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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    Lessons from Plutarch: Fake News and Statecraft

    March 20, 2019 by Brandy Vencel

    After my post on planning and executing a Plutarch lesson, I ran across a post on Facebook that was basically a Steven Crowder meme: “I don’t need to study Plutarch in my homeschool with my children. CHANGE MY MIND.”

    On the one hand, I don’t really feel the need to change anyone’s mind and sometimes this sort of behavior is a way of avoiding doing the research and making a real, informed decision. On the other hand, I do have an opinion and it is well-informed.

    But instead of giving arguments for or against, I think I’d rather show how reading Plutarch intersects with our normal, daily lives. Presumably, we read him for more than history. But why? What sort of lessons or observations are we getting out of this?

    A Visit with the Romans

    Last weekend, my family went over to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to see the Pompeii exhibit. (You can see some photos here.) One thing we talked about after was how much we have in common with the Romans even now. It’s striking, really.

    When we go see exhibits from Asia or Africa — even from Native Americans! — it’s remarkable partly because it’s so different. The cooking utensils are different from ours. The artwork is different. Everything is amazing because it’s so foreign and it’s exciting to see the creative spectrum of humanity — how different peoples have devised different means of accomplishing the same tasks.

    But walking through Pompeii felt a lot like coming home — admittedly to home with polytheism and no electricity. The women’s jewelry was something we’d actually wear. One pair of shoes looked remarkably like some I’d worn in the 1980s. The tweezers were, yes, frighteningly large — but they had tweezers! The decorative garden fountains would look great in my yard, and I actually envied that ancient cook her colander (which was superior to mine).

    Everything about Pompeii was strangely recognizable, and I was reminded that this is what Plutarch often feels like to me — somehow, these people are my people even though the lineage isn’t genetic. The average American inherits from Ancient Rome not DNA, but ideas.

    A Normal Day with Plutarch

    Reading a Plutarch lesson is a lot like visiting the Pompeii exhibit. There will be shocking displays of superstition … followed by something oh so familiar. Every time, I’m reminded that we are not so different, they and I, even though we are separated in time by millennia.

    The biggest lesson I learn from Plutarch over and over again is that virtue doesn’t depend on circumstances — that one can be a good man (or, in my case, a good woman) regardless of the prevailing political structure. So we see greatness in the midst of a democratically elected Republic much like our own, yes, but also under tyranny, monarchy, and many other arrangements.

    That large lesson never overshadows the interesting and helpful bits of wisdom we gather from week to week. Last time at co-op, we covered Lesson 3 of Plutarch’s Life of Titus Flamininus. We had two important discussions, one on fake news and one on statecraft.

    Plutarch on Fake News

    What has been will be again,
        what has been done will be done again;
        there is nothing new under the sun.

    Ecclesiastes 1:9

    This topic arose because of this passage:

    They say, that when King Pyrrhus first saw the Romans’ army range in order of battle from the top of a hill, he said: “This order of the barbarous people, setting of their men in battle [ar]ray, was not done in a barbarous manner.” And those also that never had seen Titus before, and came for to speak with him: were compelled in a manner to say as much. For where they had heard the Macedonians say, that there came a captain of the barbarous people that destroyed all before him by force of arms, and subdued whole countries by violence: they said to the contrary, that they found him a man, indeed young of years, howbeit gentle, and courteous to look on, and that spake the Greek tongue excellently well, and was a lover only of true glory.

    The Greeks had heard that Romans were uncivilized barbarians. Titus Flamininus surprised them — he conducted himself and his men in a disciplined way, kept his men from plundering when they conquered (at least, he’s done so thus far), and even spoke Greek well.

    The Macedonians had previously spread a very different report about the Romans, specifically about Flamininus — he would destroy them all by violence. Because of this “news,” the people had dreaded the coming of Titus and his men. When they saw how fake the news had really been, their response was altered completely:

    [T]hey returned home marvellous glad, and filled all the cities and towns of Greece with goodwill towards him, and said: they had seen Titus the captain, that would restore them to their ancient liberty again.

    The Macedonians, who wanted control over the area, had their motivations for spreading this Fake News — they didn’t want the Greeks forming an alliance with Rome because this would likely bring about their defeat.

    We covered a lot of ground in class that day — gossip, how something sounds right until you hear the other side, and, of course, our ultimate lesson: fake news has been going on a very long time and this is why people have always needed to have discernment.

    Plutarch on Statecraft

    By the end of the lesson, we see Titus Flamininus basically win battles (if not a war) without any need to fight at all. Instead, we won with rhetoric. Remember the quote above? Where the people marveled that Flamininus “spake the Greek tongue excellently well”? Turns out, this came in handy.

    Titus enters Thebes and rather than doing battle, he assembles the people and attempts to persuade them:

    When [Titus] was within Thebes, he prayed audience, and began to persuade the people (as carefully as if he had not had the city already) that they would rather take part with the Romans, than with the king of Macedon.

    Titus appears to have accomplished his goal, which led us to a discussion of statecraft. Titus was obviously more than a general to have been able to accomplish this — he was also a sort of ambassador. He could win a war with arms or words.

    And it was this thought that led up to our fateful question: Could Titus have accomplished this had he only spoken Latin? Was his ability to speak Greek necessary to his victory here?

    There is no way to know an alternate reality, but it seems likely that his ability to speak like the people made him less of a foreigner — he seemed like one of them, and that made a world of difference.

    This led us to a discussion of influence and persuasion and how important is the use of fitting words.

    Change MY Mind

    This was just a normal Thursday at co-op reading little more than two pages. And we plumb the depths of these riches week after week! Very few books we read offer us this kind of fodder for seeking riches.

    This is why I’d like to turn the tables on the conversation a little. Plutarch is necessary to a good education.


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  • Reply Heather April 2, 2022 at 5:09 pm

    Brandy, have you ever shared about how your CM group developed? I’d love to know more about what it looks like. I’d love to have a group for students to study Plutarch, etc. but it feels so daunting to start!

  • Reply Beth March 22, 2019 at 4:10 am

    “too late they found, that there is not so little a beginning of anything, but continuance of time will soon make it strong, when through contempt there is no impediment to hinder the greatness.”

    This was a quote from our reading of Julius Caesar this week (week one) when the men of JC’s day watched him become stronger and more well-liked after initially thinking his popularity would wane over time. We had a discussion about the importance of speaking out and standing up for what is right lest we see things (sins) in our culture go from unacceptable to acceptable to celebrated in such a short time.

  • Reply Cy March 21, 2019 at 2:51 am

    True. Esp fr a Chinese background. I dunno how many times we wanna give up.

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