A Guest Post by Dawn Duran
My post today about Plutarch and living ideas is not by me but by my friend, Dawn Duran! You might know Dawn as the author of the definitive Swedish Drill guides over at swedishdrill.com. She is also a bit of a Plutarch fangirl (like me) and has written many wonderful articles for Common Place Quarterly that help parents implement Plutarch in their homes. The following article is an inspiring look at the living ideas presented in Plutarch and a few of the people he influenced. Someone that was influenced by Plutarch and who is NOT mentioned by Dawn is President James A. Garfield (my favorite president). He records in his diary how he read Plutarch to his sons. When I was visiting his library at Lawnfield in Mentor, Ohio, I was able to look at those gorgeous, leather-bound volumes that he read to them. We will forgive Dawn for her omission of this fact. (I’m kidding, of course.) Read on and enjoy!
Plutarch and Living Ideas
Charlotte Mason tells us that a child’s mind is fed upon a steady diet of living ideas, and in Towards a Philosophy of Education she writes “…an early education from the great books with the large ideas and the large virtues is the only true foundation of knowledge–the knowledge worth having.” (p 308)
It is our duty as mother-teachers to furnish the mind with ideas by placing our young scholars in contact with ennobling themes that will strike a chord in their souls. In Home Education Miss Mason urges us to, “[g]ive your child a single valuable idea, and you have done more for his education than if you had laid upon his mind the burden of bushels of information.” (p 174)
But how can we accomplish this without getting in the way and acting as “showman to the universe,” which Miss Mason often warns us against? The avenue by which we instill these ideas is living books, of course. The living ideas within their pages will spark the moral imaginations of our children and accomplish far more than we could ever hope to do with a moral lesson divorced from the power of story. Well-written books that illustrate a lesson “by the way” are far more effective than books written to hammer home a point.
Aside from the Bible, there is perhaps no better source of ideas for a young person to ponder than those within the pages of Plutarch’s Lives. One doesn’t need to moralize the lessons in Plutarch because they are woven into the story: the ideas contained therein enter the minds of our children as they grapple with the text. These ideas then take on flesh as the young scholar mulls over the reading, and his character is more deeply formed without a need for us to point out the message.
Napoleon and Plutarch
Napoleon Bonaparte, for all his faults, was a voracious reader who had a deep love for Plutarch. He had a personal librarian whom he expected to be available to him at all hours, and he traveled with a portable library – among which Plutarch was always found. In particular, he was inspired by the Life of Gaius Julius Caesar, and many historians suspect that Napoleon self-consciously imitated some of Caesar’s practices, such as that of dictating to multiple secretaries at the same time, as well as in the art of military campaigns and empire-building.
Historian Will Durant has written of Napoleon that,“[he] breathed the passion of those ancient patriots and drank the blood of those historic battles.” He so clearly emulated the noble lives he read about in Plutarch that a Corsican rebel leader once said to him, “[t]here is nothing modern in you; you are entirely out of Plutarch.” Napoleon accepted this remark as a great compliment, realizing that he had given flesh to the ideas that had so inspired him.
In 1812, Napoleon’s court painter Jacques-Louis David painted a nearly life size portrait of him entitled The Emperor Napoleon in his Study at the Tuileries (see above). In the lower left hand corner of this painting can be found the source of ideas that had so inspired Napoleon: a copy of Plutarch’s Lives.
The Power of a Living Idea
But Napoleon was far from the only person inspired by Plutarch. For lessons that illuminate the concepts of liberty and natural rights one should read the Life of Cicero, in which can be found ideas that inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States. Plutarch writes, “[f]or Cicero only of all men in Rome made the Romans know how much eloquence doth grace and beautify that which is honest, and how invincible right and justice are…” Cato dubbed Cicero “Father of the Country” for his role in suppressing a conspiracy and protecting the people during a time of tumult. It’s easy to see how the ideas illustrated in the Life of Cicero would strongly influence early American statesman, isn’t it?
Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger inspired playwright Joseph Addison to write Cato, A Tragedy, which was performed for the troops at Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War in an effort to rouse their spirits. Patrick Henry, famously known for his quote, “Give me liberty or give me death,” contains echoes of lines in Addison’s play wherein the character Cato proclaims,
“It is not now time to talk of aught
But chains or conquest, liberty or death.”
Cato inspired Plutarch, who inspired Addison, who inspired Patrick Henry….and every patriotic American to date. That, my friends, is the power of a living idea.