Malcolm Schofield looks at the way childhood features in some Greek philosophy.

The ancient Greeks aren’t usually thought to have much of interest to tell us about childhood or infancy. But this is in fact a subject on which Greek philosophy says quite a lot. For philosophers – some of the more significant of them, at any rate – childhood and infancy represent paradigms good to think with about a range of important topics. Not Aristotle, however.

From the perspective I shall be adopting, Aristotle as it happens is the bad guy. ‘The child’, he says in the Politics, ‘is incomplete (ἀτελής).’ And so it’s obvious that ‘his virtue (ἀρετή), too, is not a matter of how he is himself relative to himself [i.e. as a child]. Rather, it is relative to the goal and to the person who is guiding him.’ That remark typifies a good deal of what the teleology-obsessed Aristotle has to say about childhood. It marks him out as the classic proponent of what might be and indeed has been called the ‘deficit’ view of childhood, which is how the ancient Greeks in general have often been thought to have conceived of children: as smaller and less satisfactory versions of adults, of no great interest as such.

That’s not how classical scholarship nowadays sees the Greek conceptualisation of childhood. The complexities of the representation of childhood in art and literature and the social history of childhood have become particularly popular subjects, no doubt reflecting the rise of the budding academic discipline of childhood studies. What children can do is for many of us more fascinating than what they can’t. Sometimes at least that seems to have been true of Plato, too. Let me first just instance the most famous childhood episode in the whole of Greek philosophy: Socrates’ conversation with an untutored slave boy in the Meno.

Here, as you will recall, Plato’s Socrates purports to demonstrate that, though the boy he is presented with has never been taught any geometry, nonetheless when questioned he is able to work out for himself – entirely from his own intellectual resources – the answer to a challenging geometrical problem. Socrates deduces the conclusion that he must therefore be recollecting forgotten knowledge, already there in his soul before his present life. Empiricist critics of the argument have found no difficulty in picking holes in it. But Plato was noticing the same sort of capacity in children that the early Noam Chomsky drew attention to, when he argued in the 1950s and 1960s the thesis that an infant’s ability to find coherent structures in the confusing welter of linguistic noise to which it is exposed, and then to generate a potential infinity of sentences conforming to those structures, cannot be explained solely in terms of inference from experience.

If we fast forward to the Hellenistic age, reflection on infancy turns out to lie at the very foundation of the Epicurean and Stoic ethical systems. It is a proponent of Aristotelianism who, in the pages of Cicero’s On moral ends, says: ‘All the ancient philosophers, in particular those of our school, turn to cradles, because it is in childhood that they think they can most readily recognise the will of nature.’ It was however probably Epicurus who was pioneer in making appeal to the experience of newborn animals the basis of his ethical system, which of course was a distinctive version of hedonism. This is how according to Cicero he articulated the appeal:

Every animal as soon as it is born seeks pleasure and enjoys it as supreme good; it shuns pain as supreme evil and resists it so far as it is able. This it does being not yet depraved – nature itself delivers this verdict, untouched by corruption and with integrity intact.

Epicurus, he says, went on to draw an immediate conclusion, no doubt meant to surprise and shock:

Therefore, there is no need for reasoning or argumentation showing why pleasure should be sought and pain should be avoided [sc. more than anything else should].

This is jumping all the way from noticing something about infants in the cradle to full-blown ethical hedonism – in a single leap, without supplying any argument designed to bridge the gap. But there is, of course, tacit argumentation against anti-hedonist argument. In the infant’s behaviour, we hear the voice of uncorrupted nature. Anti-hedonists who treat pleasure as an indulgence, a perversion of nature far removed from virtue and the truly good life, just miss what is palpable in experience and observation.

Philosophers from other schools of course rejected the Epicureans’ cradle argument. One line of thought effectively agrees with Epicurus in taking it that ethics does need to appeal to what happens in the cradle, but objects that he has misidentified what that cradle experience consists in. Here is Diogenes Laertius reporting the Stoics:

As for what some people say [sc. the Epicureans], viz. that pleasure is the object of the first impulse the animals have, they [sc. the Stoics] represent this as false. For they say that pleasure (if there actually is pleasure) is a by-product, which arises only when nature in and of itself has sought the proper requirements for the animal’s constitution. This is how it comes about that animals frolic and plants bloom.

In other words, if (and it is an ‘if’) the baby who has taken milk from its mother’s breast ends up gurgling contentedly, that is not because it’s pleasure that it was after, but because its natural impulse was to acquire the sustenance it instinctively recognised to be required in order to preserve its constitution. The pleasure is some kind of spin-off from the satisfaction of that ‘primary natural impulse to self-preservation’.

The Greek philosopher, however, who is most fun to read on children is undoubtedly the enigmatic Presocratic Heraclitus of Ephesus. We get a flavour in Diogenes Laertius’ account of his life:

He would withdraw to the temple of Artemis and play at knucklebones with the boys; and when the Ephesians came and stood round, ‘Why, you rascals’, he said, ‘are you so amazed? Isn’t doing this better than engaging along with you people in the public life of the city (πολιτεύεσθαι)?’

In some of his recorded sayings, we can see him similarly attacking the limitations of the deficit view of childhood. ‘The man is called infantile by his guardian spirit, just as the child is by the man.’ Heraclitus isn’t here endorsing the view that children are infantile, silly, childish, although he’s not contradicting it either. His point is that grown men often talk as though that’s the case, but from another perspective – that of his guardian spirit – it’s the grown man himself who is regarded as infantile, and with no less reason.

The same moral is conveyed by a remark of his about drunkenness: ‘A man when he is drunk is guided by a beardless boy: stumbling, not knowing where he is stepping, with his soul drenched.’ In the iconography of Greek vases, a child never leads an adult man by the hand. Ordinarily it is men who are doing the leading, of old men, women, and children. The role reversal here signifies the reversal of our normal expectations that grown men will be more intelligent, prudent, in control of their behaviour than children. But the boy is now the superior intelligence, more alert, more sensible, more in control. Heraclitus likes to heap the unexpected on the unexpected, with a fresh twist in the final clause. The drunk’s physical system is drenched, to be sure. But what is said here to take the drenching is the soul: the seat of intelligence and rational control over behaviour. For Heraclitus, there could be no final opposition between mental and physical. It is as though he were saying: if none of my other sayings on the soul convinced you of its essentially physical identity, just look at my drunk – he is the clincher.

The most intriguing of all Heraclitus’ sayings on childhood takes us back not to knucklebones, but to draughts or backgammon or something similar. ‘A life lived through (αἰών) is a child playing, moving the pieces: a child’s is the kingship.’ As so often in Heraclitus, we have here a conjunction of opposites. We have a child playing, presumably with all the spontaneity you might expect of a child, like the boy in Homer building sand castles and then knocking them down. But in the case of Heraclitus’ child that disorderly spontaneity has to be seen as the same thing as the planning of moves like those of the adult backgammon player. That is how we plan and sustain the moves that constitute our lives: by childish spontaneity. We might think that as adults we could do better than that, but in truth things are otherwise, as the concluding element in Heraclitus’ saying confirms: ‘A child’s is the kingship’.

There was a particular throw of the dice known as the βασιλικόν, the king throw: presumably the throw that gave you control of the game. So that final assertion tells us explicitly that it is the child in us controlling the board on which we make our moves in life and throughout our life. Which doesn’t mean that our lives are just an arbitrary mess. The rhythm of that clause suggests quite the opposite. As Karl Deichgräber pointed out many years ago, the Greek of ‘A child’s is the kingship’ (παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη) is metrically a Glyconic, conveying the ordered lightness of a dance, and contrasting with the heavy spondee-dominated vowels of the words that make up the characterisation of αἰών, a life lived through, which has preceded, and that are given particular final emphasis by the three long syllables of πεσσεύων, ‘moving the pieces’. The strongly diverging rhythms of the prose of the two parts of Heraclitus’ saying themselves reinforce the unity of opposites. The overall upshot? Perhaps that life does have an order, but not at all the kind of order we ordinarily think of as order. It makes a pattern, but a pattern made up of spontaneous moves no one would ever have predicted.

In 1938 the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga, author most famously of The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919), published a more theoretical work entitled Homo Ludens. In this book, he proposed the thesis that in application of the concept of play lies the route not only to understanding children’s games and the place of sport in the lives of adults, but all of what he regarded as the higher forms of culture, from philosophy, poetry and the arts to the conduct of war (at any rate until the invention of total war), the law, and above all religion and religious ritual. ‘Summing up the formal characteristics of play,’ he wrote, ‘we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being not “serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.’ Notice the scare quotes in that sentence. Huizinga went on to say, in Heraclitean vein: ‘The inferiority of play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of its seriousness. Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play. Play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness far beneath.’

No name figures more frequently in the index to Homo Ludens than Plato’s. In Plato’s last and longest dialogue, the Laws, there is a passage quoted by Huizinga that anticipates that same deconstructing contrast between the ‘serious’ and the ‘playful’ developed in Homo Ludens. I shall end, however, with a passage earlier in the dialogue that takes us back to children and to the seriousness and—as Plato sees it—religious significance of their delight in play:

‘Pretty well every young creature is incapable of keeping quiet, either physically or vocally. It has to be trying to move and make sounds all the time, now jumping and skipping (dancing for pleasure, for example, or playing games), now uttering all kinds of sounds. Other creatures have no perception of order or disorder – what we call rhythm and harmony – in these motions. But in our case, the gods we said have been given to us to be our companions in the dance – they are also the ones who have given us the ability to take pleasure in the perception of rhythm and harmony.’

Malcolm Schofield F.B.A. is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge.  He has served in several roles in the Classical Association and Society for Promotion of Hellenic Studies, and most recently as Chair of Council of the British School at Athens. He gave the J.H. Gray Lectures in 2015 on the topic of ‘Infancy, childhood and play in ancient Greek philosophy’ and has published widely on Ancient Philosophy. With Tom Griffith, he published in 2016 a new translation with introduction and notes of Plato’s Laws (CUP).

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