Plato’s Class Distinction the Backdrop of Contemporary Education

Plato’s Class Distinction the Backdrop of Contemporary Education

Plato’s Background.

Plato was born at Athens in 428BC into a distinguished Aristocratic family. His birth coincided with the era of the Periclean democracy when Athens was at its peak in culture and learning. The greatness of Athens before this time dates back to when Athens, under Cleisthenes, defeated the Persians in battle. By the political strength and genius of Cleisthenes, Athens started booming in commerce and social life. This glory was short-lived. The city-state of Sparta, a neighbouring Greek State, out of sheer jealousy and covetousness for Athenian wealth, status and power declared a war, which lasted twenty seven years. Athens was defeated in 404B.C.

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This defeat of Athens marked the end of the only democracy in the ancient world. It brought with it a traumatic degeneration in moral ethos and politics of Athens. Plato was a living witness to all these.

Plato’s father was Ariston and his mother, Perictione. His mother was a sister of Charmides and niece of Critias, who were both ringing figures in the oligarchy of 404BC. He had two brothers: Adeimantus and Glaucon, who were both represented in the Republic. He had Patone as his sister. Plato’s real name was Aristocles but was later called Plato due to his broad physique.

His actual name was Aristocles but nature has invested him with a powerful structure and very soon everybody was calling him Plato literally, the broad-shouldered one

 In 403B.C. when Plato was only twenty-four, the Periclean democracy had been overthrown and replaced by a dictatorship of the thirty oligarchs who were incidentally Plato’s relatives. Plato, who has always had a flair for a political career, was urged to enter into politics by these oligarchs. The oligarch however embarked on a rule of violence and attempted to lure Socrates into their crimes. Plato was totally disgusted with the oligarchy, which was eventually done away with and democracy reinstituted.

The restored democracy did not fair better either. It was a rule characterized by ineptitude and wanton indiscipline, a mob rule where practically every citizen went to the house of assembly to air his/her views and record his/her vote. This era turned out to be an era of great political decadence especially in Athens. Plato was inspired to seek for a remedy for his disorganised society given the trial, conviction and death of Socrates, Plato’s friend and master, on unjust charges of impiety, corruption of the minds of the youth and for establishing new gods. Plato, shattered and dismayed by this atrocious brutality towards Socrates, resolved to abandon home politics permanently. He withdrew to Megara and took shelter with the Philosopher Euclid.

To find a cure for the ills of society as well as to forget his sorrows regarding the death of Socrates, he preoccupied himself with much learning and contemplation. This took him to Sicily, Italy and Egypt. As he observes in one of his works, “…we are not only to look to our own country for examples, but seek in the world at large for specimens of the highest, divine order of men, who though rare, might from time to time be found under every form of government and no perfect civilization can be attained without this means of observation and improvement.”[3]It is not clear how long Plato sojourned in Egypt but the more important point is that there are evident traces of information collected in Egypt through his writings and so far, it cannot be doubted that this visit had its influence on the character of his philosophy.[4]

On his return to Athens, Plato established his Academy in 386B.C. near the sanctuary of the hero, Academies. The Academy may rightly be described as the first European university; for the studies there were not confined to Philosophy only but extended over a wide range of auxiliary sciences such as Mathematics, Astronomy, Geometry, Gymnastics, Biology and the physical sciences. Again, admission was not restricted to Athenian citizens; youths came also from abroad. The curriculum of the Academy was designed to train and nurture a new species of politicians who would eventually become Philosopher-kings. For the rest of his life, he presided over the Academy making it the intellectual centre of Greek life. Its only rivalry was the school of Isocrates. After his failed attempts to make Dionysius II a Philosopher king and his city and Syracuse an ideal state, he remained in Athens devoting all his powers of thought to Philosophizing, teaching and writing at the Academy. He died at the age of 80 in the year 348B.C.

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His Works and Chronology.

Apart from lectures delivered at the Academy and the letters he wrote to his associates, Plato left so many valuable writings for posterity. They are collectively called The Dialogues. It is hard to distinguish Socraticism from Platonism in the Dialogues because Socrates, the chief interlocutor appears to be the mouthpiece of Plato’s opinions. The non-existence of any separate work by Socrates himself in which he expressed his own ideas also compounded the issue.

A convenient chronology has been worked out over the years regarding the Dialogues of Plato. The chronology of his works discloses the development of Plato’s thoughts, how it changed – if it did change, what modifications were introduced in the course of time and what fresh ideas were introduced. These trends in his works follow the events and course of time and thus, like other Philosophers’ writings, to understand Plato’s thought the chronology of his works is very important.

The list is categorised into Socratic period – when it is supposed that the influence of the Socratic intellectual determination is still with Plato. The Transitional period – here it is assumed that Plato is moving towards originality in thought and writing. The period of Maturity – depicting original thoughts of Plato and The Period of Old Age – a period of noticeable perfection in thought due mainly to experiences and convictions.

Socratic Period:

Apology:      Socrates’ defence at his trial.

Crito:          Socrates is exhibited as the good citizen, who in spite of his unjust condemnation is willing to give up his life in obedience to the laws of the State. Escape is suggested byCrito and others and money is provided to pay through his escape but Socrates declares that he will not escape the laws but will abide by his principles.

Euthyphron:         Socrates awaits his trial for impiety.

Laches:       On courage.

Ion:             Against the Poets and rhapsodists.

Protagoras: Virtue is knowledge and can be thought.

Charmides: On temperance.

Lysis:           On friendship.

Republic:    Bk.I on Justice.

Transitional Period.

Gorgias:      The practical politician, or the rights of the stronger versus the Philosopher, or justice at all costs.

Meno:         Teachability of virtue corrected in view of ideal theory.

Euthydemus: Against logical fallacies of later sophists.

Hippias I:    On the Beautiful.

Hippias II:  Is it better to do wrong voluntarily or involuntarily.

Cratylus:     On the theory of language.

Menexenus: A parody on rhetoric.

Period of Maturity.

Symposium: Earthly beauty is but a shadow of true Beauty.

Phaedo:       Ideas and Immortality.

Rebublic:    The State, Dualism strongly emphasized.

Phaedrus:    Nature of love; possibility of philosophic rhetoric, tripartition of the soul as inRepublic.

Works of Old Age.

Theactetus:  Knowledge is not sense perception.

Parmenides:         On the defence of the ideal theory against criticism.

Sophistes:    Theory of ideas considered again.

Politicus:     The true ruler is the knower. The legal status is a make-shift.

Philebus:     Relation of pleasure to good.

Timaeus:     Natural science, the doctrine of demiurges

Critias:        Ideal agrarian state contrasted with imperialistic sea power ‘Atlantis.’

Laws and Epinomis: He makes concessions to real life, modifying the utopic face of the Republic.

Letters 7 & 8:  Must have been written after the death of Dion in 353BC. It should be noted that Plato never published a complete and nicely rounded off Philosophical system. The reason was that:

His thoughts continued to develop as fresh problems other difficulties to be discussed,…certain modifications to be introduced occurred to his mind.

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Plato’s Class Distinction.

Plato’s political thoughts like the rest of his thoughts and other philosophers’ sweep from his historical environment and the socio-political conditions that prevailed in Greece (especially in Athens and Sparta) at that time. The Polis or City-State was for centuries the context for Greek life and thought. It was regarded as the ideal social organism for the proper realization of good life. There were three legally and distinct classes: First was the body of citizens who were entitled to take part in its social life – they attended town meetings and were eligible to a range of public offices. They also participated in public debates and elections. This class was a privilege attained by birth. The second main group was made up of the resident foreigners. Athens was a predominantly commercial city and so harboured a good number of foreigners. This group has no part in the political life of the city but were socially influential and they had freedom of movement. The third group were the slaves. They formed one – third of the total population of the city state. The slave like the foreigner lived happily especially during the time of war when his service is needed by the state. There were two kinds of slavery: the unskilled slavery of the mines and the skilled slavery of the pottery and domestic life. Barker described the situation thus:

…the position of slaves at Athens was on the whole good. Majority of the slaves were skilled workers …and they could be made to give the best of their skill only by good treatment… In social life, slaves were treated as equals and in dress, they were often indistinguishable from freemen.

Plato could not understand this freedom and so he blamed it somewhere on the principle of unlimited liberty characteristic of a radical democracy like in Athens:

The last extreme of popular liberty is when the slave bought with money, whether male or female is just as free as his or her purchaser.

This is in brief a general condition of life in the city state with which most of Plato’s political thought was occupied and to which it adjusted its conclusions. Given the three distinct classes of the City-state of Athens, Plato recognised the faulty and diseased state of Athenian politics. He therefore sought to deal radically with the problem by constructing the ideal state. He links the relation between the individual and the state. The state for Plato is man writ large.The state is a natural institution, natural because it reflects the structure of the human nature. He institutes three classes in the state as analogous to the three parts of the human soul. He explains that the human soul is divided into three parts: the rational element, the spirited element and the appetitive element.

The craftsmen or artisans as a class, represent the lowest part of the soul – the appetites. The guardians embody the spirited element and the highest class, the rulers, represent the rational element.[9]Thus, the ideal state would be composed of three classes: the rulers to administer it, guardians or soldiers to defend it and the artisans to provide the essentials of life. The ideal state would be one in which the three classes like the three parts of the soul function harmoniously. The Platonic state therefore is a community marked by a division of labour among the three classes: the rulers or perfect guardians, the soldiers at first called guardians and afterwards, auxiliaries, and the producing class, whom he called the farmers.[10]

The first class, the rulers, according to Plato, are specially trained group of intellectuals who should rule the state. He gave careful directions for choosing the rulers and for making sure that once chosen, they do not work for their advantage. The ruler, said Plato, should be the one who has been fully educated; one who has come to understand the difference between the visible world and the intelligible world; between the realm of opinion and the realm of knowledge; between appearance and reality.[11]Rulers are basically to be distinguished through education. Plato’s institution of this class also drives from the unjust condemnation of his master, Socrates. To avert such irrational control of the state, rulers should be philosophers; educated. The philosopher-king by analogy should be the captain of the ship as he knows the art of navigation. The rulers though selected amidst the guardians through thorough education, are meant to calm the rest of the classes to be content with their class through the noble lie. The noble lie would say that the god who fashioned all people mixed gold in the composition of those who were to rule, put silver in the guardians and iron and brass in the farmers and craftsmen.[12] This would imply that all by nature were destined for their respective classes. Though Plato recognises the defect of lying, he made it exclusively for the rulers:

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Then if anyone should have the privilege of lying, the rulers

of the state should be the persons.


He prohibits others from lying saying:

But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind… if then the rulers catch anybody beside himself lying in the state, he will punish him for introducing a practice, which is equally subversive and destructive of the ship of the state.

As such, philosopher-kings are given absolute power to rule. Plato insists however, that all children be raised communally by the state until they are about eighteen. At that time they will be made to undergo three types of tests to determine prospective rulers from those who are to become warriors and artisans.
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