This Democracy Will Self-Destruct in 5, 4, 3…

“…are you not ashamed that you care for having as much money as possible, and reputation, and honor, but that you neither care for nor give thought to prudence, and trust, and how your soul will be the best possible?”[1]The above question is what Socrates asks of the jury of his peers as they are about to sentence him to death. Is this question not relevant to education in America today? Even if we were to survey church attenders on a Sunday morning regarding the reason that their children go to school 40 hours per week for 13 years of their lives, would their answers have more to do with making money, gaining reputation, and honor? Or would their answers regard the matters of prudence, trust, and “how your soul will be the best possible”? I do not mean to ask the question “Why do you send your children to that school (as opposed to another)?” but rather to ask “Why do you send your children to school at all?” I believe this is a very different question that is not being asked enough.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates challenges the democratic Athenians:

“Therefore, those who have no experience of prudence and virtue but are always living with feasts and the like are, it seems, brought down and then back again to the middle and throughout life wander in this way; but, since they don’t go beyond this, they don’t look upward toward what is truly above, nor are they ever brought to it; and they aren’t filled with what really is, nor do they taste of a pleasure that is sure and pure…”[2]In his usual fashion, Socrates has broken up the components of life into three parts: one low, one middle, and one high. What he is saying is that most people spend all their time focused on the basest of things (“low” and “middle”). He continues this passage, saying:

“…rather, after the fashion of cattle, always looking down and with their heads bent to earth and table, they feed, fattening themselves, and copulating; and, for the sake of getting more of these things, they kick and butt with horns and hoofs of iron, killing each other because they are insatiable; for they are not filling the part of themselves that is, or can contain anything, with the things that are.[3]This world that Socrates describes is the city, Athens, that America has come to embrace and reflect—a city of “equality”, “freedom”, and “expression.” But contrary to what the world would have us think, these things are not the “higher things,” but instead are the most base and worldly of things. In agreement with Socrates, Paul objects:  “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”[4]So what is the goal of education in a democracy? Well, there is no simple answer to that. Why not? The reason is based on the nature of democracy itself. What is a democracy? A democracy is the “rule of the people.” A democracy is what the book of Judges says in its summarizing last verse: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”[5] So what is the end goal of education in such a culture? It depends on whom you ask, for the answer will differ from person to person. The goal of education is whatever you want it to be. By their very nature, democracies tend toward the “equality”, “freedom”, and “expression” mentioned above. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how these qualities are glorified in our modern American culture. What has escaped the attention of most of us is that these qualities—indeed democracy itself—has been tried and has failed. Like the nation of Israel in the time of the judges, without continual divine intervention, it simply self-destructs.

Contemplating how one knows what means are necessary to attain a particular end goal, Aristotle says:

“We deliberate not about ends but about means. A doctor does not deliberate whether to cure his patient, nor a speaker whether to persuade his audience, nor a statesman whether to produce law and order; nor does anyone else deliberate about the end which he is aiming. They first set some end before themselves, and then proceed to consider how and by what means it can be attained.”[6]In most cases the doctor is clear what his goal is—to cure the patient. Similarly the mechanic is clear what his goal is—to fix the vehicle brought into his shop. While knowing the end goal itself does not make it easy to attain, it certainly helps to eliminate a myriad of other options. It also creates a standard by which the means and applications can be evaluated (i.e. Did the patient get better? Does the car run again?).

What Aristotle is advocating is “reverse engineering.” You start with the goal in mind, then work your way all the way back to the first step. From there, you know how to begin, and the proposed subsequent steps to take.

But are modern educators clear what their goal is? This is an excellent question that we should all be asking ourselves about the education of our own children. As believers, we are charged with the education of our own children,[7] so whether you homeschool or send your children to a private or government school, this is a question that you must answer for yourself. What does the end goal look like? How will I, like the doctor or mechanic, know if we have hit the mark? Many people, even Christians, will say that it is impossible to know, but this is not the testimony of Scripture nor of educators throughout history. It is rather a deception of democracy—that everyone inevitably will do whatever is right in their own eyes.

Socrates knew what the end goal of education was. He says in The Republic:

“‘And the law,’ I said, ‘as an ally of all in the city, also makes it plain that it wants something of the kind; and so does the rule over the children, their not being set free until we establish a regime in them as in a city, and until—having cared for the best part in them with the like in ourselves—we establish a similar guardian and ruler in them to take our place; only then, do we set them free.”[8]As indicated in my recent post, Virtue-Free Education, Socrates knew that there was a problem inherent in all people from birth. What is needed is restraint while virtue is being cultivated in them. James Madison, author of the U.S. Constitution, says in The Federalist papers:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”[9]Reflecting the anti-democracy sentiments held near-universally by the United States’ Founding Fathers, Madison acknowledges that men must be governed—even controlled. They are not angels—at least not the holy kind. In like fashion, Socrates is comparing the raising of children to the function of governments over people. Governments are meant to restrain. Just as the Law was meant to restrain those without the Gospel until the “coming of faith” (Galatians 3.21-29), so also children must be restrained as they are trained by the guardian of education, until they have learned to govern themselves (i.e. self-control). This is what Plato would call Justice—the culmination of virtue.

So what does virtue look like? How do we know when we have attained the end goal? Aristotle describes it thusly: “But to have these feelings at the right times on the right grounds towards the right people for the right motive and in the right way is to feel them to an intermediate,[10] that is to the best, degree; and this is the mark of virtue.”[11][1] Plato, and Thomas West. Apology of Socrates. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. p. 81.

[2] Plato, and Allan Bloom. The Republic. New York: Basic Books, 2016. p. 268.

[3] Ibid., 268.

[4] Colossians 3.1-2

[5] Judges 21.25

[6] Aristotle, J. A. K. Thomson and Hugh Tredennick. The Nichomachean Ethics. London: Penguin Press, 2004. p. 58.

[7] See Deuteronomy 6 and Ephesians 6.1-4

[8]The Republic. p. 273.

[9] James Madison. The Federalist Papers, No. 51. accessed on November 22, 2017 at 1:05pm.

[10] He uses the term “intermediate” here as his definition of each virtue is always an intermediate point somewhere between a deficiency and an excess.

[11]The Nichomachean Ethics. p. 41.With regards to the importance of virtue formation in the New Testament, see 1 Peter 1.3-11.

One thought on “This Democracy Will Self-Destruct in 5, 4, 3…

  1. Nice post. Well written and good sources. Sounds like you are saying the goal of education is virtue or what Plato would call Justice. My only concern is that virtue and justice in the modern and post modern mind is quite arbitrary if not totally subjective i.e. freedom of sexual orientation for one person may be their moral standard, while another person regards that same “moral” as totally immoral. My initial thought is that today’s secular education does, in fact, believe they are teaching “virtue.” Perhaps a follow up post is coming?


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