Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Plato and Play: Taking Education Seriously in Ancient Greece

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Plato and Play: Taking Education Seriously in Ancient Greece

Article excerpt

In this article, the author outlines Plato's notions of play in ancient Greek culture and shows how the philosopher's views on play can be best appreciated against the background of shifting meanings and evaluations of play in classical Greece. Play-in various forms such as word play, ritual, and music-proved central to the development of Hellenic culture. In ancient Greece, play (paidia) was intrinsically associated with children (paides). However, both children and play assumed a greater cultural significance as literacy-and, consequently, education (paideia)-developed during the classical age of 500-300 BCE. Uniquely among ancient thinkers, Plato recognized that play influenced the way children developed as adults, and he proposed to regulate play for social ends. But Plato's attitude toward play was ambivalent. Inclined to consider play an unworthy activity for adults, he seemed to suggest that intellectual play in some form, as demonstrated in the dialectical banter of Socrates, could provide a stimulus to understanding. Key words: education in ancient Greece; play and child development; play and education; play and Plato; Socratic dialectic

Among various plausible misquotations that surface from time to time is a piece of popular wisdom attributed to Plato to the effect that "you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." It was quoted by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2009, who took it from a popular American cookbook; the ultimate source may be a seventeenth-century treatise on etiquette by one Richard Lindgard (who does not attribute the quote to Plato). While the great philosopher's ideas on play were by his own reckoning groundbreaking for his time, his writings offer no indication that he would have entertained this particular notion. His reflections on play stem from his novel insight that play can influence the way children develop as adults; where adults themselves were concerned, Plato was inclined to view play, at least in some of its forms, as irrational and morally questionable. (St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:11, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me." Plato would have approved.) At the same time, however, aspects of Plato's writings demonstrate that he recognized intellectual play in some form might provide a stimulus to understanding. In this article, I outline contexts and notions of play in ancient Greek culture to show how Plato's formulation of his original views on play may be better appreciated against the background of shifting meanings and evaluations of play in the society of his own time and earlier.

Play in Ancient Greece

In archaic Greece (roughly 800-500 BCE), aspects of play appear intrinsic to a wide range of cultural activities. The playing of games and music served as a central element in religious ceremonies and social events. In elite gatherings such as drinking parties (symposia), activities included singing and playing the lyre, competing to compose impromptu verses, and participating in word games and riddles. For such purposes, revered musician-poets like Homer, sages like Pythagoras, and philosophers like Heraclitus seemed to offer their wisdom as a form of intellectual play. Even ancient warfare can be viewed-and was so presented by historians in antiquity-as an activity conducted as a form of rule-bound, quasi-ritualistic play. The childhood of young aristocrats, the class to which our sources almost exclusively attest, involved training for political and military leadership in such activities as gymnastic competitions and verbal contests. The songs of Homer, the earliest surviving Greek literary texts in the Western canon, depict a wide range of athletic and sporting play, as well as music, dancing, and singing. In the Iliad (Book 9) Achilles's tutor Phoenix tells of being charged to instruct the boy to be "both a doer of actions and a speaker of words"; the hero is also depicted as singing to the lyre. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.