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?
What is citizenship?
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!