These people will also discover the seemingly insignificant conventions their predecessors have destroyed. Things like this: When it is proper for the young to be silent in front of their elders, when they should make way for them or stand up in their presence, the care of parents, hair styles, the clothes and shoes to wear, deportment, and everything else of that sort.
Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, Book IV
Seemingly insignificant conventions. Powerful phrase indeed. We easily slip into judging certain things to be insignificant—in any case in the shadow of, well, other looming issues. Hair styles, standing-up or not, deportment: do we have the energy to notice and evaluate, much less address such issues? Parallels between Socrates’ day and ours can be rather striking. He seems to think that certain customary habits didn’t just slip away, or fade out of fashion. They were destroyed. He also thinks that these customs can express, and cultivate, fundamental moral dispositions and convictions and thus make an important difference in life. Soon after the above statement Socrates points out that such matters are normally not the subject of legislation; we don’t make laws about hairs styles, posture, manners, or even the care of parents. Education—and this taken broadly to mean how we form the young—is what sets the standards, and by and large determines such things.
Considering the state of education over the past fifty years, perhaps it is not a stretch to say that our conventions—many of which even if not perfect did contribute to good community and real happiness—have indeed been destroyed. But perhaps it is too easy to point fingers. Education can and should, in its most basic sense, be going on in all our homes. It is worth asking ourselves whether we are cultivating customs that reflect and buttress our moral convictions, and whether we are leading by example in the areas Socrates mentions, and in “everything else of that sort.”
Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Republic is one of the most widely read and influential of all books.
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