Aristotle's Politics: Book 8
Aristotle argues that the education of the young should be the state’s responsibility, because they are the future citizens and rulers of the state and need to learn how to be a citizen as any man must learn the skills of his trade. The education system should serve the aims of the state, so it shouldn’t be left in the hands of parents and private tutors. Citizens don’t just belong to themselves, but to the state. Each is a part of the state and naturally all parts have a responsibility to the whole.
As to the content and methods of education, Aristotle argues that there is little agreement about these questions. It is not clear whether training should be aimed at developing things that are useful in life, or conducive to promoting virtue or “exceptional accomplishments.” Obviously there are some useful things the young must learn, but we must identify those things that are proper to a free man. Such training can have a bad effect on the body that it leaves the mind preoccupied with it and unable to rise above lowly things. Even some branches of knowledge are not worthwhile, if the young just concentrate on them. Trying to master too much detail can weaken the mind in the same way.
So we must be clear about the aim of such education, its purpose. This makes a big difference. To study something because it satisfies the mind, or because it helps a friend, or for some virtuous end is noble, but to learn something because it can be offered as a service to others places the free man in the position of a hireling or a slave.
Aristotle distinguishes between four traditional areas of study: reading and writing; physical education; music; and drawing. While reading and writing and drawing can be seen as useful in various ways for the demands of daily life, gymnastics can be seen as useful in developing courage. But there can be obvious doubts about the role of music. However, Aristotle argues that it helps to promote leisure in the right way.
The education of a citizen should be designed to enable him to employ his intellectual and artistic faculties to the full, to live a life of virtue and leisure. So we should ask ourselves what are the proper activities of leisure. It is more than just play and relaxation, which is the relief we enjoy from work. Happiness and the virtuous life is a state attained not by work but by leisure, because when someone works they do so with an end in view, whereas happiness that comes from the virtuous life is an end in itself. If this were not so, then a virtuous life and the end to which all men aim, would be nothing more than play and relaxation.
To spend leisure in civilized pursuits we must have a certain amount of learning and education in those things studied for their own intrinsic value and this is the justification for music in education as a civilized pursuit of free men. Similarly, though ostensively practical, the tools of reading, writing and drawing also have value beyond their usefulness in widening our knowledge and helping us appreciate physical beauty.
Since education designed to develop virtuous habits must precede education in reasoning and education of the body must precede education of the intellect, gymnastics must be taught to condition the body before we proceed to physical training. In this Aristotle recommends caution: physical training should be pursued in moderation. Although designed to promote courage, it can, instead, merely create a ferocious character and, therefore, stunt the development of the young. He recommends only light training until puberty, then three years of study, after which physical training can begin again. His point is that strenuous mental and physical exertion should not be combined in the same period. Physical training should be kept within the natural capacity of the body.
Aristotle then turns to the role of music in education. He suggests three possible reasons for its inclusion: it is a source of amusement and refreshment; it is a stimulus to virtue, capable of shaping a certain type of character; and it makes a contribution to civilized pursuits and practical wisdom. Rhythms and tunes resemble the real nature of actual emotions, like anger, gentleness, courage and self-control, indeed of many kinds of character and listening to them causes changes in our souls. For example, to have the habit of feeling delight or distress in things that are like reality is near to having the same disposition towards reality itself. So, in addition to its role as amusement and refreshment, it stimulates virtue and contributes to our knowledge and appreciation of civilized pursuits.
But to learn the skills and techniques of music is one thing; to go beyond this in manhood, to dedicate yourself to becoming a skilled performer is going too far. This is to make it your ultimate end. A civilized man should enjoy it and appreciate it by learning rhythm and harmony, but he should not become a mere mechanic at it, devoting time and effort to perform at a high standard merely to please others. This would only damage his ability to live as a virtuous man and become a good citizen.
Aristotle accepts the three classifications many philosophers have given music: the ethical, which contributes to the development of character; the active, which encourages us to perform certain actions; and the exciting, producing in us powerful emotions and inspirations. Music can be used to confer a number of benefits. It can assist in our education. It can be used for cathartic purposes to purge or purify our emotions. And it can promote civilized pursuits by helping us relax after tension.
This abrupt ending is probably explained by the fact that Politics was composed out of lecture notes that Aristotle used at the Lyceum. So this final book was probably just one of a number of lectures and it was never intended to be the conclusion to this sort of text.
The book begins with a passage that might seem uncomfortable to readers educated in Western liberal democracies. It seems to resonate with what we now associate with a totalitarian emphasis on the importance of the state and the individual’s primary obligation to serve it. Like totalitarianism, it seems to suggest that there is no clear distinction between public and private, between the political and the moral, the state’s interests and the individual’s. The education of the young, he asserts, should be the state’s responsibility, not the parents’, because the young are the future citizens and rulers of the state. The education system should serve the aims of the state, so it shouldn’t be left in the hands of parents and private tutors. Citizens don’t just belong to themselves, but to the state. Each is a part of the state and naturally all parts have a responsibility to the whole.
Throughout this passage it’s clear what he has in mind is what he believes is the primary function of the state to ensure citizens can lead virtuous lives, which are, therefore, happy and fulfilled. And the most important tool the state has to achieve this is education. What’s more, by educating the individual in this way the state can more effectively guarantee its own stability and long-term survival.
So this naturally leads Aristotle to consider what sort of education this should be. As we’ve seen in previous books, education for the citizen should be an end in itself; it shouldn’t be designed to develop the skills he might need to serve the interests of others, but to help him to use his reason to live a virtuous life. So his education is to serve the development of himself as an end in itself, not so that he develops the skills to become the means of serving others.
The best example he gives us of this is music. He condemns education that encourages students to develop their skills so that they can become the means of entertainment for others. There is only one justification for music within the education of a citizen: to develop his capacity to become a virtuous and happy man. Aristotle believes that in fact musical education carefully managed can do this. It can change our souls by allowing us to experience emotions and learn to manage them using our reason. He says that rhythms and tunes resemble the real nature of actual emotions, like anger, gentleness, courage and self-control, indeed of many kinds of character and listening to them causes changes in our souls.