“Moralia: I. Education in Virtue” by Plutarch

Relaxation and Labour

In my time I have seen fathers in whom excessive affection had become the cause of no affection: in their eagerness that their children may the sooner rank first in everything, they lay upon them unreasonable tasks, which the children find themselves unable to perform, and so come to grief; besides, being depressed by their unfortunate experiences, they do not respond to the instruction which they receive. For, just as plants are nourished by moderate applications of water, but are drowned by many in succession, in the same fashion the mind is made to grow by properly adapted tasks, but is submerged by those which are excessive. Children must be given some breathing-space from continued tasks, for we must bear in mind that our whole life is divided between relaxation and application. For this reason there have been created not only waking hours but also sleep, not only war but also peace, not only storm but also fair weather, not only periods of vigorous activity but also holidays. In short, rest gives relish to labour. We may observe that this holds true not merely in the case of living creatures, but also in the case of inanimate things, for we unstring bows and lyres that we may be able to tighten them again. The body, generally speaking, is maintained by hunger and its satisfaction, and the mind by relaxation and labour.

Poetry and Philosophy

If it is true, as the poet Philoxenus used to say, that of meats those that are not meat, and of fish those that are not fish, have the best flavour (Cato said that their palates are more sensitive than their minds). And so of philosophical discourses, those seemingly not at all philosophical, or even serious, are found more enjoyable by the very young, who present themselves at such lectures as willing and submissive hearers. For in perusing not only Aesop’s Fables, and Tales from the Poets, but even the Abaris of Heracleides, the Lycon of Ariston, and philosophic doctrines about the soul when these are combined with tales from mythology, they get inspiration as well as pleasure.

For close-shut gates do not preserve a city from capture if it admit the enemy through one; nor does continence in the other pleasures of sense save a young man, if he unwittingly abandon himself to that which comes through hearing. On the contrary, inasmuch as this form of pleasure engages more closely the man that is naturally given to thought and reason, so much the more, if neglected, does it injure and corrupt him that receives it. For it may be said, not only of the land of Egypt, but also of poetry, that it yields drugs, “some are good when mixed and others baneful to those who cultivate it.””Hidden therein are love and desire and winning converse, Suasion that steals away the mind of the very wisest.”

For the element of deception in it does not gain any hold on utterly witless and foolish persons. This is the ground of Simonides’ answer to the man who said to him, ‘Why are the Thessalians the only people whom you do not deceive ?’ His answer was, ‘Oh, they are too ignorant to be deceived by me’ ; and Gorgias called tragedy a deception wherein he who deceives is more honest than he who does not deceive, and he who is deceived is wiser than he who is not deceived. Shall we then stop the ears of the young, as those of the Ithacans were stopped, with a hard and unyielding wax, and force them to avoid poetry and steer their course clear of it? No, rather we shall set them against some upright standard of reason and there bind them fast, guiding and guarding their judgement, and thus chastening the ‘frenzied god,’ as Plato says, ‘through correction by another, a sober, god.’

Doctrine as Seed

For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.

Imagine that a man should need to get fire from a neighbour, and, upon finding a big bright fire there, should stay there continually warming himself; just so it is if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, delighting in the discourse, sits enchanted; he gets a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.

Ten Signs of Progress in Virtue

1. Constancy of the Course

He makes no frequent halts on the way, followed by leaps and bounds, but smoothly and regularly forges ahead, and goes through the course of philosophic reasoning without mishap, sine reason thereby gains the aid of constant and effective habit. Always carry on an unrelenting warfare against vice, or at least not relax his vigilance nor grant admission to divers pleasures, recreations and pastimes which are envoys sent by vice to treat for a truce.

2. Pain at Parting

An indication of the beginning of love is to be found, not in the taking delight in the presence of the loved one (for this is usual), but in feeling a sting of pain when separated ; For we ought not to enjoy being present at discussions as we enjoy the presence of perfumes, and then when we are removed from them not seek after them or even feel uneasy ; but we ought in our periods of separation to experience a sensation akin in a way to hunger and thirst, and so be led to cleave to what makes for real progress. For the greater the acquisition from philosophy is, the more annoyance there is in being cut off from it.

3. Illumination Succeeding upon Perplexity and Depression

The way is no longer uphill, nor very steep, but easy and smooth and readily accomplished, as though it were made smooth by practice, and as though it brought on a light, which is to be found in the study of philosophy, and an illumination succeeding upon perplexity, errant thought, and much vacillation, which students of philosophy encounter at the outset, like persons who have left behind the land which they know and are not yet in sight of the land to which they are sailing.

4. Virtue Above Worldly Advantages; Nothing for show; Free of Ambition, Contention and Envy

No slight indication of progress would be shown by gentleness of demeanour in the face of criticisms, and by not being disturbed or irritated by those who name this or that acquaintance of about the same age, and tell how he is prospering at Court, or getting a big dower at marriage, or going down to the Forum, attended by a great crowd, to stand for some office or to advocate some cause. For to cease emulating what the great majority admire is impossible, except for those who have acquired the faculty of admiring virtue. For to confront the world boldly is with some people possible only under the influence of anger or mental derangement ; but to contemn actions which the world admires is quite impossible without real and solid wisdom. For practically all beginners in philosophy are more inclined to pursue those forms of discourse which make for repute ; some of these beginners, like birds, are led by their flightiness and ambition to alight on the resplendent heights of the Natural Sciences; while others, ‘like puppies, delighting to pull and tear,’ as Plato puts it, go in for the disputations, knotty problems, and quibbles ; but the majority enter a course in Logic and Argumentation, where they straightway stock themselves up for the practice of sophistry ; while a few go about making a collection of apophthegms and anecdotes, but, as Anacharsis said of the Greeks that he never saw them put their money to any use save to count it, so these persons are for ever foolishly taking account and inventory of their literary stock, but they lay up nothing else which would be to their own profit.

5. Attention and Intense Application

For as Simonides says of the bee that it flits among the flowers, “Making the yellow honey its care”, while the rest of the world contents itself with their colour and fragrance, getting nothing else from them, so, while the rest of the world ranges amid poems for the sake of pleasure or diversion, if a man, through his own initiative, finds and collects something worth while, from force of habit and fondness for what is beautiful and appropriate, he at last has made himself capable of appreciating it. Those who are making still more and more progress are always able to derive benefit, not only from what is said, but also from what is seen and done, and to gather what is appropriate and useful therefrom. Brasidas caught a mouse among some dried figs, got bitten, and let it go ; thereupon he said to himself, ‘Heavens, there is nothing so small or weak that it will not save its life if it has courage to defend itself.’ Diogenes at the first sight of a man drinking from his hands took his cup from his wallet and threw it away. Thus attention and intense application makes persons perceptive and receptive of anything that conduces to virtue, from whatever source it come.

6. Silent and Serene with Virtue within

For if true love for a youth or a woman does not seek witnesses, but enjoys the fruits of pleasure even if it consummate its desire in secret, it is even more to be expected that the lover of honour and wisdom, in the familiar intercourse with virtue which comes through his actions, should keep his pride in himself to himself and be silent, feeling no need of eulogists and auditors. Such a man, inasmuch as he feels no disdain, but only pleasure and satisfaction at the thought that he is at the same time a competent witness and observer of honourable deeds, shows that reason is already taking root and growing within him, and, he is, in the words of Democritus, ‘becoming accustomed to find within himself the sources of enjoyment.’ Farmers take more pleasure in looking at the heads of grain that are bent over and bowed toward the ground, but those that tower aloft owing to their lightness the farmers think are empty cheats ; so among the young men who would study philosophy : those who are most empty and have no weight, have assurance and a pose and a gait, and a countenance filled with a haughtiness and disdain which spares nobody; but, as their heads begin to fill and to accumulate some fruitage from their lectures and reading, they lay aside their swagger and superficiality, their conceit gives way and their self-opinion becomes less inflexible; and apply their stinging and bitter criticism most of all to themselves, and are milder in their intercourse with others.

7. Confessing His Depravity

For a man who is in error to submit himself to those who take him to task, to tell what is the matter with him, to disclose his depravity, and not to rejoice in hiding his fault or to take satisfaction in its not being known, but to confess it, and to feel the need of somebody to take him in hand and admonish him, is no slight indication of progress. So Diogenes has somewhere said that, as a matter of self-preservation, a man should be concerned to find either an earnest friend or an ardent enemy, so that either by stern reprehension or by kindly attention he may escape vice. The man who is making true progress takes as his example Hippocrates, who published and recorded his failure to apprehend the facts about the cranial sutures so that others should not repeat his experience.

8. Untroubled Dreams

Zeno said that every man might fairly derive from his dreams a consciousness that he was making progress if he observed that during his period of sleep he felt no pleasure in anything disgraceful, and did not tolerate or commit any dreadful or untoward action, but as though in the clear depth of an absolute calm there came over him the radiant thought that the fanciful and emotional element in his soul had been dispelled by reason. Inasmuch as the soul does not yet possess the power to keep itself in order, but is still being moulded by external opinions and laws, and when it gets farthest away from these during the hours of slumber, it is again made free and open to other influences by the emotions.

9. Desire to Emulate and Accompany Virtuous Men

The desire to emulate what we commend, eagerness to do what we admire, and, on the other hand, unwillingness to do, or even to tolerate, what we censure. For example, all the Athenians commend the daring and bravery of Miltiades, yet the remark of Themistocles that the trophy of Miltiades would not suffer him to sleep, but roused him from his slumbers, made it plain at once that he was not merely commending and admiring, but emulating and imitating as well. Indeed a peculiar symptom of true progress is found in this feeling of love and affection for the disposition shown by those whose deeds we try to emulate, and in the fact that our efforts to make ourselves like them are always attended by a goodwill which accords to them a fair meed of honour. So great is our craving all but to merge our own identity in that of the good man. Moreover, to be no longer thrown into great confusion, or to blush, or to conceal or rearrange some personal detail at the sudden appearance of a man of high repute and principles, but to be able to advance and meet such persons without timidity, gives a man some assurance that he knows where he stands. In contrast, those who have ruined themselves through their own neglect cannot even in their dreams look upon their relatives without fear and trembling.

10. Treating Nothing as Unimportant

A man no longer holds the opinion that any one of his sins is unimportant, but is studiously circumspect and heedful regarding all. The man does not acquiesce much in the sentiments ‘What difference does this make?’ and ‘This way now ; better next time,’ On the other hand, to imagine that nothing can cause any great disgrace, or can even be of any great importance, makes men easy-going and careless about little things. But those who are making progress, of whose life already, as of some holy temple or regal palace, “The golden foundation hath been wrought,” do not indiscriminately accept for it a single action, but, using reason to guide them, they bring each one into place and fit it where it belongs.

References:

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