But which of our present governments do you think is suitable for philosophy? None whatever, I said, but the very ground of my complaint is that no polity of today is worthy of the philosophical nature. This is just the cause of its perversion and alteration; as a foreign seed sown in an alien soil is wont to be overcome and die out into the native growth, so this kind does not preserve its own quality but falls away and degenerates into the alien type.
- Plato, Republic 497 c
In the sixth book of the Republic, Plato describes a philosophic soul as an exotic seed planted in strange soil. Because the soil is foreign to the seed, its growth is stunted, if not overwhelmed, by the forces alien to its nature. The context of this simile is not lost; this is a description of the societal and educational programs of his day and a noting of their inadequacy for cultivating philosophic souls. Nearly twenty-five centuries later, John Dewey describes education as a process of cultivating experience and as a way of building up social intelligence in the individual: in a word, growth. Dewey also discussed the insufficiency of “traditional” and “progressive” educational systems of his day for their inability to cultivate experience in such a way that people would be more capable of dealing with future experiences. In what follows, I will discuss some philosophic overlap between Plato and Dewey, especially as relates to their theories of education. I will not here be trying to convince the reader that one could read Plato and Dewey as philosophic twins; such a statement would be inaccurate and misleading. Rather, I will be detailing a similarity of intention and goal that exist between Plato and Dewey: social change through educational reform. This will be done by discussing John Anton’s work on the both of these thinkers as well as discussing Anton’s thoughts on each of these philosophers.
II. Plato’s theory of education
It should not be ignored that the Republic is a sustained argument for how the individual soul should live: justly, rationally and in harmony with others. Plato used many literary devices to maintain this argument, but these devices should not be confused with literal intention. The discussion on Guardians and Philosopher-Kings is an analogy of how the individual soul should follow reason rather than the appetites or the desire for honor. The allegory of the cave is about the division between the sensible and the intelligible realms but is first and foremost an allegory. It should not be forgotten that the myth of Er, while demonstrating why one should live a just life, is still a myth. Each of these devices was used to direct the reader toward a very specific way of life: a rational, self-examined life ruled by cultivated reason in the same way that the just Polis is ruled by the Philosopher-Kings. However, Plato realized the effect that acquired culture and societal environment plays on the individual soul; as in the simile of the seed, the culture one lives in is like the soil the seed is planted in.
The seed simile is broached when Socrates is asked about why he would place philosophers in charge of the just Polis. An objection is made that most philosophers are “cranks” or “useless.”1 Regarding this, Socrates states: Then the nature which we assumed in the philosopher, if it receives the proper teaching, must needs grow and attain to consummate excellence, but, if it be sown and planted and grown in the wrong environment, the outcome will be quite the contrary unless some god comes to the rescue.2
Hamilton, E. & Cairns, H. Eds. Plato, The Collected Dialogues. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989. Republic 487e
This passage makes it clear that one’s environment plays a large role in shaping one’s soul. In this light, Plato discusses the different types of constitutions as environments and the corresponding different types of...
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