Plato on Moral Education

Proclus was the successor to Plato (above) and one of the last classical philosophers.

It’s common to hear homeschool parents speak about their plans to “raise saints”, but the results of 40+ years of homeschooling in America suggest we’re not doing that.  We may be raising children who have higher test scores than their public school peers, and children who do well avoid scandalous sins, and children who go to college, establish stable careers and start families–but there are scarcely any religious vocations being raised, and fewer “saints”.

I’ll be the first to admit that we Catholics have greatly underestimated the difficulty of the task before us.  We have not prepared for the spiritual battles or intellectual challenges we are undertaking in Catholic homeschooling.  We have not realized before we’ve begun how many our enemies would be in this work, and we have not been able to handle the challenges successfully.  The results provide ample evidence of this reality.

In saying this, I am not criticizing anyone.  As I said, the task we’re undertaking is far, far, more difficult than any of us imagined, and new obstacles and challenges seem to arise every week.  When I was a successul young classics teacher, I thought educating my own children at home would be a dream compared to the work of teaching other people’s children in school.  As a middle-aged classics teacher with 20 years of homeschool experience, I am convinced of the opposite:  homeschooling is far more difficult.  I have made many mistakes as a homeschooling father, which I don’t believe I could have avoided.  As I’ve worked through the years, and continued my own studies in classical philosophy and Catholic teaching, I’ve learned many things and am much wiser than I was when I got started.

By far,  the greatest challenge we face is that we are often the only sources of good moral influence in our children’s lives and we doubt ourselves in the face of the pressure around us. 

We feel that our children need to be “sheltered” from bad influences, and immersed in good influences and others tell us we’re being unreasonable.  There’s just so much opposition, sometimes even from priests and religious leaders.  Our children aren’t stupid, and they know that our judgment is not shared by others.  In time, they’re sure to let us know it.

Eventually we yield.  Our consciences encourage us, but we lack confidence because, we’re just not sure we’re right.  We have a vague “gut feeling” of what’s wrong and right, but we don’t have the knowledge to dig our heels in and stand fast.  We’re just not sure, and we know that we could be wrong.  In time, we relax here, we compromise there.  In a little while, vices and distractions have entered into our families that we never wanted and we learn, the hard way, that we were right in the beginning.  Often, we have the opportunity to fix these mistakes before they affect our younger children, but our older children often suffer the consequences of these early mistakes.

To become confident in our judgments, we must have unquestionable support from authoritative sources.  The most authoritative source is Sacred Scripture.  Next comes the published teaching of the Catholic Church, which we can find in the Church’s catechisms.  Next come the writings of the Doctors of the Church.  After these come the writings of the ancient moral philosophers–Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Cicero, and the rest.  In this article, I’d like to share the teaching of Plato on moral education.

In his dialogue “The Republic”, Plato discusses how the perfect state would be arranged.  As he does this, education becomes a focus.  He speaks of a class of ideal men, the protectors of the state whom he calls “Guardians”, upon whom the happiness of the state depends.  In speaking of them, he is forced to discuss the education that their virtuous lives would require.  This evolves into a discussion of perfect human education.   All that I summarize below can be read in Books II and III of the Republic.

Most importantly, he begins, with the education of the young and he identifies two key sources of instruction:  Music and Gymnastic.  When modern people hear of this ancient education, they think of piano lessons and recreational sports, which is what we see them paying to give to their children, but that is NOT what Plato has in mind.

Music Education

By “music”, Plato means instrumental music, song and all literature.   In the dialogue, we read:

“Shall we begin education with music, and go on to gymnastic afterwards?”
— “By all means.”
“And when you speak of music, do you include literature or not?”
— “I do.”

Content of Music

So, we’re not merely talking about children learning to play music or sing in the children’s choir.  We’re talking about a moral education drawn from music and readings that nurture virtuous dispositions in the soul of chlidren.  He teaches that our children must be protected from all negative moral influences and immersed in only what nurtures virtue in their souls.  This is not the belief of some fanatical young parent–this is the teaching of history’s most revered philosophers.  He says,

“You know also that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken. And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?”

Exactly what our consciences tell us as parents, no?  Plato goes on to say,

“The first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorised ones only.

Now, what Plato says of the state in the Republic would obviously be his recommendation for every family, whose best interests the state serves.  In fact, he says that this moral instruction would ultimately be carried out by “mothers and nurses” by whom the children are raised.

Are we wrong for thinking that the stories and books our chidlren read should be carefully controlled?  Absolutely not.  Plato taught exactly that and would commend us.

Style of Music

After discussing the content of children’s literature, Plato goes on to discuss the style of their literature.

He teaches that in story-telling, bad actions may never be imitated because imitation influences the behavior of the one who imitates.  He says,

“They should not depict or be skilful at imitating any kind of illiberality or baseness, lest from imitation they should come to be what they imitate. Did you never observe how imitations, beginning in early youth and continuing far into life, at length grow into habits and become a second nature, affecting body, voice, and mind?”
— “Yes, certainly.”

Thus, even the imitation of bad behavior is prohibited by Plato.  This would rule out all plays, shows, movies, even stories, where the author speaks in the person of the one performing bad actions, rather than as a disapproving narrator.  Plato argues that if a story is being told, in which it is necessary to speak of the bad actions of another, or any actions that are not desired in the student, they should be narrated simply, not never imitated.

This point, more than all, should be of great concern to us.  We allow so much of this behavior into our children’s minds by means of videos, audio books, television shows, stories, music, etc..

As for instrumental music or song, Plato says that melodies and instruments should be simple.  Melodies should be be limited to a small number of notes and instruments to simple instruments making use of a few strings (e.g., the lyre and harp).  All music the includes many changes is to be rejected as being “intemperate”.

Likewise, the harmonies according to which music is composed are of different moral qualities.  Some are sorrowful, others are suggestive of soft, lazy culture.  Some are intended for drinking parties or sexual arousal.  None of these tunes are appropriate for children or any good men.  In speaking of “harmonies”, Plato is speaking of the ancient “modes” of music, of which few know anything today.  He condemns the Lydian and Ionian modes and approves the Dorian and Phrygian modes–we can discuss this on the forums if you’d like.  The point is that the character of music and songs must be appropriate for a moral life and music that corresponds to vice should have no place in our lives.

It’s important to note that, when speaking of music, Plato is not speak of the lyrics of the songs, as most people do today.  He is speaking of the qualities of the music itself and its effect on the soul.

Gymnastic Education

As I mentioned above, when modern people read “gymnastic”, they immediately think of Olympic games or recreational sports, but that has nothing to do with what Plato is speaking of in the Republic.  We need to read the text and follow what he actually writes.

There is a simple principle which explains everything he has to say of Gymnastic.  Here, we find the completely opposite view of modern medicine and healthcare, and I am sure this will upset many.  Yet, it is what it is.

Unlike in modern society, before speaking of medicine and healthcare, Plato established the purpose of man’s life.  He says that a man’s purpose is to do his job in society, fulfilling the role providence assigns him.  If he is a carpenter, it is to do the work of a carpenter.  If he is a teacher, he is to teach.  If he is a soldier, it is to protect the state.  He then goes on to say that a man should only seek to remain alive as long as he can perform his job.  True medicine should not seek to artificially keep men alive who are not able to live and do their work under normal conditions.  He says,

“If a man is not able to live in the ordinary way, [a physician] has no business to cure him; for such a cure would have been of no use either to the man, nor to the State.”

Before you react with the modern political soundbytes, realize that what Plato teaches here aligns with the actual, published doctrine of the Catholic Church. Most Catholics, however, share the beliefs of the world rather than the Church on this issue.  The Catechism states:

“Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.” (CCC 2278)

Thus, Plato argues that extending human life is not an end in itself, but should be sought within the reasonable limits of the purpose of a man’s life.  A man who is no longer capable of performing his life’s work should not be afraid of death, but prepare to die well.  This was the mindset of Christians throughout history and the reason why medieval society did not even try to do what modern medicine, working for its own sake, attempts to do.

Having said this, the Gymnastic training of the child can now be understood.

First, since the aim of this education is virtue, true courage is sought to be developed by exercise of the body.  Yet, this exercise is limited to what is good and necessary–not the excess of modern competitive sports.  Plato warns:

“If he do nothing else, and holds no converse with the Muses…he ends by becoming a hater of philosophy, uncivilized, never using the weapon of persuasion—he is like a wild beast, all violence and fierceness, and knows no other way of dealing; and he lives in all ignorance and evil conditions, and has no sense of propriety and grace.”

On the other hand, if he has no physical exercise, he errs on the opposite extreme:

“When a man allows music to play upon him and to pour into his soul through the funnel

I am afraid, I said, that a habit of body such as they have is but a sleepy sort of thing, and rather perilous to health. Do you not observe that these athletes sleep away their lives, and are liable to most dangerous illnesses if they depart, in ever so slight a degree, from their customary regimen?

Yes, I do.

Then, I said, a finer sort of training will be required for our warrior athletes, who are to be like wakeful dogs, and to see and hear with the utmost keenness; amid the many changes of water and also of food, of summer heat and winter cold, which they will have to endure when on a campaign, they must not be liable to break down in health.

of his ears those sweet and soft and melancholy airs, and his whole life is passed in warbling and the delights of song; in the first stage of the process the passion or spirit which is in him is tempered like iron, and made useful, instead of brittle and useless. But, if he carries on the softening and soothing process, in the next stage he begins to melt and waste, until he has wasted away his spirit and cut out the sinews of his soul; and he becomes feeble.”

In our society, we tend to see boys raised to one of these two extremes:  (1) feeble, effeminate and useless on one hand, or (2) ignorant, violent and uncivilized on the other.  This situation is remedied by proper Gymnastic education.

This education begins with a simple, temperate diet, by which diseases are prevented.  These diseases, after all, are unnatural and self-inflicted and require no physicians or remedies but self-control.  This virtue should be trained in children by good habits of simplicity in diet.

As for the exercise of the body, the way of artificial sports or athletics is not desirable.  Children raised for sports and athletic games serve these activites as ends in themselves, and live contrary to virtue for the sake of their athletics.  Plato says of the ancient athletes,

“I am afraid that a habit of body such as they have is but a sleepy sort of thing, and rather perilous to health. Do you not observe that these athletes sleep away their lives, and are liable to most dangerous illnesses if they depart, in ever so slight a degree, from their customary regimen?”

What Plato envisions in “Gymnastic” is an exercise of the body that fits it for work and service in all circumstances.

“A finer sort of training is required for our athletes, who are to be like wakeful dogs, and to see and hear with the utmost keenness; amid the many changes of water and also of food, of summer heat and winter cold, which they will have to endure when on a campaign, they must not be liable to break down in health.”

The aim of Plato’s Gymnastic is to fit a man to be free from disease, free from injury, that he may live a useful and active life.  This is not a matter of artificial game skills–hitting baseballs, dribbling basketballs, shooting soccer balls, throwing spirals, etc.. This is fitness for the work of human life.

The vision of Plato’s education is to have “a sound mind in a sound body”.  I would suggest that Plato seeks to have children grow to be healthy, agile, strong and tough, that their bodies may not hinder them from fulfilling the duties of human life, but rather help them to do so–in any circumstances.

The Catholic Faith Offers the Ideal Education

I was prompted to write this article because, in recently months, I read the biographies of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Dominic, two of the most influential saints in Church history, especially important to me as I seek to become a Lay Dominican myself.

We talk about “raising saints”, as I said at the opening of this article, but we don’t seem to look at how the saints were actually raised in history.  The curriculum they studied is only one piece of the puzzle, but most Catholic families get neither the curriculum nor the rest of the puzzle right.  Both St. Dominic and St. Thomas were immersed in the liturgical life of the Church as young children.  They were sheltered from worldly distractions.  The foundation of their education was the recitation of the divine office and service at the altar.  Their education was centered in the chanting of the psalms of the Divine Office and the Mass, with Gregorian Chant being the only music they heard.  They lived in a disciplined routine of prayer, work and study.

Is such a life not the fulfillment of everything Plato speaks of in the Republic?

Now, we live in very different times and circumstances than they did, but we can see where Catholic education and homeschooling needs to go if it’s ever going to “raise saints”. We need to immerse our children in the Music and Gymnastic of the Church’s liturgical life.  Catholicism provides the pure content, simple melodies, and religious harmonies our children need for their education in “Music”.  The Catholic life also provides the simple (ascetic) life of work, prayer and study–a strenuour and healthful life!–that provides the ideal “Gymnastic” training.

If we’re going to “raise saints” we need to provide them as far as possible with the educational experience St. Thomas and St. Dominic enjoyed–not follow the crowd and sign them up for the activities and studies of modern schools and students.  The Catholic Faith has made this education available to our children, but we are not aiming high enough to fulfill our goals and reach the potential of Catholic homeschooling.


Resisting what St. Augustine called “the river of human custom” is a challenge that homeschooling parents underestimate.  In order to plant our feet and fight for our moral principles, we must be certain that they are right.  In studying the writings of Plato on early education, we find that our moral principles,  which might be considered unrealistic and fanatical in our generation, actually fall short of the standards the great philosopher Plato taught in the 4th century before Christ.   We’re not, actually, aiming too high–but perhaps not high enough.

One problem we run into is that we are often left to justify our principles and practices by appealing to our “religious beliefs”, but in the writings of Plato, there’s no talk of beliefs.  Plato is arguing from reason and experience, that the education of children must be of such a quality to nurture virtue and prevent vice.  Our critics may hold the majority in our generation, but the wise men are with us, and we need to hold our ground.

Some may object and say, “Plato is speaking of the education of future soldiers in his state, not the common people.”, but this is nonsense.  In speaking of the education of the guardians of his state, he is investigating the best possible education for the best possible men.  Should this not be our concern as Christian parents?  Moreover, are our children not being educated to defend and serve the “Church militant”?  Christian education is education for warfare.

In the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we are working to provide such an education for Christian children.  We have succeeded in many areas, but we have a lot of work yet to do.  Be assured, however, that if your desire is to raise your children to live virtuous lives, you will never be discouraged in doing so here in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy.  We’re on your side and we want to help.

This article should raise many practical questions about HOW to do this.

God bless your studies,
William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy