3 Chapter 3: Classical Philosophy: Aristotle

This chapter introduces students to the educational philosophy of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.), a student of Plato. An immigrant to Athens, Aristotle came to admire the city. In the Politics, Aristotle provides an excellent and thorough description and analysis of his political theories, including his many disagreements with Plato and the latter’s Republic. Two significant disagreements include Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s political economy. Specifically, he rejects the idea that communism will serve the guardian class well. This form of political economy eradicates an important human need for nuclear families and modest property ownership. In addition, Aristotle rejects Plato’s elitist scheme, which places absolute authority in philosopher kings and queens. Unlike Plato, Aristotle places greater importance on practical matters and empirical knowledge while continuing to cherish contemplation. In the Politics, Aristotle also provides his plans for public education and why it is important for the polis to offer schooling. Finally, citizen virtue is reflected by the makeup of the polis and the polis in turn provides mutual benefits to citizens. Potentiality, which is connected to Aristotle’s teleological method, serves as a foundation for his citizen virtue and the good polis.

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this module, students will be able to:

  • Understand Aristotle’s critical response to Plato’s theory.
  • Explain Aristotle’s teleological method.
  • Articulate Aristotle’s theory of political economy, including his notion of the Mean.
  • Understand Aristotle’s construction of the ideal polis, constitutional thought, and his understanding of change.
  • Articulate Aristotle’s educational philosophy and how it reflects his overall political theory.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Preface to Readings

Aristotle’s epistemology is quite different from his mentor’s. Unlike Plato, whose ultimate reality lay behind the Forms, Aristotle believed that reality could only be known empirically, that is, scientific observations of the natural world. Moreover, Aristotle refers to natural objects as potentials or objects that develop into a specific end. This is referred to as a teleological understanding of the natural world. What is the end or potential of an object, a polis, a constitution, or a human being? An acorn’s telos, for example, is an oak tree. A more complex understanding of telos can be applied to constitutions. Aristotle and his students analyzed constitutions of nearly 160 Greek city-states in an attempt to understand the ideal constitution. It is up to human beings to empirically analyze, reason, and develop judgments as to what the ideal entails. Aristotle’s empiricism is contrasted with Plato’s rationalism (the Forms) in the famous Renaissance painting by Raphael, The School of Athens, which is shown below. Numerous philosophers and famous figures are shown in the painting, including Socrates. Plato and Aristotle are the central figures in the scene with Plato pointing toward the heavens, emphasizing his metaphysical ideas, and Aristotle pointing toward the ground, emphasizing his empirical and practical turn. Socrates is to Plato’s right, dressed in an olive-colored robe.

Raphael's School of Athens

Scuola di Atene, (The School of Athens) Raphael, 1509 is located in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

Seeking knowledge was as important for Aristotle as it was for Plato. However, knowledge enabled persons to become wise and to develop their potential, their self-realization, and telos. Aristotle also believed Man to be a social animal and that he could not achieve self-realization in isolation. More to the point, Aristotle referred to men as political animals, individuals whose telos could not be achieved without taking part in ruling and being ruled in a polis.

While other forms of activity were just as important, Aristotle stressed activity in the polis because of its inherent relational and deliberative functions. Aristotle’s theory rests on the notion that men have an inherent desire to live a social life, which is to be harmonized by seeking common interests. Individuality is important, but Aristotle, like his mentor, Plato, frowned upon the pursuit of private interest through public institutions. Appetites, represented by self-interest, must be moderated by reason, a form of personal conduct regulated by a mean. In contrast to Plato’s development of ideal Forms, Aristotle applied his more modest mean in multiple ways including the political economy, the polis, and education.

Aristotle viewed the political economy as simply a means to an end or instrumentally. Activity in the economy can be rational or irrational, and it is rational when it is directed to the proper ends of the community and the polis. In other words, Aristotle frowns upon a lasses-faire approach to economic activity. He views regulation necessary in order to maintain a proper mean, which is to say that wealth and private gain must be rationally limited for the benefit of the polis. To put it another way, since all individuals are subject to the laws of the polis, and because they are reflected in and by the polis because of their creative citizen energies, economic activity must yield to the broader interests of the polis and not undermine its operations. Excessive wealth creation can undermine politics by transforming it into an instrumental process of interest group politics. Because citizen virtue –political participation –is an inherent human desire, and because economic activity is merely necessary to fulfill rational ends, the latter requires regulation by the former in order to guard its public functions from selfish pursuits. Besides, let us not lose sight of the fact that a good polis is necessary to develop good citizens in Aristotle’s view, which is not as fundamental a priority in the market. Since the polis and its respective constitution are intended to guarantee goodness, the public realm must be as free as possible from forms of life that are self-seeking and instrumental. With regard to social classes, Aristotle believed that there should be a large middle class or what he refers to as the mean. Yet, the best government is a mixed republic that encompasses all classes and facilitates multiple perspectives. The polis is where intimate public friendships are developed and ameliorated. Friendly and spirited public debate results in public policies that are superior (albeit imperfect) having gone through a public and deliberative process among citizens who are free and politically equal. The polis is always malleable because its appearance, its institutions, and its policies reflect the desires of each generation. Where Plato attempted to develop a predetermined and narrowly defined republic designed around philosopher rule, Aristotle adopts a more egalitarian view of republics.

One very important caveat needs to be discussed; namely, the system of education Aristotle believed necessary in maintaining a republic. Besides both good laws and citizen virtue serving as educative, Aristotle believed that formal education should be a responsibility of the state and therefore, public. Public education should not create uniformity, but it is important to establish unity and commonness. Likewise, education should be equal for all and prepare citizens to be virtuous –balancing the protection of individual liberties and pursuing the public interest. All children should attend the same public schools in order to prevent class and factional divisions and facilitating a common ethos. Education and good laws, Aristotle believed, are more effective than threats and discipline.

Questions to Consider

  • Does Aristotle’s emphasis on the practical, unlike Plato, make him a relativist?
  • What is your opinion of Aristotle’s teleological method of knowledge?
  • Does Aristotle’s philosophy infringe on individual rights by placing such importance on the community interest?
  • Why does Aristotle accept mixed government or republicanism?
  • Why does Aristotle prioritize the public, citizen realm over the economic realm?
  • Cannot individuals seek their self-interest in the public square just as if they were seeking their self-interest in the market?
  • What is your opinion of Aristotle’s mean? Does this open the possibilities for totalitarian politics?
  • Why does Aristotle place such emphasis on a polis’ constitution?
  • Why does Aristotle believe that a good polis will develop good citizens?
  • Why does Aristotle prefer public to private education?
  • What are the goals of public education in Aristotle’s polis?
  • Who is to decide what is taught in public schools?


Aristotle. (1958). The Politics of Aristotle. Edited and Translated by Ernest Baker. New York: NY: Oxford University Press.

Curren, Randall R. (2000). Aristotle on the Necessity of Public Education. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


Part 1, Chapter 3 Classroom Activities

Divide students into groups and have each group discuss the differences between Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas including, but not limited to, the following:

  1. Idealism v. realism;
  2. Forms of government, including political rule and civic virtue;
  3. Public v. private realms;
  4. Purposes of schooling;
  5. Land distribution/ownership; and
  6. Differences in epistemology

Have groups of students discuss similarities between Aristotle’s ideal polis and American representative government.

External Readings & Resources

Supplemental Materials

Aristotle (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Aristotle’s Life and Works (King’s College of London)

Harvard University’s Justice with Michael Sandel

Aristotle. (1999). Nicomachean Ethics. Second edition. Translated by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Aristotle. (1958). The Politics of Aristotle. Edited and Translated by Ernest Barker. New York: Oxford University Press.

Curren, Randall R. (2000). Aristotle on the Necessity of Public Education. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Dotts, Brian W. (2012). The Political Education of Democratus: Negotiating Civic Virtue during the Early Republic (chapter 2). Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Honohan, Iseult. Civic Republicanism chapter (chapter 1). London: Routledge.


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