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A Harmonious Cosmos: The Shape of Ancient Greek Education

Posted by Steve Turley ● Jul 12, 2017 10:26:00 PM

Among the myriad of achievements that ancient Greek civilization is noted for, perhaps its most enduring legacy was the unique educational project known as paideia. Flourishing in the fourth-century BC, the goal of paideia was the formation of a particular kind of human who embodied distinctively Greek culture in the shared lifeworld of the polis or city-state. In fact, the term was so identified with the project of enculturation that it eventually became synonymous with the Latin term, cultura.

In many respects, paideia began with what we might call a “classical canon.” By the fourth-century BC, sacred texts that codified what the Greeks considered the highest human virtues functioned as the foundation for education and society. The most important author was Homer, the poet, in Plato’s words, who educated Greece. Next in importance was Hesiod, who provided authoritative genealogies of the gods and men. Over time, the Homer-Hesiod canon included all the major Greek poets: Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes. The Ancient Greeks thought of poets as divinely inspired by the Muses to reveal dramatic portrayals of morality and virtue.

The virtues codified in the classical canon were taught to the student from two foundational vantage points: musikē and gymnastikē, which corresponded to the soul and the body respectively. The practice of gymnastics had two goals: first, to produce a healthy body and secondly, to cultivate the virtue of engkratia or self-mastery. The practice of music for the Greeks involved far more than we associate with the term today; it entailed anything inspired by the Muses, such as music proper, reading, writing, arithmetic, poetry, history, mythology, and science.

Musikē was further developed in terms of the content of what was taught, which consisted of the gods and heroes in the classical canon, and the form of that teaching, called lexis, the manner in which the poetic material was brought to bear on the student and his development. The form or lexis was itself divided up into two branches: mimēsis (the branch of the student) and the exemplar (the branch of the teacher). Mimēsis involved the student’s learning how to interpret the poet’s tone or voice in order to present a dramatic performance of the sacred texts. The model for such mimēsis was the exemplar, the teacher.

While the curriculum was not at all formalized, if we take the lead from classical Athens, we find that education was organized according to three main elements, normally taught in different establishments. First, there was the paidotribēs who taught gymnastics and general athletic fitness, usually in a Greek wrestling school called the palaestra. Second, there was the kitharistēs who taught music and the works of the lyric poets. Third, the grammatistēs taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as literature. So at about the age of six, the child was accompanied by an attendant or paidagogos and taken to an instructor to learn to write and say his letters. And then after having mastered the letters the student would progress to learning the poets by heart. This was done through copying short passages from the classical canon, memorizing and reciting them orally. Simultaneously students would be schooled in music. Along with singing, students would have learned instruments such as the lyre and the aulos. And so, in a typical day, a student might start with gymnastics, then proceed to the lyre school, and end with letters. But there was no set pattern.

What was the ultimate goal of this educational project? The ultimate goal was what the Greeks termed morphosis, the transformation of the student into a particular kind of human person. Through morphosis, the heroism of the past could be embodied in the present, such that the virtues codified in the classical canon become habitual within the student. The student’s dispositions, inclinations, habits, and orientations, were considered harmonized with the moral order of the universe. And with the values of a society inscribed in the body of the student, he takes his place among the citizenship to live in harmony with the gods and his fellow men.


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Topics: Ancient Greece, blog, church and society, classical Christian education, public education

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