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Plato's project for education in the early Socratic dialogues

Heather Lynne Reid, University of Massachusetts Amherst


What is the role of philosophy in education? This timeless question may best be answered by examining Plato's earliest dialogues in which he makes a case for philosophy as the centerpiece of education. I call this effort Plato's project for education and interpret the Apology, Crito, Charmides, Laches, Ion, Hippias Minor, Euthyphro, and Lysis as an integrated attempt to promote philosophy as education in ancient Athens. Plato accepted arete (excellence, virtue) as the proper goal of education, but his interpretation of arete as a distinctly moral quality required a new approach to education. Plato recognized that the quality in a doctor that makes her aim at what is good for her patient is distinct from the skill that enables her to choose the most effective treatment. Against traditional education, which emphasized social standing, professional skill, and the accumulation of information, Plato focused on the moral dimension of human beings and prescribed philosophy as a means for developing it. Memorization of information and tuition in practical skills may help us in our particular crafts, but it does little to improve us morally. This task must be undertaken separately through examination and reflection. Success will be judged not by one's peers, or even by one's government, but by the gods themselves who adhere to a universal idea of goodness. Plato's conception of arete as the health of the soul precipitates a new approach to education that focuses on philosophy and presents Socrates as its hero and martyr. Health of the soul, like health of the body, is something that requires constant labor and attention, and yet may never be perfected. In Plato's project, the ignorant Socrates and the dialogues themselves become indirect teachers by exhorting students to care for their souls and to appreciate the task. The promise that arete can be achieved through the pursuit of moral wisdom is given in the words and actions of Socrates. Like his ancient friends, the reader struggles to understand Socrates and from this struggle emerges philosophy: the love and pursuit of wisdom; the proper education for arete.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Educational theory|Education history

Recommended Citation

Reid, Heather Lynne, "Plato's project for education in the early Socratic dialogues" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9639020.