Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Education in Plato's Republic

by Ariel Dillon, presented at the Santa Clara University Student Ethics Research Conference May 26, 2004


Although Plato's Republic is best known for its definitive defense of justice, it also includes an equally powerful defense of philosophical education. Plato's beliefs on education, however, are difficult to discern because of the intricacies of the dialogue. Not only does Socrates (Plato's mouthpiece in the dialogue) posit two differing visions of education (the first is the education of the warrior guardians and the second is the philosopher-kings' education), but he also provides a more subtle account of education through the pedagogical method he uses with Glaucon and Adeimantus. While the dramatic context of the dialogue makes facets of the Republic difficult to grasp, in the case of education, it also provides the key to locating and understanding Socrates' true vision of education. Socrates' pedagogical approach with the interlocutors corresponds closely with his vision of the education of the philosopher-kings--an overlap which suggests that the allegory of the cave is representative of true Socratic education.

The first account of education, however, is not included in the dialogue without purpose. In accordance with the progressive, playful, philosophical education suggested by the cave analogy and the philosopher-kings' education, Socrates uses numerous varying and often conflicting ideas and images (among which is the first account of education) to gradually guide his pupils toward a personal realization of knowledge and philosophy.

This paper will first examine the dialogue's two explicit accounts of education, addressing both their similarities and differences. After gaining an understanding of the two accounts, the paper will analyze them in relation to Socrates' own pedagogical method, and thereby unveil the ideals of Socratic education.

Socrates' First Account of Education:

Aim of Guardians' Education:

The most explicit account of education arises after Glaucon questions the moderate and plain lifestyle required in Socrates' just city "of speech" (369a). Caught up in the fun of imagining the ideal city, Glaucon cannot fathom that it would be as austere as Socrates suggests and desires that it be more luxurious. As soon as Socrates allows fineries, however, the city quickly becomes rife with potential trouble. More land is needed to hold the burgeoning population and its possessions and a specialized military is needed to carry out conquests and guard the city from its neighbors. With the ever-present danger of tyranny accompanying military rule, efforts must be made to curb the guardians' natural tendency to lord over the citizens. Socrates suggests that the guardians be controlled through an education designed to make them like "noble puppies" that are fierce with enemies and gentle with familiars (375a). Education in music for the soul and gymnastics for the body, Socrates says, is the way to shape the guardians' character correctly and thereby prevent them from terrorizing the citizens. Thus, the guardians' education is primarily moral in nature, emphasizing the blind acceptance of beliefs and behaviors rather than the ability to think critically and independently.

Socrates says that those fit for a guardian's education must by nature be "philosophic, spirited, swift, and strong" (376 c). The guardians must be lovers of learning like "noble puppies" who determine what is familiar and foreign by "knowledge and ignorance" (376 b). Unlike the philosopher-kings appearing later in the book, these philosophically natured guardians approve only of that with which they are already familiar and they attack whatever is new. Although Socrates says potential guardians must have a certain disposition, the impressionability of the ideal nature suggests that they must only be bodily suited to the physical aspects of the job since they will be instilled with the other necessary qualities through education.

Musical Education:

Education in music (which includes speeches) begins with the telling of tales in the earliest years of childhood because that is when people are most pliable. Tales must be strictly censored because young children are malleable and absorb all to which they are exposed. Socrates claims, "A young thing can't judge what is hidden sense and what is not; but what he takes into his opinions at that age has a tendency to become hard to eradicate and unchangeable" (378d). Unable to distinguish between good and bad and, therefore, garner examples of how not to behave from bad tales, children will only use bad examples to justify their own bad behavior (391e). Through the telling of carefully crafted tales, mothers and nurses will shape their children's souls (377c). Moreover, children are expected to accept whatever they are told with little free-thought. Radically, Socrates says that anything in youth "assimilates itself to the model whose stamp anyone wishes to give to it" (377b). The implication that children can be shaped completely by education fits with the earlier suggestion that guardians are not meant to have a particular moral nature before their education.

The content of tales is meant to instill virtue and a certain theology in the hearers. Instead of giving examples of appropriate tales, Socrates attacks the great poets, Hesiod and Homer, for creating inappropriate tales. He says that these poets' tales include bad lies, which further unrealistic images of the gods and heroes (377e). Gods must never be shown as unjust for fear that children will think it acceptable and honorable to do injustice. Tales cannot depict fighting among the gods and, further, children must actively be told that citizens have never been angry with one another (378c). By hearing such tales, youths will learn the importance of unity and will be disinclined to fight amongst themselves when they are grown. Children must be told that the gods are not the cause of all things, only those which are good and just (380c). Furthermore, gods cannot be said to punish (unless it is for the punished person's benefit), change shape/form, or lie. By making the gods incapable of dishonesty and connected only with what is good, Socrates distances them from the world of men in which lying and deception are ever-present. Separating gods from men prevents poetic accounts of the gods from being used as a model for human behavior. Instead, children must look solely to human guardians and the law for guidance.

Good tales must also foster courage, moderation, and justice. Hades should be praised so that the warriors will not fear death; children should grow up fearing slavery more than death (386c). The hero Achilles must be absent from all tales, because children cannot see lamenting or gross displays of immoderate emotion glorified for fear they will adopt the practices as their own (388). Additionally, tales cannot include displays of laughter (389a). Like excessive displays of grief, excessive displays of happiness threaten the stoic attitude that is desirable in guardians. Suitable tales must glorify and encourage moderation; they must display obedience to superiors and temperance in drinking, eating, sex (389e), and love of money and possessions (390e). Tales must also show bravery in the face of danger (390d. Most existing stories, Socrates claims, send inappropriate messages and must be outlawed. They show unjust men as happy, just men as unhappy, injustice as profitable, and justice as being someone else's good and one's own loss. Interestingly, these bad messages are the same as Glaucon's and Adeimantus' arguments against the usefulness of justice. Instead of being told existing tales such as those by Homer and Hesiod, children must be told speeches about real justice, whatever it may be (392c). Interestingly, although Socrates includes three of the four main virtues (courage, moderation, and justice) among the important lessons of appropriate tales, wisdom is absent. The omission of wisdom, along with the implication that the guardians should accept blindly whatever they are told and to be wholly molded by the tales, suggest again that guardians are not intended to be wise and philosophical.

Narrative Style of Tales:

After addressing the appropriate content of tales, Socrates discusses whether simple or imitative narrative should be used by poets and guardians. He determines that mimetic poetry is dangerous because it encourages people to imitate bad as well as good behavior and supports the violation of the one man-one job principle (395c). But if poets and guardians are to imitate (which they doubtlessly will since Socrates' whole discussion of the importance of good tales relies on the idea that children will imitate good examples), they must copy those virtues which they have been taught since childhood (courage, moderation, holiness, freedom) (395c). Socrates says, "Imitations, if they are practiced continually from youth onwards, become established as habits and nature, in body and sounds and in thought" (395d). Therefore, the correct style of narrative for both guardians and poets is mostly non-imitative, but allows for some imitation of good men (396d). Socrates then says that the preference for non-imitative poets excludes the most loved and entertaining poets from the city (397e-398a), in favor of more austere and less-pleasing poets. Whereas Glaucon was unwilling to give up the "relishes" which he loves (372c), Adeimantus, Socrates' partner for this part of the discussion, willingly gives up his favorite poets and agrees that poets must be less pleasing.

Lastly in his discussion of educative music, Socrates addresses the appropriate melody of tales with Glaucon. Similar to the content and style of speeches, Socrates allows only moderate and austere melodies. Melodies imitating the sounds and accents of men courageous in the face of danger and those suitable to peaceful men are allowed, but modes suiting laments or revelries are forbidden (399b). Only simple instruments such as the lyre, cither, and pipe are permitted (399d). Most importantly, Socrates insists that rhythm must follow speech, not the other way around. Every component of speech must follow the disposition of a good soul; "Good speech, good harmony, good grace, and good rhythm accompany good disposition" (400e).

Socrates says that careful crafting of tales is important because they are the most effective method of educating guardians' souls. Rhythm and harmony touch the soul directly, so if children are surrounded by tales of goodness and never exposed to bad tales, like "noble puppies" they will learn to love what they know (goodness and justice) and hate what they do not know (injustice) (401d-e). Learning to love fine things and hate ugly things as a child will help them appreciate reasonable speech and find pleasure in living moderately when grown (402a). By asserting that the highest virtues are acquired through education and are a matter of refined taste, Socrates combats Glaucon's love for base pleasures. Socrates shows him that with the proper education, a life of noble virtue, including "moderation, courage, liberality, and magnificence" (402c) but excluding sex and excessive pleasure, will be fulfilling. In other words, through learning real virtue, Glaucon will find a satisfaction similar (although not identical) to that of the eros that he so craves.

Gymnastic Education:

Having completed the discussion of music, Socrates moves onto gymnastic education. Socrates does not advocate a complicated gymnastic regimen; instead, he says that a good soul produces a good body, and that a healthy intellect ensures a healthy body (403d-e). Therefore, by eating and drinking moderately and undertaking a simple physical exercise plan from youth, the body will be as fit as is needed. Gymnastics is mainly responsible for preventing illness and the need for medicine in the city. Medicine, Socrates says, is only welcome as a means for curing easily-fixed illnesses and should never be used to keep those unable to work alive (406). Following his discussion of medicine, Socrates discusses the appropriate character of judges. Like the well-educated guardian, a good judge will be "a late learner of what injustice is" (409b). Although never exposed to injustice personally, he will recognize injustice by its foreignness. This ability to distinguish between good and bad without ever having been directly exposed to the bad is the intended result of the guardians' education.

Although music is the most important component in the guardians' education, equilibrium between music and gymnastics is important for the production of moral guardians. Because a solely gymnastic education causes savagery and a purely musical education causes softness, the two must be balanced. Socrates says,

The man who makes the finest mixture of gymnastic with music and brings them to his soul in the most proper measure is the one of whom we would most correctly say that he is the most perfectly musical and well harmonized (412a).

Education in music and gymnastics will be compulsory for youths, and their progress and adaptability will be watched and tested throughout their development. Those who resolutely hold onto the convictions instilled in them by education will be chosen as guardians and those who rebel against the city's ideology will be rejected (413d-414a).

Socrates' Second Account of Education:

Aim of Education:

After being compelled to expound on the details of the city (including communism and gender equality), Socrates admits that the city should be ruled by philosopher-kings (503b) and, furthermore, that the previous account of the guardians' education was incomplete (504b). Socrates now acknowledges that the nature necessary in philosopher-kings is rare. Quick, fiery natures suited to music are usually too unstable for courage in the face of war, and trustworthy, brave natures that excel in war are often slow intellectually (503c-d). Thus, potential philosopher-kings must receive a new form of education that will identify, test, and refine their philosophical natures. Socrates says, "It must also be given gymnastic in many studies to see whether it will be able to bear the greatest studies, or whether it will turn out to be a coward" (503e). From this, it seems that education does not make men a certain way, as in the first account. Instead, education serves to identify those who are capable of philosophizing and helps to strengthen the characters of those who are capable. Furthermore, the philosopher-kings education will teach true love of learning and philosophy, as opposed to the false love of learning of the "noble puppies" (376b).

Knowledge of "The Good":

The philosopher-kings' education aims beyond the attainment of the four virtues and includes the greatest and most beneficial study: that of "the good" (505a). Knowledge of the good is the ultimate virtue; without it the attainment of other virtues is impossible (505a). Furthermore, it is insufficient to merely have opinions about the good. Instead, knowledge of "the good" must be absolute; Socrates says, "When it comes to good things, no one is satisfied with what is opined to be so but each seeks the things that are" (505d). The importance of knowing what is stands out in sharp contrast to the earlier unfounded opinions of the guardians. Before, education consisted of telling false tales to children so that they would absorb the material and have correct opinions. Seen as incapable of determining right and wrong for themselves, children were to be guarded from the truth when it was not wholly good. The new importance of truth and what is also contrasts with the first account's use of lies in educating the guardians. Simply by aiming for true knowledge, this education is more philosophical and Socratic than the first. But despite his adamancy that knowing is superior to opining, Socrates himself claims not to know the good, which allows him to explore it jointly with Glaucon. Socrates' sharing in the educational experience is an effective pedagogical method that benefits both the student and the teacher.

Socrates' way of explaining the good is characteristic of his pedagogical method. First, turns Glaucon onto the good by introducing it in a mysterious, attractive way. Glaucon wants this illusive, erotic knowledge that Socrates dangles before him, but just as his interest is sparked, Socrates tells him it is too complicated, which arouses Glaucon even more (506e). As a compromise, Socrates agrees to tell Glaucon of something similar to the good but less complicated (507a). Using the power of images, Socrates evokes an analogy of the obscure good and the familiar sun. Socrates says that the sun, like the good, illuminates the true "ideas" behind things. As the sun allows our eyes to use their existing capacity to see, the good allows our existing intellect to know. Socrates says,

When it fixes itself on that which is illumined by truth and that which is, it intellects, knows, and appears to possess intelligence. But when it fixes itself on that which is mixed with darkness, on coming into being and passing away, it opines and is dimmed, changing opinions up and down and seems at such times not to possess intelligence (508d).

The good is a higher reality and is responsible for our capacity to reason, as well as our very "existence and being" (509b).

By preparing Glaucon with the sun analogy and telling him of the extreme power of the good, Socrates hooks him completely. Glaucon says, "Apollo, what a demonic excess…don't leave even the slightest thing aside" (509c). No longer is Glaucon averse to the austere lifestyle of the guardians, because now the guardians are possessors of the most illustrious power. Unlike in the first account when Socrates explicitly says that moderation excludes the possibility of lusty pleasure (402e), now Socrates paints the good as though it were as appealing as sex, making Glaucon willing to do anything to obtain the good.

The Cave Analogy:

Now that Glaucon eagerly wants to know everything about the good, Socrates tries to explain the divided line (510-511). Socrates skillfully explains until Glaucon grasps the concept and is able to make an account of it for himself. Socrates then spontaneously progresses to the cave analogy in order to explain the process of coming to know the good by means of education. He says, "Next, then, make an image of our nature in its education and want of education" (514a). Socrates describes a cave in which humans are chained from birth facing a wall. Behind them, puppet-masters carry figurines which cast shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. Because they know nothing else, the prisoners assume the shadows to be the extent of reality--but what they see and hear is actually only a small segment of the intelligible world. Glaucon easily grasps the idea behind the analogy and is immediately intrigued by the image, saying "It's a strange image and strange prisoners you're telling of" (515a). For the reader, the image of the cave quickly evokes the memory of Socrates' earlier false tales and noble lies, and it is evident that the new education is meant to free the prisoners from their false opinions and convictions, as opposed to chaining them within the cave as did the earlier education.

Socrates next reveals why philosophical education is often resisted and how educational enlightenment is progressive. He shows Glaucon what would happen if a prisoner was unchained and allowed to leave the cave and see reality. At first, he would be pained and disoriented by the foreign sights. When told that his experience in the cave was not entirely real, he would rebel--and not without reason (515d). If he tried to look at his new surroundings and the sun directly after leaving the dark cave, he would be blinded and would want to return to the comfort of his familiar past surroundings (515e). Socrates asserts that if someone were to drag him "away from there by force along the rough, steep, upward way, and didn't let him go before he had dragged him out into the light of the sun" (516a), the prisoner would fight and be resentful, and even then, would not be able to see everything at once. Instead, his eyes would adjust slowly. First he would see shadows, then reflections in water, then things themselves, then the night's sky, and finally, the sun--which is an image of the good and what is (516b). But once he focuses on what is, he will be happier than ever before and will never want to return to the cave (516e-c). Furthermore, if he did try to return to the cave and help the other prisoners, they would hate him, calling him corrupt and delusional because their reality is still limited to the shadows in the cave (517a). Through this powerful image of the cave, Socrates shows Glaucon the good and suggests how it is to be obtained. The good is beyond perceived reality and is hard to see, but once the good is understood, it is clear that it "is the cause of all that is right and fair in everything," and must be possessed and understood by prudent rulers (517c).

A progressive education that teaches men to use their existing capacity for knowledge is what Socrates intends for the philosopher-kings. He says,

Education is not what the professions of certain men assert it to be. They presumably assert that they put into the soul knowledge that isn't in it, as through they were putting sight into blind eyes…but the present argument, on the other hand…indicates that this power is in the soul of each and that the instrument with which each learns--just as an eye is not able to turn toward the light from the dark without the whole body--must be turned around from that which is coming into being together with the whole soul until it is able to endure looking at that which is and the brightest part of that which is (518c).

The ability to know is always within man--never faltering, but useful only depending on whether it is focused on the truth (518e). From what Socrates says here, it seems as if the natures with which children are born matter less than their education; anyone can be a philosopher with the right training.1 Also, unlike the first education, the purpose of the philosopher-kings' education is to eventually teach children how to distinguish right from wrong by showing them the whole truth.

Philosopher-Kings' Education:

After convincing Glaucon that escaping the cave and becoming a philosopher is advantageous, Socrates returns to more practical political matters. He says that good guardians must not be prisoners nor can they be philosophers who selfishly stay outside of the cave. Instead, they must escape the cave, be educated in the good through philosophy (521c), and then return to the cave to rule and enlighten others (519d). Since the philosopher-kings are still to be warriors, their education must still be useful for warlike men. The previous account of education, however, is incomplete because gymnastics and music only teach habits by example (521e-522b). Thus, Socrates revises the prior education by introducing the study of numbers/calculations, geometry, and cubes. Not only is mathematics useful for practical matters, but its abstractness causes students to exercise their intellect and ask questions about what really is. Socrates says of calculation, "It leads the soul powerfully upward and compels it to discuss numbers themselves" (525d). The study of complex, elusive concepts pushes one to study what is permanent and perfect. Dialectics are also to be studied. Reasoning through questioning/answering and exchanging arguments teaches how to give accounts of one's self and what one knows, which helps identify the good in oneself and the good in the world.

When a man tries by discussion--by means of argument without the use of any of the sense--to attain to each thing itself that which is and doesn't give up before he grasps by intellection itself that which is good itself, he comes to the very end of the intelligible realm just as that other man was then at the end of the visible (532b).

Socrates insists that recipients of an education in mathematics and dialectics must have a suitable nature. They must be steady, courageous, good looking, noble, tough, and quick learners (355). But above all, they must love hard work. Again, Socrates insists that education in philosophy is something to be loved and will result in the satisfaction of eros. Similar to the previous education, education (in music, gymnastics, mathematics, and preparatory dialectics) begins in childhood. But unlike the compulsory nature of the earlier education, the philosopher-kings' education must be presented first as voluntary play. Socrates says, "Don't use force in training the children in the studies, but rather play. In that way you can better discern what each is naturally directed towards" (537a).

At age twenty, gymnastic education will cease and the best students will be chosen to learn an overview of their studies and how they interrelate with each other and the good. Those who excel in their studies, war, and other duties will be chosen at age thirty to be tested in dialectics to determine "who is able to release himself from the eyes and the rest of sense and go to what which is in itself and accompanies truth" (437d). Remarkably, in the guardian's education, no one, not even a judge, was permitted exposure to the truth at this young an age. Socrates, however, still recognizes the danger of the full truth. He holds that students must not be allowed free reign with dialectics at too young an age, because, instead of using their newfound knowledge for the good of the city, they might be tempted to forsake the city's laws and conventions in favor of more base pursuits (538a-c). Thus, the young must not be allowed to toy with debate because they will undoubtedly misuse the art of dialectics, leading to the dissolution of their beliefs and the defamation of philosophy. Older, educated men, however, "will discuss and consider the truth rather than the one who plays and contradicts for the sake of the game" (539d). When they are thirty-five, those well-trained in dialectics will be required to go back into the cave to hold offices, and testing will continue. Finally, at the age of fifty, those who have excelled in everything will perceive the good and will alternate philosophizing and ruling the city. Socrates says,

And, lifting up the brilliant beams of their souls, they must be compelled to look toward that which provides light for everything. Once they see the good itself, they must be compelled, each in his turn, to use it as a pattern for ordering city, private men, and themselves for the rest of their lives. For the most part, each one spends his time in philosophy, but when his turn comes, he drudges in politics and rules for the city's sake, not as though he were doing a thing that is fine, but one that is necessary. And thus always educating other like men and leaving them behind in their place as guardians of the city, they go off to the Isles of the Blessed and dwell (540a-b).

Thus, through a rigorous philosophical education, the city unshackles individuals and leads them out of the cave of ignorance and into the light of knowledge so that they are eventually able to go back into the cave and teach others. Glaucon protests the unfairness of forcing the liberated philosophers to go back into the cave (519d), but Socrates insists that, although it is unappealing, philosophers will serve the state because they are indebted for their own enlightenment, love knowledge, and accept that the good of the city is more important than their own happiness. Further, Socrates says it is better that the philosopher-kings rule unenthusiastically or else they will become greedy for power which leads to tyranny (520d).

Socratic Education:

Although Socrates presents two explicit methods of education in the Republic, his preferred pedagogical method is difficult to identify because of the dramatic context of the dialogue. Like the divided line, the dialogue has different meanings and purposes on different levels, making it dangerous to believe everything Socrates says. Instead, the two accounts of education must be patched together and evaluated in relation to each other and the dramatic context of the dialogue in order to discover Socrates' preferred method of education.

When Socrates introduces the cave analogy, one cannot help recognizing the similarities between it and his own actions in the dialogue. Finally, it seems as though Socrates is being genuine. The philosopher's descent into the cave hearkens back the first line of the book, "I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon" (327a). It is now clear that Socrates himself is down in the cave, somewhat against his will,2 attempting to help the interlocutors turn from the dark of ignorance to the light of knowledge and realize what is. Through his refutation of the opinions of Glaucon, Adeimantus, Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus, Socrates battles the city's conventions. Also, because the dialogue is meant to be a defense of philosophy and an apology of Socrates, the education of real philosophers seems more in tune with the theme of the book than the education of "noble-puppy" guardians. After Socrates unveils the cave analogy, in retrospect the whole dialogue leading up to the cave appears to be an example of Socrates' pedagogical method. Socrates' ludicrous examples, different images, and persistent questioning are clearly intended to help guide his pupils upward through the levels of reality to the highest, truest knowledge of what is.

Socrates' rambling teaching style makes sense in light of his idea that students should come to the truth on their own rather than by force (536e). The first account of education can be read in light of this ideal. The topic of education first arises in the book when Glaucon opposes the plain lifestyle required in Socrates' city. Socrates, recognizing that Glaucon is still attached to lavishness, goes along with his request to make the city more luxurious. Socrates says, "Now, the true city is in my opinion the one we just described-a healthy city, as it were. But let us look at a feverish city, too" (372e). By not rebuking Glaucon, Socrates allows him to steer the discussion with the hope that he will come to the truth on his own rather than by force. Despite slightly relinquishing control, Socrates still subtly guides Glaucon and Adeimantus toward the truth by making the luxurious city and its guardians' education ludicrous. Socrates provides numerous cues that signal that the city and the education are neither ideal, nor meant to be actively instituted. Likening the guardians to philosophical "noble puppies," philosophically educating the guardians by sheltering them, attacking the use of poetry, and telling the guardians that their education and childhood was a dream (414d) are all so implausible that they strike a cord suggesting that the opposite is true.

Despite Socrates' use of "reverse psychology" to make Glaucon realize the truth on his own terms, Glaucon does not find the philosopher's life ideal, so Socrates switches tactics. Instead of using irony, Socrates uses images to teach the interlocutors. When Socrates describes the good, Glaucon has trouble understanding its complexity, so Socrates takes a step back and uses the sun image to convey his point. He moves from the sun image to that of the divided line, and then develops the analogy of the cave to represent the nature of education. Whereas Glaucon accepted the first account of education because he himself sparked the discussion of the luxurious city, he is now perplexed by the image of the cave. Glaucon reacts as if he has stepped out of the cave for the first time and does not know what to make of his bright surroundings. But similar to the escaped prisoner's increasing ability to see what is, as Socrates introduces his sequence of images Glaucon begins to understand what the good is, how it is to be found, and that it is the most desirable virtue. As the shadows of his convictions fade, Glaucon begins to see the good and understand that philosophy is a profitable, satisfying activity, as well as the way to enlightenment.

Although Socrates found it necessary to drag Glaucon out of the cave and into the light using images, Socrates still prefers that his students do not simply accept the truth, but come to it on their own. Thus, he makes the guardians' revised education implausibly lengthy (it does not culminate until the age of fifty at which point most people are close to life's end) and ends the discussion with the idea that only children under the age of ten will be allowed in the city with the philosopher-kings (541a). This time, Glaucon takes the cue and says, "Just like a sculptor, Socrates, you have produced ruling men who are wholly fair" (540c). Finally, Glaucon seems to be able to distinguish between what is true and false for himself.

Socrates' style of questioning/answering and refuting arguments also gains meaning after his discussion of the philosopher's return to the cave and dialectics. By subtly directing the discussion through questions, Socrates allows the ignorant prisoners to unchain themselves and realize the truth. He does not try to tell Glaucon and Adeimantus what to think, as though he were putting "sight into blind eyes," but instead helps them turn around and focus on what is important and true. He leads them toward the light by means of questions and dialectics until they are able to make an account of their knowledge for themselves (511c-d). By presenting them with numerous different points of view, he teaches them to look beyond convention and their long-held convictions, and be open to new, foreign ideas. Never telling them what to think, Socrates helps them realize their own, natural potential.

In the second account of education, Socrates says that the best education should be more like play than work (536d). In line with this, Socrates' creation and discussion of the city is a playful activity (536b). Socrates makes the discussion of justice interesting by playing "make believe" with Glaucon and Adeimantus. He lets them be founders, thereby allowing them a vested interest in the discussion. Furthermore, he exploits the power of playful images and poetry to convey his ideas. Proving that he is not against poetry as much as he seemed in the first account of education, Socrates uses the poetic images of the sun, the cave, and Er to educate his pupils. The play which he advocates, however, is not without responsibility. Play must have serious intentions; poetry must only imitate what is good, pointing beyond the petty troubles of men to the eternal pursuit of justice and philosophy, and children must not be allowed to play with dialectics before they are able to do so responsibly for fear they will be corrupted and become lawless (538). Socrates was serious when he said that poetry has the power to touch the soul, which is why he ends his argument with Socratic poetry--the myth of Er.

Even though Socrates advocates escaping the cave and learning what is through philosophy, he never dismisses the importance of convention. Although education is not meant to simply bolster convention as in the first account of education, education is also not meant to undermine convention. Philosophers cannot stay in the light forever and the cave cannot be eliminated, or else lawlessness would prevail and the city would be destroyed. Instead, recipients of a philosophical education are indebted to the city and must use their knowledge to make the cave/city as enlightened as possible without destroying it. Perhaps educated philosophers must even use their education to replace the shadows in the cave with noble tales, such as the myth of Er, which will lead the ruled toward truth while still in the confines of the cave/city. After all, shadows (or noble lies) capture part of the truth, whether it is physical or moral, and can be used to educate people about what lies beyond the cave, either outside the city's laws or in life after death.


In light of both accounts of education and the dramatic progression of the dialogue, it becomes apparent that the whole Republic is an example of Socratic pedagogy. Using the discussion of justice, Socrates formulates an active model of the educational process and guides his students through the levels of intelligibility and knowledge. He follows the path of the divided line, of which the "first [is] knowledge, the second thought, the third trust, and the fourth imagination" (534a). Beginning by imagining the just city, Socrates initiates the educational progression from large images to small ones. Early in the dialogue, Socrates suggests that the idea of justice should be sought first in a large city, for it is there that it will be most visible, and then in individuals (369a). After teaching imagination, Socrates moves onto trust by introducing an education that requires rulers to blindly trust the educative tales they are told. Next, he teaches about thought through his discussion of the philosopher-kings' education and dialectics. Finally, Socrates arrives at knowledge of what is. He acknowledges that his proposed regime and its philosopher-kings are implausible and, instead, the real goal is to establish an ordered, just regime within oneself (592). Moreover, Socratic education is not just meant to educate civic rulers--it is meant to educate men to be excellent rulers of themselves. By the conclusion of Book IX, Socrates has moved effectively from the image of justice in a city to the image of justice in private, philosophical men. Thus, despite the seeming confusion of the dialogue, it displays in its entirety the divided line, the movement from seeing images to intellecting particulars, and the ideal process of education.

Not only does Socrates lead the interlocutors through the educational process, but Plato, by using a dialogue form for his treatise, allows us, the readers, to be educated along with Glaucon and Adeimantus. We fall in love with learning and philosophy both in the abstract sense that Socrates tried to instill in his pupils and also, in the more pragmatic sense, we are students of political philosophy by reading the Republic. Socrates' incessant use of irony causes us to have our own interrogative and dialectic relationship with the dialogue, which increases our capacity to understand what is. Plato also exploits the power of mimetic poetry by using Socrates and the participants as his mouthpieces. Interestingly, Plato imitates undesirable individuals as well as good (an imitation that Socrates condemns); however, in keeping with Socratic poetry, the dialogue has an interminably good message and teaches men how to be virtuous philosophers both in life and beyond.


  1. Socrates never resolves the tension between the importance of nature and education for the development of philosopher-kings, which makes it difficult to understand which is most important. He says that philosopher-kings must have a certain nature, but then says the capacity to see the good and be educated is in all. Given the dramatic context of the dialogue (that Socrates is educating the interlocutors), I would assume that he believes more in the importance of education rather than that of nature. After all, he is trying to sell learning and philosophy as admirable and advantageous practices. Perhaps he emphasizes the importance of a certain nature to add an aura of prestige to education. If certain natures are necessary for education, then all those who are educated are deemed superior in both nature and education. Back

  2. Remember that Socrates had to be persuaded to stay in the Piraeus and talk with Adeimantus and Polemarchus (327-328). Back

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