Education in Plato’s Republic, Part III: Gymnastics for the Guardians

Written by Dr. Jason Rheins on December 30, 2021

As we’ve seen in the preceding parts of this series on education in Plato’s Republic, Greek education at this time largely consisted of three elements: grammatikē (grammar), musikē (music), and gymnastikē (gymnastics).We covered musikē extensively in part two, and we will now move on to gymnastikē, the education of the body.

The gymnastic training of the Guardians, by necessity, must be extensive. However, before examining the following passages, we should note that in the Kallipolis, unlike in Sparta, gymnastics does not take precedence over the other kinds of education. On the contrary, it is secondary to musikē. Plato conceptualizes musikē and gymnastikē as the training of soul and body for the sake of excellence. Musikē, like the soul, is primary, and is given far more extensive discussion than the training of the body.

Republic III.403c-e; 404d-e

“After music our youth are to be educated by gymnastics?” “Certainly.” “In this too they must be carefully trained from boyhood through life, and the way of it is this, I believe; but consider it yourself too. For I, for my part, do not believe that a sound body by its excellence makes the soul good, but on the contrary that a good soul by its virtue renders the body the best that is possible. What is your opinion?” “I think so too.” “Then if we should sufficiently train the mind and turn over to it the minutiae of the care of the body, and content ourselves with merely indicating the norms or patterns, not to make a long story of it, we should acting rightly?” “By all means.” “From intoxication we said that they must abstain. For a guardian is surely the last person in the world to whom it is allowable to get drunk and not know where on earth he is.” “Yes,” he said, “it would absurd that a guardian should need a guard.” “What next about their food? These men are athletes in the greatest of contests, are they not?” “Yes.”

“In general, I take it, if we likened that kind of food and regimen to music and song expressed in the pan-harmonic mode and in every variety of rhythm it would be a fair comparison.” “Quite so.” “And here variety engendered licentiousness, did it not, but here disease? While simplicity in music begets sobriety in the souls, and in gymnastic training it begets health in bodies.” “Most true,” he said.”

Physical education begins in boyhood and continues through adulthood. Socrates gives it relatively short shrift compared to music, in as much as music concerns the soul gymnastics the body, and a good soul will take care of the body, while the reverse is not necessarily the case. In late works suck as The Timaeus and Laws, Plato will give greater consideration to the ways that harmonious or disharmonious motions of the body affect the soul, and he goes further in the Laws to integrate music and gymnastics. Here though, he only stresses the supremacy of the soul to the body. This makes a marked contrast between the education of the Kallipolis and the physically focused education at Sparta, which up to this point seemed like the Greek city most like the Kallipolis with its rigorous, state-sponsored training of the elite and its moral censorship of poetry.

Gymnastics concerns not only the physical exercises of the body but physical training in the sense of diet and regimen, as well. In these regards, Socrates makes two points. First, the guardians will consume no alcohol. The moral calculus for this is obvious, but it is worth noting that this is a view that Plato will revise in his last work, Laws. Good citizens (and rulers especially) should combine the traits of courage and moderation. Neither of these can rely strictly on natural predispositions; they must be trained through experience. (Socrates does suggest below that they might at least be tested with experience.) When Spartans who are unaccustomed to luxuries encounter them abroad, they are easily corrupted. In the city of the Laws, young men and old participate in symposia (drinking parties) where they sing uplifting songs while beneficially disinhibited by moderate drink. They thereby learn self-control and strengthen the bonds of fellowship with their fellow citizens—both kinds of “harmony”. However, here in the Kallipolis, Guardians are to abstain. These changes may reflect deeper shifts in Plato's thinking concerning virtue in non-philosophers and the virtue of moderation, specifically. See below. Second, Socrates insists on a simple diet by analogy to the simple and unvariegated tunes and rhythms that were agreed upon for music. Both points will have significance when we return to the issue of pleasure in the final passage.

Republic III.412a

“Then he who best blends gymnastics with music and applies them most suitably to the soul is the man whom we should most rightly pronounce to be the most perfect and harmonious musician, far rather than the one who brings the strings into unison with one another."

Just as soul and body are meant to be in concord, with the former directing and ministering to the latter, music and gymnastics are meant to be integrated, albeit according to the musical concept of “harmony” and with music taking precedence. Dance, long associated with both aspects of Greek education, is an excellent example of how they might come together, and this theme is more fully developed in Plato's final work, the Laws. This perhaps marks a shift from Plato’s Phaedo, an earlier dialogue which has a more ascetic outlook, or at least a more ascetic emphasis, casting philosophy as life-long preparation for death, i.e. separation of the soul from the body.[1]

Republic III.413c-414a

"Well then, as I was just saying, we must look for those who are the best guardians of the indwelling conviction that what they have to do is what they at any time believe to be best for the state. Then we must observe them from childhood up and propose them tasks in which one would be most likely to forget this principle or be deceived, and he whose memory is sure and who cannot be beguiled we must accept and the other kind we must cross off from our list. Is not that so?” “Yes.” “And again we must subject them to toils and pains and competitions in which we have to watch for the same traits.” “Right,” he said. “Then,” said I, “must we not institute a third kind of competitive test with regard to sorcery and observe them in that? Just as men conduct colts to noises and uproar to see if they are liable to take fright, so we must bring these lads while young into fears and again pass them into pleasures, testing them much more carefully than men do gold in the fire, to see if the man remains immune to such witchcraft and preserves his composure throughout, a good guardian of himself and the culture which he has received, maintaining the true rhythm and harmony of his being in all those conditions, and the character that would make him most useful to himself and to the state. And he who as boy, lad, and man endures the test and issues from it unspoiled we must establish as ruler over our city and its guardian, and bestow rewards upon him in life, and in death the allotment of the supreme honors of burial-rites and other memorials. But the man of the other type we must reject. Such,” said I, “appears to me, Glaucon, the general notion of our selection and appointment of rulers and guardians as sketched in outline, but not drawn out in detail.”

The Guardians function as the military police of the Kallipolis, but from their already selective ranks, a very few will be elevated to rulership after extensive testing. These "true Guardians" will be philosopher-kings, while the soldiers will be their "auxiliaries". In later books, Socrates will describe the ideal intellectual capacities for such philosophers, the rigorous and decades-long education that they must complete, and the means by which their accomplishments in thought and action will be measured.

Here, however, having not yet described the nature of the philosopher or the path to philosophical knowledge, he focuses on the testing of the Guardians’ commitment to always serve the well-being of the city. First, a willingness or capacity to have and hold this conviction is identified in the young— though elsewhere Socrates describes a fierceness of spirit as the first trait by which potential guardians will exhibit their suitability. Second, Socrates states that young Guardians in training will have their civic devotion tested through situations in which they might be likely to forget or be confused about their commitment to the common good. Third, they must be tested by challenges that assail their conviction that they must serve. None of these Guardians are philosophers yet, and few will ever become ones. Thus, their conviction is not knowledge, which, according to Plato can never be swayed by appearance; rather, it is what Socrates will hereafter describe as "true opinion".

Opinion, even true opinion, can be swayed, overcome, or even dislodged by sufficiently strong appearances and passions, such as fear and pleasure. In fact, Socrates will define the virtue of courage, which is exemplified by the auxiliary Guardians, as the perseverance of true opinions in the face of fear, like a strong dye whose colors do not run in the wash. The third step in the selection of candidates for true guardianship, i.e., rulership, tests their ability to preserve their true opinion that they must always serve the good of the state in the face of fears and pleasures to which they will be subjected. The test of their courage, the perseverance of true opinion in the face of fear, no doubt includes the observation of their performance in battle, though other trials are not ruled out.

It is harder to guess what tests in the face of pleasure consist of, as the guardians are restricted to simple foods, forbidden alcohol, and denied sexual congress except according to the infrequent and strictly regulated couplings prescribed by the eugenic breeding schedule maintained by the true rulers. This is relevant to a point made earlier about the difference between the Republic and the Laws. While alcohol is prohibited for the Guardians in the former, in the latter, citizens develop their virtue of moderation through carefully supervised communal symposia. It is also worth noting, that in Book 9 of the Republic, in contrasting the vastly greater and more abundant pleasures of the philosopher's life to those of the tyrant, Socrates argues that philosophers are in a position to know that philosophical pleasures are greater than other pleasures since they are familiar with the pleasures known to lesser men, even while the intellectual pleasures of philosophy are unknown to the vulgar. These trials of pleasure then, may be the very opportunities the future rulers have for experiencing those vulgar pleasures which they will know to be inferior to the pursuit of real knowledge and the good itself.

But, however such tests of pleasure are meant to be understood, and whatever these passages mean for Plato's evolving conception of the virtue of moderation, several of their key implications for his overall philosophy of education are clear. First, Plato favors what today we would call "tracking". Certain young people are placed on a professional and educational track far more inflexible than any we know in the modern world. Based on early signs of personality and intelligence, a minority of the young are assigned to be Guardians, rather than producers. There are no opportunities for a craftsman to become a philosopher, for a soldier to become a painter, etc. It is a caste system, though not strictly hereditary.[2] Within the ruling classes, strict fidelity to the ideology of the state is inculcated, observed, and tested, and those who show the greatest fidelity to it are the ones recommended for leadership.

Testing plays a key part in the tracking system. Promotion from being an auxiliary Guardian to a true Guardian begins with moral sortition and ultimately involves intellectual sortition. Finally, the conviction of the Guardians that they must at all times serve the good of the Kallipolis is to be tested strenuously through their introduction to what may justly be called "moral hazards". If all this means is that the truest test of a guardian's courage is battle, then Socrates has a point, one made centuries earlier by Tyrtaeus, in fact. (See Spartan Education.) And if this meant that young Guardians were taught to make healthy choices regarding sex, alcohol, and the like through safe, supervised introduction it would be commendable; but as we have seen, the Kallipolis seems to favor something much closer to an "abstinence-only" approach in these spheres. In that context, the introduction to such moral hazards seems closer to entrapment or purity tests, than anything else.

What Socrates prescriptions and proscriptions for the education of the Guardians in Book 3 tells us, more than anything, is this: Plato had tremendous insight into all the aspects of life that could affect the character and education of the young, and that he thought it best to rigorously censor and control all of these to ensure the optimal character of the leading class of his ideal state.

1. Although the two dialogues conceptualize the body, its appetites, and the parts of the soul differently, they are still much in accord—both agree that one should turn away from the senses to the intellect and that the appetites should be under the command of reason and otherwise resisted.

2. Despite the eugenic breeding programs meant to maintain appropriate numbers for each caste, Plato accepts that sometimes the children of Guardians will be best placed among the workers, and vice versa.

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.