Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Plutarch, Citizenship, and Charlotte Mason

January 29, 2019

Plutarch is a commonly referenced subject among Charlotte Mason homeschoolers. We know that Charlotte Mason primarily incorporated Plutarch for lessons in citizenship. This was not, however, the whole of citizenship education in the P.N.E.U., and Charlotte Mason’s thoughts on citizenship are many and deep. In fact, if we realize the extent to which Charlotte Mason was herself a patriot it might make some of her writings about the State, which often leave us confused, more palatable to us.

Perhaps we will explore that idea in a future article. For now, though, let us develop a working definition of citizenship and see where Plutarch fits in the picture, shall we?

Bust of Plutarch

What is citizenship?

citizenship
noun
cit·​i·​zen·​ship | \ ˈsi-tə-zən-,ship; also -sən-\
Definition of citizenship
1: the status of being a citizen
He was granted U.S. citizenship.
2a: membership in a community (such as a college)
b: the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community
The students are learning the value of good citizenship.

In the United States this second meaning of citizenship is particularly relevant to us due to the covenantal nature of our republic. I was nearly 40-years-old before I realized there is a difference between a democracy and a republic, in large part due to the absence of formal civics education during my public school years. I now understand that the nature of a republic involves great personal responsibility and is a partnership between the government and the people. This illuminates Benjamin Franklin’s reply to a woman who posed a question as Franklin was leaving Independence Hall during the Constitutional Convention. When asked whether we had “a monarchy or republic,” his response was “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.”

In Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason writes,

Every man is called upon to be a statesman seeing that every man and woman, too, has a share in the government of the country. (p. 184)

In other words, to Charlotte Mason citizenship meant that latter definition: “the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community” — one’s national community.

For Charlotte Mason a study of citizenship involved reading of Plutarch’s Lives because it exposes students to a description of man’s actions, both right and wrong, and requires that critical judgments be made about those actions. Additionally, Plutarch is full of inspiring ideas that make a person a valuable citizen. And we know how Charlotte Mason feels about inspiring ideas, don’t we?

…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. (Vol. 6, p. 308)

In a paper entitled ‘Plutarch’s Lives’ as Affording Some Education as a Citizen read at a P.N.E.U. conference Miss M. Ambler writes,

Our work, then, is to present to the child such vivifying ideas as shall colour all his thoughts, his judgments, and his actions, and enable him to fulfill the duties and responsibilities he inherits with his privileges as an English citizen.

In an article for the House of Education alumni magazine L’Umile Pianta Miss Hilda Smeeton writes,

The thoughtful study of History should give abundant ideas for the development of life in all its aspects; it should especially help in the formation of character, and it is character alone which determines a man’s degree of usefulness in society and his ability to further the vital interests of the great nation in which he has been born a citizen. The aim of history is reached by the teaching of Plutarch, for in all his lives the character of men is well drawn out, showing cause and effect in their life and work. (pp. 29-33)

So, who was Plutarch?

Born in 50 AD in Greece (specifically, Chaeronea of Booetia) at a time of great decadence in Greece and military despotism in Rome, he was a philosopher most famous for his Parallel Lives. Written in pairs of one Greek and one Roman life, these works include details “of the greatest men of two great nations.” (Smeeton, p. 30)

Most of us know him as the “prince of biographers,” but few realize that he was also an educationalist with many thoughts on the responsibilities of parents and the training of children — in particular, character formation and citizenship. He wrote to warn his contemporaries what would result if the culture continued to decline morally and that this “loss of moral sanity must sooner or later cause national decay.” This objective remains relevant in today’s cultural moment, does it not?

I’ll be writing more thoughts on citizenship here at Afterthoughts in 2019, and will also be contributing a Plutarch column for Common Place Quarterly with the specific intention of removing the intimidation factor when it comes to this rich area of study. I hope you’ll join me for the conversation!

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5 Comments

  • Reply SS #51: Unschool to ClassiCOOL (with Amanda Gauthier-Parker!) | Scholé Sisters April 12, 2019 at 1:31 am

    […] What is Plutarch? […]

  • Reply Tracy from Memphis February 2, 2019 at 3:03 pm

    I’m so excited to read this series, Dawn! Plutarch was the one author that we found the most difficult to read at the beginning and that we now love to read the most. When we were struggling with Publicola, the best advice I got was “keep reading, it gets easier to understand and it’s worth it.” It truly is.

    • Reply Dawn Duran February 3, 2019 at 12:21 pm

      Amen, Tracy. I couldn’t give any advice better than that. It’s great to “see” you here, by the way!

  • Reply Lucy barr-hamilton January 31, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    I’m so excited to receive my CPQ! Will now look forward especially to reading the Plutarch column as we’ll be heading into year 4 in September and it will be wise for me to have little bit of an idea what to expect before we start that. Now just wondering when it will arrive in England!

    • Reply Dawn Duran January 31, 2019 at 7:13 pm

      Glad to hear that you are a subscriber, Lucy! The journals shipped today, actually, so the count is on for overseas mail. Hopefully you can calculate how long it took to receive this first issue and then know how to gauge your expectations moving forward:).

      It was so exciting to start Plutarch in Year 4 with my oldest, and my love for it continues to grow. It is not easy, but also not as intimidating as many people seem to feel about it. The lessons gleaned are well worth the effort put forth!

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