The State, the Soul, Virtue and Potential: Aristotle on Education

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The State, the Soul, Virtue and Potential: Aristotle on Education



To address Aristotle's views on, and understanding of, education requires an investigation of politics, ethics, metaphysics and psychology: politics because Aristotle saw education as a responsibility of the state—a responsibility which, when fulfilled, ensures a healthy community; ethics because his theory of value, and virtue in particular, tells us how to create a moral community; metaphysics in order to understand the place of potential; and psychology because Aristotle's division of the soul (psyche) into rational and irrational explains how the intellectual and moral virtues are actualised through different processes. This chapter touches on each of these areas and concludes with a suggestion for an appropriate pedagogy.


Aristotle (384–322 bce) was a scientist whose observational methods and logical analysis are worthy of study in their own right, but he was much more than a scientist. He was a student of Plato, a tutor to Alexander the Great and founder of the Lyceum. He wrote on ethics, politics, physics, metaphysics, biology, psychology, rhetoric, logic, poetics and more. His thinking influenced Islamic scholars, especially ibn Sina and ibn Rushd (anglicised as Avicenna and Averroës respectively), in the early Middle Ages, then the work of St Thomas Aquinas, and from there through the Renaissance it was incorporated into Christian thinking. In much of the philosophy of the Middle Ages, he was referred to simply as “the Master”. His influence continues strongly to the present day.

This chapter focuses on his thinking on education, which was dominated by the view that education is a core responsibility of the state. In a brief account such as this one, it is not possible to do justice to the depth and breadth of Aristotle's contribution to education—past, present and future—but it is possible to highlight some of the main areas of this thought that influenced his position on education and, in so doing, indicate to modern educators fruitful places for further inquiry.

Aristotle viewed education as being properly part of politics, with the state having a duty to provide public education. He recognised a necessary and reciprocal relationship between the state and the individual in which education is in the service of the state's needs but where the state also has a duty to ensure that individuals flourish, that is, achieve technical and moral goodness and happiness. However, while much of his commentary on education is within the Politics (especially Book VIII), the Politics itself might properly be viewed as part of a continuum with the Nicomachean Ethics, and we should see education in moral and political as well as technical terms. In any discussion of Aristotle and education, there must be a focus on the role of the state because Aristotle saw education not as a science or discipline in its own right, but as an enterprise that serves ends determined by the state and its polity. The arguments he put forward in defence of the necessity of state involvement are still pertinent today and worthy of a more considered examination than is possible here.

In addition to the centrality of politics, there are two other elements of Aristotle's work that we should understand in order to grasp fully his views on education and the influence those views have had over the past two millennia. The most obvious element of his huge body of work relevant to education is his theory of value, encompassing as it does the moral and intellectual virtues which feed directly into both the desired ends and the content of education. But at least as important is his theory of desire or appetition (Greek, orexis), which attempts to explain the impetus in people to develop goodness and engage in the activity (energeia) of happiness (eudaimonia). It is also worthwhile considering the concept of potential, which finds expression in his Physics and Metaphysics.


Aristotle's theory of value focuses on the virtues (arete), which are excellences or dispositions that are part of one's character.

Virtue in a man will be the disposition which renders him a good man and also which will cause him to perform his function well (Nicomachean Ethics [hereafter NE], trans. 1933). 1

Goodness in Aristotle's time was mostly understood to be along the lines of technical competence (a good builder, a good draughtsman, etc.), although moral goodness was considered to be a necessary element of being a complete adult and the creation of moral citizens was the most important purpose, or end (telos), of education. A good person demonstrated both intellectual and moral virtues.

Although Aristotle distinguished between intellectual and moral virtues, this is not a simple split, and it is necessary to explore the reasons for the distinction in order to understand properly the role of these virtues in education, because for Aristotle education has a double aim:

[I]t aims at producing such a character as will issue in acts tending to promote the happiness of the state; [and] in the second place it aims at preparing the soul for that right enjoyment of leisure which becomes possible when practical needs have been satisfied (Burnet, 1967, p. 1).

The end (telos) of education is to produce good citizens, where “good” here is partly determined in light of the constitution of the state: for example, the education required to produce a good citizen of a democracy will be different from the education required for a good citizen of an oligarchy or tyranny. Aristotle's notion of leisure also needs some explaining because it does not simply involve pursuing the satisfaction of personal desires. The right enjoyment of leisure is a higher pursuit that would see people thinking carefully and deeply about all manner of things as well as engaging with the arts and music.

The question of what constitutes goodness is, of course, complex. But in the case of Aristotle, we can narrow it down to human goodness and more narrowly still to a goodness of the soul (psyche). The soul has a rational and an irrational component (which may not be completely separable but may be necessary parts of a whole, like the two sides of a coin) and, like Plato's, “Aristotle's doctrine of the divided soul recognises that both rational and non-rational desires influence action” (Irwin, 1992, p. 454). The rational part of the soul urges morally capable beings in the right direction, but there is something in people “that is naturally opposed to the rational part and fights and contends with it” (NE I.iv, trans. Burnet, 1967). An element of this opposing, irrational part is, however, “capable of being persuaded by reason” (ibid.) and is important for the cultivation of the moral virtues. This sounds counter-intuitive—an irrational soul amenable to reason—but Aristotle explains that the rational soul and the irrational soul are each divided into two parts and that one part of the irrational soul is, in a way, open to reason. The rational soul comprises a scientific part that deals with logic, facts and truth, as well as a part that calculates or chooses. The irrational soul comprises the vegetative part that all living things have and which is required for growth and nutrition, as well as the part that deals with wants and desires—what he calls appetition (orexis). This second, or appetitive, part is itself divided into three parts: boulesis, thumos and epithumia. Boulesis is etymologically related, via the Latin voluntas, to the English word “voluntary”, but we might best see it as “simply the desire that is not formed under the stimulus of some immediate pain, need or provocation of the sort that produces the desires of epithumia and thumos” (Irwin, 1992, p. 457), where epithumia (appetite or urge) is a non-rational desire for an object believed to be pleasant and thumos is spirit or temper (NE, trans. 2000, glossary). Desire, the impetus for which may be irrational, can be influenced—or controlled—by reason.

Burnet (1967) explains the importance of desire or appetition to education as follows:

Aristotle's distinction of appetition [orexis] from intellect, upon which is based his distinction between the two kinds of goodness, is at the root of his whole educational theory…. As long as we regard goodness and badness as due simply to the preponderance of the rational or the irrational part, our system of education will be doctrinaire and ineffective (p. 41, note 2).

The difference between the two kinds of goodness is that the intellectual virtues are the forms of goodness proper to intellect, whether in its theoretical or its practical application, while moral virtue is the goodness of the soul in its appetitive aspect (Burnet, 1967).

The intellectual virtues are cultivated through instruction because they are amenable to reason, and the moral virtues through habit or practice because the appetitive desires can be “channelled, controlled or made submissive” (Vardy & Grosch, 1994, p. 41). The development of these virtues will be explored further in the section on potential below.

Intellectual virtues

Of the nine intellectual virtues, five are considered primary: know-how (techne), know-what (episteme), practical wisdom (phronesis), intelligence (nous) and wisdom (sophia). The four secondary intellectual virtues are knowing where and how to find things out, such as where to get the freshest vegetables (euboulia); understanding the interrelatedness of issues (sunesis); right and just judgment (gnome); and cleverness (deinotes). These could be taught because they are amenable to rationalising.

Moral virtues

Aristotle named twelve moral virtues, which could only be cultivated through the habit of controlling and directing one's emotions or desires. There is now general agreement that there are many more moral virtues than those named by Aristotle. His twelve are courage, temperance, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, proper ambition, patience, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty and righteous indignation. Whatever we consider to be a moral virtue, each is demonstrated in a person, who acquired the virtues by “first exercising them” (NE II, trans. 1908). What we do determines our moral character.

[S]ome men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or the other in the appropriate circumstances. Thus, in one word, states of character arise out of like activities (ibid.).

A virtue is generally regarded as a mean or middle point between the vice of too much and the vice of too little. But it is important to note that this is a “relative” mean, that is, it is not a mere average or halfway point but pertains to an individual. A meek person who stands in front of a large audience to give a speech demonstrates, for the person, the virtue of courage, whereas an accomplished orator doing the same is probably not demonstrating courage.


For Aristotle, we all have the potential to develop the intellectual and moral virtues, but not all people develop them to the same degree. Aristotle's work on potential sits primarily within his Physics and Metaphysics, but the idea of potential has a much wider applicability today. What we know as potential in English derives from the Latin word potentia, but Aristotle used the word dunamis, from which we get the modern word “dynamic”. Dunamis is an inner power or motive force. It may be potential, or passive power (similar to the way it is understood in physics), or it may be an active power—the power of agency and intentional activity.

How is this related to education? As educators, when we are teaching practical or technical skills, we work with individual students and try to help them make the most of what nature has given them. Our instruction enables them to learn. But the moral virtues are different because “none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature” (NE II.i, trans. 1908). This implies that a different approach is needed for cultivating the intellectual virtues from that required to cultivate the moral virtues.

Understanding this is complicated because, as just noted, in Aristotle's account of potential there are both an active and a passive dunamis (Millett, 1997; Gill, 1989). One way of understanding this in reference to education may be to see that, in activities such as doing arithmetic or science experiments, the activity can be completed: it is an end in itself and is completed as a rational process by the rational side of the soul. On the other hand, it may be that only an external force such as repetition or practice can activate a passive potential for moral virtue. We have the potential (dunamis), but this potential is only actualised by acting, by doing. We learn to be morally virtuous by exercising the virtues, by practising the virtues until they are a habit. When they are a habit, we have made ourselves into a virtuous character—a person likely to make wise decisions.

Again, of all the things that come to us by nature, we first acquire the potentiality (dunameis) and later exhibit the activity (energeia), “but the virtues we get by first exercising them … we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts” (NE II.i.4, trans. 1908).

From Gill's (1989) analysis of passive and active potential, we can infer that those things that come to us by nature can be first seen as an active potential, whereas habituation activates the passive potential that we have to be morally virtuous.


Virtue is the life principle of the state. The intellectual virtues can be taught and the moral virtues are acquired through practice or habit, but for Aristotle both are properly applied in the service of the state or community, because humans are essentially social and political beings and the full actualisation of human goodness is only possible within a state or community. It is the role of the state to foster an educated citizenry and to do so in the service of ideals developed by the polity underpinning governance of the state: for example, education in a democracy will be different from education in another political system. But it is also the role of the state to educate its citizens so that they in turn can help create and maintain a better state. Ultimately, it is the role of the state to make the best life possible for its citizens: educating them, in Aristotle's view, is a way to ensure that this happens. If a state neglects education, then it hurts itself in the long run. In this way, “the education of the young has a special claim on the lawgiver's attention” (Politics VIII.1, trans. Burnet, 1967), because if the education system is inadequate the citizens can lose the ability to fashion a constitution and run the state.

But what sort of system is best? For Aristotle, education has also to be public and not private (family-run) “because citizens are each part of the state and do not belong to themselves alone” (Pol. VIII.2) and because it is only within the state that humans can be completely good. And what should be taught? In the Politics, Aristotle notes that

there is no agreement as to what the young should learn, either with a view to the production of goodness or the best life, nor is it settled whether we ought to keep the intellect or the character chiefly in view (Pol. VIII.3).

However, he did see it as obvious that we should teach children “such useful knowledge as is indispensable for them” (ibid.) while noting that not all useful knowledge is suitable for education. (If one wanted to be a thief, it would be useful to know how to break into houses, but this is not something we would want to teach children.) Whatever we teach, it is the intention or the object that is the most important. That is, if we are engaging in learning something with the aim of producing goodness, then it is justified. Some subjects, such as reading and writing, are taught not merely for their utility but “because they enable us to acquire many other subjects” (ibid.). Merely seeking utility alone is not desirable because to do so is contrary to the dignity of free men. In none of the existing works of Aristotle did he outline clearly what should be taught, that is, what should be in the curriculum. However, it is possible to be fairly certain that his desired curriculum would include physics (the study of the natural world) and first philosophy (what we call metaphysics), including religion, as “we know from the Ethics that Happiness at its highest is to be found in that form of activity which displays itself in the contemplation of the divinest things in the universe” (Burnet, 1967, p. 136). We can also be sure that character training is important and this must be in the practical interests of the community. However, “the highest function of education” is to go beyond the practical life to make us, in Plato's words, “spectators of all reality” (ibid.).

Education always serves another end (telos); it is not a science in its own right. Among the ends it serves is actualising potential and helping people to be happy—but note here that “happiness” is an activity of the soul, not an end state of being, and that what is translated as “happiness” in Aristotle's work is the word eudaimonia, a better translation of which is “wellness of spirit”. The activity of the soul to which education contributes is a continuing and changing wellness of spirit, not merely the happiness we might get from a new toy or a compliment from the boss. The reciprocal relationship between the individual and the state ensures that while this wellness of spirit in citizens serves the end of a healthy state, a healthy state ensures the wellness of spirit of its citizens.

A Hint on Pedagogy

How might we teach in such a way as to contribute to this wellness of spirit? If we take as a given Aristotle's contention that we may actualise our full potential only within a community and not as a sole agent, then it would seem obvious that we should establish in our classes some form of community, and some form of collaborative inquiry. The form that in the past few decades has demonstrated most strongly the capacity to empower and to assist in the creation of ethical, thinking, creative and caring students (students with a wellness of spirit) is the philosophical community of inquiry. This method of teaching, first articulated by Matthew Lipman, is founded on the democratic education principles of John Dewey, coupled with the developmental psychology of Lev Vygotsky. For Aristotle, teaching and learning are about disciplined inquiry into some aspect of reality. A well-run community of inquiry does this and in the process helps children to know how to be reasonable and how to behave as respectful citizens. The challenge to an education system is to actualise the intellectual and moral potential of students, as this is what will make life better for all.


1 A number of translations of Aristotle's works have been consulted because much turns on the translation of terms and there is considerable variation in the way some passages are interpreted. The Greek words of certain terms are included in parentheses so that readers may cross-check terms against the original and between translations. The Rackham translation (1933) listed in the references has the complete Greek text side by side with the English translation.


Aristotle (1908). Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by W. D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Aristotle (1933). Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Aristotle (2000). Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. Translated by T. Irwin. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Burnet, J. (1967). Aristotle on Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (with translations of Aristotle's works).

Gill, M. L. (1989). Aristotle on Substance: The Paradox of Unity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Irwin, T. H. (1992). Who discovered the will? Philosophical Perspectives, 6, Ethics, 453–473.

Millett, S. (1997). Autopoiesis and immanent teleology: Toward an Aristotelian environmental ethic. Dissertation, Murdoch University, Perth.

Vardy, P., & Grosch, P. (1994). The Puzzle of Ethics. New York: M. E. Sharpe.

Further Reading

Burgh, G., Field, T., & Freakley, M. (2006). Ethics and the Community of Inquiry: Education for Deliberative Democracy. Melbourne: Thomson.

Frankena, W. (1965). Three Historical Philosophies of Education: Aristotle, Kant, Dewey. Chicago: Scott, Foresman.

Macintyre, A. (2007). After Virtue. 3rd ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (See articles on elements of Aristotle's thinking.)

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The State, the Soul, Virtue and Potential: Aristotle on Education

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