In ancient Greek
Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...

, the word n. paedeia or paideia (παιδεία) [ to educate (see PAEDEUTICS n.) + - -IA suffix1] means child-rearing, education. It was a system of instruction in Classical Athens
Classical Athens
The city of Athens during the classical period of Ancient Greece was a notable polis of Attica, Greece, leading the Delian League in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and the Peloponnesian League. Athenian democracy was established in 508 BC under Cleisthenes following the tyranny of Hippias...

 in which students were given a well-rounded cultural education. Subjects included rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, music, philosophy, geography, natural history, and gymnastics. Paedeia was the process of educating humans into their true form, the real and genuine human nature.

Since self-government was important to the Greeks, paideia, combined with ethos
Ethos is a Greek word meaning "character" that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community, nation, or ideology. The Greeks also used this word to refer to the power of music to influence its hearer's emotions, behaviors, and even morals. Early Greek stories of...

 (habits), made a man good and made him capable as a citizen or a king. This education was not about learning a trade or an art—which the Greeks called banausos
Banausos is an epithet of the class of manual laborers or artisans in Ancient Greece. The related abstract noun – banausia is defined by Hesychius as "every craft [conducted] by means of fire", reflecting the folk etymology of the word as coming from "furnace" and "to dry"...

, and which were considered mechanical tasks unworthy of a learned citizen—but was about training for liberty (freedom) and nobility (the beautiful). Paideia is the cultural heritage that is continued through the generations.

The term paideia is probably best known to modern English-speakers through its use in the word encyclopedia
An encyclopedia is a type of reference work, a compendium holding a summary of information from either all branches of knowledge or a particular branch of knowledge....

, which is a combination of the Greek terms enkyklios, or "complete system/circle", and paideia.

Origins and foundations

The Greeks considered Paideia to be carried out by the aristocratic class, who were said to have intellectualized their culture and their ideas; the culture and the youth are then "moulded" to the ideal. Starting in archaic times, love played an important part in this process, as adult aristocrats in most cities were encouraged to fall in love
Pederasty in ancient Greece
Pederasty in ancient Greece was a socially acknowledged relationship between an adult and a younger male usually in his teens. It was characteristic of the Archaic and Classical periods...

 with the youths they mentored. The aristocratic ideal is the Kalos Kagathos
Kalos kagathos
Kalos kagathos , of which kalokagathia is the derived noun, is a phrase used by classical Greek writers to describe an ideal of personal conduct, especially in a military context. Its use is attested since Herodotus and the classical period...

, "The Beautiful and the Good." This idea is similar to that of the medieval knight
A knight was a member of a class of lower nobility in the High Middle Ages.By the Late Middle Ages, the rank had become associated with the ideals of chivalry, a code of conduct for the perfect courtly Christian warrior....

s, their culture, and the English concept of the gentleman
The term gentleman , in its original and strict signification, denoted a well-educated man of good family and distinction, analogous to the Latin generosus...


Greek paideia is the idea of perfection, of excellence. The Greek mentality was "to always be pre-eminent"; Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

 records this charge of King Peleus
In Greek mythology, Pēleus was a hero whose myth was already known to the hearers of Homer in the late 8th century BCE. Peleus was the son of Aeacus, king of the island of Aegina, and Endeïs, the oread of Mount Pelion in Thessaly; he was the father of Achilles...

 to his son Achilles
In Greek mythology, Achilles was a Greek hero of the Trojan War, the central character and the greatest warrior of Homer's Iliad.Plato named Achilles the handsomest of the heroes assembled against Troy....

. This idea is called arete
Arete (excellence)
Arete , in its basic sense, means excellence of any kind. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one's full potential...

. "Arete was the central ideal of all Greek culture."

In The Iliad, Homer portrays the excellence of the physicality and courage of the Greeks and Trojans
Troy was a city, both factual and legendary, located in northwest Anatolia in what is now Turkey, southeast of the Dardanelles and beside Mount Ida...

. In The Odyssey, Homer accentuates the excellence of the mind or wit also necessary for winning. Arete is a concomitant of what it meant to be a hero
A hero , in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion...

 and a necessary component in warfare in order to succeed. It is the ability to "make his hands keep his head against enemies, monsters, and dangers of all kinds, and to come out victorious."

This mentality can also be seen in the Greeks' tendency to reproduce and copy only the literature that was deemed the "best"; the Olympic games
Olympic Games
The Olympic Games is a major international event featuring summer and winter sports, in which thousands of athletes participate in a variety of competitions. The Olympic Games have come to be regarded as the world’s foremost sports competition where more than 200 nations participate...

 were also products of this mentality. Moreover, this carried over into literature itself, with competitions in poetry, tragedy, and comedy. "Arete" was infused in everything the Greeks did.

The Greeks described themselves as "Lovers of Beauty," and they were very much attuned to aesthetics
Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. It is more scientifically defined as the study of sensory or sensori-emotional values, sometimes called judgments of sentiment and taste...

. They saw this in nature and in a particular proportion, the Golden Ratio
Golden ratio
In mathematics and the arts, two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one. The golden ratio is an irrational mathematical constant, approximately 1.61803398874989...

 (roughly 1.618) and its recurrence in many things. They also referred to the need for balance as the Golden mean (philosophy)
Golden mean (philosophy)
In philosophy, especially that of Aristotle, the golden mean is the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency. For example courage, a virtue, if taken to excess would manifest as recklessness and if deficient as cowardice....

 (choosing the middle and not either extreme). Beauty was not in the superficialities of color, light, or shade, but in the essence of being—which is structure, line, and proportion.

The Greeks sought this out in all aspects of human endeavor and experience. The Golden Mean is the cultural expression of this principle throughout the Greek paidea: architecture, art, politics, and human psychology.

In modern discourse, the German-American classicist Werner Jaeger
Werner Jaeger
Werner Wilhelm Jaeger was a classicist of the 20th century.Jaeger was born in Lobberich, Rhenish Prussia. He attended school at Lobberich and at the Gymnasium Thomaeum in Kempen Jaeger studied at the University of Marburg and University of Berlin. He received a Ph.D...

, in his influential magnum opus
Masterpiece in modern usage refers to a creation that has been given much critical praise, especially one that is considered the greatest work of a person's career or to a work of outstanding creativity, skill or workmanship....

 Paideia (3 vols. from 1934; see below), uses the concept of paideia to trace the development of Greek thought and education from Homer to Demosthenes
Demosthenes was a prominent Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens. His orations constitute a significant expression of contemporary Athenian intellectual prowess and provide an insight into the politics and culture of ancient Greece during the 4th century BC. Demosthenes learned rhetoric by...

. The concept of paideia was also used by Mortimer Adler
Mortimer Adler
Mortimer Jerome Adler was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He lived for the longest stretches in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and San Mateo, California...

 in his criticism of contemporary Western educational systems
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

, and Lawrence A. Cremin in his histories of American education.

Sayings and proverbs that defined Paideia

  • "'Know thyself' and 'Nothing in Excess,' which were on everyone's lips." Words inscribed on the temple at Delphi
    Delphi is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis.In Greek mythology, Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, and a major site for the worship of the god...

  • "Hard is the Good."

Further reading

  • Takis Fotopoulos
    Takis Fotopoulos
    Takis Fotopoulos , born , is a political philosopher and economist who founded the inclusive democracy movement. He is noted for his synthesis of the classical democracy with the libertarian socialism and the radical currents in the new social movements...

    : "From (mis)-education to Paideia", The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy
    Inclusive Democracy
    Inclusive Democracy is a political theory and political project that aims for direct democracy, economic democracy in a stateless, moneyless and marketless economy, self-management and ecological democracy...

    , vol 2, no 1, (2005).
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