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Some Counsel from Plato the Headmaster

Did you know that Plato was the head of school at the first Academy? It’s easy to forget, what with all this talk about Platonism being otherworldly and all that, but we do well to remember. In fact, I’m convinced that Plato’s real intent when he wrote the Republic had more to do with schools than with governments.

The trouble with reading Plato’s Republic is that people typically read it in college or maybe high school with a teacher who probably learned it in college and who was told what it means by the professor or teacher he studied under. This is a problem because you literally cannot be told by someone else what Plato’s Republic means.

To draw a parallel, imagine going to China as a missionary and having one month (a longish amount of time to spend on a text) to teach a rural Chinese what the Bible means. Or imagine teaching an art class and trying to teach students what the Sistine Chapel “means.” Or imagine teaching a music class and trying to teach what Bach’s Mass in B Minor “means.”

Great works of art, literature, philosophy, and religion cannot be reduced to a simple meaning that can be explained and grasped through one person’s interpretation. There is too much there.

When it comes to Plato’s Republic, this problem has led to unfortunate oversimplifications that would be overcome by a single close reading that is not guided by a person who “knows” the Republic.

This may seem like a digression from the point I am driving toward, but it seems important to me to draw an immediate application to the way we teach. It is a grave and unfortunate error to teach a group of high school students the Republic of Plato or any other great work so that they will now know how to think about this work.

The effect is to short-circuit the power of the work (which is what the teacher often wants to do out of a contradictory combination of, on the one hand, fear of its potential effects and on the other, the desire to at least appear educated – by which they often mean, “having read the right stuff the right way.”

It is by reading and wrestling with a great work that a student becomes educated, not by being told how to read it and what it means.

Thus my digression. Now to my point. As a result of this tendency, there is a general belief that Plato’s Republic is primarily a political text and that it advocates a communistic, tyrannical form of government. Whether this is actually true, I leave to Plato’s reader. I would propose a different angle.

Plato is writing primarily about the human soul and how it attains virtue. Becomes humans live in community, when he explains how the soul becomes virtuous he is also at least hinting at ways that a community can also attain virtue and sustain the virtue of its members.

Therefore, to the extent that he rightly understood the attainment in the individual soul, he has things to teach any community about how to arrange itself if it loves virtue: a Christian classical school, for example.

I am convinced that Plato gained and expressed great insight into the human soul, and one reason I believe that is because of the number of expressions and insights that are adopted by the New Testament writers, including even our Lord Jesus, who uses the phrase “poor in spirit” and the great Apostle Paul who applies Plato’s principle that the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.

Let me propose, therefore, an insight provided by Plato that can help us run our schools better. And please keep in mind as you read that these are insights gained through Plato’s experience as an administrator of the very first academy, one over which he demonstrated such effective leadership that it lasted over 1000 years. If you are looking for best practices, Plato should be taken seriously.

Plato believed that our characters were formed by what we loved most. He argued that people’s love can be reduced to three basic categories.

First, there are those who love power for its own sake, whom he calls tyrants.

Then there are those who love whatever passion or appetite is dominant at the moment. Interestingly, he calls these democrats.

Third come those who love money or property (security) above all. He calls them oligarchs.

Fourth, he shows us those who love honor first and foremost (he was, no doubt, thinking of Achilles as the supreme example). These are the Timocrats (rule by the honorable)

Finally, at the pinnacle of existence, are those few who love goodness itself. These are the aristocrats, which literally means “rule by the best.”

Plato’s contention is that all of us are naturally inclined to love goodness itself, but the temptations that arise to distract us from the Good are so relentless, devious, and powerful that very, very few people can keep to the path without surrendering.

In fact, early in the Republic, one of Socrates’ young students yearns to be convinced that justice (more or less a synonym for goodness) is worth pursuing for its own sake, even if the perfectly just man is crucified for being just. It’s hard not to be amazed by that “coincidence.”

Plato suggests that one can watch the soul decline from goodness to tyranny by observing the descent of the soul’s affections.

Here, at least theoretically, is a person who loves goodness. What happens to him? He is dishonored. His wife argues with him and his son watches.

The son determines that honor is more important than virtue. He loves honor above all. But as a result he is taken advantage of and loses his fortune.

The son watches this and feels insecure. He grows up to love money for its own sake above all and becomes an oligarch.

The oligarch has very frustrated children, because they see all the money their father possesses, but he won’t let them spend it. When they inherit it, they waste it on their passions, never having learned its right use. Then they run out of money, but not out of passion.

They have two options, debt and crime. At first they try the former and become bound to the debtors. But among the passions, one rises above the rest and becomes the controlling appetite of the democrat’s existence. Promising to feed the other passions, he gains power until his dependents make him a tyrant.

I say that Plato was a great school administrator. This is why. From these five categories, we can see what our school is most committed to and what kind of education we provide our students. We can also determine, against a much more valuable standard, whether our schools matter.

For example, the conventional American school is a hodgepodge of these appetites, but is ultimately ruled by the vast tyrant of the educational bureaucracy. I say it is tyrannical because its measures are arbitrary and easily manipulated. To submit to its rule is to enter a trap.

Furthermore, Plato argues that the highest affection a person gains is determined by his capacity to perceive the good desired. The tyrant can only perceive that good that is power. He doesn’t care about the other appetites unless they give him power over other people and he considers others weak for being driven by those appetites.

The “democrat” on the other hand sees people as foolish if they don’t follow their passions. So some schools and many teachers encourage children to go after what they want because they want it. A proof of this principle is that more children learn how to use a condom than learn that George Washington crossed the Delaware.

The Oligarch is the accountant without values. Except, of course, that he values money above all. He sees the value of money. He attends so closely to the books that he will drain the world of the energy it needs to achieve its ends if that energy requires money or risk. He cannot see any higher honor than the honor that comes from being financially secure.

The Timocrat sees honor. He laughs at the oligarch who won’t take any risks. The Timocrat is the one who will make great sacrifices for the school, deferring pay, sacrificing sleep and even career, because he wants to preserve the dignity of the school. This is the one numbered among “the few, the proud.” He sees the value of money and of the appetites, but they do not distract him from his quest for honor.

But the Aristocrat perceives the good itself. Now, in the Republic, Plato holds out a tentative hope that such a person can become wise and virtuous through the education provided in his ideal academy. But he knows it can’t actually be done. Yet the ideals of wisdom and virtue, the ideal of the truly just man must be pursued because only that ideal is a worthy standard for a human being.

But more importantly, Plato seems to be implying that every institution needs this person to govern it. Because the virtuous person is the person who sees what is good for the community he is a part of under every circumstance – and only the virtuous person can see it.

Think for a moment what this implies about board leadership, headmastership, teacher qualifications, and the curriculum through which you move your students.

In short, unless you can perceive what is best for the school in these contexts, how can you hope to lead effectively? As a board member, if you use oligarchic or tyrannical numbers to make your decisions, can you be confident? As a head of school, if you cannot perceive goodness itself in the concrete circumstances of your school, how can you hope to direct the school to fulfill its own good and glory?

Perhaps the most important point in Plato’s Republic is that our ability to lead and to be what we ought to be is bound to our power to perceive. And our power to perceive depends on the health of the faculty with which we perceive – our souls.

Thus the only qualification we should be looking for in board members, in heads of school, in teachers, and in students is the virtue required to accomplish the task assigned. And the only worthy goal of our education is precisely the virtue that makes it possible.

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