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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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"Plutarch's Lives" as Affording Some Education as a Citizen

by Miss M. Ambler
Volume 12, no. 7, 1901, pgs. 521-527


"Our work, then, is to present to the child such vivifying ideas as shall colour all his thoughts, his judgments, and his actions, and enable him to fulfill the duties and responsibilities he inherits with his privileges as an English citizen."


Report from the fifth annual PNEU conference

Miss M. Ambler then read a paper on "Plutarch's Lives" as Affording Some Education as a Citizen

In the last generation, Rousseau was the means of bringing about an educational reformation, because he grasped one of those truths that have been recognised from time to time for centuries, but which have always produced an electrical effect upon the new discoverer, and, through him, upon the people of his time. By the light of the truth that was in him, Rousseau appealed to the parents--he showed them that they were responsible, not only for the welfare of the individual child, but also for the future of their nation. "The family is the unit of the nation," he proclaimed, and the saying is full of meaning and of truth; it gives rise to a whole train of thoughts, and it implies this--that the nation is at the head of the household, and that, therefore, the children of the family are a national trust. Of course this thought was not new--the Spartans had claimed the children as the property of the state--but the idea that the children are ours, not absolutely, but as a national trust, is one that we must realize, and we must hold before us as one of our first aims in education the education of the child as a responsible subject, in other words a citizen.

We need, however, to have more than a goal in view; we need to know the way to reach it. We know what is necessary for a good citizen, and we wish to send the children out equipped for service with high ideals and the courage to live up to them. We believe the future of our country to be in our hands, but how are we going to fulfil our responsibilities, and what are the natural laws whose agency we are going to enlist in our service?

In the experience of each of us there has been a time when we have come helplessly face to face with a difficulty, an idea has struck us, we have set to work with that idea, and step by step the whole difficulty has been conquered. There has been no great work in the world, there has been no work at all in the world, which was not born this way. This, then, is the power we must use, and the natural law is this, that an idea presented with sufficient power to be accepted grows and multiplies, until it governs the thoughts, the actions, and the life of the child.

A cardinal of the Church of Rome has said that "Everything depends upon the point of view." We might go back much further and say that the point of view is evolved from the initial idea, and, given the initial idea, we can prophesy concerning the point of view, and therefore the life and actions of the future man. Our work, then, is to present to the child such vivifying ideas as shall colour all his thoughts, his judgments, and his actions, and enable him to fulfil the duties and responsibilities he inherits with his privileges as an English citizen.

There are many incidental opportunities in the daily life for the presentation of ideas, and these perhaps are the most valuable. But we also need to make a deliberate scheme for presenting consecutive ideas, and for giving food and exercise to ideas already accepted. The lesson-time is the grand opportunity for methodical work, so that lessons must be the instrument to be used here. Among the lessons the historical subjects are of greatest use, for they are the stories of rulers and subjects, and the duties of a citizen are those of a subject with legislative and judicial responsibilities.

The next consideration is this:--If the education of the citizen is to be our aim at all, it must be our aim from the beginning, and if we are going to do our deliberate work through lessons, it must begin with the lessons. To insure the acceptance of the ideas we offer, we must take care that they are served attractively, and not only to be found, if ever found, after a long and painful search. For this reason it might be better not to begin by taking modern history with the young child. We are a little too close to it. Looking at a picture from a near point of view, we see so clearly all the details that we find it difficult to see the broad lines and the meaning of the whole. If we go further off, however, the details cease to distract our attention, and we see clearly the whole plan. So it is with history. The nearer the history comes to our own time, the fuller it becomes of political and constitutional details, and the more we are involved in questions of statecraft. If, however, we go back to the early history, we find it moves on broader, simpler lines, and the statesmanship, so far as it exists at all, only shows how a resourceful mind attempts to cope with circumstances.

The early histories also are practically biographies, written about great men by men of their own time. With the child, a biography is of greater use than a number of detached history stories, because in the latter it is difficult to make the characters real living men and women, whereas if he drops leisurely into some biography, he begins to think the thoughts and take the point of view of the man whose life he is studying, and he becomes accustomed to the dress and habits of his time. In this way, he is living not only in the life of one man, but in his period.

If we want to offer ideas by the means of early history in the form of biography, we come at once to Plutarch, the prince of biographers. We take the children straight to the fountain-head and introduce them to this dear deliberate old gentleman, who will, in a leisurely way, tell them delightfully graphic stories in simple language and who will not omit a single detail, so that even the child can think of no more questions to ask. Then, too, Plutarch was himself an educationalist, he had great ideas about the responsibilities of parents, the training of children, and also about the responsibilities of statesmen and citizens, so that, although the "Lives" were not written for children, they are admirably suited for this purpose. For example, this passage suggests the necessity for a ruler to know how to obey:--

"The law does not lay the young princes who are educated for the throne under the same necessity; but Agesilaus was singular in this, that before he came to govern he had learned to obey. Hence it was that he accommodated himself with grace to his subjects more than any other of the kings, having added to his princely talents and inclinations a humane manner and popular civility.

"While he was yet in one of the classes or societies of boys, Lysander had that honourable attachment to him which the Spartans distinguish by the name of love. He was charmed with his ingenuous modesty, for though he had a spirit above his companions, an ambition to excel which made him unwilling to sit down without the prize, and a vigour and impetuosity which could not be conquered or borne down, yet he was equally remarkable for his gentleness, where it was necessary to obey. At the same time, it appeared that his obedience was not owing to fear, but to that principle of honour, and that through his whole conduct he dreaded disgrace more than toil."

Could there be a better opening for a few words on obedience? The words, however, must only be very few, and used more to direct the working out of the train of thought in the child's mind, and must therefore depend upon the child and the point of view he takes.

Again, a few pages further on in the same "Life," we have the idea of self-control, self-victory. And, here again, there is no ostentatious pointing of a moral. In this passage there is also a very useful little lesson on true friendship, and the necessity for controlling the emotions when the effect of a friendship is proving injurious:--

"One day Megabates approached to salute him, and Agesilaus declined that mark of his affection. The youth after this was more distant in his addresses. Then Agesilaus was sorry for the repulse he had given him and pretended to wonder why Megabates kept at such a distance. His friends told him he must blame himself for rejecting his former application. 'He would still,' said they, 'be glad to pay his most obliging respects to you, but take care you do not reject them again.' Agesilaus was silent some time; and when he had considered the thing he said, "do not mention it to him. For this second victory over myself gives me more pleasure than I should have in turning all I look upon to gold.'"

Again, the idea of self-control, and also ideas of forgiveness, justice, and humility in times of prosperity, are presented in a passage from the "Life of Dion":--

"Other generals," said he, "employ themselves chiefly in military studies; but, being long conversant in the academy, I have learned to subdue my passions and to restrain the impulses of enmity and anger. To prove that I have really gained such a victory over myself, it is not sufficient merely to be kind to men of virtue, but to be indulgent and reconcilable to the injurious. If I have excelled Heraclides in military and political abilities, I am resolved not to be inferior to him in justice and clemency, since to have the advantage in those is the first degree of excellence. The honours of conquest are never wholly our own: for though the conqueror may stand unrivalled, fortune will claim her share in his success. Heraclides may be treacherous, invidious and malicious; but must Dion therefore sully his glories by the indulgence of resentment? The laws, indeed, allow the revenge of an injury to be more justifiable than the commision of it; but both proceed originally from the infirmity of human nature. Besides, there is hardly any malignity so inveterate that it may not be overcome by kindness and softened by repeated favours." Agreeably to these sentiments Dion pardoned Heraclides and dismissed him.

All these ideas might be driven home by making use of the dramatic situations which Plutarch never fails to seize, and by gathering up the principal points to make a vivid word-picture.

For example, let us imagine this scene. In the background are the sinking flames of the burning city. In the foreground are the soldiers, leaning on their arms because they are tired of fighting and working among the ruins of the city, and sick at heart over the destruction of a city they had helped to build. Everything is silent, except for the occasional roar of a falling building, because each soldier is waiting breathlessly to hear Dion's verdict. A little apart from the soldiers is a small group of men--Dion and his advisers with the prisoners. Dion sitting proud, dignified and erect, while before him Heraclides, the betrayer of trust, stands bowed by the conviction of guilt. A moment of painful silence while Dion thinks, a suppressed murmur of excitement as Dion steps forward and speaks so that all may hear. When he has finished, the silence for a short space is still intense, when suddenly a roar of excited conversation bursts from the soldiers; the two prisoners turn with hanging heads, their faces working to suppress their emotions, and creep away to hide themselves, for the sentence had been one of absolute pardon.

Again, in the "Life of Dion" the same ideas are put forward, this time in addition with ideas of generosity and gratitude:--

"All things had now succeeded to his wish, but he by no means sought to reap the first advantages of his good fortune. His first object was to gratify his friends, to reward his allies, and to give his fellow-citizens and foreign soldiers proper marks of his favour, in which his munificence even exceeded his abilities. As to himself, he lived in a plain and frugal manner, for while the fame of his actions and the reputation of his valour was spread through all Sicily and Greece, though Plato himself wrote to him that the eyes of the whole world were upon him, he seems not to have carried his intentions beyond one particular part of the city, the academy. His judges in that society he knew would not so much regard the greatness of his performance, his courage, or his victories, as that temper of mind with which he bore prosperity, and that moderation with which he sustained his happier fortunes."

In order to insure the complete assimilation of the ideas, it would perhaps be helpful if homely but quite impersonal examples of their application to every-day life were given. Justice and bravery, together with a healthy feeling of self-sacrifice, and a preparation for and fulfilment of public responsibilities, breathe through the whole of the "Life of Dion."

In the "Life of Solon" comes an extremely valuable passage, presenting the idea of the impossibility of refusing to recognise the responsibilities of any position:--

"The most peculiar and surprising of his other laws, is that which declares the man infamous who stands neuter in time of sedition. It seems he would not have us be indifferent and unaffected with the fate of the public, when our own concerns are on a safe bottom, nor when we are in health, be insensible to the distempers and griefs of our country. He would have us espouse the better and juster cause, and hazard everything in defence of it, rather than wait in safety to see which side the victory will incline to." [This is from Langhorne's translation, which can be found on google books.]

Returning to the "Life of Dion," there is a powerful passage containing ideas of the whole duty of a citizen or a ruler--the duty of deliberate preparation for, and the careful fulfilment of public responsibility:--

"When Dion, as we have before observed, considered that the irregularities of young Dionysius were chiefly owing to his want of education, he exhorted him earnestly to apply himself to study, and by all means to send for Plato, the prince of philosophers, into Sicily. 'When he comes,' said he, 'apply to him without loss of time. Conformed by his precepts to that divine exemplar of beauty and perfection which called the universe from confusion into order, you will at once secure your own happiness and the happiness and the happiness of your people. The obedience they now render you through fear, by your justice and moderation you will improve to a principle of filial duty; and of a tyrant you will become a king. Fear and force, and fleets and armies, are not, as your father called them, the adamantine chains of government; but that affection, that respect, which justice and goodness for ever draw after them; these are the milder but the stronger bonds of empire."

There is however, a great danger in taking "Plutarch's Lives" with children. Plutarch places himself in the position of his heroes; he takes their point of view, and often seems only a little indulgently amused by clever roguery. This danger can easily be avoided by a few words from the teacher, an intonation in the voice when reading the passages, and then instead of presenting injurious ideas, the passage will only strengthen good and helpful ideas. For example, in the "Life of Alcibiades":--

"Alcibiades had a dog of an uncommon size and beauty, which cost him 70 minae, and yet his tail, which was his principal ornament, he caused to be cut off. Some of his acquaintances found great fault with his acting so strangely, and told him that all Athens rung with the story of his foolish treatment of the dog, at which he laughed, and said, 'This is the very thing I wanted, for I would have the Athenians talk of this lest they should find something worse to say of me.'"

Again, other passages must be omitted altogether, and because there are several of these passages, the books should never be given to the children to read, but should read to them by their teacher.

Many centuries have passed since Plutarch lived and worked, but his writings have been touched with a picturesque glamour and with a distinct personality which has travelled with them through the ages and shines now even through the translations.



Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July, 2010