The Centrality of Virtue in the Ancient understanding of Education

David Diener explains how Plato and Aristotle defined education.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

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

Plato

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

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.