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Four Words in Aristotle’s Politics on the Economics of Liberal Education

Stephen Kidd

Aristotle’s stance on the usefulness of liberal education, specifically music (mousikē), is a contested issue.  Some argue that Aristotle locates music’s usefulness in civic or moral improvement (e.g., Lord 1982), others are more inclined to take Aristotle at his word that such education is for the sake of leisure rather than use (e.g., Nightingale 2001, Demont 1993).  Aristotle himself is ambiguous, at first separating music from ‘useful’ types of education and then proceeding to enumerate music’s benefits (‘paradoxically’ as Nightingale 2001, 155 suggests).  In this paper, I will focus on four words in Aristotle’s discussion which may illuminate the nature of this ambiguity.  Regarding the inclusion of music in education he observes the reason is that ‘nature herself seeks’ the proper use of leisure time (τὴν φύσιν αὐτὴν ζητεῖν).  I will argue that Aristotle attributes to leisure a natural ‘economic’ aspect which makes even the useless useful and that this provides the form to understand his potentially ambiguous thoughts on liberal education.

I will begin the paper by considering what Aristotle means by ‘nature herself’ seeking the proper use of leisure time.  Clearly it is not a throwaway line because he continues to say, remarkably, ‘this [leisure] is the root of everything, as we have said before.’ Some commentaries on the passage categorize Aristotle’s usage of ‘nature’ here as a personification (Newman, Schütrumpf 2005) similar to the way that English expresses phenomena like ‘nature’ abhorring a vacuum.  Others take ‘nature’ here more in the sense of human nature or ‘our nature’ as Simpson 1998 puts it.  But the clearest route of explanation is to be found via comparison of Aristotle’s use of ‘nature’ as an agent in his biological works.  Preus 1969 argues that, in the biological works, ‘nature’ is never used in the over-arching personified sense of ‘mother nature,’ but consistently the ‘nature’ (almost: the ‘driving force’) of individual species (cf. Kraut 2007).    

The fact that music’s position in education is explained not by some innate value in music but by some sort of instinct or drive to use leisure time well, sets this question of leisure/liberal education in the context of his views of the animal kingdom more broadly.  Famously, Aristotle compares ‘nature’ to a housekeeper (GA 2.6, 744b16-27), economizing in expert fashion and finding uses for potentially useless things.  I will argue that his discussion of leisure can be understood in light of this passage: it is not that humans engage in activities like music for its usefulness (rather than, for example, pleasure) but this does not mean the pastime is not useful.  Rather it is ‘nature’ which drives one to these pursuits which are ‘useful’ almost in spite of ourselves.  This is important to recognize because to engage in such activities as useful would no longer make them the type of activities which Aristotle wants them to be (that is, activities engaged in for their own sake).

If this conclusion is true, it raises some questions about the nature of Aristotle’s ‘natural’ economy.  If even those activities engaged in for their own end are nevertheless useful due to nature’s guiding hand, is it possible to engage in an activity which is truly for its own sake (as often appears in NE)?  Or is to engage in an activity for its own sake really to be hoodwinked by nature?  I will end by considering some possible answers to these troubling problems.


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Greek Philosophy

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