Aristotle and the Importance of Moral Education
Find out why the most important political activity you can participate in is the education of your own children!
As we approach the upcoming election, it’s easy to become cynical and disillusioned with the current political system. Leaders seem more concerned with securing and preserving their own power and influence than in promoting true justice. Politicians spend more time insulting each other than offering constructive solutions to the problems facing our nation.
In her book Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey provides a description of the political climate which is even more appropriate today than when she originally wrote it six years ago. Pearcey obeserves that “people in every age have complained that politics is stained by corruption and wheeler dealing. But today’s disillusionment runs deeper. It is the tragic fruit of a secular worldview, which has decoupled politics from morality” (1). Pearcey argues that politics have fallen into their current state of decline because American political theory no longer considers moral judgments to be within the realm of politics.
But it wasn’t always like this. Historically, American politics had a more noble purpose. Pearcey observes how “at the birth of our nation, politics was assumed to be a profoundly moral enterprise–the pursuit of moral ideals such as justice, fairness, and the common good” (1). However, the foundations of this theory go back even further still as we find a similar idea expressed in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his treatise on politics, Aristotle claims that the excellence of a city-state depends upon the virtue of its citizens, concluding that “no action, whether a man’s or a city-state’s, is noble when separate from virtue and practical wisdom. But the courage, justice, and practical wisdom of a city-state have the same capacity and are of the same kind as those possessed by each human being who is said to be just, practically wise, and temperate” (192-193).
Aristotle’s insights into the nature of democracy suggest that our current political problems are actually a reflection of a more fundamental educational problem. If Aristotle’s claim is correct, that “a city-state is excellent because the citizens who participate in the constitution are excellent” (213), then another question immediately arises: “How does a citizen become excellent (virtuous)?” Aristotle argues that virtuous character is the result of three things: a person’s intrinsic nature, a person’s habits, and the guidance of reason (214). While Aristotle himself was not a Christian and many of his views were wrong, these three concepts are nevertheless consistent with a biblical understanding of moral education.
Aristotle observed that human beings are by nature aware of certain virtues. And the apostle Paul agrees! In Romans 2:14-15 he declares that “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.” Both Aristotle and Paul agree that morality is more than a matter of personal preference and conditioning; rather, humans are created with an innate moral consciousness which distinguishes us from animals.
Furthermore, the Bible clearly supports the Aristotelian idea that the habits we develop play a key role in the cultivation of virtue. Galatians 6:8 echoes this as Paul says that “he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.”
Finally, Aristotle claims that the refinement of an individual’s reason forms the third element of moral development. For the Christian, this corresponds to the reasoned study of Scripture. Psalm 119:9-10 provides just one example of this principle at work, as the psalmist writes, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!”
The deliberate development of all three of these elements is notably lacking in modern American education. Is it any surprise then that our politics is characterized by lying and corruption when our schools consistently fail to instill the moral principles needed for a successful democracy? As Christians we often question how best to engage in politics. Perhaps the greatest way to be politically active is actually to be educationally active.
The above article was written using information from the following sources:
Aristotle. Politics. Translated by C.D.C. Reeve, Indianapolis, 1998. Print.
Pearcey, Nancy. Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010. Print.
Saving Leonardo, 2010 Nancy Pearcey
Award-winning author Nancy Pearcey (Total Truth) has given to Christianity what may be the most important book of the century. Studied under Francis Schaeffer, Nancy has masterfully uncovered the worldviews of the past thousand years and exposed how they are still very much alive today, and how they have infiltrated and permeated our Christian culture. Every parent and serious Christian must read this book! Other than the Bible, I would place this book as the most important book to read this year. This is a book that should be required reading for every high school and college student. “What you don’t know will lead to ruin.” Mark Hamby