Building Ships, Feeding Minds: Reflections on Teaching in Latin and Greek

Today I teach the final classes of the semester, closing out a decade since I earned my PhD. For the first time in that span, I am not eager to have the semester end. So, here are some random Greek and Latin passages reflecting on teaching.

Teaching is of no minor import

Plato, Laws 803

“We should speak next about the teaching and communication of these subjects: how to do so, who should do it, and when it is right to apply each of them. In the same way that a shipwright anticipates the outline of his creation at the beginning in laying out the keel, I seem to be outlining the whole, trying to imagine the shape of lives based on the habits of their minds and in actuality then laying out their keels, by seeking out precisely through what method and with what habits we might best navigate through this journey of life.”

τούτων δὲ αὐτῶν διδασκαλία καὶ παράδοσις λεγέσθω τὸ μετὰ τοῦτο, τίνα τρόπον χρὴ καὶ οἷστισι καὶ πότε πράττειν ἕκαστα αὐτῶν· οἷον δή τις ναυπηγὸς τὴν τῆς ναυπηγίας ἀρχὴν καταβαλλόμενος τὰ τροπιδεῖα ὑπογράφεται <τὰ> τῶν πλοίων σχήματα, ταὐτὸν δή μοι κἀγὼ φαίνομαι ἐμαυτῷ δρᾷν τὰ τῶν βίων πειρώμενος σχήματα διαστήσασθαι κατὰ τρόπους τοὺς τῶν ψυχῶν, ὄντως αὐτῶν τὰ τροπιδεῖα καταβάλλεσθαι, ποίᾳ μηχανῇ καὶ τίσι ποτὲ τρόποις ξυνόντες τὸν βίον ἄριστα διὰ τοῦ πλοῦ τούτου τῆς ζωῆς διακομισθησόμεθα, τοῦτο σκοπῶν ὀρθῶς.

How does it balance with innate skills and character? It’s complicated.

Quintilian, 2.19

“In sum, nature is education’s raw material: the latter shapes, the former is shaped. There is no art without substance; material has a worth apart from art; and yet, the highest art is superior to the best material.”

Denique natura materia doctrinae est: haec fingit, illa fingitur. Nihil ars sine materia, materiae etiam sine arte pretium est; ars summa materia optima melior.

How important is education?

Plutarch, Can Virtue Be Taught 439f

“ ‘If people are not made better through education, their teacher’s pay is wasted’  The teachers are the first to guide children after they leave their mother and, just as nurses help shape the body with hands, teachers shape their character: with their habits they put children on the first step toward excellence. This is why the Spartan, when asked what he accomplished through teaching, said ‘I make noble things appealing to children.’ ”

“εἰ μὴ γίνονται μαθήσει βελτίονες ἄνθρωποι, παραπόλλυται ὁ μισθὸς τῶν παιδαγωγῶν”; πρῶτοι γὰρ οὗτοι παραλαμβάνοντες ἐκ γάλακτος, ὥσπερ αἱ τίτθαι ταῖς χερσὶ τὸ σῶμα πλάττουσιν, οὕτω τὸ ἦθος ῥυθμίζουσι τοῖς ἔθεσιν, εἰς ἴχνος τι πρῶτον ἀρετῆς καθιστάντες. καὶ ὁ Λάκων ἐρωτηθεὶς τί παρέχει παιδαγωγῶν, “τὰ καλά,” ἔφη, “τοῖς παισὶν ἡδέα ποιῶ.”

,Image result for Ancient Greek teaching vase

Hmmm, how do you do this?

Suetonius, On Grammarians 37

“Marcus Verrius flaccus, a freedman, became especially famous through his manner of teaching. For he was in the habit of matching students with their equals in order to encourage learning. He would not merely specify the subjects they would write about, but he would offer a prize which the winner would earn. This prize was some pretty or rare old book. For this reason, Augustus chose him as tutor to his grandsons….”

Verrius Flaccus libertinus docendi genere maxime claruit. Namque ad exercitanda discentium ingenia aequales inter se committere solebat, proposita non solum materia quam scriberent, sed et praemio quod victor auferret. Id erat liber aliquis antiquus pulcher aut rarior. Quare ab Augusto quoque nepotibus eius praeceptor electus

No course of learning is without some regrets….

Letters of Cicero, Fragments. (Suet. Gram. 26)

On Lucius Plotius Gallus,

“I still have a memory from my childhood when a certain Plotius began to teach in Latin for the first time. When crowds circled him and everyone was eager to study with him, I was upset because it was forbidden to me. I was restricted by the advice of the most educated men who used to believe that minds were better fed by training in Greek.”

Plotius Gallus. de hoc Cicero in epistula ad M. Titinium sic refert: equidem memoria teneo pueris nobis primum Latine docere coepisse Plotium quendam. ad quem cum fieret concursus et studiosissimus quisque apud eum exerceretur, dolebam mihi idem non licere; continebar autem doctissimorum hominum auctoritate, qui existimabant Graecis exercitationibus ali melius ingenia posse. (Suet.Gram. 26)

One thought on “Building Ships, Feeding Minds: Reflections on Teaching in Latin and Greek

  1. SALVE!! Helpful suggestion: because of reversed word order in the English your translation of the Quintilian doesn’t work & confuses the reader who has little or no Latin:
    HAEC refers to DOCTRINA/teaching = shaping
    ILLA refers to MATERIA=the raw material
    JUST CHANGE your arrangement to NATURE IS THE RAW MATERIAL OF EDUCATION…
    In sum, nature is education’s raw material: the latter shapes, the former is shaped. There is no art without substance; material has a worth apart from art; and yet, the highest art is superior to the best material.”
    Denique natura materia doctrinae est: haec fingit, illa fingitur.
    ________________________________

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