Philosophers for the City: Aristotle and the Telos of Education

By Shaw, Elizabeth C. | Modern Age, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Philosophers for the City: Aristotle and the Telos of Education


Shaw, Elizabeth C., Modern Age


THE LIFE DEDICATED to intellectual pursuits is commonly understood as rarefied and prohibitively esoteric--a life suited to the few rather than the many. Often referred to as the contemplative life, it is associated with images of monastic isolation and is often deemed a life dedicated to (or even perhaps wasted on) puzzlings and musings that are useless from a practical perspective. Such a life grates on the pragmatic mindset and is subject to severe criticism, with critics decrying it as unproductive, self-indulgent, antisocial, and indeed stultifying inasmuch as it inhibits the flourishing of the human qua social and political animal. The absent-minded professor, ineffectual and irrelevant, is, for example, a stock figure of popular entertainment. Aristotle, however, saves this life from these and other sorts of criticisms, as he consistently maintains that theoria springs from the natural human condition and is ineluctably bound up with the fullness of social living.

Inasmuch as the city needs its proper parts, namely citizens, it needs education. Training and education produce virtue in citizens, and the virtue of the city lies in the virtue of its proper parts. (1) Thus education is essential for the formation of citizens, and hence for the existence of the city. In the Politics, Aristotle addresses at length the issue of education. He discusses both why the city needs it and what sort it should be, and he gives specific recommendations regarding particular subjects that ought to be studied. The principle that what is lower or worse exists for the sake of what is higher or better (2) runs through this discussion (as, for example, the body is for the soul and the appetites are for the intellect), and this logic culminates in the view that what is for its own sake is best. In asserting that theoretic reason is the highest thing in man (3) and maintaining that leisure or leisured activity is that which exists for its own sake, that which is the end of all other activities (including education), (4) Aristotle leads us to the conclusion that the best possible activity of leisure involves the employment of theoretic reason. As such, education must ultimately be for the sake of the theoretic life.

Having drawn this conclusion, we observe that education at once serves civic life and yet can be seen in some sense to extend beyond the city--beyond the practical, political life. The theoretic life, the life of the philosopher, is free and noble, while other forms of political or civic life are oriented to what is useful and bound to necessities. Education serves the practical life insofar as it forms citizens for the city; but ultimately education, like all progress-oriented activities, is for the sake of that which is for its own sake. Education does not merely produce citizens and rulers, it produces philosophers.

Aristotle notes that men are perfected and made virtuous by three things: nature, habit, and reasoned speech or logos. (5) A man's nature is a necessary but not sufficient condition for virtue. As such, the natural state of the soul is not properly described as virtuous. (6) Education is needed to perfect what is mere potential provided by nature, as "all art and education aim at filling up nature's deficiencies." (7)

Furthermore, Aristotle notes that education fulfills an important role in clarifying man's view of his goals. All men "aim at the good life and happiness," but some "go wrong at the start in their search for happiness." (8) That is to say, some err in their initial conception of their goal, as is evident, for example, from the varied opinions regarding happiness that Aristotle critiques in book 1, chapter 5 of the Nicomachean Ethics. In order to live and act properly for the sake of the good life, men need correctly to establish "the aim and end of their actions,... [and] the ascertainment of the actions leading to that end." (9) Given Aristotle's view of the primacy of sense experience with respect to the establishment of concepts in the mind, it is proper to note that in order to conceive of the end which is the virtue and nobility of the good life, men need to be exposed to and experience this virtue or nobility, at least on some level. …

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