Plato’s Class Distinction; The Backdrop Of Contemporary Education

Project and Seminar Material for Philosophy

Plato’s Class Distinction; The Backdrop Of Contemporary Education

Table of Contents

  • Title
  • Certification
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgment
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction

Chapter One

General Background

  • 1.1 Plato’s Background
  • 1.2 His Works and Chronology
  • 1.3 Plato’s Class Distinction
  • 1.4 Plato’s Intention for the Distinction

Chapter Two

Views on Class Distinction

  • 2.1 Aristolte’s view
  • 2.2 Karl Marx’s view
  • 2.3 Sociological views
  • 2.4 The tenability of Egalitarianism

Chapter Three

Historical Development of Education.

  • 3.1 The Notion of Education
  • 3.2 Ancient Theories
  • 3.3 Early Christian Education
  • 3.4 Medieval Education
  • 3.5 Modern / Contemporary Education

Chapter Four

Plato’s Class Distinction and Contemporary Education.

  • 4.1 Practical Implications of Plato’s Class Distinction
  • 4.2 Nature of Contemporary Education
  • 4.3 Influence of Plato’s Class Distinction on Contemporary Education

Chapter Five

Critical Evaluation and Conclusion.

  • 5.1 Critical Notes on Plato’s Class Distinction
  • 5.2 The defects and Impact of Contemporary Education
  • 5.3 Conclusion
  • Bibliography

Chapter One


The integral nature of the human society makes the interaction of one another within the society necessary. Thus, there exist economic, social, religious and political institutions that foster this required integration. The popular John Donne’s phrase that ‘no man is an island’ advocates a complementarity of each other’s capacity for a wholesome society. Aristotle in his Politics asserted that nature intends man to live in a society. “He who is unable to live in society or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself must either be a beast or a god.”[1] It is only in a society therefore that man can develop his potentialities as a human being. The state, which is described as an organized political community, becomes therefore a plat-form for the realization of this natural need for complementarity.

For Plato, the nature of the state requires a division of labour so that the diverse needs of man within the state would be met. The outcome of this division, if followed according to the natural disposition of each to his class, is justice in the state and happiness for the individuals within the state.

The itinerary of Plato’s class distinction within the state as he proposed for the then Athenian state left a significant mark on education. Through out the history of the development of education, some imports of Plato’s political propositions seemed evident especially in contemporary education. In a bid to make this clearer, it is necessary in this introductory part to state the purpose, scope, method and division of this work.

Purpose of Study

Having stated the nature of the human society and the necessity of the state above, I intend to look at Plato’s view of the ideal state. His propositions on the nature of the ideal state introduce the role of education while answering the questions of ‘who’ occupies ‘which’ class in the three classes of his ideal state. The end of this would be to explain how his class distinction remains the backdrop of contemporary education.

Scope of Work

This work examines Plato’s proposition for an ideal (Athenian) state through his class distinctions in the state. A look at different views on this class distinction gives more explanation to the reality of different classes within a state/society. With an inference of the implications of Plato’s class distinction and a look on the nature of contemporary education, the influence of the former on the latter is easily brought to limelight.


Expository method is employed in explaining Plato’s propositions for an ideal state and the distinctions in class within the state. However, an analytic tone underlies the whole thesis purposely for realizing the philosophical evaluation of the influence of his (Plato’s) class distinction in contemporary education.

Division of Work

Apart from this introductory part, this work comprises five chapters. The first chapter exposes the general background of Plato’s political philosophy, which also treats his idea of the make up of the ideal state. The second explores some views on class distinction, which is concluded with the tenability of egalitarianism. Chapter three traces the historical development of education from the ancient to the contemporary ages of education. Chapter four derives the practical implications of Plato’s class distinction from which the influence of the class distinction on contemporary education is gleaned. Chapter five makes a critical evaluation on Plato’s class distinction and the impact of contemporary education.

Chapter Five

Critical Evaluation and Conclusion

5.1 Critical Notes on Plato’s Class Distinction.

Plato’s political philosophy was spurred by the defective state of Athenian politics, which saw the execution of Socrates, his great friend and teacher. His disgust left him no choice than to construct an ideal and perfect state. He saw the major defect in the entire formation or make up of the Athenian city-state whereby individuals occupy positions to which they have neither the natural dispositions nor the proper training for. The one that knows the art of navigation, according to his analogy, should be the captain of the ship – the ruler of the state. His educational system therefore was a medium through which appropriate rulers are selected for the state. Given the nature of the Athenian state, it was necessary also that the state meets the needs of its citizens. He therefore distinguishes three classes of the state – Rulers, Soldiers and Artisans. To the extent these classes are able to carry out their different tasks adequately, the state exists justly and happiness is ensured in the state.

Plato saw philosophers as most suitable for the class of the rulers in his ideal state. It looks necessary since a philosopher knows and could distinguish between right and wrong; good and evil. However, knowing does not entail doing as Plato holds. The state’s justice does not lie on the knowledge of good and evil of the ruler. His human nature here comes to play such that the perfect state does not rest at training the rulers to be philosophers. It is however note-worthy that Plato ascribes moral goodness to one of the necessary qualities of whoever is to qualify to be a philosopher-king.

On another note, Plato conflicts the morality of the ruler in his exclusive right to tell lies – noble lie. He, Plato, recognized the defect of lying when he asserted that lie is hated not only by the gods but also by men. He nevertheless permitted the rulers and no other to tell lies: “Then if anyone should have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the state should be the persons.” It is obvious that he used lying as a means to an end – the end being to convince the rest of the classes to accept their different positions as natural; ordained by the gods. The mere concept of lie excludes truth. Suffice it then to say that Plato’s Principle of Natural disposition or what Nicholas White terms the principle of Natural Division of Labour, has no truth in it. He only used it to convey what he thought should be the explanation of his distinction. Little wonder he was reluctant to tell this lie when he said: “You will not wonder at my hesitation when you have heard.” Those he made the rulers tell the lie that they (the rulers) are made of gold, the soldiers of silver and the artisans of brass and iron.

However, his educational revolution gave everyone equal opportunity to exhibit their abilities such that the child of the artisan could be discovered to be composed of gold. He makes provision for this in his proposition that children be owned by the state to be given a common education. This points to one of the utopic nature of his political state. He makes it more explicit that the rulers and auxiliaries have everything in common including wives. This provision was merely to accommodate his position that each receives equal opportunity to education. This is simply unlikely in praxis given the nature of the human society. It would be a state of disorder whereby nothing belongs to any family under the guise of receiving equal educational formation from the state. The persons behind the umbrella name of the ‘state’ are also questionable. Perhaps, the rulers – philosopher-kings would be responsible for this. In this case then, it is likely, as is obtained in our contemporary society, that the rulers favour their offspring.
Unlike the contemporary attitude towards individuals that do not measure up to required standards in education, Plato did not create any room for demoted individuals that later in life put up excellent skills in academics and physical tasks. Contemporary education demotes individuals that perform poorly but also treats them as such when their performances improve. This succinctly points out that Plato does not specify if artisans could ever rise to the higher classes in the ideal state. Of course, if his natural division should hold, there would be no room for this. It is however evident that certain individuals at certain times in their lives make drastic improvements in skills: mentally and physically. Plato’s classes are seemingly permanent.

One of the outstanding welcome aspects of Plato’s political philosophy is the position he gave to women. Obviously, women have shown their capabilities in various phases of leadership in society. With Aristotle, their position would have remained unrecognized. Our universities also record almost equal number of females with males in their various departments of learning.

5.2 The Defects and Impacts of Contemporary Education.

One of the Igbo folk songs, usually sung by little children, describes the nature of education thus: Akwukwo na – ato uto, mana o na – afia ahu na mmuta; onye were nkasi obi, o ga – amuta akwukwo ma o buru na nne gi na nna gi nwee ego. This literally means that education is interesting but difficult. However, with due perseverance, one gets knowledge but that would be if your parents have the money to sponsor your education. However entertaining this song could be for the children, it points at a significant aspect of contemporary education. Recently economic affluence has almost become a matrix for academic and educational excellence; more still a condition for educational pursuits. This development is fundamentally not Platonic. Plato’s educational programme was basically vested on natural abilities such that individuals are educated according to their natural dispositions and capabilities. None is left out sequel to economic shortcomings. There are instances of academic awards that are merely given to economically influential individuals. Platonic ideal was to give the mentally gifted people due opportunity to refine their abilities for appropriate functions in the state. Each is accorded his position in reference to his mental and physical capabilities.

Vocational education has remained one of the major influences of Plato’s educational programme for his ideal state. Contemporary education admits candidates, especially in university levels, into faculties and departments to which they have dispositions and qualifications. In Nigeria for example, the University Matriculation Examinations (UME) serves as a medium of discovering who fits into particular departments and vocation. Candidates could be assigned to departments different from their choice, which reflects Plato’s classification due to natural predisposition and not choice. Just as Plato recognizes that artisans would prefer to be rulers, journalists might prefer to be lawyers in our contemporary education. Universities therefore dwell fundamentally on training individuals for the vocation to which their abilities are predisposed.

5.3 Conclusion.

Plato’s class distinction as x-rayed in this project was an offshoot of his proposition for a perfect and ideal state. The state exists for the good of the citizens and is perfect to the extent it satisfies the needs of these individuals in the state. Given the self-insufficiency of individuals in the state, the class distinction becomes exigent. The classes are however classified according to individuals’ natural predispositions. As such, there are the classes of the rulers, soldiers and artisans. The state is perfect in as much as these individuals perform their different tasks with wisdom, courage and temperance respectively. Given the nature of individuals, each might prefer the higher classes and this makes the medium and condition for this distinction necessary. Education therefore stands as both a distinguishing factor for each class and also the process of training for individuals to fit into their respective classes. This is necessary as individuals do not possess the same abilities in life. Different philosophers and sociologists agree to this inequality of abilities of individuals. They unanimously agree to the fact that education plays an important role in the positions held by people in societies.

Education in its historical trend traces its development down from the ancient period to the contemporary age. Plato’s educational ideal of the development of the mind and body still reflect its purpose in the contemporary age of education. More outstandingly and significantly, his influence is felt in various aspects like equal educational opportunities for men and women, free and compulsory basic education and specialization in particular fields according to natural predispositions and inclination. Higher education as found in colleges, polytechnics and universities therefore have the vocational formation at their backdrop – to fit individuals into particular fields of life.

Plato’s class distinction therefore influenced contemporary education in the latter’s import of Plato’s educational programme for the distinction of various classes in the state. The distinction as made clear in this work was based on natural inclinations to specific vocations/classes in society.

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