Play and Education in Plato's Republic
Arthur A. Krentz
This paper traces a central connection between play (paidia) and education (paideia) in Plato's Republic. (1) In this dialogue play is presented as the best pedagogical means in the education of a just citizenry and the cultivation of philosophical leaders who can apply their knowledge and experience to establishing a just city (polis). My hermeneutical approach to the Republic is shaped by more recent approaches to Plato's dialogues that consider the dialogue form as significant for an understanding of the content of the dialogues. Specific to the connection between play and education in the Republic is the dramatic context which identifies a life-and-death struggle between philosophy/freedom and sophistry/tyranny in terms of their respective approaches to education/culture and leadership in establishment of a "just" city.
Education/Play in the Context of the Dialogue, the Characters, and the struggle between Philosophy/Free-Play and Sophistry/Tyrannical Control.
The dramatic form of the Republic, the character of the participants, and the social-political context of events in Athens and Greece during the time of Socrates and Plato all have important implications for the interpretation of the philosophical meaning of the dialogue. (2) They help the reader to understand its central aim and purpose the construction of a just city in words (polin...logo, 2.369a; lexeos, 5.473a) and the cultivation of who will govern a community justly. (3) This aim is supported by the philosophical search for the Good, the protection of the just city from dangers that would threaten to bring about its decline and fall, and the educational means most likely to make the construction of a such a just city possible. Socrates' proposal for an educational process likely to result in the creation of a free and liberating city, is playful in its approach but serious in its intent. Not unexpectedly, this serious topic of education (paideia) is presented with much playfulness (paidia) by the author of the dialogue and in the context of struggle (agon) and contest. This conflict between two approaches to education learning by force/coercion (bia) versus learning by free-play is manifest in the conflict between tyrannical force and philosophical persuasion, sophistry and philosophy, and between private advantage and the public good.
The prominence of play (paidia) in the Republic is reflected in the interplay of the interlocutors, and is particularly prevalent in the thought and life of Socrates and his extended discussion with Thrasymachos, an arch-sophist, and with Plato's two brothers, Adeimantos and Glaucon. Socrates, the principal "player" in the dialogue, while considering the importance of dialectic in the education of philosophical rulers, describes his discussion with Adeimantos and Glaucon about the education of philosophical leaders and the consititution of the "city in words" as "playing" (paidzomen, 7.536b-c).
Readers of the dialogue are warned that the spoken and written report of the proceedings is not a first hand account, but a "replay" a retelling from memory by Socrates, who "yesterday" stayed up all night talking with others in Piraeus about the desirability of a just life and a just society. It takes about 10 hours to read the dialogue aloud so it is likely that the actual conversation lasted at least that long. However, even if readers grant to Socrates a prodigious memory for the details of an all-night conversation in Piraeus, and an accurate retelling of the night's discussion to an anonymous hearer on the following day, it is unlikely that readers can be confident that they have an authoritative and unbiased presentation of the views of any of the main characters including Socrates or even of Plato, their inventive author, who was not listed as present. Rather, the speeches of the participants must be read cautiously in a way which requires that readers and interpreters not assume that Socrates re-telling of the lengthy discussion, and Plato's written account, are entirely unbiased and accurate or can be accepted uncritically. Readers must work through the issues and the problems of interpretation for themselves.
Socrates opens the Republic the account of his journey outside of Athens and says, "I went down (katabaino) to Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, the son of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and at the same time, I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival" (1.327a). The dramatic occasion of the dialogue is set at about 416 B.C.E. at the time of the institution of the new festival in honor of the goddess Bendis goddess of the moon (4) and of night who is being celebrated in the evening festivities at Piraeus with a torchlight parade. (5) Much has been made of the spatio-temporal features of this opening passage and other highlights in the dialogue such as the Myth of the Cave. (6) Both involve a downward descent Socrates' trip to the "lower" night-time world of Piraeus harbour and, in the Myth of the Cave, the downward descent of the philosopher's return to the shadowy everyday world inside the darkness of the cave. It is also significant that these "descents" to nether worlds occur in the dark of night at Piraeus and in the disorienting darkness that permeates everyday life in the cave.
The Myth of the Cave is presented as a metaphor of education (paideia, 7.514a) but it may also serve as a model of the role of an educational mentor, such as Socrates. Thus, we can compare Socrates to the free, philosophical wise man who reenters the nether-world of the dark cave the world of everyday affairs in which people live and move and have their being in order to attempt to rescue those who live in this shadowy world, while facing the danger of having his life threatened by the violent reaction of the "prisoners" inside the cave who find their world disturbed by a Socratic rescuer (7.517a). The playground or arena for the pedagogical contest between philosophical, free inquiry and sophistic demagoguery takes place in the dark world of the cave a world of shadows, and public opinion, a world of "getting and spending" and social-political intrigue.
Some interpreters of the dialogue have drawn attention to the struggle that takes place in the dialogue between tyranny and philosophy, between violent force and rational persuasion, (7) between education as represented by the sophists who aim at success and mastery over their students, and by Socratic philosophers who seek to nurture their students through a liberating philosophical quest for wisdom. This conflict between injustice and justice, between sophistry and philosophy is mirrored not only in the arguments and debate of the interlocutors, but also in the very lives and characters of the participants themselves. (8)
Gathered at Polemarchos' house, where the discussion takes place, are almost a dozen men. What is known of the lives and characters of some of the main participants in the discussion, as well as their disposition toward tyranny or philosophy, is also relevant to the analysis of play and education and the interpretation of the dialogue. I will deal with only a few of the participants whose presence is relevant to the interpretation advanced in this paper. First of all, Socrates, our narrator, who raises the issue of a just life and a just society and education as a means to achieve it, shows himself to be dedicated to a life of excellence, and the cardinal virtues temperance, courage, wisdom and justice. He represents the philosopher par excellence constantly striving for wisdom and the appropriation of these virtues into his own life. The etymological meaning of the names in Plato's dialogues often reveals significant characteristics of the participants, and the Republic is no exception. The name of "Socrates" is derived from "sodzein" (save) and "kratein" (to have the power) which together means "one who has the power to save or rescue." Presumably Socrates' power to save was directed primarily at others because he could not "save" himself from being found guilty of irreligion and the corruption of youth before the Athenian court. However, he did "save himself" from rendering evil for evil, preferring to suffer evil rather than do it (See the Crito). As an educational mentor Socrates shows himself as a kind of mid-wife of ideas, and a pedagogue who leads potential learners to discover the truth for themselves, by "purging" them of false opinions and encouraging them to pursue the truth with the aid of their philosophical mentor. But Socrates is also a playful trickster and a wizard (goete), a practitioner of irony (1.337a) who little by little may lead us astray. So careful readers must not be content to accept what he says at "face value," but must test it for themselves and go beyond the dialogue in working some of these things out on their own.
Socrates is accompanied on his journey to Piraeus by Glaucon and they are joined at the site of the discussion by Glaucon's brother, Adeimantos. Both young men have philosophical potential, and both are brothers of Plato, the author of the dialogue, who was not present at the discussion. The three brothers are sons of Ariston a name which means "the best" and which leads Socrates jokingly to address Glaucon as "you best of men" (7.536e). Later as Socrates discusses the power of the "rule of the best"/aristocracy, we see that the designation "best" applies primarlily not to those of noble birth, but to those whose character and actions are marked by excellence and achievement. Both Adeimantos and Glaucon distinguished themselves courageously at the battle of Megara. (9) an indication of their courage. Socrates describes the character of these brothers in the words of an admiring poet as "sons (paides) of Ariston, divine (theion) offspring of a famous man" (2.368.a). Glaucon and Adeimantus are cast in the roles of potential philosophers caught in the struggle between tyrannical force and philosophical persuasion, between violent oppression and a just society,and between the poles of philosophical/practical life and the sophistical pursuit of self-interest.
Socrates personifies the integration of wisdom and justice in his own life and he brings to the fore the issue of justice in the life of the community. Thrasymachos and his fellow sophists the power-wielding politicians argue in favour of injustice and self-interest personified in Thrasymachos' definition of tyranny "which by stealth and force (bia) takes away what belongs to others, both what is sacred and profane, private and public, not bit by bit, but all at once" (1.344a). Although Thrasymachos participates actively in the discussion only in Book 1, he represents the position of the sophists as defenders of self-interest and the tyrannical rule of the community by force and so his presence looms large over the entire dialogue. When he first enters into the discussion he has to be restrained by the men sitting near him who want to hear the argument out (1.336b). He breaks into the discussion like a "wild beast" (therion) and "he hurled himself upon us as if he would tear us to pieces" (1.336b). Thrasymachos' entry into the discussion is like the attack of a vicious "wolf" (1.336d) a very important allusion to the tyrannical character of sophists, who are associated with the violent attacks of wolves, as opposed to the more gentle behaviour of philosophers who are linked with the discriminating watchfulness of well-disciplined dogs! (10) Thrasymachos represents the violent intrusion of force into the well-ordered dialogue of the community, so he must be restrained in order not to interrupt the discussion (1.336b). After being subdued he must also be prevented from leaving the house until he has heard Socrates' response to his speech that "he poured like a bathman...in a sudden flood over our ears" (1.344d). Although Thrasymachos, whose name means "clever and overbold in schemes and machinations," is somewhat "tamed" and reduced to silence by Socrates in Book 1, nevertheless, by his presence he continues to represent the powerful and tyrannical tendencies of the sophists in the social-political realm.
The conflict between Socrates and Thrasymachos is characteristic of the struggle between philosophy and tyranny, gentle persuasion and violent oppression throughout the dialogue. This conflict also has implications for the interpretation of the Republic. It suggests that the speeches must not be read "straight on" as it were, as if we could determine the innermost thoughts of Socrates or Plato on these matters, but always in context of a violent struggle between philosophy and sophistry, between a just society and a tyranny. This conflict between "aristocracy" the "philosophical" rule of the city by the best and "tyranny" also has some counter-effects on the ideal city proposed by Socrates for the city takes on some tyrannical characteristcs of its own, banishing poets and story tellers such that Plato and even Socrates would be unwelcome citizens in this ideal city. Of special note in the dialogue is the effect that tyranny has on philosophy, as the "love of wisdom," and on the account of Love/Eros/Philia which is presented. For example, Eros, the desire for the beautiful, is described in dialogues such as the Phaedrus and the Symposium as a divine gift and the creative source of the greatest individual and social benefits in the polis. However, in the Republic Eros is described as a "tyrant" (1.329c, 3.402b-403c) whose "gifts" must be curbed and censored. It is important to take these tyrannical aspects into account in the interpretation of the text and to be aware of the tentativeness of "the city in words" outlined in the dialogue. (11)
In the presentation of the playful dramatic elements of the dialogue there are elements of seriousness (spoude) and play (paidia) combined. Firstly, there is the "seriousness" of the issue of justice applied to the life of the individual and the community. Secondly, there is the playful attempt to describe this in words and the ironic reminder from Socrates that the construction of the city is a form of "play" and a "game" (paidia) a suggestion that the "image" of the ideal city, which Socrates describes, must not be taken too seriously as though it might be regarded as a blueprint of an ideal community or even that it is realizable. Serious and tragic elements are also manifest in the serious impact on the lives of the key characters, the account of the likelihood of the decline of the just city, and the entry of politics into the life of Socrates resulting in his conviction and death as a dangerous threat to the Athenian polis. (12) But as a form of play, the Republic itself is comically optimistic, especially on the question of the actual establishment of this city in words in the face of three giant waves of opposition the equal education and participation of women as rulers (5.446a-456b), the much more difficult issue of marriage rites, and of wives and children in common (5.456b-473b), and finally, the political rulership of philosophers (5.473b-480a). It is also significant that each of these three "waves" that threaten the ideal city involve a degree of the tyrannical repression and control of Eros/Philia/Love in the life of the city and, hence, on the likelihood of achieving a just society.
Play is central to the interaction of the characters, the setting of the dialogue and at all levels of learning in the Republic. Even the most difficult and highest forms of philosophical investigation such as dialectic the final stage in the education of philosophical rulers are described as play (paidia) and the best form of education for free citizens in a just society. Socrates is present in the dialogue as a philosophical mentor of this play and a philosopher of the highest rank. The sophists are Socrates' principal opposition and are represented by Thrasymachos as a professional contender for the governance and rulership of the city, an anti-hero for its youth, and a major player in the contest for pedagogical supremacy in establishing a just city or a tyrannical one. Others who join in the match, particularly Adeimantos and Glaucon, are amateurs neither professional philosophers nor sophists. Hence they have Socrates and Thrasymachos before them as pedagogical and leadership models for playing the serious game of political life and as rival mentors in the leading and education of its citizens. Thus, Socrates and Thrasymachos represent opposing types of leadership and educational approaches Thrasymachos as the overpowering tyrannical sophist, on the one hand, and Socrates as the enabling philosopher and co-searcher of wisdom, on the other.
The Link between Education (Paideia) and Play (Paidia).
In Plato's Republic, an important link is established between education/culture (paideia) and play/games (paidia), beginning with children's (paides) musical and athletic activities but continuing through the whole educational process culminating in the dialectical "free-play" of the philosopher king or queen. The evidence for this link between education and play is considerable. L. Brandwood in his A Word Index to Plato lists over 60 citations in the Republic to the noun variants of "paideia" and to the verb form "paideuein" in reference to education/culture and the educational process. (13) The references to play/game(s) in its noun form "paidia" occurs over 25 times, and in its verbal form "paidzein" over 8 times in the Republic. (14) Both terms are linked with the education and activities of children "pais" and "paides" but also with the education of dialectical philosophers. Etymologically in Greek the terms "paideia," the word for education/culture, "paidia," the word for play/game/pastime/sport and "paides" the word for children, have the same root, and the three terms often show up in the same context.
The educational play of children is central to the Republic; however, there are also important connections between play and the practice of dialectic of philosophers in the acquiring of a philosophical education. (15) To understand the philosophical message of the Republic requires giving close attention to the connection between education/culture (paideia), and the pedagogical approach (paidagogia) to teaching and learning that are to be carried out in the community. The central aim of pedagogy (paidagogia) is to encourage learning as a form of play (paidia), which is the most persuasive and effective approach to learning for the free citizens in a society which honors philosophers. (16) Socrates, who discusses with Glaucon the importance of play in the education of the philosophical rulers in the city, states in the Republic, 7.536e-f, that:
Here Socrates presents the optimum approach to education as a non-coercive play activity in which children are to participate freely (7.536e). The term "freely" in this context does not imply that educational play is unstructured and has no limits, since the freedom of individuals in the Republic must be viewed within the limiting context of the city (4.434a-e) and in the form of a more "law-abiding play" (ennomoterou...paidias, 4.424d).
Play appears, both as a method used in the instruction of learners as well as an activity related to the educational context (6.497). Plato distinguishes between play which is playful amusement (6.497a-e, 7.539b), and the law-abiding play (nomoterou...paidias) which is serious (spoudaious) (4. 424e-425a). Frivolous or non-serious play is the play which diverts attention from the educational goal of the discovery of the truth, and focusses on the dialectical activity as a sport or pastime unrelated to the pursuit of the truth. Serious play concerns itself with the goal of imbuing children's and learners' play (paides paidzein, 4.424a) in music, stories and athletic games with good order that fosters excellence in the education (paideia) of the young (4.425a-b). The aim of the educational process is the fostering of the growth and development of the learner toward the ultimate objective of the individual's contribution to a good society and the vision of the Good itself. By way of contrast, the sophists, as educators, focussed primarily on refuting and contradicting their opponents in discourse a "base" form of play which has lost sight of its aim the truth and the good.
In our everyday usage, there is a tendency to treat the terms "play" and "work" as opposites and, correspondingly, work is seen as serious and play as frivolous. For Plato, however, play and work are not opposed to each other, since play can be serious and useful when it contributes to the educational process. Plato himself employs play with serious intent in the education of potential philosophers when he uses an imaginative myth to describe the education of learners as they move from an unenlightened condition to enlightenment in the Myth of the Cave (7.514a-518b). Moreover, dialectic, the final stage of education for philosopher-kings, is seen as serious play which searches for the truth dialectically rather than simply seeking to contradict opponents and refute them (7.539b-d).
In the contrast between serious play and frivolous play, there lies a value distinction between what may be termed "good play" and "bad play" respectively. One is able to differentiate good and bad/base play according to whether the activity relates to the ultimate end of education, namely, the knowledge of the Good and the application of that vision to day to day life in a good society. All forms of play which aim at or lead toward this objective are considered good play. On the other hand, "bad" play obscures and diverts the learner from striving toward the final goal and is to be censored from the educational experience of learners (2.376-3.412). A similar distinction between noble/good and base/bad play is introduced by Socrates in connection with the difficulties that philosophical leaders have in functioning justly in a democratic regime when he says that
Once again the contrast is between the noble play of philosophical leaders and the base play of tyrannical leaders interested in the manipulation and control of the crowd.
In summary, this paper has sketched briefly the important link and significance of play (paidia) in the education/culture (paideia) of the citizen and the community in Plato's Republic and the contrasting educational approaches of sophistic coercion and philosophical persuasion. Much more can be done to examine the relation between play and education throughout the dialogue, to develop the contrast between noble and base play, and to explore the contrasting approaches to education and the development of political leaders through the liberating play of dialectical philosophers, such as Socrates, versus the forceful "play" of tyrannical sophists, such as Thrasymachos.
(1) The Greek title of Plato's work is the Politeia which reflects the social and political context of the dialogue in connection with the leadership of politicians "politikoi', and public polity in the community and city (polis). These important "political" connections are somewhat lost in the Latin title "Republic" which is derived from "res publica" and means "public things" or "public matters," and in today's political context suggests the political regime of a nation state. Unfortunately, the title "Republic" for the imaginary city (polis) which Socrates constructs "in words" (logoi) is misleading if one imposes present political meanings of the term "republic" for an understanding of Socrates' polis constructed in Plato's dialogue of the 4th century B.C.E. Despite this danger I will use the title "Republic" since it is the title most commonly applied to this dialogue of Plato.
(2) Much has been written in recent years about the importance of Plato's dialogue form for an understanding of their philosophical import and the reasons why this is important for the reading and interpretation of the dialogues. For more on this issue see Arthur A. Krentz, "The Philosophical Significance of the Form of Plato's Dialogues," Philosophy and Literature , Vol. 7, No. 1 (April, 1983, 32-47, and A. Krentz, "Dialogue and Dialectic: the Portrayal of Philosophy in Plato's Phaedrus," in Philosophy and Culture, Vol.3: Proceedings of the XVII World Congress of Philosophy, edited by V. Cauchy. Montreal: Editions Montmorency, 1988, 798-802.
(3) Allan Bloom, translator and editor, The Republic of Plato (New York: Basic Books Inc.,1968. All quotations and textual references in the paper are to Bloom's translation of The Republic. Textual references are preceded by the book number of TheRepublic.
(4) Bloom, op.cit., 441, n.5. Bloom indicates that Bendis was a foreign goddess introduced by the Thracians in this new religious festival to Piraeus, the harbour of Athens and noted for its openness to novelty. All quotations and textual references in this paper are to Bloom's translation of the Republic.
(5) The source of the light and the casting of the shadows in this festival, and the fact that the dialogue occurs at night with the assistance of lamplight and torchlight is also a significant parallel to the parable of the myth of the cave.
(6) See John Sallis, Being and Logos: The Way of the Platonic Dialogue (Pittsburg, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1975): 312-320. For an extended discussion of the significance of place in Plato's dialogues see Drew A. Hyland, Finitude and Transcendence in the Platonic Dialogues (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1995): 13-34. Adi Opher, Plato's Invisible Cities: Discourse and Power in the Republic (Savage, MD: Barnes and Noble, 1991), also treats the importance of space in connection with the playful founding of a just society.
(7) See Adi Opher, Plato's Invisible Cities: Discourse and Power in the Republic (Savage, MD: Barnes and Noble, 1991), pp.104-110..
(8) See Adi Opher, op.cit., pp. 120-125.
(9) See Shorey, Republic, Book 1, p. 144, fn. D.
(10) It is significant that, throughout the Republic, Socrates always swears "by the dog!"--the most philosophical of animals.
(11) This struggle between philosophical persuasion and rhetorical force is also reflected in the opening scene of the Republic. Socrates and Glaucon, who are on their way from Piraeus to Athens, are seen by Polemarchos "from a distance as [they] were hastening homeward" (1.327b). Polemarchos orders his slave-boy (paida) to run and make them wait for him; the slave caught hold of Socrates' cloak from behind and made him stop, ordering him to wait. Polemarchos approached with Adeimantos and a few others, whose names are mostly unmentioned and invites Socrates to his home; Socrates indicates that he and Glaucon are heading back to Athens and he wants to continue on their way. However, Polemarchos remarks that Socrates "is outnumbered by those who are stronger and more forceful (kreittos) than he is" (1.327c) and, hence, they are not likely to be persuaded to let him go. Again a conflict is being introduced between force and persuasion, between political tyranny and philosophical dialogue. Physical violence and hostile quarrelling are allayed when Socrates agrees to accompany the party to the house of Cephalos, Polemarchos' father (1.328a-b). In the discussion of the Book I, Cephalos is presented as a kind of elder statesman, now old and wealthy, and with a traditional religious piety rooted in the advice of poets (1.329d-331e). Cephalos, whose name means "chief" or "head" represents the power of traditional religious, political and social authority, but he is soon to be caught in the power struggle in Athens between the democrats and the oligarches a struggle which will bring about the demise of his family and the death of his sons, Polemarchos and Nicias. See Adi Opher, op.cit., pp.118-9.
(12) Socrates, in the Symposium, argues that the best playwrights, whether comedians or tragedians, ought to be equally adept at writing comedy or tragedy, and cast their works as comic-tragedies or tragi-comedies. The Republic, in its account of the justice and injustice in the city and the lives of citizens, obviously takes the Socratic injunction seriously, thoroughly integrating playful comedy and serious tragedy in the dramatic setting and the philosophical content of the dialogue, and in the discussion of justice and injustice in the city and on the lives of its citizens.
(13) Brandwood, Leonard, A Word Index to Plato (Leeds: W.S. Maney and Son, 1976), pp. 697-698.
(14) Brandwood, op.cit., p. 699.
(15) Huizinga, op.cit., p. 5. Huizinga maintains that play and culture "are interwoven with one another" and that "genuine, pure play is one of the main bases of civilization."
(16) Perhaps the most extensive treatment of the focus on education and culture (paideia) is the work of Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, 3 Vols. tr. by Gilbert Highet. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965). Adi Opher, Plato's Invisible Cities: Discourse and Power in the Republic (Savage,MD: Barnes & Noble, 1991) also gives an interesting treatment of the importance of space in connection with the activity of play as essential to the founding of a just society.