The Search For True Moral Authority

2241 words - 9 pages


In reading The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, one is struck by the two major political education ideals described in the book: the Spartan regime, praised by the Lacedaemonian king Archidamus, and the Athenian ideal, supported by Pericles, the Athenian ruler. Socrates discusses both of these regimes in Plato’s Republic in an attempt to make a statement about what constitutes true and effective education. After close analysis, it is clear that Socrates does not support either educational ideal. Instead, Socrates rejects both regimes—the Athenian because it has no real guidance and thus cannot produce wise and just people, and the Spartan because despite all its rigidity, it still does not truly train people to be wise and just. In The Republic, it is also apparent that Socrates is giving his own idea of what real education is as opposed to the Spartan and Athenian ideals: Learning under a true moral authority.

In The Peloponnesian War, the two regimes are described as opposites: severity versus freedom. The Spartans believe that the best political education, that which rears the most superior of men, consists of being educated with "too little learning to despise the laws, and with too severe a self-control to disobey them" (Thuc. 1.1.84)1 and of being "brought up not to be too knowing in useless matters" (Thuc. 1.1.84). For them, "the superiority lies with him who is reared in severest school" (Thuc. 1.1.85). The Athenians, on the other hand, say that "while in education, where our rivals [the Spartans] from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger" (Thuc. 2.6.39). They produce men who only have themselves to depend on for their own guidance in life (Thuc. 2.6.41-42) and believe that this is really the way to rear superior people.

In The Republic, Socrates shows that both of these ancient regimes are insufficient modes of education. He begins by proposing that the ideal ruling situation for a city would be that "all the desires in the common many are mastered by the desires and the prudence in the more decent few" (Plato 4.431c-d).2 These more decent few, the guardians, are responsible for the education of the people in the city, picking those who are best from all the classes and educating them to live a life with rigorous boundaries (as exemplified by the treatment of what types of music and poetry the students should be exposed to) under the control of those in charge and without any say in their ways of life (Plato 3.415a-c). Their family, their education, and their occupation are all subsumed and manifested by the state.

So it seems at first that Socrates considers the Spartan regime instead of the Athenian to be the correct way to raise people. But Socrates points out that even a leader reared in the Spartan regime is susceptible to corruption. In a discussion with Glaucon, Socrates says that...

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