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Rattle & Hum: Destructive Play & State Education in Classical Greek Political Theory

Brett Rogers

University of Puget Sound

During his discussion of the role of mousikê in education in Politics 8, Aristotle refers to the rattle of Archytas, a percussive toy that parents give to infants in order to prevent them from wreaking havoc upon the rest of the household (Pol. 1340b26-30). Aristotle goes on to draw an analogy that “for older children, education is their rattle” (ἡ παιδεία πλαταγὴ τοῖς μείζοσι τῶν νέων, 31-32).  Aristotle thus not only treats education as a “way of spending time” (τινὰ διατριβήν, 27) but also equates paideia to a loud, noisy object that harnesses youthful forces potentially destructive to the household.  

Aristotle’s metaphor depends on a series of analogies: just as the rattle prevents destruction by infants to furniture in the household, education prevents destruction by the youth, presumably, to the larger politeia. This is predicated on a further assumption—namely, that the youth are agents of destruction whose powers pose a real threat to the polis and therefore must somehow be contained. How prescisely children may be destructive to the polis may be a matter of speculation, but it is clear that, in this view, toys and music are technologies that protect the polis from this destructive potential. On its face, Aristotle’s view here seems opposed to his notion of play (παιδιά), which he earlier refers to as a “relaxation of the soul” (ἄνεσις… τῆς ψυχῆς, 1337b40-38a2) and, more teleologically, as the “end of life” (τέλος… τοῦ βίου, 37b36-7). 

Aristotle’s reading of the rattle and music education as tools that work in favor of the state aligns with contemporary interpretations of other forms of play, including various games, that were either fundamental to or, at least, seen as analogus to state education. The rattle of Archytas thus merits comparison to the ‘serious game’ of theft in Spartan Crypteia (on which see, e.g., Ducat 2006: 206-7, 292-3, 320) or the representations of mousikê and gumnastikê in Plato Republic 2 and Laws 7-8. The rattle’s containment of destructive forces also evokes the ancient Greek board game polis, which both Plato (Rep. 422a-d) and Aristotle (Pol. 1253a2-7) cite in reference to individual behaviors that pose a threat to the polis (cf. Dobbs 2018: 68-76). This suggests, then, that various Greek states and political theorists had started to construct not so much ‘game theory’ as ‘political theories of game,’ concluding that toys, games, and comparable forms of play could work in service of not only education but also the politeia, not necessarily as entertainment but as pasttimes that limited the destructive potential of children while simultaneously redirecting that potential in service of the poilteia.

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Learning the Rules: Games and Education in the Ancient World

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