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Plato and Philosophy of Education

Renato José de Oliveira
Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro

Plato’s philosophic thought is developed in agreement to his educational view, which is mainly presented in two dialogues: The Republic and The Laws. Having the mental foundation of a perfect State as a goal, Plato proposes, in The Republic, one has to pay careful attention to the formation of the guards, whose social role is to defend the city.

The long educational process involving the formation of the guards, has in its roots two arts fairly valued by the Greeks: music (which also includes poetry) and gymnastics. Talking about musical education, Plato says the epic and tragic poems that mention unworthy acts (e.g. revenge) of a divine nature have to be censured.. As the Athenian philosopher considers that God is essentially good, those poems are false and harmful to the moral formation of the guards. When Plato talks about the education of the body, he says one has to take Spartan military gymnastics as a model, because it is based on physical exercises and prescribes a severe control over all pleasures. Therefore, according to Plato, all meals should be collective and frugal, in order to repress the excesses caused by gluttony.

The great articulation between those two types of education constitutes the spinal column of the future guards formation. But how to choose, among them, the one who will be able to rule the city? Plato thinks it is necessary to submit the students to hard tests capable of evaluating their abilities. This evaluation includes testing their memory, their resistance to pain and seduction, and their ability to carry out hard works. The ones approved should go on with the educational process, learning math and, afterwards, dialectics. The ones reproved should work for the community, making all kinds of services: trade, manufacture of consumer goods, etc.

The formation of the guards (and specially of the ruler) demands further dedication and efforts by the students. In the same way our eyes cannot directly stare the sun, the source of all light in the visible world, the Good (the supreme idea governing the supra-sensitive world) cannot be seen if the eyes of the soul have not been carefully prepared to this goal. This situation, illustrated by the well-known cave’s allegory, foresees man is able to free himself from the false knowledge generated by the opinions (doxa), which are only shadows or poor imitations of true knowledge. However, this rupture does not occur immediately, because the one accustomed to live in the shades, when sees the sun for the first time, becomes dazzled and refuses to continue looking at it. The same occurs in relation to the truths and the idea of the supreme Good. Therefore, the further studies (math and dialectics) should go on for many years, in order to reveal the one with a philosophical soul. According to Werner Jaeger (1995, p. 842-842), Plato thinks that the true philosophical soul is the one who is not disturbed by the variety of opinions, aiming at reaching the unity within diversity, i. e., “to observe the fundamental, universal and immutable image of all things in the world: the idea.”

The education that reveals, to all citizens, who is the best ruler is a spiritual ascension: the soul who reaches the top of knowledge is able to rule the city, but shouldn’t judge himself (herself) as a human being better than all others. On the contrary, this soul should go back to the shaded world where they live and, using his/her accurate vision, help them see clearly in the dark. Therefore, the philosopher-king (or queen) does not think happiness is the achievement of the ruler’s power in order to be honored for his/her wisdom or to acquire prestige and wealth; he/she is nor proud of his/her position. He/She is happy for being the city’s greatest educator, the one who rules in order to make the citizens better men and women.

In The Laws, probably the last dialogue written by Plato, the ideal State is founded in Crete. It is also a mental creation and it is called “Magnesia”. If in The Republic the Athenian philosopher understood that the philosopher-king’s words could be considered fair and the best representation of the laws, in “Magnesia” he considers the written laws of great importance, above all due to their educational content. So, the spirit of the law should involve the citizen’s soul as a true ethos, i.e., the citizens must respect the laws due to their role in developing social cohesion, and not because they fear the punishments prescribed. According to Plato, every law has a transcendental foundation: God. He is the “norm of the norms, the measure of the measures” (ibid, p. 1341). In The Republic, the supreme universal principle is the Good that coincides, in The Laws, with God’s mind. God presents himself as the legislator of the legislators, maintaining an eminent pedagogical relationship with men: as good fountains always spot out sound water, God always prescribes what is fair. He is, therefore, the “universal pedagogue” (ibid, p. 1343).

From this point on, Plato begins to pay more attention to the educational processes extent, i.e., it does not matter so much who education will point out as capable of ruling, but how many people will be prepared to exercise patriotism during their lives. Therefore, Plato argues for the public character of education and that it has to be given in buildings especially built for that purpose. In these schools, boys and girls should receive the same teaching. Plato also thinks the educational process should start as soon as possible, and he suggests that three-to-six-year-old children should play different games, created by themselves or not. To the older children, Plato recommends playing the same games, with the same rules, as the one who is accustomed to be ruled by good principles will not feel, in the future, the need for changing the laws and the conventions approved by the community.

As education takes a prominent position in the citizen’s formation, its supervision becomes crucial. An education minister, who must be well qualified and should not be less than fifty years old, should perform this task. He should be chosen among the best public servers by a secret election (carried out in the Apollo’s temple), but the one chosen e can’t be a member of the Nocturnal Council.

The kind of government proposed in The Laws is a system that combines aspects of aristocracy and democracy. The state administration is carried out by different levels of servers, above which is the Nocturnal Council. This council is composed of the oldest and most honorable servers and is not elected by citizens. Nevertheless, its members could have been elected for the public posts occupied before entering the council. The main responsibilities of the Nocturnal Council are:

  1. To develop philosophical studies in order to obtain thorough understanding of the laws ruling the State.
  2. To establish an interchange with philosophers from other cities as to improve the laws of “Magnesia”
  3. To make sure that the philosophical and legal principles the counselors respect performing their duties are outspread to all citizens.

According to Jaeger (op. cit.), although surprising in some aspects, Plato’s political and pedagogical proposition presented in The Laws, is not substantially different from the one presented in The Republic, as the counselors play roles similar to the one of the guards: they are the supreme defenders and the main diffusers of Virtue.

Bbliographic references

  1. Jaeger, Werner. Paidéia – A formaçăo do homem grego (Paidéia—The formation of the Greek Man). Săo Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1995.
  2. Plato. La République (The Republic). Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1966.
  3. Plato. The Laws. London: Peguin Books, 1975.


  1. Andrade, Rachel Gazolla de. Platăo: o Cosmo, o Homem e a Cidade (Plato: cosmos, man and city). Petrópolis: Vozes, 1993.
  2. Chatelet, François. El pensamiento de Platón (Plato’s thought). Barcelona: Nueva Colección Labor, 1973.
  3. Koyré, Alexandre. Introduction à la Lecture de Platon. (An Introduction to Plato) Paris: Gallimard, 1962.
  4. Oliviera, Renato José de. Utopia e Razăo: pensando a formaçăo ético-política do homem contemporâneo. (Utopia and Reason) Rio de Janeiro: Eduerj, 1998.

Encyclopaedia of Philosophy of Education


EEPAT is published in association with the Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia and the journal Educational Philosophy and Theory.