In Book V of The Republic, Plato describes a commonwealth devoid of biological nurturing. Mothers and fathers of the philosophical Guardian class are not allowed to be married and are excluded from the raising of their own children, who are instead entrusted to wet nurses and substitute caregivers at the whim of the Rulers.
We have to wonder if such an arrangement as Plato describes would actually undermine the structure of the commonwealth by producing a race of maladjusted automatons rather than philosophical Guardians for which it was designed. In removing a loving marriage bond, warm nurturing from a consistent caregiver and philosophical education within the nexus of the family, Plato effectively eliminates the primary basis from which virtue, intelligence and sociability develop.
In stark contrast to the cold, bureaucratic child rearing described in Plato’s Republic, the Stoic Musonius Rufus’ envisioned a different ideal, one consisting of warm nurturing along with modeling of virtuous behavior in the context of a Stoic marriage and family. Musonius seems to have gotten things right in light of much of the modern scholarship on infant attachment, empathy, and brain development. Ironically, it is Musonius’ type of care which is more likely to create good, sociable, reasonable people – Plato’s ideal for his Guardians – to begin with.
Let’s consider Plato’s method of caring for young children first:
The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be… that must be done if the breed of the guardians is to be kept pure.
They will provide for their nurture, and will bring the mothers to the fold when they are full of milk, taking the greatest possible care that no mother recognize her own child; and other wet-nurses may be engaged if more are required. Care will also be taken that the process of sucking shall not be protracted too long; and the mothers will have no getting up at night or other trouble, but will hand over all this sort of thing to the nurses and attendants.
Plato’s ideal of infant care, where babies are raised mostly by a rotating stream of surrogate wet-nurses and state-appointed caregivers without parental love, runs contrary to human evolutionary biology and as such might have undesirable effects. While I won’t argue that we are strict slaves to our biology, there is a general scientific consensus as to the type of early childhood nurturing and environment which promotes brain development and produces empathetic individuals. It is not consistent with Plato’s approach. Rotating bureaucratic caregivers, lack of consistent moral role models and the specter of an environment which is not emotionally responsive (or at least not as nurturing as care provided by people who have a loving interest in their own progeny) is particularly worrisome.
Loving relationships are essential to brain development in the early years, and these interactions have consequences for future emotional and physical health. Babies get distressed when caregivers are emotionally unresponsive. Having a stream of changing caregivers who are unrelated to the child is more likely to result in care that is emotionally unresponsive.
Rotating caregivers, even if warm, are less likely to read the cues appropriately or to know what the babies likes and dislikes are, causing the babies stress levels to rise, likely to a state of near permanent anxiety in absence of a permanent attachment figure. The motherless babies in The Republic are not allowed the one comfort of suckling too long at the breast! The family-less arrangement as described in The Republic also ostensibly lacks the necessary dimension of moral role-modeling that the family traditionally provides children.
Another problem is that Plato’s ideal proceeds from the assumption that taking care of babies and young children is an inconvenience to be put aside in favor of more important matters. Plato clearly feels that the affairs of young children should be relegated to the ontological basement in order of importance. However, in designating parenting as an activity unimportant enough to be mostly foisted off on wet nurses and similar people of lesser social status than the Guardian class, Plato presupposes that the commonwealth can actually sustain itself in the absence of biological nurturing and parental modeling of virtue.
Plato errs in viewing the care of young children as an unimportant activity which hinders or detracts from philosophy and the good of the state, rather than one which is good and philosophical in and of itself. Raising virtuous and empathetic children is a most important matter, maybe even the most important philosophical matter, because it is the cornerstone on which a good society is built to begin with. The one is an antecedent cause necessary for the other.
By contrast, Musonius Rufus’ Stoic family described in his Lectures and Sayings, stands in stark contrast to the cold, bureaucratic child rearing described in The Republic. Both Plato and Musonius were looking to develop empathetic, virtuous people, but only Musonius recognized that the family is the place where concern for others is originally learned. (According to the Stoic Hierocles, oikeoisis, or empathy, originally begins in the family and progresses outward as a person matures until it applies to everyone in the cosmopolis.)
Musonius begins by describing the ideal Stoic marriage as a partnership of mutual care which allows the spouses to grow in virtue. Such a loving marriage is (implicitly) more likely to produce good, empathetic children when prosoche and virtue are mirrored by the parents. He states:
When this mutual care is complete and those who live together provide it to each other completely, each competes to surpass the other in giving such care. Such a marriage is admirable and deserves emulation; such a partnership is beautiful.
Musonius goes on to argue that marriage and the raising of children are not a handicap in the pursuit of philosophy and is in accord with nature, as is raising many children. A Stoic mother and father will naturally cohabitate (as opposed to the parents in The Republic, who are prevented from doing so), and being philosophical, they will model virtue for their children:
Now the philosopher is indeed the teacher and leader of men in all the things which are appropriate for men according to nature, and marriage, if anything, is manifestly in accord with nature. For, to what other purpose did the creator of mankind first divide our human race into two sexes, male and female, then implant in each a strong desire for association and union with the other, instilling in both a powerful longing each for the other, the male for the female and the female for the male? Is it not then plain that he wished the two to be united and live together, and by their joint efforts to devise a way of life in common, and to produce and rear children together, so that the race might never die?
The Greek Stoics may not have universally sanctioned marriage and children. Zeno in particular held views that were somewhat embarrassing to later Roman Stoics, including the proposal that women should be held in common. The notion that a Stoic sage should marry and have children appears to have triumphed by the time of Cicero, however. Musonius, writing slightly after Cicero in the early Imperial period, held that both marriage and having many children were natural duties for a sage. Musonius espouses the idea that children can facilitate an individual’s moral development via an exchange of virtue and mutual appreciation. He states:
[T]hat raising many children is an honorable and profitable thing one may gather from the fact that a man who has many children is honored in the city, that he has the respect of his neighbors, that he has more influence than his equals if they are not equally blessed with children. I need not argue that a man with many friends is more powerful than one who has no friends, and so a man who has many children is more powerful than one without any or with only a few children, or rather much more so, since a son is closer than a friend. One may remark what a fine sight it is to see a man or woman surrounded by their children. Surely one could not witness a procession arrayed in honor of the gods so beautiful nor a choral dance performed in order at a religious celebration so well worth seeing as a chorus of children forming a guard of honor for their father or mother in the city of their birth, leading their parents by the hand or dutifully caring for them in some other way. What is more beautiful than this sight? What is more enviable than these parents, especially if they are good people? For whom would one more gladly join in praying for blessings from the gods, or whom would one be more willing to assist in need?
Furthermore, Musonius envisioned a Stoic mother as an energetic, nurturing woman well versed in philosophy. This Stoic mother’s behavior is much more consistent with what we are wired for in terms of evolutionary biology than the caregivers described in The Republic:
Who better than she would love her children more than life itself? What woman would be more just than such a one?.. For in fact she has schooled herself to be high-minded and to think of death not as an evil and life not as a good, and likewise not to shun hardship and never for a moment to seek ease and indolence. So it is that such a woman is likely to be energetic, strong to endure pain, prepared to nourish her children at her own breast, and to serve her husband with her own hands, and willing to do things which some would consider no better than slaves’ work. Would not such a woman be a great help to the man who married her, an ornament to her relatives, and a good example for all who know her? 
For Plato (and for Roman women of Musonius’ class) obligations such as breastfeeding and getting up at night to tend to children were considered hardships rather than as virtue enhancing activities. But there is nothing virtuous or philosophical about “not getting up at night,” from the Stoic perspective. Love of work is an attribute of andreia, usually translated as “courage” but which might also be thought of as “determination.” The work of raising children doesn’t end when the sun sets, and a Stoic mother is not soft and helpless when confronted with the important work of child rearing. She is a virtuous, loving role model for her children.
Upon examination, one would imagine that a nurturing Stoic family as we find it described in Musonius’ fragments is vastly more likely to produce the ideal which Plato was trying to achieve in The Republic – a community of people who possess virtue, reason and concern for others.
- Plato (1908). The Republic. London: MacMillan. Book V, 168.
Dewar, G. (2015). Stress in babies: An evidence-based guide to keeping babies calm and healthy. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from http://www.parentingscience.com/stress-in-babies.html
Inwood, B. (2007). Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters. Oxford: New York: Oxford University Press. 170.
King, C. (2011). Musonius Rufus Lectures and Sayings. Create Space. Lecture 13.
6. Gloyn, E. (2011). The Ethics of the Family in Seneca. Rutgers University. https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/33668/ 125-6.
- Lecture 15.
C. (1947). Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Leah Goldrick became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son. Her website is Common Sense Ethics.
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