“Then education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it.” Plato, Republic VII
There is a craft of living a good human life. Plato calls it justice.
And there is a craft of fostering growth in justice and wisdom. Plato calls it education: paideia, or child-rearing. A master of the craft himself, he has much he can teach us about it.
In a striking passage in his famous story of ‘the cave,’ Plato considers the noble power of human reason, which he compares to an eye. Education is not about giving vision to the soul; it’s about turning the soul’s gaze in the right direction.
Our sight is always set on something. The question is what. Plato is convinced that the only way we come to see what we should is by someone directing our sight in the right direction. By their turning us around.
This has implications for how we form youth. Whether in a school-room or the dining-room, youth must be the object of an intentional project of gaze-turning. Their gaze, and ours, needs to be turned-onto the truth: especially, the truths that really matter, in the seeing of which we discover the meaning of life. Such turning is most of all upward.
The true educator has confidence in reality, in its power to move the soul. At the same time, he knows that people need help in approaching and finding reality. Lower things can fixate the soul. Turning upward necessarily involves asceticism–a self-restraint and a turning away from the ephemeral.
And this especially when our education system and common daily practices literally point us toward the ephemeral, and turn us inward to selfish desires.
The craft of education–of turning people around–is largely a lost art. But one conviction of Plato’s gives us the key to rediscovering it. The realm of higher things–what is pure, noble, beautiful–is the native land of the human soul. But the soul must be guided to that land, in order to find and recognize its own home. Our constant question should be: how do we bring the youth to taste and see the things that endure. The project demands a daily attention to detail, a consistent discerning, sorting, and cultivating.
In any case we ourselves will need to be gazing—steadily and confidently—in the right direction, so their line of vision can follow ours.
Photo image: One man directing the gaze of one child upward. Lying on the ground, head against the trunk, one has a remarkable, unexpected view of the crown of a tree.
Note: This is the second in a short series on paideia, education in Plato.
Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Republic is one of the most widely read and influential of all books.