The Centrality of Virtue in the Ancient understanding of Education

In the contemporary discourse about education, discussion of virtue as the goal of education is strikingly absent. If “virtue education” is mentioned, it is generally treated as an add-on to the curriculum, not as the overarching goal of everything that is studied. This is at least partially due to the fact that in the 21st century most people simply assume that the primary purpose of education, if not its only purpose, is to equip students with the knowledge and technical skills that they will need in order to go out into the world and “be successful.” Typically the definition of “success” people have in mind in this context is to a large degree financial. In other words, the common assumption in contemporary culture is that education is a necessary means to an economic end. Even among educational leaders discussions focus overwhelmingly on the “how” of education, on how educational methods can be tweaked to better serve this economic end, while the consideration of any further “why” of education is almost completely overlooked. Very little is usually said, for example, about the kind of human persons that we should be trying to cultivate through education or about the role that virtue plays in guiding how we go about the process of education. In 1944 Sir Richard Livingstone summed up this illiberal approach to education in a way that trenchantly depicts our current educational milieu quite well:

It is characteristic of to-day that, when we discuss which subjects should be studied, or which languages should be learnt, the first consideration is nearly always utility; we ask what is most useful for the machine, not what is most likely to make a good human being . . . At times, the right motto for our education seems to be Propter vitam Vivendi perdere causas: ‘For the sake of livelihood to lose what makes life worth living.’ The material in life tends to dominate . . . Spiritual and moral life is forgotten: wisdom and even judgment recede into the background.1

In a 1975 essay Wendell Berry similarly writes that, “We think it ordinary to spend twelve or sixteen or twenty years of a person’s life and many thousands of public dollars on ‘education’ – and not a dime or a thought on character.”2

What is remarkable about these descriptions of education is that they stand in stark contrast to the centuries-old tradition which views the formation of virtuous character as the highest and most important goal of education. The vast majority of great educational thinkers throughout history have understood that the primary task of education is to cultivate people’s character, not to equip them for specific occupational tasks or functions within society. The ultimate goal of education, in other words, is to form people of virtue. While this understanding of education can be seen across a wide swath of thinkers throughout history, I am going to examine the centrality of virtue in the ancient understanding of education by focusing on two key ancient thinkers: Plato and Aristotle. Both Plato and Aristotle were seminal thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition, and their understanding of education has had a profound and pervasive effect on educational theory and practice from the time of the Greeks and Romans onward. While Plato’s and Aristotle’s educational views differ on a number of points, both thinkers accord virtue a central place in their understanding of education. Both agree that the primary purpose of education is not to transfer to students a body of knowledge, or to teach practical technical skills, or to prepare students for a specialized vocation. Rather for both of these thinkers, the primary purpose of education is to cultivate students into virtuous human beings who have a robust and wise disposition toward learning, themselves, and the world around them. To demonstrate that this is so, in the following I offer a brief examination of the central role that virtue plays in each thinker’s understanding of education.3


Throughout his works Plato is explicit that the purpose of education is to form people who are virtuous. In the Republic, for example, he writes that, “The final outcome of education, I suppose we’d say, is a single newly finished person, who is either good or the opposite.”4 He goes on to argue that, “The form of the good is the most important thing to learn about” and that, “It’s by their relation to it that just things and the others become useful and beneficial.”5 In the Laws he similarly clarifies that what he means by “education” is not training for a particular trade or business but “education from childhood in virtue.”6 He goes on to explain that this virtue consists in having one’s loves properly aligned such that one adores what is good and abhors what is not: “There is one element you could isolate in any account you give, and this is the correct formation of our feelings of pleasure and pain, which makes us hate what we ought to hate from first to last, and love what we ought to love. Call this ‘education,’ and I, at any rate, think you would be giving it its proper name.”7

This understanding of the goal of education significantly affects how Plato understands the value and purpose of various curricular subjects. In fact, he is explicit that the subjects he thinks should be studied are selected not on the basis of their content per se but rather because of their ability to turn the soul away from darkness and toward goodness and truth.8 He admonishes that, “Each of us must neglect all other subjects and be most concerned to seek out and learn those that will enable him to distinguish the good life from the bad and always to make the best choice possible in every situation.”9 Plato thus recognizes that the curricular subjects are not ends in and of themselves but are educationally valuable only insofar as they promote the formation of virtue. To put it another way, for Plato the principal question that must be asked of any educational proposal is not what practical or economic impact it will have but whether or not it fosters virtue in those toward whom it is directed.

Plato furthermore maintains that knowledge without virtue is worse than useless – it is pernicious. The goal of education is, therefore, not merely to impart knowledge but also to nurture in students the virtue and wisdom necessary for that knowledge to be used for the good. In the Republic, for example, he points out that, “The one who is most able to guard against disease is also most able to produce it unnoticed”10 and that the person who is clever at guarding money “must also be clever at stealing it.”11 Knowledge, in other words, is not an intrinsic good, for without a moral compass to guide its use it can bring about great evil. Thus the most significant educational question according to Plato is not what a person knows but how a person lives. In the Laws he is explicit that the acquisition of supposed goods such as wealth, health, knowledge, etc. must not be taken to be the purpose of education: “A training directed to acquiring money or a robust physique, or even to some intellectual facility not guided by reason and justice, we should want to call coarse and illiberal, and say that it had no claim whatever to be called education.”12 The purpose of education is therefore intrinsically moral in nature, and the ultimate goal is to form students who are equipped with wisdom and an understanding of the good such that they can use whatever knowledge they may possess in ways that are virtuous.


Aristotle’s understanding of the purpose of education is grounded in his understanding of human beings’ purpose. Thus before examining some of his comments on education in the Politics, I am going to begin with a brief overview of his understanding in the Nicomachean Ethics of the telos, or purpose, of human activity.

At the outset of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle writes that every craft, line of inquiry, action, and decision seeks some good and that he wants to examine what the highest good is that all of these ultimately seek. The question, in other words, is what the ultimate goal or
end of human activity is. The answer he gives is that the highest good is eudaimonia, or happiness.13 According to Aristotle happiness is the highest good because all other goods are desirable for its sake and because it is desirable in and of itself, not as the means to some other good. After describing various common views on happiness, Aristotle concludes that, “With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs activity in accordance with virtue.”14

In Book X Aristotle returns to his analysis of happiness as the chief end of all human activity. He again emphasizes that happiness is an activity that is desirable in and of itself and is not merely a means to some other end. Virtuous actions are of the same nature, he argues, since doing noble and good deeds “is a thing desirable for its own sake.”15 He thus concludes that happiness “does not lie in amusement . . . The happy life is thought to be one of virtue; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.”16 He claims that complete happiness consists in activity in accordance with proper virtue, and he furthermore contends that this activity is the activity of contemplative study since contemplation “alone would seem to be loved for its own sake; for nothing arises from it apart from the contemplating.”17 Thus the highest good of mankind consists in a life of virtuous contemplation.

This discussion of humanity’s highest good plays an important role in Aristotle’s understanding of education, for it is through education that people are able to achieve their ultimate purpose of virtuous contemplation. Thus with a brief overview in place of his understanding of the chief end of man, we are now positioned to understand his treatment in the Politics of the goals toward which education should be directed. Regarding the relationship between virtue and education, he writes that, “There are three things which make men good and virtuous; these are nature, habit, reason . . . We have already determined what natures are likely to be most easily molded by the hands of the legislator. All else is the work of education; we learn some things by habit and some by instruction.”18 In other words, according to Aristotle education plays an essential role in the actualization of mankind’s ultimate purpose by directing students toward a life of virtue.

In his discussion of the rationale for teaching subjects such as reading, writing, gymnastic exercises, and music, he reiterates that leisure, which facilitates happiness, is the goal: “It is clear then that there are branches of learning and education which we must study merely with a view to leisure spent in intellectual activity, and these are to be valued for their own sake; whereas those kinds of knowledge which are useful in business are to be deemed necessary, and exist for the sake of other things.”19 Children should be taught drawing, for example, “not to prevent their making mistakes in their own purchases, or in order that they may not be imposed upon in the buying or selling of articles, but perhaps rather because it makes them judges of the beauty of the human form. To be always seeking after the useful does not become free and exalted souls.”20

In considering what other subjects should be taught, Aristotle notes that, Occupations are divided into liberal and illiberal; and to young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without making mechanics of them. And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is mechanical; wherefore we call those arts mechanical which tend to deform the body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb and degrade the mind. . . . The object also which a man sets before him makes a great difference; if he does or learns anything for his own sake or for the sake of his friends, or with a view to virtue, the action will not appear illiberal.21

It is important to note that Aristotle does not mean to imply here that learning mechanical arts is necessarily worthless. His point is that the reason for which something is learned is of the utmost importance in determining its value. Learning carpentry, or foreign languages, or economics can be worthwhile, provided that it is learned “with a view to virtue.” He is highly critical, however, of his fellow Greeks who fail to embrace a system of education “with a view to all the virtues, but in a vulgar spirit have fallen back on those which promised to be more useful and profitable.”22 The purpose of education is for Aristotle therefore not primarily utilitarian in nature. Rather education’s highest purpose is the formation of human beings who can fulfill their highest purpose – living a life of virtue.

Both Plato and Aristotle thus take the development of virtue to be a central and necessary component of the well-lived life. They, furthermore, both consider the primary purpose of education to be helping people fulfill their ultimate purpose by fostering in them virtuous thought and action. The development of virtue, in other words, is the sine qua non at the heart of what education is all about.

In closing, I want to emphasize that this centrality of virtue in the understanding of education is not particular to Plato and Aristotle or even to the ancients. Rather it is a commonly accepted understanding of education that endured for centuries and was supplanted only in the second half of the 19th century. Far from being the historical anomaly, this view is thus the dominate conception of education that throughout history has undergirded Western educational thought and practice. In our contemporary society, the prevailing paradigm conceives of education as a completely secular and “value-free” enterprise. In the course of history, however, education has almost never been thought to be a solely secular enterprise but rather one that is intimately connected to the development of morality and virtue in students. The contemporary charade of value- and virtue-free secular education is thus not only a philosophical and practical absurdity but also demonstrates a stubborn refusal to accept the nearly universal recognition of the importance of training in virtue that has existed throughout the history of education.

The Play’s the Thing

There is a story going on around us. It began before time and reaches to infinity. And it is a story: a sequence of events, not random, but full of meaning. Man plays his part through action; his deliberate movements influence, change, and even cause events. We are all actors in a play so huge and various that we may pass through it only vaguely aware of anything but our own parts , unless, as Chesterton says, “the play is pared down to [our] tiny sight”.

So Aristotle in his Poetics points to The Story, though not by that name, as a first principle. He presupposes that events are purposeful and meaningful and have connection with one another and with us, as they influence and are influenced by us. But to grasp these purposes, meanings, and connections we must examine events in units small enough to comprehend. He calls the presentation of these small units the “imitation of life”, in which we represent a particular experience that we may hold it before us, and, by examining it, glimpse experience itself, and acknowledge the natural order of things. Art, then, for Aristotle, is the process by which some part of the Story is imitated and thereby apprehended, whether by the historian or the poet, whether what is described is “the thing that has been” or “a kind of thing that might be.”

Imitation of a part yields discovery of the whole, which in turn yields delight as we recognize the Great Story in its elements. When we recognize that something has been accurately rendered, we experience amazement and pleasure, even if the thing rendered is not in itself delightful. Any accurate imitation teaches us the Story; even when order is proved by the shock of disorder, or congruity is demonstrated by the shock of incongruity, the pattern delights us, even if we are persons of limited capacity. So a child is delighted to learn something of order and disorder when he shouts, “Look! that man has his hat on upside down!” He is seeing a small scene in the Story. And we are not surprised when Aristotle reminds us that the principal way a child learns is through his own imitation of events.

We are also not surprised when Aristotle points to drama as the trunk whence all other arts branch, since drama is story-telling itself, encompassing virtually all other arts – dance, literature, music – in its work of imitation. For to him, rhythm , language , and harmony are the chief elements through which the Story is imitated, and it is in drama that we experience them in their full, natural fusion. Through these together we apprehend what is knowable. Through their rich and original commingling in drama, Aristotle says, man can tell how he influences and how he is influenced, how his part “fits” into the great pattern of the Great Play.

How different this is from the modern approach, which atomizes life to understand it and dissects living art into its disciplines the better to serve the fragmentation. What then of Aristotle’s “rhythm, language, and harmony”? Neither rhythm nor harmony can exist in fragments, and deconstructed language must be meaningless, nor is it odd that some moderns find
no pattern, no purpose, no Story at all in life, for they themselves have obscured the connections. They study only discrete particles; they deliver as their finished product only disparate bits of facts. They shatter the Story and then display the pieces as all that can be known.

But the commonality of things remains: We ourselves are not yet dissected; thought and action remain components of an organic whole. And in the unity of drama – thought, language, action, music, and dance moving in harmony, rhythm, pattern and purpose – Aristotle saw the great and the original means for the imitation of life, for the understanding of the Story .

We have said that drama embraces many arts (indeed, that virtually all arts were born in drama) in an essential and meaningful fusion. We have said that drama imitates life and so teaches the Great Story, including our parts in it and how best to act them. Let us illustrate what we mean.

Man begins to tell the Story by telling his family about the bear that he has encountered while hunting. He was there. It was there. He has chased it away. His children learn how to live in the woods where the bears are. The story is retold; the very language becomes an essential element of it: the sound and the style of the teller are imitated. The listeners are delighted as they recognize him, and also as they recognize something larger: this could happen to them. Their hearts pound. And so a drum is added. Someone becomes the bear and someone else, the hunter, and now we see: This is what it looked like. This is how bear and hunter moved. They move to the drum. It is happening to the actors. They remember. The bear was like this. The fear was like this. The observers shout the fear. The victory was like this. The observers sing the victory. The next time, they are the chorus. It will be told this way again and again. Language calls for heightened language which calls for drums which call for movement which calls for actors which call for chorus and for song. The story becomes stylized in its telling and the elements of its telling become controllable – and powerful – as they become freighted with convention. Finally, many have seen the bear. Many have seen the man. They have been the bear. They have been the man. They are delighted. They have learned that there is fear, and there can be courage, and there will be victories. The play has caught them up into the Story.

We have spoken of arts branching from the trunk of drama. The tree we had in mind was the entire process by which man imitates and apprehends the Great Story. The roots are language itself. The trunk is that living fusion of all means of expression which so vividly conveys experience. It is drama in its original and richest form. As we move up the trunk the patterns represented become more and more universal and abstract but retain organic unity with events, and all arts are employed in their imitation. Then the tree branches, as modes of expression, separate one from another. The main branch is now written language and it is largest, but still smaller for its separation from the rest. One side of the tree has branched into what we now think of as the separate arts. The other side of the tree has branched into what we call the separate sciences – each side of the tree regarding the other as “other” indeed. If we drew the whole tree we would see that it is all one thing. But we do not often look at it that way. We tend to see only the branches. (Indeed, some admit no unity either in the whole of life, nor in our modes of apprehension.) These are the fragmentarians we noted above, who saw off the branches and then assert that their unity was only in the mind of the beholder.
But this is short-sighted. It produces vast numbers of people who know what wind velocity is but are shocked at what hurricanes do and know not how to pray as one approaches.

Let us take children and slide down the trunk with them. Rich, living drama with its unity of thought, word, action and arts teaches powerfully. For young children are act-ors by nature. They encounter their world on a physical level. That is why they put so many things in their mouths and why one can generally distinguish the sofa of a child-blessed family from that of a less populated household. Children understand action, crave action. They need to move and they seek understanding of their surroundings through movement, at least observed, at best, performed. It delights them, as cartoonists and TV people have understood. But action need not teach false lessons such as those taught by the advertisements on children’s TV. Action may plainly reflect massive elements of the Great Play, for actions are sequential. Actions cause, and actions have effect. Actions are of varying duration. Actions are controllable. Some actions are more fruitful than others especially in a moral universe of purpose, plan, and meaning. And here Aristotle reminds us again of the principal way children learn : by imitation of action.

And drama is just that imitation of action which, when accurate, produces delight, and delight in learning, a powerful means of awakening and enlarging the minds of children especially when approached low down on the trunk at its richest, most inclusive level where the whole child, eyes, ears, hands, feet, tongue and brain, may be “caught” by the play, and caught up into the Great Drama which surrounds us.

Consider the power of historical drama – surely the closest to original drama. As man meets bear and triumphs, so Thomas More meets Henry VIII and triumphs in an even greater way; and how vividly the child actor grasps both the historical event and its place
in the Great Story. He has seen the tyrant; he has seen the beleaguered saint, and the courtier and the compromiser. He has been the tyrant; he has been the saint, or the courtier, or the compromiser. He has spoken as them; he has listened to them. He has sung their songs and heard their music. He has acted their actions after them. How clearly he grasps the details which elucidate and make accurate this image of the event. He may even learn to love to learn dates, not begrudgingly, merely for the glory of good grades, but as he prizes birthdays; each significant event is “born” into something larger on dates, in time. Most importantly, he has learned once again in his flesh and blood that great theme of the Story: There will be danger; there can be courage; there shall be victory.

And so with all great themes of the Story, even those that may seem most abstract. For example, if sequence is not real, as the fragmentarians suggest, then all things are inconsequential , and children may never need basic skills such as tracking , or sounding out the sequence of letter sounds, or understanding that 900 B.C. is closer to our time than 1900 B.C. As it happens, sequence is real. We may ask any child who has taken part in a play, that is, who has “become” part of that formal sequence of events. To actually move one’s whole body from one place to another in space on cue teaches something about the reality of sequential events that simply cannot be as vividly conveyed by mere talk.

If cause and effect is not real , as the fragmentarians hope, then all actions are insignificant, and children must be excused from determining, as they read, what is significant and what is not, and from finding any significance at all in the apparently unconnected events of history; so also all mathematics must remain for them an impenetrable mystery. But, by “doing” drama, students learn, in their very muscles, to control each cause, to produce an effect: the gesture, the movement, the tone of voice, the word, so that it becomes clear how each causes a reaction: the fight, the exit. Each cue is cause for something to happen. Surely, students may learn cause and effect vividly through , say, hitting their brothers: punch causes punishment. Or, and better, the same huge pattern may be apprehended through acting out a role, being a cause, knowing ahead of time what effect must be caused , and then observing from within the play how one’s own actions do bring about change outside of oneself.

And we must continue, for what great matter is there that drama can not teach, since it exists to capture in small the Great Story itself? So, in drama, students experience something of the relationship between events and time. Things can happen more
than once. Indeed, repetition is an important and positive aspect of experience. So phrases and words and themes are repeated throughout a play to accentuate the underlying unity of what is being portrayed. In a farce, the underlining unity of ridiculousness might be punctuated by such a simple line as, “You rang?” In fact, mere repetition of the words themselves enhances understanding – it is simply true that human beings need to hear things more than once to remember them. That human beings need to hear again and again, that we need to do and experience again and again is often, by the merely modern, considered unfortunate: a flaw, or an impediment in the head-long rush to personal or societal progress . But a young child knows the satisfaction of having the same book read over and over. No poet is ashamed to repeat sounds within a work, and no musician, to repeat a motif. It is the fragmentarians, tossing their unconnected bits of experience behind them into oblivion, who have told us that repetition in the educational process impedes learning rather than enhances it. This they urge, even as they drill young soccer players daily in their skills and insist that their children practice their piano scales. Surely, mindless repetition blights education, but so also does a mindless parade of events- as-novelties. Is it not mindless to say of a Beethoven Symphony, “Heard that,” or of The Brothers Karamazov, “Read that”? Accurate imitations bear repetition and even require them that the Story behind and above them may be more fully apprehended. And that Story is replete with purposeful repetition: as the repetition of the seasons,
of morning and evening, and of the circling track of the stars. The child who learns a play, its words, its music, its movements , learns the fruit of repetition and learns to prize memorization of what is worthy. Each time he runs lines, a passage or a scene grows richer for him. Meaning becomes clearer. The whole is more interesting each time it is repeated, and in drama, every participating child learns first hand that memorization can make a thing of beauty and meaning, and make it his own, even as it makes language patterns that are new to him his own, and clear and vivid. By and large, children write and speak
as they hear. In drama, what they hear can be chosen for them and given to them in a way that technical instruction cannot emulate.

Aristotle wrote of drama evoking fear and pity from the audience, that is, fear and pity for those others depicted on the stage, and therein lies implicit the greatest advantage which drama provides in the instruction of a child. Drama draws him out of himself. He may at first force himself to do this embarrassing business of speaking, moving, singing or dancing, simply because all the others are doing it. So he will force himself past his own self- consciousness, if only for fear that by failing to do so, he will draw more attention to himself rather than less. Even on this lowest level, to make himself secure, he must set himself aside. And, indeed, he must, for if he does not, the others will surely let him know what he has spoiled by
his absence. And “spoiled” in fact, for if the play could go on without his part, it is a flawed play; Aristotle is quite right: “That which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole.” Plainly, in any good drama, there are no unimportant parts.

But beyond this, the child who participates in drama learns to set himself aside, not only for the sake of his popular appeal , but also for the sake of the character he represents . This child learns to say, “I am a boy, but since I am to be a kangaroo, I must not act like a boy. I cannot walk as I please; I must hop. I must lose myself in kangarooisms, and to the best of my ability, forget who I am in myself.” For the sake of the character , a child cannot simply assert. “I don ‘t talk with a Southern accent. I am a New Englander.” He must leave his own speech patterns and drawl instead. On the way, he learns about himself in a way that leads far from self-absorption. Rather, he learns who he is and how he habitually acts, so that he can consciously choose to “leave himself” and act with self-control. As a precious side-product, he learns that his feelings of chilliness, puckishness, or itchiness (or loneliness, anger, or jealousy) need not dictate his behavior. “I am timid,” he may discover; “but as this character, I need to behave as someone who is overbearing.” And the freedom he finds may be life-long. At the very least, the next time he needs to be quiet or to be amiable, he will know that his behavior is a matter of his own choice.

But above all, the child who has taken part in drama learns to leave himself not only for the sake of his peers, nor for the sake of his character, but simply, for the sake of the truth. He learns to say not, “Look at me,” but rather, “look at this,” that is, the play. In order to imitate the event chosen from the Great Story, the actor forgets himself and everything that would impede the understanding of the audience, that they may know, learn, and be delighted by whatever part of the Great Story is being represented before them. In his way, he is like the parent sacrificing sleep for the infant, the soldier sacrificing his life for the common good. Indeed, it is training for such acts which echoes and portrays the highest event of the Great Story.

To lose oneself in and for the truth of the Story: this is the highest lesson drama can teach. In drama the child learns that what is larger than he is objective, and that he may enter it, whether we speak of historical drama teaching him the objective reality of history, or of comedy teaching him the objective reality of our finiteness and frequent folly. Either way, he has set himself aside
in search of what is outside him. He has practiced that selflessness which makes objectivity possible. If he has dared, he has come to know that the Story is not centered on him, but that in comprehending it he may take his place in it. And he knows he must. The Author has written him in.

Event on event, character after character enters the stage and nothing is random; there is an author with a purpose, to which the actors must yield. There is order and meaning in the whole, which the actors in every word and movement must serve. Whatever is not of the play hinders the Author’s intent and is mere distraction and obscurity, and must be denied . So students who
have experience in drama understand the call to leave themselves behind to seek and serve the Author’s purpose. They have rehearsed it. They have learned to dismiss and refuse what does not serve the telling of the Author ‘s tale, even if it be in themselves.

And if it is true that we are all born , in Luther’s phrase, incurvatus in se, that is, coiled on ourselves, it is
hard to imagine a means of education more useful than drama, by which we may not only imitate and learn
the patterns of the Great Story, but also be drawn out of ourselves to know and act within that Story now, in the present ignorance, until ignorance ends and imitations are needless and we enter the endless happy ending .

Birds of a Feather, or The True Meaning of Friendship

“Birds of a feather flock together,” my mother told me over and over again while I was growing up. At first I had no idea what she meant. But gradually it dawned on me that the sorts of people I spent time with somehow had an influence on the sort of man I would become. If I wasted my time with ne’er-do-wells, I would become a ne’er-do- well. If I made friends with the studious and athletic types, I would most likely be both studious and athletic. Who knows? Maybe I could have a good influence on some poor, undirected child who didn’t know whether to listen to the devil on one shoulder or the angel on the other.

My sense is that sayings like these—and there used to be hundreds of them, for most every aspect of childrearing and life in general—have largely passed out of usage, though perhaps the parents who send their children to a classical school are more likely to cling to their grandparents’ old sayings, to say nothing of their guns and their Bibles. I suspect, though, that even in a classical school, teachers find that students are more influenced by the silly mantras of modern culture—at best empty clichés about “respecting others” now that the word respect has lost its original meaning and, above all, respecting others’ ideas, no matter how misguided or base. Modern culture, you see, urges less discrimination and judgment with regard to people’s character since being discriminatory and judgmental is about the only thing you are not allowed to be in the modern world. Yet if my mother’s maxim holds true, the lack of discrimination and judgment leaves children and young people morally vulnerable in a world where precious little moral instruction is offered. In fact, it abandons them to an adolescent ghetto, where the latest thing done or said by a rap star or Lady Gaga passes for the apogee of coolness. It would seem, then, that a classical school, as not only a place where children come to be instructed in the fundamentals of sound learning but also in the first principles of sound morality, should spend some time on the topic of friendship.

To help young people understand and indeed improve their friendships, teachers should, where appropriate in the curriculum, engage students in a Socratic dialogue suited to their capacities. For example, while reading Tom Sawyer (usually in upper elementary or middle school), the teacher might ask, “Are Tom and Huck friends?” “Of course,” will be the answer. Here the teacher might play “stupid” for a moment. “So you all have friends, then? And you recognize that Tom and Huck are friends because you know what friendship looks like?” “Sure.” “And is friendship important, that is, is it important to have friends?” In fact, very little is as important to young people as having friends, and they will say so. “Okay, then, define what a friend is.” Now the plot will thicken a little. Most likely the students will say that a friend is someone you like to be with or to hang out with, or it is someone who has the same interests as you do or who knows you better than others do or someone “you can be yourself around.” The more thoughtful students will say that a friend is someone you can count on.

Then the question becomes whether a friend is a good person and whether friendship is a good thing. The students will answer universally “yes.” “A friend, then, is someone you want to have around and someone who wants the best for you?” “Of course.” “So, then, can bank robbers be friends?” Here the question gets a little tricky. If they say yes, then we must ask whether bank robbers can be good people and remind the students that we said friends are good people. Further, how could wanting your friend to engage in a life of crime and possibly be shot or put in jail for life be wanting the best for you? If the students say no—or come to that conclusion after some further questioning—then we have to figure out the flaw in our logic from the beginning. (Realize that bank robbers hang out together, have the same interests, and rely on each other. Yet bank robbers are not good.)

To solve this conundrum, we should consult the classical authors on friendship. (For younger students, the classical authors are a little hard to read, but students can certainly be told these things.) Cicero in his dialogue De Amicitia (On Friendship), a work that used to be widely read in upper schools, agrees with our own students in saying that friendship is an important human experience.

In fact, he regards it as “the greatest thing in the world.” Nonetheless, he defines friendship more exclusively than our students might. According to Cicero, “friendship can only exist between good men.” He further defines “the good” as “those whose actions and lives leave no question as to their honor, purity, equity, and liberality; who are free from greed, lust, and violence; and who have the courage of their convictions.”

Therefore, according to Cicero’s more exacting definition, bank robbers can never be friends. Cicero furthers says that a true friend will give good advice, even correct a person when he is doing something wrong. In other words, a friend is not just someone you “hang out with” but a person who urges you to do the good and prevents you from doing the bad. And if you were to persist in doing the bad, the friendship would have to cease. In modern parlance, the good person would “fire” you as a friend. The question now is whether the students really have friends or merely acquaintances: peers but by no means true friends.

St. Augustine reminds us in his Confessions that groups of young people do not always pursue the good. As a youth he and some other boys stole pears from a nearby orchard. He did not need the pears because he had plenty of his own. He did not eat the pears but instead threw them to the pigs. When he reflected on this event years later, he concluded that he only stole the pears because he was in the company of other “ruffians.” Had he been alone, he would have never done so. A few years later, Augustine spent his time with youth his age talking about girls. The subject was whether the boys had done such and such with this or that girl. Even when they had not done things, they would make up stories, so ashamed they were of having not done shameful things. That’s right! Locker-room talk in the fifth century, in which a future saint took part. How times don’t change! Were these boys friends? Later reflection led Augustine to the conclusion that they were not, though those attachments and his reputation among the boys meant a great deal to him at the time.

Students might be invited to reflect upon their own conduct. Whenever students break the rules in school or disrupt classes by whispering or note-passing, do they do so as lone individuals or in groups? When they get into trouble or do mischievous things outside of school (toilet- papering a house, for instance), do they do so on their own or as a group of conspirators? In fact, is not planning the conspiracy half the fun? Students must realize these small partnerships in chaos are not groups of friends—at least not at that moment—but rather groups of wrongdoers. The essential question of friendship is whether your friends appeal to your baser or your higher passions, whether to the base or the noble.

Further insight into friendship can be found in Aristotle’s Ethics. In fact, it is worth noting that Aristotle devotes more time in the Ethics to friendship than any other subject, even justice. Aristotle, as we might expect, is a little more practical and offers less of an either/or than the combined force of Cicero and Augustine (though it is actually useful to begin with the clearer distinction). Aristotle classifies friendship into three types: those based on utility, those based on pleasure, and those formed by people “who are good and are alike in virtue.” An example of the first would be a business deal. The second type is very much like “hanging out,” as students put it. In fact, Aristotle states that friendship based on pleasure is most characteristic of young people. “But the friendship of the young seems to be based on pleasure, since they live in accord with feeling, and pursue especially what is pleasant to themselves and present at hand.” Here is the rub. Those kinds of friendships do not last very long. As soon as the friend is gone, that pleasure can be found with someone else. Or, to use the modern term, pleasure friendships are not very “deep.” Friendships between good people, whose purpose is often a mutual pursuit of the good (such as the good to be found in the life of the polis), have this characteristic: they last. Typically this is not the friendship of the young.

Armed with this understanding of friendship, we might return to our original question: Can Tom and Huck be friends? Presumably this question also has some bearing on the students’ own lives. Nevertheless it is a tough question to apply either to Tom Sawyer or to students. Tom and Huck, on our first meeting them, are having a conversation about curing warts with dead cats or with spunk water. Is that a case of utility or pleasure? Or might there be even some virtue in getting rid of “thousands” of warts? Further, young people (what we now call teenagers) are characters in the making. They are not as yet formed; they are serving an apprenticeship in humanity. So they can’t be said to be virtuous—not completely—before they have done anything, just as they cannot be considered citizens until they have voted and paid taxes. Further, most young people do not get together to discuss Plato; nor should they. Even Plato and Aristotle did not think young people should study philosophy.

This question is important since it causes us to reflect on the examples we can give students of the friendships they should long to have one day as well as the friendships they can attain right now. Once we know what friendship is, we cannot fail to realize the tradition of the West provides many examples of friendship in history and great literature: the Founding Fathers, the characters in Jane Austen novels, Henry V, to name a few. Our students should be required to see how important friendship was to these real statesmen or to these compelling characters and how, without friendship—without love—their ventures would have come to naught. At the same time, we must treasure those books (not really found among the ancient classics) that shed light on human beings in the making, the incipient efforts of young people to develop friendships based on virtue, that is, based on a good bigger than themselves. Recently, I wrote a book in which the protagonists (heroes, I would claim) are thirteen years old. I had to struggle with creating dialogue that was both plausible for adolescents and yet somehow aimed at times toward the good. This exercise made me realize how hard a task it is to offer good accounts of young heroes in the making and thus why we should treasure such classics as Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird, Franklin’s Autobiography, and Churchill’s My Early Life. Nor are these books to be read and enjoyed only by children. A truly great children’s book should shed light on the whole scope of human life. Further, such books lead students to question whether they are on the right trajectory to do the good and to do the good—as they must—with other people whom they will call friends. The ancients and the Founding Fathers, you see, knew that friendship is about the most powerful force in the world. By the way, if you think Tom and Huck’s friendship ends with curing warts and trading ticks for lost teeth, read on.

On Definition of Rhetoric

Today we read of “empty rhetoric,” “mere rhetoric,” and even “violent rhetoric”. The term is present in our daily lives, yet only rarely it is used properly. Ask the average man on the street, or in this author’s case, the average college sophomore, to define rhetoric, and the responses provide some insight into the prevalence of the popular disposition toward the art. The sophomores write that rhetoric is “persuasion,” “empty argument,” “sophistic discourse,” or “the art of composition” if they know of it at all. While each of these so-called definitions of rhetoric holds something in common with the art, none of them engages the fullness of the art, nor its essential qualities. While the contemporary views of rhetoric expressed herein can be traced to numerous root causes including the attempt to separate invention and logic from rhetoric in the Middle Ages, the American Elocutionary Movement of the eighteenth century, the reinvention of scholastic rhetoric courses into grammar, composition, and literature courses, etc., none of these is the focus of this essay. Rather, the concern is with a reinvestment in rhetoric as an art form through a better understanding of its defining characteristics as approached through Aristotle and Quintilian’s definitions of rhetoric as a civic art as well as a more contemporary conceptualization of the term.

The seminal definition of rhetoric is that of Aristotle, written in his treatise Rhetoric. Aristotle writes that rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic (Rhetoric I.1, 1354a1). It grows out of dialectic and the conceptualization of character (ethos and the related concept of ethics; Rhetoric I.2, 1356a25f), and, in fact, rhetoric and dialectic are two branches of the same tree. Dialectic deals with the concepts in the absolute and rhetoric in the contingent realm. The relationship of rhetoric to the dialectic is important as it stresses that rhetoric has import beyond practice, that it has substance or form, a necessary element to the concept of an art or technê. Aristotle asserts that rhetoric is the art of discovering all of the available means of persuasion in any given situation (Rhetoric I.2, 1355b26f). In order to ascertain why the simplification of this de nition to “the art of persuasion” or “persuasion” is harmful, it is appropriate to examine each term of import as it arises in Aristotle’s formulation.

Rhetoric is the art. . .

The term art or technê implies a two-fold understanding of the subject—that of technê (form) and praxis (practice). Technê, translated from the Greek, means art or craftsmanship; it infers rational method. The concept is related to episteme, science or knowledge, but works in the realm of probability rather than in the realm of absolutes and of truth. Rhetoric must have form or technê both in and of itself. While Aristotle would agree that rhetoric is devoid of subject matter in its practice, he demonstrates that as art rhetoric has form and contains methodological subject matter. He provides further instruction in this area as he lays out his system of rhetoric within the greater schema of arts of knowledge and demonstration. In addition to form, the art must be applicable or active in practice. This element of praxis is empty if deprived of its related and underlying form. This is one of the primary problems with the public conception of rhetoric as empty or sophistic. It is further exacerbated by the recognition that rhetoric, as Aristotle conceives of it is ethically neutral–it is amoral, and may be used for evil or good, by the self-interested as well as the ethical, civic minded rhetorician.

. . . of discovering. . .

The concept of discovery (inventio or invention) is essential to its power as an art. The rhetor holds within himself the knowledge necessary to complete the artistic proofs of ethos (character, credibility, goodwill), logos (logic), and pathos (passions, emotions) in ways that are uniquely his own. In other words, the arguments and examples available to the rhetorician are not available equally to all rhetors but are uniquely discoverable by individual rhetors based upon knowledge, experience, etc. Only a few categories of argument are universally available. Known as the inartistic proofs, they include witnesses, evidence given under torture, written contracts, and laws. Aristotle notes that while the former are particular modes of persuasion belonging to rhetoric, the latter are not.

. . . all of the available means of persuasion. . .

In part, it makes reference back to the previous conception of the deductive and inductive arguments possible for advancement by a rhetor. Topical thinking allows the rhetor to discover premises linking his claims to audience positions. In other words, we create significance. Additionally, invention is linked to the ends of rhetoric; forensic appeals are concerned with justice and injustice, deliberative ends with expedience and inexpedience or persuasion and dissuasion, and epideictic or ceremonial ends with praise or blame. By knowing one’s subject matter one has access to particulars. Concerns of invention are threaded through each of the remaining canons as the rhetor examines disposition, style, delivery, memory.

. . . in any given situation.

Rhetoric is concerned with the realm of human affairs rather than questions of the nature of man. It is concerned with the probable rather than the absolute. A situation is a complex collection of events, people, and objects in relation to an issue, problem, crisis, or call for action. Rhetoric itself is action and results in further actions based upon a situational definition. The situated nature of rhetoric has led many to teach that rhetoric is immoral, that higher or universal principles have no place in its practice. This is simply not the case. Universal principles are operative in the contingent world of rhetoric as are universal topics. The rhetor has the capacity to make use of these principles or not.

The Roman orator Quintilian provides a second glimpse at the complexity of the rhetorical tradition. His definition is often put forth by classical and liberal arts institutions and educators due to its connection to virtue. Quintilian defines rhetoric as the science (or art) of the good man speaking well in his work on the subject, the Institutes of Oratory. Quintilian, like Aristotle, views rhetoric as containing both form and practice; he conceives of it as a civic art. He is clear that it is irreducible to a series of rules. Further, he contends that its scope extends beyond persuasion. He continues to make full use of Aristotle’s system of rhetoric and the five Canons of Rhetoric as they were codified by Cicero, but his greatest concern is with the rhetor. For Quintilian, the ideal orator (rhetor) was a man of high moral character, learned in all subjects, and schooled finally, completely in the art of rhetoric. This definition reflects the Roman consideration of ethos as tied to the citizen directly, over time, and across situations; it relates directly to any consideration of intent. Unfortunately, it is this focus on the rhetor rather than the art that is deficient, and that undermines the force and content of Quintilian’s definition. As Quintilian himself notes, the rhetor cannot be taught virtue and character directly through the art of rhetoric. It is outside of its purview. The art of rhetoric is inclusive of intellectual virtue, but not moral virtue. As a de nition, the art of the good man speaking well says little of the content of the art, but much about Quintilian’s concern for the interaction of the substance of an argument with the character of the orator.

Contemporary definitions of rhetoric have further exacerbated the general perception that rhetoric is immoral, empty of substance, and ripe for abuse. In good part this is due to academic trends towards deconstructionism and the study of technique in place of art. The emergence of a solid, singular definition of the art of rhetoric has failed to take shape. A study of twentieth century rhetorical theory and public address criticism does, however, offer the teacher of rhetoric a set of core terms that allow for a renewed and contemporary under- standing of the art of rhetoric in form and practice that can co-exist with more traditional definitions: Rhetoric is intentional, situated, symbolic action.

What does this mean? First, rhetoric is intentional; it is pragmatic. It seeks to influence choice. As such, it is reflective of Aristotle’s concern with the available means of persuasion. Second, rhetoric is situated; the number of situations and contexts may have grown, but the constraints upon the rhetor remain similar to those of the past. Contemporary rhetorical scholars claim access to an adapted three contexts/ends of rhetoric–informative, persuasive, and ceremonial, apply the same concepts of artistic and inartistic appeals in similar ways, and continue to examine ways to affect change in real audiences present in actual rhetorical situations. Third, rhetoric is symbolic. A rhetor must engage with others to generate a shared meaning that may result in a shared interpretation and/or a shared action, either real or symbolic. In order to engage with others, the rhetor must engage in the inventive nature of rhetoric, organize the message in keeping with contextual and audience expectations, and utilize appropriate style and delivery. Finally, rhetoric is action and results in action. It continues to be practiced in the realm of human affairs where social action is required.

The growth of rhetorical contexts beyond the classically conceived contexts of the courtroom, assembly, and public sphere has added complexity to the rhetorical realm. An understanding of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as dynamic, comprised of form and practice, inventive, seeking all of the means of persuasion open to the rhetor within a given situation, provides the contemporary rhetorician the tools necessary to practice the art in full. Quintilian reminds the student of rhetoric that the art is forever tied to considerations of virtue, and that it reaches its greatest potential when it is practiced by a virtuous rhetor who holds knowledge of his subject and acts, not for himself, but for the betterment of society. The unifying terms of contemporary rhetoric reify the art, grounding it for study in the classroom and the public sphere. A re-engagement with the art of rhetoric allows the student to challenge the prevalent notions that rhetoric is, and necessarily must be, empty, self-serving, or even violent, and to replace them, knowing that the best of rhetors are men of high character and knowledge engaged in rhetorical action for civic good.