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.

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.

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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.

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:

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.

The second class, the soldiers, who defend the state, manifest the virtue of courage. They are given special training and are selected as they manifest this virtue necessary for the safeguard of the state. The first class, the rulers, come from this group because they need this virtue of courage but are individuals that are distinguished intellectually to meet the interests of the state. For the guardians to be really good and noble guardians of the state, they are to require philosophy and spirit, swiftness and strength. They are to be educated to distinguish between enemies and friends. The soldiers, according to Plato’s educational curriculum, are watched from their youths upwards to be placed in this class:

We must watch them from their youths upward and make them perform actions in which they are most likely to forget or to be deceived and he who remembers and is not deceived is selected.

As such, Plato designates the qualities of the soldier that necessitate their position in the class:

Perhaps, the word guardian in the fullest sense ought to be applied to this higher class only who preserve us against foreign enemies and maintain peace among our citizens at home…

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They are to guard the state and go to war when the need arises. He designates them as auxiliaries to the extent they support the principles of the rulers. Thus, the class of soldiers are distinguished within the educational curriculum in physical training, which involves athletics and gymnastics. He recommends that training for the soldiers be more exerting and sophisticated in order to make them as wakeful as well-bred watch-dogs. Besides,

…if they are to be courageous, must they not learn other lessons than these as will take away the fear of death?

He thus recommends suitable lessons for the soldiers especially those that expunge fears. In line with these, he strikes out some of Homer’s and Hesiod’s poems that he considers unsuitable for their training:

I do not say that these horrible stories may not have use of some kind but there is a danger that the nerves of our guardians may be rendered to excitable and effeminate by them.

 The third class, the artisans, represent the lowest part of the soul, the appetite. They are made up of farmers, traders and craftsmen. In well ordered states, Plato says:

…they are commonly those who are the weakest in bodily strength and therefore of little use for any other purpose; their duty is to be in the market and to give money in exchange for goods to those who desire to sell and to take money from those who desire to buy.

Thus, artisans, as Plato would wish to recognise them, are incapable of learning philosophy. They are the class that intellectually rest on the level of opinion and do not have knowledge. They are only best placed at the crafts as artisans and farmers. This group according to the noble lie are naturally made of iron and brass.

  • Plato’s Intention for the Class Distinction.

One of the major incidents that led to Plato’s political philosophy was the death of Socrates. He saw traces of the inability of Athenian democracy to produce great leaders in the way it treated Socrates, one of its greatest citizens He could not understand how a man like Socrates, such an excellent Philosopher, a good man and moralist could be put to death by Athenian authorities. Consequently, future politicians were to receive a sound education in Philosophy for he believes that only philosophers could be good rulers.

Moreover, Plato holds that the state is a reflection of people’s economic needs because no individual is self-sufficing.Thus, the need for a division of labour within the state:

…as we have many wants, and many persons are needed to supply them, one takes a helper for one purpose and another for another and when these partners and helpers are gathered together in one habitation, the body of inhabitants is termed a state.

Plato maintains that our needs require many skills and no one possesses all the skills needed to produce food, shelter and clothing. There must be a division of labour amidst the classes we saw earlier: Rulers, Guardians and Artisans. Within the state, Plato’s political philosophy sought to proffer an ideal state. What makes this state ideally just according to Plato, is the dedication of each of its component parts to the task for which it is naturally suited and specially trained

 More significant here is Plato’s conception of Justice in the state. He saw the harmonious working of these classes as a ground for justice in the state. He aimed at achieving justice which he likened to the harmony of the three parts of the soul. Justice in the state exists when the artisans, soldiers and philosopher-king exhibit the virtues of temperance, courage and wisdom respectively.

Plato was aware that it would not be simple to convince people to accept this system of classes in the state, particularly if they found themselves in a class that might not be the one they would choose if they had the chance.[12 This formed the backdrop of the noble lie. In all, Plato aimed at a division of labour to meet the needs of the state where one occupies a class one has been naturally disposed to fill. He aimed at justice for the state as a natural institution which reflects the structure of the human nature.


In the ideal state, it should be noted, Plato emphasized his concern over the ruling class, by maintaining that the philosopher-king is most suitable to rule. He intends that the ruler be educated to learn the real art of governance. He is convinced that the state in the hands of the philosopher-king is rationally governed. This is why he emphasized the education of the ruling class. With the complementary functions of the soldiers and artisans, Plato’s ideal state is achieved.


  • Critical Notes on Plato’s Class Distinction.

Plato’s political philosophy was spurred by the defective state of Athenian politics, which saw the execution of Socrates, his great friend and teacher. His disgust left him no choice than to construct an ideal and perfect state. He saw the major defect in the entire formation or make up of the Athenian city-state whereby individuals occupy positions to which they have neither the natural dispositions nor the proper training for. The one that knows the art of navigation, according to his analogy, should be the captain of the ship – the ruler of the state. His educational system therefore was a medium through which appropriate rulers are selected for the state. Given the nature of the Athenian state, it was necessary also that the state meets the needs of its citizens. He therefore distinguishes three classes of the state – Rulers, Soldiers and Artisans. To the extent these classes are able to carry out their different tasks adequately, the state exists justly and happiness is ensured in the state.

Plato saw philosophers as most suitable for the class of the rulers in his ideal state. It looks necessary since a philosopher knows and could distinguish between right and wrong; good and evil. However, knowing does not entail doing as Plato holds. The state’s justice does not lie on the knowledge of good and evil of the ruler. His human nature here comes to play such that the perfect state does not rest at training the rulers to be philosophers. It is however note-worthy that Plato ascribes moral goodness to one of the necessary qualities of whoever is to qualify to be a philosopher-king.

On another note, Plato conflicts the morality of the ruler in his exclusive right to tell lies – noble lie. He, Plato, recognized the defect of lying when he asserted that lie is hated not only by the gods but also by men.[1] He nevertheless permitted the rulers and no other to tell lies: “Then if anyone should have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the state should be the persons.”[2] It is obvious that he used lying as a means to an end – the end being to convince the rest of the classes to accept their different positions as natural; ordained by the gods. The mere concept of lie excludes truth. Suffice it then to say that Plato’s Principle of Natural disposition or what Nicholas White terms the principle of Natural Division of Labour, has no truth in it. He only used it to convey what he thought should be the explanation of his distinction. Little wonder he was reluctant to tell this lie when he said: “You will not wonder at my hesitation when you have heard.”[3] Those he made the rulers tell the lie that they (the rulers) are made of gold, the soldiers of silver and the artisans of brass and iron.

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However, his educational revolution gave everyone equal opportunity to exhibit their abilities such that the child of the artisan could be discovered to be composed of gold. He makes provision for this in his proposition that children be owned by the state to be given a common education. This points to one of the utopic nature of his political state. He makes it more explicit that the rulers and auxiliaries have everything in common including wives. This provision was merely to accommodate his position that each receives equal opportunity to education. This is simply unlikely in praxis given the nature of the human society. It would be a state of disorder whereby nothing belongs to any family under the guise of receiving equal educational formation from the state. The persons behind the umbrella name of the ‘state’ are also questionable. Perhaps, the rulers – philosopher-kings would be responsible for this. In this case then, it is likely, as is obtained in our contemporary society, that the rulers favour their offspring.

Unlike the contemporary attitude towards individuals that do not measure up to required standards in education, Plato did not create any room for demoted individuals that later in life put up excellent skills in academics and physical tasks. Contemporary education demotes individuals that perform poorly but also treats them as such when their performances improve. This succinctly points out that Plato does not specify if artisans could ever rise to the higher classes in the ideal state. Of course, if his natural division should hold, there would be no room for this. It is however evident that certain individuals at certain times in their lives make drastic improvements in skills: mentally and physically. Plato’s classes are seemingly permanent.

One of the outstanding welcome aspects of Plato’s political philosophy is the position he gave to women. Obviously, women have shown their capabilities in various phases of leadership in society. With Aristotle, their position would have remained unrecognized. Our universities also record almost equal number of females with males in their various departments of learning

  • The Defects and Impacts of Contemporary Education.

One of the Igbo folk songs, usually sung by little children, describes the nature of education thus: Akwukwo na – ato uto, mana o na – afia ahu na mmuta; onye were nkasi obi, o ga – amuta akwukwo ma o buru na nne gi na nna gi nwee ego. This literally means that education is interesting but difficult. However, with due perseverance, one gets knowledge but that would be if your parents have the money to sponsor your education. However entertaining this song could be for the children, it points at a significant aspect of contemporary education. Recently economic affluence has almost become a matrix for academic and educational excellence; more still a condition for educational pursuits. This development is fundamentally not Platonic. Plato’s educational programme was basically vested on natural abilities such that individuals are educated according to their natural dispositions and capabilities. None is left out sequel to economic shortcomings. There are instances of academic awards that are merely given to economically influential individuals. Platonic ideal was to give the mentally gifted people due opportunity to refine their abilities for appropriate functions in the state. Each is accorded his position in reference to his mental and physical capabilities.

Vocational education has remained one of the major influences of Plato’s educational programme for his ideal state. Contemporary education admits candidates, especially in university levels, into faculties and departments to which they have dispositions and qualifications. In Nigeria for example, the University Matriculation Examinations (UME) serves as a medium of discovering who fits into particular departments and vocation. Candidates could be assigned to departments different from their choice, which reflects Plato’s classification due to natural predisposition and not choice. Just as Plato recognizes that artisans would prefer to be rulers, journalists might prefer to be lawyers in our contemporary education. Universities therefore dwell fundamentally on training individuals for the vocation to which their abilities are predisposed.

Plato’s class distinction as x-rayed in this project was an offshoot of his proposition for a perfect and ideal state. The state exists for the good of the citizens and is perfect to the extent it satisfies the needs of these individuals in the state. Given the self-insufficiency of individuals in the state, the class distinction becomes exigent. The classes are however classified according to individuals’ natural predispositions. As such, there are the classes of the rulers, soldiers and artisans. The state is perfect in as much as these individuals perform their different tasks with wisdom, courage and temperance respectively. Given the nature of individuals, each might prefer the higher classes and this makes the medium and condition for this distinction necessary. Education therefore stands as both a distinguishing factor for each class and also the process of training for individuals to fit into their respective classes. This is necessary as individuals do not possess the same abilities in life. Different philosophers and sociologists agree to this inequality of abilities of individuals. They unanimously agree to the fact that education plays an important role in the positions held by people in societies.

Education in its historical trend traces its development down from the ancient period to the contemporary age. Plato’s educational ideal of the development of the mind and body still reflect its purpose in the contemporary age of education. More outstandingly and significantly, his influence is felt in various aspects like equal educational opportunities for men and women, free and compulsory basic education and specialization in particular fields according to natural predispositions and inclination. Higher education as found in colleges, polytechnics and universities therefore have the vocational formation at their backdrop – to fit individuals into particular fields of life.

Plato’s class distinction therefore influenced contemporary education in the latter’s import of Plato’s educational programme for the distinction of various classes in the state. The distinction as made clear in this work was based on natural inclinations to specific vocations/classes in society.

Plato’s Class Distinction the Backdrop of Contemporary Education


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