Aristotle: on Education

Since university days, Aristotle’s description of virtue as the middle path between two extremes struck me as a wonderfully simple yet nuanced approach to ethics. I jumped at the chance to buy this old green book at Emmarentia Dam in Joburg a few years ago. ZAR20 for insights which have lasted thousands of years 🙂


This compilation, on Education, wasn’t a thrilling read and there were impractical sections, but I gleaned a number of profound insights from the philosophical giant. I love the way that education is interpreted as the cultivation of inner resources, rather than an external process; and a cultivation of interest rather than compulsion. At its best, education is informal, unstructured and closely related to living experience. Seneca complained in the 1st century of the Christian era that “we are learning for school, not life” highlighting the eternal balancing act between abstracted theory and experiential knowledge.

Aristotle sees 3 levels of organic life: 1) a basic life/soul, which all plants, animals and humans are endowed with, 2) a sensitive soul like perception and the ability to feel pain and pleasure, which animals and humans are endowed with and 3) a rational soul, which only humans are endowed with. All objects reach their true potential when they achieve their purpose. Given that humans are set apart from plants and animals by their reason, we can conclude that humans reach their true potential when they learn to reason well. And since man always reasons with other humans, man is also a political being by nature.

Goodness in character comes from 3 main sources: 1) natural endowment, 2) habit formation and 3) teaching. We cannot control natural endowment and teaching doesn’t work with all individuals so education should focus on rules and principles in our formative years so that we develop sound habits. While I dislike the idea of rules-based education, this is a sound point. Young children appear to respond to structure, rules and principles and are only able to truly grapple with the nuance of intentions later in life. Failure to instill rules and principles at an early age can lead to an uphill battle later in life. Unfortunately, some adults never move beyond rules and principles, failing to grapple with the ethics of intentions, which prevents them from realising their potential. Rules and principles alone can never explain the complexity of human life.

On happiness, leisure and worthwhile ends: In every action we are aiming at some absolute good, which Aristotle defines as happiness. But not idle amusement or mere fun. Happiness is activity intelligently directed towards clearly defined and worthy ends. Fun is important but as a relaxation after exertion, not an end in itself. I love importance Aristotle places on purposeful leisure, which implicitly critiques modern society where people love to “veg” & “binge”. In a healthy society the correct use of leisure is key to any worthwhile achievement. In ancient Greece, it was such a privilege to get an education that only a rare few who had the capacity for leisure time were able to study, which highlights the relative abundance of leisure hours today. But the point still stands, a productive use of leisure hours leads to worthwhile achievement.

On memory: A) thinking always starts from particulars. For example, the particular shape of a specific triangle. B) the impression made in consciousness is of an impression made on the mind in the past. C) we associate the past impression with the current presentation. This implies that memory is neither sense perception nor conceptual thinking but a state or condition of one of these from the past. When we remember, we conjure up images in our minds rather than intellectually synthesise, which is why animals who are not capable of intellect are able to remember – they are able to conjure up images.

To understand what a thing really is, we must understand: 1) its purpose, 2) its form, 3) the material of which it is made and 4) the immediate stimulus which triggers the developmental process. An educator must bear all of these in mind when cultivating the interest of a student; the individual’s purpose, their form, their physical/mental/intellectual endowment and the environment factors which motivate the learner.

It might be common knowledge, but I recently learnt that the Renaissance was a re-discovery of the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition. Incredible to think that this was lost to the world, re-discovered and has been a firm thread in western culture ever since. Best to make sure these concepts aren’t lost again.



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