and assumptions through abstract reasoning that yielded a certain and comprehensive understanding of all things.

Educational Programs

Plato also made clear that not all citizens of the ideal state possessed the same capacity to realize the "form of the good." As a result, he proposed distinct educational programs for future artisans, auxiliaries, and philosopher-kings. Plato favored mathematics as a precise and abstract model for the development of thought in the future rulers of the just state. Knowledge, however, could only be attained through the use of dialectic to shed all assumptions and to glean the first principle of all, the "form of the good." After many years of mathematical and dialectical study, followed by fifteen years of public service, the best of this group would have come to understand the "form of the good" and have become philosopher-kings. Cognizant of the interrelationship of all things and confident of the reasons behind them, the intellectually and morally elite would be equipped to rule the just state in an enlightened manner.

The Cultivation of Morals

In addition, Plato advocated the removal of all infants from their natural families to receive a proper aesthetic education–literary, musical, and physical–for the development of character in the soul and the cultivation of morals necessary for sustaining the just state. Suspecting that most writers and musicians did not know the subjects they depicted–that they cast mere shadows of representations of real objects, ideas, and people–Plato feared that artistic works could endanger the health of the just state. Consequently, he wanted to hold artists and potential leaders accountable for the consequences of their creations and policies. This is why Plato advocated the censorship of all forms of art that did not accurately depict the good in behavior. Art, as a powerful medium that threatened the harmony of the soul, was best suited for philosophers who had developed the capacity to know and could resist its dangerous and irrational allures. Exposure to the right kinds of stories and music, although not sufficient to make a citizen beautiful and good, would contribute to the proper development of the elements within one's soul. For Plato, aesthetics and morality were inextricable; the value of a work of art hinged on its propensity to lead to moral development and behavior.

A Less-Ideal State

In the Laws, Plato considered the possibility that not only the majority, but all citizens could be incapable of reaching the "form of the good." He thus envisioned a second-best state with rulers ignorant of the "form of the good" but capable of thought. Such a society had absolute and unyielding rulers who eradicated any idea or thing that questioned their authority. Acting as if they possessed wisdom, such leaders established laws that reflected their opinions and their imperfect conception of the good.

Modern Scholarship

Contemporary advocates of popular democracy have criticized Plato's republican scheme as elitist and tyrannical in prizing order over individual liberty. Indeed, Plato believed that individuals could not stand alone, and as most would never reach internal harmony or virtue, the majority needed to be told how to conduct its life by those who possessed that knowledge. Incapable of understanding the reasons behind the laws, most citizens needed merely to obey them.

Some scholars have also questioned Plato's treatment of women in his just state. For instance, Jane Roland Martin has argued that although he did not differentiate education or societal roles on the basis of sex, Plato was not committed to gender equality. Despite his abolition of the family, gender distinctions would have likely persisted, as Plato did not seek to ensure the equal portrayal of men and women in literature. According to this view, Plato's female guardians-in-training warranted a distinct education from men to help mitigate the cultural, symbolic, and epistemological assumptions of female subordination. Identical education, then, did not necessarily constitute equal education, a point that holds significant implications for contemporary assumptions about the effects of coeducation.

These criticisms illustrate the longevity of Plato's educational, metaphysical, and ethical ideas. In addition, other scholars have eschewed the tendency to evaluate the modern implications of Plato's specific educational doctrines, and instead have highlighted his assumption that education could address fundamental social problems. They view Plato's method of inquiry–critical self-examination through the dialectical interplay of teacher and student–as his primary contribution to educational thought. Indeed, perhaps education itself embodied the highest virtue of Plato's just state.


BARROW, ROBIN. 1976. Plato and Education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

BLANKENSHIP, J. DAVID. 1996. "Education and the Arts in Plato's Republic." Journal of Education 178:67–98.

MARTIN, JANE ROLAND. 1985. Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

PARRY, RICHARD D. 1996. "Morality and Happiness: Book IV of Plato's Republic." Journal of Education 178:31–47.

PLATO. 1976. Meno, trans. G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

PLATO. 1976. Protagoras, trans. C. C. W. Taylor. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

PLATO. 1980. The Laws of Plato, trans. Thomas L. Pangle. New York: Basic Books.

PLATO. 1992. Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube and rev. C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

SCOLNICOV, SAMUEL. 1988. Plato's Metaphysics of Education. London and New York: Routledge.


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over 6 years ago

very nice!

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give me the negatives and positives of plato education

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