Reverence Due to Teachers: Aristotle and Alexander for #TeacherAppreciationWeek

Seneca, Moral Epistles 88.20

“Why do we train our children in the liberal arts? It is not because these studies can grant someone virtue, but because they prepare the soul for accepting it.”

“Quare ergo liberalibus studiis filios erudimus?” Non quia virtutem dare possunt, sed quia animum ad accipiendam virtutem praeparant.

We have written before how much our teachers shaped our lives (especially our Latin teachers). Here is a repeated formulation from the ancient world about teachers’ impact on our lives.

Aristotle’s sayings according to Diogenes Laertius (5.21)

“When asked what the difference was between those who were educated and those who were not, Aristotle said “as great as between the living and the dead.” He used to say that education was an ornament in good times and a refuge in bad. He also believed that teachers should be honored more than parents who merely gave birth. The latter give life, but the former help us live well.”

ἐρωτηθεὶς τίνι διαφέρουσιν οἱ πεπαιδευμένοι τῶν ἀπαιδεύτων, “ὅσῳ,” εἶπεν, “οἱ ζῶντες τῶν τεθνεώτων.” τὴν παιδείαν ἔλεγεν ἐν μὲν ταῖς εὐτυχίαις εἶναι κόσμον, ἐν δὲ ταῖς ἀτυχίαις καταφυγήν. τῶν γονέων τοὺς παιδεύσαντας ἐντιμοτέρους εἶναι τῶν μόνον γεννησάντων· τοὺς μὲν γὰρ τὸ ζῆν, τοὺς δὲ τὸ καλῶς ζῆν παρασχέσθαι.

Plutarch, Life of Alexander 8

“He wondered at Aristotle and used to love him no less than his father, as he used to say, because he was alive thanks to one but lived well because of the other…”

᾿Αριστοτέλην δὲ θαυμάζων ἐν ἀρχῇ καὶ ἀγαπῶν οὐχ ἧττον, ὡς αὐτὸς ἔλεγε, τοῦ πατρός, ὡς δι’ ἐκεῖνον μὲν ζῶν, διὰ τοῦτον δὲ καλῶς ζῶν…

Gnomologium Vaticanum, 87

“When he was asked whom he loved more, Phillip or Aristotle, Alexander said “both the same—for the first gave me the gift of life and the second taught me to live well.”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς τίνα μᾶλλον ἀγαπᾷ, Φίλιππον ἢ ᾿Αριστοτέλην, εἶπεν· „ὁμοίως ἀμφοτέρους· ὁ μὲν γάρ μοι τὸ ζῆν ἐχαρίσατο, ὁ δὲ τὸ καλῶς ζῆν ἐπαίδευσεν.”

The three versions are slightly different, with Plutarch using participles and the others using articular infinitives. The use this construction seems slightly less forced in Diogenes Laertius’ rendition. In Diogenes, however, Aristotle is the source of the sentiment, while in the Alexander tradition it is the great conqueror himself.



During the Renaissance this anecdote reappears. Based on the wording in the Latin (especially non minus = οὐχ ἧττον,), I would hazard the guess that Guarino is drawing on Plutarch (but note the difference in the use of a form of esse instead of the Greek “to live”).

Battista Guarino, de ordine docendi et studendi IV

“They should show a sort of paternal respect when honoring their teacher; for, if they disrespect the teacher, it necessarily follows that they will disrespect the teaching as well. It should not be thought that the ancients acted capriciously when they desired that the teacher should be treated like a respected parent; this was done so that the teacher could instruct the pupils with greater diligence and benevolence, and the students would reverently believe that they must observe the teacher’s precepts as though they flowed from the font of parental affection. Therefore, let them imitate the example of Alexander the Great in this matter. He used to claim that he owed no less to Aristotle than to his own father, because though his father had given him only life, but Aristotle had given him the secret of living well.”

Deinde in praeceptore colendo paternam sibi constituant sanctitatem; nam si eum contempserint, eius quoque praeceptionem contemnant necesse est. Neque enim existimandum est maiores illos temere praeceptorem sancti voluisse parentis esse loco; sed ut ille maiore cum diligentia benevolentiaque eos instrueret, ipsi autem venerabundi eius dicta velut a paterna quadam affectione manantia observanda esse crederent. Quocirca ea in re Alexandri magni exemplum imitabuntur, qui non minus se Aristoteli praeceptori quam Philippo patri debere praedicabat, propterea quod ab hoc esse tantum, ab illo et bene esse accepisset.

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 roman teachers
School of Aristotlefresco by Gustav Spangenberg.

3 thoughts on “Reverence Due to Teachers: Aristotle and Alexander for #TeacherAppreciationWeek

  1. One benefit of having been a former professor of classics is hearing from students many years later of the impact you have had.

Leave a Reply