20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy of Education

Greek Paideia and its Contemporary Significance

Morimichi Kato
Tohoku University

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: We argue that there are three basic views of paideia in ancient Greece. After briefly discussing them, we turn our attention to the contemporary situation. We try to show that the dialogical or Socratic view of paideia can contribute toward a deeper understanding of the contemporary problem of multiculturalism.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

In this article we will argue first that there are three basic views of paideia in ancient Greece (I). Then after making a brief overview of their fate in the later history (II), we will turn our attention to our contemporary situation and try to show that it is the dialogical or Socratic view of paideia which can contribute to a deeper understanding of the contemporary problem of multiculturalism (III).

I. The three basic views of Greek paideia are all connected with the concept of truth and the relation of man to it. I call these views "basic", simply because I consider the man's "transcendental" relationship to truth (which includes the denial of this relationship) fundamental for our understanding of paideia, especially in ancient Greece after Parmenides.

1) The authoritarian view is found in the so-called Presocratic thinkers, such as Parmenides and Heracleitus. They assert the existence of absolute eternal truth that can be grasped intuitively and expressed verbally by a few wise men (sophoi). Even though they disagree and dispute each other on the content of truth, they all share in the esoteric view of truth. Just as Being is separated from the realm of appearance by Parmenides, so the wise man who alone can discern Being is clearly distinguished from the common crowd who cannot move beyond the realm of appearance. Or according to Heracleitus only the wise man can give ears to the eternal Logos amid the ever-changing flow of the world; whereas fools are compared with swine that are content with mud. This view gives the wise the authority to teach Truth ex cathedra.

2) The relativistic view of the Sophists, especially of Protagoras and Gorgias, is more "democratic". We should not forget that the Sophists flourished especially in democratic Athens as testified among others by the friendship between Protagoras and Pericles, the greatest statesman of democratic Athens. Both Protagoras and Gorgias criticized and ridiculed the Parmenidean concept of Being. The famous words of Protagoras, "man is the measure of all things" should be interpreted in this light. For Parmenides the measure is first of all Being and secondly the wise man who discerns and speaks about Being. For Protagoras each person like you and me is the measure. Absolute truth that is accessible only to the chosen few has vanished. Instead there are as many truths as the number of people (or even of other creatures). Thus truth becomes relative to each person. This view however makes the teaching and the pursuit of truth impossible because everybody already has his or her own truth. Consequently the relativistic view stresses the pragmatic aspect of paideia. The aim of paideia is not to teach absolute truth but those truths that are and/or will be advantageous to the students and their community.

3) The dialogical view of Socrates was developed in confrontation with the relativistic view of the Sophists. This view is found in the early and (partly) middle dialogues of Plato and probably reflects the original teaching of Socrates to some degree. The early dialogue Protagoras is representative. In this work Plato depicts a (probably fictional) meeting of the young Socrates with the aged Protagoras and, with a great sense of humor, describes the bewilderment of Protagoras who can never understand the dialogical spirit of Socrates. Protagoras on one hand considers his discussion with Socrates as a verbal battle before an audience and insists on a long speech as his favorite weapon. Socrates, on the other hand, considers the discussion as a common search and insists on the question and answer method as the only way for this search. It is clear that this difference derives from different conceptions of truth. For Protagoras there is no common search for truth because there is no truth to look for beyond the individual truth that each person already has. For Socrates, on the other hand, there is truth as common ground which lies beyond people's daily beliefs and which should be searched for through interpersonal discourse. It is the attainment of this truth which Socrates calls wisdom and which, according to the Apology of Socrates, only immortal gods possess. Thus truth as such is essentially unattainable by man. And yet, it is not completely hidden to man. Otherwise it could not be the object of the search. This situation, which a modern scholar might call a hermeneutic circle, was illustrated in the Meno through the famous myth of the soul's prenatal acquaintance with Forms. The dialogical view, therefore, is constituted with the three presuppositions: 1) There is truth as common ground. 2) This truth cannot be revealed completely to man. 3) Yet it is partly accessible to man. It is this partly hidden partly accessible character of truth which enables the Socratic dialogue as a common search after it. The Socratic paideia consists of this common search.

II. All three views of paideia that we examined influenced the Western history of philosophy and education. Yet the mainstream seems to have been that of the authoritarian view. Here Plato plays a decisive role. As we said, his early and (partly) middle dialogues are the best expression of the dialogical view. Yet after he established his theory of Forms and contended in the Republic that the philosophical rulers, who have seen the Form of the Good, should rule the city; he moved toward the authoritarian view. In his late dialogues, the influence of Parmenides becomes predominant and the dialogue as such becomes monotonous, almost a monologue. There, instead of a common search, a master explains and a pupil nods. Even though the dialogue still retains its important position in higher education in the Academy, it has lost its open character since the right answer is now known. The dialogue has become a means to lead pupils to the right answer. To sum up, we can say that whereas the Socratic dialogue is philosophical (in the sense of love for the unattained wisdom), the Platonic dialogue is pedagogical.

The authoritarian concept of paideia becomes even more predominant in the Middle Ages. As shown eloquently by Eugenio Garin (L'educazione in Europa 1400/1600, Bari, 1976) medieval education consists largely of reading works of authors whose authority is well established, such as Aristotle and the Church Fathers, and of course the Bible. Thus education becomes giving and receiving commentaries on these works. This fact is reflected in the literary form of medieval dialogue that is usually between a master and a pupil. It is true that with the dawn of the Renaissance those books that had previously been considered authoritative became the objects of doubt, as shown among others by Galileo's polemics against Aristotle. Yet the concept of absolute truth still remains in many different forms.

It is only after the 19th century when this framework began to lose its sense. With the Nietzschean death of God, the search for absolute truth itself became doubtful. Behind the veil of absolute truth, people began to detect such things like power relationship or ressentiment of the oppressed. It is the relativistic and pragmatic view that since then has become predominant.

Of course this brief description of the historical change is very general and there are certainly many important exceptions. To name important ones, we should not forget that through the thinkers like Isocrates and Cicero the teaching of the Sophists retained its influence through the Western history of education, and also that even after Nietzsche there are important thinkers like Husserl who betrays the influence of Plato in his concept of Wesensschau.

But what is striking in this overview is that the dialogical concept of paideia never got the upper hand after Plato. One important exception in this connection is Nicolaus Cusanus, a German thinker of the 15th century who tried to reintroduce the Socratic element of knowing of not knowing through his concept of docta ignorantia. According to Cusanus, God as an infinite being cannot be known completely by the human intellect, which is finite. And yet, the search for God is still possible since God is in a certain sense in us, "contracted" in us to use his term. So philosophy becomes coniectura, a never-ending search for the infinite wisdom. On this spirit, he even wrote a book, De Pace Fidei, where the people of different creeds meet and discuss religious themes. And yet the project of Cusanus was hampered by his insistence that truth is already revealed by the Word of Christ. Consequently the inter-religious dialogue becomes preaching of Christian truth to the representatives of other faiths. It is only in the 20th century with the hermeneutics of Gadamer, when the importance of Socratic dialogue was rediscovered. An important passage of his Wahrheit und Methode (pp. 344-360) shows how the analysis of the Socratic method of question and answer served as a model of the hermeneutic method, which itself is a kind of Socratic dialogue extended to the understanding of different texts and cultures.

III. With the ever-increasing process of globalization and widespread consciousness of ethnicity, the problem of coexistence between people of different religious and non-religious creeds has become a common problem in the world community. Also within the philosophy of education multiculturalism has become one of the main concerns.

The relativists tend to think that there is no superior creed or culture and plead for tolerance. Yet by doing so, they seem to make creed and culture a matter of personal choice.

Against this, there are people like Allan Bloom who give higher value to a particular culture (which is usually their own) and encourage the study of those Great Books which contributed to the formation of this culture. Both positions (which I have somewhat exaggerated for the sake of argument) cannot give a proper account of the dialogue between different cultures or different creeds. In this context, it is interesting that Charles Taylor, who is commonly thought to be a communitarian, in his recent article on multiculturalism ("The Politics of Recognition" in Multiculturalism, Princeton, 1994) talked about a "fusion of horizons" between different cultures (p. 67). It is interesting precisely because Taylor borrowed this key word from Gadamer who developed this concept with regard to the interpretation of texts in his Wahrheit und Methode (4. Auflage, Tuebingen, 1975) using the Socratic dialogue as a model, of which he gives an illuminating analysis in the same book (pp.344-51). It is a strange coincidence that even a pragmatist like Richard Rorty in his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, 1980), while discussing the edifying philosophy which should take place now that the traditional systematic philosophy is no longer plausible, refers to the same book by Gadamer (pp. 357-365). Rorty, in the same part of the book, also sees Socrates as representing hermeneutics in contrast with Plato who represents epistemology (pp. 317-8). Rorty's appraisal of Socrates echoes in his definition of the edifying philosophy as "the love of wisdom" and his statement that "the edifying philosophers never end philosophy, but they can help prevent it from attaining the secure path of a science" (p. 372). This assertion reminds us very much of the dialogical paideia of Socrates. But there is an important difference between Rorty and Socrates as well: Rorty repudiates the common ground of inquiry altogether and makes inquiry itself senseless. He stands in this respect nearer to the Sophists who can be thought of as proto-pragmatists. Socrates, on the other hand, might as well agree with Rorty that the complete grasping of the common ground is impossible (at least for us mortals), but he would nevertheless insist vigorously that the existence of unattainable truth as common ground is a necessary presupposition of the common search as a never-ending quest for it. In other words, for Socrates and, in my view, Cusanus as his follower, the importance lies in the act of the quest, not in the attainment. That the common ground functions as the presupposition is indicated by the use of myth in the Meno. Here, the prenatal knowledge of Forms was introduced as a myth in order to dispel the lazy logos according to which no philosophical search is possible. To use modern concepts, the myth in a sense of presupposition is a narrative that cannot be proven by logos but which opens up a horizon wherein something like a dialogue becomes possible. I heartily welcome Rorty's repudiation of systematic philosophy that I have called in this paper the authoritarian view of paideia. But by adopting the bipartite distinction between hermeneutics and epistemology or between Socrates and Plato and not the tripartite distinction as we did, he seems to have lost the sight of the Socratic position and puts Socrates on the side of the Sophists.

Before ending this presentation, I would like to add four additional remarks on the dialogical view of paideia. The first remark is the importance of listening. By listening I mean the openness toward the message of the other. This attitude comes from the sense of one's own limitation, which betrays both the modesty of one's self and admiration to that which transcends him or her. Of course one's partner in a dialogue has his or her own limitation too, but he or she is limited differently and thus can provide us with insight into the subject of the dialogue. This listening is no passive act but is accompanied by the attentive act of asking as clearly explained by Gadamer in his book. Contrary to the dialogical view, neither the authoritarian nor relativistic view is capable of according sufficient place to the art of listening. For the authoritarian view, listening is usually for the immature pupil. For the relativistic view, listening is an arbitrary gathering of information, a search for something interesting, in a sense fitting to one's taste or stimulating one's thoughts or feelings. Instead of respecting others as a partner in the common search, the relativist only uses the other as a provider of interesting opinion. It is revealing that the art of rhetoric which sprung from the relativism of the Sophists is essentially the art of speaking, not of listening.

The second remark is that, even though I pointed to the negative side of the authoritarian paideia of Plato, I am not against the Platonic or Neoplatonic tradition as such. Indeed one of the main sources of the idea of "the dignity of man", which most of us cherish, comes from the Platonic concept of human soul which has its affinity with the Realm of Forms. We should in fact pay special regard to those religious and philosophical traditions that have acquired authority through long period of time. For it is likely that we find in them something worth listening to. It is only when these traditions, overconfident of their own "truth", become authoritarian and deaf to other voices that they become the subject of blame.

But this special regard to tradition seems to contradict the Platonic Socrates who is known as a sharp critic of tradition. This brings us to the third remark. By interpreting Socrates I concentrated my attention on one special feature of him, namely the concept of philo-sophia as love for unattained (and for us mortals unattainable) wisdom and regarded this from the point of view of its Wirkungsgeschichte in Cusanus and Gadamer. This is why I omitted to mention his hostility toward the"barbarians", his identification of virtue with knowledge, and the elenchus as his favorite method (which to me is too narrow as a method) etc.. I even omitted "the capacity for critical examinations of oneself and one's traditions" (M. Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity, Cambridge, MA., 1997, p. 9). For this capacity reminds me of the Enlightenment mentality which judges and criticizes its own and other people's traditions taking its own Reason as the sole measure. (Nussbaum's appeal to "narrative imagination" seems to protect her from this mentality. And yet it is still too subjectivist.)

The fourth remark is that even though I have developed the dialogical view with regard to Socrates, Cusanus and Gadamer, this view needs not to be only Western. For example, the Confucian concept of learning (xue) backed by the metaphysical interpretation of the schools of Chusi or Wang Yang Ming reveals characteristics which can be fruitfully compared with the Socratic tradition, even though also within Confucianism there is a tendency and threat of authoritarianism. The Confucian concept of learning which was meant to be an unending process of widening of one's horizon often degenerated into mere book-learning and was used for justification of those in power.

To sum up, the dialogical view of paideia will provide us with some insight which neither the authoritarian nor the relativistic view can. It is both our deep recognition of human and cultural limitations (which should be accepted as existential fact) and the faith in the common ground of different creeds and cultures (which, although impossible to prove logically, can be made plausible by the common search for it) which open us up to other voices, which make us, first and foremost, listeners and learners.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage