A Programme for Plutarch

A Programme for Plutarch

Charlotte Mason (1989b) derides “nice little history books for children” that are mere outlines or childish retellings (p. 278). The formidable Plutarch’s Lives definitely does not fit into that category. This staple of Citizenship has been of particular interest to me and hearing others’ personal stories and experiences has been a delight! I want to share with you some of these stories and then take a look at what the programmes actually prescribed to see if there are any surprises.

To review, the students in one of Charlotte Mason’s PNEU schools would encounter one life of a noble Greek or Roman per term during Forms II, III, and IV for a total of 15 lives. The teacher would read it aloud and the students would narrate with names written on the board as an aid. Henrietta Franklin nicely sums up the purpose of reading Plutarch:

We want the children’s imagination to be kindled by vivid pictures of the times; we want them to learn God’s dealings with humanity, the sequence of cause and effect, and to train their moral judgment. Dates need not be omitted, and are welcomed as fixing the period dealt within the world’s history. In Plutarch’s Greek and Roman Lives we find a storehouse of ideas, and great examples of man’s power for good or evil in moulding the world. (Franklin, 1909, p. 21)

Children were first assigned Plutarch in Form IIA (11 or 12 years old, or 5th or 6th grade). However, The Parents’ Review does have a few stories about much younger children responding to Plutarch. For instance, those of us with multiple children understand that the younger students often benefit from hearing the lessons of the older students. Here is a charming letter to the editor about a 5-year-old:

We were taking part of the Life of Alexander the other day, and we spoke for a few moments about his wonderful self-control; that he would decline something he even longed for, to be able to show himself that he could do it. A little boy of five was playing in the room at the time, but did not seem to listen to us. At dinner he refused a second helping of pudding, which was most unusual. After the meal he said, “Mother I did want more pudding.” “Why did you refuse it, then?” “Because I wanted to be Alexander.” I have heard of some mothers thinking Plutarch’s Lives… rather too stiff for their children. Perhaps this little tale may encourage them to try again. (X, 1892, p. 234)

And Plutarch can go way beyond just straight narrations! Here is an older class using Plutarch as fodder for a lively debate:

A senior class had listened to a reading of that portion of Plutarch’s ‘Life of Aristides’ dealing with the quarrel between the Athenians and the Spartans respecting the hour of victory over the Persians. The whole class resolved itself into a Council. A heated impromptu dialogue was carried on between Leocrates and Myronides; Aristides intervened, and then Theogiton, Cleocritus, Aristides and Pausanias addressed the council. Finally, resolutions were passed respecting the cost and form of the memorial. (Husband, 1942, pp. 164)

When my son, Jack, was a teacher at a Charlotte Mason school, he had an enlightening experience with Plutarch. There was a troubled, 6th grade student who was behind in reading, math, and most everything, really. He also exhibited behavioral and attitude problems. The student was placed in a multi-age class to study Plutarch once a week. One life was read over a term. The student showed small attitude changes and a slight improvement in participation, such as stumbling narrations. But the next life was Alexander the Great and that changed everything.

First, the story of Alexander and the subduing of the horse, Bucephalus, seemed to interest him on a new level. The next reading was about good and bad generals, a few battles, and details about flanks and battle strategies. Then one day after the lesson, he hastily cleared off the chalk table. The young man started to excitedly draw out positions and movements, along with the locations of the principal generals and characters, out on the table. His classmates and surprised teacher looked on as he amended and revised the map during his narration. Here, in a Plutarch lesson, was the key to unlocking his ability to narrate from the heart, a welcome awakening that carried over into other areas.

Examining how Charlotte Mason approached subjects based on what I can see in the programmes and other materials helps me avoid grooves in my teaching. For Plutarch, I wondered if the data would change any of my practices (it did!) or help others strengthen theirs. Would it raise more questions? I studied the programmes specifically for Plutarch’s Lives from programmes 91-127 (1921-1933) and a few others for a total of 39. I will share the results in the question and answer format that follows. This survey of 12+ years of consecutive programmes gives an accurate view into the choices and patterns that Charlotte Mason formed in regards to Plutarch.

Which lives were assigned most often?

Julius Caesar (8 occurrences) wins that contest, followed closely by Aristides (7). Then a long list of 6 occurrences each: Alcibiades, Alexander (first half), Alexander (second half), Brutus, Coriolanus, Demosthenes, Paulus Æmilius, Pericles, Pompey (first half), Pompey (second half), Themistocles, and Timoleon. Finally, with 3 occurrences each, we find Agis and Cleomenes, Cato, Marcus Cato, Nicias, Pyrrhus, Solon, T.Q. Flamininus, and Tiberius and Caius Gracchus. Those are all the Lives mentioned in my sampling. (An occurrence meaning each time the life was assigned in a particular Form.) To be clear, a few other lives are mentioned elsewhere in the volumes as being read.

What editions did Charlotte Mason use in the PNEU school programmes?

She makes it very clear that North’s translation is the translation to use. We see this throughout The Parents’ Review and in her six volumes. But when it comes to editions used, she overwhelmingly chose Blackie’s editions. These slim and soft little editions fit nicely in the hand and seem very doable. Other editions mentioned a few times are Cambridge Press, Dent Vol. IV, and Cassell’s National Library.

What is striking about this to me is that they are edited by W.H.D. Rouse, Litt D. In the introduction to the Julius Caesar edition, it states, “The present edition is reprinted from the first edition of the original, published in 1579, which in correctness is superior to those which followed it. A few omissions have been made, and one or two mistakes have been corrected.”

Also, in The Parents’ Review, a book review of Blackie’s edition of Alexander says:

Dr. Rouse proposes to himself apparently to perform a very great service for English education. To get such books as More’s Utopia and Plutarch’s Alexander, for example, “with some omissions,” is a thing to be thankful for. The little books are well-printed and pleasant to handle. (Editor, 1907).

How much is omitted? I am not aware of any comparison between North’s and the edited Blackie editions as of yet.

Did only the teacher have a copy?

Every time the Blackie editions are used there is an asterisk. The asterisk means that the student was to have their own copy which would mean that they are reading along with the teacher! On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. As in Shakespeare, you want the words and sentence structures to be in front of the students’ eyes. However, perhaps due to the “suitable omissions” warning, I have never done this. I have always simply read from my copy and had them narrate. While this is good and beneficial, I wonder if my students would get even more out of the readings if they were following along. Elsewhere I did read that the school may not be able to afford copies for all the students and thus the teacher read from the only copy, but the programmes clearly state that this was a book that the students should have in hand.

Were there always instructions for the teacher to read with suitable omissions?

No. This only happens when non-Blackie editions are used. For instance, the Dent Vol. IV editions are used once for Aristides, Pyrrhus, and T.Q. Flamininus and the warning is issued there. We also see it when Cassell’s National Library editions are used for Coriolanus and Aristides. But it appears that since the Blackie’s were edited, there was no need for the warning.

In Plutarch’s Lives by North, he writes about a Greek then pairs that life with a Roman, followed by a comparison essay of the two. Is this how Charlotte Mason scheduled the Lives to be read?

I only found 3 instances where a Greek life was read one term followed by the Roman life in the next term as Plutarch paired them. These were Paulus Æmilius/Timoleon, Alexander/Julius Caesar, and Agis and Cleomenes/Tiberius and Caius Gracchus. I found no evidence that the students read the comparison essays.

Did forms II, III, and IV all do the same life at the same time?

Of the 39 programmes I looked at, the overwhelming pattern was that all the forms were doing the same life. There were two exceptions to this: Agis and Cleomenes and Tiberius and Caius Gracchus. The first instance showed only Form IV studying these two lives and the second instance showed only forms III and IV reading them. Form II never had these lives scheduled.

Was it always one life per term/three per year?

No! Alexander was read over 2 terms, as well as Pompey. Those were the exceptions and the rest of the time it was one life per term/three per year.

Was the Plutarch life correlated with the Shakespeare play?

Every time the life of Julius Caesar is scheduled, the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar is also scheduled. When the life of Coriolanus is scheduled, the Shakespeare play Coriolanus is sometimes read, but not each time.

What about children’s retellings of Plutarch’s Lives?

These are never mentioned in the programmes. When they are mentioned in a book review in The Parents’ Review, they are mentioned fondly but the reader is always reminded that students in the PNEU use the real thing.

Would a student repeat any lives?

That is not likely. In the 12+ year span that I examined, the only lives that could possibly be repeated by a single student were Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, and only if they started in IIA with either of those lives.

Was the entire life always read?

Interestingly, from programmes 113-126 and only in Form II, there is a note that states “suitable stories from.” These are Blackie editions and are for the lives of Nicias, Solon, Pompey (part 1), Pompey (part 2), Pericles, Demosthenes, Alcibiadis, and Marcus Cato. I didn’t see any guidance in the programmes or anywhere else as to what these selections were but one would assume that the teacher would be choosing specific stories for the Plutarch beginner that were not so lengthy, appropriate for the younger student, and focus on the most well-known parts that display the essence of the character yet still read from North’s version as edited in the Blackie editions.

What did I learn from this? The revelation that the students had their own copies to read from was a new idea for me! And the bit of flexibility where we read “suitable stories from” reminds me not to be dogmatic about the scope when presenting a life, particularly with beginners. I also like the slowing down and taking longer with the lives of Alexander and Pompey. Because this article is about my findings in the programmes, you can find much more about our experiences and purpose with Plutarch in the series Plutarch Primer at my website. And it’s always good to remember that whether we are presenting Plutarch’s Lives or any other subject in a Charlotte Mason education to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. Charlotte says it best:

We recognise that history for him is, to live in the lives of those strong personalities which at any given time impress themselves most upon their age and country. This is not the sort of thing to be got out of nice little history books for children, whether ‘Little Arthur’s,’ or somebody’s ‘Outlines.’ We take the child to the living sources of history—a child of seven is fully able to comprehend Plutarch, in Plutarch’s own words (translated), without any diluting and with little explanation. Give him living thought in this kind, and you make possible the co-operation of the living Teacher. The child’s progress is by leaps and bounds, and you wonder why. (Mason, 1989b, p. 278)


Editor, (1907). Books. In The Parents’ Review, volume 18 (pp. 69-73). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Franklin, E. (1909). The home training of children. In The Parents’ Review, volume 20 (pp. 20-26). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Husband, G. (1942). Some notes on narration. In The Parents’ Review, volume 53 (pp. 158-165). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

Mason, C. (1989b). Parents and Children. Charlotte Mason Research & Supply. (Original work published 1905).

X. (1892). The “p.r.” letter bag. In The Parents’ Review, volume 3 (pp. 233-236). London: Parents’ National Educational Union.

For more than 23 years, Nancy Kelly has been practicing the principles and living the lifestyle that Charlotte Mason championed. She has been called a “master teacher” of Mason’s methods and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience through immersions, consultations, and speaking engagements. You can read about her family of eight and the books they love on her blog, Sage Parnassus.

©2018 Nancy Kelly

14 Replies to “A Programme for Plutarch”

  1. Very interesting.

    So … *Publicola* (which is the one Anne White did for the Plutarch Primer edition and which CMers use as their first introduction to Plutarch) was never assigned?

    Is there any indication in the programmes *which* lives from Plutarch were usually assigned first (that is, in Form IIA)? That would give us an idea what CM thought was the best intro to Plutarch for beginners.

    1. Great questions. So in regard to Publicola, his life was not mentioned in the 12 years of programmes I looked at. As to which lives were usually assigned first…since all the forms were doing the same lives, we can see that all the lives I mentioned would have been the “first” life for those starting in IIA each year. The exceptions would be those that were ONLY assigned to the older students – Agis and Cleomenes and Tiberius and Caius Gracchus.

  2. It would be interesting to see what differences there are between the Blackie’s edition and the unedited (unexpurgated?) North.

    I notice that Miss Ambler, in her 1901 article, says

    “There is however, a great danger in taking ‘Plutarch’s Lives’ with children. Plutarch places himself in the position of his heroes; he takes their point of view, and often seems only a little indulgently amused by clever roguery. This danger can easily be avoided by a few words from the teacher, an intonation in the voice when reading the passages, and then instead of presenting injurious ideas, the passage will only strengthen good and helpful ideas. For example, in the ‘Life of Alcibiades’:–

    “‘Alcibiades had a dog of an uncommon size and beauty, which cost him 70 minae, and yet his tail, which was his principal ornament, he caused to be cut off. Some of his acquaintances found great fault with his acting so strangely, and told him that all Athens rung with the story of his foolish treatment of the dog, at which he laughed, and said, “This is the very thing I wanted, for I would have the Athenians talk of this lest they should find something worse to say of me.”‘

    “Again, other passages must be omitted altogether, and because there are several of these passages, the books should never be given to the children to read, but should read to them by their teacher.”

    I’m a bit puzzled by this passage, because it sounds as if the teacher is getting in between Plutarch and the child by “a few words” or “an intonation in the voice” to let the child know that what is being read is naughty.

    But Ambler does say “the books should never be given to the children to read” and yet in the programmes, as you point out, the Blackies were given to the children.

    It suggests that perhaps we need North … but in a slightly edited/expurgated version (though I’ll add that I see no reason whatsoever to cut the passage Ambler quoted or even to say a few words about it to the children or indicate something by my inflection!).

    1. I agree, it would be interesting and hopefully someone will help us out with that! It is a puzzling article! The exhortation to NOT do this sort of thing seems to be more prevalent throughout the volumes and PRs. Alas, Ms. Ambler is not Ms. Mason and we do see articles on occasion that do not always line up with what Ms. Mason said. I do not know enough about her or the context she is writing from…but will keep it in mind!

    2. John,

      Here is where Miss Mason speaks of not influencing the child as Miss Ambler suggests, even using Plutarch as the example:

      “He is an eclectic; he may choose this or that; our business is to supply him with due abundance and variety and his to take what he needs. Urgency on our part annoys him. He resists forcible feeding and loathes predigested food. What suits him best is pabulum presented in the indirect literary form which Our Lord adopts in those wonderful parables whose quality is that they cannot be forgotten though, while every detail of the story is remembered, its application may pass and leave no trace. We, too, must take this risk. We may offer children as their sustenance the Lysander of Plutarch, an object lesson, we think, shewing what a statesman or a citizen should avoid: but, who knows, the child may take to Lysander and think his ‘cute’ ways estimable!” (Vol. 6, p. 109)

  3. I appreciate the discovery that the students often had the text in hand. My co-op high schoolers’ Plutarch narrations improved *significantly* when the lightbulb went off in my head and I made sure they each had their own copy to read along with me. I am an expressive reader, but it helped them to have the words right in front of them.

    Also interesting is: no Philopoemen! We enjoyed reading him last term. And I also think the absence of Publicola (so often recommended as the first life to read) is notable.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Polly! We loved Philopoemen, also. It is interesting to hear how your students’ narrations improved when they read along with you, too. I am currently observing if I see any appreciable improvement doing it that way.

  4. Dear Nancy,

    What a fantastic article overviewing how Plutarch was presented in the PNEU! Since the immersion session recently at LER, I’m less intimidated as a teacher including the lives in our schedule and have been diligently focusing my time on gathering materials for this coming year: Plutarch included. We had already utilized Anne White’s online guides through AO last year, but I’d prefer a book in my hands.

    So, concerning editions, your article doesn’t mention The Heritage press set of Plutarch’s lives. Most likely, that’s because it was published in 1941 and the editor is not Rouse. I’d prefer separate published lives for each student (hard to come by and self-printed 8×11 sheets are impersonal). Yet, the Heritage Press set is still North’s translation and I’d like to think it would suffice in being a source for me. My concern is that the editing style may conflict with Anne White’s study guides. Our local used bookstore has a set of this edition and I’m wondering if it’s worth launching a book rescue operation or if I continue the search elsewhere for a Dent set or otherwise. Thanks!

    1. Dear Shelley,
      It was great sharing the immersion at the LER with you! Plutarch is for everyone! Heritage Press is my favorite edition of Plutarch. It is beautiful. If you see it at a local used bookstore for a reasonable price – grab it! The prices on that edition have sky rocketed. I don’t know that the editing style would conflict with Anne’s guides since they are both using North’s and so far, the editing has been quite minimal in the lives we have read where I have compared the full text of North’s to Anne’s editions. In fact, she often mentions where she leaves out text. If you are pre-reading, this would not be a burdensome task. So if the price is reasonable, I vote for a book rescue operation!

      1. Dear Nancy,
        Rescue operation of the Heritage press Plutarch set complete and successful. I hoped Anne’s guides would be complimentary and I am more than willing to pre-read more than I already have to help lessons run smoothly. I noticed you reposted this on your website, may it inspire more home educators to dig into Plutarch!
        And, if you’re ever visiting Duluth, I’d highly recommend a stroll amidst the bookshelves at Zenith Bookstore. The owner keeps an area for vintage finds, allows a trading system of books you bring in, and features new books by local authors. Furthermore, it’s right beside a coffee shop with scrumptious scones!

        1. When I come, I will certainly check out that bookstore and call you to meet me for coffee and scones! Have a great year with Plutarch and do let me know how it all goes!

    1. Hello, Dawn!
      I have both the single-life copies of Alexander and Julius Caesar, both edited by Rouse. Neither has extra notes at the bottom of any page.

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