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Plato on educating citizens

posted on 15.02.2017, 04:34 by Barrie, Craig Edward
This thesis explores Plato’s critique of Athenian civics education as contained in his Socratic dialogues. Through a close reading of three dialogues – Euthyphro, Ion and Protagoras – I show how Socrates’ interlocutors represent specific forms and stages of paideia, and how each dialogue as a whole illustrates Plato’s cure for this pedagogical form. In Part A I establish the interlocutor-based approach to Plato’s Socratic dialogues, contrasting this with three “Socrates-based” approaches: those of Terence Irwin, Martha Nussbaum and Richard Kraut. These commentators begin with the question of how Socrates’ actions imply his (and Plato’s) positive beliefs and debate questions of continuity with the historical Socrates and Plato’s “later” dialogues. These debates rely on attributing sincerity, irony or protreptic intent using the limited evidence base of Socrates’ elenchtic questioning (which draws out his interlocutors’ beliefs and not necessarily his own). By contrast, I begin with the ample evidence Plato provides us about his interlocutors through setting, characterisation and the lens of the Socratic elenchus, which portray an aetiology of civic types. This broader evidence base then supports inferences about Plato’s intent and Socrates’ beliefs. In Part B I apply this approach to three dialogues. The Euthyphro’s eponymous character represents limitations in cultic paideia, specifically, how cults employ methods for creating powerful shared emotions that each of us can feel, but fail to develop the skills required for political and legal deliberation. Socrates’ cure involves coaching Euthyphro on how to demonstrate and test claims to expertise. The Ion is read as a critique of poetic inculcation of virtue, which perpetuates a closed world of imitation, confirmation bias and argument from authority. This is exacerbated by the professionalisation and democratisation of rhapsody, which puts more emphasis on the rhapsode’s performance than on the poetic message. In response to Ion’s claim that he possesses the dianoia of the poet as proven by his ability to move the crowd, Socrates teaches Ion about the actual conditions for demonstrating expertise and the ways in which he fails to meet these criteria. The Protagoras is read as Socrates inoculating Hippocrates to the potentially deleterious effects of sophistic teaching. For each form of sophistic pedagogy, Socrates emphasises the importance of being able to answer on one’s own behalf, without the need for rhetorical flourish or other voices. Concerning the content of sophistic pedagogy, Socrates creates a bulwark against the slide from unthinking dogmatism to unthinking egoism that may follow from discovering that god-sanctioned norms are actually human constructs for human benefit. In Part C I conclude by considering how Plato’s adoption of the dialogue form is a response to these critiques of Athenian pedagogical practice.


Principal supervisor

Dirk Baltzly

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Philosophical, Historical & International Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts