Will they ever truly philosophize?

Prompt: “One of the central themes in Socrates’ depiction of the guardians is the role of imitation (mimesis) in their education. Socrates states that the guardians should not be allowed to imitate inappropriate examples of behavior. Why is Socrates concerned about the role of imitation in education and what (if anything) is lacking in an understanding of education as solely the imitation of correct examples?”

The concept of imitation can be understood in two ways. In a narrower sense, imitation (mimesis) is used in Book 3 of the Republic as people reading lines of dialogue, in which the reader tries their best to enact the character. In a broader sense, the concept of imitation is also present as somebody learning about the behavior of another person, from a story or a poem, and then deciding to do imitate it.

In this essay, I first approach the prompt using the narrower definition of imitation, which we find used in book 3, as imitation being reciting lines of dialogue. Since Socrates considers stories a very important part of the education of guardians, a part which will give them models to imitate later in life, I am going to expand the inquiry to include the broader definition of imitation, that of learning about a behavior, and then deciding to imitate it. Building upon that, in the final part of the essay I will show the problems that arise when one views education as being solely the imitation of correct examples.

1.      Imitation as in reciting lines of dialogue

While constructing the city in speech, the problem of education emerges along with the heroic paradox. How can we stop the guardians, who have a savage and warlike nature, to not act as such towards one another and to the rest of the citizens (375 b)? Nature shows us that it is possible for some creatures to act in such a way (375 d, e), and as such, there might be the possibility that the guardians can be educated in order to achieve the behavior we desire of them.

It’s important to note that while constructing the city in speech, Socrates and his interlocutors treat the people living in the city, and especially the guardian class, as some kind of clay ready to be molded in whatever they desire. That is a very strong assumption about human nature. While it is true that the environment plays a critical role in the development of the personality and behavior, there are also universals of human nature that transcend local conditions of upbringing (like for example the preference for symmetrical faces when judging attractiveness, which can be found in all human societies).

Socrates is concerned about the role of imitation in the education of guardians because of two reasons:

First, it contradicts the core principle on which the city was founded, that which stated that each man shall have only one art. For imitating a certain person, for example Achilles, requires a different skill set than imitating Hector. Thus, in the words of Socrates, „Human nature, Adeimantus, looks to me to be minted in even smaller coins than this, so that it is unable either to make a fine imitation of many things or to do the things themselves of which the imitations are in fact only likenesses”.(395b)

Second, Socrates is worried that when you reproduce somebody’s lines of dialogue in a text, the distance between you and the text tends to blur, and after you try your best to become the character and render his words, a part of the character stays in you. Thus, imitations, “if they are practiced continually from youth onwards, become established as habits and nature, in body and sounds in thought” (395d). This is a clear danger to his city if the people are to imitate characters with bad moral qualities.

Thus, Socrates contends that the guardians “mustn’t do or imitate anything else. And if they do imitate, they must imitate what’s appropriate to them from childhood: men who are courageous, moderate, holy, free, and everything of the sort; and what is slavish, or anything else shameful, they must neither do nor be clever at imitating, so that they won’t get a taste for the being from its imitation” (395 c,d).

2.      Imitation as in learning about a behavior, and then imitating it

“Don’t you know that the beginning is the most important part of every work and that this is especially so with anything young and tender? For at that stage it’s most plastic, and each thing assimilates itself to the model whose stamp anyone wishes to give to it” (377b)

During the discussion about the education of the guardians, Socrates notices that one of the fundamental ways that humans learn and choose their behavior is by imitating other people and characters. Children imitate their favorite heroes, and adults sometimes in life try to follow the path of people they call „inspirational” for themselves. Whether you call it mimesis, as it was known in Ancient Greece 2500 years ago, or observational learning, the current term used in modern psychology, learning by imitation is a fundamental force in human nature to be reckoned with.

Thus, if Socrates is to achieve his goal of creating a city whose guardians are „courageous, moderate, holy, free, and everything of the sort”, he needs to acknowledge the force of imitation and use it for his own purposes. For example, one of the main ways that cultures transmit their values to new generations is through stories (whether they are prose, poems, songs, or in the modern world, movies and TV shows). Socrates knows this, and he intends to control and censor the stories told in the city (377 b, c). Only the ones that follow the official, correct viewpoint shall be allowed to be told in the city.

3. What is lacking in an understanding of education as solely the imitation of correct examples

Since only correct examples will be allowed, works will never be able to contradict each other when it comes to ethical problems, or anything that might be considered right or wrong. For how can two contradictory conclusions be published in the city, if we can only allow the correct one? Trivial things may be different in the city’s cultural works, but the important kind of knowledge, the one that can be correct or incorrect, right or wrong, that will only be of one variety.

Such a society, where everybody studies stories and examples that all reach the same conclusions, will be a very uniform and conservative society when it comes to thinking. New patterns of thought will be rare, and very similar to each other. Innovation will be close to zero. Reform and progress will be non-existent, because without showing the weaknesses of the current system, and offering other alternatives, the people of the city will be left to believe that their current organization is the best. What will happen when the city will start to fail, as all human societies have done in the past? Socrates is trying to create a city that will stand the test of time, that will neither become many nor crumble into pieces, but without planning for the possibility of unexpected failure, he might actually lead the city to total destruction.

Furthermore, one of the reasons for exposing yourself to numerous viewpoints, without any censorship, is that you can see numerous ways of approaching the world. When faced with unexpected circumstances, in which you have to devise a new solution, you have a bigger pool of knowledge and things you can draw upon. Imagination only works as a combination of things you already know. If one is to devise, to imagine a new solution, then it is better for oneself to have been exposed to as many things as possible. The more uniform are the stories and knowledge you have been exposed to, the less imagination and creativity you will have. Thus, another thing in which the education of the guardians will be lacking is imagination and creativity.

Since innovation is not supposed to be in the city (424 b,c), the notions of what is right and what is wrong cannot change. Thus, it is imperative that the city is founded with the right concepts in place. But how can its founders know the final truths about knowledge, Justice, or the universe in general? After all, these are the same people that often, after discussing a philosophical concept, arrive at a conclusion that is the opposite of their initial belief. This founding arrogance of the city is especially uncharacteristic for Socrates, who is renowned for saying that he is wiser than some only because he knows he does not know anything (Plato, The Apology).

Socrates also thinks that “the life which is unexamined is not worth living” (Plato, The Apology). But if people are educated to believe that they know the correct way to live their lives, and they know what is the just thing to do and what is not, why would they ever question these things? Would they ever doubt their knowledge, and start asking what Justice is? Will they ever truly philosophize?

Such a stark contrast with the beliefs of Socrates that we see in others of Plato’s works suggests that Socrates is actually trying to educate his interlocutors, and the reader, by giving them a negative example, a city in which philosophy and the will to philosophize is suppressed. If one is to be educated by the Republic, imitation of what seems good (the city-in-thought) is not enough, but careful reading and pondering of the ideas is also required.

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