The Theory of Education in the Republic of Plato
by R.L. Nettleship
by Robbie McClintock
Published in The Theory of Education in the Republic of Plato By Richard Lewis Nettleship. New York: Teachers College Press Classics in Education Series No. 36, 1968.
Length: 1,500 words
"He loved great things, and thought little of himself: desiring neither fame nor influence, he won the devotion of men and was a power in their lives; and, seeking no disciples, he taught to many the greatness of the world and of man's mind." So reads the inscription in the Balliol College Chapel, memorializing Richard Lewis Nettleship's twenty-three years as a tutor there. Other estimations of his life confirm the sense of his character and teaching that this epitaph gives, and it is with a sense of his character and teaching that the virtues of his little book on The Theory of Education in the Republic of Plato can be best appreciated.
Nettleship excelled as a teacher, not a scholar. Perhaps if his life had not been cut short by a mountaineering accident in 1892, when he was only forty-six, this judgment would be different. But the writings he did publish -- this book is a good example -- were the work of a teacher, of a man who wanted to cultivate the minds of those who heard or read his words. Unlike the scholar, who seeks to furnish others with a stock of truths, Nettleship offered little of his own doctrine; he did not even try to argue that his conception of Plato's doctrine was the one true conception. Instead, he tried to make the text accessible to those who had less experience with Plato than did he. And there were few men who could match his experience with Plato, for he spent his life as a student and teacher of philosophy and for him philosophy meant an unreserved involvement with the speculation of two men: Spinoza and Plato.
As a man, Nettleship was deeply moved by the problems and aspirations that had driven Spinoza and Plato to philosophize. Their systems, alone and by themselves, were of little worth; their value was found in discovering just how far their systems would help one answer for himself the deep mysteries of life, of one's place in the world, of one's purpose and hope. Hence, when Nettleship wrote or lectured, he was not concerned with ranging doctrine against doctrine until he had constructed a great edifice of abstractions, capped ingeniously by his personal convictions; instead, he tried to make novice and initiate, alike, comprehend the human difficulties that were, for Plato, Spinoza, and other philosophers, the inescapable occasion of the thoughts that are now identified with their names. Thus, for Nettleship the study of philosophy, like the study of literature, involved the cultivation of one's intellectual and spiritual capacity to respond to the deepest, innermost thoughts of others. As he saw it, the text was there for anyone to read and it was entirely unnecessary to report what Plato said; what was important. and what depended on the reader, not the writer, was what one found Plato to have said, and hence from the first page Nettleship maintained his engaging use of we: following closely Plato's text, he observed that we note, we find, we see, we understand, and so on.
Most commentators on Plato fill their pages with elaborate references to the doctrines of later thinkers. This procedure has been brought to perfection in Paul Friedlander's Plato, for Friedlander has made Plato come alive with all sorts of relevancies to contemporary life and thought. Nettleship, too, managed to uncover the enduring relevance of Plato; but his means of revealing this significance was different. In writing on Plato he rarely even referred to Aristotle, let alone contemporary writers. Nevertheless, he belied a passionate, Platonic concern for the place of reason in the contemporary life of England, and we can readily sympathize with Nettleship's dismay on recognizing that the philosophic spirit was no more at home in the England of 1880 than it was in the Athens of 399 B.C. But note that unlike Friedlander, who interpreted Plato by reference to contemporary concerns, Nettleship interpreted contemporary events through essentially Platonic concerns. Herein lies one of the strengths of Nettleship's book: it forces us to measure our own education, and that which we propose to impart to others, by the standard Plato created. In making us put ourselves to the test in this way, Nettleship drove home the enduring relevance of Plato, namely that few men have ever found that Plato expected too little of them.
Besides Friedlander's Plato, and the shorter but equally intelligent introduction by Alexandre Koyre, Discovering Plato, one should also measure Nettleship's essay against another important book on Plato and his educational theory, Werner Jaeger's Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Plato figured, in Jaeger's three volumes, as the culmination of Greek thought about culture; and Jaeger showed, with admirable erudition and sensitive comprehension, how Plato's conception of education, especially as it was defined in the Republic, brought into conscious realization the best possibilities and practices that were implicit in the work of earlier Greek poets, politicians, and pedagogues. More recently, Eric X. Havelock has, in Preface to Plato, argued in a startling way, how the theory of education in the Republic was a major turning point in Greek thought, a point at which the Greek conception of personal character was radically redefined. The difference between these books and Nettleship's essay is the difference between historical scholarship and philosophical teaching. Jaeger and Havelock were interested in explaining what had to have preceded Plato in order to have made it possible, perhaps necessary, for him to have asserted the particular doctrines that he held. Nettleship was interested, not in detailing the causes that historically explain the appearance and endurance of Plato's work, but in taking the work as a given and trying to respond to it fully and directly, that is, to read it with as complete an appreciation as possible and with as little reference beyond the text as possible. Fortunately, we need not choose between these two means of study; we do not even need to make one primary with respect to the other. Instead, we need to master both, for each contributes to the perfection of the other.
Nettleship's essay on the educational theory in the Republic will continue to be read because it made no claim on being the last word; it was anything but the last word. Nettleship forced himself and his readers to attend to the fundamentals. His power as a teacher and as a writer was his power to communicate the essentials of a subject. His intellectual humility, his tendency to disclaim knowledge and to be content to help great thinkers speak more clearly to their potential audience, resulted from his perception of how difficult it was to master the fundamentals of important matters. All his writings -- the present essay, his memoir of his friend and master, T. H. Green, his Oxford lectures on Plato's Republic and on logic, and his essay on Plato's conception of Goodness and the Good -- display a keen effort to avoid inessential subtleties and to concentrate on the basic issues. This directness and simplicity were not the result of any deficiency; then were a finely achieved art, created by a man who felt called to promote clear thinking on great subjects.
"I am sure," Nettleship averred in a letter to a friend in 1890, "the principles of all methods of acquiring mastery over anything are substantially the same. One has got to begin with the alphabet -- to become a little child. Instead of which it seems to me one is perpetually beginning with the hardest things -- solving the existence of God before one has ever seen what it means to exist at all." Having voiced his distrust of premature profundity, he stated his faith in fundamentals, which faith should be the ground of all sound pedagogy. "If I had to begin over again I should like today to master the elements of a few big things. Till I have done this the rest is all confusion, and talking about it is beating the air. And whenever I at all understand the elements, I seldom find much difficulty in finding 'applications' everywhere." Wherever students want to understand the elements of Plato's theory of education, there will be a demand for Nettleship's essay on education in the Republic; and whenever students master the elements of Plato's theory, they, too, will seldom find much difficulty in finding "applications" everywhere.