Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals
Category: Ideas
Level 10.21 8:13 h
Does the soul exist, and can it exist without a physical body? Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals is a deep dive by philosopher Thomas Davidson on the subject he was passionate about. Read how Davidson explains the soul and Nous based on the understandings of Aristotle. Davidson takes Aristotle's fundamental theories and expands upon them as he analyzes the soul.

Ancient Educational Ideals

Thomas Davidson

Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals


In undertaking to treat of Aristotle as the expounder of ancient educational ideas, I might, with Kapp’s Aristoteles’ Staatspaedagogik before me, have made my task an easy one. I might simply have presented in an orderly way and with a little commentary, what is to be found on the subject of education in his various works — Politics, Ethics, Rhetoric, Poetics, etc. I had two reasons, however, for not adopting this course: (1) that this work had been done, better than I could do it, in the treatise referred to, and (2) that a mere restatement of what Aristotle says on education would hardly have shown his relation to ancient pedagogy as a whole. I therefore judged it better, by tracing briefly the whole history of Greek education up to Aristotle and down from Aristotle, to show the past which conditioned his theories and the future which was conditioned by them. Only thus, it seemed to me, could his teachings be seen in their proper light. And I have found that this method has many advantages, of which I may mention one. It has enabled me to show the close connection that existed at all times between Greek education and Greek social and political life, and to present the one as the reflection of the other. And this is no small advantage, since it is just from its relation to the whole of life that Greek education derives its chief interest for us. We can never, indeed, return to the purely political education of the Greeks; they themselves had to abandon that, and, since then,

A boundless hope has passed across the earth —

a hope which gives our education a meaning and a scope far wider than any that the State aims at; but in these days, when the State and the institution which embodies that hope are contending for the right to educate, it cannot but aid us in settling their respective claims, to follow the process by which they came to have distinct claims at all, and to see just what these mean. This process, the method which I have followed has, I hope, enabled me, in some degree, to bring into clearness. This, at all events, has been one of my chief aims.

In treating of the details of Greek educational practice, I have been guided by a desire to present only, or mainly, those which contribute to make up the complete picture. For this reason I have omitted all reference to the training for the Olympic and other games, this (so it seems to me) being no essential part of the system.

It would have been easy for me to give my book a learned appearance, by checkering its pages with references to ancient authors, or quotations, in the original, from them; but this has seemed to me both unnecessary and unprofitable in a work intended for the general public. I have, therefore, preferred to place at the heads of the different chapters, in English mostly, such quotations as seemed to express, in the most striking way, the spirit of the different periods and theories of Greek education. Taken together, I believe these quotations will be found to present a fairly definite outline of the whole subject.

In conclusion, I would say that, though I have used a few modern works, such as those of Kapp and Grasberger, I have done so almost solely for the sake of finding references. In regard to every point I believe I have turned to the original sources. If, therefore, my conclusions on certain points differ from those of writers of note who have preceded me, I can only say that I have tried to do my best with the original materials before me. I am far from flattering myself that I have reached the truth in every case, and shall be very grateful for corrections, in whatever spirit they may be offered; but I trust that I have been able to present in their essential features, the “ancient ideals of education.”


Keene, Essex Co., N.Y.
October, 1891.

Aristotle and Ancient Educational Ideals

Book I


Chapter I
Character And Ideal Of Greek Education

Nothing in excess! — Solon.

No citizen has a right to consider himself as belonging to himself; but all ought to regard themselves as belonging to the State, inasmuch as each is a part of the State; and care for the part naturally looks to care for the whole. — Aristotle.

Greek life, in all its manifestations, was dominated by a single idea, and that an æsthetic one. This idea, which worked sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, was PROPORTION. The Greek term for this (Logos) not only came to designate the incarnate Word of Religion, but has also supplied many modern languages with a name for the Science of Manifested Reason — Logic. To the Greek, indeed, Reason always meant ratio, proportion; and a rational life meant to him a life of which all the parts, internal and external, stood to each other in just proportion. Such proportion was threefold; first, between the different parts of the individual human being; second, between the individual and his fellows in a social whole; third, between the human, as such, and the overruling divine. The realization of this threefold harmony in the individual was called by the Greeks WORTH (Ἀρετή, usually, but incorrectly, rendered Virtue). There has come down to us, from the pen of Aristotle, in whom all that was implicit in Hellenism became explicit, a portion of a pæan addressed to this ideal. It may be fitly inserted here, in a literal translation.

To Worth.

O Worth! stern taskmistress of human kind,
Life’s noblest prize:
O Virgin! for thy beauty’s sake
It is an envied lot in Hellas even to die,
And suffer toils devouring, unassuaged —
So well dost thou direct the spirit
To fruit immortal, better than gold
And parents and soft-eyed sleep.
For thy cause Jove-born Hercules and Leda’s sons
Much underwent, by deeds
Thy power proclaiming.
For love of thee Achilles and Ajax to Hades’ halls went down.
For thy dear beauty’s sake Atarneus’ nursling too widowed the glances of the sun.
Therefore, as one renowned for deeds and deathless, him the Muses shall exalt,
The daughters of Memory, exalting so the glory of Stranger-guarding ​Jove, and the honor of friendship firm

With regard to this ideal, four things are especially noteworthy; first, that it took an exhaustive survey of man’s nature and relations; second, that it called for strong, persistent, heroic effort; third, that it tended to sink the individual in the social whole and the universal order; fourth, that its aim was, on the whole, a static perfection. The first two were merits; the second two, demerits. The first merit prevented the Greeks from pursuing one-sided systems of education; the second, from trying to turn education into a means of amusement. Aristotle says distinctly, “Education ought certainly not to be turned into a means of amusement; for young people are not playing when they are learning, since all learning is accompanied with pain.” The first demerit was prejudicial to individual liberty, and therefore obstructive of the highest human development; the second encouraged Utopian dreams, which, being always of static conditions, undisturbed by the toils and throes essential to progress, tend to produce impatience of that slow advance whereby alone man arrives at enduring results. To this tendency we owe such works as Plato’s Republic and Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus.

Chapter II
Branches Of Greek Education

With thee the aged car-borne Peleus sent me on the day whereon from Phthia to Agamemnon he sent thee, a mere boy, not yet acquainted with mutual war or councils, in which men rise to distinction — for this end he sent me forth to teach thee all these things, to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds. — (Phœnix in) Homer.

Above all and by every means we provide that our citizens shall have good souls and strong bodies. — Lucian.

Life is the original school — life, domestic and social. All other schools merely exercise functions delegated by the family and by society, and it is not until the latter has reached such a state of complication as to necessitate a division of labor that special schools exist. Among the Homeric Greeks we find no mention of schools, and the only person recorded as having had a tutor is Achilles, who was sent away from home so early in life as to be deprived of that education which he would naturally have received from his father. In what that education consisted, we learn from the first quotation at the head of this chapter. It consisted in such training as would make the pupil “a speaker of words and a doer of deeds” — a man eloquent and persuasive in council, and brave and resolute on the field of battle. For these ends he required, as Lucian says, a good soul and a strong body.

These expressions mark the two great divisions into which Greek education at all periods fell — MENTAL EDUCATION and PHYSICAL EDUCATION — as well as their original aims, viz. goodness (that is, bravery) of soul and strength of body. As time went on, these aims underwent considerable changes, and consequently the means for attaining them considerable modifications and extensions. Physical education aimed more and more at beauty and grace, instead of strength, while mental education, in its effort to extend itself to all the powers of the mind, divided itself into literary and musical education.

As we have seen, the Greeks aimed at developing all the powers of the human being in due proportion and harmony. But, in course of time, they discovered that the human creature comes into the world with his powers, not only undeveloped, but already disordered and inharmonious; that not only do the germs of manhood require to be carefully watched and tended, but also that the ground in which they are to grow must be cleared from an overgrowth of choking weeds, before education can be undertaken with any hope of success. This clearing process was called by the later Greeks Katharsis, or Purgation, and played an ever-increasing part in their pedagogical systems. It was supposed to do for man’s emotional nature what Medicine undertook to do for his body. The means employed were mainly music and the kindred arts, which the ancients believed to exert what we should now call a dæmonic effect upon the soul, drawing off the exciting causes of disturbing passion, and leaving it in complete possession of itself. It would hardly be too much to say that the power to exert this purgative influence on the soul was regarded by the ancients as the chief function and end of the Fine Arts. Such was certainly Aristotle’s opinion.

When purgation and the twofold education of body and mind had produced their perfect work, the result was what the Greeks called Kalokagathia (καλοκἀγαθία) that is, Fair-and-Goodness. Either half of this ideal was named ἀρετή (aretê), Worth or Excellence. We are expressly told by Aristotle (Categories, chap. viii.) that the adjective to ἀρετή is σπουδαῖος (spoudaios), a word which we usually render into English by “earnest.” And we do so with reason; for to the Greek, Excellence or Worth meant, above all, earnestness, genuineness, truthfulness, thoroughness, absence of frivolity.

Chapter III
Conditions Of Education

Some hold that men become good by nature, others by training, others by instruction. The part that is due to nature obviously does not depend upon us, but is imparted through certain divine causes to the truly fortunate. — Aristotle.

It is not merely begetting that makes the father, but also the imparting of a noble education. — John Chrysostom.

There are two sorts of education, the one divine, the other human. The divine is great and strong and easy; the human small and weak and beset with many dangers and delusions. Nevertheless, the latter must be added to the former, if a right result is to be reached. — Dion Chrysostom.

The same thing that we are wont to assert regarding the arts and sciences, may be asserted regarding moral worth, viz. that the production of a completely just character demands three conditions — nature, reason, and habit. By “reason” I mean instruction, by “habit,” training…. Nature without instruction is blind; instruction without nature, helpless; exercise (training) without both, aimless. — Plutarch.

To the realization of their ideal in any individual the Greeks conceived three conditions to be necessary, (1) a noble nature, (2) persistent exercise or training in right action, (3) careful instruction. If any one of these was lacking, the highest result could not be attained.

(1) To be well or nobly born was regarded by the Greeks as one of the best gifts of the gods. Aristotle defines noble birth as “ancient wealth and worth,” and this fairly enough expresses the Greek view generally. Naturally enough, therefore, the Greek in marrying looked above all things to the chances of a worthy offspring. Indeed, it may be fairly said that the purpose of the Greek in marriage was, not so much to secure a helpmeet for himself as to find a worthy mother for his children. In Greece, as everywhere else in the ancient world, marriage was looked upon solely as an arrangement for the procreation and rearing of offspring. The romantic, pathological love-element, which plays so important a part in modern match-making, was almost entirely absent among the Greeks. What love there was, assumed either the noble form of enthusiastic friendship or the base one of free lust. In spite of this, and of the fact that woman was regarded as a means and not as an end, the relations between Greek husbands and wives were very often such as to render the family a school of virtue for the children. They were noble, sweet, and strong, — all the more so, it should seem, that they were based, not upon a delusive sentimentality, but upon reason and a sense of reciprocal duty.

(2) The value of exercise, practice, habituation, seems to have been far better understood by the ancients than by the moderns. Whatever a man has to do, be it speaking, swimming, playing, or fighting, he can learn only by doing it; this was a universally accepted maxim. The modern habit of trying to teach languages and virtues by rules, not preceded by extensive practice, would have seemed to the ancients as absurd as the notion that a man could learn to swim before going into the water. Practice first; theory afterwards: do the deed, and ye shall know of the doctrine — so said ancient Wisdom, to which the notion that children should not be called upon to perform any act, or submit to any restriction, without having the grounds thereof explained to them, would have seemed the complete inversion of all scientific method. It was by insisting upon a certain practice in children, on the ground of simple authority, that the ancients sought to inculcate the virtues of reverence for experience and worth, and respect for law.

(3) The work begun by nature, and continued by habit or exercise, was completed and crowned by instruction. This had, according to the Greek, two functions, (a) to make action free, by making it rational, (b)to make possible an advance to original action. Nature and habit left men thralls, governed by instincts and prescriptions; instruction, revelation of the grounds of action, set them free. Such freedom, based on insight, was to the thinkers of Greece the realization of manhood, or rather, of the divine in man. “The truth shall make you free” — no one understood this better than they. Hence, with all their steady insistence upon practice in education, they never regarded it as the ultimate end, or as any end at all, except when guided by insight, the fruit of instruction. A practicality leading to no widening of the spiritual horizon, to no freeing insight, was to them illiberal, slavish, paltry — “banausic,” they said, — degrading both to body and soul.

Chapter IV
Subjects For Education

It is right that Greeks should rule over barbarians, but not barbarians over Greeks; for those are slaves, but these are free men. — Euripides.

Barbarian and slave are by nature the same. — Aristotle.

Nature endeavors to make the bodies of freemen and slaves different; the latter strong for necessary use, the former erect and useless for such operations, but useful for political life…. It is evident, then, that by nature some men are free, others slaves, and
that, in the case of the latter, slavery is both beneficial and just. — Id.

Instruction, though it plainly has power to direct and stimulate the generous among the young … is as plainly powerless to turn the mass of men to nobility and goodness (Kalokagathia). For it is not in their nature to be guided by reverence, but by fear, nor to abstain from low things because they are disgraceful, but (only) because they entail punishment. — Id.

In thinking of Greek education as furnishing a possible model for us moderns, there is one point which it is important to bear in mind: Greek education was intended only for the few, for the wealthy and well-born. Upon all others, upon slaves, barbarians, the working and trading classes, and generally upon all persons spending their lives in pursuit of wealth or any private ends whatsoever, it would have seemed to be thrown away. Even well-born women were generally excluded from most of its benefits. The subjects of education were the sons of full citizens, themselves preparing to be full citizens, and to exercise all the functions of such. The duties of such persons were completely summed up under two heads, duties to the family and duties to the State, or, as the Greeks said, œconomic and political duties. The free citizen not only acknowledged no other duties besides these, but he looked down upon persons who sought occupation in any other sphere. Œconomy and Politics, however, were very comprehensive terms. The former included the three relations of husband to wife, father to children, and master to slaves and property; the latter, three public functions, legislative, administrative, and judiciary. All occupations not included under these six heads the free citizen left to slaves or resident foreigners. Money-making, in the modern sense, he despised, and, if he devoted himself to art or philosophy, he did so only for the benefit of the State. If he improved the patrimony which was the condition of his free citizenship, he did so, not by chaffering or money-lending, but by judicious management, and by kindly, but firm, treatment of his slaves. If he performed any great artistic service to the State — for example, if he wrote a tragedy for a State religious festival (and plays were never written for any other purpose) — the only reward he looked forward to was a crown of olive or laurel and the respect of his fellow-citizens.

The Greeks divided mankind, in all the relations of life, into two distinct classes, a governing and a governed, and considered the former alone as the subject of education; the latter being a mere instrument in its hands. The governing class required education in order that it might govern itself and the other class, in accordance with reason and justice; that other, receiving its guidance from the governing class, required no education, or only such as would enable it to obey. It followed that the duty of the governing class was to govern; of the governed, to obey. Only in this correlation of duties did each class find its usefulness and satisfaction. Any attempt to disturb or invert this correlation was a wilful running in the teeth of the laws of nature, a rebellion against the divine order of things.

As husband, father, master in the family, and as legislator, officer, judge in the State, each member of the governing class found his proper range of activities; and he did wrong, degrading himself to the level of the serving class, if he sought any other. This view, in a more or less conscious form, pervades the whole ancient world, conditioning all its notions and theories of education; and Paul the Apostle only echoed it when he said to wives: “Wives, be in subjection to your own husbands as to the Lord”; to children: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right”; and to slaves: “Slaves, be obedient unto them that according to the flesh are your masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as unto Christ.”

Chapter V
Education As Influenced By Time, Place, And Circumstances

The peculiar character of each form of government is what establishes it at the beginning and what usually preserves it…. Since the whole State has but one end, it is plainly necessary that there should be one education for all the citizens. — Aristotle.

Education among the Greeks, as among every other progressive people, varied with times and circumstances. The education of the Homeric Greeks was not that of the Athenians in the days of Aristotle, nor the latter the same as the education of the contemporary Spartans or Thebans. Moreover, the education actually imparted was not the same as that demanded or recommended by philosophers and writers on pedagogics. It is true that the aim was always the same; Worth, Excellence, Fair-and-Goodness (ἀρετή, καλοκἀγαθία); but this was differently conceived and differently striven after at different times and in different places.

Among the Homeric Greeks, as we have seen, education, being purely practical, aiming only at making its subject “a speaker of words and a doer of deeds,” was acquired in the actual intercourse and struggles of life. The simple conditions of their existence demanded no other education and, consequently, no special educational institutions. These conditions, as described by Homer, though by no means barbarous, are primitive. Nomadism has long been left behind and the later village-communities have been mostly merged in walled towns, generally situated at some distance from the shore, on or near a hill, whose summit forms a citadel for refuge in cases of danger. Even in the most advanced of these towns, however, the type of civilization is still largely patriarchal. The government is in the hands of chiefs or kings (βασιλῆες) claiming to be born and bred of Jove, as, indeed, in a sense, they were, since they ruled quite as much by right of personal worth, which more than anything is due to the grace of God, as by hereditary title. Worth in those days consisted in physical strength, courage, beauty, judgment, and power to address an assembly, and any king proving deficient in these qualities would soon have found his position insecure, or been compelled to fortify it by lawless tyranny. The functions devolving upon the king were mainly three, those of judge, military commander, and priest. The first required judgment and ready speech; the second, strength and intelligent courage; the third, personal beauty and dignity. Though the kings were allowed to exercise great power, this was not irresponsible or arbitrary. On the contrary, it was compatible with great public freedom in speech and action. Slavery existed only to a limited extent and in a mild form. All free heads of families, however poor, had a right to attend the popular assembly, which the king consulted on all important matters, and at which the freëst discussion was allowed. When the kings exercised judicial power, they did so in accordance with certain themistes or laws, held to have originated with Zeus, and not according to their own caprice. As there was little commerce in those days, the inhabitants of the ancient cities, when not engaged in warfare, devoted themselves chiefly to agriculture, cattle-raising, and the useful arts. In these even the kings thought it no shame to engage. We find Paris helping to build his own palace, Odysseus constructing his own bed, Lycaon cutting wood to make chariot-rails, and so on. Similarly, we find Helen and other princesses spinning and weaving, while Nausicaa, the daughter of the Phæacian king, washes the clothes of the family.

In such a primitive society, unacquainted with letters, the higher education found but few aspirants. The only persons of scientific pretensions mentioned by Homer are the physicians (who are likewise surgeons) and the soothsayers. The former are highly appreciated, and are always chiefs. The soothsayers are the exponents of divine omens to the community, and occupy a kind of official position, like the Hebrew prophets. No artists, strictly speaking, are mentioned by Homer, except the bard, and he is much honored, as historian, teacher, and inspirer. We find, indeed, that Achilles and Paris are proficients in music; but such cases seem exceptional. Of artisans, several are mentioned — the worker in wood, the worker in horn and ivory, the potter (who uses the wheel), and so on. The existence of others is implied — the weaver, the mason, the metal-worker, etc.

If there were no special schools in the heroic age, life was so lived as to be an excellent school. Then, as at all other times, it was extremely social, far more so than our modern life. This was due chiefly to three causes, (1) the smallness of the states, which made it possible for every citizen to know, and to feel his solidarity with, every other, (2) the absence of titles and formalities, which had not yet been introduced from the East, (3) the fact that the people, especially the men, spent the greater part of the day in the open air, — in the streets and agora, — and so were continually rubbing against each other. This sociality had much to do with the shaping of the Greek character, the salient elements of which are thus enumerated by Zeller, the historian of Greek philosophy: “A strong sense of freedom, combined with a rare susceptibility to proportion, form, and order, a keen relish for companionship in life and action, a social tendency which compelled the individual to combine with others, to submit to the general will, to follow the traditions of his family and his community.”

Between the simple social condition described by Homer and that for which Aristotle wrote, there intervened a period of at least six hundred years. During that time many great changes took place in the social and political life of the Greeks, demanding corresponding changes in education. These changes were due to several causes, (1) the natural human tendency toward freedom, (2) the influence of foreign nations, (3) the development of commerce, (4) the introduction of letters, (5) the rise of philosophy, (6) the Persian Wars. Though all these are closely interwoven with each other, there can be no harm in treating them separately.

(1) The tendency toward freedom, so essentially characteristic of human nature, was especially so of the nature of the Greeks. Among them it rapidly manifested itself in an ordered series of political forms, beginning with patriarchalism, and ending variously in the various states and races. There is, indeed, hardly a single form of political life that was not realized among the Greeks at some time or place. It was this that made it possible for Aristotle to write a work on Politics which, in the words of a recent political writer, “has remained for two thousand years one of the purest sources of political wisdom.”

WholeReader. Empty coverWholeReader. Book is closedWholeReader. FilterWholeReader. Compilation cover