Why Read Plutarch?

Oct 10, 2011
Some of you may remember my story of how our family came to enjoy reading Shakespeare together. It was a heart’s desire that became a reality over time. Not so with Plutarch and his Lives. When I first read how some Charlotte Mason Cottage Schools (PNEU) in Britain read Plutarch’s Lives in class I barely gave it a thought. One reason was my own dismal education. Plutarch who? It took many years of hearing the name and the book mentioned before I had the faintest stirring in that direction. To tell the truth I wasn’t ready to appreciate the author at all. But as time went by, I began to trust Charlotte Mason and her ideas; this inevitably led to reading Plutarch’s Lives aloud to my children. My first faltering attempts to read Pericles, one of the Greek lives, were tarnished by my own inability to read long sentences correctly. When it comes to long sentences Plutarch beats Thomas Jefferson hands down. Over time I began to get the hang of it and now I find it an absolute joy to trip through phrase after phrase of Plutarch’s long thoughts. This density of thought makes Plutarch perfect for short readings, appropriate for homes and schools. Our students benefit from hearing these long sentences; their minds are forced to attention and they begin to absorb the purposes of the English phrase. I say English because, at least around here, we generally read Arthur Cough’s revision of John Dryden’s translation. The old PNEU schools used Plutarch to teach citizenship. “Citizenship becomes a definite subject rather from the point of view of what may be called the inspiration of citizenship than from that of the knowledge proper to a citizen, though the latter is by no means neglected. We find Plutarch's Lives exceedingly inspiring. These are read by the teacher (with suitable omissions) and narrated with great spirit by the children.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, 185) Certainly, we find ourselves in need of teaching citizenship in these dark days. Plutarch can provide us with a way out of the red state/blue state divide into the clear air of individual responsibility and the consequences of ideas. Reading Plutarch has one advantage particularly of interest to those using The Lost Tools of Writing. It is an excellent tool for training the judgment and therefore the perfect place to look for types when working on ‘Issues.’ The book is set up to compare the lives of the Greeks and the Romans, alternating between them. Children “learn to answer such questions as,--"In what ways did Pericles make Athens beautiful? How did he persuade the people to help him?" And we may hope that the idea is engendered of preserving and increasing the beauty (185). “Plutarch is like the Bible in this, that he does not label the actions of his people as good or bad but leaves the conscience and judgment of his readers to make that classification. What to avoid and how to avoid it, is knowledge as important to the citizen....” (187). This is a beautiful thing. When presented with the facts, children allowed to come to their own conclusions will be forced by nature to make their own judgments, thus developing their consciences in ways that cannot be easily uprooted. Long sentences, citizenship and judgment are hefty reasons for persevering as a teacher in learning to read aloud Plutarch’s Lives in a quality translation. In our family, I read one or two of the long paragraphs a day stopping along the way frequently to discuss the meaning of the vocabulary or to deconstruct a sentence, figuring out what is being said. It can be a fun exercise almost like doing a group puzzle. The Lives do not need to be rushed; we usually read only 3 a year. Take your time and enjoy the ramble. They are not the type of book  you read through once and call it a day. The greatest profit is gained by a lifelong friendship with the work.
Cindy Rollins

Cindy Rollins

Cindy Rollins is a homeschooling mom of 9 (8 boys and 1 girl) who attended Stetson University and Toccoa Falls College.She is a freelance writer with monthly columns in the Chattanooga Esprit and Knoxville Smoke Signals. For many years now she has blogged through her efforts to  homeschool under the classical principles of Charlotte Mason at Ordo-Amoris.  She continues to follow her heart's desire to encourage and serve homeschooling moms with a special concern for those raising sons. She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with her husband Tim and however many children happen to be home.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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If you click on my signature, it will take you to a post I did two years ago after I realized that even Frankenstein's monster read Plutarch. Here's another one from about the same time: http://tinyurl.com/3tpl86r .

I also liked this quote, found on Google Books:

"She glanced at her watch. It was a little after eleven o'clock. An hour ago she and Rusty had set out. Pity Robert wasn't here. He was the one who loved history. Robert had brought Plutarch along on their honeymoon. And worse, had found time to read it."--from Abraham Lincoln: a novel life, by Tony Wolk

(This school term makes our third time (third child) through Poplicola!)

Andrew and Kimberly,
I wouldn't even consider a proposal if I had not been to the apprenticeship and learned to overcome (a little bit) my extreme fear of standing up in front of others. The Circe Apprenticeship while sometimes painful for me was life changing in that way.

Cindy, I attempted to read Arthur Clough's revision of The Life of Alexander the Great last year to my boys, who were ten and eight at the time. I quit after a week of trying. It was too difficult! But now I see that I was going too fast. Your article has given me new hope; I shall try again! I hope you will lead a workshop at the conference; I'd love to hear more.

On a related note, Cindy-- this week in one of my classes we imitated the following opening sentence from a George Whitefield sermon: As God can send a nation or people no greater blessing than to give them faithful, sincere, and upright ministers, so the greatest curse that God can possibly send upon a people in this world is to give them over to blind, unregenerate, carnal, lukewarm, and unskillful guides.

One student had the audacity to ask me if he had to write a run-on sentence like Whitefield had. In questioning him further, it turns out that he has been taught that any long sentence is a run-on sentence. This is a curse of modern writing techniques, and a shame! But it gave me the opportunity to explain why this is NOT a run-on sentence, and to extoll the beauties of long sentences. :-)

Excellent thoughts as always!

But before I gave up, I copied down the famous Bucephalus passage:

"Philonicus the Thessalian brought the horse Bucephalus to Philip, offering to sell him for thirteen talents; but when they went into the field to try him, they found him so very vicious and unmanageable, that he reared up when they endeavoured to mount him, and would not so much as endure the voice of any of Philip’s attendants. Upon which, as they were leading him away as wholly useless and untractable, Alexander, who stood by, said, “What an excellent horse do they lose for want of address and boldness to manage him!” Philip at first took no notice of what he said; but when he heard him repeat the same thing several times, and saw he was much vexed to see the horse sent away, “Do you reproach,” said he to him, “those who are older than yourself, as if you knew more, and were better able to manage him than they?” “I could manage this horse,” replied he, “better than others do.” “And if you do not,” said Philip, “what will you forfeit for your rashness?” “I will pay,” answered Alexander, “the whole price of the horse.” At this the whole company fell a-laughing; and as soon as the wager was settled amongst them, he immediately ran to the horse, and taking hold of the bridle, turned him directly towards the sun, having, it seems, observed that he was disturbed at and afraid of the motion of his own shadow; then letting him go forward a little still keeping the reins in his hands, and stroking him gently when he found him begin to grow eager and fiery, he let fall his upper garment softly, and with one nimble leap securely mounted him, and when he was seated, by little and little drew in the bridle, and curbed him without either striking or spurring him. Presently, when he found him free from all the rebelliousness, and only impatient for the course, he let him go at full speed, inciting him now with a commanding voice, and urging him also with his heel."

Awesome!!! You made Monday so much better! My wife and I just passed our first year anniversary mark and we get the question about children on a frequent basis. Every other time I think, "Perhaps when we do have kids I will read Plutarch to them!" I have told my wife I am going to read Plato's Republic to her stomach as she is carrying our unborn child. Doesn't everyone?

Perhaps I might re-write the main ones for our little one. They are important- particularly Pericles, Alexander, some of the Roman Lives too.

Bless you for writing this!

Wow, Cindy. I might as well confess that Plutarch was a mountain I never climbed with my children. You just explained perfectly how to make it happen.

A suggestion: this year we are going to open up a few workshop spaces at the conference for proposals. How about proposing a workshop on how to read Shakespeare and/or how to read Plutarch.

Wonderful. And important.

Thank you.