Freshmom vs Plutarch – the Ultimate Match Up

That’s right!

And it wasn’t just Plutarch, I got in some Aristotle, Virgil, and Josiah Ober! (I know, I know, you have probably never heard of Josiah Ober. But maybe, just maybe, all that is about to change. Turns out his book was fabulous! And now you know.)

Still pursuing my goal of giving myself the classical western education I never received, I have added to my “finished” list on Goodreads.com, Politics by Aristotle, The Aenied by Virgil, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece by Josiah Ober, Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar by Rob Goodman, Julius Caesar by Shakespeare, and both volumes (all 1400 pages!) of Plutarch’s Lives.

Yes, my brain does kind of hurt a little.

Most of these were on my official “syllabus” reading list, but two of them just looked so good I pulled them off the library shelves and figured I could slip them into my nightly reading. I began this self-education feeling that Classical Education was vital to the understanding of our country, government, our overall western values, and human nature in general. But because I had never actually been taught any of these things (and the reality of needing to help my children navigate these waters soon, too, kept staring me in the face) I challenged myself to reading and studying and asking questions (and hopefully finding answers) for the next four years, just in time for my oldest to start “high school.”

(Maybe if you home school it isn’t really called “high school.” I’m not sure. Ask me what I call our homeschool in 4 years.)

So here I am, barely into the second semester of my freshmom year. No typo. Next year I’ll be a sophmom. (Now you really wish you were studying with me! Look at all the awesome names you get to call yourself!)

Yeah, and I’m a little behind.

My goal in this particular series of blog posts, however, is not to rehash every book I read to you, but to offer some critical thinking questions, discussion starters, and just thoughts to ponder for either yourself or your student as you read through these books as well. I have learned an incredible amount of information – and not names or dates and battles and whatnot – but really interesting insights into how people think, relate to one another, about ambition, power, loyalty, justice, virtue, goodness, and decency. Aristotle taught me that man is a political animal. And now I know what that actually means. And, furthermore, it’s true! This is some pretty weighty stuff. And it is all relevant. These patterns aren’t limited to some old, dead guys in togas. I have begun seeing these same patterns everywhere.

I am also a history nerd, so I guess there is at disclaimer right there, too. But hopefully I am tempting you to pick up some classical literature.

Anyway, on to the questions.

Politics by Aristotle

Aristotle talks at length about the virtues and vices of various forms of government. If you were founding a new nation, based on Aristotle’s reasonings, and your own understandings, what kind of government would you set up?

Why did Aristotle feel it was so important that those who wanted to be rulers also had to be land owners? Do you think he was right? Do you think this still applies?

Why does Aristotle think a monarchy is the best form of government? What are his stipulations about the monarch? What is your gut feeling about this? Does it change at all upon closer reflection? (For Christians and for others who believe we are ruled by a loving, benevolent God, this is kind of a fun question! At first I was like, “Heck no! No king is going to tell me what to do. Down with King George, right?” But then I realized, I choose to be ruled be a king every single day. But He is a perfect king. That kind of makes a huge difference.)

Compare and contrast Socrates perfect form of government from Plato’s The Republic with Aristotle’s perfect form of government in Politics. (I also suggest these books are read back to back with the foreknowledge that this “essay” question will come up so the students can take really good notes.)

Aristotle doesn’t think everyone should be allowed to participate in government. Are there groups of people you think should not be allowed to participate? Why would this be a good idea? Conversely, why would you want ALL groups to be able to participate? Reply to Aristotle’s thinking with your own thoughts on the matter. (I’m just going to throw this out there: What about open and closed political party conventions? Should people of opposing political parties be able to vote for party candidates?)

Even though the democracy in ancient Greece was limited, consider how completely revolutionary and outright radical the idea and practice of democracy was to the history of the world. (I think the world was barely ready for partial democracy, full democracy would have blown them out of the water.)

Why does Aristotle always keep bringing up Sparta and the Lacedaemonians? What is his fascination and reason for admiration of Lycurgus and Solon? Who even are those guys? (Read the Plutarch chapters on them for help answering this question.)

Pay attention to Aristotle’s believed causes for revolution in democracies. How does this apply to our republic/democracy?

Project: Keep a chart (of any kind) of characteristics of oligarchies and democracies, including the various names and forms of the governments.

The Aeneid – Virgil

Explore and discuss the concept of “historical future” – the idea that you can write about something in the past and include predictions/prophecies about the future (your own personal past or modern times that you know have already occured) and change how people understand current and modern day situations.

Find parallels between The Aeneid, The Iliad, and The Odyssey. (I suggest you read these three near the same time, starting with The Iliad, then Odyssey, and ending with Aeneid.) The Aeneid, in some ways, is like a combination of both Greek epics, but how? In doing so, compare and contrast the Greek heroes with the Roman hero – Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas. Does this help you understand Greek values and Roman values any better?

Why would the Romans of Virgil’s time need/want/enjoy this kind of story? What is the message his readers would hear and why would they want to hear that? Would any of his readers NOT want to hear that message?

When Aeneas is roaming the underworld with his father, he is shown the “future” great men and leaders of Rome. Virgil throws A LOT of names out there. Pick one and figure out why Virgil thought that particular person was so important to the history of Rome that he include him in Aeneas’ “vision.”

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Greece – Josiah Ober

This one was not on my reading list. It just looked good. And it WAS! Admittedly, I thought my brain was going to wither and die during the first few chapters. I understand that graphs and charts and social science and anthropology are really important and very, very fascinating to an intelligent and interesting sector of the population. But I am not part of that group. I like history because I like the stories – not the broken pieces of pottery and how many can be found in one ditch and what that means to the development of humankind. (So sorry, not trying to offend. We’ll call this my own weakness. Obviously you don’t get very good stories – and the stories mean less – if you can’t find the broken pottery.) I almost put down the book so I would have more time to read the rest in my huge stack. But I am so glad I didn’t! The aim of this book is to explain why we should even care about ancient Greece. And the author is successful, I feel, in explaining how because of Greece’s unique political and economic situation, they are the closest thing in the history of the world (that we know about) to our political and economic situation. By studying how they rose, and in return how they fell, we can safeguard ourselves by seeing the warning signs that lead to waning and crumbling political and economic infrastructures. BUT what I appreciated, almost just as much as the fantastic macro history (no long chapters about single battles or individual leaders) was the lack of the author’s political viewpoints inserted either subtly or overtly throughout the book.

(Or maybe they were just so subtle I didn’t pick up on them.)

Still, hugely appreciated! As you will come to understand by my mini-review of the next book.

Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar by Rob Goodman.

(Wow, what a title.)

This book was also not on my official list. But I couldn’t find Addison’s Cato (more on that later) so I picked the only book on the shelf with Cato’s name on it.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I immensely enjoyed it. I read it as fast as I possibly could. Here I thought, this book is about an incredible icon in U.S. history. His “legend” if you will, was at the center point of the founder’s beliefs in human value, virtue, honesty, goodness, integrity (that was a huge one!), liberty (maybe even a bigger one!), and the fight against corruption. This man’s entire life’s goal was to ensure the liberty and integrity of Rome, the country that he loved. (He failed, by the way.) I was happy to read that the author wasn’t trying to paint a picture of him as some idol, some unflawed godlike warrior of truth against the tyrannies of his time, but as a real human being who was sometimes really obnoxious, kind of eccentric, and viewed as extreme and out of touch. The author was just as ready to point out his flaws as well as his strengths. Or at least I thought that was what he was trying to do.

But you see, I am a human value, virtue, honesty, goodness, integrity, liberty, and anti corruption kind of person. I believe all those things are worth making a stand for. In the end, when the author began to expound on what he felt Cato’s legacy was, I started to feel like this guy was just making fun of me. I felt like his book was pointing out the futility of standing for the principles Cato devoted his life to. I mean, Cato did fail, after all.

The last chapter of the book almost negates the entire work for me. I especially felt a little lied to when I read about Cato in Plutarch’s great works. Plutarch had no political agenda. He had no reason to make Cato seem more or less than he was. And the “scandals” that Mr. Goodman spent significant time on in his book, were portrayed very differently in Plutarch’s book. Plutarch’s criticism of some of Cato’s actions weren’t lightly skipped over, even. But after having read both biographies of Cato’s life, I felt like Mr. Goodman was trying to dig up dirt on someone who had been an icon to a value system he personally felt was outdated, irrelevant, and ridiculous so as to show how inferior such a way of thinking was. A “smear the leader, kill the movement” kind of thing.

That just really, really put me off.

I may also be a little sensitive to stuff like that, so you know, take this with a grain of salt if you want.

Yeah. Phew. Moving on.

Julius Caesar by Shakespeare

Discuss ambition, how people handle it and how it motivates people to act.

After reading Julius Caesar, pick out the relevant characters and read their biographies in Plutarch’s Lives, such as Caesar, Brutus, and Antony. (Shakespeare got most of his info for this and other plays from Plutarch.) Does the historical document change your opinion of the characters in the play?

Are these characters universal? Not their specific actions, per se, but the characters and character traits? Does this play apply to you? Or to your community? Or country?

Take time to watch how ambitious people act, speak, and get what they want. Just notice it around you for a week or more.

Lives, volumes 1 and 2 by Plutarch

Oh, finally we get to Plutarch! I was starting to wonder just how many books I really read! This is getting a little long winded.

I started into volume one full of gusto. And then my gusto started to wane.

And finally it petered out.

I had to take a break and pick up another book. Thankfully that book was also about ancient Greeks and Romans (see the two book “reviews” above), so the second time I picked up Lives I felt I had some sort of context to put all these hard-to-pronounce names into. I finally fished the first volume when I realized, “Wait! There were some guys I read about way at the beginning that NOW I know are important, but when I started reading nothing made sense and I can’t remember anything about them.” Once I understood better the macro history, I had some sort of context to place all these little micro histories. I half wanted to go back and read the first 300 or so pages of volume one so I could enjoy it a little more the second time round. (But I only half wanted to, because that is a lot of extra reading so I didn’t do it.)

But that got me thinking.

The college professor who unknowingly wrote my reading syllabus didn’t require students to read the entire two volumes. But I just wanted to on my own so I did. I don’t think that it is even necessary to read both volumes cover to cover to get a good understanding of the history of both ancient Greece and Rome and some of the greater historical figures of both cultures. But how in the world would any student know which biographies were important to read or not, just by looking at the table of contents? “Otho,” “Galba,” “Lucullus,” “Sulla,” “Demetrius,” “Phocion,” and “Agis” tell you absolutely nothing. And that is all you get out of the table of contents. Just names. Well, with intermittent comparisons of a Greek and a Roman. Still not very helpful. “The Comparison of Theseus and Romulus” doesn’t give much away.

So, being the nerd that I am, I decided to make a timeline of all the people Plutarch wrote about, when they were born, when they died, where they came from, what major war was going on that would have affected that person, and who Plutarch had paired them with for the compare/contrast mini chapter.

I am a nerd.

But the lady at the copy center today seemed genuinely impressed with my nerdiness and said people like me should definitely be homeschool moms. That seemed like a pretty nice compliment.

(Until just now when I realize, maybe she was saying that so the nerdy mom’s kids wont infect the cool kids who go to school! Hmm. That would just be very strange to have kids all over the place doing their own projects and research into the classical era solely for “fun” and “deeper understanding.” Actually, I think that would be awesome. But, then again, I am kind of a nerd.)

Plutarch's Lives Timeline-1

Wow. This doesn’t look nearly as impressive once I load it up on here.  However, I am still totally and overly proud of how this turned out! And only one glaring mistake! Ha! It was inevitable, right? (It’s way easier to see on the original paper copy.) I’m not sure how to set up “free downloads” or anything like that, but please, please, please, if this is helpful to you, just somehow copy and paste it onto you computer and get it printed out for yourself. I wish I had had this before I started reading Plutarch. I genuinely enjoyed Plutarch without the timeline, but it just would have been incredibly helpful, especially at the beginning.

The original has color on it – a little colored dot next to the Greek that corresponds to the same color dot next to the Roman Plutarch compares him to. I also colored in the time frames of the Greco-Persian, Peloponnesian, and Punic Wars.

I’m a little ticked the lady didn’t scan my thing in color! But in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot. (Also that she was in too much of a hurry to make sure the scan wasn’t crooked. That would also have been nice.)

So take that, Plutarch! Some random, unknown, and average mom out there is suburbia living on the other side of the world some 2000 years later has read your books AND understood them AND found a way to improve your message to your readers! Yeah! (I’m sure I’m not the first person in the history of the world to make such a timeline, but whoever else has made one didn’t make it very easy to find on the internet! Thus, I took matters into my own hands.)

These photos are just a couple close ups while I was making the timeline. With 5 children at home almost 24 hours day, really important pieces of paper tend to get destroyed rather frequently.

Which is how I learned to make digital copies of everything I think is worth preserving. You just never know which papers will be spared and which will meet an untimely demise.  (Also, this is before I added the colors, the wars, Theseus – whose life doesn’t fit on this timeline, and found and fixed my big mistake. There WAS a guy in Greece named Aratus who lived during those dates, but it just isn’t the Aratus Plutarch was writing about!) IMG_3927IMG_3928IMG_3929

Temporary resting place: Above the kitchen table on my super bare wall. (Nerd mom)

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Final Score

Freshmom 1 : Plutarch 0