Aristotle on Education

The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead. - Aristotle

The education of the citizens should match the character of the constitution, for the character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy, and the better the character, the better the government. As the entire city has but one end, education should be the same for all, and should be public rather than private. Children should be taught those useful things that are really necessary, but not all useful things, and in particular not those that are vulgar. By ‘vulgar’ is meant those that tend to deform the body or that lead to paid employment. All paid employment absorbs and degrades the mind.

The four traditional branches of education are (1) reading and writing, (2) gymnastics, (3) music, (4) drawing. The Ancients included music not for the sake of utility but for that of intellectual enjoyment in leisure. Unlike music, reading and writing and drawing do have utility, but they also have liberal applications. In particular, reading and writing can open up other forms of knowledge, and drawing can lead to an appreciation of the beauty of the human form. Leisure should not be confused with amusement and relaxation, which are the antidotes to effort and exertion. The busy man strives for an end that he has not yet attained, but happiness is the end. Thus, happiness is experienced not by busy men, but by those with leisure. That which is noble should come before that which is brutal. Courage is more a function of nobility than of ferocity, and to turn children into athletes risks injuring their forms and stunting their growth. For these reasons, children should practice nothing more strenuous than light gymnastics. Following the onset of puberty, three years should be spent in study, and only after this triennium may a youth engage in hard exercise. However, the youth should guard against labouring mind and body at the same time, for they are inimical to each other.

Returning to the subject of music, it is not easy to determine its nature, nor why anyone should have knowledge of it. Perhaps music, like sleep or drinking, offers nothing more than amusement and relaxation. Perhaps it promotes virtue. Or perhaps it contributes to the enjoyment of leisure and to mental cultivation. Some say that no freeman should play or sing unless he is intoxicated or in jest, so why learn music and not simply enjoy the pleasure and instruction that comes from hearing it from others? Our considered opinion is that children should learn music so that they might become performers and critics, but their musical education should not extend too far beyond an appreciation of rhythm and harmony, and not to instruments such as the flute or lyre which require great skill but contribute nothing to the mind.

In addition to this common pleasure, felt and shared in by all … may [music] not have also some influence over the character and the soul? It must have such an influence if characters are affected by it. And that they are so affected is proved in many ways, and not least by the power which the songs of Olympus exercise; for beyond question they inspire enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is an emotion of the ethical part of the soul. Besides, when men hear imitations, even apart from the rhythms and tunes themselves, their feelings move in sympathy. Since then music is a pleasure, and virtue consists in rejoicing and loving and hating aright, there is clearly nothing which we are so much concerned to acquire and to cultivate as the power of forming right judgments, and of taking delight in good dispositions and noble actions. Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affections…

– Politics, Book 8

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe, NYP.


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