Aristotle and Rousseau on Moral Education

By Gaia Grant

Though many educational philosophers have attempted to devise a systematic theory of moral education, Aristotle and Rousseau remain two of the more widely recognised theorists in the area, both because of the emphasis each had on the importance of an adequate moral education, and because of the revolutionary positions on moral education each took, given the contemporary social and historical contexts in which each of them was writing.

Following from Plato’s developmental approach to education, Aristotle was eager to show how morality (and ultimately character) could be developed through a careful adherence to the requirements of each stage of development, but in contrast to Plato (who had set the stage for developmental educational theory), Aristotle came up with a theory of learning that considered the end goals of learning and followed a different form of reasoning. Rousseau also relied on a systematic approach to moral education, which recognised the child’s developmental stages, but he had a unique insight into the ways a child could learn, which stemmed from his intrinsic beliefs in the nature of the child and the nature of morality.

Both theorists can be considered to have developed similar theories of moral education in that both had a distinctive spirit of exploration, one which saw no boundaries and continued to open up possibilities for the individual. Both also recognised the value of a form of negative education, in which the individual was protected from unnecessarily harmful influences (Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Book II. Rousseau: La Nouvelle Heloise, 1761; Emile Book II, 1762). Rousseau extended this notion to include ways of teaching the child to learn from inappropriate behaviours, which became known as “the doctrine of natural consequences”.

Both theorists clung tightly to the belief that, “It is by doing good that we become good,” thereby espousing the value of modelling and practicing positive behaviours and encouraging the development of worthwhile habits.

The stated aims for education in general and for moral education in particular were strikingly similar in many ways. The aim of education, for Aristotle, was to teach intellectual and moral virtues side by side, and although he recognised that intellectual development would require time and experience, moral development, he believed, could be nurtured through deliberate exposure and practise. The aim of moral education, claimed Aristotle, should be to develop positive habits in order to foster “the good”, and he pointed out that ethics comes from “ethos”, which is a habitual state (Nicomachean Ehics Book II). Rousseau also saw moral excellence as a virtue, and believed that education should aim to nurture such morality (Emile Book IV).

While Aristotle saw “happiness” as the end goal of education, and as the way to build a productive society (Nicomachean Ethics Books I & II), Rousseau emphasised the development of “goodness”. Both of these qualities were reliant on the development of "virtuousness", or of an upright and solid character. Ultimately, Aristotle hoped to produce philosophers, who could continue the process of logical reasoning and serious contemplation, while Rousseau hoped for a more practical outcome. He was concerned that in many circumstances, “We are supposed to be getting trained for society, but are taught as if each one of us were going to live a life of contemplation in a solitary cell.” (Emile Book IV)

Although Aristotle proposed giving much more direction in educating the young child initially, both theorists eventually stressed the importance of the individual developing morality independently. This suggests that both theorists had a deeper desire to see the individual become morally autonomous. In Rousseau’s framework, the individual would have the ability to, "act freely and maintain a just and good society."

Aristotle and Rousseau were also similar in that both saw the child early in life as an empty receptacle, waiting to be filled. Each recognised the important role of early sensory experiences, which would form the basis of "knowledge" (Aristotle) and the development of the "mind" (Rousseau).

Apart from some of these apparent theoretical similarities, however, the fundamental views each of these theorists held were quite varied in other ways. Firstly, while Aristotle came from a philosophical perspective, Rousseau had a more utopian perspective that was based on literary ideals. This meant that some of the theoretical presuppositions each theorist worked from were different.

Aristotle tended to be quite mathematical in his teaching methods, recommending an inductive approach. By this, he believed that the teacher could introduce particular facts about a situation and work up to generalisations. Rousseau, however, recommended a completely unstructured approach that could adapt with the needs of the situation, relying only on the amassing of appropriate sensory perceptions.

The metaphors each theorist used to describe the initial state of the child’s mind appear to be synonymous at first glance – namely Aristotle’s description of the mind as a blank slate, and Rousseau’s description of the mind as an empty house. Each metaphor implies that the mind is a receptacle to be filled, and therefore that the teacher/tutor will play the active role in filling it with the correct content.

While Aristotle did follow through on this concept, that sense experiences build on each other and ultimately lead to knowledge, the emphasis for him was on the teacher being responsible for providing those experiences and shaping the way that knowledge formed. Rousseau, on the other hand, felt that the child merely nearly needed to be exposed to positive stimuli, and these would all work together to develop the mind. Rather than being a necessary or even beneficial tool for learning and growth, Rousseau believed the teacher could counteract positive influences by distracting the child from his or her own innately recognised needs.

Aristotle recognised both the "rational" and "irrational" aspects of the soul (On the Soul). Furthermore, the soul, he believed had three functions: intellective, appetitive, and vegetative. He recognised, therefore, that the individual was capable of both deliberately choosing right or wrong, and of doing right or wrong not by choice but by nature. He did not see the individual soul as completely "good", but as needing control and direction. Rousseau maintained the purity of the soul, though, insisting the child was "good" by nature and would only learn to do wrong if exposed to negative influences (Emile).

The views each theorist held of the child subsequently influenced their approach to teaching and learning. Aristotle left the responsibility for learning with the teacher, focusing on what the teacher needed to impart to the student, while Rousseau gave the teacher the responsibility for setting up an environment conducive to learning, but the responsibility for what was learnt was open to the child’s own interests and needs. Whereas Aristotle emphasised the need for clearly defined formal instruction, Rousseau was almost the opposite, stating that the child needed to learn by discovery methods with no set expectation.

Aristotle believed that the education of the group was more important than the education of the individual (Nicomachean Ethics Book I). Individual freedom was not, therefore, a priority. Despite Aristotle’s talk of autonomy for the individual and freedom of expression, the actual choices of behaviours open to the individual were limited, and only the upper class would even have the opportunity to participate in such privileged moral education.

Rousseau, on the other hand, saw individual freedom as of the utmost importance, and gave it a much greater priority than the education of the group. Individual conscience and free will are faculties from god, he said, which allow us to discover the important principles in life through the use of intuition and the development of reason. These must therefore be nurtured and protected above all else. Although difficult to imagine in reality, Rousseau’s utopian ideals meant freedom and equality for all, and the opportunity for all to participate in such a beneficial form of learning (Discourse on Inequality, 1755). The outcomes were also deliberately left open, limited only to the notion that continually exposing the individual to goodness would allow the innate goodness from within to flourish.

Whereas Aristotle believed in the sameness of individuals to be educated (of those eligible to be educated, at least – that is, the official citizens of the state), Rousseau just as strongly believed in the individual uniqueness of each person to be educated. While Aristotle claimed that each person had the same nature, capacities and functions, Rousseau said individual interests, instincts and needs were never the same.

In a logical extension of this argument about individualised education, Aristotle said that the state was to coordinate teaching experiences, and that responsibility for education should come from the state (Politics Book VIII), while Rousseau veered away from state run education (until his later work, Considerations on the Government of Poland, 1733), suggesting instead that the parents and/or private tutors could better ascertain the individual needs of the child and provide appropriate individualised guidance.

Aristotle and Rousseau were similarly limited by their contemporary historical and theoretical contexts, however. Aristotle was limited by the class-based nature of his theory, which maintained that only certain individuals from the correct classes could truly maintain the moral ideals he aspired to. Both theorists, too, were ultimately limited by the set nature of the developmental stages they proposed – particularly Rousseau, who significantly delayed formal instruction until very late in childhood.

When all the similarities and differences are weighed up, then, it is possible to see some distinctive patterns in Aristotle’s and Rousseau’s approaches to moral education. Both Aristotle’s and Rousseau’s approaches were sequential and, at least to some extent, systematic. Aristotle’s methods of instruction and approach to subject matter similarly followed a formal, structured sequence. Rousseau attempted to diverge from Aristotle at this point, though, by denouncing the need for stringent teaching methods and pre-set curricula.

Both theorists focused on the potential of the child, but both approached the ways that potential could be fulfilled differently. What many of these differences come down to is the relative focus on the individual or the group, on the ability for self-direction or the need for external direction.

Many of these differences can be attributed to the distinctly different time periods in which each theorist was working, though, and it appears clear that the spirit of open learning was a driving force for both. Certainly, both valued the importance of nurturing the individual toward goodness and uprightness, fostering the sort of morality that would help the individual to make a positive contribution to society.

Elements of theories from each theorist are obvious in many of the current approaches to moral education, which still follow a spirit of exploration and discovery, so we can continue to thank both Aristotle and Rousseau for their significant contributions to contemporary theory.

Although both theorists were very progressive for their time and very inspiring in their ideas and intentions, the theorist that I believe has made the most beneficial contribution to contemporary educational theory is Rousseau. Because Rousseau revolutionised the educational process so much by focussing on the child rather than the teacher, by valuing the processes more than simply the subject matter itself, he was able to introduce a new way of operating educationally that was much more relevant for the individual. Despite the apparent shortcomings in his theory, and the fact that he obviously let the pendulum swing from one extreme to another, the new perspective he has took has allowed educators to open up the child’s world, and has empowered the learner with endless possibilities.

Finally freeing himself from the burden that the theorists before him had carried around by necessity – that of conservative expectations – Rousseau was able to delve into new realms of creativity. It has meant that students are now active learners with open options, rather than passive recipients with relatively limited options.

The future of moral education still relies heavily on Rousseau’s ideas in particular, and they will continue to form the basis of ongoing educational development.

©2000 Gaia Grant


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3 Responses to “Aristotle and Rousseau on Moral Education”

  1. Shirl Fehl says:

    Excellent resource. I read alot of classical philosophy, but I have been branching out farther into more contemporary philosophy. Thanks for the posts.

  2. Lucio Barter says:

    I usually don’t take the time to post but this info compelled me to, thank you for this post.

  3. Caroleann says:

    This post was truly worthwhile to read. I wanted to say thank you for the key points you have pointed out as they are enlightening.

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