Starting in book 2 from 376d and on into book 3 of The Republic, Socrates and Adeimantus discuss the type of education the young guardians, the future rulers and protectors of the city should receive. They feel that the young men should be strong, quick, courageous and educated. They agree that they should receive a physical education for their bodies and an education in music and poetry for their souls. Unlike physical training, an education in music and poetry can begin at a very young age, at the age when most young people are very impressionable. Socrates feels that “the young are incapable of judging what is allegory and what is not, and the opinions they form at that age tend to be ineradicable and unchangeable.”(378d) Socrates feels that it is of the highest importance that the first stories young men should hear are improving stories, ones which contribute to the betterment of the individual’s mind and soul. The stories should give an idea of how they should live their lives and the types of values they should acquire. They should communicate values like fairness in their dealing with others and respect for the family and the community. The unifying principle behind Socrates’ censorship is this: anything that would contribute to the corruption of the minds of young children or that would give them false values, whether it be true or false, should be censored.
Socrates speaks of two types of stories that can be told to young people, ones that are true and ones that are false. (389b) By this he means those that speak of actual events and those that are the product of an individual’s imagination. When taken as strictly for reading enjoyment, neither is better than the other is. This differentiation does not come about until the story is allowed to affect or shape the values of the person hearing them.
A false story can improve someone if the moral that it conveys teaches a valuable lesson about life and if that moral will instill values that would help to teach that person to be just, fair and honest. The converse is also true. A true story could harm someone if the moral that it conveys does not instill beliefs or values that would serve to better a person.
Literature that encourages wrong doing produces a “totally casual attitude towards wickedness.” (391e) Socrates believes that it conveys justice in a negative light and places more emphasis on the good of an individual rather than the good of a community. By doing this we lead our children to believe that it is perfectly okay to be selfish and dishonest. We present them with stories in which the main character possesses these qualities and present them as heroes or someone they should aspire to be like. For instance, Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but stealing is wrong. A hero can be defined as a person of distinguished valor or fortitude. Does a thief possess these qualities? The characters in both written and verbal literature come to serve as role models for our children. Children learn through imitation. If they see someone they admire do something, they want to do it also. We fail to realize how much of an impact the stories we tell our young people will later have on them. Often times we may choose a story because we enjoy it without considering the sort of message we are sending to our children.
As I stated earlier, young children’s minds are not developed enough to tell the difference between what is morally right and what is morally wrong in a story. And a lot of times parents or whomever is presenting the story does not take the time out to explain what the child should take from the story. Children are not going to search for a moral. They are going to take the story at face value.
The poets make many errors when writing about mankind, but we must not allow these errors to misguide our children. Much of the literature that we read is good for the sake of being literature, but should not be allowed to determine the types of values our children should have. The young should be given examples, in the speeches or actions of distinguished men, of endurance in the face of everything. (390d) We must not allow there to be any falsity in the beliefs of our children.