Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.)

The Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle was born in Stagira, a town in Chalcidice. For twenty years he was a member of Plato's school. He then taught philosophy at Atarneus in Asia Minor, in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, and tutored the future Alexander the Great. In 335 to 334 he founded a school called the Lyceum in Athens.

Like Plato, Aristotle departed from the prevailing idea of childhood in Greek antiquity, according to which children were treated as miniature adults and schooled in adult literature as if their minds were able to function like those of adults. Aristotle's ideas on childhood are found, for the most part, in the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, in which the aim is to strive for the highest good, happiness, in a city-state. His ethical and political writings are interrelated parts of a whole: because human beings are by nature political (we would say social) animals, one cannot become happy apart from a community. People become individuals as participating members of a social context by sharing certain ends with others and working with them to realize those ends.

Aristotle insists that the conduct by which we strive for the highest good is learned; it is not inborn. That conduct comes about as the consequence of growing, as experienced adults attempt to acknowledge (1) the nature of children who are to be educated toward the best conduct of which they are capable, and (2) the nature of educated adults who have gained some measure of that conduct. Children, Aristotle holds, are incapable of happiness inasmuch as they have not developed the ability to use their intelligence to guide their actions. Children live as their desires impel them; as their development is incomplete, so their desires may lead them to harmful consequences. The behavior of children is akin to that of licentiousness in adults, Aristotle says; but while adults are capable of knowing that they are licentious, children are not.

Children should be trained in the direction of virtuous conduct but cannot engage in such conduct until their intellects develop in such manner that they can determine which means to employ in the pursuit of moral and social ends. This is why children need teachers who conduct themselves according to high moral principles. Training children's desires is not just for the sake of their desires; the training is ultimately for the sake of their developing intellects. As a corollary, one may say that training their bodies is not just for the sake of their bodies, but ultimately for the sake of the souls that are being shaped.

The difficulties in educating children's desires for the sake of their intellects, and in educating their bodies for the sake of their souls, are many. For one thing, the intellects of children's teachers can miss the highest principles of morality, with the result that children may be trained incorrectly. For another thing, certain desires of children, if left unattended by wiser adults, get in the way of proper growth. Aristotle generalizes this difficulty in a memorable passage in the Eudemian Ethics, saying that while the good is simple, the bad comes in many shapes. With these difficulties in mind, it is clear that training children's desires and bodies so that they may be enabled to gain some measure of virtuous conduct is a difficult undertaking, fraught with many obstacles stemming from children's desires as well as from the shortcomings of their teachers. In one passage, Aristotle calls learning a painful process.

While Aristotle departed from the idea that children may be viewed as miniature adults and thus cannot be expected to engage meaningfully in adult intellectual activities, he was not "permissive" in a modern sense. He did not believe that it should be left to children to determine what they are to do; rather, educated adults, even if they have missed the highest principles of morality, should have some sense of what children can and should do. With this in mind, Aristotle argues that the kind of games children play, as well as the stories appropriate for them, are to be determined by educational officials. Most games, Aristotle holds, ought to be imitations of serious occupations of later life; while children cannot reason as adults are expected to do, they can imitate certain activities without knowing why they are engaged in them. If their education succeeds in realizing the moral aims of their teachers, they can understand the reasons for those activities when they become adults. Their training in childhood is for ultimate happiness, even though children are incapable of happiness: the aim is to enable them to become happy.

Private education prevailed in the Greek states in Aristotle's time. Aristotle opposed this practice, arguing that it is an injustice for states to punish citizens who had not been educated in the ways of right conduct. He insisted that states should be responsible for educating their citizens. Pointing out that the state is a plurality that should be made into a community by education, Aristotle argued that public education should strive to work toward common ends to be sought by all citizens, and that the inseparability of the individual and the community constitutes an essential condition requiring public education. Thus the social and moral unity that Aristotle encompassed in his Nicomachean Ethics and Politics is to be forged and maintained as a public responsibility. In this context, the educational officials responsible for determining children's games and stories serve to establish and maintain the public good.

Aristotle connects the pursuit of philosophy with the musical education of children by pointing out that the tunes and modes of musical education must have ethical value. Hecloses the Politics by holding that we must be mindful of three aims of education–the happy mean, the possible, and the appropriate. In keeping with his idea that while children are incapable of happiness, education should strive for them to become happy as adults, Aristotle reminds us that what is possible and appropriate for adults is not so for children. What is possible and appropriate for children is for the sake of what they are capable of becoming.

See also: Ancient Greece and Rome; Plato.


Aristotle. 1932. The Politics. Trans. H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Aristotle. 1934. Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. H. Rackham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burnet, John, trans. and ed. 1967. Aristotle on Education: Being Extracts From the Ethics and Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Chambliss, J. J. 1982. "Aristotle's Conception of Childhood and the Poliscraft." Educational Studies 13:33-43.

Curren, Randall R. 2000. Aristotle on the Necessity of Public Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Randall, John Herman, Jr. 1960. Aristotle. New York: Columbia University Press.