In Plato’s Republic, Socrates is portrayed in a discussion with Glaucon, Adeimantus, and others. They are trying to discover the nature of Justice in general, and to show that it is good, per se, to be just. In the process of trying to discover what Justice is, they think about the various parts of a City. One of the most important parts of the City is its guardians. These guardians serve to protect the City from enemies without and criminals within. It is also from amongst the ranks of the guardians that the City’s rulers are to be chosen. If this is the case, suggests Socrates, then the education of the guardians is of the highest importance. We must be certain that they will be gentle toward all citizens and courageous in battle against enemies of the State. We must be certain that they are able to govern well, that they are not swayed by inordinate desires (such as the love of money or of sensual pleasures). They must love the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. How, then, are we to educate these philosopher-guardians?
Plato has Socrates argue that their education must include four key elements: physical training, poetry, music, and stories. Plato classifies these four elements under two main groups: the training of the mind and the training of body. Both of these aspects are important if we are to train courageous and moderate guardians and rulers. The question of the physical training of the guardians is of no small importance, but our interest for this article is the training of the mind. In discussing the training of the mind, Plato suggests that we must not simply let them read anything. Rather, especially in their early education, but throughout much of their lives, the guardians must only be allowed to read books, listen to poets, or watch dramas which present the gods as examples or models of virtue. The media they consume must only present the gods—we might insert “their heroes” here—as speaking and knowing Truth, being and desiring Good, and pursuing and loving Beauty. “The young can’t distinguish what is allegorical from what isn’t, and the opinions they absorb at that age are hard to erase and apt to become unalterable. For these reasons, then, we should probably take the utmost care to ensure that the first stories they hear about virtue are the best ones for them to hear” (Plato, Republic, 378d-e.).
Almost 800 years later, the 4th century Greek Cappadocian father, Basil of Caesarea, wrote a short treatise titled Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature. In this treatise, Basil argues that young Christians should be taught, by knowledgeable guides, through the reading of the greatest Greek poets and philosophers. In this way, argues Basil, they will be pointed toward true virtue and prepared, as the Greco-Roman society itself was, for learning about God and His Messiah through the inspired Scriptures. In explaining why it is important to read these non-Christian and pre-Christian authors, Basil gives us three examples of how things are prepared for a higher usage:
Into the life eternal the Holy Scriptures lead us, which teach us through divine words. But so long as our immaturity forbids our understanding their deep thought, we exercise our spiritual perceptions upon profane writings, which are not altogether different, and in which we perceive the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors. Thus we imitate those who perform the exercises of military practice…Consequently we must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation. Just as dyers prepare the cloth before they apply the dye, be it purple or any other color, so indeed must we also, if we would preserve indelible the idea of the true virtue, become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself. (Basil of Caesarea, Address to Young Men, 103.)
For Basil, we must read these Greco-Roman authors as a preparation (like soldiers for battle, like dyers preparing their cloth, and like those who would look upon the sun) for delving deep into the knowledge of God as it is revealed in divine Revelation.
More than a millennium after Basil the Great upheld Christian truths against pagan, Philip Melanchthon worked alongside Martin Luther to not only provide a firm foundation for early Protestant churches in Germany but to also revolutionize the entire education system in Germany and surrounding countries. Faced with Radical Reformers whose ideas were tearing the very tissues of society apart and Roman Catholic apologists who were accusing the Reformers of being in league with these various groups of anabaptists which were wreaking havoc in many nations, Melanchthon, with the support of Luther, brought about one of the greatest educational reforms Europe has ever seen. In order to counter the anarchistic principles of the Radical Reformers, and to properly educate future leaders of Church and State, preparing them to confront the chaos that already surrounded them, Melanchthon made the studying of Greek literature a requirement in all schools. Melanchthon thought it was important to read all of the great Greeks, teaching and writing on Homer, Cicero, Galen, Plato, Aristotle, and others. However, it was primarily to Aristotle that he constantly pointed the Protestant and German schools.
In the many public lectures he delivered throughout the late 1530s and early 1540s, Melanchthon argued that if we are to have any hope of restoring stability and peace in our society and properly interpreting Christian Scriptures for the direction of churches, then our leaders of Church and State must read the Greek philosophers—especially Aristotle (Melanchthon, On Philosophy, 130-131.). In his Oration On the Merit of Studying Theology, Melanchthon argues that schools should be upheld and protected by churches, “the schools belong to the ministry of the Gospel or if you will, they are an essential part of that most sacred office; for it is necessary first that those to whom the leadership of the Church is to be entrusted be trained long and diligently” (Melanchthon, On the Merit of Studying Theology, 185-86.). Indeed, says Melanchthon elsewhere, “the most prevalent in an Iliad of ills is ignorant theology (Melanchthon, On Philosophy, 127.)” Not only do the churches have a vested interest in the schools, for the proper training of church leaders, but the state also needs to show interest in the schools. “Pious princes must not only establish schools, but they must also choose the kind of teaching, as if it were a nursery-garden that is approved by a certain and strong authority, and pay attention that the nursery be not corrupted” (Melanchthon, On the Merit of Studying Theology, 186.).
Bringing together these two elements, Melanchthon urges students to earnestly apply themselves to the study of the great Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, saying:
…consider that your studies in truth concern the state and the Church, for the purity and harmony of teaching safeguard the welfare and harmony of men, and especially of the Church. Furthermore I entreat you, for the sake of the glory of God, which we must set before all other things, and for the sake of the welfare of the Church, which must be most dear to us, to resolve that the most excellent disciplines that philosophy contains are to be safeguarded, and to devote yourselves to them with greater effort, so that you may obtain for yourselves teaching that is genuine and useful for humankind. (Melanchthon, On Philosophy, 131.)
We find ourselves, today, in a world which is no less embroiled in turmoil, wars, discord, and suffering. As always, many different religions and philosophies are fighting to captivate the minds of the young. Looking to the past, we find an ancient remedy for the modern folly which is overtaking our society: study the great Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle, and immerse yourself in the Word of God.
David Haines, PhD
Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy
- Pray that we each would be so immersed in the Word that we would be stable witnesses for Christ and citizens of the world.
- Pray that the class of 2022 would finish their educational course well—with perseverance and joy.
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- Pray that God would bring us full cohorts of the students he intends to grow and use for his glory at Bethlehem.
Basil of Caesarea, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, trans. Frederick Morgan Padelford (New York: Henry Hold and Co., 1902).
Philip Melanchthon, “On the Merit of Studying Theology”, in Orations on Philosophy and Education, trans. Christine F. Salazar, ed. Sachiko Kusukawa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Melanchthon, “On Philosophy”, in Orations on Philosophy and Education, trans. Christine F. Salazar, ed. Sachiko Kusukawa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Plato, Republic, trans. G. M. A. Grube, Ed. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992).