Writing Exercises and the Republic

HomeArticlesWriting Exercises and the Republic

Another way to teach students to think critically is to have them do a lot of writing. Three professors from BYU, who have team­-taught a writing and reasoning course for several years, have concluded that writing and thinking skills should be taught together. “For us, reasoning and writing should be taught together because, at their fullest, they amount to the same thing, the coming together of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.[1] Common sense confirms this conclusion since language  is an expression of thought, and the purpose of a knowledge of the rules of grammar, the rules of logic and the rules of writing is the same: to help clearly express thought. Ungrammatical writing and disorganized writing are expressions of an illogical, unorderly, mind.[2]

There are two kinds of writing assignments that can especially facilitate the development of critical thinking abilities: the one page Chreia study and the two to five page application paper. Let’s first discuss the Chreia study.

The Chreia study is a one page paragraph or two on the meaning, rationale; and truth of a proverb from a famous philosopher, and was used by ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and rhetorician s to teach the principles of wisdom and writing.

This teaching method was both a means of remembering the wisdom of old and means of teaching the art of thinking and writing.[3] These steps gave instruction to young men in how to elaborate ideas. Even though numerous instructors had different steps in the Chreia study, it is possible to cull a summary consensus here.

Chreia Study

Step 1: Choose a venerable philosopher’s saying

Step 2: Explain the meaning of the saying in your own words.

Step 3: Identify the rationale behind it.

Step 4: Confirm it by a historical analogy or a scientific example.

Step 5: Compare and contrast the saying to other viewpoints.

Step 6: Raise and answer an objection to the saying.

Step 7: Decide for yourself whether or not the saying is true none, some, most, or all the time and explain.

Steps two  through five are explication of the author’s sayings while step six and seven are the reader ‘s evaluation, and the reader should try to understand the saying in its best possible light before  evaluating its truth. If the saying has been carefully chosen, it should express a philosopher’s fundamental insight, and as such, should not be rejected without a thorough attempt to understand it.

Here is a model Chreia study of mine following these steps .

“Cities will have no respite from evil . . . until political power and philosophy coalesce . . .” (473d)

Socrates thinks that the major problems in a city such as crime, poverty, and ignorance can be solved by having wise and just thinkers in positions of governmental leadership. The basis for this assertion is that knowledgeable, prudent and honest individuals in positions of power will manage the affairs of the city wisely and justly, which is the goal of any well-ordered city. Socrates’ view can be corroborated by considering the historical example of the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 C.E. ), a Stoic philosopher. The known world from Britain to Palestine lived in peace and cultural prosperity under this philosopher’s rule . Socrates’ view is like Aristotle’s view in his Politics, where Aristotle urges that leaders be virtuous but unlike Rousseau’s view in  his Social Contract,  where “The People” rule.

An objection that thinkers are not fit for the practical activity of governing people can be refuted by the analogy between the leadership of a city and the leadership of the human body. The leaders of a city are to its citizens as the brain is to the human body, for the decisions about what to do with the resources of both the city and the body are made by those in command. Because the brain is in command of the actions of the body, and the best brain is the wise and just brain, it logically follows that the best leader of any city is a wise and just person. Clearly, this saying from Socrates is true all of the time, since, almost by definition, a foolish and corrupt government will squander the resources of a city; but a wise and just government will not.

Chreia studies on several different sayings or short passages can be helpful in cultivating critical thinking skills. The  Chreia study only takes ten or fifteen minutes to write, and so can be done in class.

Writing on proverbs, fables, or allegories is intrinsically interesting, and so by asking the students to perfect their one page essays outside of class, the students experience the joy of writing (thinking). This should encourage them to do some more writing, and since writing forces one to be clear, the more writing one does, the clearer one’s thoughts become.

In addition, Chreia studies sharpen the critical thinking skills of interpretation, explanation, inference, evaluation, and analysis. Students must break down the saying into its component parts; they must interpret the meaning of the passage and explain the meaning to the reader; students must infer the rationale of Socrates for the passage, and finally they must evaluate the truth of the assertions.

Last, depending on the student’s conclusion about the truth or falsity of the passage, Chreia studies either pass on some worthwhile wisdom of Socrates, or they enable one to learn to criticize famous thinkers. Since either one of these alternatives is desirable, it follows that Chreia studies are very useful exercises in  developing critical thinkers.

Here is an historical example from Aphthonius, a rhetorician in Alexander around 400 C.E.

You can elaborate the chreia under the following headings : (1) Encomiastic, (2) Paraphrastic, (3) Of the Rationale, (4) From the opposite, (5) Analogy, (6) Example, (7) Testimony of the Ancients, (8) Short Epilogue.

A Sayings-Chreia (Chreia 43)

“Isocrates said that education’s root is bitter, its fruit sweet.”

1. It is right to admire Isocrates for his art, for he gave it distinction by his illustrious name and by his practice showed how important it was. And so he is a herald for this art; he himself has not been heralded by it. How often, moreover, either as lawgiver to kings or adviser to individuals he has benefitted the life of mankind would be a long story to set forth in detail. But what a philosophy of education he had!

2. The lover of education, he says, begins with toil but toil which nevertheless ends in profit. And so this was his philosophy; and in the words that follow we will express our admiration of it.

3. For lovers of education are reckoned among the leaders of education, at whose school it is both fearsome to appear, and from which it is very foolish to stay away. Fear is always beneficial to boys, both present and future. Teachers are succeeded by paedagogi who are fearful to hold and more fearful when they are inflicting punishment . Apprehension  precedes  the  endeavor  and  the chastisement succeeds the apprehension. And so they assail the mistakes of the boys  but  consider their  work  done  correctly as only proper. Harsher  than  the  paedagogi are the fathers  as  they closely examine the paths they are following, insist that they make progress and regard the marketplace with suspicion. And if there is  need to chastise, they are ignorant  of  human nature . Still, by being in such circumstances, the boy, on reaching manhood, is still crowned with virtue .

4. If, however, anyone in fear of all this avoids his teachers, avoids his parents by running away, avoids his paedagogi because of aversion to them, he comes to be completely without their guidance and in ridding himself of his apprehension also rids himself of their guidance. All these things, then, influenced Isocrates ‘decision to call education’s bitter root.

5. For just as those who till the land sow the seeds in the land with toil and then gather the fruits with greater pleasure, in the same way those who pursue education with toil attain the subsequent reputation.

6. Consider, if you will, the life of Demosthenes which was more industrious than any orator’s and has become more acclaimed than any. Indeed, his life so excelled in zeal that he even removed the adornment from his head, regarding the best adornment to be what comes from virtue. And so he spent on toil what others spend on pleasures .

7. Therefore, one must admire Hesiod for saying that virtue’s road is rough but its summit smooth, since he taught the same sentiment as Isocrates. For what Hesiod termed a “road,” Isocrates called a “root,” both pointing to a single thought with different words.

8. When these points are considered, we must admire Isocrates, whose philosophy of education is best.

You will notice that Aphthonius begins and ends with a praise of the writer.  I did not put these steps into my guideline, because they seem maudlin by our standards today. In addition, you will notice that his study is longer than mine. Certainly, each step can be expanded to include more ideas, but I find his expansion of the rationale in (3)  a little verbose.

Another beneficial writing exercise is an applications paper. The applications paper is a three to six page “baby research” paper on how reading Plato’s  Republic will help students in their chosen careers or in becoming a well-rounded person if they do not have a major.[4]

One of the difficulties in core curriculum courses is  to convince students that they need to be there. If they can see an application for it in an area that truly excites them, then they will take an interest in it. Another problem in core courses is with students who do not know why they are even in college. This is an excellent opportunity to help them reflect on the difference between a trade school and a liberal arts and sciences school. One of the missions of the American undergraduate college is to provide ideas, skills, and knowledge that will help the student find a job, grow as a human being, and participate intelligently in our democracy.[5] Continual reflection throughout  the  reading of Plato’s Republic on its practical applications enhances the possibility of reaching this goal.[6]

Besides enabling students to find a use for Plato’s  Republic, the applications paper teaches them the basics of the research paper, which is useful throughout their college careers. It is a commonplace that many of our brightest high school graduates in America do not write very well.[7] Since this has been true for over two decades now, some of our publicschool teachers do not know how to write very well. One remedy is to provide a model essay that exhibits the form of an excellent “baby” research paper. Students not only appreciate knowing what is expected of them, but they appreciate instructors who take the time to show them how to write. Perhaps one of the reasons students do not know how to write well is that their instructors have not taken the time to show them. Furthermore, because a short three to six page essay is not very intimidating, students generally  enjoy  the  exercise,  which further encourages them to learn to write and think .

A set of writing guidelines can be distributed to other students so that they know how to put their papers together. Here is a sample list of writing rules that should be of some value .

Analytical Writing Guideline

A. Pre-Writing

1. Brainstorm Ideas

a. Who, what, where, when, why, and how?

2. Map Ideas

a. Relate answers to each other.

3. Free-Write

a. Write non-stop for ten minutes; don’t think about spelling, punctuation, or grammar; just get some ideas down on paper.

4. Identify your main topic, main issue, scope, purpose, and main position – (thesis).

a. state-your main topic and issue.

b. Clarify the reason for writing on this topic.

c. Identify what you will not cover (scope) .

d. Give three reasons for your thesis.

e. Give three reasons against your thesis .

f. Decide which reasons are the strongest.

5. Outline your essay.

B. Writing

1. First paragraph (Introduction)

a. State main topic.

b. state main issue .

c. Define key terms.

d. state your thesis.

e. Outline reasons and objection .

2. Second paragraph, third paragraph, etc., (Body)

a. The first sentence is the topic sentence; everything else in the paragraph relates to it.

b. You can elaborate the topic sentence; you can illustrate it; you can paraphrase it; you can explain it; you can prove it; you can disprove it (most philosophical papers refute opposing positions, so one or more of the paragraphs will be rebuttal); you can compare or contrast it to other positions; you can connect· it to previous topic sentences (transition).

c. Sometimes the last sentence in the paragraph restates the first sentence in different words.

d. Vary sentence length; use active voice.

3. Conclusion

a. Summarize the main position and reasons.

b. summarize your objection and response .

c. Do not introduce new material.

C. Post-Writing

1. Read the whole essay.

2. Edit it for grammar, spelling, and punctuation .

3. Revise for clarity of thesis statement and reasons.

4. Read it to someone else.

5. Revise again for unclear, unorganized, or incomplete passages.

This assignment should be made the first day or two of the semester so that the students begin to think about the applications of Plato’s Republic right away. In addition, the rules should be distributed and discussed before the first essay exam so that the students have time to think about how to write an exam.[8]  Moreover, students should be given some time in class to practice the pre-writing phase of their papers with the instructor assistance. If a first draft is thoroughly critiqued by the instructor around the middle of the term, the students will have an opportunity to revise their thoughts and improve the quality of their work. Last, talking students through how to use the model essay provided below with their topics will give them the opportunity to begin developing their thoughts.[9]



[1] James, E. Faulcones, Richard N. Packard, “Using Critical Reasoning to Philosophy” Teaching Philosophy (September/1988: 231).

[2] Other scholars have noted the intimate connection between writing and thinking: Peter Elbow, “Teaching Thinking by Teaching Writing,” Change (September/1983; Mary Pierce Quinn, Critical Thinking and Writing: An Approach to the Teaching of Composition, (Ann Arbor: Dissertation Service, 1983); Lenore Langsdorf, “Reading, Writing, Reasoning: A Model for Their Integration,” Informal Logic (Spring/1987:110-123)

[3]Donald Lemen Clark, Rhetoric in Greco-Roman Education, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 177-212.

[4] Students could also do a standard philosophical essay on a particular issue in the Republic, such as Plato’s  theory of justice or his theory of Forms .

[5] See John Dewey, Philosophy of Education, “Democracy and Education,” (Paterson, NJ:  Littlefield Adams, 1958).

[6] Also, students could write on issues related to their majors or general interests without writing about how Plato’s ideas can be applied there. For instance, an athlete could write on Plato ‘s theory of physical education or a business major could write on Plato’s view of money.

[7] Even many Harvard first year students have trouble writing. See Phyllis Kneller, Getting at the Core (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

[8] I would recommend a single essay exam question to take-home because that gives them plenty of time to do some sustained thinking and writing. Of course, testing procedures are up to the discretion of the professor.

[9] Model essays were also used in ancient Greece and Rome. See Quintilia’s On the Education of the orator.

Also available are “Plato’s Republic in the Core Curriculum,” “Learning Goals and Teaching Methods for Exploring the Republic,” “The Philosopher as Citizen,” and “Moral Conduct and Citizenship.”

This is republished from Plato’s Republic and the Core Curriculum: Critical Thinking, Moral Education, and Citizenship. Jon Avery. Lamar, Texas: University of Lamar Press, 1990.

Jon Avery

Written by

Dr. Jon Avery is a retired lecturer in philosophy and religious studies from Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Kentucky and a former secretary-treasurer of the American Association of the Advancement of Core Curriculum. He is also a co-author of Towards a Spiritual Humanism (1991) and a co-editor of Ways of Knowing: Selected Readings (Kendall Hunt 2000).