Plutarch’s Morals: On Education

The Moral Liberal, Classics Library

Plutarch’s Morals: “On Education”, 75 A.C.E.

§ i. Come let us consider what one might say on the education of free children, and by what training they would become good citizens.

§ ii. It is perhaps best to begin with birth: I would therefore warn those who desire to be fathers of notable sons, not to form connections with any kind of women, such as courtesans or mistresses: for those who either on the father or mother’s side are ill-born have the disgrace of their origin all their life long irretrievably present with them, and offer a ready handle to abuse and vituperation. So that the poet was wise, who said, “Unless the foundation of a house be well laid, the descendants must of necessity be unfortunate.”3 Good birth indeed brings with it a store of assurance, which ought to be greatly valued by all who desire legitimate offspring. For the spirit of those who are a spurious and bastard breed is apt to be mean and abject: for as the poet truly says, “It makes a man even of noble spirit servile, when he is conscious of the ill fame of either his father or mother.”4 On the other hand the sons of illustrious parents are full of pride and arrogance. As an instance of this it is recorded of Diophantus,5 the son of Themistocles, that he often used to say to various people “that he could do what he pleased with the Athenian people, for what he wished his mother wished, and what she wished Themistocles wished, and what Themistocles wished all the Athenians wished.” All praise also ought we to bestow on the Lacedæmonians for their loftiness of soul in fining their king Archidamus for venturing to marry a small woman, for they charged him with intending to furnish them not with kings but kinglets.

§ iii. Next must we mention, what was not overlooked even by those who handled this subject before us, that those who approach their wives for procreation must do so either without having drunk any wine or at least very little. For those children, that their parents begot in drink, are wont to be fond of wine and apt to turn out drunkards. And so Diogenes, seeing a youth out of his mind and crazy, said, “Young man, your father was drunk when he begot you.” Let this hint serve as to procreation: now let us discuss education.

§ iv. To speak generally, what we are wont to say about the arts and sciences is also true of moral excellence, for to its perfect development three things must meet together, natural ability, theory, and practice. By theory I mean training, and by practice working at one’s craft. Now the foundation must be laid in training, and practice gives facility, but perfection is attained only by the junction of all three. For if any one of these elements be wanting, excellence must be so far deficient. For natural ability without training is blind: and training without natural ability is defective, and practice without both natural ability and training is imperfect. For just as in farming the first requisite is good soil, next a good farmer, next good seed, so also here: the soil corresponds to natural ability, the training to the farmer, the seed to precepts and instruction. I should therefore maintain stoutly that these three elements were found combined in the souls of such universally famous men as Pythagoras, and Socrates, and Plato, and of all who have won undying fame. Happy at any rate and dear to the gods is he to whom any deity has vouchsafed all these elements! But if anyone thinks that those who have not good natural ability cannot to some extent make up for the deficiencies of nature by right training and practice, let such a one know that he is very wide of the mark, if not out of it altogether. For good natural parts are impaired by sloth; while inferior ability is mended by training: and while simple things escape the eyes of the careless, difficult things are reached by painstaking. The wonderful efficacy and power of long and continuous labour you may see indeed every day in the world around you.6 Thus water continually dropping wears away rocks: and iron and steel are moulded by the hands of the artificer: and chariot wheels bent by some strain can never recover their original symmetry: and the crooked staves of actors can never be made straight. But by toil what is contrary to nature becomes stronger than even nature itself. And are these the only things that teach the power of diligence? Not so: ten thousand things teach the same truth. A soil naturally good becomes by neglect barren, and the better its original condition, the worse its ultimate state if uncared for. On the other hand a soil exceedingly rough and sterile by being farmed well produces excellent crops. And what trees do not by neglect become gnarled and unfruitful, whereas by pruning they become fruitful and productive? And what constitution so good but it is marred and impaired by sloth, luxury, and too full habit? And what weak constitution has not derived benefit from exercise and athletics? And what horses broken in young are not docile to their riders? while if they are not broken in till late they become hard-mouthed and unmanageable. And why should we be surprised at similar cases, seeing that we find many of the savagest animals docile and tame by training? Rightly answered the Thessalian, who was asked who the mildest Thessalians were, “Those who have done with fighting.”7 But why pursue the line of argument further? For the Greek name for moral virtue is only habit: and if anyone defines moral virtues as habitual virtues, he will not be beside the mark. But I will employ only one more illustration, and dwell no longer on this topic. Lycurgus, the Lacedæmonian legislator, took two puppies of the same parents, and brought them up in an entirely different way: the one he pampered and cosseted up, while he taught the other to hunt and be a retriever. Then on one occasion, when the 4Lacedæmonians were convened in assembly, he said, “Mighty, O Lacedæmonians, is the influence on moral excellence of habit, and education, and training, and modes of life, as I will prove to you at once.” So saying he produced the two puppies, and set before them a platter and a hare: the one darted on the hare, while the other made for the platter. And when the Lacedæmonians could not guess what his meaning was, or with what intent he had produced the puppies, he said, “These puppies are of the same parents, but by virtue of a different bringing up the one is pampered, and the other a good hound.” Let so much suffice for habit and modes of life.

§ v. The next point to discuss will be nutrition. In my opinion mothers ought to nurse and suckle their own children. For they will bring them up with more sympathy and care, if they love them so intimately and, as the proverb puts it, “from their first growing their nails.”8 Whereas the affection of wet or dry nurses is spurious and counterfeit, being merely for pay. And nature itself teaches that mothers ought themselves to suckle and rear those they have given birth to. And for that purpose she has supplied every female parent with milk. And providence has wisely provided women with two breasts, so that if they should bear twins, they would have a breast for each. And besides this, as is natural enough, they would feel more affection and love for their children by suckling them. For this supplying them with food is as it were a tightener of love, for even the brute creation, if taken away from their young, pine away, as we constantly see. Mothers must therefore, as I said, certainly try to suckle their own children: but if they are unable to do so either through physical weakness (for this contingency sometimes occurs), or in haste to have other children, they must select wet and dry nurses with the greatest care, and not introduce into their houses any kind of women. First and foremost they must be Greeks in their habits. For just as it is necessary immediately after birth to shapen the limbs of children, so that they may grow straight and not crooked, so from the beginning must their habits be carefully attended to. For infancy is supple and easily moulded, and what children learn sinks deeply into their souls while they are young and tender, whereas everything hard is softened only with great difficulty. For just as seals are impressed on soft wax, so instruction leaves its permanent mark on the minds of those still young. And divine Plato seems to me to give excellent advice to nurses not to tell their children any kind of fables, that their souls may not in the very dawn of existence be full of folly or corruption.9 Phocylides the poet also seems to give admirable advice when he says, “We must teach good habits while the pupil is still a boy.”

§ vi. Attention also must he given to this point, that the lads that are to wait upon and be with young people must be first and foremost of good morals, and able to speak Greek distinctly and idiomatically, that they may not by contact with foreigners of loose morals contract any of their viciousness. For as those who are fond of quoting proverbs say not amiss, “If you live with a lame man, you will learn to halt.”10

§ vii. Next, when our boys are old enough to be put into the hands of tutors,11 great care must be taken that we do not hand them over to slaves, or foreigners, or flighty persons. For what happens nowadays in many cases is highly ridiculous: good slaves are made farmers, or sailors, or merchants, or stewards, or money-lenders; but if they find a winebibbing, greedy, and utterly useless slave, to him parents commit the charge of their sons, whereas the good tutor ought to be such a one as was Phœnix, the tutor of Achilles. The point also which I am now going to speak about is of the utmost importance. The schoolmasters we ought to select for our boys should be of blameless life, of pure character, and of great experience. For a good training is the source and root of gentlemanly behaviour. And just as farmers prop up their trees, so good schoolmasters prop up the young by good advice and suggestions, that they may become upright. How one must despise, therefore, some fathers, who, whether from ignorance or inexperience, before putting the intended teachers to the test, commit their sons to the charge of untried and untested men. If they act so through inexperience it is not so ridiculous; but it is to the remotest degree absurd when, though perfectly aware of both the inexperience and worthlessness of some schoolmasters, they yet entrust their sons to them; some overcome by flattery, others to gratify friends who solicit their favours; acting just as if anybody ill in body, passing over the experienced physician, should, to gratify his friend, call him in, and so throw away his life; or as if to gratify one’s friend one should reject the best pilot and choose him instead. Zeus and all the gods! can anyone bearing the sacred name of father put obliging a petitioner before obtaining the best education for his sons? Were they not then wise words that the time-honoured Socrates used to utter, and say that he would proclaim, if he could, climbing up to the highest part of the city, “Men, what can you be thinking of, who move heaven and earth to make money, while you bestow next to no attention on the sons you are going to leave that money to?”12 I would add to this that such fathers act very similarly to a person who should be very careful about his shoe but care nothing about his foot. Many persons also are so niggardly about their children, and indifferent to their interests, that for the sake of a paltry saving, they prefer worthless teachers for their children, practising a vile economy at the expense of their children’s ignorance. Apropos of this, Aristippus on one occasion rebuked an empty-headed parent neatly and wittily. For being asked how much money a parent ought to pay for his son’s education, he answered, “A thousand drachmæ.” And he replying, “Hercules, what a price! I could buy a slave for as much;” Aristippus answered, “You shall have two slaves then, your son and the slave you buy.”13 And is it not altogether strange that you accustom your son to take his food in his right hand, and chide him if he offers his left, whereas you care very little about his hearing good and sound discourses? I will tell you what happens to such admirable fathers, when they have educated and brought up their sons so badly: when the sons grow to man’s estate, they disregard a sober and well-ordered life, and rush headlong into disorderly and low vices; then at the last the parents are sorry they have neglected their education, bemoaning bitterly when it is too late their sons’ debasement. For some of them keep flatterers and parasites in their retinue—an accursed set of wretches, the defilers and pest of youth; others keep mistresses and common prostitutes, wanton and costly; others waste their money in eating; others come to grief through dice and revelling; some even go in for bolder profligacy, being whoremongers and defilers of the marriage bed,14 who would madly pursue their darling vice if it cost them their lives. Had they associated with some philosopher, they would not have lowered themselves by such practices, but would have remembered the precept of Diogenes, whose advice sounds rather low, but is really of excellent moral intent,15 “Go into a brothel, my lad, that you may see the little difference between vice and virtue.”

§ viii. I say, then, to speak comprehensively (and I might be justly considered in so saying to speak as an oracle, not to be delivering a mere precept), that a good education and sound bringing-up is of the first and middle and last importance; and I declare it to be most instrumental and conducive to virtue and happiness. For all other human blessings compared to this are petty and insignificant. For noble birth is a great honour, but it is an advantage from our forefathers. And wealth is valuable, but it is the acquisition of fortune, who has often taken it away from those who had it, and brought it to those who little expected it; and much wealth is a sort of mark for villanous slaves and informers to shoot at to fill their own purses; and, what is a most important point, even the greatest villains have money sometimes. And glory is noble, but insecure. And beauty is highly desirable, but shortlived. And health is highly valuable, but soon impaired. And strength is desirable, but illness or age soon made sad inroads into it. And generally speaking, if anyone prides himself on his bodily strength, let him know that he is deficient in judgment. For how much inferior is the strength of a man to that of animals, as elephants, bulls, and lions! But education is of all our advantages the only one immortal and divine. And two of the most powerful agencies in man’s nature are mind and reason. And mind governs reason, and reason obeys mind; and mind is irremovable by fortune, cannot be taken away by informers, cannot be destroyed by disease, cannot have inroads made into it by old age. For the mind alone flourishes in age; and while time takes away everything else, it adds wisdom to old age. Even war, that sweeps away everything else like a winter torrent, cannot take away education. And Stilpo, the Megarian, seems to me to have made a memorable answer when Demetrius enslaved Megara and rased it to the ground. On his asking whether Stilpo had lost anything, he replied, “Certainly not, for war can make no havoc of virtue.” Corresponding and consonant to this is the answer of Socrates, who when asked, I think by Gorgias,16 if he had any conception as to the happiness of the King of Persia, replied, “I do not know his position in regard to virtue and education: for happiness lies in these, and not in adventitious advantages.”

§ ix. And as I advise parents to think nothing more important than the education of their children, so I maintain that it must be a sound and healthy education, and that our sons must be kept as far as possible from vulgar twaddle. For what pleases the vulgar displeases the wise. I am borne out by the lines of Euripides, “Unskilled am I in the oratory that pleases the mob; but amongst the few that are my equals I am reckoned rather wise. For those who are little thought of by the wise, seem to hit the taste of the vulgar.”17 And I have myself noticed that those who practise to speak acceptably and to the gratification of the masses promiscuously, for the most part become also profligate and lovers of pleasure in their lives. Naturally enough. For if in giving pleasure to others they neglect the noble, they would be hardly likely to put the lofty and sound above a life of luxury and pleasure, and to prefer moderation to delights. Yet what better advice could we give our sons than to follow this? or to what could we better exhort them to accustom themselves? For perfection is only attained by neither speaking nor acting at random—as the proverb says, Perfection is only attained by practice.18 Whereas extempore oratory is easy and facile, mere windbag, having neither beginning nor end. And besides their other shortcomings extempore speakers fall into great disproportion and repetition, whereas a well considered speech preserves its due proportions. It is recorded by tradition that Pericles, when called on by the people for a speech, frequently refused on the plea that he was unprepared. Similarly Demosthenes, his state-rival, when the Athenians called upon him for his advice, refused to give it, saying, “I am not prepared.” But this you will say, perhaps, is mere tradition without authority. But in his speech against Midias he plainly sets forth the utility of preparation, for he says, “I do not deny, men of Athens, that I have prepared this speech to the best of my ability: for I should have been a poor creature if, after suffering so much at his hands, and even still suffering, I had neglected how to plead my case.”19 Not that I would altogether reject extempore oratory, or its use in critical cases, but it should be used only as one would take medicine.20 Up, indeed, to man’s estate I would have no extempore speaking, but when anyone’s powers of speech are rooted and grounded, then, as emergencies call for it, I would allow his words to flow freely. For as those who have been for a long time in fetters stumble if unloosed, not being able to walk from being long used to their fetters, so those who for a long time have used compression in their words, if they are suddenly called upon to speak off-hand, retain the same character of expression. But to let mere lads speak extempore is to give rise to the acme of foolish talk. A wretched painter once showed Apelles, they say, a picture, and said, “I have just done it.” Apelles replied, “Without your telling me, I should know it was painted quickly; I only wonder you haven’t painted more such in the time.” As then (for I now return from my digression), I advise to avoid stilted and bombastic language, so again do I urge to avoid a finical and petty style of speech; for tall talk is unpopular, and petty language makes no impression. And as the body ought to be not only sound but in good condition, so speech ought to be not only not feeble but vigorous. For a safe mediocrity is indeed praised, but a bold venturesomeness is also admired. I am also of the same opinion with regard to the disposition of the soul, which ought to be neither audacious nor timid and easily dejected: for the one ends in impudence and the other in servility; but to keep in all things the mean between extremes is artistic and proper. And, while I am still on this topic, I wish to give my opinion, that I regard a monotonous speech first as no small proof of want of taste, next as likely to generate disdain, and certain not to please long. For to harp on one string is always tiresome and brings satiety; whereas variety is pleasant always whether to the ear or eye.

§ x. Next our freeborn lad ought to go in for a course of what is called general knowledge, but a smattering of this will be sufficient, a taste as it were (for perfect knowledge of all subjects would be impossible); but he must seriously cultivate philosophy. I borrow an illustration to show my meaning: it is well to sail round many cities, but advantageous to live in the best. It was a witty remark of the philosopher Bion,21 that, as those suitors who could not seduce Penelope took up with her maids as a pis aller, so those who cannot attain philosophy wear themselves out in useless pursuits. Philosophy, therefore, ought to be regarded as the most important branch of study. For as regards the cure of the body, men have found two branches, medicine and exercise: the former of which gives health, and the latter good condition of body; but philosophy is the only cure for the maladies and disorders of the soul. For with her as ruler and guide we can know what is honourable, what is disgraceful; what is just, what unjust; generally speaking, what is to be sought after, what to be avoided; how we ought to behave to the gods, to parents, to elders, to the laws, to foreigners, to rulers, to friends, to women, to children, to slaves: viz., that we ought to worship the gods, honour parents, reverence elders, obey the laws, submit ourselves to rulers, love our friends, be chaste in our relations with women, kind to our children, and not to treat our slaves badly; and, what is of the greatest importance, to be neither over elated in prosperity nor over depressed in adversity,22 nor to be dissolute in pleasures, nor fierce and brutish in anger. These I regard as the principal blessings that philosophy teaches. For to enjoy prosperity nobly shows a man; and to enjoy it without exciting envy shows a moderate man; and to conquer the passions by reason argues a wise man; and it is not everybody who can keep his temper in control. And those who can unite political ability with philosophy I regard as perfect men, for I take them to attain two of the greatest blessings, serving the state in a public capacity, and living the calm and tranquil life of philosophy. For, as there are three kinds of life, the practical, the contemplative, and the life of enjoyment, and of these three the one devoted to enjoyment is a paltry and animal life, and the practical without philosophy an unlovely and harsh life, and the contemplative without the practical a useless life, so we must endeavour with all our power to combine public life with philosophy as far as circumstances will permit. Such was the life led by Pericles, by Archytas of Tarentum, by Dion of Syracuse, by Epaminondas the Theban, one of whom was a disciple of Plato (viz., Dion). And as to education, I do not know that I need dwell any more on it. But in addition to what I have said, it is useful, if not necessary, not to neglect to procure old books, and to make a collection of them, as is usual in agriculture. For the use of books is an instrument in education, and it is profitable in learning to go to the fountain head.

§ xi. Exercise also ought not to be neglected, but we ought to send our boys to the master of the gymnasium to train them duly, partly with a view to carrying the body well, partly with a view to strength. For good habit of body in boys is the foundation of a good old age. For as in fine weather we ought to lay up for winter, so in youth one ought to form good habits and live soberly so as to have a reserve stock of strength for old age. Yet ought we to husband the exertions of the body, so as not to be wearied out by them and rendered unfit for study. For, as Plato says,23 excessive sleep and fatigue are enemies to learning. But why dwell on this? For I am in a hurry to pass to the most important point. Our lads must be trained for warlike encounters, making themselves efficient in hurling the javelin and darts, and in the chase. For the possessions of those who are defeated in battle belong to the conquerors as booty of war; and war is not the place for delicately brought up bodies: it is the spare warrior that makes the best combatant, who as an athlete cuts his way through the ranks of the enemies. Supposing anyone objects: “How so? As you undertook to give advice on the education of freeborn children, do you now neglect the poor and plebeian ones, and give instructions only suitable to the rich?” It is easy enough to meet such critics. I should prefer to make my teaching general and suitable to all; but if any, through their poverty, shall be unable to follow up my precepts, let them blame fortune, and not the author of these hints. We must try with all our might to procure the best education for the poor as well as the rich, but if that is impossible, then we must put up with the practicable. I inserted those matters into my discourse here, that I might hereafter confine myself to all that appertains to the right education of the young.

§ xii. And this I say that we ought to try to draw our boys to good pursuits by entreaties and exhortation, but certainly not by blows or abusive language. For that seems to be more fitting for slaves than the freeborn. For slaves try to shirk and avoid their work, partly because of the pain of blows, partly on account of being reviled. But praise or censure are far more useful than abuse to the freeborn, praise pricking them on to virtue, censure deterring them from vice. But one must censure and praise alternately: when they are too saucy we must censure them and make them ashamed of themselves, and again encourage them by praise, and imitate those nurses who, when their children sob, give them the breast to comfort them. But we must not puff them up and make them conceited with excessive praise, for that will make them vain and give themselves airs.

§ xiii. And I have ere now seen some fathers, whose excessive love for their children has turned into hatred. My meaning I will endeavour to make clearer by illustration. While they are in too great a hurry to make their sons take the lead in everything, they lay too much work upon them, so that they faint under their tasks, and, being overburdened, are disinclined for learning. For just as plants grow with moderate rain, but are done for by too much rain, so the mind enlarges by a proper amount of work, but by too much is unhinged. We must therefore give our boys remission from continuous labour, bearing in mind that all our life is divided into labour and rest; thus we find not only wakefulness but sleep, not only war but peace, not only foul weather but fine also, not only working days but also festivals. And, to speak concisely, rest is the sauce of labour. And we can see this not only in the case of animate, but even inanimate things, for we make bows and lyres slack that we may be able to stretch them. And generally the body is preserved by repletion and evacuation, and the soul by rest and work. We ought also to censure some fathers who, after entrusting their sons to tutors and preceptors, neither see nor hear how the teaching is done. This is a great mistake. For they ought after a few days to test the progress of their sons, and not to base their hopes on the behaviour of a hireling; and the preceptors will take all the more pains with the boys, if they have from time to time to give an account of their progress. Hence the propriety of that remark of the groom, that nothing fats the horse so much as the king’s eye.24 And especial attention, in my opinion, must be paid to cultivating and exercising the memory of boys, for memory is, as it were, the storehouse of learning; and that was why they fabled Mnemosyne to be the mother of the Muses, hinting and insinuating that nothing so generates and contributes to the growth of learning as memory. And therefore the memory must be cultivated, whether boys have a good one by nature, or a bad one. For we shall so add to natural good parts, and make up somewhat for natural deficiencies, so that the deficient will be better than others, and the clever will outstrip themselves. For good is that remark of Hesiod, “If to a little you keep adding a little, and do so frequently, it will soon be a lot.”25 And let not fathers forget, that thus cultivating the memory is not only good for education, but is also a great aid in the business of life. For the remembrance of past actions gives a good model how to deal wisely in future ones.

§ xiv. We must also keep our sons from filthy language. For, as Democritus says, Language is the shadow of action. They must also be taught to be affable and courteous. For as want of affability is justly hateful, so boys will not be disagreeable to those they associate with, if they yield occasionally in disputes. For it is not only excellent to know how to conquer, but also to know how to be defeated, when victory would be injurious, for there is such a thing as a Cadmean victory.26 I can cite wise Euripides as a witness of the truth of what I say, who says, “When two are talking, and one of them is in a passion, he is the wiser who first gives way.”27

I will next state something quite as important, indeed, if anything, even more important. That is, that life must be spent without luxury, the tongue must be under control, so must the temper and the hands. All this is of extreme importance, as I will show by examples. To begin with the last case, some who have put their hands to unjust gains, have lost all the fruits of their former life, as the Lacedæmonian Gylippus,28 who was exiled from Sparta for embezzling the public money. To be able to govern the temper also argues a wise man. For Socrates, when a very impudent and disgusting young fellow kicked him on one occasion, seeing all the rest of his class vexed and impatient, even to the point of wanting to prosecute the young man, said, “What! If a young ass kicked me would you have me kick it back?” Not that the young fellow committed this outrage on Socrates with impunity, for as all reviled him and nicknamed him the kicker, he hung himself. And when Aristophanes brought his “Clouds” on the stage, and bespattered Socrates with his gibes and flouts, and one of the spectators said, “Aren’t you vexed, Socrates, at his exhibiting you on the stage in this comic light?” he answered, “Not I, by Zeus, for I look upon the theatre as only a large supper party.”29 Very similar to this was the behaviour of Archytas of Tarentum and Plato. The former, on his return from war, where he had been general, finding his land neglected, called his bailiff, and said to him, “You would have caught it, had I not been very angry.” And Plato, very angry with a gluttonous and shameless slave, called his sister’s son Speusippus, and said, “Go and beat him, for I am too angry.” But someone will say, these examples are difficult and hard to follow. I know it. But we must try, as far as possible, following these examples, to avoid ungovernable and mad rage. For we cannot in other respects equal those distinguished men in their ability and virtue, nevertheless we must, like initiating priests of the gods and torchbearers of wisdom, attempt as far as possible to imitate and nibble at their practice. Then, again, if anyone thinks it a small and unimportant matter to govern the tongue, another point I promised to touch on, he is very far from the reality. For silence at the proper season is wisdom, and better than any speech. And that is, I think, the reason why the ancients instituted the mysteries that we, learning therein to be silent, might transfer our secrecy to the gods to human affairs. And no one ever yet repented of his silence, while multitudes have repented of their speaking. And what has not been said is easy to say, while what has been once said can never be recalled. I have heard of myriads who have fallen into the greatest misfortunes through inability to govern their tongues. Passing over the rest, I will mention one or two cases in point. When Ptolemy Philadelphus married his sister Arsinoe, Sotades said, “You are contracting an unholy marriage.”30 For this speech he long lingered in prison, and paid the righteous penalty for his unseasonable babbling, and had to weep a long time for making others laugh. Theocritus the Sophist similarly cracked his jokes, and had to pay even a greater penalty. For when Alexander ordered the Greeks to furnish him with purple robes to wear at the sacrifices on his triumphal return from war against the barbarians, and his subjects contributed so much per head, Theocritus said, “Before I doubted, but now I am sure, that this is the purple death Homer speaks of.”31 By this speech he made Alexander his enemy. The same Theocritus put Antigonus, the King of the Macedonians, a one-eyed man, into a thundering rage by alluding to his misfortune. For the King sent his chief cook, Eutropio, an important person at his court, to go and fetch Theocritus before him to confer with him, and when he had frequently requested him to come without avail, Theocritus at last said, “I know well you wish to serve me up raw to the Cyclops;” flouting the King as one-eyed and the cook with his profession. Eutropio replied, “You shall lose your head, and pay the penalty for this babbling and mad insolence;” and reported his words to the King, who sent and had his head taken off. Our boys must also be taught to speak the truth as a most sacred duty; for to lie is servile, and most hateful in all men, hardly to be pardoned even in poor slaves.

§ xv. Thus much have I said about the good conduct and self-control of boys without any doubt or hesitation: but as to what I am now going to say I am doubtful and undecided, and like a person weighed in the scales against exactly his weight, and feel great hesitation as to whether I should recommend or dissuade the practice. But I must speak out. The question is this—whether we ought to let the lovers of our boys associate and be with them, or on the contrary, debar them from their company and scare them off. For when I look at fathers self-opinionated sour and austere, who think their sons having lovers a disgrace not to be borne, I am rather afraid of recommending the practice. But when, on the other hand, I think of Socrates, Xenophon, Æschines, Cebes, and all the company of those men who have approved of male loves, and who have introduced their minions to learning, to high positions in the State, and to good morals, I change my opinion, and am moved to emulate those men. And Euripides seems to favour these views in the passage, “But there is among mortals another love, that of the righteous temperate and pure soul.”32 Nor must we omit the remark of Plato, which seems to mix seriousness with mirth, that “those who have distinguished themselves ought to be permitted to kiss any handsome boy they like.”33 Those then that seek only carnal enjoyment must be kept off, but those that love the soul must be encouraged. And while the loves common at Thebes and Elis, and the so-called rape at Crete, must be avoided, the loves of Athens and Lacedæmon should be emulated.

§ xvi. As to this matter, therefore, let every parent follow his inclination. And now, as I have spoken about the good and decent behaviour of boys, I shall change my subject and speak a little about youths. For I have often censured the introducers of bad habits, who have set over boys tutors and preceptors, but have given to youths full liberty, when they ought, on the contrary, to have watched and guarded them more than boys. For who does not know that the offences of boys are petty and easily cured, and proceed from the carelessness of tutors or want of obedience to preceptors; but the faults of young men are often grave and serious, as gluttony, and robbing their fathers, and dice, and revellings, and drinking-bouts, and deflowering of maidens, and seducing of married women. Such outbreaks ought to be carefully checked and curbed. For that prime of life is prodigal in pleasure, and frisky, and needs a bridle, so that those parents who do not strongly check that period, are foolishly, if unawares, giving their youths license for vice.34 Sensible parents, therefore, ought during all that period to guard and watch and restrain their youths, by precepts, by threats, by entreaties, by advice, by promises, by citing examples,35 on the one hand, of those who have come to ruin by being too fond of pleasure, on the other hand, of those who by their self-control have attained to praise and good report. For these are, as it were, the two elements of virtue, hope of honour, and fear of punishment; the former inciting to good practices, the latter deterring from bad.

§ xvii. We ought, at all hazards, to keep our boys also from association with bad men, for they will catch some of their villany. This was the meaning of Pythagoras’ enigmatical precepts, which I shall quote and explain, as they give no slight momentum towards the acquisition of virtue: as, Do not touch black tails: that is, do not associate with bad men.36 Do not go beyond the balance: that is, we must pay the greatest attention to justice and not go beyond it. Do not sit on a measure: that is, do not be lazy, but earn tomorrow’s bread as well as to-day’s. Do not give everyone your right hand: that is, do not be too ready to strike up a friendship. Do not wear a tight ring: that is, let your life be free, do not bind yourself by a chain. Do not poke the fire with a sword: that is, do not provoke an angry person, but yield to such. Do not eat the heart: do not wear away the heart by anxiety. Abstain from beans: that is, do not meddle in state affairs, for the voting for offices was formerly taken by beans. Do not put your food in the chamber-pot: that is, do not throw your pearls before swine, for words are the food of the mind, and the villany of men twist them to a corrupt meaning. When you have come to the end of a journey do not look back: that is, when people are going to die and see that their end is near, they ought to take it easily and not be dejected. But I will return from my digression. We must keep our boys, as I said, from association with all bad men, but especially from flatterers. For, as I have often said to parents, and still say, and will constantly affirm, there is no race more pestilential, nor more sure to ruin youths swiftly, than the race of flatterers, who destroy both parents and sons root and branch, making the old age of the one and the youth of the others miserable, holding out pleasure as a sure bait. The sons of the rich are by their fathers urged to be sober, but by them to be drunk; by their fathers to be chaste, by them to wax wanton; by their fathers to save, by them to spend; by their fathers to be industrious, by them to be lazy. For they say, “‘Our life’s but a span;’37 we can only live once; why should you heed your father’s threats? he’s an old twaddler, he has one foot in the grave; we shall soon hoist him up and carry him off to burial.” Some even pimp for them and supply them with prostitutes or even married women, and cut huge slices off the father’s savings for old age, if they don’t run off with them altogether. An accursed tribe, feigning friendship, knowing nothing of real freedom, flatterers of the rich, despisers of the poor, drawn to young men by a sort of natural logic,38 showing their teeth and grinning all over when their patrons laugh,39 misbegotten brats of fortune and bastard elements in life, living according to the nod of the rich, free in their circumstances, but slaves by inclination, when they are not insulted thinking themselves insulted, because they are parasites to no purpose. So, if any father cares for the good bringing-up of his sons, he must banish from his house this abominable race. He must also be on his guard against the viciousness of his sons’ schoolfellows, for they are quite sufficient to corrupt the best morals.

§ xviii. What I have said hitherto is apropos to my subject: I will now speak a word to the men. Parents must not be over harsh and rough in their natures, but must often forgive their sons’ offences, remembering that they themselves were once young. And just as doctors by infusing a sweet flavour into their bitter potions find delight a passage to benefit, so fathers must temper the severity of their censure by mildness; and sometimes relax and slacken the reins of their sons’ desires, and again tighten them; and must be especially easy in respect to their faults, or if they are angry must soon cool down. For it is better for a father to be hot-tempered than sullen, for to continue hostile and irreconcilable looks like hating one’s son. And it is good to seem not to notice some faults, but to extend to them the weak sight and deafness of old age, so as seeing not to see, and hearing not to hear, their doings. We tolerate the faults of our friends; why should we not that of our sons? often even our slaves’ drunken debauches we do not expose. Have you been rather near? spend more freely. Have you been vexed? let the matter pass. Has your son deceived you by the help of a slave? do not be angry. Did he take a yoke of oxen from the field, did he come home smelling of yesterday’s debauch? wink at it. Is he scented like a perfume shop? say nothing. Thus frisky youth gets broken in.40

§ xix. Those of our sons who are given to pleasure and pay little heed to rebuke, we must endeavour to marry, for marriage is the surest restraint upon youth. And we must marry our sons to wives not much richer or better born, for the proverb is a sound one, “Marry in your own walk of life.”41 For those who marry wives superior to themselves in rank are not so much the husbands of their wives as unawares slaves to their dowries.42

§ xx. I shall add a few remarks, and then bring my subject to a close. Before all things fathers must, by a good behaviour, set a good example to their sons, that, looking at their lives as a mirror, they may turn away from bad deeds and words. For those fathers who censure their sons’ faults while they themselves commit the same, are really their own accusers, if they know it not, under their sons’ name; and those who live a depraved life have no right to censure their slaves, far less their sons. And besides this they will become counsellors and teachers of their sons in wrongdoing; for where old men are shameless youths will of a certainty have no modesty. We must therefore take all pains to teach our sons self-control, emulating the conduct of Eurydice, who, though an Illyrian and more than a barbarian, to teach her sons educated herself though late in life, and her love to them is well depicted in the inscription which she offered to the Muses: “Eurydice of Hierapolis made this offering to the Muses, having conceived a vast love for knowledge. For when a mother with sons full-grown she learnt letters, the preservers of knowledge.”

To carry out all these precepts would be perhaps a visionary scheme; but to attain to many, though it would need a happy disposition and much care, is a thing possible to human nature.43


[editors note: Endnotes 1 and 2 were contained in the preface to this work]

3 Euripides, “Here. Fur.” 1261, 1262.

4 Euripides, “Hippol.” 424, 425.

5 Cleophantus is the name given to this lad by other writers.

6 Compare Sophocles, “Œdipus Tyrannus,” 112, 113.

7 The Thessalians were very pugnacious. Cf. Isocrates, “Oratio de Pace,” p. 316. οἱ μὲν (θετταλοὶ) σφίσιν αύσῖς ἀτοῖς ἀεὶ πολεμοῦσιν.

8 A proverbial expression among the ancients for earliest childhood. See Erasmus, “Adagia.”

9 Plato, “Republic,” ii. p. 429, E.

10 See Erasmus, “Adagia.”

11 It is difficult to know how to render the word παιδαγωγὸς in English. He was the slave who took the boy to school, and generally looked after him from his seventh year upward. Tutor or governor seems the best rendering. He had great power over the boy entrusted to him.

12 Plato, “Clitophon,” p. 255, D.

13 Compare Diogenes Laertius, ii. 72.

14 Reading κοιτοφθοροῦντες, the excellent emendation of Wyttenbach.

15 From the heathen standpoint of course, not from the Christian. Compare the advice of Cato in Horace’s “Satires,” Book i. Sat. ii. 31-35. It is a little difficult to know what Diogenes’ precept really means. Is it that vice is universal? Like Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” Act ii. Sc. ii. 5. “All sects, all ages smack of this vice.”

16 He was asked by Polus, see Plato, “Gorgias,” p. 290, F.

17 “Hippolytus,” 986-989.

18 Cf. Plato, “Cratylus,” p. 257, E. ὦ παῖ Ὶππονίκου Ὲρμόγενες, παλαιὰ παροιμἰα, ὃτι χαλεπὰ τὰ καλἀ ἐσιν ὃπη ἔχει μαθεῖν. So Horace, “Sat.” i. ix. 59, 60, “Nil sine magno Vita labore dedit mortalibus.”

19 “Midias,” p. 411, C.

20 i.e., occasionally and sparingly.

21 Diogenes Laertius assigns the remark to Aristippus, while Stobæus fathers it on Aristo.

22 A favourite thought with the ancients. Compare Isocrates, “Admonitio ad Demonicum,” p. 18; and Aristotle, “Nic. Eth.,” iv. 3.

23 “Republic,” vii. p. 489, E.

24 A famous Proverb. It is “the master’s eye” generally, as in Xenophon, “Œconom.” xii. 20; and Aristotle, “Œconom.” i. 6.

25 “Works and Days,” 361, 362. The lines were favourite ones with our author. He quotes them again, § 3, of “How one may be aware of one’s Progress in Virtue.”

26 See Pausanias, ix. 9. Also Erasmus, “Adagia.”

27 A fragment from the “Protesilaus” of Euripides. Our “It takes two to make a quarrel.”

28 See Plutarch’s Lysander.

29 Or symposium, where all sorts of liberties were taken.

30 I have softened his phrase. His actual words were very coarse, and would naturally be resented by Ptolemy. See Athenæus, 621, A.

31 See “Iliad,” v. 83; xvi. 334; xx, 477.

32 A fragment from the “Dictys” of Euripides.

33 “Republ.” v. 463, F. sq.

34 Cf. Shakespeare’s “Winter Tale,” Act iii. sc. iii. 59-63.

35 As Horace’s father did. See “Satires,” Book i. Sat. iv. 105-129.

36 What we call black sheep.

37 From Simonides. Cf. Seneca, “Epist.” xlix. “Punctum est quod vivimus, et adhuc puncto minus.”

38 Reading with Wyttenbach, ὡς ἐκ λογικῆς τέχνης.

39 Like Carker in Dombey.

40 Compare the character of Micio in the “Adelphi” of Terence.

41 This saying is assigned by Diogenes Laertius to Pittacus.

42 Compare Plautus, “Asinaria,” i. l. 74. “Argentum accepi: dote imperum vendidi.” Compare also our author, “Whether Vice is sufficient to cause Unhappiness,” § i.

43 Wyttenbach thinks this treatise is not Plutarch’s. He bases his conclusion partly on external, partly on internal, grounds. It is not quoted by Stobæus, or any of the ancients, before the fourteenth century. And its style is not Plutarch’s; it has many words foreign to Plutarch: it has “nescio quid novum ac peregrinum, ab illa Plutarchea copia et gravitate diversum leve et inane.” Certainly its matter is superior to its manner.


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Translated with notes and index Arthur Richard Shillitoe, MA. The copyright for the original of this document is held in the Public Domain. Font, formatting, spelling modernizations, typo/transcription corrections, and explanatory footnotes for this version of Plutarch’s “Morals” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.