A reader’s guide to Plato’s Republic, books II-IV: part 2, the education of the guardians

Once we move beyond the dialogue about the two cities in book 2, we immediately find ourselves plunged into a discussion about the education of the guardians.  As was said above, the guardians are a kind of anchoring element in Plato’s construction of his republic, which stands as a mean between the extremes of the the initial city of pigs and the luxurious city.  It will now be seen more clearly how the education of the guardians coincides with this mediation.


Plato’s intention is that the guardians should save the city from excess and defect through their philosophical efforts.  The education Plato designs for the guardians stands as a way for bringing about this particular kind of excellence in the city.  Along with physical training (gymnastike) Plato’s musike is a program for what we might call a liberal arts education keyed to developing a moderate character in the guardians that avoids either extreme simplicity or the tendency to excess.  Plato assumes throughout his discussion that there will be a general sharing of values connected, seemingly, by the stories of gods and heroes that are told to the guardians (1).  (see 377b et seq.)  The role the guardians play seems to be that of maintaining the moderating values that appear in these stories.  They are in this sense, in one of their roles, a kind of priestly class, ensuring the maintenance of certain cultural values, and above all the sorts of values that promote the kind of moderation that Plato’s musike teaches.  In another sense, the guardians are educators, especially in their role as lawgivers.  (see 429b)

But such roles require, ideally, the kind of independent, creative thinking that a liberal arts education (such as Plato’s musike) would promote.  It is clear throughout Plato’s discussion of the education of the guardians that he means them not be be merely slavish imitators of current fashions or of the wisdom of their ancestors, but philosophically minded persons who are motivated to search out the truth of things. (409b)  The foundation of this character trait in the guardians is their search for what is beautiful as part of their devotion to the muses. (403b)  It is sometimes wondered whether the republic Plato imagines is totalitarian in spirit.  A close look at the education the guardians receive would seem to count against such claims.  One might reflect, for example, that there is a vast difference between Plato’s system of education and, say, the old Soviet system; or, again, between one that emphasizes self-expression, creativity, and a passion for beauty (as Plato’s does) and what some have thought will be the result of the progressive move away from the humanities in contemporary university education.

Finally, perhaps the foil to Plato’s educational program would be a more Spartan one: one which, unlike the one Plato’s guardians undergo, overemphasizes the things that tend to harden the spirit, such as an excess of physical training, while it undervalues the softening effects of a purely “musical” education.  Plato’s aim is to find excellence in the mean that manifests itself naturally between the two extremes.  (410c et seq.)  Thus, as was hinted at in prior articles, Plato’s education in moderation may be said to stand as an example of the way in which aiming at a mean is likewise an aiming at excellence; or, in other words, of how devotion to the mean is not intended merely a compromise but as a way of proceeding that surpasses either of two alternatives.


In what follows, I would like to move beyond these stage-setting themes to consider the way in which Plato’s education in moderation or temperance stands as a foundational stage on a ladder of virtues such as courage, wisdom and justice.  Secondarily, I will touch upon links this theme of a ladder of virtues has to a similar ladder of desire in the symposium.  In Plato, one finds not only an education of the mind, but also one of the body, including the senses, and the passions aroused through the senses.  In what follows, the importance of these latter forms of education will be considered as parts of the larger “whole” of the truly philosophical character Plato has in mind, which will in turn point to an initial vision of how the various epistemological and moral themes in the Platonic dialogues fit together.

The upward path of the ladder of virtue might be said to begin with an education of the senses.  As such, it has a standing similar to the epistemological role that perceptibles play on the lower portion of the divided line.  This “education” might be characterized by a kind of  outside-inside movement or influence, whereby the things in the young guardian’s environment affect his soul through the senses.  for example, the young guardians are exposed, initially, to stories of virtue that have been been “purified” of any bad influences.  Socrates and Glaucon expect that such stories will serve as models of virtuous behavior that the guardians will strive to imitate.  Moreover, this modelling of virtue or excellence extends to such influences in the guardians’ environment as weaving, enbroidery, architecture, and “fine speech”.  (401a)  The art behind such crafts is meant to produce in the guardians a sense of harmony, grace, and rhythm.  In a way similar to what Aristotle expresses in the Nicomachean Ethics it is expected that the guardians will at first take on common opinions about what is virtuous unreflectively, but will later, when mature, be in a position to grasp the reason why some things praised while others are blamed.  (401e-402a)  In keeping with the stages of ascent on the divided line, the young guardians might be said to hold conjectures or beliefs or opinions concerning things they are only later able to justify.

Moreover, this path parallels the one taken out of the cave by the prisoners of opinion and conjecture.  It may be seen that such prisoners could be aided greatly by at first having the right opinions about what is virtuous or beautiful.  It seems necessary that persons who have already made an upward ascent and have knowledge of some kind about such things should be the ones to provide the guardians with the correct opinions and beliefs.  It us sometimes thought, owing to Augustine, that in the Platonic tradition all learning must arise “from within”,and that therefore, teaching is something that arises within oneself.  Notwithstanding the merits of such a view, it might stand as a refinement of this position as a genuinely platonic one to say that such inner teaching and discovery is only a final stage that precedes the initial one in which teaching consists in pointing students consistently in the right direction until they can find their way on their own.  (for these points see 410a-b)  From the student’s perspective, this amounts to a healthy respect for one’s predecessors.  Finally, one can perhaps see here a way in which this perspective on teaching anticipates Aristotle’s solution to the problem of the Meno in Ana Post. I.1: although one may not be able to discover virtue if one has absolutely to idea of what one is looking for, one may be able to discover it by taking advantage of the prior knowledge acquired in the explorations of one’s predecessors.  Progress might be hindered and success might truly be a gift of the gods, it would seem, if one does not admit any opinions or beliefs as assumptions about what one is seeking at the outset.


To bring these insights back to the education of the senses, the guardians may be pictured as surrounded by stories and artefacts of all kinds about which they are taught to have discriminating opinions and tastes.  If their education is successful, they will praise things said to be praiseworthy and blame those things held to be blameworthy.  Moreover, they will become graceful as rhythm and harmony permeate their souls both through their exposure to harmonious and temperate music and through the kind of rhythm and harmony that is present in well crafted artefacts.  All these factors contribute to developing a temperate nature that shares the virtues both of Socrates’ initial city of pigs, and the refinements and support for philosophically sophisticated thinking that arise in the luxurious city.

It might be noted at this point that Glaucon’s remark that Socrates’ initial city was a city of pigs is a fine example of Socratic irony.  Glaucon labelled the inhabitants of Socrates’ simple city “pigs” because of their diet (which consisted of such things as boiled roots and acorns) and their uncultivated rusticity.  But Glaucon’s luxurious city stands equally as a city of pigs for its voracious appetitiveness and desire for wealth. (373d)  The guardians provide a foundation for meeting both defects by introducing into the culture and character of Plato’s republic a passion for true and simple beauty that begins at the level of the senses and later manifests itself in the flowering of guiding ideas.

Taking these points together with the parallels noted above and with the allegory of the cave and the divided line, it might be said that having achieved such guiding ideas that lead to the realization of harmony and beauty in the republic, the guardians add to their role as harmonizers, tuners, and healers that of teachers.  It is in this role that one might see a foreshadowing in books II-IV of the notion that arises in books VI and VII, that having ascended to knowledge from belief and conjecture, the philosophical ruler is in a position to lead others to a similar vision.


(1) It should be noted that although it is intended for the guardian class, the values conveyed through Plato’s kind of Musike, can, as an ideal at least, may be considered an educational program for the republic as a whole.  It is sometimes overlooked that only the best of the guardians will become rulers, and that therefore the educational program Plato imagines might be said to be intended for the educated classes generally (i.e. the guardian class).  Hence, it would signify what it means to be educated generally and, since it is likewise an education of character, to be noble in spirit.

9 thoughts on “A reader’s guide to Plato’s Republic, books II-IV: part 2, the education of the guardians

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