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Aristotle

“Education, education, education” was a notable politician`s slogan, when enphasising his government`s priorities. A laudable aim but not easy of attainment.

Not a new idea of course as the concept has received  much discussion by philosophers from the earliest times. It is very much an issue at present.. Many people believe the cure for many of today`s ills lies in perhaps more, certainly better education, probably a change in sytems of delivery (of education). That education is the prime responsibility of the State both Aristotle and Plato agree. Both have much of relevance to the present day.

Aristotle in his POLITICS, Book Eight, writing about 350 BC, opens Part 1, with the statement “No-one will doubt that the legislator should direct his  attention above all to the education of youth, for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution”. Notice “above all”: this concern is paramount. In this opinion, he is at one with the views of Plato, which we saw in an earlier essay. The citizen is to be “moulded” to suit the existing form of government, so that someone who lives in a democracy, for example, needs to be a believer in democratic principles. Clearly, such forms as tyranny are excluded as legitimate regimes. However the term “moulded” does suggest coercion. Aristotle does not gainsay this. So far all is consonant with Plato`s ideas. Plato`s ideal society was communistic in character and the differing phases of education were to be controlled by the State. As now,  except Local Authorities have some discretion over local systems.

Particularly interesting is Aristotle`s  comment on private education and public (which we would understand as local education provision) , “Education should be one and the same for all.”  In other words, there should be no such thing as privately educated pupils. At this juncture it is beneficial to remind ourselves that in the Greece of this time  education was virtually the preserve of the wealthy who could afford private tuition. Very rarely was public i.e. State education available. Aristotle therefore postulates that training (of the young) should be the same for all, namely “public” People  as integral members of the State, to which they belong,, need to submerge their individuality to  the main aim of the nation which is collective “virtue” (as Aristotle calls it) i.e. strength through truth.

One could here claim that comprehensive systems of schooling, which took off in the sixties in the UK , were advocated over two thousand years ago by Aristotle. Education is seen as much social as intellectual: the integration of society is paramount. Only in this way is the “truth” to be achieved, which is the ultimate aim of education. Perhaps here we should say something about the concept of truth , in the work of our two great philosophers..

According to Plato the aim of (controlled) phases of education is the way to “Truth”. The attainment of this state enables a person to make correct decisions, to adopt wise courses of action (in the time-honoured phrase) and to see things as they really are, i.e. in a balanced way. Only by this achievement can one realise the Form (of the Good). About which we shall say more later. Truth is a state of personal being, therefore.

The goals of education according to Aristotle lie in the attainment of “Virtue”: “training and habituation are required for  the practice of virtue”.(Book 8, Pt 1, )  The meaning of this word in Aristotle`s context is very similar to Plato`s concept of truth and attainment of knowledge of the Good. A state of “virtue” , achieved after a “correct” system of education , means a model citizen and a righteous person. Ideal for a healthy State.

Education therefore in Aristotle`s eyes is regulated by law, and as such is taken for granted. Now he discusses the character of this PUBLIC education. The subjects to be taught are all important. Some subjects tend to the vocational ; others to pure enlargement of personal horizons. The first leads to the “best life” , that is, satisfaction in the material sense; the second leads to “virtue”, satisfaction in a moral sense., which can encompass intellectual strength (or virtue) . Here, says Aristotle, is a dichotomy.: the aims of education can be to an extent to cultivate the useful; to inculcate higher knowledge, leading on to “virtue”. The choice of subjects, and with it, the aims of education are  perplexing. Also practice varies from teacher to teacher, depending on their perception of aims. That is why Aristotle endeavours to clarify, laying down some principles. He agrees that useful subjects have to be taught; these are “illiberal”   subjects. Others may be described as liberal.

In his discussion of the curriculum, Plato largely agrees with Aristotle that reading and writing are paramount, that physical training is important, and that the study of music is desirable. There appears to be little or no discussion of the value of mathematics- strangely enough. It was clearly not one of the preoccupations of Greek life at this time, until perhaps Euclid came along (some fifty or more years later) to give mathematics especially geometry, a prominence it has never lost. It must  be said that Plato`s concepts are if anything more etherial than Aristotle`s who clearly based much of his thinking on the work of Plato. For the latter, the ultimate end of education is knowledge of the form of the Good (which we have mentioned earlier). It is the “turning aright of the soul” .

The “Form of the Good” in Plato`s thought is the perception of the very essence of the innermost nature of anything, (qualities) particularly a situation, a complex of ideas or principles, a dilemma, a course of action or of thought. It is the highest state of which  person is capable of reaching. The essential qualities are timeless and universal.

Aristotle continues his discussion of what he calls the “liberal” and the “illiberal” arts, occupations or sciences , tending to denigrate the latter as courses that lead people away from the “exercise of virtue”. .Among the category of illiberal pursuits are , it seems, any form of manual labour , especially paid work, which intrinsically means that the worker is engrossed in the money he can earn rather than concentrating on liberal matters , and thus improving his mind.  For Aristotle such employment is  to use one of his favourite terms, “vulgar”, which in modern parlance means belonging to, or characteristic of  common or ordinary people, akin to the later Latin meaning of the “populace”. Present day interpretations would not deprecate the valuable work of manual workers.. However, Aristotle does say that the study or pursuit of liberal (mind-broadening) subjects to the exclusion of all else is equally deleterious, especially  if a state of (non-attainable)  perfection  is sought. By all means seek excellence (which is attainable) but for oneself , not in the service of an other. Then it becomes something servile. (and therefore illiberal and vulgar).

Aristotle does not say much about the position and education of females in his treatise. This contrasts with Plato who believes that women are equal , or should be, in his ideal world. So much so that property, for example, should not be the preserve of males but should be held in common, and by the entire populace. Women  are not to be held  as the vassals of men but on the contrary are to be free to express themselves. This ideal State can only be  achieved if and when the rulers become philosophers or philosophers are kings. Here Plato enters into  some discussion of  the value of  philosophy  and like Aristotle stresses that the knowledge derived from the senses alone is not enough.

In Part 3 of his essay on Politics, Aristotle further considers the curriculum, devoting much of the section to the value of music, or musical education. Appreciation of music is vital to the enjoyment of leisure, a concept of great importance to the writer. Amusement is not to be confused with enjoyment, but is valuable as it imparts relaxation, often needed amid “serious occupations”. Leisure is needed to fully experience “pleasure and happiness”  thus  to be continually occupied with work means there is no time for leisure and its benefits. Pleasure must spring from the noblest sources; happiness is   a goal for man. Only the “virtuous” (in Aristotle`s sense)  can achieve this.  His goal is “leisure spent in intellectual activity”; and therefore education for business is indeed necessary, but is of secondary importance. He quotes the example of music once again as being not necessary but imparts intellectual enjoyment in leisure. Children need to be instructed in the useful (reading and writing, for example) but too much emphasis on this is deleterious.

Aristotle is at one with Plato in  stressing the importance of correctly choosing subjects of study and agrees that physical training should be practised before the cultivation of rigorous mental discipline. Here we must remember that defence of the realm was all important, i.e. fighting ability. When the phase  in life is reached where education begins in earnest, it is vital that the curriculum is integrated, that there is no separation of theory and practice. By this Plato seems to mean that learning the theory of something is by itself of little value unless the student knows how to make it work. Here he also lays emphasis on the importance of the scientific mind, and its training, which more  than the pursuit of the liberal arts is conducive to knowledge of the truth (or Truth)  – as we discussed earlier. Seeking for truth is paramount. Indeed, in Plato`s view science is more useful than the arts for understanding.   The understanding processes must be rigorous. This is ascertained by a system of question and answer, that is, interaction between pupil and teacher.

Aristotle has much to say on the responsibilities of parents, a subject not without significance today. The first duty of parents is to train/educate their offspring in the pursuit of nobleness, giving physical matters or development a secondary role. By “noble” we are to understand Aristotle means  aspiration to the highest intellectual level of which the child is inherently capable.

Aristotle in Part 5, devotes much space to music and its place (or rather benefits) in a system of education. The effects of music are educative, imparting  intellectual  enjoyment and affording amusement – in the sense of pleasurable activity, and an important feature of relaxation. Music is a pleasure and can help to promote happiness, and can therefore influence the character and the soul (or spirit?). By this reasoning, we must conclude that there is nothing which we should be so much concerned about as the power of “forming right judgements….and (performing ) noble actions”. By listening to “Good” (or elevated) music  “our souls undergo a change.” [A high claim indeed!)

Drawing, (the study of delineation) and sculpture  are almost equally valuable, an appreciation of which can inculcate moral ideas. Here we need to remind ourselves of  the  nature of Greek sculpture of the time which was classical, lifelike and ennobling. The conclusion is that music has the power of forming the character and should be a vital part of early life education.

Of course, underlying all this thinking, is what is best ultimately for the State.The best education produces the best individual whose purpose is to defend the State. Education is to be valued basically by the practical benefits it offers to the State. Accordingly, the “educated” person must give something back to the (State) system which has nurtured him/her by providing social service of some nature. All action by or with the State, or individual, is aimed at producing the ideal State. This is education`s apotheosis., which is directed by the “Guardians” (according to Plato) whose duty it is to safeguard both the State and its youth. This reasoning leads on to Plato`s famous dictum: Kings must be philosophers or philosophers must be Kings. The success (or value) of a nation lies in  the just reign of its philosopher-kings.

We cannot leave Aristotle`s views on education without looking at what he has to say in his ETHICS, especially his final Book – 10. The ultimate aim of Man is to become good, recognising the value of things and acting accordingly. In order to become good, says Aristotle, we must have a suitable nature rightly directed by habit and education. In other words, the mind “of the pupil has to be prepared for the inculcation of good habits, if it is to like and dislike the things it ought”. To this end, education in goodness is best undertaken by the State. It is far from easy, he continues, to obtain a right training  in goodness from youth upwards , unless one has been brought up under right laws, emanating from wisdom and intelligence, which do have the power of compulsion. The best system is a sound framework of public supervision but private instruction may take the place of public education , if a parent qualifies himself to perform the task of the legislator.  However, “if anyone wants to be fully qualified in the art and science of a subject like education he must proceed to the study of general or universal principles and familiarise himself with these….”

© A.B. Finlay Ph.D