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Classical Education: Plato on Telling Children Fables

Reading the second edition of The Liberal Arts by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain was inspirational, but reading through Plato’s Republic has been revelational. Clark and Jain has encapsulated much of things written by the ancients by emphasizing the importance of Piety, Gymnastic and Music as the foundational aspects of what comprises a classical Christian Education. So I got a bit of an orientation about the Liberal Arts before I started with Plato.

In the Republic, Plato relates Gymnastics to the body and Music to the soul, which are two components of the Quadrivium.

Contrary to the modern notion of what Music is, the ancient concept of Music relates to the Greek Muses. The muses are considered the pedagogues of the Liberal Arts. And Music includes tales, such as fables, which must be first taught to children as is argued by the philosopher. Plato says:

We begin by telling children fables, and the fable is, taken as a whole, false, but there is truth in it also? And we make use of fable with children before gymnastics.

The Republic, 377a

This is the very reason for using fiction, or fairy tales in particular, in the teaching children which you can glean off from the works of Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton and of course, Vigen Guroian.

Plato emphasizes the importance of fables by saying, “Do you not know, then, that the beginning in every task is the chief thing, especially for any creature that is young and tender? For it is then that it is best molded and takes the impression that one wishes to stamp upon it.” Because of these impressionable years, he was adamant about censuring the tales of which we speak to our children, referring mostly to the nurses and mothers who are caretakers of young children:

Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?

The Republic, 377b

This is because stories have the power to “shape their souls… far rather than their bodies by their hands.” (emphases mine) Thus we find here one of his explanations as to why we need Music before Gymnastics. Later, he adds:

The young are not able to distinguish what is and what is not allegory, but whatever opinions are taken into the mind at that age are wont to prove indelible and unalterable. For which reason, maybe, we should do our utmost that the first stories that they hear should be so composed as to bring the fairest lessons of virtue to their ears.

The Republic 378d-e (emphases mine)

Aesop’s Fables, then, would be good place to start.



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