Plutarch, Citizenship, and Charlotte Mason

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?

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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Thoughtworthy (24 Family Ways, New Episode, Haha, and MORE!)

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We added something new to our morning Circle Time this week. It’s Our 24 Family Ways by Clay Clarkson. As I mentioned on Instagram, there are some things I taught directly to my older children that I felt like I had taught to my younger children, but really I was just expecting them to pick it up from the environment, and it sort of failed.

So we’re doing this.

I really like it, and if my children were younger I’d probably do it more closely to the way it is written. But my younger children are 10 and 12. There’s no way I’m spending a week on each way; there’s no way I’m spending twenty-four weeks on this total! (Actually it’d be more because we don’t do Circle Time five days per week.)

Anyhow, I’m stripping it way down. We’re reading some of the Scripture passages and using some of the discussion questions, and I’m adding or replacing with discussion questions of my own as I think of them. I hope to finish it up in 6-8 weeks if I can.

It’s good for homeschoolers to learn to use some things as guides more than scripted curriculum. I mean, this is basically scripted curriculum, but that doesn’t mean it has to be used that way. Something like this — well, it’s probably best, especially when you have older children, to just pick what you need and toss out the rest.

The “family ways” are divided into categories:

  • Authorities (i.e. God, Bible, parents)
  • Relationships
  • Possessions
  • Work
  • Attitudes
  • Choices

What I was really looking for was some help in manners, so while I’ll briefly touch on the first and last sections, those are areas we’re already strong in. It’s in the middle four that I think we could use some work, and so that’s where I’ll slow down, spend an extra day, and really make sure they’re getting it.

:: 2 ::

In case you missed it, there was a new AfterCast episode out yesterday. (You should subscribe in your podcast player, you know.) This was the season’s special conversation — I try to do one thing that is “special” in some way each season. I had Brittney McGann on again, who is someone you just can’t go wrong with. It was such a fun conversation and I think you’ll love it, too.

AfterCast Episode 29: Charlotte Mason's Mother's Compass

:: 3 ::

This made me laugh:

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This month in 2016:

This is still how my binder is organized, but we do even less now than we did when this was written. These days we only do two things: one from daily, and one from one other category. I have it figured out where there is always one sung and one spoken.

:: 6 ::

This week’s links collection:

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AfterCast EP 29: The Mother’s Compass (with Brittney McGann)

AfterCast Episode 29: Charlotte Mason's Mother's Compass

Today, I’m interrupting our Charlotte Mason series to bring you this season’s special conversation. Brittany McGann is back with me today; I hope you recognize her from last season. Brittney has been studying Charlotte Mason for over seven years. Mason’s philosophy embodies all the things Brittany loved about her own upbringing and everything she would have wished for in her education, had she known it was possible. Brittney hosted the Grace to Build Retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina for three years and has presented workshops at multiple Charlotte Mason conferences. These days she is teaching her three children, leading two Charlotte Mason groups and working with her husband to restore native plants to their 3.5 acres.

You can find Brittany’s articles at Charlotte Mason Poetry, Charlotte Mason Living and the Charlotte Mason Institute blogs. She has been a guest on A Delectable Education podcast and also written the introduction for Paper Modelling by M. Swannell, one of the sloyd books used in the PNEU programmes. You can find that book through Amazon or Living Library Press.

Today, Brittany and I discuss the “Mother’s Compass”. We talk about Charlotte Mason and working within limitations — for both ourselves and our children. It’s a great discussion you won’t want to miss!

Listen to the Episode:

Show Notes:

Please remember to subscribe in your podcast player … it’s FREE!

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Mothering a Book Glutton (Charlotte Mason and Gifted Kids)

The law is liberal, taking in whatsoever things are true, honest, and of good report, and offering no limitation or hindrance save where excess should injure.
– Charlotte Mason

Not all gifted children are early readers; it’s true. However, comma, from my extremely small sample size, I have deduced that the earlier a child reads, the more tempted they are to excess in this area — to spend their time only on reading.

We call this Book Gluttony, which is amusing. So amusing, in fact, that we wonder if it should be taken seriously.

Well: should it? It’s a worthy question.

To answer it requires us to return to first principles. If the goal of our education is good character — virtue — rather than just knowing stuff, then things like this matter.

Virtue? Or Vice?

Early reading is a secret vanity in parents of the gifted. It’s remarkable, really, to see a three-year-old flying through a book with which some six-year-olds would struggle. When we see a three-year-old growing into an older preschooler or kindergarten who doesn’t want to do much other than read, we say, “Well, of course. All children would do the same if they had access to such things at this age.”

While reading is wonderful, is reading all the time really a virtue? Or is it a a vice?

Meet Temperance

Temperance is one of those virtues our modern world ignores; half the time we’re not even sure what it means. Let’s see what Charlotte Mason wrote about it:


Temperance avoids every Excess. — Of the three rules of life by which our bodies should be ordered, perhaps temperance is least understood by young people. We think of Burne-Jones’s stately figure of Temperantia pouring pure water out of her pitcher to quench the flames, of temperance societies, and so on; and thus we come to associate temperance with abstinence from drink. That certainly is one kind of temperance; but the boy who is greedy, the girl who is slothful, are also intemperate, as you may tell by watching them walk down the street. They have not the springing step, the alert look, which belong to Temperance. (Vol. 4, p. 192)

Book Gluttony is a giving in to the temptation to excess — it’s as excessive as the other examples Charlotte Mason gives:

One may even be intemperate in the matter of restlessness. We may carry games, cramming for an examination, novel-reading, bridge, any interest which absorbs us, to excess; and all excess is intemperance.

The peculiar thing about this case is the small size of the child. It’s easy to say to an older child, “Look — you really shouldn’t have had so many treats off the plate that there weren’t any left for other people in attendance. That was gluttony and intemperance and you must have more consideration for others and more self-control.” The older child may or may not fight you on this, but they will know where you’re coming from, what all the words mean, and be able to have a discussion about what to do in the future.

The early reader, however, may or may not understand what you mean. Just because the child is gifted doesn’t necessarily mean you can or should reason with him about this.

As an aside, I think I should mention here that not all book gluttons are gifted. This is part of my gifted series, yes, but that doesn’t mean that your wonderfully average twelve-year-old won’t be tempted to lounge around all day reading a novel. Book gluttony is vice whether you are 3 or 33, but the solution I’m recommending below works better, I think, for younger children. With older children, you might still use it, but you’re going to have to also do some counseling and coaching, and less direct controlling.

Cultivating Virtue without Over Controlling

With small children, a combination of habit training and scheduling should be sufficient to solve the immediate problem, and the occasional passing comment of, “Oh, we shouldn’t overdo that. That would be excessive, and excessive means ‘too much’” is probably enough counsel.

By “habit training” I mean, first and foremost, the habit of obedience. That’s going to come in handy during the first week when little Susie is upset with you for coming into direct conflict with her uncontrolled passion for reading.

More than this, you can use your amazing mommy scheduling skills to build a habit or rhythm for your child’s day that allows reading, but not reading to excess. Take out a sheet of paper and list all the things you’d like to see your child doing. I don’t just mean activities like play with watercolors and clay; I mean things like meals, hygiene, naps, reading aloud, and chores. Please don’t forget outside time! Charlotte Mason was clear that it was imperative for preschoolers to spend many hours outside on fine days.

Get a blank weekly calendar template and map out a day and week for your child that includes all these things. Don’t designate “time for reading.” Instead, designate free time and in that free time the child must be truly free — if he wants to spend all of it reading, he may. You will have to decide how long is long enough when it comes to the amount of free time (and, by the way, you might want to break it up rather than giving it all at once).

Prevention is Superior to Cure

I had one child become a Book Glutton because I was on bed rest during a pregnancy. It was easier to let him read than to figure out what else to do. During that time, he forgot how to go outside and play! It was extremely difficult to retrain him to a more balanced life, so my advice to you is to avoid this situation if at all possible!

By training the young child to a habit of temperance — a daily or weekly schedule in which different activities have their place, and no one activity is allowed to, on a normal day, crowd out all the others — in which duty takes its place rather than self-indulgence — we actually provide the child with a virtuous norm to which we can appeal when she is older elementary or a teen and needs to be restrained and directed by her own Will rather than by Moms’ schedule.

In the case of my little Book Glutton, a definite schedule was precisely the tool I used to break his bad habit of intemperate reading. We gradually worked up to more outside time — it seemed compassionate to not throw him into the deep end of many hours per day. As he gained a wider variety of interests, I was able to back off and give him more free time. These days, I can trust him to give a wise consideration to his schedule, and guard himself the temptation to excess.

When my next early reader came along, I was prepared. I firmly believe we were able to avoid Book Gluttony with her by starting her off with a schedule that required more variety and less specialization. There were no battles over books, and that was quite a relief. This is why I say that prevention is superior to cure! It’s way easier.

Guarding Against Excess

This is a thing, and it’s not just a thing for our kids; it’s a thing for us. Our culture encourages excess in both good and bad things; I’ve even seen people be excessive in their minimalism, which is, perhaps, the height of irony.

Charlotte Mason has quite a bit to say about it, but I think most interesting is the principle she says underlies the virtue of Temperance:

Conscience is not, in fact, so much concerned with the manner of our intemperance as with the underlying principle which St. Paul sets forth when he condemns those who “worship and serve the creature more than the Creator.” (Vol. 2, p. 18)

That is, ultimately, what we need to guard ourselves and our children against: prioritizing our own passions and desires over all else. This is the heart of excess, and the real reason why all forms of gluttony are vice. At the end of the day, the call to the mother of a book glutton is the same call we mothers hear all the day long: let the little ones come to Me. Like law in the quote above, this mostly means we stay out of the way, but we can and must offer a hindrance in the places where excess would injure.

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The Read Aloud Stack as Advanced Weaponry

[L]et an hour’s reading aloud be a part of the winter evening at home — on one or two evenings a week, at any rate — and everybody will look forward to it as a hungry boy looks for his dinner.
— Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character

hates it,” says your child, sounding remarkably like Gollum. Or maybe he doesn’t say it, but you’re pretty sure he’s thinking it. Either way, it’s a frustrating situation. This can happen with a book assigned in the curriculum you’re using, yes. But if you’re as lucky as me, at least one of your children, upon hitting puberty, will swear off an entire subject area, and woe to those who try to change her mind.

Now, it’s not that I indulge temper tantrums, whether performed by toddlers or teens, but still: there are times when an indirect approach is strategically advantageous.

When he-who-shall-remain nameless perused the school books one summer and pointed to one title and announced, “I’ll never read that book,” I mentally filed this information away. I also took note of a certain young lady’s dislike of all things history. I fought both of these out on the most unlikely of battlefields: the family read aloud stack.


When Books Become Weapons

I want to briefly clarify that our children — no matter how frustrating they might be at times — are not the enemy. When I say a well-chosen book can be a weapon, I don’t mean a weapon we use on or against our children. We are on our child’s team, remember?

In this case, we stand side by side with our children when our children aren’t feeling much like fellow soldiers. This is when we step up and defend them from that dreadful enemy, Lack of Proper Affection, by which they are being assaulted.

While not all titles should be chosen as an act of warfare, a wise mother must know her weapons in order to use them well when the time comes. If your family already has a robust read aloud culture, even better. The joys of the past will sustain you in this dark hour. 😉

Charlotte Mason once wrote:

There is little opportunity to give intellectual culture to the boy taken up with his school and its interests; the more reason, therefore, to make the most of that little; for when the boy leaves school, he is in a measure set; his thoughts will not readily run in new channels. The business of the parent is to keep open right-of-way to the pleasant places provided for the jaded brain. Few things help more in this than a family habit of reading aloud. Even a dry book is readable when everybody listens, while a work of power and interest becomes delightful when eye meets eye at the telling bits. (Vol. 5, pp. 519-520)



Keep Open the Way

Miss Mason’s thoughts here agree with my real-life experience. I must have read this paragraph when I first read volume five eight years ago, but when I ran across this quote recently, I was shocked. I had completely forgotten it!

Boys as well as girls become consumed with their interests and their school work and their jobs. There are many distractions these days. Some are good, some are bad, but all families have them. (Can I get an amen?)

It’s tempting to feel powerless, but those days haven’t actually arrived yet. These children still live in our homes and, especially if reading aloud is a set habit, we can leverage it to our benefit.

Is Teen J missing out on a certain subject? Find an interesting book on it and put it into read aloud time. You just know Teen M going to hate reading that book next year? Read it aloud instead.

The read aloud stack can be many things: what you want to read and what you think they’ll like, yes. But also, it’s what you think they need. As long as you’re choosing good books, it’s likely it’ll work out okay.

Here’s how it’s happened here on many occasions. I introduce a new book. “We’re going to be reading Book X, which is on Subject Y.” At this point, at least one child groans. I ignore said child and proceed to read the first chapter (or half a chapter if they’re long). Everyone except the grumpy person likes it fine.

Next day, I pick up the Book X at the designated time. Grumpy Person groans again. I still ignore this child, and we read chapter two. Everyone except the grumpy person now likes the book enough to look forward to the next reading.

It’s usually at reading three that Grumpy Person begins to change her tune. She doesn’t groan this time, and things improve from there. On many occasions, by the time we were near the end, Grumpy Person likes the book enough that she’s forgotten she didn’t approve of it at first.

(Please note: Grumpy Person is not always a female at my house. This is just an example.)

Let’s review part of Miss Mason’s quote again:

The business of the parent is to keep open right-of-way to the pleasant places provided for the jaded brain. Few things help more in this than a family habit of reading aloud.

Over and over again, this has been proven true to me. Reading aloud has a hidden power to provide gentle, nonconfrontational correction to the mind. In a word, it has the power to develop taste.

Oh, they think they don’t like Subject Y just like they used to think they didn’t like broccoli. But a mother’s subtlety and cunning can often win out, hm? And just like you eventually wooed Junior to broccoli by discovering his favorite was dipping it in ranch dressing, reading aloud just might be the secret sauce you’ve been searching for.

Reading aloud. It’s a weapon of our motherhood warfare, helping us fight for our children’s hearts and minds. Simple and unassuming, yes. But, my the power!

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