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Aristotle B.C.) (384–322) - Education for a Common End

subject conduct politics doing

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and scientist, was born in Stagira, a town in Chalcidice. At the age of seventeen he became a member of the Greek philosopher Plato's school, where he stayed for twenty years. After Plato's death in 348 B.C.E. Aristotle taught philosophy, first at Atarneus in Asia Minor, then in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Then he became tutor of Alexander the Great at the court of Macedonia. In 335 or 334 B.C.E. he returned to Athens and founded a school called the Lyceum.

Aristotle's first writings were dialogues modeled on Plato's examples; a few have survived in fragmentary form. The main body of writings that have come down to us consists of treatises on a wide range of subjects; these were probably presented as lectures, and some may be notes on lectures taken by students. These treatises lay unused in Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the sixth century C.E., until they were recovered in the Middle Ages and studied by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian thinkers. The large scope of the treatises, together with the extraordinary intellect of their author, gained for Aristotle the title, "the master of those who know."

The treatises are investigative reports, describing a method of inquiry and the results reached. Each treatise includes: (1) a statement of the aim of the subject matter; (2) a consideration of other thinkers' ideas; (3) an examination of proposed principles with the aim of determining the one that has the best prospect of explaining the subject matter; (4) a search for the facts that illustrate the proposed principle; and (5) an explanation of the subject matter by showing how the proposed principle explains the observed facts. The treatises were essential to the work of the Lyceum, which was a school, a research institution, a library, and a museum. Aristotle and his students compiled a List of Pythian Winners; researched the records of dramatic performances at Athens; collected 158 constitutions, of which only The Constitution of Athens has survived; prepared a literary and philological study called Homeric Problems; and put together a collection of maps and a museum of objects to serve as illustrations for lectures.

Aristotle's writings on logic worked out an art of discourse, a tool for finding out the structure of the world. The other subject matters of Aristotle's treatises are of three kinds: (1) the theoretical sciences–metaphysics, mathematics, and physics–aim to know for the sake of knowing; (2) the productive sciences–such as poetics and rhetoric–aim to know for the sake of making useful or beautiful things; and (3) the practical sciences–ethics and politics–aim to know for the sake of doing, or for conduct. Aristotle said that the theoretical sciences are capable of being understood by principles which are certain and cannot be other than they are; as objects of study their subject matters are necessary and eternal. The productive sciences and the practical sciences are capable of being understood by principles that are less than certain; as objects of study their subject matters are contingent.

Thus Aristotle's idea was that distinct sciences exist, the nature of each to be determined by principles found in the midst of the subject matter that is peculiarly its own. A plurality of subject matters exists, and there is a corresponding plurality of principles explaining sets of facts belonging to each subject matter. What is learned in any subject matter may be useful in studying others; yet there is no hierarchy of subject matters in which the principles of the highest in the order of Being explain the principles of all the others.

Education for a Common End

Unlike Plato's Republic and Laws, Aristotle's treatises do not contain lengthy discussions of education. His most explicit discussion of education, in Books 7 and 8 of the Politics, ends without being completed. Yet, like Plato, Aristotle's educational thinking was inseparable from his account of pursuing the highest good for human beings in the life of a community. The science of politics takes into account the conduct of the individual as inseparable from the conduct of the community. Thus Aristotle holds that ethics is a part of politics; and equally, politics is a part of ethics. This leads him to argue that the end of individuals and states is the same. Inasmuch as human beings cannot realize their potentiality apart from the social life that is necessary for shaping their mind and character, an investigation into the nature of society is a necessary companion to an investigation into the nature of ethics. The good life is inescapably a social life–a life of conduct in a community. For Aristotle, "the Good of man must be the end of the science of Politics" (1975,1.2.1094b 7–8). In community life, the activity of doing cannot bring into existence something apart from doing; it can only "end" in further doing. And education, as one of the activities of doing, does not "produce" anything apart from education, but must be a continuing process that has no end except further education.

In Aristotle's explicit remarks about the aims of education, it is clear that, like all activities in pursuit of the good life, education is "practical" in that it is a way of conduct, of taking action. At the same time, in pursuing the good life, the aim is to know the nature of the best state and the highest virtues of which human beings are capable. Such knowledge enables us to have a sense of what is possible in education. Educational activity is also a "craft" in the sense that determining the means appropriate for pursuing that which we think is possible is a kind of making as well as a kind of doing. It is commonplace to say that, in doing, we try to "make things happen." Education is an attempt to find the kind of unity of doing and making that enables individuals to grow, ethically and socially.

The Politics ends by citing three aims of education: the possible, the appropriate, and the "happy mean." The idea of a happy mean is developed in the Nicomachean Ethics. There human conduct is held to consist of two kinds of virtues, moral and intellectual; moral virtues are learned by habit, while intellectual virtues are learned through teaching. As examples, while humans are not temperate or courageous by nature, they have the potentiality to become temperate and courageous. By taking on appropriate habits, their potentialities can be actualized; by conducting themselves appropriately they can learn to actualize their moral virtues. Thus children learn the moral virtues before they know what they are doing or why they are doing it. Just because young children cannot control their conduct by intellectual principles, Aristotle emphasizes habit in training them. First, children must learn the moral virtues; later, when their intellectual powers have matured, they may learn to conduct themselves according to reason by exercising the intellectual virtues.

Arguing that the state is a plurality that should be made into a community by education, Aristotle insisted that states should be responsible for educating their citizens. In the Politics, Book 8, he makes four arguments for public education: (1) from constitutional requirements; (2) from the origins of virtue; (3) from a common end to be sought by all citizens; and (4) from the inseparability of the individual and the community. In most states in the Greek world before Aristotle's time, private education had prevailed.

Finally, Aristotle's enduring legacy in education may be characterized as threefold. First is his conception of distinct subject matters, the particular nature and conclusions reached in each to be determined as the facts of its subject matter take their places in the thinking and conduct of the investigator. Second is his insistence on the conjoint activities of ethics and politics, aiming to gain the practical wisdom that can be realized only insofar as citizens strive for the highest good in the context of a community of shared ends. This means that the end of ethics and politics is an educational end. And, third, the education that states need is public education.

Although thinkers may know in a preliminary way what the highest good is–that which is required by reason–they will not actually find out what it is until they learn to live in cooperation with the highest principles of reason. The highest good is never completely known because the pursuit of it leads to further action, which has no end but more and more action. The contingent nature of social existence makes it necessary to find out what is good for us in what we do; we cannot truly learn what it is apart from conduct. While reason is a part of conduct, alone it is not sufficient for realizing the highest good. Only by our conduct can we find out what our possibilities are; and only by further conduct can we strive to make those possibilities actual.


ARISTOTLE. 1944. Politics, trans. Harris Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

ARISTOTLE. 1975. Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Harris Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

ARISTOTLE. 1984. Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, 2 vols., ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

CURREN, RANDALL R. 2000. Aristotle on the Necessity of Public Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

EDEL, ABRAHAM. 1982. Aristotle and His Philosophy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

RANDALL, JOHN HERMAN, JR. 1960. Aristotle. New York: Columbia University Press.

ROSS, WILLIAM D. 1959. Aristotle: A Complete Exposition of His Works and Thought. Cleveland, OH: World Publishing.


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almost 2 years ago

I found this article very interesting. It showed me how much Aristotle had forward thinking and vision for public education and how important it is to be available to everyone.