How to Bring Up a Virtuous Citizenry

Aristotle has mentioned in passing on several occasions that the whole point of constituting a state is to contribute to the flourishing of its citizens. Now, in chapters ⅹⅲ–ⅹⅶ of book Ⅶ of the Politics he addresses this head-on.


He refers the reader back to the Nicomachean Ethics for his full theory of the virtues. But, in summary:

  • The best, most thriving life is that of the unimpeded and complete practice of the virtues.
  • Some virtues, like justice or courage (e.g. in battle), are about the correction of imbalances and things that have gone wrong. But others are about improving life above and beyond its baseline; the former are means to an end, while the latter are ends in themselves, and should be prioritized accordingly.
    • So don’t be like the Spartans, who put the military virtues at the top of the list (and still wound up militarily defeated). War is a means to the end of peace and autarky, not an end in itself.
    • And while working and obtaining material goods is also important, it is only so for the purposes of sustaining a life in which the finer virtues can be pursued — so don’t make the pursuit of material things your top virtue either.
    • The pursuit of power over others is another foolish trap like this. To rule alongside free and virtuous men is much more noble than to rule over slavish subjects.
  • A virtuous person will make the best out of either a bad or a good situation; a non-virtuous person won’t know what to make of either. This is similar to how a bad piano player will sound bad no matter the quality of the piano, but a good piano player will know how to bring out the best qualities of a good instrument.

The purpose of a good state is to fertilize the virtues of its citizens, but it takes virtuous citizens to govern (and be governed in turn by) a good state. Perhaps this is more of a feedback loop than a chicken-and-egg problem, but nonetheless the problem of how to make sure the citizens are virtuous people is vital and of first importance to the person who wants to create a sound state.

It’s also true that while the virtues that can best be practiced in peace and leisure are perhaps the best, the virtues that are needed for victory and struggle are important in order to get you to the point where you can practice them. If you concentrate only on the virtues of war, you will find yourself adrift in times of peace. If you concentrate only on the virtues of peace, you will be caught unprepared in times of trouble… and there will be no leisure for the conquered.

Beware of those who would tell you that the virtues are important because of what they enable you to obtain — wealth, power, property, influence. The virtues are not means to intermediate and lesser ends like these, but are ends in themselves, or, perhaps, means to the ultimate end of eudaimonia.

There are three parts of the character of a citizen that together shape their virtuousness. The first is their nature as a human being (animals perhaps have virtues of their own, but we’re speaking of human virtues here). The second is their irrational part — the subconscious, habits, reflex, things of that sort. And the third is their rational part.

Of those, the first is largely out of the statesman’s control, though eugenics is a possibility Aristotle thinks is worth exploring, and he has some theories about that, and prenatal/postnatal care and nutrition is also important. The second is best formed when the citizen is a youth and their habits and appetites have not yet solidified. The third comes later, when the rational part of a person matures.

The earliest education (up through about age five) concerns bodily exercise, through vigorous play and mimicry of adult activities, and through habituation to cold. One should also introduce them to stories and legends appropriate to this age. It’s a bad idea to try to suppress crying in children this age, as it is age-appropriate exercise for their lungs. Keep children even this young away from bad influences (don’t let them hang out in the slave quarters, for instance). And it should be generally forbidden, and considered disgraceful, to speak in unseemly ways around children or expose them to art or stories or performances inappropriate to their maturity level.

People bond strongest with their earliest influences, so it’s important that those influences be good ones.

After this early childhood education comes a brief kindergarten period, a seven-year elementary schooling, and a seven-year secondary schooling. Aristotle will continue his discussion of education in book Ⅷ of the Politics.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics