(Continued article from last Sunday)
3. Treatise on Poetry, History and Education
For Plutarch, poetry and history constitute the integral elements of Academic philosophy. Poetry and education, then, in the view of this ‘humanist par excellence’ (Encyclopedia Britannica), complement one another:
The Spartan, when asked what he taught, replied: I make honourable [sic] things pleasant to children (PL MOR 6. P9).
This way is the one to help pupils take through their learning toward Plutarch’s ultimate aim and accordingly, carries heavy responsibility in their own improvement of their character:
The memory of children should be trained and exercised; it is the storehouse of learning and the mother of the Muses (PL MOR 1 P45).
Young pupils, Plutarch believes, must be given training in reading poetry, though beyond the metaphorical in order to realize this art will impact character formation and development in the matter people desperately need it later in their lives:
Let poetry be used as an introductory exercise to philosophy. Those who train themselves to seek the profitable in what gives pleasure and to be dissatisfied with what has nothing profitable in it learn discernment, the beginning of education (PL MOR 1 P81).
When pupils “pass from ostentation and artifice to discourse which deals with character and feeling[,]” proclaims Plutarch, “they begin to make progress (PL MOR 1 P421).” By becoming aware on the basis of poetry’s selected principles of their own capability to achieve a higher form of themselves, they will then be able to advance upon a state of being where they can materialize those principles, from which point to enter the path to virtue. Once they achieved that state of being they have attained by themselves, he asserts further, they can contribute to the improvement of others:
Menedemus remarked that: the multitudes who came to Athens to study were at the outset wise; later they became lovers of wisdom; later still orators, and as time went on, just ordinary persons and the more they laid hold on reason the more they laid aside their self opinion and conceit (PL MOR 1 P435).
In the statement above, we see once again the essence of Plutarch’s principle regarding the need for the concurrence of nature, habit and reason in order for the education of character to be achieved. Hence, the interrelated components of the concept behind philosophical education: poetry and history as the two irreplaceable cores of the same element that fine-tunes character. How befitting is the following Plutarch statement, when his ideal of training statesmen from their childhood on is taken into consideration:
We should choose a calling appropriate to ourselves, cultivate it diligently and let the rest alone (PL MOR 6. P215).
And how succinct is his definition of the correctly educated statesman:
Arouse a man to emulate his better self (PL MOR 1 P383).
As stressed at the onset of this article, Plutarch, a phenomenon of human history prompted the development and advancement of essay writing and essayist texts. Far beyond such influence, however, he also left his impact on the emergence of the genres of biography and historical writing (Encyclopedia Britannica). His academic and philosophical presence in Europe is said to have stayed at its peak from the 16th through the 19th century the least.
His literary impact on following generations of authors has been immense: Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, John Dryden, John Milton, Robert Herrick, George Chapman, Jonathan Swift, Walter Savage Landor, William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells in England; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville in the United States; J.W. von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller in Germany; and French drama of the late 16th and the entire 17th century; Jacques Myot’s introduction of Plutarch to Sir Thomas North, and Shakespeare’s three plays sourced by Sir Thomas North’s English translation of Lives and from then on, the entire English-speaking regions of the world (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
When compared to other Ancient Greek philosophers, Plutarch is not viewed as a profound figure in the field of philosophy. While he may not have added a new component to the arena of philosophy at large, scholars assert that he was instrumental in enabling his students and the public to comprehend the established systems – and not only in Greece but wherever he traveled. I join many critics who see in him ‘a humanist par excellence’ – and therefore justify the extensive space I reserve in my essay on the discussion of his relevant accomplishments as an educator serving humanity.
(Next Sunday, Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Plutarch’s Academic Philosophy)