In Praise of Plutarch

Character is, perhaps, the most important goal in our homeschool. I'm sure many of you are of the same persuasion. We hope that our children grow to be people of 'quality'-- noble, good, magnanimous, benevolent, self-controlled, honest... The list goes on. You and I realize that a highly educated person is useless to society if he or she has not developed at least some of these qualities. My husband and I are trying to teach our children to live not only for this world but for God's Kingdom, so the attainment of much more than 'some' character qualities is our desire. We go about reaching this goal as parents by striving to be examples of virtue to our children and we surround our children with people of character. Sometimes those people are more easily found in books. Since time is limited, we choose only the best.

Religious books and magazines are filled with stories that place a child in a modern day predicament, showing how Johnny made the right decision and happy situation 'A' happened, or Sue made the wrong decision and sad situation 'B' happened. I suppose the occasional tale in this format is helpful for some children and sometimes I use them in our home, but over the years, as I have watched my children read all kinds of books, I've noticed that those which are set in set in the distant past have caused them to yearn to be noble in behavior unlike any other tale. Ms. Ambler, a contributor to Charlotte Mason's Parent's Review, was of the same opinion when she wrote:

"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." 1901

The writings of Plutarch have been a family favorite in our home for several years now as a source for citizenship and character training. Wilmot McCutchen states Plutarch's purpose better than I:

"His announced intention was not to write a chronicle of great historical events, but rather to examine the character of great men, as a lesson for the living. Throughout the Lives, Plutarch pauses to deliver penetrating observations on human nature as illustrated by his subjects, so it is difficult to classify the Lives as history, biography, or philosophy. These timeless studies of humanity are truly in a class by themselves."

Christian author, George Grant adds, "History, for Plutarch, is a theater of morals, in which great individuals rise and fall by their strengths and weaknesses."

Plutarch himself wrote:

"Using history as a mirror I try by whatever means I can to improve my own life and to model it by the standard of all that is best in those whose lives I write. As a result I feel as though I were conversing and indeed living with them; by means of history I receive each one of them in turn, welcome and entertain them as guests and consider their stature and their qualities and select from their actions the most authoritative and the best with a view to getting to know them. What greater pleasure could one enjoy than this or what more efficacious in improving one’s own character?"

When I asked my daughters why they liked Plutarch, this is how they responded:

He doesn't talk down to you.

He gets to the point without too much flowery language.

After I got used to his language, he was really easy to understand.

I learn new words all the time.

I understand ancient history better now.

I like sources that were written closer to the times they happened. Since Plutarch lived during the days of Rome, I feel I can trust his commentary more than some modern history books I have read and it's not even a history book.

Now that I have studied Plutarch, I like it that I can understand what the authors of my other books are saying when they quote him. That's cool.

It's not just a make-believe moral story. He points out real events that happened and the consequences of bad decisions.

I understand American history better now.

"…a classic worth reading is one that has influenced our own day to some extraordinary degree. If we are to understand why people think as they do, act as they do, or feel as they do; if we are to comprehend the foundations of our institutions, the tenacity of our traditions, or the precariousness of our policies then we need to have substantive background information. Plutarch's Lives has been the primary lens through which western intellectuals, educators, artists, musicians, dramatists, and historians have viewed the Greco-Roman world. If for no other reason than to grasp the significance of that influence, the Lives is vitally important." George Grant

There's nothing sacred about him, mind you. In fact, he was a pagan. We hold Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans up to the Light of God's word to see if it passes the Truth test as we do with all our schoolbooks, realizing that truth is still truth, no matter where we discover it. Plutarch is packed with worthy content--unlike some books and movies in which truth can be found, but being so fraught with error, they are simply not worth one's time.

I could forgo Plutarch and use other sources for citizenship, but I keep in mind that Charlotte Mason recommended this book because the ideas are framed in rich, meaningful words, adding beauty to a child's life. Children recognize good writing and enjoy it. Plutarch gives us a better understanding of ancient times as well as our culture today since much of Europe and early America were greatly influenced by his writings. It also enables my children, by stretching their powers of comprehension, to keep in touch with great minds of the past found not only in Plutarch's Lives but other literature that contain important ideas. Most young people today are simply unable to read and appreciate works of antiquity because they are unaccustomed to the language. This prevents them from truly understanding the chain of events and ideas that slowly, over time shaped our world today. Consequently, we have a generation of people who must rely upon dumbed down, predigested and unrelated facts with politically correct ideas as their sole source of history, philosophy and even religious ideas. This handicaps the populace, making them pawns of the State rather than informed, responsible citizens who defend the rights of the weak, help the poor and maintain justice for all. But I digress...

For further reading: Why Read Plutarch? by George Grant

one step at a time...