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WrenLibraryInteriorThe 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.[10] Education provides this exposure and experience that, in turn, permit the conception of the proper aim and goal of the good life.[11]

What sort of education does Aristotle propose for the city? With a view to cultivating a citizenry open to political rule “rather than those fit only to rule and be ruled despotically,” Aristotle’s proposed education has the general goal of fostering the habits of freedom.[12] This education should be uniform and public: “inasmuch as the end for the whole state is one, it is manifest that education must necessarily be one and the same for all and that the superintendence of this must be public.”[13] It is improper to regard any individual citizen as purely of or belonging to himself. Indeed, the term “individual citizen” might seem oxymoronic, for, strictly speaking, each citizen is part of the city and belongs to the city. The individual’s education is for the sake of the city. Public education is needed to teach citizens to subordinate private goods to the public good.[14] And, as Aristotle states, “matters of public interest ought to be under public supervision.”[15] Thus it is clear Aristotle maintains that civic policy is to override individuals’ decisions regarding education. [16]

Aristotle praises Sparta as a good example of centralized public education. Nevertheless, the Spartan example serves as a warning against improperly focused education: the Spartan constitution and system of education were established “with a view to conquest and war.” Oriented thus to the vulgar, Sparta lost its empire as it lost the noble life.[17] As such, Aristotle highlights the necessity of an education designed for free and noble ends.

On Aristotle’s view, education is for the sake of developing virtues, both moral and intellectual. As the means to virtue are nature, habit, and reason, correspondingly the modes of education are habituation and reasoned speech.[18] Habit rules over nature, and reason rules over both habit and nature—“men often act contrary to their acquired habits and to their nature because of their reason.”[19] Generally speaking, habituation is the mode of education for the moral virtues and reasoned speech or logos the mode for the intellectual virtues, though the two are bound up together. Indeed, the development of moral virtue contributes to that of intellectual virtue; moreover, it is not proper to view habituation as a process divorced from rationality.

intellectualsAristotle is ever focused on education as training for freedom. Regarding physical education: “The bodily habit therefore should have been trained by exercise, but not by exercises that are violent, and not for one form of labor only, as is the athlete’s habit of body, but for the pursuits of freemen.”[20] Children ought to be directed in their play—“exercise should be obtained by means of various pursuits, particularly play. But even the games must not be unfit for freemen, nor laborious, nor undisciplined.”[21] Even the basic training of the body must be carefully done, with an eye to freedom, the reason being that the education of the body is for the sake of the soul.[22] With higher ends in mind, Aristotle does not take even physical education lightly.

The education of the emotions or appetites is also necessary for freedom. Insofar as emotions involve perceptions and beliefs, they are “potentially rational and educable.”[23] The education of the emotions is a process of habituation, the end of which is the possession of moral virtue. The process is not mindless, as the possession of virtue itself is not mindless. For example, if one is to become good-tempered, one is not to be habituated simply to avoid anger; rather, through the cultivation of practical wisdom or phronesis one becomes skilled at assessing situations and determining what emotional responses they call for, among which anger is included inasmuch as in some cases it is appropriate.[24]

By the process of habituation one acquires moral virtue, and one becomes liberated from natural inclinations and passions. Habituation is effective because people enjoy not only what is natural or what is rational but also what they become accustomed to: “people do with pleasure many things that are not naturally pleasant, once they have become accustomed to them.”[25] The possession of moral virtue is essential, not simply inasmuch as it frees one from one’s natural passions, but also in that it serves as the foundation for higher virtue; it frees one for higher achievements.[26] Moreover, while temperance and justice ought to be possessed by all, they are more likely to be possessed “more especially when men are at peace and have leisure” to undertake intellectual pursuits.[27]

Aristotle considers whether students should “practice pursuits that are practically useful, morally edifying, or higher accomplishments.”[28] While maintaining that citizens ought not to be kept inordinately busy with the vulgar pursuits of business and labor,[29] he does concede that certain useful skills and practices should be learned: “the young must be taught those useful arts that are indispensably necessary; but it is clear that they should not be taught all the useful arts, those pursuits that are liberal being kept distinct from those that are illiberal.”[30] Studies should exclude those activities which are deemed vulgar, namely “all such arts as deteriorate the condition of the body, and also the industries that earn wages; for they make the mind preoccupied and degraded.”[31] He asserts that there exist certain subjects that should be studied not because they are useful or necessary, but because they are liberal and noble; curiously, however, he fails to specify what these are.[32] Study should not be too intensive, even in the liberal subjects that are suited for freemen, but rather only “up to a point, [for] to devote oneself too assiduously and carefully is liable to have…injurious results.”[33] Even the liberal subjects can be studied illiberally. For all courses of study the key is what end one has in mind when one undertakes to study: to be truly liberal, the end must be one’s own sake, the sake of one’s friends, or moral virtue. “[T]he man who follows the same pursuit because of other people [that is, the politician or leader] would often appear to be acting in a menial and servile manner”—wholly unsuitable for a freeman.[34] All in all, citizens’ education should prepare them to “do what is necessary and useful, but still more…what is noble.”[35]

Aristotle discusses four subjects that he maintains ought to be learned: reading and writing, gymnastics, drawing, and music. His treatment of these four illustrates some of the nuances in his thought regarding the useful and the necessary subjects, and why or whether they should be studied. Reading and writing are useful but also necessary, and “ought to be studied by the young not only because of their utility…but also because they may lead on to many other branches of knowledge.”[36] Though useful and arguably servile with respect to greater pursuits, reading and writing do not render those who study them similarly servile. On the contrary, these subjects equip us for greater pursuits. Gymnastics should be studied for its contribution to manly courage.[37] The training of the body, provided it is not done to excess, promotes the development of moral virtue—another example of the lower’s being for the sake of the higher. A student ought to learn drawing for “this study makes a man observant of bodily beauty.”[38] It is not to be learned with a view to its usefulness, since “to see utility everywhere is entirely unsuited to men that are great-souled and free.”[39] Rather, drawing is intended to initiate one into the theoretic life, as it promotes the consideration of beauty for its own sake.

fullness of social livingAristotle devotes a considerable amount of time to the discussion of music, a subject that he describes as neither useful nor necessary for business or economic life. Despite its uselessness in these arenas, it has some value insofar as it may “influence…the character and…the soul.”[40] He argues that music makes “our souls enthusiastic, and enthusiasm is an affection of the soul.” It produces pleasure, and insofar as virtue consists in “feeling delight and love and hatred rightly,” music provides an opportunity for one to practice virtue, as it were—to be appropriately pleased by the representations of virtuous characters and noble actions. As such, music can serve to habituate one “in feeling pain and delight at representations of reality,” which is not unlike responding to actual situations in real life.[41] He notes that flute-playing, which precludes the integration of speech into music, is less than ideal: it can in no way address the reasoning part of the soul and hence has no effect on the intellect, the implication being that when music includes words it addresses both reason and the unreasoning part of the soul.[42] Children ought to learn to play musical instruments for the same reason that infants are given rattles—in order to keep busy and out of trouble—but they should not devote too much time to performing music.[43] Performing as a professional musician renders oneself servile, and it is likely to vulgarize or to distort the body in ways that are inappropriate for freemen.[44] Notwithstanding the caveats and qualifications, Aristotle’s treatment of music reveals the great value to be found in the seemingly useless things.

Aristotle asserts that these useless subjects, which are to be learned “merely with a view to the pleasure in their pursuit,…are ends in themselves, while the forms of learning related to business are studied as necessary and as means to other things.”[45] The useless or liberal subjects are for their own sakes, not utility’s, and thus they are best and highest. They are the noble things to be pursued for no reason other than their pleasantness. Indeed, it is proper to understand that leisure or leisured activity is the end of all work and occupation. Leisure “seems itself to contain pleasure and happiness and felicity of life. And this is not possessed by the busy…for the busy man busies himself for the sake of some end as not being in his possession, but happiness is an end achieved.”[46] Leisure is not mere play or rest, as these are inseparable from occupation and simply serve the purpose of refreshing and restoring a person for further work. Play, rest, and work are really subservient to leisure.[47] Leisure can be considered the essential element of a meaningful life, and a combination of the best aspects of work and play.

Human life would be condemned to an eternal alternation between pain or labor and unmeaning diversion were it not for the fact that nature itself points to the possibility of a way of life or an activity that combines the seriousness of occupation with the pleasures of play.[48]

plato-aristotleGiven that leisure is not mere play or rest, it is necessary to determine the proper activities for leisure.[49] Aristotle seeks to address this issue in his discussion of the noble or liberal subjects; these studies are pleasant and for their own sakes and hence appropriate leisurely undertakings. Thus, even liberal education can be seen to be for the sake of something beyond itself, namely, the activity and enjoyment of leisure.[50] Because “reason and intelligence are for us the end of our natural development,”[51] the highest, best, most pleasant activities for man are to be found in the intellectual life, the life of reason. Reason itself comprises two types, namely practical reason and theoretic reason, and while the theoretic life is not attainable by everyone, it is, among the possibilities for man, the best life.[52] So, among the possible activities to occupy leisure, the best are those of the theoretic life. Thus education, being ultimately for the sake of leisured activity, extends beyond the practical life and has the theoretic life as its highest possible goal.

How is the life of the politician to be evaluated on the scale of leisureliness? The political life is properly understood as essentially practical and not leisurely. In fact, its goal is “to secure leisure and the good things that are enjoyed in leisure”; thus political life is work or occupation.[53] The life of the politician is not the life of the philosopher. Though the political ruler does indeed require leisure in order to act, the political actions to which his leisure is devoted do not constitute noble leisure.[54] “[I]t is the business of the good lawgiver to study how a state, a race of men or any other community is to partake of the good life and the happiness possible for them.”[55] The politician does not do politics for its own sake, but rather for the sake of the city. Even the so-called political philosopher, of which Aristotle himself in writing the Politics is an example, is concerned with the useful and the necessary, not the free and the noble. The political philosopher might consider particular things that are of interest to cities, such as systems of military defense, or he might enumerate and discuss the variety of political regimes, or he might serve to arbitrate among different views of justice.[56] As such, he provides a service to the city: his work is useful and for the city’s sake, not its own sake. In contrast, the philosopher who enters into the theoretic life by taking up the study of being as being, for example, does what is purely and simply for its own sake.[57]

Given this consideration of the distinction between the leisure of the politician and that of the philosopher, is it proper to say, then, that the theoretic life is of no value to the city? While it is true that most men are simply incapable of or not suited to the theoretic life, some or a few are, and for them it is of eminent value, while also being valuable in itself. But considering this issue from the perspective of the city, it is significant to note Aristotle’s discussion in book 2 of the Politics, regarding the reasons why men commit injustices and the remedies for those inclined to do wrong. He observes that among those who do commit injustices, some are driven “in order that they may enjoy the pleasures that are not associated with pains.” Such pleasures are those of leisured activity, as distinct from the pleasures of play and rest, which are intimately connected with the pains of toil and labor. For the men who seek these pleasures there is “no cure for their desires save that which is derived from philosophy.”[58] Hence, the theoretic life is the only suitable diversion for those men inclined to commit the worst transgressions. The theoretic life is a safe realm in which the tyrannically inclined “can find the freedom and activity they would otherwise seek through politics without incurring its risks: they have no potentially rebellious slaves nor a ruler’s need for bodyguards.”[59] Perhaps more important, the people of the city are spared despotic rule through the anti-tyrannic device or distraction of theoria. Moreover, Aristotle notes that there is a human tendency to regard despotic rule as true statesmanship and to abhor tyranny at home while admiring expansionist, despotic rule over others.[60] This regard for despotism is dangerous, as he states:
…it is not a proper ground for deeming a state happy and for praising its lawgiver, that is has practiced conquest with a view to ruling over its neighbors. This principle is most disastrous; it follows from it that an individual citizen who has the capacity ought to endeavor to attain the power to hold sway over his own city.[61]

In other words, the tyrannical attitude with respect to foreign affairs breeds tyrants on the domestic front. If there is nothing higher than politics to be found in the life of the city, tyranny will be a perennial problem. In order to have a city that is a “small community…fully dedicated to the pursuit of virtue and hence to the best way of life,” it is necessary that the extreme attitude of political partiality and dominance be transcended. The theoretic life makes room for and promotes this transcendence.[62]

This analysis might seem to taint the theoretic life with the very utility it is supposed to lack. The theoretic life, precisely because it is for its own sake, saves the city from despotism by siphoning off tyrannical urges that might be breeding in the community. As a manifestation of the truth that the practical, political life is not highest, philosophy makes itself useful. Without planning, orchestrating, or otherwise getting involved in the life of the city, the theoretic life sustains the city. As such, it could be said that philosophy is to the city as Aristotle’s unmoved mover is to the cosmos. The theoretic life is of ultimate value to the social life of the city: far from inhibiting the activity of humans qua political beings, it guards and guarantees the very possibility of such flourishing.


[1] Pol 7.12.1332a33-6.
[2] Pol 7.13.1333a21-2.
[3] Pol 7.13.1333a27-8
[4] Pol 7.13.1333a35-7.
[5] Pol 7.12.1332a39-40.
[6] Randall R. Curren, “Education and the Origins of Character in Aristotle,” Philosophy of Education 47 (1991): 204.[7] Pol 7.15.1337a1-3.

[8] Pol 7.12.1331b39-41, 1332a4-6.

[9] Pol 7.12.1331b27-30.

[10] Curren, “Education and the Origins of Character in Aristotle,” 205.

[11] Richard Sorabji, “Aristotle on the Role of Intellect in Virtue,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 74 (1974): 128.

[12] Mary P. Nichols, Citizens and Statesmen. A Study of Aristotle’s Politics (Savage, Md., 1992), 154.

[13] Pol 8.1.1337a23-6.

[14] Jan H. Blits, “Privacy and Public Moral Education: Aristotle’s Critique of the Family,” Educational Theory 35 (1985): 236.

[15] Pol 8.1.1337a27-9.

[16] Richard Kraut, Politics. Books VII and VIII (New York, 1997), 172.

[17] Pol 7.12.1333b5-26.

[18] Nature’s contribution is “just there.” It does not involve a process (aside from the applications of habituation and reasoned speech), and hence is not properly a part of education.

[19] Pol 7.12.1332a5-7.

[20] Pol 7.14.1335b8-12.

[21] Pol 7.15.1336a27-30.

[22] Pol 7.13.1334b25-9.

[23] C. D. C. Reeve, “Aristotelian Education,” in Philosophers on Education, ed. Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (New York, 1998), 55.

[24] Sorabji, “Aristotle on the Role of Intellect in Virtue,” 126.

[25] Aristotle, Rhetoric 1369b18-19, quoted in Blits, “Privacy and Public Moral Education: Aristotle’s Critique of the Family,” 228.

[26] Carnes Lord, Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle (Ithaca, N.Y., 1982), 39.

[27] Pol 7.13.1334a25-6.

[28] Pol 8.1.1337a39-42.

[29] Pol 7.8.1329a1-5.

[30] Pol 8.2.1337b4-8.

[31] Pol 8.2.1337b12-14.

[32] Pol 8.3.1338a31-4.

[33] Pol 8.2.1337b15-17.

[34] Pol 8.2.1337b18-21.

[35] Pol 7.8.1333b1-3.

[36] Pol 8.3.1338a39-41.

[37] Pol 8.2.1337b26.

[38] Pol 8.3.1338b2-4.

[39] Pol 8.3.1338a13-16.

[40] Pol 8.5.1340a6-7.

[41] Pol 8.5.1340a11-25.

[42] Pol 8.6.1341a25 7, 1341b8-10, and Kraut, Politics. Books VII and VIII, 184.

[43] Pol 8.5.1340b30-4.

[44] Pol 8.4.1339b7-10, 8.6.1341a4-9.

[45] Pol 8.2.1338a9-14.

[46] Pol 8.2.1338a1-4.

[47] Nichols, Citizens and Statesmen, 158.

[48] Lord, Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle, 55.

[49] Pol 8.2.1337b33-5.

[50] Lord, Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle, 58.

[51] Pol 7.8.1334b15-17.

[52] Pol 7.8.1333a23-31.

[53] Lord, Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle, 197.

[54] Lord, Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle, 56.

[55] Pol 7.2.1325a12-14.

[56] Nichols, Citizens and Statesmen, 166. Aristotle does all of these things in the Pol. See 1331a4-1; 1288b3, 23, 29, and 37; and 1282b23.

[57] Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics 1.1-2.

[58] Pol 2.4.1267a7-15.

[59] Nichols, Citizens and Statesmen, 136.

[60] Pol 7.2.1324b32-7.

[61] Pol 7.13.1333b30-4.

[62] Lord, Education and Culture in the Political Thought of Aristotle, 194-7.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay first appeared in the Modern Age and is republished here by gracious permission.

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1 reply to this post
  1. I would say that for today politics is rather squalid but wasn’t it always? The theoretic must be bent to the practical and that is where opportunism and cynicism arise. Athens had it’s share of rogues, Alcibiades comes to mind, and Themistocles turned his defensive force to piracy, raiding small off shore Greek islands.
    In short, Aristotle delineates the preferred or ideal city but not Man, variegated , unpredictable creature of many parts, sometimes dangerous.
    Granted a different country and time but may I offer the Federalist model, a very practical basis for rule, flexible and functional. And you can see what came of it. What man has wrought man can ruin?
    A very good post and I intend to spend more time with it. Thank you.

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