Plutarch’s Morals: That Virtue May Be Taught


The Moral Liberal, Classics Library


Plutarch’s Morals: “That Virtue May Be Taught”, 75 A.C.E.


§ i. As to virtue we deliberate and dispute whether good sense, and justice, and rectitude can be taught: and then we are not surprised that, while the works of orators, and pilots, and musicians, and house-builders, and farmers, are innumerable, good men are only a name and expression, like Centaurs and Giants and Cyclopes, and that it is impossible to find any virtuous action without alloy of base motives, or any character free from vice: but if nature produces spontaneously anything good, it is marred by much that is alien to it, as fruit choked by weeds. Men learn to play on the harp, and to dance, and to read, and to farm, and to ride on horseback: they learn how to put on their shoes and clothes generally: people teach how to pour out wine, how to cook; and all these things cannot be properly performed, without being learned. The art of good living alone, though all those things I have mentioned only exist on its account, is untaught, unmethodical, inartistic, and supposed to come by the light of nature!

§ ii. O sirs, by asserting that virtue is not a thing to be taught, why are we making it unreal? For if teaching produces it, the deprivation of teaching prevents it. And yet, as Plato says, a discord and false note on the lyre makes not brother go to war with brother, nor sets friends at variance, nor makes states hostile to one another, so as to do and suffer at one another’s hands the most dreadful things:205 nor can anyone say that there was ever a dissension in any city as to the pronunciation of Telchines: nor in a private house any difference between man and wife as to woof and warp. And yet no one without learning would undertake to ply the loom, or write a book, or play on the lyre, though he would thereby do no great harm, but he fears making himself ridiculous, for as Heraclitus says, “It is better to hide one’s ignorance,” yet everyone thinks himself competent to manage a house and wife and the state and hold any magisterial office. On one occasion, when a boy was eating rather greedily, Diogenes gave the lad’s tutor a blow with his fist, ascribing the fault not to the boy, who had not learnt how to eat properly, but to the tutor who had not taught him. And can one not properly handle a dish or a cup, unless one has learnt from a boy, as Aristophanes bids us, “not to giggle, nor eat too fast, nor cross our legs,”206 and yet be perfectly fit to manage a family and city, and wife, and live well, and hold office, when one has not learnt how one should behave in the conduct of life? When Aristippus was asked by someone, “Are you everywhere then?” he smiled and said, “If I am everywhere, I lose my passage money.”207 Why should not you also say, “If men are not better for learning, the money paid to tutors is also lost?” For just as nurses mould with their hands the child’s body, so tutors, receiving it immediately it is weaned, mould its soul, teaching it by habit the first vestiges of virtue. And the Lacedæmonian, who was asked, what good he did as a tutor, replied, “I make what is good pleasant to boys.” Moreover tutors teach boys to walk in the streets with their heads down,208 to touch salt fish with one finger only, other fish bread and meat with two, to scratch themselves in such a way, and in such a way to put on their cloak.209

§ iii. What then? He that says that the doctor’s skill is wanted in the case of a slight skin-eruption or whitlow, but is not needed in the case of pleurisy, fever, or lunacy, in what respect does he differ from the man that says that schools and teaching and precepts are only for small and boyish duties, while great and important matters are to be left to mere routine and accident? For, as the man is ridiculous who says we ought to learn to row but not to steer, so he who allows all other arts to be learnt, but not virtue, seems to act altogether contrary to the Scythians. For they, as Herodotus tells us,210 blind their slaves that they may remain with them, but such an one puts the eye of reason into slavish and servile arts, and takes it away from virtue. And the general Iphicrates well answered Callias, the son of Chabrias, who asked him, “What are you? an archer? a targeteer? cavalry, or infantry?” “None of these,” said he, “but the commander of them all.” Ridiculous therefore is he who says that the use of the bow and other arms and the sling and riding are to be taught, but that strategy and how to command an army comes by the light of nature. Still more ridiculous is he who asserts that good sense alone need not be taught, without which all other arts are useless and profitless, seeing that she is the mistress and orderer and arranger of all of them, and puts each of them to their proper use. For example, what grace would there be in a banquet, though the servants had been well-trained, and had learnt how to dress and cook the meat and pour out the wine,211 unless there was good order and method among the waiters?212

205 Plato, “Clitophon,” p. 407, C.

206 Aristophanes, “Clouds,” 983.

207 Does Juvenal allude to this, viii. 97?

208 So as to look modest and be “Ingenui vultus pueri, ingenuique pudoris.”

209 Reading with Salmasius, ἀναβαλεῐν.

210 Herodotus, iv. 2. The historian, however, assigns other reasons for blinding them.

211 A line from “Odyssey,” xv. 323.

212 “Malim δαιτυμόνας.” Wyttenbach, who remarks generally on this short treatise, “Non integra videtur esse nec continua disputatio, sed disputationis, Plutarcheæ tamen, excerptum compendium.”



Go to Table of Contents


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.