As part of my PhD coursework I’m doing an independent study in the philosophy of education this quarter. Each week I’m reading a major work in the subject and writing my response. Below are some of my initial thoughts on reading Plato’s Meno and Republic for the first time in a very long time.

Education is central to Plato’s vision of the Republic, because it is the primary means by which the Guardians and Philosopher Kings will be identified and prepared for their roles. His program is clearly a very elitist one, and Socrates himself acknowledges that it is highly improbable. Yet in the course of The Republic, and to a lesser extent Meno, Plato outlines many of the foundational questions of education that persist to this day, among them: What is the nature of education? Who should be educated? Why should they be educated? How? And to what end?

In the Republic, Plato outlines a systematic approach to education that begins with gymnastics and moves on to music. These two areas were meant to enable soldiers to do their work, and would help to identify those capable of further study, which would include arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and ultimately dialectic, the highest of the disciplines. While at the end of his discussion with Glaucon in Book 7 he states that all above ten years old are to be spirited away to the country for proper breeding away from their parents, he maintains throughout that different people will be able to achieve different levels of education and will ultimately perform different functions in society.

The purpose of education in Plato’s scheme is to enable the Republic to be a just and virtuous state. Individual desires are subordinated to the good of the collective, to the extent that the shoemaker happily accepts his role for the good of the state, and the true Philosopher King will be the one who does not desire to be a leader at all, but only serves because the state demands it of him or her. Plato’s commitment to principle-that is, justice and the good and welfare of the state and its citizens-as the motivating force in all decisions is thorough, and helps to explain his openness to gender equality.

Still, Plato has a difficult time defining virtue, as he makes clear in Meno. And in that sense, Meno serves as a check on the utopian vision of the Republic. As Socrates points out, we have a difficult time defining virtue, and we are hard pressed to identify true teachers of virtue. If something cannot be defined, it cannot be taught. This begs the question in the Republic: How does Plato envision the education of these virtuous leaders? He is not clear on this point, other than to identify certain subject matters to be mastered and certain life tests to be passed.

Perhaps the most striking moment for me in this reading of the Republic was Socrates’s description of the curse of enlightenment towards the end of Book 7. How is the highly educated person able to re-enter society after he has learned Truth? Yet it is precisely this test that determines one’s aptitude for leadership. It is a test of integrity, one which I imagine resonates with many highly educated people: Does one abandon the falsehoods of society and become a hermit, or does one learn to engage society with its paradoxes?

On this score, paradox plays an important role for Plato, leading ultimately to the consciousness that is capable of dialectic and truth. He who can recognize things that can be categorized in multiple and contradictory ways are the ones who can advance to the highest levels of education. So, perhaps paradoxically, only those capable of paradox are apt to be highly educated, and the greatest test of their aptitude is their ability to engage in a paradoxical existence.

Bruce Kimball has written that Plato’s singular emphasis on the search for Truth is the intellectual foundation of the current shape of American higher education, which values (or at least claims to value) the search for Truth above practical considerations. Certainly that is a strong element in the Republic. Yet I could not help but notice how much education for Plato is rather performative and relational: For Plato the philosopher who becomes a closeted intellectual is of lesser character than the philosopher who toils-stoically, as it were-in affairs of state. Education involves learning (or recollecting) a certain vision of culture, including taste and manners and behavior. Of course, for Plato those visions of culture are not simply visions or opinions, but absolute truths.