Ancient Paideia and Philosophy for Children

by Hannu Juuso, published in Thinking. The Journal of Philosophy for Children, 1999, 14:4, 9-20. This article also constitutes chapter 5 in Hannu Juuso's dissertation Child, Philosophy and Education—Discussing the intellectual sources of philosophy for children, 2007, University of Oulu, Finland.


Dissertation abstract


The shifting meanings of "philosophy" and "child"

Education for reasonableness

Discuss / diskuter

Education for reasonableness

Aristotle's theory of virtue

Aristotle began his studies at Plato's Academy when he was 17 years old, and remained there for twenty years, until Plato's death in 347 BC., so it is understandable that he adopted much of his teacher's metaphysical thinking. One of its major elements was the idea of philosophy as something separate from practical needs—"as the only free science, for it alone exists for itself." 47 Aristotle did, however, differ from Plato in one very important issue, namely the doctrine of the forms, or ideas. 48 Plato sought invariance in ideal models existing outside the variable, sensible world, which for him promised the conceptual mastery of phenomena. Without questioning the existence of such invariance as such, Aristotle reduced it to nature itself, expressed in the forms by which the individuals of each species are similar to each other. Aristotle thus assumed, with Plato, the essence of each species, but unlike Plato, did not distinguish that essence from the sensible world. This led him to search for the essential nature of each species teleologically—i.e. by always examining phenomena in the context of their goals or end states. All creatures aim at the best possible realization of the essential nature of their species. This movement from potentiality to actuality, from the imperfect to the perfect, is ultimately caused by the unmoved mover, or god. The perfection of god makes everything else in the world strive for its own perfection. 49

Reasoning within this ontological framework, Aristotle also claimed that the manifest essence of the invariable and objectively knowable human being is a "good life." "Good life" means the best possible realization of the essential characteristics of the human. This realization is the duty of humans, and in seeking it humans demonstrate their particular virtue—i.e. the activity which is in accordance with their essential nature. Human good means the action of the soul in accordance with virtue. 50 Realization of the human essence in the good life leads, in turn, to the realization of the ideal state.

Aristotle does not, however, extend the requirement for certainty and necessity to virtue itself, nor to those areas of knowledge—such as politics, rhetoric, and ethics—which belong to the realm of the probable. In his Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphysics he problematizes Plato's idea of the universal good, and of an insensible, eternal substance. 51 In his own metaphysics, he does not reduce goodness to a single common idea, but analyzes its meaning from the viewpoint of the various uses of the concept. 52 Aristotle's assumption that the human essence is goodness is therefore case-specific. Even if goodness has something in common across contexts, its applications still cannot be derived from a single, basic meaning—and even if that were so, Aristotle does not think it humanly attainable. Human existence thus essentially involves the aspiration for a good and useful outcome, the greatest and most important of which is happiness (eudaimonia). Happiness is not, however, connected with the contingencies of life—power, property, etc.—but with virtues emerging from practical action. One can only become just and reasonable by doing just and reasonable deeds. According to Aristotle, nobody can become good without doing good. 53

Aristotle divides the virtues into the intellectual virtues of the rational part of the soul, and the virtues of character of the irrational part of the soul. The development of the former are based mainly on teaching, and require time and experience. The virtues of character are neither natural nor unnatural, but are based on habit—although we are by nature capable of accepting them, habituation makes them perfect. 54 The virtues of character are behavioral dispositions (heksis), which can only arrive at human good through action. As a starting point for human ethics, the virtues of character do not alone provide a sufficient condition for practical knowledge. Only when they are connected to practical reason—or fronesis—can persons achieve a good life. Fronesis is an intellectual virtue, for it implies a broad evaluative ability. It tells us what and what not to do. 55 Other intellectual virtues are understanding (synesis), which is based on the ability to consider one's own actions in each particular situation that calls for our consideration 56; and deliberation (bouleusis, which means for Aristotle "a certain kind of research" that requires plenty of time, and involves reasoning. Aristotle's reasonable person knows how to consider well, which means a certain impeccable clarity of deliberation, which leads in turn to a form of goodness which shows itself in terms of its usefulness, its goals, and its methods. 57 In matters of action, practical reason thus combines both general and particular aspects. As a result, persons evolve in their capacity for judgment (gnome), which in turn leads to the ability to identify the "equitable" (epieikeia). A human being who can identify the equitable is sympathetic (syngnome). 58

For Aristotle, human goodness is impossible without fronesis—which, in turn, is impossible without the virtues of character, for fronesis arises from action. The virtues of character and fronesis combine in practical knowledge, and provide the basis for the ethical action of human beings. But this is not enough, for the Platonic Aristotle, for persons to achieve the highest goal, or happiness. Only the highest form of intellectual virtue i.e. wisdom, or sophia, can guarantee the full happiness of a human being. The object of wisdom or metaphysical knowledge is nothing less than the independent foundation of all that exists, upon which the practical world is also based. This ultimate, "divine" perspective on all that exists exceeds practical knowledge, and makes perfect happiness possible in the form of theoretical meditation upon it. The life of the gods is, according to Aristotle, pure meditation, and the happiest human action is that which is most closely related to it. Those who cannot meditate theoretically, such as animals, cannot be happy. 59

The ideals of the Greek Enlightenment are realized in Aristotle when he affords humans the possibility of directing their own development toward perfection through the power and capacity of their own reason. But this requires involvement in politics, in that the goal of the state is to provide a form of social justice that affords individuals the opportunity to be virtuous. General education based on law has a great deal of importance in the formation of Aristotle's good life, as the irrational part of the soul is accustomed through it to act under the direction of reason and to learn to desire the good. 60

But what did Aristotle think about education as it relates to the virtues of the rational part of the soul? Can children be educated in the intellectual virtues? He has been generally interpreted to consider the discussion of ethical problems, for instance, to be possible only in middle age, after one has mastered the processes of reasoning. 61 This is congruent with his thinking about the development of practical reason, which he also considers to be the result of long human experience. But it would appear that his final stand on this issue remains obscure, due at least partly to the differing meanings of the concept of childhood between the ancient world and ours. In the Nicomachean Ethics he says that the young cannot control the expression of emotions, and therefore cannot acquire the intellectual virtues. 62 Fronesis requires the ability to choose, which in turn can only be based on deliberation. A choice concerns an action, not a proposition, and it is about adhering to one thing above others. 63 According to Aristotle, this is something that children cannot do. The development of the virtues that allow us to choose come about mainly through teaching, and therefore require time and experience—unlike the virtues of character, to which children can be accustomed at quite a young age, since they are based on habituation. 64 In the Politics, written after the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle returns to this question. The special status of the child—and of the slave and woman as well—clearly occupied his mind more here, where he does not appear to be as categorical as before. 65 In the first book (Chapter 13), he discusses how children actually differ in this respect from free adult males. Do they have virtues? Is a child sometimes intemperate and sometimes temperate, or not? 66 He concludes by claiming that, even though there are differences in virtue between the rulers and the ones ruled, yet they must still "share in virtue," for otherwise both good rulership and being ruled would be impossible. Furthermore, Aristotle proposes that children, women and slaves have both a rational and an irrational part to their souls, but in different ways. The difference is connected with their capacity for deliberation. Slaves have none (to bouleutikon), women have it but lack the authority to control their irrational desires (akyron), and, finally, children have it, but it is still undeveloped (ateles). 67

It would thus appear that Aristotle considered children to have intellectual virtues as potentialities which are actualized only through the education of the virtues of character. This potentiality, and the "share in virtue" between adults and children, are key prerequisites for instruction leading to fronesis. So the question about Aristotle's position concerning the relationship between education and the intellectual virtues has to be examined in the context of his thinking in its entirety. The objective of philosophy for Aristotle—the search for wisdom—is a gradual process, unfolding in stages each of which is valuable in itself, and in each of which presupposes the others, and is included in the others. 68 It is the responsibility of the educator to make it possible for this potentiality to begin unfolding and move toward actualization.


47 Met. I, 2, 982b 28.

48 See Knuuttila, S. 1981. Introduction to Nichomachean Ethics (in Finnish). Juva: WSOY. p. 6.

49 Knuuttila 1981, p. 11.

50 EN 1098a 16-18.

51 EN 1096a 11 – 1097a 12; Met. I, 9; XIII, XIV. See also Knuuttila 1981, p. 3; Ryle,G. "Plato" in Edwards, P. (ed.) 1967. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, vol 6. New York: The Macmillan Company & The Free Press. pp. 314-333.

52 When William James says in Pragmatism that "Aristotle used it methodically," he seems to be referring just to this pragmatic way to look for meaning, which in this case means inquiring into the goodness of some particular action by exploring its practical consequences.

53 EN 1094a 1-1103a 10; 1105b 5-11.

54 EN 1103a 25-26.

55 According to Knuuttila (1981, p.140, 158), the term fronesis has a technical meaning if it is translated as "practical rationality," where it means the intellectual virtue that is manifested by finding the right way to behave in each situation. Aristotle, however, also uses the same term or its relative forms in a broad sense, meaning reasonableness or wisdom in general (e.g. 1096b 17, 24; 1095b 28).

56 EN 1140a 24-1140b 30; 1141b 8-23; 1143a 1-18; 1144a 7-11; 1144b 31-33.

57 EN 1142a 31-1142b35.

58 EN 1143a 19-24. On the equitable, see also EN 1137a 32-1138a 3.

59 EN 1141a 9-1141b 8; 1176a 30 – 1179a 31; 1178b 29-31.

60 EN 1102a 5-1103b 25; 1179b 20-1180a 20.

61 See for example Lipman 1988, p. 94.

62 EN 1095a 1-9; 1142a 11-22.

63 EN 1111b 4 – 1112a 17; 1112a 18 – 1113a 14. According to Knuuttila (1981, p. 148) "choice" is a sort of a black box in Aristotle's theory of doing, inside of which thought is changed into action. It should also be noted that "choice" for Aristotle does not mean selection between alternatives as it does for moderns—but rather we choose what is unambiguously favored by calculating reason.

64 EN 1103a 14-18; 1142a 10-20; 1181a 13 – 1181b 12. On the discussion of the difference between Aristotle and Kant on the question of whether judgment can be taught, see Lipman, M. 1991. Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 81-82 and note 15. See also p. 261 where Lipman continues the discussion about the same theme.

65 According to Knuuttila (1981, 5) the origin and timing of Aristotle's works are highly problematic. It is obvious, though, that both the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics belong to the late production of Aristotle and were written when he was leading the Lyceum in Athens in 335-323. It can also be concluded on the basis of the last chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics that the Politics was written after it.

66 Pol. I, 13, 1259b 30-32.

67 Pol. I, 13, 1260a 13.

68 In this interpretation of Aristotle's theory of the virtues I draw from Uurtimo (Uurtimo, Y. ”Käytännön elämä ja kaikkeus Aristoteleella” in niin & näin, 1997, 2, pp. 59-64), who attempts to overcome the problem often connected with Aristotle's thinking about the separation between practical action and contemplation.


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