Sunday, August 17, 2014

Plutarch Primer, Part II

Blackie edition, North's translation - these are most often recommended in the PNEU programmes (actual sweet size)
If you haven't read Part I, please begin there!

I will admit that Plutarch is probably our most challenging reading in our school. I  should say "my" most challenging reading - not my children.  They really do rise to the occasion, taking in what they need and then getting quite accustomed to the Elizabethan writing.

Plutarch is another case of "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." It's an accumulated knowledge that only begins to show itself after quite a few lives have been read. But, and this is a very big "but", one of the most important reasons that we read Plutarch is that this reading often is where they are getting their ancient history knowledge.  While occasionally other texts are used, with Plutarch our children are learning their ancient history strand in a Mason education. Pair that with the lessons in personal conduct, magnanimity, and government that Plutarch teaches and Charlotte Mason's aims for citizenship are realized in her unique and original way.

Which life to begin with? I recommend starting with a name you recognize.  Try Julius Caesar, Alexander, or Pericles.  Remember, all lives are not created equal - some are more interesting, some are more humorous, some are more historically significant, some are more entertaining, and some are much shorter than others (Timoleon comes to mind.)

We are starting school here this week.  Part III will address editions and favorite resources.  Are you ready to take the plunge into Plutarch?  This fall, I will be teaching Plutarch to our TBG Community!  I can't wait to tell you about how that goes.

May all your goings be graces,

Sunday, August 3, 2014

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.

          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)


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).