On Education and Human Nature

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 11 October 2016

On Education and Human Nature

This paper is a brief discussion of the relationship between education and human nature as seen in two varying viewpoints – that of Callicles (in Plato’s Gorgias) and Protagoras. The author is of the belief that education, albeit necessary in the survival of man in the long run, is a construct that contradicts the nature of man insofar as it restricts certain aspects of an individual. Such an assertion is partly leaning towards Callicles’ view of man as a creature whose appetites, so to speak, have to be met by virtue of a natural law.

This position, along with Protagoras’ view of the nature of education – that it is essential in the cultivation of civic virtue – is key to the author’s argument that education is restricting. Callicles and Protagoras are similar in the sense that both are Sophists, with the slight distinction that the former is a student of Gorgias. Protagoras (outside of Plato’s dialogs) is known for his assertion that man is the measure of all things, and with that in mind it can be said that Callicles likewise adheres to that position, but with reservations – i.

e. , the “better” man (discussions on definition aside) seems to be the measure of all things, not all men as they are. Aside from that, however, there is nothing more that links the two characters in Plato’s dialogs together. In fact, the views of the two thinkers with regard to the issue central to the discussion in this paper differ greatly. To begin, Callicles admonishes Socrates in their dialog for remaining to be a “student” of philosophy even as an adult.

For Callicles, philosophy is not meant to be studied extensively nor lengthily; it is supposed to be indulged in by the youth, and only in moderation. He maintains that studying philosophy insofar as it is required by one’s education is acceptable; however, to still be engaged in philosophizing when one is already past the age of schooling is short of appalling since it causes one to deviate from leading a practical life. But what is this practical life that Callicles is in favor of?

The answer to this question is implicit in the discourse that followed his expression of dislike towards Socrates’ way of life. Callicles purports that there is a natural justice in existence in the world that is being resisted, or even disregarded, by conventional justice. His notion of what is “just by nature” revolves around the idea that the “superior” amongst men is supposed to be a kind of usurper of property (if seen in a negative way) who – by virtue of his superiority – has the right to rule over the inferior of his kinsmen, and is entitled to a greater share in everything compared to lesser men.

Such a concept, as seen in his exchange with Socrates, is completely in opposition to what is being forwarded in their society at the time – the idea that all men are essentially equal, and that what is just is for everyone to receive an equal share. This is the conventional justice Callicles is referring to. Socrates, in turn, and with his method of “acquiring knowledge” (Socratic method), manages to use his opponent’s argument against him. He began his argument with questions that asked for a clarification of definition – what is superior? Better?

– and ended with the statement that with Callicles’ own words he managed to show that since many is superior to one, then rules of the many are superior; hence, these rules are rules of the better; hence, the rules of these “better” people are admirable by nature since they are superior; thus, natural justice is not at all in contradiction with conventional justice. As mentioned earlier, within the aforementioned exchange regarding natural and conventional justice lies Callicles’ perception of the practical life, or the kind of life an individual ought to lead.

As with countless other thinkers, his argument is deeply rooted with the idea of happiness as the end to which man should direct his actions. What distinguishes him from Protagoras, though, is his assertion that happiness – and his concept of natural justice – can be attained only by the man who will succumb to his appetites, or in his own words: “the man who’ll live correctly ought to allow his own appetites to get as large as possible and not restrain them”.

As for what he termed as “contracts of men” – which are to be assumed as the laws that maintain order in the society – Callicles is of the opinion that since these go against the grain with which man is made, they are to be considered “worthless nonsense”. For his part, Socrates of course attempted to dissuade Callicles by means of his conventional method of discourse and by introducing the analogy of the two men with jars, to no avail. Protagoras’ main point in the discourse relevant to this paper is that virtue is teachable. In support of his assertion, he recalled the account of the creation of man in Greek mythology to Socrates.

He recounted that all creatures of the earth are made by the gods out of fire and earth, and that prior to giving them life Epimetheus and Prometheus were tasked to facilitate the distribution of abilities to them. Epimetheus volunteered to do it himself, with Prometheus inspecting the result. Epimetheus balanced the distribution with regard to “nonreasoning animals”. As for the human race, they were left bare, in the broadest definition of the word. Prometheus saw the problem and solved it by stealing from Hephaestus and Athena wisdom in the practical arts and fire and gave them to man, which proved fatal for him in the end.

It is important to note that wisdom in the practical arts is wisdom intended for survival. It did not include political wisdom – needed to be able to establish and maintain the order of a city – as this is kept by Zeus. The result was catastrophic, as evidenced by the fact that later on Zeus sent Hermes to distribute justice and shame to all men for fear that the human race will be wiped out because of man’s inability to coexist in cities they founded to protect themselves from wild beasts that placed them in danger of annihilation.

Political or civic virtue then – products of justice and temperance – became a divine law of which every man is knowledgeable, unlike other virtues that stem from other arts (such as architectural excellence). This myth was used by Protagoras to show that inherent in all men are the seeds of civic virtue that only need to be coaxed out with the aid of education and constant admonition from one’s elders (particularly parents). And since this is the case, all men are capable to be taught virtue, because all men are in possession of it.

Protagoras made a second, this time stronger point to support his statement that virtue is teachable. He began his argument by saying that the difference between evils caused by natural processes and those resulting from the lack or absence of civic virtue is that the former elicits pity for the person in possession of such an evil. Contrary to that, when society is confronted with a person exhibiting the opposite of virtue – injustice, impiety, etc. – it is not pity that’s felt but anger.

Protagoras maintains that this reaction is due to the fact that civic virtue is regarded as something that can be acquired through training, practice, and teaching. He pushes his position further by saying that reasonable punishment – administered to a person who has committed an act that goes against civic virtue – is undertaken as a deterrence, the implication of which is that virtue is and can be learned. To further support his claim, Protagoras went into a brief discussion of how virtue is taught to all men all their lives.

As little children, he said, men are taught not only by their parents about civic virtue but also through the education they receive. From the literature they study to the songs they play, teachers are keen on inserting messages meant to teach them what is good and just. For Protagoras, it seems, education is not merely comprised of letters and literature. Music is likewise necessary, as well as sports. Music, as he said, makes people “gentler” – they become more “rhythmical and harmonious” with regard to their actions.

And this is important because for him, “all of human life requires a high degree of rhythm and harmony”. As for sports, Protagoras mentions that parents “send their children to an athletic trainer so that they may have sound bodies in the service of their now fit minds”. Even after one’s formal schooling is over, education on the virtues does not stop. As Protagoras said: “When [the students] quit school, the city in turn compels them to learn the laws and to model their lives on them. They are not to act as they please.

” He ended his side of the discussion with a rhetorical question of how anyone can wonder about virtue being teachable when it is given so much care and attention in man’s public and private life. It is crucial to analyze the discourse both thinkers had with Socrates, albeit briefly, to be able to shed light on the position of this paper that education is necessary but constricting. With regard to the nature of man, it is clear that there is a clear dividing line between the idea of Callicles and that of Protagoras.

For the latter, what is good for man is that which is good for the society. In other words, there is no contradiction between natural and conventional justice relative to the nature of man and how he ought to live. For the former, man is essentially a being meant to be governed by his appetites, or desires. The conflict lies in the fact that conventional justice dictates that there be a certain level of order maintained in a society, order which will only come about through the citizens’ willingness to subject themselves to laws that promote equality and peaceful co-existence.

For Callicles, such laws are human constructs, designed to restrain his idea of a superior man, and as such should not be observed. The author will go one step further and say that although there is no direct discussion on education in Callicles’ discourse with Socrates, it is clear that since education is a human construct, he sees it as but another shackle his superior man has to bear. Despite the fact that Protagoras is amenable to education – as it teaches civic virtue – there is a single line in the discourse that implies a completely different attitude.

Protagoras told Socrates that when a man’s formal education is over, he is still forced to learn the laws and live by them, and that he is not to act as he pleases. This goes to show that despite the eagerness of his version of man to live a life of civic virtue, part of him still needs to be shackled by laws. It is these deductions – from both thinkers – that led the author to believe that inherent in every person is a part that yearns for unbridled freedom and power.

Education is an institution that strives to inculcate in man the characteristics needed for him to be able to lead a peaceful life in a society – characteristics that lean towards suppressing one’s desires and call for a sort of balance between fulfilling one’s wants and respecting those of others. Despite the restrictive nature of education, the author believes that it is still a necessary burden people have to bear. Gone are the days when man kept to himself, when he foraged for food and did not maintain a life of permanence in any one place. With the evolution of man came the need for permanence, and with that co-existence with other men.

It may be true that at the core of every man is a selfish desire for power – to have everything and more. But if all men were to be allowed to act according to their whims, the stories of old – where Zeus feared that the human race might be annihilated because of man’s inability to restrain his need for power – may come true after all. Survival today does not only entail meeting one’s basic needs. It is also about respecting other men, if one were to be anthropocentric about it. And this – along with other things that will aid the human race to persist for the next millennia – can only be reinforced by education.


  • Subject:

  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 11 October 2016

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