The Meaning, Purpose and Function of Higher Education for Plato

Plato believed in an ‘ideal state,’ the Republic, which is ruled and sustained by an ‘ideal’ group of people whose main objective should be to seek their highest good for the benefit of both the state and the society. “Only those who know what the good is are fit to rule”(Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995).  To know what is good, one has to “undergo long and rigorous intellectual training that will yield this knowledge” (p. 1541). Plato believed that the function of education is to help people embody their true nature of good because they will become the fuel that will keep the Republic running.

Here, higher education is meant to pave the way for the development of the individual because it is crucial to the Republic’s existence. The failure of an individual to reach his highest good, albeit in theory of a secondary importance, would be the failure of the state as a whole.  In Plato’s view, it is the development of the individual, supported by education, which serves as the groundwork of the Republic and ensures that the latter does not collapse.

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  One can say that it is truly education which holds the state’s future in its hands.

The true purpose of Higher Education is best depicted in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The Allegory of the Cave represents the different levels of knowledge that man must go through in order to achieve enlightenment.  Men were depicted as cave-dwellers in the depths of nothingness where there is a total absence of knowledge.

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“Most mankind dwell in the darkness of the cave. It is the function of education to lead men out of the cave into the world of the shadow” (Tulio, 2005).  Those who are able to escape the confinements of the cave would able

Meaning, Purpose and Function of Higher Education for Plato to acquire the knowledge that will lead to their evolution and form the ruling elite who will sustain the Republic.

According to Kemerling (n.d.):

“The highest goal in all of education, Plato believed, is knowledge of the Good; that is, not merely an awareness of particular benefits and pleasures, but acquaintance with the Form itself. Just as the sun provides illumination by means of which we are able to perceive everything in the visual world, he argued, so the Form of the Good provides the ultimate standard by means of which we can apprehend the reality of everything that has value” (Kemerling, n.d).

Plato believed that education is a right given to a few. He saw society as a conglomeration of individuals organized into different classes “according to the value of their role in providing some component part of the common good” (Kemerling, n.d.). In this set-up, it is the person’s social class which determines whether he should be educated or not. Plato thought that the philosopher-class should have the right to receive education because “it is the philosopher above all others who excels at investigating serious questions about human life and at judging what is true and best” (n.d.).

Dillon (2004 as cited in Plato’s Republic) also added:  “…those fit for a guardian's education must by nature be "philosophic, spirited, swift, and strong.” The guardians must be lovers of learning like "noble puppies" who determine what is familiar and foreign by "knowledge and ignorance” (Dillon, 2004). The problem with this kind of set-up is that only a few are permitted to improve themselves while the rest of the world is forced to fulfill the roles that society has imposed upon them.

Meaning, Purpose and Function of Higher Education for Plato Kemerling (n.d.) explained the importance of the future role of philosophers:

“Thus, despite prevalent public skepticism about philosophers, it is to them that an ideal society must turn for the wisdom to conduct its affairs properly. But philosophers are made, not born. So we need to examine the program of education by means of which Plato supposed that the future philosopher-kings can acquire the knowledge necessary for their function as decision-makers for the society as a whole” (Kemerling, n.d.)

Plato viewed the development of the individual as serving an autocratic social usefulness as far as education is concerned (although most believe that Plato advocated democratic principles in his theory of education). Education for the popular mass was never Plato’s ideology. He advocated educational reforms intended only for the philosopher and the warrior class. “Plato believed that the interests of the state are best preserved if children are raised and educated by the society as a whole, rather than by their biological parents” (Kemerling, n.d).

The true essence of self-actualization, therefore, was just a privilege given to this ruling class because of their access to education.  It did not have any self-serving interests even if self-development was an initial pre-requisite for the success Plato’s ideal state. Education is solely for the purpose of the good of the Republic. Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995) stated:

 “They will govern with a view to maximizing the happiness of the state as a whole, but Plato thinks that the way to achieve this is to impose a strict censorship to prevent wrong ideas being expressed, to ensure that each person sticks to his

Meaning, Purpose and Function of Higher Education for Plato own allotted job, so that he does not meddle with affairs that are not his concern, and so on. Plato was firmly against democracy, and seems to have seen no connection between happiness and individual liberty” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995).

But as much as education serves a state function, it cannot completely detach itself from its secondary aims of self-development. According to Scolnicov (n.d) in his paper Plato on Education as the Development of Reason, “the ultimate educational objective, then, is to bring about a revolution in the educand's perception of the role of reason” (Scolnicov, n.d).  He continued, “Plato's theory of education aims at specifying the conditions of the growth of the socratic man, whose soul is free from contradictions and whose excellence is justified knowledge” (n.d).

For Plato, man’s rationality can be shaped through an educational curriculum that teaches these specific subjects: music, story-telling and gymnastics. Musical education should be started in childhood because it is an age where children are still ‘pliable.’ There should be censorship in the telling of tales because children still do not possess the quality to discern what is good and bad.  It is Plato’s view that children have no moral nature when they are born, but education will instill in them virtues of courage, moderation and justice that will help them seek the nature of good. “Through the telling of carefully crafted tales, mothers and nurses will shape their children's souls (Dillon, 2004 as cited in Plato’s Republic).

Meaning, Purpose and Function of Higher Education for Plato

The narrative style of tales is the second part of the ‘philosophical education.’  Imitation or Mimetic poetry is only acceptable if the individual will imitate virtues that were taught to them in childhood. Crafting of tales are important “because they are the most effective method of educating guardian’ souls” (Dillon, 2004). Here, one can see that rationality does not only pertain to reason (of the mind) but also of the soul.

Gymnastic education, on the other hand, affirms the symbiotic relationship between the mind, the body and the soul: all the components that lead to the total development of the individual. For Plato, “that a good soul produces a good body, and that a healthy intellect ensures a healthy body” (Dillon, 2004 as cited in Plato’s Republic). One component missing will ultimately result in the demise of the other.

Dillon  (2004) stated:

“Although music is the most important component in the guardians' education, equilibrium between music and gymnastics is important for the production of moral guardians. Because a solely gymnastic education causes savagery and a purely musical education causes softness, the two must be balanced” (Dillon, 2004).

The educational requirements of learning music, story-telling and gymnastics would determine who will ultimately become the guardians of society. Those who are able to possess the nature of good throughout the educational process will win over those who “will rebel against the city’s ideology” (Dillon, 2004).

Meaning, Purpose and Function of Higher Education for Plato


Cornford, F. (translator) (1945). The Republic of Plato. London: Oxford University Press.

Dillon, A. (2004). Education in Plato’s Republic. Retrieved December 25, 2007 from

Honderich, T (ed.) (1995). Oxford Companion to Philosophy. New York: Oxford            University Press.

Kemerling, G. (n.d.). Plato: Education and the Value of Justice: Plato Life and Works. Retrieved December, 25, 2007 from

Tulio, D. (2005). Historical, Philosophical, Legal and Technological Foundations of Education II. Manila: National Bookstore Publication.

Scolnicov, S. (n.d.). Plato on Education as the Development of Reason. Retrieved December 25, 2007 from


Updated: Feb 23, 2021
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The Meaning, Purpose and Function of Higher Education for Plato essay
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