The best American schools don’t remember why western civilization chose to build itself on education. Mostly, that is because the more we talk about education, the less we do it. That seems to be the conclusion at a recent Liberty Fund retreat I attended, after spending two days in leisurely discussion of Plato’s Republic. The conference was highlighted by the enormous revelatory power of Plato’s book and the discussion with others who have read it carefully.
Plato has much to say about the rightly ordered soul, all of it insightful and practical. For example, he describes the five types of soul – Aristocrat, Timocrat, Oligarch, Democrat, and Tyrant – each characterized by what we would call a “core value” (what he calls a “good”) leading to the cultivation of a particular virtue that will help attain that core value.
Plato called the Aristocratic soul the best soul (the Geek word “aristoi” means “the best”). His highest good is virtue itself. But humans can never quite reach that level, so in the real world we are more likely to come across the Timocratic soul, whose highest good is honor. This soul is the gentleman soldier, not out for his own gain but for the good of his community. His great temptation is to let honor slide into ambition.
Then there’s the Oligarch, the man who loves property or money above all else. He sees the Timocract lose money by pursuing honor, so fearing that loss himself, he makes money his chief value and highest good. But he’s a cheapskate. He hoards his money, and in Plato’s scenario, drives his son to bitterness. The son spends as much money as possible, giving free reign to his appetites and passions, making freedom his chief value, thus becoming the fourth kind of soul: the Democrat. Unfortunately, as a matter of practical reality, one cannot be free without money. Consequently the soul who values unrestrained freedom above all, loses it.
Finally, there’s the Tyrant who is charismatic. As people gather around him, his power increases. His chief good is control, and because his followers need his power to maintain their own version of freedom, he is able to inflict that control. Yet, because he has no friends, he becomes the most miserable of people.
It seems American education is made up almost entirely of Oligarchs, Democrats, and Tyrants.
We are obsessed with controls because, like those with too much freedom, we have become anxious. And we remain obsessed with freedom. We are a democracy. This is our most proudly proclaimed value. However, though some people have it, it tends to be a disordered freedom, a means with no end. But usually it seems to me American education is practiced oligarchically. It’s a miser’s education. We go to school to get a job after graduation. We have no time to enjoy life. Study is our life, and if we don’t study, China’s economy will top our own, and then who knows what will happen!
These are neat categories, but it seems their tidiness is a bit absurd. We are image bearers—doesn’t that count for something? Don’t each of us love honor and virtue, at least a little? And even in the worst schools, don’t some students and teachers seek wisdom, even though there’s much working against? Is Plato’s Aristocratic soul really out of reach?