A depiction of Socrates teaching his disciples by Josef Abel

Educating Young Socrates

As parents none of us are Mary or Joseph, so educating a young Jesus is beyond our skill set, but what about a young Socrates?

If you were his teacher, you could watch your former student invent classical education and shape the future of philosophy. In fact, since he lived in the classical period, classical education was just school with Socrates while he was alive. Turning education away from money-making and the needs of the teacher and toward wisdom cost Socrates his life. The establishment did not appreciate the criticism.

Government has not changed much.

Socrates stood for education despite his city, but still loved Athens. He was a patriot, even when he had every excuse to hate his own people. This is an amazing balance and the world would not see his equal until . . . his student Plato.

Socrates was not just a seeker of wisdom, courageous, but also such an effective teacher that he produced at least two students who wrote books that make most great text canons: Xenophon and Plato.

We have Plato’s picture of a young Socrates getting schooling (and schooled!) in the dialogue Parmenides. There the future father of philosophy is a precocious child hearing from Parmenides, a famous thinker. (The student was so superior to the teacher in this case that usually Parmenides is called a “pre-Socratic” philosopher!)

If Plato made up the encounter, we still get a picture of what Socrates’ greatest student thought his master was like as a young man. He shows Socrates having his views roasted by Parmenides and his brilliant protégé Zeno. This makes the dialogue Parmenides the equivalent of philosophical Avengers: quite a few super-minds in one book.

Socrates will chase down an argument as “keenly as a young Spartan hound.” (128c) He wishes to understand other people’s position well. The young Socrates also is eager to make arguments and have them challenged. (130b) Socrates will express uncertainty to others about his ideas. (130c)

A good education encourages those traits in a student. The good news is that these are natural virtues of youth. While not every student is naturally as keen as Socrates, schools and culture have to work to dull the curiosity of children. Energy someone my age might not have comes more easily to a younger student.

Young Socrates fell short, however, and Plato gives us an idea of what he needs. Oddly, what Plato prescribes is the very medicine we often avoid giving students. Socrates needs clarity in his arguments. He needs to do the very hard work of defining terms and spelling out his ideas. As a teacher Parmenides uses the energy that Socrates has for education to develop a taste for precision and clarity.

Parmenides pushes Socrates to consider ideas that Socrates finds distasteful, rather than just consider the “high” or safe ideas. Smart young people might find discussions of justice interesting and even be willing to discuss the “justice” for hours. Ask for clarity about “mud” or “sticks” and the intellectual student retreats. What is so interesting about that?

Yet Greek thought failed to develop science as Christian civilization did, in part because Greeks could not be persuaded by Plato or Aristotle to take less exalted ideas or things seriously. Everyone wanted to examine “justice itself,” but few gentlemen could bring themselves to dissect a word.

Just as bad, a good many of us want to do and to fix before we know what we are doing or fixing. “Just do it” is great advice for athletes perhaps, but it is horrible advice for politicians! You do not have to be very cynical about government to think that maybe more thought should go into many plans. The worst harm, in human history, has been done by smart people who quit thinking as soon as they “get it.” They do not have time to waste clarifying their ideas, considering alternatives, or even defining terms.

“Justice,” they cry, while enacting horrific injustice. Parmenides forces the young Socrates to work hard, hopelessly hard, on the dry task of clarity, precision in argument, and humility in knowledge. Socrates is unsure of his answer, but hides this fact. He is unwilling to challenge the norms of the city, just at a moment in history when they require modification!

Entertainment is not bad and there is not a special bonus for making a class drier than it must be. A good teacher will inspire as he can, as older Socrates did with his own disciples. However, the energy of youth is the very time to learn the precision of the scientific methods, the foundations of more difficult maths, and the clarity that comes with philosophy and logic.

The adults must draw the conclusions and govern.

Young Socrates needed to learn how to clarify and defend an argument. He had to learn to push tirelessly against convention, if convention had no defense. Old Socrates would allow his students to question many things, but he kept forcing those bright folk (Plato! Xenophon!) to clarify, defend, and hesitate. He tried to help produce people who could govern themselves first and would hesitate to impose a solution on everyone else.

No wonder the tyrants in democratic guise killed the older Socrates!

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