Early Skepticism about Education and Learning

Written by Dr. Jason Rheins on July 6, 2021

The emergence of a more codified education is coeval with the emergence of skepticism about the value of education.

These passages, going back to the 6th century BCE, are early indicators of this skepticism. They critique the notion of teachability of virtue, judgment, talent—the sorts of things that really count.

Theognis Elegies 429-438

“It's easier to get and raise a child
Than to put character in him. No one
Has ever found a way to make a fool
Wise or a bad man good. If god had given the sons the of Asclepius the power to heal wickedness and the minds of awful men
How many and large the fees they would earn
And if intelligence could both be manufactured and placed in a man then never would the bad come from good fathers
persuading with sensible speeches. But teaching
never makes the bad man good.”

The perennial question that is being answered negatively by Theognis is: can virtue be taught?

The elegiac poems and poem fragments collected under the name Theognis are difficult to date and cannot all be from the same original source, but by and large they belong to the 6th c. BCE and frequently express an elitist, aristocratic attitude distinguishing those who are excellent (and typically well-born) from those who are base and typically low born. First, he suggests that the good do not always have good children. More importantly, the goodness of one’s children cannot be vouched safe through education.

Having good children is much desired, which is why the Asclepidae would earn many and large fees if, per impossibile, they could heal wickedness. The Asclepidae (sons of the healing god Asclepius) were an order of ancient doctors. They cannot heal wickedness, nor can rationality be created and placed within a person. Because education was frequently claimed as a means of inculcating good values into pupils, this represents a skeptical challenge to the efficacy, at least the moral efficacy, of education.

One question that persists is this: if teaching never makes the bad man good, and if good men can beget sons who are not good, then what is it that accounts for the development of virtue or excellence?

[The elegiac poems and poem fragments collected under the name Theognis are difficult to date and cannot all be from the same original source, but by and large they belong to the 6th c. BCE and frequently express an elitist, aristocratic attitude distinguishing those who are excellent (and typically well-born) from those who are base and typically low born.]

Pindar Olympian 2.86-8

“The man who knows a great deal by nature is truly skillful, but learners are obnoxiously garrulous, like crows chatter chattering in vain against the divine bird of Zeus.”

This is one of several statements in the odes of Pindar that natural excellence is superior to learning and that learning in fact is suspect. Here those who learn are likened to crows that chatter in the face of the divine bird of Zeus, that is, the eagle, against whom crows would be powerless. The idea seems to be that the garrulous chatter of those who merely have learning is as nothing compared to the skill of those with god-given, innate knowledge or wisdom.

This claim occurs in one of Pindar's many victory odes, this one composed for Theron of Acragas to celebrate the victory of his four-horse chariot team at the Olympian games, that is, the most prestigious event at the most prestigious of the four Panhellenic annual games. Therefore, one could take the poet’s comments to be directed at the innate athletic talent or skill of the ode’s honoree, but Theron was probably not the charioteer himself—victory was awarded to the owner of the team, whether he rode in the event or not. Moreover, in the immediate context of this line Pindar seems to be talking about those capable of understanding him, (which given his challenging style, was probably never a great number). For these reasons, and given the recurrence of this claim in several other poems of his, it may be best to take it more or less at face value.

So understood, the idea seems to be that some people are born with innate good sense and aptitude or even wisdom. Others can try to learn skills but “learning”, by which he most likely means what we would call “book learning” (and possibly some kinds of professional training), but this learning will never make them wise. Their learning will at best give them a semblance of what others have innately.

Heraclitus fr. DK B40

“Much learning does not teach a man intelligence, else it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras and likewise Xenophanes and Hecataeus.”

Here Heraclitus distinguishes ‘much learning’, polumathiē, i.e. learning in many things (“polymathy”) from intelligence (noos). Having the former—the result of being taught—does not teach the latter.

This is a good example of the distinction drawn by Greeks even in the 6thc. between learning (mathēsis) on the one hand and intelligence (noos/nous), wisdom (sophia), or good sense/rationality (phrōnesis) on the other. This is relatable to general skepticism about ‘learning’ and to the closely related question of whether it can make one excellent or wise. At the same time, some of Heraclitus’ criticism may be a more specific and idiosyncratic criticism of Greece’s most learned and supposedly wisest men, all of whom have failed to grasp what he regards as the most fundamental and universal truth, the unity of all things including (or especially) opposites [DK B108].

Some of Heraclitus’ criticism may be more specific and idiosyncratic than generic skepticism about learning. The examples of polymathy given here are: Hesiod, the epic poet second only to Homer in influence and prestige, famous for his Theogony and Works and Days; Pythagoras, the famous sage and religious leader who lived earlier In the 6th c.; Xenophanes, a poet and philosopher perhaps one generation earlier than Heraclitus, himself a critic of Hesiod and Pythagoras; and Hecataeus, a logographer or proto-historian/geographer, allegedly Greece’s first.

Take Hesiod [DK B57, cf B106*], the teacher of the largest number who is regarded by them as knowing the most. Heraclitus directly rebukes and questions him for treating day and night as distinct (Night begets Day in the Theogony) when they are really one thing. Heraclitus calls Pythagoras a plagiarist [DK 129] and an impostor [DK 81*]. (In his own century, Pythagoras, whom Xenophanes also attacked as a fraud, was known as a religious guru and cult leader; he was not, so far as we can tell, any kind of mathematician.) Heraclitus even claims that Homer failed to see what was obvious (DK B56).

These sorts of statements indicate that Heraclitus is challenging the wisdom and overall philosophical insight of the allegedly wise and learned, but not necessarily challenging learning itself. However, if none of the learned are wise, then it does tend to suggest that learning, or at least supposed learning, is insufficient for making men wise, or even that there are no qualified teachers of virtue or wisdom, even if, theoretically, it could be taught. These latter possibilities are themes taken up in Plato’s Meno.

*The authenticity of these fragments is uncertain.

Pindar Nemean 3.40-2

"A man with inborn glory has great weight; but he who has been taught is a man in darkness, breathing changeful purposes, never taking an unwavering step, he dabbles in countless forms of excellence with his imperfect mind.”

This is one of several texts where Pindar expresses skepticism or disdain for learning or supposedly learned excellence in contrast to innate qualities which he praises.

Here he specifically points out that inborn “glory” has gravitas, whereas the mind of someone with merely taught qualities is inconstant. This means that it is not steadfast in its purposes—perhaps implying its uncertainty—and that it is divided between many things; the merely learned “dabbles in countless forms of excellence” yet this mind is “imperfect” in any one of these things. So, learning is related to dabbling in many things—polymathy in other sources—and it is imperfect, uncertain, and perhaps unreliable.

Isocrates 2 (Ad Nicoclem) 42

“Moreover, this has been clear to me from the first, that while all men think that those compositions, whether in verse or prose, are the most useful which counsel us how to live, yet it is certainly not to them that they listen with greatest pleasure; nay, they feel about these just as they feel about the people who admonish them; for while they praise the latter, they choose for associates those who share in, and not those who would dissuade them from, their faults.”

In this speech, Isocrates—4th c. Greek orator, sophist, and educator—makes the point that while the power for moral edification is generally conceded to works of literature, men chose not to follow their lessons and guidance. This is analogous to the keeping of bad company, wherein one’s vices will be tolerated and indulged, rather than good company which is praised but still avoided because in good company one’s vices will be admonished.

Thus, this text relates to two familiar themes—the moral education and edification provided by literature and good social associations, respectively—and the contrary claim that these fail to have the ability to teach or make men good. As is widely recognized, literature and good associations do have the capacity to give moral guidance, but men choose to ignore their guidance to indulge in vice and avoid rebuke. Thus, this is a sophisticated position that integrates the educational potential of two recognized moral well-springs with the fact that many who drink from these waters still fail to become good.

Dr. Jason Rheins

Dr. Jason G. Rheins is a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In 2003 he received his BA with honors in Philosophy and Classical Studies from Stanford University. In 2010 he earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught or held professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, UNC Chapel Hill, St. John’s University, and Loyola University Chicago. He has published articles and book chapters on the history of philosophy, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics. He is currently completing a monograph on Plato’s theology.