Ancient Paideia and Philosophy for Children

by Hannu Juuso, published in Thinking. The Journal of Philosophy for Children, 1999, 14:4, 9-20. This article also constitutes chapter 5 in Hannu Juuso's dissertation Child, Philosophy and Education—Discussing the intellectual sources of philosophy for children, 2007, University of Oulu, Finland.


Dissertation abstract


The shifting meanings of "philosophy" and "child"

Education for reasonableness

Discuss / diskuter

The shifting meanings of "philosophy" and "child"

Discovering the child

Another implicit assumption of Lipman's argumentation in the passage quoted above from Philosophy goes to School is connected with the idea of "childhood." Our modern understanding of childhood is based to a large extent on Philippe Aries' (1914-1984) cultural-historical analysis in his L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien Régime [literally: The child and family life under the Old Regime (i.e. the political and social system that existed in France before the Revolution of 1789)]. 31 Aries' central argument in this highly influential book acts to reduce childhood to a socially and historically determined phenomenon. He claims that the germ of the modern idea of childhood originated in the ancient paideia, was lost when the Roman Empire was destroyed, re-emerged in the Renaissance, then gradually acquired its present shape among the European middle classes after the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. 32

The invention of this "modern" notion of childhood was inextricably intertwined with a corresponding idea of education. According to Aries, medieval civilization had forgotten the ancient paideia, and had no notion of the classical aims of education. As it made no distinction between the worlds of children and adults, neither could it have any idea of their mutual reconciliation. 33 It was a consciousness of the child's special nature—a nature different from that of adults—which inspired in religiously oriented parents the felt need to protect the souls and bodies of their innocent and weak children with a form discipline that was considered morally and spiritually necessary and valuable. This form of discipline, in turn, lies at the origins of institutional education in the modern form of the school. Formal education was now seen as an essential condition for the process of civilization (Bildung), and children were no longer considered capable of moving into the world of adults without it. Correspondingly, the institution of the family gradually assumed as its central task the moral and spiritual training of children. The new importance of caring for children gave rise to a new emotional attitude toward them and everything connected with them, resulting in the modern concept of the family and of the role and function of pedagogical institutions. The commitment to discipline, shared by the family and the school, increasingly distinguished the child from the adult, thereby altering and delineating the concept of childhood. 34

Very little is known about attitudes towards children in antiquity, for childhood was not distinguished as a clearly separate age class. What references there are to children are ambiguous—nor did the Greeks have any words distinguishing child and adolescent. The word pais referred either to boys who were not of age yet (those under 17 or 18 years old) or girls who were not yet married. 35 We do know, however, that there were no moral or legal restrictions on infanticide in Greece in Plato's and Aristotle's time, and that physical punishment of children was considered normal. It has been suggested that the high level of infant mortality of the period was related to an absence of the psychic mechanisms that make unreserved empathy, tenderness and a sense of responsibility toward children possible. Referring to research done by deMause, Postman argues that these attitudes developed much later—between 1850 and 1950—as a result of the emergence of the modern family. 36 Golden has criticized this position, based on recent studies. 37 Indications of a different sort of emotional orientation to children can also be found in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. In a discussion of the father-child relation, for example, Aristotle presents the germ of an idea which later became central to the pedagogical relationship: the father's power over his children, he asserts, is "royal," based as it is on love and greater age. Love as a special form of friendship (filia) is in the case of this relation a desire to serve the child—to nurture and edify her for her own sake. 38 Aristotle's filia, understood in its educational context, implies a complex, reciprocal relationship between teacher and student, and anticipates notions of pedagogical "tact" which developed in the German pedagogical literature of the early 19th century. 39

However, the idea of the child's "nature" in both Plato and Aristotle, as well as among other contemporaries, appears to be quite negative. According to Golden, it is either neutral, which would imply little distinction between children and adults; positive, which seems to be related to some kind of special freedom or spiritual openness among children; or negative, i.e. seeing children only in terms of the talents and characteristics they lack compared to adults. Golden's sources, which are mostly literary, usually portray the negative idea. Physical weakness and moral and spiritual ineptitude are mentioned most often. Plato's dialogues tend to portray children as unthinking, gullible beings who talk nonsense and whose judgment is deficient. According to Aristotle, children cannot be happy or moral, because they lack the ability to choose and therefore lack determination (prohairesis). Children, he claims, are too unstable to absorb knowledge, and they are not capable of sound deliberation. For both Plato and Aristotle, they are grouped with women, slaves and animals. Aristotle even groups children with the sick, drunkards, and the mentally disturbed. 40

In Plato and Aristotle, the negative difference of children in relation to adults would appear to identify them as a group of their own. From the point of view of their political thinking, this meant protection of children from bad influences. For Plato, it is hardly a matter of indifference what kind of stories are told to children, what plays they watch, what kind of music they listen to, or with whom they are involved. 41 Yet, apart from the writings of Plato and Aristotle, there is good reason to ask how children and adults were distinguished in everyday life. To what extent was antiquity really different from the Middle Ages, for instance, in relation to how soon children moved into the adults' world, and participated in the common work and the collective life of all age groups? 42

Although the Platonic-Aristototelian idea of the child certainly appears questionable by recent standards of judgment, it is directly related to the modern idea of the child to the extent that both construe children as fundamentally in need of education. 43 The similarities do not, however, extend to the invention of similar forms of schooling. The aim of classic education was not so much to overcome existing forms of life in the interest of a more civilized world as it is today, but to represent, maintain and restore cultural traditions. In spite of this, the kind of schooling implicit in Plato's and Aristotle's proposals represents a historical moment in which a symbolic system that had previously been held in common was breaking apart. The worlds of children and adults were indeed being separated, and for the ancients schooling represented an attempt at their reconciliation. Plato's and Aristotle's notions of the need for censorship is one of the manifestations of this dialectical movement of separation and reconciliation. Issues centered on the conjunction or disjunction of the worlds of adults and children have played a major role in the historical development of the idea of childhood in the West. 44

Those who invoke Plato's authority to deny philosophy to children in our day seem to be identifying children with the pais of classical antiquity. As I have already pointed out, this interpretation is problematic because it does not take into account the extent to which the core concepts in question are historically conditioned. It seems justifiable to assume that it was hardly within the realm of possibility that Plato would call for doing philosophy with children in educational settings in the same sense of the word as now, two thousand years later. But Philosophy for Children is also challenging modern education's notion of the child in demanding the dialectical reconstruction of the child-adult relation. In fact, I would argue that it has not been possible for the great majority of adults even to become conscious of children's capacity—and right—to do philosophy as a dialogical, educational practice before the more recent crisis of the Platonic philosophical agenda. Only since then has it become possible to start to imagine the reconstruction of modern children from marginalized others to knowing subjects. 45

The main difference between the Greek paideia and the educational ideas of Philosophy for Children revolves around the assumptions that adults carry about children, and therefore about the nature and task of education in general. In the ancient discourse, pais could not be personified, i.e. child could not be person in the full sense of the word. This made it impossible to even inquire into children's ability to reflect on their own actions, or to think independently about issues of importance to them, and thereby to themselves be involved in a process of social reconstruction through reflective education. The paradigmatic changes in how adults construct childhood—together with changes in the adult construction of philosophy—offered Lipman the possibility of demanding nothing less than a redefinition of education. 46 However, in light of his "pedagogy of judgment," his demand for reconstruction seems—at least in some of its most essential features—to lead back to the ideas discussed by Aristotle in his theory of virtue.


31 This book was published in 1960. Hereafter I refer to its English translation Centuries of Childhood (1986) Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

32 Aries 1986, pp. 31-47; pp. 125-130. For historical change in the notion of "childhood" see for example deMause, L. (ed.) 1974. The History of Childhood. New York: The Psychohistory Press; Elias, N. 1978. The History of Manners. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York: Pantheon Books; Postman, N. 1984. The Disappearance of Childhood. New York: Delacorte.

33 Aries 1986, 395-396.

34 Aries 1986, 231-257; 320; 353-391; 397.

35 For the vocabulary connected with childhood in classical Athens see Golden, M. 1990. Children and Childhood in Classical Athens. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press. pp. 12-16.

36 Postman 1985, pp. 14-16.

37 Golden 1990, pp. 82-99.

38 Pol. I.3.1253b10; 1259b11. On Aristotle's concept of filia, see EN VIII and IX; Rhet. II.4.1380b36 – 1381a1.

39 For example Johann Friedrich Herbart speaks about pedagogical tact in 1802 in his lectures of education. See more in van Manen, M. 1993. The Tact of Teaching. The Meaning of Pedagogical Thoughtfulness. Alberta: The Althouse Press. p. 128.

40 Golden 1990, pp. 5-9, 16, 51, 105. See also notes on p. 184.

41 Pol. VII.17.1336a 3 – 1337a 6.

42 See Golden 1990, pp. xv, 51-79.

43 See Pl. Leg. 7.788d-790a; Arist. Pol. VII.16.1334b 29 – 1335b 20.

44 Aries 1986, pp. 98-124; Elias 1978, pp. 70-84, 140-141, 169-177, 188-189, 203; Postman 1985, pp. 17, 23-25, 55-59, 93-95.

45 On the marginalization of children and elements of an emergent child-adult reconstruction see Kennedy, D. "Reconstructing Childhood," Thinking, vol 14, no. 1, pp. 29-37.

46 See Lipman, M. & Sharp, A.M. (eds.) 1994. Growing up with Philosophy. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, pp. Ix-x, 3-8; Lipman, M. ”Developing Philosophies of Childhood,” in Lipman, M. (ed.) 1993. Thinking Children and Education. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, pp. 143-148.


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