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Plutarch Primer, Part I

image from Parallel Lives, Amyot translation 1565

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled."
 - Plutarch

Roman fort that Mason's students visited - and so did we!

"Watersheds, hills, lakes, valleys, contours, were studied out of doors as well as places of local interest such as old streets and houses and the Roman fort at Waterhead." - The Story of Charlotte Mason, p. 72

Before I begin an immersion session with Plutarch, I usually hear these comments:
"I am scared to do Plutarch.  It looks so hard."
"I don't know where to begin."
"How can I teach Plutarch if I don't even know who he is?"
"Is Plutarch really necessary?" 
So I thought I would share some of my writings and thoughts on this subject which is often the last hold-out for those who otherwise incorporate a full Mason fare.

First of all, The Thing is the Thing applies to Plutarch as well.  Always keep that in mind. Secondly, you get to learn right along with your students because it is truly A Sharing of the Effort to Know - right?    In future posts I will share a few resources, some how-we-do-this helps, and another eventful airplane flight where I encountered Plutarch without a brick.  If you have any specific questions, please just ask in the comments.  If the following reads more like a portion of an academic paper, that's because it is. I thought I'd share it here and hope you find it succinct and to-the-point.
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          An unusual distinctive in a Mason school is the introduction of Plutarch in the fifth grade.  Plutarch is rightly hailed as the "prince of biographers" by Boswell (1791/1987, p. 3). Many great writers have drawn from his well;  William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Francis Bacon, Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Hume et al.  The children in a relational school are put into direct contact with the moral biographer's work.  Plutarch tells delightfully descriptive stories of great men of the past.  Even though he was not writing for children, his stories are well suited for them because he was concerned with families, education, and the responsibilities of citizens and statesmen.  Through vivid and dramatic writings, Plutarch instructs students about friendship, obedience, self-control, justice, humility, and other characteristics of great citizens, yet he avoids pointing the moral in his accounts and fills his writing with lesser-known incidents which often reveal the true character of the subject.                                                                                     
            Plutarch was born c. 46 A.D. and was a Roman citizen. His book Parallel Lives consists of 23 paired biographies, a Greek with a Roman, with 4 unpaired biographies.  His emphasis was not necessarily on history, but on the character and conduct of famous men. Perhaps no one inspires and instructs the children in the duties and difficulties of statesmanship quite the same way as Plutarch.  Mason (1925/1989) states:                                                                                         
We find Plutarch's Lives exceedingly inspiring. These are read by the teacher (with  suitable omissions) and narrated with great spirit by the children. They 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 of their own neighbourhood without the staleness which comes of much exhortation. (p.186)                                                                          
Mason used North's translation, an example of Elizabethan prose and the translation Shakespeare used for his historic plays.  Three biographies of famous Greeks or Romans are read per year for a total of 15 lives over the course of five years.  These stories are always read by the teachers so omissions can be made of unsuitable sections.  Plutarch quietly shows the student that character is of paramount importance and that the quality of his service to his country depends on that character.  Citizenship's aims of personal conduct, history and government are all met in Plutarch's Lives.  In speaking of Lives, Mason (1925/1989) observes:                                       
 Again, they will answer,––"How did Pericles manage the people in time of war lest they should force him to act against his own judgment?" And from such knowledge as this we may suppose that the children begin to get a sympathetic view of the problems of  statesmanship. Then, to come to our own time, they are enabled to answer,––"What do  you know of (a) County Councils, (b) District Councils, (c) Parish Councils?"––       knowledge which should make children perceive that they too are being prepared to     become worthy citizens, each with his several duties. (p. 186) 
          Reading children's versions of Plutarch or long commentaries is not advised.  North's is the recommended translation.  While the text is perhaps challenging at first, the children soon adapt and do surprisingly well. The following is an observation of the accessibility of Plutarch to the children by H.W. Household, Secretary for Education, Gloucestershire:
            We turn to Plutarch's "Lives" in Thomas North's Elizabethan version.  I remember when  teachers foretold that the children would not read him - themselves underrating the ability of the workers' children.  Triumphantly the children dispelled their unfounded pessimism. If there are two authors who have asserted and established their sovereignty in the elementary school, they are Shakespeare and Plutarch (as North rendered him), read without commentary, or any more explanation than the child itself demands.  The half  that the children take of themselves with joy, is far greater than the whole that ultra- conscientious teachers, stuffed with the notes of commentators would fain force upon them. (Household, c.a. 1953, p. 6)


 References


Boswell, J. (1987). Life of Samuel Johnson, ll.d.. Chicago, IL: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc (Original work published in 1791).

Household, H.W. (c.a. 1953). P.N.E.U. methods of teaching:  with special reference to the teaching of  English.[eight-page pamphlet]. Charlotte Mason Digital Collection (call number ARMITT Box CM16, File CMC107, Items i1p1cmc107I-i4p19cmc107II) . Redeemer University College, Ancaster, ON.

Mason, C. M. (1989).  A philosophy of education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers,                   Inc. (Original work published in 1925).
 

Further reading:


12 comments:

  1. Just a quick question, this will be our first year of a full CM. My eldest will be in 5th grade. There is so much for me to learn still, but we are jumping in and learning as we go. Do you think we should start Plutarch as well or maybe wait till next year? Thank you for your time.

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    1. Dear Paola,
      It's difficult for me to say without knowing your details, but generally I advise starting Plutarch after you have read at least one Shakespeare play. As the quote said above, most children will astound you with their ability to grasp what they need - despite the parent's lack of confidence. Overall, there's no rush.
      May all your goings be graces,
      Nancy

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  2. I look forward to the rest of your series. As you say, Plutarch is our last hold-out, and I'd really like to add him to the feast this year.

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    1. Dear Natasha,
      Ohh - wonderful! Let me know how it goes.
      Truly,
      Nancy

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  4. Do you know this quote of Pericles: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.”
    Not sure if Plutarch includes anything about him like this. Do you know?

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  5. You nailed it. Plutarch is the last hold-out. Coming to CM "late" with my then 6th grade and now 8th grade daughter required some shifts in method. So, since we had already read through the Famous Men series, Plutarch took a back seat to the larger goal of going "back" to oral narration, and slowly folding in the many beautifully rich CM approaches to life and learning.

    I'm still unconvinced, but I'm willing to listen. I see Plutarch as the CM equivalent to CC or Veritas Press's Plato. It sounds rigorous and "important." For some, the insistence of Plutarch appears to be a working out of the pharisaical letter rather than the spirit of the CM Codex. If citizenship and character study are the goals, there are other ways to get there that weren't available to or perhaps natural to CM. (A study of America's Founding Fathers for example, or the books of Chronicles and Judges.) And, I'm sure it's just me, but the phrase "the inimitable North edition" is startlingly powerful in its ability to irritate due to the fact that it (the said edition) may potentially be inimitable, but it is definitely unattainable, in book form. The widely available Dryden version is barely acceded to by the CM Priestess Class and the accommodation is only made accompanied by a handkerchief covering daintily upturned noses.

    In any case, I will be reading your Plutarchian posts with interest because I've purchased the slightly off-scent Dryden version, and printed out the AO Anne White schedule and am squeezing Poplicola and Solon into our already demanding schedule, and will be desperately seeking justification for my actions. :)

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    1. Dear Sara,
      I hope you found something helpful over the course of the 3 blog posts and I also hope that your schedule brings joy and is not overly-demanding. One of the reasons I say that is because Plutarch will not be enjoyable if it is an add-on, squeeze-it-in kind of subject. Let me know how it goes for you and yours!
      Truly,
      Nancy

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  6. I, like Sara in the comment above, have the Dryden version on my shelves. It was difficult to read through these, mainly because I was unprepared, starting "without a brick". I am putting the North's version on my wish list. I'm not giving up yet. Thanks for the words of hope. I'm looking forward to your future posts on this.

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  7. We are starting Plutarch in our coop this year. Is there a pronunciation guide that people generally use with Plutarch?

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    1. Well, I do not know of a comprehensive pronunciation list for Plutarch. I do know that Anne's guides often share the pronunciation at the beginning of each life. I also have learned the correct pronunciation from the professor in the Great Courses dvds, as well as just googling it. (Probably just like you, this is one of the first things I have to know before I begin!)

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