Skip to content

Law as Paidagogos, part 1

There ought to be a law

or, so we erroneously think

“The exhortations of our instructors,
the watchfulness of our paedagogi, and
the prayers of our parents” —Quintilian

T here ought to be a law. We say that sometimes out of frustration. Thinking that law is a remedy makes us say what we do. Law can restrain. Law can punish. While that may be true, law also can be blind. Indeed, Justicia or Lady Justice may be armed with a sword and scale, but her image is portrayed as blindfolded. We would like to believe that justice is blind means that justice is neutral, that law applies to everyone in the same way.


However, there is another sense in which justice can be blind. A law can result in unintended consequences with the cure sometimes being worse than the disease. What happens is that we write a law, only to write another law to correct the failings of the first law. Let me explain.

Consider for a moment, mandatory sentences and drug abuse. This all seems simple enough. Make the crime fit the punishment and the punishment fit the crime. Remove judicial leniency. If a man is guilty, his sentence is mandatory and already prescribed by statute. Once guilt is determined, sentence is meted out. And that’s it.

At least, that is how the law is supposed to work. What actually happens, though, can be much different with the outcome sometimes being blatantly unjust.

In Florida, for instance, illegal possession of a relatively small amount of hydrocodone, a pharmaceutical pain killer, will result in a mandatory sentence of 25 years, but illegal possession of 300 pounds of cocaine carries a mandatory sentence of only 10 years. Seemingly, the punishment for possession of a lesser drug is much harsher than that for distribution of cocaine. That was not the intent of the law, but that is what happened.

It is an unending process, this whole notion of legal systems and unexpected outcomes. We write one law, and then another law to amend the first law, and then another to amend the amended law. And on it goes. The outcry, there out to be a law, reflects a misunderstanding of what law actually can do. Unintended consequences aside, law must exist and must be enforced. The two are complementary. Law by itself would accomplish nothing if the law is not enforced. Likewise, justice may be blind, but a jury can see, at least some of the time. That is the best we can do. We try to balance the inherent defects by putting restrictions on law itself.

We may clamor, “There ought to be a law.” Yet, we also know that law as a system can fail us. An innocent man can be sent to prison for the rest of his life, but that does not mean we should never send anyone to prison.

An even worse example is that of a child molester. None of us want to live next door to a child molester, but current law protects the child molester, allowing him to be our neighbor. There is no question that this is a poor law and a legal insult for the rest of us. The law should not protect the guilty, but at times, law seemingly does that very thing. Most of us would say let the child molester, or rapist, or gang member live next door to the people who wrote the law that now protects them. Indeed, compel the criminal to live next door to the judge who released them. That seems more like justice served.

However, even when the law is perfect, such as the law given from God to Moses, fundamental weaknesses remain. There are some things that law can never accomplish, even a law written by God. Take murder, for instance. It is against the law of God to murder, but that does keep men from committing murder, or committing adultery, or dishonoring their parents, or using the name of the Lord in vain. Law may restrict behavior, but law cannot turn a bad man into a good man. The law cannot compel a man to love his wife, or to be compassionate toward others. Law retrains, but law cannot reach the soul of man. Law cannot prevent murder.

Galatians: concept of law

In Galatians we learn that the inadequacies of law are expunged by a gospel that goes far beyond law. The law was added to a promise God had made centuries earlier (3:8). In seeking to prevent harm, however, law resulted in promulgating harm ironically toward the very people law should have served. (3:10). The defect was not in the law, but rather in the people governed by the law of God. As a result, rather than being an advantage, law resulted in an irreparable injury, resulted in functioning as a curse. Every infraction, however minor or insignificant, meant that the violator must be pronounced guilty of not having carried out the perfect law perfectly. This standard was more than any of us could do. Whether fault or crime, both were imputed as an issue of law. Indeed, law may have been a temporary measure intended to restrain contumacious behavior, but the end result was that law as a regime made matters worse (3:19). Law had become a legal trap rather than a solution, but God had never intended law as a solution. In fact, God had made a promise that both preceded the law and would eventually supersede the law.

To be sure, centuries before the law of Moses, God had made a promise to Abraham. A promise represents an intention to act, (or in some cases, a refrain from acting). In this instance, though, God had promised a blessing. That blessing was realized in Christ: “When the fullness of time was come, God sent forth his Son” (4:4). The law, then, was temporary. The law was like a governor over a child who one day would become the heir of a fortune (3:24, 25).

That promise represented an assurance from God, resulting in an extraordinary release from legal demands and an acquittance from every sin:

And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. —3:8

In law we have restrictions, deficiencies, legal wording, threats, and sentencing for both violations and failures. In gospel, such legal remedies and liabilities become transformed into forgiveness, mercy, reformation, and self-imposed restraint. In law, the focus is behavior. In gospel, the focus is the heart. Law condemns us for what we have done or failed to do. Gospel takes our condemnation and offers us a second chance and then, goes even further by imparting within us a spiritual dimension that makes that second chance something we can do.

Let me explain, if I may. If we can look at law as a calculus exam, we might understand the complete change of venue and the complete abrogation of law. In effect, the gospel functions as a legal release. We were free at last, protected from further arrest. Law could no longer prosecute us for something in our past. What about tomorrow? Would I be free from my past only to face a future that would eventually condemn me? Sin means I have failed, I have missed the mark. The bad news is that even if given another chance at what I had previously failed, I would miss the mark again. Maybe not in the same way, but eventually I would falter. I would fail. I would fail in the same way I would fail a calculus exam or any other subject that I may know little or nothing about. A professor might give me a second chance at calculus, and I might be able to get some of the answers right, but the outcome would be no different. I would fail the second exam just as surely as I had failed the first. The mercy of the professor would make no difference. If gospel, then, is interpreted as a revised law offering us a second chance, we have no chance. Unless all of the cancer is removed, the disease will return with deadly force.

Such descriptions may seem elusive and even difficult to grasp, largely because we are talking about a spiritual and unseen reality. The inner core of a man is beyond the jurisdiction of law. The unseen realm of the soul is where sin operates. If a corrupted soul is the problem, then the solution has to be something that can effect change on the level of the soul. Law may guide. Law may restrain behavior. Law may condemn, but law cannot reform the soul. The soul may beyond the reach of law, but the soul is not beyond the reach of faith. We may not be able to grasp how the gospel changes us, while at the same time forgiving our wrongs, and granting us a second chance that never ends or fails. We cannot see what happens within us any more than we can see the wind. We only see the effects. Yet, whatever we may have become in life, whatever the wrongs we may have done, in one stroke God can change everything: “Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts” (4:6). We who failed miserably are no longer failures. Our wrongs may have been many; our sins, despicable, but Christ is greater than all the wrongs ever committed by all the men who ever lived, or who ever will live. Gospel is not revised law, does not function as law. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world.

Law as appointed governor

Perhaps, we might have a deeper appreciation of what faith accomplished if we study the metaphor of law as governor (paidagogos) over the child who one day will become the heir. As heir, the child, of course, is over the governor but not until the child reaches the appointed time outlined in the will. Until then, the governor has guardianship and is with the child constantly—

The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. —3:24, 25

The passage seems clear enough, yet the notion of schoolmaster does not seem adequate as a translation. Paidagogos was not a teacher, but rather a slave who accompanied a child on his way to and from school as well as elsewhere. Indeed, the paidagogos acted more as a constant attendant or guide. Yet, the notion of paidagogos combined with instruction is somewhat accurate. For instance, the paedeia in ancient Greece was the full education of a child, including proper behavior and cultural development in reading, writing, mathematics, philosophy, music, gymnasium, and etiquette. Paidagogos and paedeia are shared cognates and therefore, have shared meanings. Indeed, our word encyclopaedia suggests a similar notion: literally the enkyklio, a circle or system of a paedeia. We also have the word pedagogy, another clear reference to paedeia.

The objective of the paedeia was to train the child in proper education and etiquette, to guide the child into adulthood where self-governing conduct would reflected proper Greek heritage and culture. Paedeia was not just the learning of facts, but the shaping of character. A well-educated Greek would be expected to act with the air of a refined gentleman much in the same way a British gentleman would be expected to act, or a Spanish caballero such as Don Quixote. The paidagogos was to reinforce a code of conduct, and the paedeia was an integral part of that code. Excellence, honor, self-control were as much a part of the paideia as were rhetoric, mathematics, or music. Even the physical training of the body as well as the skill to handle a sword were parts of a boy’s well-rounded education.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues for a disciplined and restrained life over a life wasted by self-indulgence, or the mere momentary.  The ideal education of a child must emphasize principle, must emphasize doing what was right in the right way at the right time.  The danger of a reactionary life is that even when the person does something right, the action itself is way out of proportion.  A father who over-disciplines his son because of a minor infraction would be a good example of an unproportioned life.  It is not

Bust of Aristotle, National Museum of Rome

just the doing of right; it is the doing of right at the right time.  Since children by nature are governed by impulsive behavior, if that behavior goes unrestrained, the result will be an ungoverned and ungovernable man, a man who will live for his own selfish appetite.  In Aristotle’s view, such a person can never become obedient to authority simply because he has no inner ability to govern himself.  This learning by principle, then, is an important element in child-development, or as Aristotle puts it,“The appetitive part of us should be ruled by principle, just as a boy should live in obedience to his paidagogos” (1119b).

When we apply this backdrop to the passage in Galatians, the metaphor of paidagogos as schoolmaster becomes much clearer.  Like a paidagogos, the law acted as a temporary governor with the intended purpose of guiding those under its control toward moral excellence. In this instance, the objective would be a godly integrity where self-governance and inner virtue act as guide, not as a paidagogos slave. The function of the law was to bring us to Christ.  The Galatians seemingly wanted a codified law rather than a code of godliness, functioning on the level of soul, and transforming both behavior and man as no law could ever do.  The gospel of Christ is not a legal paidagogos.  Rather, the gospel is the fulfilled promise made by God himself.  In releasing the holy gospel, God did not replace one law with another.

The Paidagogos

I n the Greek paideia, however, the practical often fell far short of the ideal.  Not every paidagogos was what he should have been, and the teacher was sometimes blatantly immoral.  Indeed, part of the role of the paidagogos was to protect the child from the teacher.  Nevertheless, Plutarch decried the practice of some households in which the better slaves were appointed as stewards and other responsible positions, but the worse slaves were given the role of paidagogos:

It is a course never enough to be laughed at which many men nowadays take in this affair; for if any of their servants be better than the rest, they dispose some of them to follow husbandry, some to navigation, some to merchandise, some to be stewards in their houses, and some, lastly, to put out their money to use for them. But if they find any slave that is a drunkard or a glutton, and unfit for any other business, to him they assign the government of their children. Education of Children, 7

Tacitus likewise reflects a prevailing trend in which the proper training of a child was left to the worse of available resources.  Tacitus even mentions teachers who focus more on flattery and self-esteem rather than on the development of good character.  Parents of such children were likewise fascinated by the shallowest of interests such as glib talk, horses, actors, gladiators. Had there been an Oprah Winfrey or Oscar Awards, they would have talked of nothing else:

But in our day we entrust the infant to a little Greek servant-girl who is attended by one or two, commonly the worst of all the slaves, creatures utterly unfit for any important work. Their stories and their prejudices from the very first fill the child’s tender and uninstructed mind. No one in the whole house cares what he says or does before his infant master. Even parents themselves familiarise their little ones, not with virtue and modesty, but with jesting and glib talk, which lead on by degrees to shamelessness and to contempt for themselves as well as for others. Really I think that the characteristic and peculiar vices of this city, a liking for actors and a passion for gladiators and horses, are all but conceived in the mother’s womb. When these occupy and possess the mind, how little room has it left for worthy attainments! Few indeed are to be found who talk of any other subjects in their homes, and whenever we enter a classroom, what else is the conversation of the youths. Even with the teachers, these are the more frequent topics of talk with their scholars. In fact, they draw pupils, not by strictness of discipline or by giving proof of ability, but by assiduous court and cunning tricks of flattery. —Dialogues, 29

Given the careless approach in choosing a qualified paidagogos, at least by some parents, we should not be surprised that such a paidagogos could be harsh toward a child or even unreasonable.  In fact, the depiction of a paidagogos carrying a crooked stick illustrates the severe discipline that sometimes was administered.  Nero, for instance, once had a man executed because the man merely resembled a paidagogos.  Admittedly, the act was capricious, but something in Nero’s past caused him to order the execution.  (Suetonius, Lives, Nero 37).  Claudius shared similar sentiments about a paidagogos he once had as a child, calling him “a barbarous wretch,” and former mule-driver, chosen for the sole purpose to censure and punish for any and every trifling offence” (Suetonius,  Lives, Claudius 2).

Such negative portrayals could only be possible unless there were also high ideals.  After all, a parent cannot be a bad parent unless there is also the notion of what being a good parent means.  Fortunately, there were many who lived by a higher code and who insisted that a child be raised without the fascination of the superficial and the pathetic.  These followed the standard of the noble and the good.  These followed the course of a principled life.

Quintilian, for instance, describes his formative years as shaped by the “exhortations of instructions, the watchfulness of our paedagogi and the prayers of our parents” (Institutes I.2.25).  Here, the importance of the paedigogus can be measured along side of the prayers of a mother or father.  In homes such as this, a noble paedigogus was regarded as the highest blessing.  A similar view is expressed by Cicero when his only daughter Tullia fell ill.  Cicero was away from her at the time, but a letter to a close friend expresses reassurance in that Tullia would be constantly overseen by her doctor and a paedigogus who apparently had been with her from childhood (Atticus, Book 12.33).  Unfortunately, neither the physician nor the paedigogus were enough to prevent her death.  For Cicero, the loss was especially crushing.  He and Tullia were very close.

In the second tetralogy in Antiphon, a distraught father cries out over the death of his young son killed by a javelin.  Although the death was ruled accidental, the father argues that someone somehow should be held responsible:

Although it was by accident . . . the effects were the same as those of willful murder.  Yet, they deny that they killed him at all, and even maintain that they are not amendable to the law which forbids the taking of life whether wrongfully or otherwise. —3.3.7

Apparently, a number of boys were present at the event, each overseen by his own paidagogos.  What the grief-stricken father could not understand is that no paidagogos anticipated any danger.  Whether or not negligence resulted in the child’s death cannot easily be determined by what the father says; what is clear, however, is the trust respectable families placed in a paidagogos. In this case, given the presence of so many paidagogoi, no child should have died.

Paidagogos, Archaelogical Museum, Pella, Macedonia

Ancient terracotta images likewise reflect a sense of trust and devotion.  Indeed, a number of images even depict a paidagagos carrying a tired child in his arms.  In many families, the child was overseen by the paidagagos almost from infancy and probably often fell asleep in the arms of his paidagagos. The paidagagos for young Hercules, for instance, was also his childhood nurse.  Usually, though, we think of the paidagagos as accompanying the child to school and back, following the child, and carrying the equivalent of his books or lunch.  Admittedly, such was the major duty of the paidagagos, yet a number of Greek words offer a glimpse of a much larger role.  Indeed, the paidagogos followed (akoloutheo) or walked behind the child, usually carrying an item or two. At other times, though, the paidagogos led or guided (ago) the child.  The paidagogos, of course, was largely responsible for the moral upbringing of the child and in that sense, he would have led the child as well.  Further, as in the case of Hercules, the paidagogos sometimes acted as a nurse (trepho) toward the child.  The word, nurse, probably should be understood in a more expansive sense as well with an emphasis on the forming of the character of the child.  The physical welfare of the child was important, but not to the neglect of the child’s social and moral development.

Decisive Battles and a Paidagogos

Indeed, an even more telling portrayal of the influence of the paidagogos comes from a very different source, not  family, nor school, but rather a battlefield in war.  Let’s look at two such examples, each illustrating the high confidence associated with a paidagogos.


The Battle of Salamis

On the eve of the Battle of Salamis, Themistocles entrusted the entire outcome of the war to a paidagogos. The Battle of Salamis has been called by some military historians as the greatest sea battle of all time. Certainly, the casualties were greater than any other sea battle ever fought.  In an attempt to lure the Persians into waters more favorable to the Greek navy, Themistocles secretly dispatched his son’s paidagogos to the Persians with a message intended to persuade the Persians to attack at Salamis.  Since the paidagogos was from the immediate family of Themistocles, the Persians might find the message more credible and, therefore, more apt to be followed.

The Greek warships were vastly outnumbered by the Persian fleet.  According to Herodotus, the Greek navy included about 378 triremes; the Persian navy, around 1,207 triremes.  The exact number of warships at Salamis is not known, but the numerical superiority of the Persian fleet remained roughly three to one.  Had the battle taken place in open waters rather than the straits of Salamis, the Persian navy would have crushed the Greek fleet.  Spurred by the confidence of an overwhelming numerical advantage, Xerxes ordered his throne to be place on  Mount Aigaleos.  From there he would be able to see the entire battle unfold, and the Greeks slaughtered.  Xerxes did witness a slaughter, but the slaughter was of his own navy. The key to the battle was a trusted paidagogos and a message delivered in secret.


The Battle of Cannae

This next example of paidagogos and war does not involve an actual paidagogos as in the case of Themistocles. Rather, the word is used in a derisive sense, but the insult nevertheless illustrates the loyal dedication of a paidagogos.   In the second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, Hannibal invaded the Italian peninsula, crossing the Alps with war elephants. Fighting against Hannibal, the Roman army consistently suffered massive defeats. Indeed, at the Battle of Cannae, for instance, more than 70,000 Roman soldiers died or were captured by a much smaller army in a single afternoon battle.  No war elephants, though,  fought in this conflict. Whether or not the estimate given by Polybius is completely accurate can be disputed, but what cannot be disputed is that the Romans suffered a staggering loss unparalleled in military history.  One historian notes, given that the entire battle lasted only a few hours, 600 Roman soldiers died each minute of the melee with nightfall bringing a close to the havoc.  Livy perhaps underscores the utter despair that fell over Rome:

Never before . . . had there been such excitement and panic within its walls. I shall not attempt to describe it, nor will I weaken the reality by going into details… it was not wound upon wound but multiplied disaster that was now announced. For according to the reports two consular armies and two consuls were lost; there was no longer any Roman camp, any general, any single soldier in existence; Apulia, Samnium, almost the whole of Italy lay at Hannibal’s feet. The History of Rome, Book 22


To understand how decisive this battle actually was, we only need to remind ourselves that in one afternoon in one battle, the Romans suffered more casualties at Cannae than did the Americans in the Vietnam War over a span of 20 years.

Until Cannae, all battles against Hannibal had been fought in constricted topography, but the open plains of Cannae should have provided the Romans the ability to crush Hannibal outright.  Or, so the Romans thought.  Seemingly, no Roman army however well positioned or however large could match Hannibal in battle.  Tenable estimates give the Romans the advantage of ten to one with the Roman army being in the neighborhood of almost 300,000 while Hannibal could field roughly 30,000, many of who could not even understand the other’s language.  Ultimately, the tenacity of the Romans will defeat Hannibal by attacking Carthage, but that battle will come later.  The Roman general who eventually will outmaneuver Hannibal is Scipio Africanus.  An entire continent is named after him in honor of the importance of that victory.

Hannibal: "I will either find a way, or make one."


However, in earlier skirmishes, the Roman general, Fabius Maximus, chose a very different strategy than that of Cannae, always following Hannibal at a safe distance, always retreating whenever Hannibal prepared to attack.  Convinced that an open engagement against Hannibal would prove disastrous, Fabius Maximus sought to wear down the smaller army of Hannibal.  Understandably, other Romans strongly derided the strategy.  In their mind, Fabius had chosen cowardice over decisive action.  In disdain, these called Fabius the paidagogos of Hannibal. However, as Plutrarch notes, Hannibal held a very different view of Fabius:

Much more did his enemies think him a man of no courage and a mere nobody, — all except Hannibal.  —Plutarch Lives, Fabius Maximus 5.2

The mockery turned out to be especially ironic when one of the Fabius’s military rivals launched an attack against Hannibal and would have died in the slaughter if Fabius had not been near enough to rescue him.  Perhaps after this, Fabius should have been called the paidagogos of the rash and impetuous general whose empty hopes would have obliterated an entire Roman legion.  The name of the general was Marcus Minucius Rufus.  There have been five generals in history, each perhaps the equal of a Hannibal: Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Robert E. Lee, and Erwin Rommel— all achieved decisive victories over superior force. More than any other Roman, Fabius understood the ominous threat of Hannibal and the inadequacies of the Roman army to meet that threat.

To return to Galatians for a moment, and the notion of law as paidagogos, what we can now say with certainty is that the paidagogos in the ancient world was not a teacher.  Governor rather than schoolmaster might be a better translation, but as we suggested earlier, schoolmaster, at least, implies some sense of child development and learning.  The fact is that we have no modern equivalent of paidagogos.  In another article we will look at the paidagogos as seen in a conversation between Socrates and a boy named Lysis. We will also look at bi-lingual translations illustrating the daily life of a young Roman boy.  Each of these two examples provides valuable commentary of the role of the paidagogos and of the child entrusted to his care.  “The law was our paidagogos to bring us unto Christ” Law is different from gospel just as the paidagogos is different from the child entrusted to his care.

Leave a Reply