Plato (427-348 B.C.E.)

Plato was born into an aristocratic Greek family in the fifth century B.C.E. Like all youngsters of his status, he initially intended to go into politics. In his twenties, he came into the circle of Socrates, who was to be the lasting influence on his thought. After the execution of Socrates on accusations of the corruption of youth, Plato abandoned direct involvement in politics and turned to writing and education. All his works are in the form of dialogues, in most of which the main speaker is Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.). In 385B.C.E. he founded the Academy in Athens, the first known institution of research and higher learning in the Greek world, which he headed until the end of his life. Plato deals with childhood in the context of education. He discusses early education mainly in the Republic, written about 385 B.C.E., and in the Laws, his last work, on which he was still at work at the end of his life.

The State as an Educational Entity

Plato saw the state primarily as an educational entity. In the Republic he discusses the principles of a state that is based on knowledge and reason, personified in the philosopher, and not on mere opinion or desire for power. This state is a strict meritocracy, where the citizen body is divided into the functions (commonly but erroneously called "classes") of producers, auxiliaries (in charge of internal and external security), and philosophers, the last two jointly referred to as "guardians." This book is not so much a blueprint for a future state as a standard by which all states are to be measured. The Republic is concerned with the education of the guardians, but in the Laws, where Plato draws up an actual system of laws for a state conforming as much as possible to that standard, the same education is provided to all citizens, according to their abilities.

Plato devotes much attention to the education of the child as a future citizen. As such, he believes that the child belongs to the state and its education is the responsibility of the state (Republic, bk. 2, 376.) Education must be compulsory for all. State funds should pay for gymnasiums and for instructors, officials, and superintendents in charge of education, both cultural and physical (Laws, bk. 7, 764, 804, 813).

Plato is not concerned with training children for a trade but rather with giving them an education in virtue, which is to produce "a keen desire to become a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and be ruled" in turn (Laws, bk. 1, 643). Reason is man's true nature, but it has to be nurtured from childhood by irrational means. Education is thus the correct channeling of pains and pleasures (Laws, bk. 2, 653), aiming at establishing "a nature in which goodness of character has been well and truly established" so as to breed a familiarity with reason (Republic, bk. 3, 398, 401).

Prenatal and infant care. Plato recommends that the care of the soul and body of the child begin even before birth, with walks prescribed for the pregnant woman. The first five years of life see more growth than the next twenty, necessitating frequent and appropriately graduated exercise. Children should be kept well wrapped up for the first two years of life, but they should be taken to the country or on visits. They should be carried until they are old enough to stand on their own feet, which should happen by the age of three, to prevent subjecting their young limbs to too much pressure. The main importance of movement, however, lies in its influence on the early development of a well-balanced soul (Laws, bk. 7, 758-759), and the cultivation of the body is mainly for the soul's sake (Republic, bk. 3, 411).

Storytelling and literature. Storytelling is the main tool for the formation of character in Plato's view, and begins at an earlier age than physical training. Stories should provide models for children to imitate, and as ideas taken in at an early age become indelibly fixed, the creation of fables and legends for children, true or fictional, is to be strictly supervised. Mothers and nurses are not to scare young children with stories of lamentations, monsters, and the horrors of hell, to avoid making cowards of them. That some such stories are enjoyed as good poetry is all the more reason for keeping them away from children (or even grown men) who should be trained to be free and unafraid of death (Republic, bk. 2, 377-383).

Play. Plato believes that a child's character will be formed while he or she plays. One should resort to DISCIPLINE, but not such as to humiliate the child. There should be neither a single-minded pursuit of pleasure nor an absolute avoidance of pain–not for children and not for expectant mothers (Laws, bk. 7, 792). Luxury makes a child bad-tempered and irritable; unduly savage repression drives children into subserviency and puts them at odds with the world. Children and adults should not imitate base characters when playing or acting, for fear of forming a habit that will become second nature (Republic, bk. 3, 395).

Teachers must provide children with miniature tools of the different trades, so that they can use the children's games to channel their pleasures and desires toward the activities they will engage in when they are adults (Laws, bk. 1, 643). Children are to be brought together for games. The sexes are to be separated at the age of six, but girls too should attend lessons in riding, archery, and all other subjects, like boys. Similarly, both boys and girls should engage in dancing (for developing grace) and wrestling (for developing strength and endurance). Plato attached much importance to children's games: "No one in the state has really grasped that children's games affect legislation so crucially as to determine whether the laws that are passed will survive or not." Change, he maintained, except in something evil, is extremely dangerous, even in such a seemingly inconsequential matter as children's games (Laws, bk. 7, 795-797).

Physical education. "Physical training may take two or three years, during which nothing else can be done; for weariness and sleep are unfavorable to study. At the same time, these exercises will provide not the least important test of character" (Republic, bk. 7, 537). Children who are sturdy enough should go to war as spectators, if one can contrive that they shall do so in safety, so that they can learn, by watching, what they will have to do themselves when they grow up (Republic, bk. 5, 466; bk. 7, 537). Girls should be trained in the same way and learn horseback riding, athletics, and fighting in armor, if only to ensure that if it ever proves necessary the women will be able to defend the children and the rest of the population left behind (Laws, bk. 7, 804-805,813).

Reading and writing, music, arithmetic. In Plato's educational system, a child, beginning at the age of ten, will spend three years on reading, writing, and the poets, and another three learning the lyre, and will study elementary mathematics up to the age of seventeen or eighteen, all with as little compulsion as possible, in order to learn "enough to fight a war and run a house and administer a state" (Republic, bk. 7, 535-541). Neither child nor father are to be allowed to extend or curtail that period, either out of enthusiasm or distaste. Children must work on their letters until they are able to read and write, but any whose natural abilities have not developed sufficiently by the end of the prescribed time to make them into quick or polished performers should not be pressed (Laws, bk. 7, 810). The child's lessons should takethe form of PLAY, and this will also show what they are naturally fit for. Enforced exercise does no harm to the body, but enforced learning will not stay in the mind (Laws, bk. 7, 536).

Family Control

In the Republic Plato abolishes the family for the guardians, to avoid nepotism and amassing of private wealth (Republic, bk. 5, 464). Wives and children are to be held in common by all, and no parent is to know his own child nor any child his parents–"provided it can be done" (Republic, bk. 5, 457). In the Laws Plato allows family raising for all citizens, with restrictions on child rearing and inheritance (Laws, bk. 5, sec.729). Each family is to have only one heir, to avoid subdivision of the agrarian lots into small parcels. In cases where there is more than one child, the head of the family should marry off the females and the males he must present for adoption to those citizens who have no children of their own–"priority given to personal preferences as far as possible." If too many children are being born, measures should be taken to check the increase in population; and in the opposite case, a high birth-rate can be encouraged and stimulated (Laws, bk. 5, 740).

Plato stands at the fountainhead of Western philosophy. He established its themes and posed its problems. Plato's views on education have greatly influenced educational thought to this day and have become the basis of many educational policies. Such diverse thinkers as Montaigne, JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU, JOHN DEWEY, John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche, and many others owe much to Plato's direct influence. His view of philosophy as an educational activity and of education as the development of reason, the responsibility of which lies squarely with the state, is still a living educational challenge.

See also: Ancient Greece and Rome; Aristotle.


Marrou, Henri-Irénée. 1956. A History of Education in Antiquity. Trans. George Lamb. New York: Sheed and Ward.

Plato. 1941 [385 B.C.E.]. The Republic of Plato. Trans. Francis Macdonald Cornford. New York: Oxford University Press.

Plato. 1970 [348 B.C.E.]. The Laws. Trans. Trevor J. Saunders. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Scolnicov, Samuel. 1988. Plato's Metaphysics of Education. London: Routledge.