Plato on Education as the Development of Reason
'The unexamined life', says Plato's Socrates, 'is not worth living for men' (Apology 38a5). Two central ideas of Western philosophy came together in this saying, and also a third, Socrates' own great innovation. The novelty was not his turning towards man; in this he was but a child of the sophistic revolution. Nor was it his recognition of the moral value of inquiry, as the pythagoreans had already done before him. (1) His innovation was in the combination of these two trends: in ascribing moral worth to the intellectual activity reflectively directed at one's own life. The worthwhile activity for man was, as he saw it, each one's critical examination of his own actions and opinions and their implicit assumptions. This inquiry had no pragmatic aim or utility beyond itself. It did not teach 'how best to manage the affairs of the household and of the city' (Protagoras 318e5-319a1). On the contrary, it was itself the 'care of the soul', independently of its pragmatic consequences, sometimes even in spite of them. Socrates' concept of eudaimonia, of happiness-and-success, was so different from the ordinary concept, that his talking about it took on sometimes a paradoxical air: 'It is not from possessions that excellence comes to men but by excellence possessions and all the rest come to be good for men' (Apology 30b3). (2)
Socrates learned from Protagoras and Gorgias the supreme importance of persuasion. Men are moved to action not by things as they are, but by their own opinions and convictions. Yet, unlike the sophists and the rhetors, Socrates considered persuasion in itself irrelevant even if, notoriously, he did not himself abstain from their practices. He saw only rational justifications as relevant, and only conviction following them as real. Hence the distinction that Plato puts in his Socrates' mouth, between having-been-persuaded (pepisteukenai) and being-in-the-condition-of-having-learned (memathekenai). (3)
Plato's Socrates saw no use in imposing on his interlocutor external criteria of good and bad. The dialectical method, as developed by Zeno of Elea in the wake of Parmenides, and subsequently by the Sophists, fit Socrates perfectly: no premises are admitted but those accepted by the examined party, and no argumentative moves are allowed but those agreed to and only insofar as they are agreed to. Socrates believed that the purification of the soul from its contradictions would bring it, as a matter of course, to knowledge. But in the soul which is not free from contradictions there is no advantage to right opinions over any other, similarly unexamined, opinions.
The case of Euthyphro is instructive. Euthyphro is prosecuting his father for the unintentional killing of a slave. To his mind, this is an act of piety, namely, the redemption of the blood of him who has no redeemer. On the other hand, causing the death of one's father is an abomination the greater of which would be difficult to imagine. Incapable of arriving at a definition consistent with his other opinions and action, Euthyphro gives up and escapes from Socrates with a flimsy excuse. Socrates lets him go his way. A great platonic scholar and good Christian complained about Socrates' 'failure of love'. (4) But what could Socrates do? Even if he knew what is piety, what use would there be in his telling it to Euthyphro? Euthyphro's moral situation would not be better by a jot if he came to hold another opinion, perhaps even a right one, without being able to justify it duly. Socrates' love would not have saved Euthyphro. Only Euthyphro himself could save Euthyphro. Socrates could only point the way to salvation from afar, by means of irony and negation. For him, ultimately, man has no saviour but himself.
Plato stresses his Socrates' new concept of reason (nous). Reason is not a tool for attaining goals independently thought worthwhile: possessions, honour, personal and political success; rather, rationality itself, expressed in the giving of reasons and the avoidance of contradictions, confers value to goals and opinions. The ultimate educational objective, then, is to bring about a revolution in the educand's perception of the role of reason, namely the recognition of its normative, and not merely theoretical or instrumental, nature. (5) But the intrinsic value of rationality itself cannot be proved. (6) Dionysodorus in the Euthydemus, can refuse to accept the rules of the dialectical game: 'Are you as old as Cronus, Socrates, that you remember now what we said before, and if I said something last year will you bring it up now?' (287b2-5). And in order to bring him, or anyone else, to the admission of the intrinsic value of rationality, there is, very often, no escape from violence: arguments ad hominem, equivocations, and above all irony, irony that does not lead to any definite place and does not point in any alternative direction, but utterly undermines the self-confidence of Socrates' interlocutor, so as to bring him to total despair of any external authority and make him find for himself the reason within as his only guide, and stand on his own feet or fall.
Plato's theory of education aims at specifying the conditions of the growth of the socratic man, whose soul is free from contradictions and whose excellence is justified knowledge. But Plato's Socrates, in most early dialogues, failed in his attempts to educate. When he succeeded to some extent, it was in conversations with young lads like Lysis and Charmides, or with those already converted to philosophy: Simmias and Cebes in the Phaedo, Glaucon and Adeimantus in the Republic, Theaetetus in the later dialogues. But in his conversations with the likes of Euthyphro or Nicias and Laches, to say nothing of Protagoras and Gorgias and his pupils, Plato's Socrates fails miserably. Sometimes Plato allows his Socrates to finish the dialogue to his own satisfaction. But his more hard-nosed opponents make it very clear that they may have been defeated but were not convinced. (7) For Plato's Socrates, there is no middle way: he who does not see the value of complete freedom from contradiction or does not succeed, for its sake, in freeing himself of his preconceptions which do not agree with one another, is condemned to moral perdition. This socratic position was well epitomised by Diogenes the cynic: 'Reason or the rope'. (8)
Plato came to see clearly enough that a state cannot be led on these premises. He turned weary of the socratic optimism, that dialectic alone will cause one to see the good. True, the climax of platonic education is 'the turning of the eye' (Republic 518b6-d7). Those who stress and rightly so the spontaneity in this last stage of education, the sudden 'vision' of the idea, tend sometimes to minimize the importance of the long and arduous process that precedes it, and in particular, of the non-rational or semi-rational antecedents of that vision.
In contrast to the Socrates of the early dialogues, Plato recognised the (limited) epistemic value of right but unreasoned opinion, and therefore also the moral and political value of popular virtue (demorike arete). He does not disregard its deficiencies: right opinion is inferior to knowledge but is not completely cut off from it: it is, in effect, the expression of implicit and un-self-conscious knowledge. The aim of the socratic questioning, as Plato interpreted it, was to expose what is clear of itself but for various psychological reasons is not immediately perceived as such.
Thus, the protagorean and humean distinction is blurred between appetite as what establishes ends and reason as what assesses the means for their achievement. In Plato's conception, by contrast, reason is itself a motive force (9) and has its own interests. But the real ends of reason are not extraneous to itself. The idea, as the objectification of rationality, as the objective and independent correlative of all knowledge, is the highest object of the strongest desire. On the other hand, appetite and emotion are, in effect, unclear, un-self-conscious, incompletely understood, semi-material reflections of the workings of reason. Their clarification is bound to bring about the recognition of their rational essence.
Plato wholly accepted Socrates' basic assumption about the essential rationality of man. The aim of education is to lead man to his essential rationality. Man is reason, but obviously not the empirical man, without reservation. The empirical man is not the whole man. But education is aimed at the empirical man and inevitably employs psychological means. It is Clinias and Charmides that Socrates tries convert to philosophy, not 'man'. Such an attempt is necessarily ad hominem, according to the psychological needs and make-up of the interlocutor. (10) However, the psychological is the subjective, the logically irrelevant, the cause because of which a man holds an opinion, not the reason why he should hold it. And the merely psychological, so Plato learned from Socrates, is in itself devoid of moral value.
This is, then, Plato's educational problem. The strength of subjectivity cannot be dismissed lightly; there is no education without personal conviction. On the other hand, the aim envisaged is reasoned objectivity, valid in itself, categorially different from psychological persuasion. How then is it possible that the result of education should grow out of the depths of each individual and be nevertheless valid for all individuals? How is it possible to bridge the chasm between subjectivity as personal conviction and desire, and objectivity as truth and goodness?
In the Symposium, Plato gives Aristophanes the crucial move (189c ff.). Each of us is only half the whole man and we are moved by our desire for what we lack. The half we look for is not strange to us, for it is part of us, but is not with us. In the continuation of the dialogue, Diotima corrects Aristophanes (201d ff.). We do not desire our completion, i.e. that missing part of us which is of the same ontological status as we. We do not lack essentially health or possessions or honour or any of the empirical things. We desire our perfection, our excellence according to non-empirical criteria, not determined by pragmatic considerations. We are not lacking, as Praxiteles' statue lacks its spear; we are deficient or inferior, as a Roman copy of that statue is inferior to its much better original. (11) Our perfection is not completely strange to us, but it is nevertheless independent of us although we are, unbeknownst to ourselves, dependent on it, i.e. we long for it even in our most basic desires. This is the ethical and educational significance of the platonic doctrine of the transcendence of the ideas and the immortality of the soul. In this context, to claim that the soul is immortal is to claim, at least, that the soul has a non-empirical dimension (here presented as unbounded temporal extension), that its real objects are not the objects of desire as such, and that man's sensible life is not the true basis for the evaluation of his eudaimonia, his happiness-and-success.
Everyone desires his own happiness-and-success. But, since the real object of our desire is practically always given to us only confusedly, we may be mistaken as to the nature of such success, and thus even as to the real significance of our own desires. It is not our own evaluation of ourselves as happy or miserable that determines our happiness or misery. Logos, reason, is the sole criterion by which a life is to be judged, not death or exile or suffering. So, in the Phaedo, (12) Socrates' success is measured not by his personal fate but by whether he lived a reasoned life, free of contradictions.
As an empirical fact, rationality, teleologically understood, is never given in man from the beginning, as such. Nevertheless, it is already present in him as the directedness of his unclear desires and even as the teleological structure of the living organism itself. But reason will not develop of itself; it needs long and careful nursing. Bad habits, wrong opinions, even a bad body and bad genetics (Timaeus 86b ff.) can very easily derange it, and deviate the development of the soul into other directions. The development of reason as a process of clarification presupposes a body of right opinions as the object of that clarification and a complex of habits out of which the love of order will arise and from which reason will eventually be distilled. This is the educational role of the arts and of poetry, for better and for worse: it is up to them, and to gymnastics, to create the opinions and the habits which will feed the educational process.
Too much has been said about Plato's criticism of poetry. Much too little has been said about the great store Plato sets on it, not as education for the masses, as promoting popular virtue, but chiefly as providing the raw material of right opinions seeking for their reasons. A special place is given here to myth, the main educational tool for shaping opinions about gods and heroes as models of excellence. Clearly, myths are not true or false as they stand. Nor are they allegories. Myths present in concrete terms aspects of reality which are not empirical. Their truth is not their simple correspondence to the state-of-affairs but their general accordance to that non-empirical reality which they attempt to signify. (13)
Myths, as such, bear no factual truth. Tragedy, on the other hand, purports to tell us the truth about men and their lives. But tragedy lies, insofar as it presents the empirical man as if he were the whole man. It presents a man's action, allegedly complete in itself, by the outcome of which he considers himself happy or miserable (Republic x 603c4-8). And here he goes wrong, for an action is not to be judged only by its outcome nor by its context, as we see it in life or on the stage, but by external criteria of a different ontological order. Myths of gods and heroes, suitably reformed, can incite us to unreflective virtue. An adequate appreciation of the truth about men requires a deeper understanding of the ontology of human action.
But most, perhaps all, of us will never be able to go beyond popular virtue, to which we were habituated by the force of truthful stories and good laws, as described, e.g., in the Politicus. Even the laws of the best state can do no more than instil opinions and create habits, aiming at bringing about a certain behaviour because of extrinsic causes say, the hope for reward and the fear of sanctions which have nothing to do with their contents.
The final myth of the Republic lays bare the essential defect of popular virtue. Er the Armenian comes back from the underworld, where he saw the souls choosing the lives they will live when they come back to earth. He tells in detail about the choice of the first soul: 'it came from the heavens, and had lived its former life in a well-ordered city and participated in virtue by strength of habit without philosophy' (Republic x 619c6-11). It chose 'the mightiest of tyrannies, out of stupidity and greed... without checking carefully' (619b8-9). Only later he noticed that he was to eat his children and suffer other evils.
That man was fortunate to have lived his life in a just city and to have had good habits and right opinions put into him. For his just life he was rewarded. His good fortune caused him never to be confronted with a temptation greater than his fortitude. But it could have happened. The unphilosophical just man lives in perpetual moral danger. There is in his life of opinion an insecurity which is not merely pragmatic. Even if he never falters to the end of his life, this is no more than moral luck, an accident, hardly something to do with him. By contrast, the philosopher lives a just life not by accident of birth or perseverance in his habits of childhood, but because he can justify this life of his. Were he offered to start his life again and this is, in fact, the problem put before the souls in the last book of the Republic, he would not have chosen another. So did Socrates. But he who lives by opinion has no such certainty. Even the ideal city will deteriorate and its naïve just will succumb to the temptations of pleasure or the fear of a corrupt government. Social conjunctures will change and people will change with them. And those who were model citizens in one civic setting, who knows whether they could not be given different conditions, not much different from the former moral monsters. He who lives by opinion lives at the edge of a moral precipice. He is worthy of prizes and eulogies for his pragmatic, political and social success. But his life, harmonious as it may have been, had external, irrelevant causes. He is still transcendentally guilty, on the level of the logos, and liable to blame and punishment not for what he did, but for what he could have done.
And yet, almost all of education has to do with irrelevant causes. The educational program of the Republic attests to Plato's pessimism concerning the possibility of the development of reason out of itself, as it were. For it to appear, the ground has to be carefully prepared by means which are in themselves non-rational, sometimes brazenly so. Moreover, it is not reason that produces conviction; on the contrary, a condition of the development of reason in man is his conviction about those beliefs that were instilled in his soul during his education, especially in the early stages. Against the background of these our opinions and out of them, perhaps reason will appear. But perhaps it will not. The leap from the psychological to the logical is possible but is never guaranteed and it is doubtful whether it ever occurs fully. And of this failure we stand accused. Pragmatically, we may succeed and be happy. If we also persevere in popular virtue as a result of our good education, we shall receive our prizes from gods and, on certain conditions (which do not depend on us) also from men. But all this has nothing to do with the true moral excellence of man.
(1) Cf. Aristotle, Protrepticus, fr. 11 Walzer.
(2) For the tr., see Burnet, ad loc.
(3) Gorgias 454c ff. Cf. also Meno 81c7, d1.
(4) G. Vlastos, 'The paradox of Socrates', in The Philosophy of Socrates (Garden City, NJ, Anchor Books, 1971), 16-17.
(5) Contra, e.g., T.Irwin, Plato's Ethics (New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1995), 301f.
(6) Cf. J. Mittelstrass, 'On socratic dialogue', Platonic Writings / Platonic Readings, ed. C.L. Griswold (New York and London, Routledge, 1988), 126-142.
(7) Cf., e.g., Callicles: 'I care nothing for what you say, and even those answers I gave you because of Gorgias' (Gorgias 505c5-6); Thrasymachus: 'To appease you, since anyway you do not let me talk. What else do you want?' (Republic i 350e6-7).
(8) Diogenes Laertius vi 24.
(9) So, for example, Phaedrus 246 ff.
(10) Phaedrus 271d ff.
(11) Cf. H. v. Arnim, Platon's Jugenddialoge (Leipzig, 1914); S.Scolnicov, 'Friends and friendship in Plato', Scripta Classica Israelica xii (1993), 67-74.
(12) Cf.Phaedo 89b10.
(13) Cf. S. Scolnicov, Plato's Metaphysics of Education (London, Routledge, 1988), ch. 12.