The Incomprehensible Pleasure of Solitude

Aristotle claims that “the first principle of all action is leisure.” Many modern people would be tempted to agree with Aristotle, thinking that we work so that we may have things we like and do things that bring us enjoyment. Yet, if modern people knew what Aristotle had in mind by “leisure,” it is unlikely that they would endorse such a view. Today, leisure, is synonymous with “amusement” or “entertainment.” A search online for “leisure activities” is likely to return such things as amusement parks, sporting events, or any number of outdoor activities or vacation spots. Yet Aristotle would hardly reckon these among proper “leisure activities.” In fact, these activities are quite un-leisurely.

What, then, does he have in mind? For the Greeks, the word leisure is σχολή (scholē), from which we derive the word “school” (a fact that never ceases to confound students), and meant both “time free from labor” or “spare time,” and also the content of that spare time. It was defined negatively as “time not working” and suggested the proper activities that a human being should be about while not working. Furthermore, the negation of scholē, a-scholē, meant “busy,” connoting “busy at work.” The word scholē was translated in Latin as otium and likewise denoted “time free from labor” and like the Greeks, the Romans negated this work to suggest “business:” neg-otium, from which we derive the English word “negotiation.” In the case of both scholē and otium, the time for “not working” connoted time spent in learning, thinking, contemplation, reading, writing, etc. In essence, it was time set aside for the mind, not the body, to work. This, as Aristotle indicates, is the primary function of the human being. Similarly, Isocrates argues that “it is acknowledged that the nature of man is compounded of two parts, the physical and the mental, and no one would deny that of these two the mind comes first and is of greater worth; for it is the function of the mind to decide both on personal and on public questions, and of the body to be servant to the judgements of the mind” (Isocrates, Antidosis)

Leisure activities thusly understood mean simply cultivating and using the innate, universal human faculties in the discovery and performance of truth. They are activities distinguished from “amusement” in that “amusement” is aimed only at pleasure. Leisure, on the other hand, is precisely the time for “musing” or thinking, not “a-musing” or not-thinking. Leisure activities are anything but idleness, for they involve a great deal of effort by the mind. An effort that is fundamental to the very nature of humanity, yet one so difficult that people would rather abandon the endeavor altogether (and consequently their humanity) than to take the time to pursue truly noble ends. And “leisure,” says James V. Schall, “is the noblest name of all” (Schall, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 102). It is the noblest because it is what makes humans, human. Furthermore, these activities are ends in themselves, and not means to other ends, as is work. As Mortimer J. Adler points out, “Leisure activities, in sharp distinction from labor or work, consist of those things that men do because they are desirable for their own sake. They are self-rewarding, not externally compensated, and they are freely engaged in” (Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education, 100).

220px-Blaise_pascalThe inability to use free time for leisure is symptomatic of our inability to be human, and consequently to be happy. As Aristotle points out, we work that we may be at leisure, that is, that we may do those activities which truly become a human. As Adler says, “The good life depends on labor, but it consists of leisure … Leisure activities constitute not mere living but living well” (Ibid.). According to Blaise Pascal, that people cannot use their leisure time properly is what leads them to create a multitude of distractions and evils: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town.” (Pensées, 136) He continues,

That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible. That, in fact, is the main joy of being king, because people are continually trying to divert him and provide him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself. (Ibid.)

That quiet and solitude are “incomprehensible” for many people demonstrates their inability to use that part of them which is the highest, the mind. A person who cannot sit quietly with their own thoughts shows that he is at odds with himself, he cannot stand to be with himself. Certainly humans are not just their minds, but they are certainly nothing less. This incomprehensible solitude is essential for a flourishing human life, for the cultivation of the essentially human faculties can only be accomplished through leisure activities. Therefore, a recovery of leisure and leisure activities as something other than amusement is necessary for human happiness.

Stretched Out Towards Knowing: Human Wonder and Knowledge

The wonder in a child’s eyes as they encounter the world for the first time is as exhilarating as it is unmistakable. It is the exuberance, delight, and astonishment of a young mind dazzled by creation. The dazzled young mind does not remain dazzled though, it is drawn out to know that which dazzles it. The child asks “why” incessantly, struggling to know this world in which he lives, this world which dazzles him so. This experience reveals something profound about human nature and the process of education.

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliAt the center of the child’s experience is wonder. Thomas Aquinas defined wonder as “a kind of desire for knowledge, a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or power of understanding” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 32, A. 8). As we see the fireworks, we might wonder as to how the pyro-technician is able to produce explosions of different colors, shapes, or sizes. When we hear a strange sound at night, we might wonder what kind of goblin is roaming our house. As we reflect on ourselves, we might wonder why we exist at all! This experience of wonder reveals an essentially human characteristic, for of all creatures, humans alone wonder. These feelings of wonder are an essentially human phenomenon. As Philip Melanchthon muses, “Who is so hard-hearted…that he does not sometimes, looking up at the sky and beholding the most beautiful stars in it, wonder at these varied alternations…and desire to know the traces…of their motions?” (Orations on Philosophy and Education, 106)

As Thomas’ definition suggests, humans can wonder, because they can know. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know” (980a22). This translation hides an interesting dimension to Aristotle’s claim. For the word here translated as “desire” is the word ὀρέγω (orego), which does not simply mean “desire” but “stretch out, extend” and in this context could be rendered: “All men by nature are stretched out towards knowing.” Humans are stretched out but also must stretch themselves out to live in according with this nature. As Aristotle says, humans “must, so far as we can…strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (Nicomachean Ethics, 177b33-34). The mind is, as James V. Schall says, capax omnium—capable of knowing all things (On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 15). It is in human nature to be pulled towards and to strain towards truth, for only truth can be known. Both Plato and Aristotle cite wonder as the cause of or the beginning of all philosophy (wisdom): “This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” (Theaetetus, 155D) “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (Metaphysics, 982b12-13).

At this point, we are still missing an important part of wonder. The Latin word for wonder, admirare, comes into English as “admire” or “admiration.” Yet, wonder is not admiration, for admiration suggests a distanced response to something worthy of respect. Wonder, on the other hand, involves the wonderer. The wonderer is not a distance observer, but a participator with those wonders. As involved in the process, the wonderer experiences a great pleasure. This pleasure is not simply that of amusement (far from it!), but a hope that that which causes awe in us due to our ignorance can come to be known. Again, says Thomas, “wonder is a cause of pleasure in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge one desires to have. … Wonder gives pleasure … in so far as it includes the desire of learning the cause, and in so far as the wonderer learns something new.” Wonder, therefore, is intimately linked with hope. For, if there is no hope that the wonderer will come to know the object of his wonder, the only result is despair. Consequently, any belief system which denies that knowledge is possible, or that truth is attainable by the human mind, must be a system of despair; and must chastise the child that wonders.

If this desire to wonder and to know is innate in human nature, why then do many people stop wondering as they grow? A full treatment of the decline in our wonder is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to suggest one possibility. As we grow, we sin, and as we sin, we violate our very nature. The effects of this will vary as individuals vary, but one of the effects is often the diminished desire for our very nature to develop. We lose what G.K. Chesterton calls, “the eternal appetite of infancy” (Orthodoxy, 58) The world becomes a wearisome and tiresome place, because we are wearied and tired of ourselves. We are born, as Wordsworth puts, “trailing clouds of glory … [and] Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” But as we grow up, we grow old and can no longer see Heaven around us.

The question now becomes, what is to be done? How are we to recover this eternal infancy? How are we to grow up, without growing old? The answer must partly come from education. Education of the kind that does not dull the mind into submission, but which liberates it from opinion and ignorance, and feeds it on truth, goodness, and beauty. Then, and only then, is the mind freed to continue wondering, knowing, and delighting in the process as it matures. Furthermore, as the mind matures, it’s capacity to wonder also matures and so too does the delight in knowing. In short, we become more human, more of what we are, more of what we were intended to be.

Why Study History? Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”

Note: This is the second post in the series: “Why Study History”

Before an examination of the role of history in education can be made, the definitions of both “history” and “education” must be set forth. To begin with the later, there are two broad understandings of what constitutes “education.” On the one hand there is what I will call “humane education.” On this view, the primary purpose of education is to make students good. It is an education that concerns itself with the whole of human life and the formation of the child or student into a robust human being. On the other hand, there is what I will call “utilitarian education.” On this view, the purpose of education is to make students useful for some task. The modern utilitarian usually has something like “career” or “job” in mind when defining the “task” for which the student is to be trained. Etymologically, the word “education” is derived from the Latin ēdūco which means to lead forth, draw out, or bring away. This general concept is common to both humane and utilitarian education to the degree that both views see education as the process of leading the student from one state into another.

Both humane and utilitarian views of education go by different names, but it should be pointed out that, historically speaking, it is a mistake to associate “humane education” with “traditional” or “classical” education and to associate “utilitarian education” with “modernist” or “progressivist” education. Both forms of education can be found across the centuries and in many parts of the world simultaneously. For example, Aristotle, in defending the humane education like that found in Athens, criticizes the Spartans for their utilitarian education that was only concerned with “necessary and useful things,” and ignored what is “noble” (Aristotle, Politics, 1332b1:15-1334a1:25). However, “humane education” has been the dominant view among educators and philosophers until the modern period. Says Mortimer Adler, “one opinion from which there is hardly a dissenting voice in the great books is that education should aim to make men good as men and as citizens” (Mortimer J. Adler, “Education,” Great Books of the Western World, 297).

“Humane education” has its roots in Greece and is most closely associated with the Greek word παιδεία (paideia). “Paideia” refers to the nourishing or upbringing of a child and it is from the related Latin term humanitas which we derive “the humanities.” Both paideia and humanitas take it for granted that a child will not naturally grow into a full human being, and therefore requires humane education. For humane education, “the aim of education is the perfection of the individual soul, the cultivation of its faculties for their own sake and in due gradation of absolute value, using the external world, in so far as it does us this at all, chiefly as a means and opportunity of arriving nearer to the ultimate perfection or of rendering clearer our vision of the ultimate truth” (W. H. Hadow, “The Place of Humane Letters in Education,” 20).

The “means” alluded to by Hadow, most closely associated with humane education, have been the liberal arts. “Liberal” because those were the arts it was thought necessary to master in order to free the human mind. As Mortimer Adler says, “the liberal arts are traditionally intended to develop the faculties of the human mind, those powers of intelligence and imagination without which no intellectual work can be accomplished…once all were acquired, the student was “free” to stand before all things as a whole, both to know and to act” (Mortimer J. Adler, “What Is Liberal Education?”. It is not taken for granted that the child will naturally grow into an adult, rather the child requires cultivation. According to Leo Strauss, “‘culture’ means…chiefly the cultivation of the mind, the taking care and improving of the native faculties of the mind in accordance with the nature of the mind. Just as the soil needs cultivators of the soil, [so] the mind needs teachers. [Humane education] consists in reminding oneself of human excellence, of human greatness” (Leo Strauss, Introduction to Political Philosophy).

Different undertakings of humane education have included various disciplines or “liberal arts” to achieve the end of a fully develop human person. For example, Pythagoras of Samos, in the sixth century B.C. developed a progressive education of three levels: oral instruction, musical education, and culminating in mathematics. This was later developed by Plato in the Republic to involve music, sports, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and finally philosophy. By the time of ninth century A.D., humane educators had codified the “Seven Liberal Arts.” These involved the trivium (or 3 ways of knowing) of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium (or 4 ways) of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. They are properly “ways” as “ways of knowing.” The common theme among these varying schemes of “liberal arts” is that they worked on the inner life of the mind of the student, cultivating and forming the student to become more fully human. As stated above, this was the dominant view of education.

If humane education is concerned with the formation of a child into an adult, a definition of what it means to be human in the first place is necessary. Every understanding of humane education must be understood with the ideal of the human person. For instance, Pythagoras’ educational system culminated in mathematics because this was the sacred doctrine that fully formed the human mind. “Irrespective of the cultural setting, the crux of the educational paradigm was the same—i.e., beginning with the end in view and approaching that end incrementally with each art building upon the other…” (Littlejohn and Evans, Wisdom and Eloquence, 29). Often, utilitarian views of education purport to be silent on the issue of human nature, seeking instead merely to train the student to accomplish some task. For example, the utilitarian might seek to train the student to perform some job only, while attempting to ignore the question of why a person should perform any job in the first place. Such a philosophy is inconsistent. As David Hicks says,

Education at every level reflects our primary assumptions about the nature of man, and for this reason, no education is innocent of an attitude toward man and his purposes. The writer on education who fails to state his view of man at the outset expects to perform some polemical magic. He masks his premises and invites a gullible reader to judge his conclusions on the deceptive merit of a logical deduction. In fact, whether he wishes to or not, he presupposes an order of human values; his understanding of the nature and proper end of man determines the purposes and tasks that he assigns to education. (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, 3-4)

As indicated above, education concerns itself with the cultivation of the mind. Related to this notion is the idea that education is also the process of “enculturation.” That is, if we examine the nature of “education” beyond simply “schooling,” education is the process by which one generation hands off or communicates its culture with the next generation.

It is clear that culture is inseparable from education, since education in the widest sense of the word is what the anthropologists term ‘enculturation’…No doubt this is a far wider process than what is commonly known as education, for we apply the word ‘education’ only to a very specialized type of enculturation—the formal teaching of particular kinds of knowledge and behavior to the younger members of the community through particular institutions. And the most important of all the processes by which culture is transmitted—the acquisition of speech—takes place before formal education begins. (Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 3)

That is, “education” is the process by which a group incorporates a younger generation into its customs, practices, art, history, etc. This process often happens tacitly from the very moment a child is born as it learns the primary part of culture from parents: that of language. As will be explored later, E.D. Hirsch identifies modern utilitarian education’s failure to properly “enculturate” students as the primary reason for the overall failure of these students to be able to function in society; so that culture (or history) becomes a primary component of any educational philosophy, whether humane or utilitarian. Therefore, an evaluation of the relative merits of humane education versus utilitarian education is unnecessary for this series of posts (but certainly will be a part of a different series I have planned for the future), since the overall goal of this series is to argue that regardless of one’s philosophy of education, history plays an essential role.

Up Next: Part IIb: The Definition of “History”

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction

The Polis or the Parent? Who Should Teach the Children?

aristotleIn a previous post I argued that Aristotle would reject modern Progressivist theories of education based on his writings from the Nicomachean Ethics. Now, I’d like to explore the issue of “who is responsible for teaching children” based on Aristotle’s arguments in the Politics.

Aristotle’s Politics argues that the formation of the city-state (or Polis) is a natural of state man which arises to fulfill the human need for community. Thusly, the state exists for the happiness of its citizens. Towards the end of Book VII of the Politics, Aristotle begins an examination of the nature and manner of educating the children of the Polis. After some general observations about education, Aristotle says that the next examination should be, “whether the care of them [the children] should be the concern of the state or of private individuals” (1337a5). It is likewise the purpose of this essay to evaluate whether the Polis or the parent should be responsible for educating children.

Not surprisingly, Aristotle argues that the education of the young should be directed by the Polis. Aristotle gives several reasons for this conclusion. First, “the neglect of education does harm to the constitution” (1337a11). In other words, if the state is going to continue, it must have good citizens, or rather it’s whole purpose is to produce good (or happy) citizens. Second, if the education of the young is left to each individual, then the parent will give the child “separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best; the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all” (1337a25-26). That is, it will not lead to the unity of the state. (“The same for all” and “public” should be understood as only applying to free citizens and not to slaves or foreigners.) Finally, Aristotle says “neither must we suppose that anyone of the citizens belongs to himself for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole” (1337a27-29). For these reasons, Aristotle concludes that education should be done by the Polis. Not only that, but also that that education should be public and uniform: “since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private” (1337a21-23).

A general observation should be made before an evaluation of Aristotle is given. First, I have used the word Polis in place of State in summarizing Aristotle’s arguments. For what Aristotle has in mind by the State is not what we mean by it today. For Aristotle, the Polis is a small, homogenous group of individual “villages” bound together to meet the greater needs of individuals. The Polis should be large enough to be self-sufficient, but small enough that people know one another, for otherwise they cannot be judges of who ought to rule (see Book VII, Ch. 4). In fact, Aristotle categorically condemns the Nation-State of today: “experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed…for law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly” (1326a25-32). Therefore, to say that Aristotle would approve of the public education offered today would be false. Aristotle would be opposed to the United States Department of Education due to the sheer size of what it attempts to govern. At best, Aristotle would only approve of local school boards free from any greater control by the Nation-State or even the individual States.

The question still remains whether the education of children is should fall to local school boards or to parents. Some difficulties with Aristotle’s proposal become immediately clear. Firstly, that a community has a vested interest in the education of children does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the community should be the one to educate the children, but only that children receive an education. One can see this system in practice in the homeschool education movement. The state does not educate the child, but merely ensures that the children do receive one, whether it’s provided by them or not.

As to Aristotle’s second argument, that if education is left up to the parent, there will not be a common education that unifies the city, it also does not follow that education is therefore to be done by the state. For again, the state can ensure that basic education (like reading and writing) is provided to the student, even if it is not the one providing it.

Aristotle’s third argument is the one that is most problematic. He asserts that individuals do not belong to themselves but rather to the state and therefore the state has the duty to educate the children. For if each individual belongs to the state in the way Aristotle suggests, it is difficult to see just where the rights of the citizens and the rights of the states begin or end. No doubt, Aristotle has in mind a Polis where each citizen is like-minded with regard to ends of humanity and so will therefore agree on the education of the children. So again we may be comparing apples to oranges by comparing what Aristotle has in mind with the programs of today’s public education. For what exactly is to happen if the Polis mis-educates or under-educates the children? Is the parent simply to bow to the power of the Polis? If, on the other hand, it is the responsibility of the parent either to educate or to ensure that their children receive an education, then the rights of the parents trump the rights of the Polis.

Much more could and needs to be explored on this issue. The conclusion of this analysis shows that, indeed, the Polis does have an interest in the education of children, but that this education does not necessarily come from the Polis itself. A further argument needs to be explored, which is beyond the scope of this post, whether it is primarily the duty of the parent to educate the child. For if this is the case, it will have a dramatic effect on the nature and manner of this education in the Polis.

Would Aristotle Send His Son to a Public School?


[ Disclaimer: please understand that I am not, in this post disparaging those people who work in public education. My criticisms are leveled against the Philosophy of Education which is driving modern Progressivist Education. I wholeheartedly support those people who are working hard in public schools, in spite of the philosophy which drives it.]


Aristotle stands in between two giants of history: his teacher, Plato, and his student, Alexander the Great. As both a student of a great teacher and a teacher of a great leader, one wonders just what Aristotle thought of education. Today there are several strains of educational theory which each offer their own views on the means and ends of education. Aristotle himself had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, so one wonders just what kind of education he thought best? A brief analysis of his Nicomachean Ethics reveals that Aristotle would likely reject modern theories of education.

In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins his discussion of ethics with the observation that whenever a person acts, they always act with some end in mind, some purpose, goal, or good. Further, he observes that the ends we have in mind are mostly means to other ends. For example, I brush my teeth. This is not done, however, without purpose. Clearly there is a good I have in mind for the action, for otherwise I would not brush my teeth. People may brush their teeth with different goods in mind. For example, one person may do it in order to avoid gingivitis, others to have a “clean” feeling in their mouths. Either way, the end in mind is a means to another end. In the former case the end is health and in the later it is pleasure.

Aristotle links the chain of means and ends and asks, is there something towards which all actions aim? That is, is there a “last end” or a “highest good” that we have in mind when we act? Aristotle asserts that the end we all have in mind is “happiness.” (See Note at end of post) That is, whatever we do, we do because we think it will make us happy. All people, says Aristotle, agree on this, but that is as far as the agreement goes. Just what is meant by “happiness” is highly disputed. Some might say that happiness is found in wealth, some that it is found in pleasure, others that it is found in honors. Is there any way to settle this dispute? Aristotle thinks so.

The question of “what is human flourishing or human happiness” must be defined in terms of what it means “to be human.” For, to find the “good” of anything, we must know its function. For example, the good of the computer rests in its functioning as it was designed to function (compute) and it reaches its “good” when it functions (computes) according to the way it was designed to function. The guitarist is a “good” guitarist when he plays the guitar in the way it was designed to function. So, if a human being has a function, the human being’s ultimate “good” will be functioning according to its nature (i.e., we will find fulfillment (our good) when we function according to our essence). Yet, how might we determine the human function?

To determine an object’s function one needs to discover what distinguishes it from all other objects. What is it that makes it, it? What is it, within humans, which makes them “human” and not “whales” or something else? Aristotle claims that the human function is “the soul’s activity that expresses reason [as itself having reason] or requires reason [as obeying reason]” (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a7-8). That is, it is the ability to think or to know that is unique and the principle element that makes a human, a human.  However, it is not merely “thinking” but rather reasoning and acting in accordance with reason. Furthermore, it is not just thinking and acting, but thinking and acting well; that is, excellently or virtuously. Aristotle concludes, “each function is completed well when its completion expresses the proper virtue.  Therefore the human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue” (1098a15-17). Happiness, therefore, “is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue” (1102a5).

So, what has all of this to do with education? Education itself is an action and therefore may be analyzed with regards to its means and ends. The central dispute in contention is two different theories as to the end of education, and how these relate to the end of human “happiness.” (Here and throughout, I will not assess the means (i.e., methods and materials) by which the two views on education attempt to reach their ends, but only the ends themselves.)

On the “Progressivist” view of education, the primary purpose of education is vocational in nature. For example, the United States Department of Education’s stated purpose is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” No doubt, the competition to which this statement refers is “jobs” or “careers.” The consistent message from politicians with regard to education is that students need to be prepared to enter the “workforce,” and that we must be more “competitive” in math and sciences so that Americans will not be displaced by foreign competition in the job market. So, when the question is put forth as to the end of education, the answer is, “to secure a career.”

On the “Classical” view of education, the primary purpose of education is to rear children into adults. Education on this view has the whole of the person in mind, to train boys to become men and to train girls to become women. It is not taken for granted that as children grow they will naturally mature into adults. This begs the question of what we mean by “adult”. There are a range of answers to this question, but invariably the Classicist will answer along the lines of Aristotle outlined above. The Classicist holds that the end of education is to train the child to think and act well in accordance with virtue. Says Aristotle, “excellence, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual excellence in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral excellence come about as a result of habit…” (1103a14). Habits themselves are trainable and we must, through education, come to learn “to enjoy the things we ought and to hate the things we ought” (1172a22).

So, which of these two views of education is most consistent with the end of “human happiness?” The Progressivist view of education, while it may prepare a student for a job, has confused the means with the end. For if it is asked, “why do we want people to have careers,” the answer, most assuredly would be, so that they can be “happy.” How exactly having a career ipso facto makes one happy or just what “happiness” is, is never quite addressed, especially given how unhappy so many people are in their careers. It isolates a single part of life and leaves the children to fend for themselves in all other things. Furthermore, it eliminates even the possibility of educating for “happiness” precisely because it attempts to remain neutral with regard to the definition of “humanity.” Thus, Progressive education is reductive by its very nature, treating children not as humans who need to be nurtured, but as animals that need to be trained.

Contrariwise, the Classicist has in view an education that creates, not young adults who are prepared for a specific career, but adults who are prepared to live well no matter what their career. For “career” is not an end itself, but a means to an end. Occupation is but one part of life and unless the child is taught to think and act well, even with an occupation, the child can never be fully “happy.” Furthermore, Classical education allows the student to stand before and judge all things, thus preparing the child for whatever may come. The carpenter, who has received only training in carpentry, may be able to judge what is or is not a good wardrobe, but not what is or is not a just society. Such judgments, however, are necessary for the fully formed human.  For, to know, to judge, and to act well is what it means “to be human.” As Aristotle says,

“Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general” (1094b27-95a1).

Given this, it seems unlikely that Aristotle would have entrusted the education of his son to the modern public school system. The education which Aristotle endorsed was one which conforms to the purpose of human beings, contributes to their proper functioning, and enables the child to grow into adulthood. An education that only equips the student to accomplish a single task is not meant for the free, liberated man. Without the ability to stand before all things and judge, the child is at the mercy of those who can. What needs to be assessed now are the best means by which to accomplish this end.


Aristotle uses the word “eudaimonia” which is misleadingly translated as “happiness,” and notoriously difficult to define. Etymologically, “eudaimonia” means “well-spirited” but may best be translated as “flourishing,” “blessed,” or “fulfilled.” The English word “happiness” is derived from the Old Norse “happ,” which means “chance” or “luck.” Clearly this cannot be what Aristotle has in mind. See, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1099b9-17.