13 SES 09 B, Attention and Virtue
In recent years, character education and virtue ethics have undergone a form of renaissance in the philosophy of education (Sanderse, 2015). Virtue and character are Aristotelian notions that amount to key components of an ethical life. The Aristotelian conception of the highest good to strive toward (in life as well as in education) is expressed through the notion of eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is commonly taken to denote a form of happiness in the sense of a life well lived or a flourishing life. This form of happiness is construed as an end in itself and it is therefore also reasonable to posit eudaimonia as the end-goal of character education. Consequently, character education may be said to aim at ‘the formation of somebody’s character, which accommodates a whole range of virtues and in which cognition and emotion ideally form a unity’ (p. 383).
Early modern rationalist Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1670) is a largely neglected philosopher in the context of the philosophy of education. In part, this can be explained by the fact that Spinoza never wrote any texts addressing education explicitly. This neglect is regrettable, however, since Spinoza offers a profound ethical theory – firmly grounded in his metaphysical system – raising important questions relevant for contemporary moral education.
In his posthumously published magnum opus, the Ethics (first published in 1677), Spinoza writes that ‘[t]he striving to preserve oneself is the first and only foundation of virtue’ (4p22c). This conception of virtue has led Spinoza scholars to conclude that Spinoza is best read as an ethical and psychological egoist (e.g. Nadler, 2013). As Genevieve Lloyd points out, this means that for Spinoza ‘[s]elf-seeking – traditionally opposed to rational virtue – now becomes its foundation’ (1996, p. 9). At the same time, Spinoza’s ethical theory is often described in terms of a form of eudaimonistic ethics, highlighting the importance of developing a virtuous character for reaching a state of happiness or human flourishing (Kisner, 2011).
This paper proposes an outline of a form of character education based on Spinoza’s ethical egoism, arguing that the self-preservation of the teacher is the main motivation for the Spinozistic teacher. Since the self-preservation of the teacher is conditioned by the moral development of the students – by virtue of Spinoza’s doctrine of the imitation of the affects – this, however, requires a reciprocal set-up, where the student is emulating the teacher (as role model) so that the teacher, in turn, may emulate his or her students. The paper closes by considering how a Spinozistic character education can facilitate the escape from bondage – for teacher and students alike.
Kisner, M. J. (2011). Spinoza on human freedom: Reason, autonomy and the good life.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kristjánsson, K. (2007). Aristotle, emotions, and education. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Kristjánsson, K. (2015). Aristotelian character education. London: Routledge.
Lloyd, G. (1996). Routledge philosophy guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics. London: Routledge.
Nadler, S. (2013). Baruch Spinoza, The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), URL =
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