Advice For Listening to Lectures: Plutarch on Two Types of Students

Mark Pattison’s humility and anxiety mentioned in an earlier post is certainly familiar to many of us who have been overmatched in the classroom. Fortunately (or not), Plutarch has some reflection and advice on this

“Perhaps philosophy contains something, certain matters, difficult for inexperienced and young students to understand in the beginning. But, without a doubt, they fall into most difficulty on their own thanks to unclear thought or ignorance—those who misunderstand the same thing do it for opposite reasons. For some hesitate to ask questions because of shame or to spare the speaker and therefore fail to establish the argument firmly in their minds all while nodding their heads as if they understand. Others, because of an untimely ambition or silly rivalry with their peers to make a show of their perceptiveness and their ability to learn, assert that they understand something before they do and, as a result, do not understand it at all. Then, it turns out that those who are humble and silent, when they leave the lecture, trouble themselves and feel at a loss until finally, and now compelled by necessity with greater shame, they encumber the lecturers by asking questions and making up for what should have been said before. The result for the ambitious and bold young men is that they are always trying to work around and cover up their cultivated ignorance.”

῎Ισως μὲν οὖν ἔχει τι καὶ τὰ πράγματα τοῖς ἀπείροις καὶ νέοις ἐν ἀρχῇ δυσκατανόητον• οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ τῇ γε πλείστῃ περιπίπτουσιν ἀσαφείᾳ καὶ ἀγνοίᾳ δι’ αὑτούς, ἀπ’ ἐναντίων φύσεων ταὐτὸν ἁμαρτάνοντες. οἱ μὲν γὰρ αἰσχύνῃ τινὶ καὶ φειδοῖ τοῦ λέγοντος ὀκνοῦντες ἀνερέσθαι καὶ βεβαιώσασθαι τὸν λόγον, ὡς ἔχοντες ἐν νῷ συνεπινεύουσιν, οἱ δ’ ὑπὸ φιλοτιμίας ἀώρου καὶ κενῆς πρὸς ἑτέρους ἁμίλλης ὀξύτητα καὶ δύναμιν εὐμαθείας ἐπιδεικνύμενοι, πρὶν ἢ λαβεῖν ἔχειν ὁμολογοῦντες, οὐ λαμβάνουσιν. εἶτα συμβαίνει τοῖς μὲν αἰδήμοσι καὶ σιωπηλοῖς ἐκείνοις, ὅταν ἀπέλθωσι, λυπεῖν αὑτοὺς καὶ ἀπορεῖσθαι, καὶ τέλος αὖθις ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης ἐλαυνομένους σὺν αἰσχύνῃ μείζονι τοῖς εἰποῦσιν ἐνοχλεῖν ἀναπυνθανομένους καὶ μεταθέοντας, τοῖς δὲ φιλοτίμοις καὶ θρασέσιν ἀεὶ περιστέλλειν καὶ ἀποκρύπτειν συνοικοῦσαν τὴν ἀμαθίαν.

Augustine Was Ripped off by Students: He hated them, and himself (Confessions 5.12)

“I then started to pursue the work for which I traveled there, to teach the art of Rhetoric at Rome. Soon, certain men gathered at my home among whom and through whom I became well known. But look: I learned that some things happened in Rome which I would not have endured in Africa. For, in truth, the destruction caused by wasted youths which I saw there would not have happened in Africa. They said to me: “Suddenly, in order not to pay their teacher, many young men will conspire and move on to another—they abandon their promises: because of their love of money, justice is cheap.” My heart hated those bastards, but not with a complete hatred: surely, I hated more what I would suffer because of them than the wrongs they committed against others.”

sedulo ergo agere coeperam, propter quod veneram, ut docerem Romae artem rhetoricam, et prius domi congregare aliquos quibus et per quos innotescere coeperam. et ecce cognosco alia Romae fieri, quae non patiebar in Africa. nam re vera illas eversiones a perditis adulescentibus ibi non fieri manifestatum est mihi: ‘sed subito,’ inquiunt, ‘ne mercedem magistro reddant, conspirant multi adulescentes et transferunt se ad alium, desertores fidei et quibus prae pecuniae caritate iustitia vilis est.’ oderat etiam istos cor meum, quamvis non perfecto odio. quod enim ab eis passurus eram magis oderam fortasse quam eo quod cuilibet inlicita faciebant.

Simonides, Fr. 17: Don’t Say Anything About Tomorrow

“Since you are a human being, never mention what happens tomorrow
Nor, if you see a lucky man, say how long he will be so.
For not even the flick of a wide-winged fly
Is as swift as this

[in some texts the following is added]

Everything comes to a single, dreadful Charybis—
The great virtues and wealth the same.”


ἄνθρωπος ἐὼν μή ποτε φάσηις ὅ τι γίνεται 〚αὔριον〛,
μηδ’ ἄνδρα ἰδὼν ὄλβιον ὅσσον χρόνον ἔσσεται·
ὠκεῖα γὰρ οὐδὲ τανυπτερύγου μυίας
οὕτως ἁ μετάστασις.
πάντα γὰρ μίαν ἱκνεῖται δασπλῆτα Χάρυβδιν,
αἱ μεγάλαι τ’ ἀρεταὶ καὶ ὁ πλοῦτος.

Upon correcting beginning Greek exams, I wish I had taken Simonides’ advice when getting a little too excited yesterday.

If only Fleetwood Mac had read this poem, we might have been spared this:

Using The Ancient World to Think about Leadership

In a class of mine this semester on Leadership in the Ancient World, students were asked to work in groups for their final project and to use some inspiration from ancient literature and history to develop approaches to teaching about leadership.

The project had few other instructions besides that; and the students developed some entertaining and fabulous final products.

One group, inspired by Homer and discussions of the metaphor of “shepherd of the host”, created a Jenga Challenge–they asked groups of students around campus to designate a leader and complete a giant Jenga task in exchange for cookies. I would tell you more, but the video tells it all.

Another group of students, inspired by decision-making scenes in the Odyssey made a choose your own adventure comic book based on the scene in Polyphemos’ cave. The site Pixton has the digital version, but the paper edition is amazing.

choose your own

Another group banded together and started a website called HomerandHomies where they are sharing their own stories, experiments, interviews and thoughts about the ancient world and leadership.  Any summary here fails to describe their work.

Some highlights include: an analysis of the Beatles’ leadership issues informed by the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon; A piece of fiction about a football team based on Odysseus’ struggles to get home; leadership advice from that wily hero Himself; and a debate about education modeled on Plato’s Lesser Hippias..

To all readers, check out these projects.  To my students, I cannot express my gratitude for a wonderful semester.