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Ancient Republics and European Charters

70 min

Guiding Questions

  • What influence did Plato have on James Madison and the writers of the Constitution?
    • In what ways did they agree?
    • In what ways did they disagree?


  • Students will identify how Madison and Plato differ in their understanding of human nature, and how Plato and Madison would remedy faction.
  • Students will understand the government under Madison’s remedy, which would solve the problems faced by ancient republics.

  • John Jay
  • republic
  • John Adams
  • separation of powers
  • Founders
  • Republican government
  • tyrannical
  • checks and balances
  • direct
  • Magna Carta
  • George Washington
  • Constitution
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • John Locke
  • liberty
  • democracy
  • James Madison

Listen to the National Constitution Center podcast of Plato, Aristotle, and the Constitution:

Students will read this sentence, written/shown on the whiteboard:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary”

and guess whether it came from Shakespeare, Plato, or Madison. They will justify their answer.

Watch this 3 minute claymation video of Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave, and discuss what Plato was saying about philosophy, government, knowledge, and wisdom.

Students will read and annotate Handout A and answer the four critical thinking questions at the end of the reading.

Divide the class into two groups to have a brief debate on whether Madison or Plato was correct in his understanding of nature. Consider allowing students to use outside information, in addition to the information on the handout to support their argument. Each group should have at least five two speakers: an “opener”, a “rebutter”, at least two others, and a “closer”.

Have students vote by secret ballot which group’s arguments were stronger, and be prepared to explain why.  Discuss how we may see elements of both Plato’s view and Madison’s view in our form of government.

Students will read and annotate Handout B, and write a paragraph explaining what Madison saw as problems with ancient republics.

Students should look up Plato’s four cardinal virtues and Washington’s two pillars necessary for human happiness, and have a Socratic Seminar to respond to the prompt:

According these thinkers, what elements are necessary for human happiness and flourishing? To what extent do you agree? What, if any, additional elements should be added to the list of necessary elements?

Student Handouts

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