Plutarch's Moralia (Holland)/Essay 3

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THAT VIRTUE MAY BE TAUGHT AND LEARNED


THE SUMMARY

[Plutarch, refuting here the error of those who are of opinion, that by good and diligent instruction a man cannot become the better, recommendeth sufficiently the study of virtue. And to prove this assertion of his, he sheweth that the apprentissage of that which is of small consequence in this world, witnesseth enough that a man ought to be trained from day to day to the knowledge of things that are beseeming and worthy his person: Afterwards, he declareth that as much travel should be employed to make him comprehend such things as be far distant from the capacity and excellency of his spirit: In which discourse he taxeth covertly those vain and giddy heads, who (as they say) run after their own shadow, whereas they should stay and rest upon that which is firm and permanent.]


We dispute of virtue, and put in question, whether prudence, justice, loyalty and honesty may be taught or no? And do we admire then the works of orators, sailors and shipmasters, architects, husbandmen, and an infinite number of other such which be extant? Whereas of good men we have nothing but their bare and simple names, as if they were hippo-centaurs, giants, or Cyclopes: and marvel we that of virtuous actions which be entire, perfect, and unblameable, none can be found: nor yet any manners so composed according to duty, but that they be tainted with some passions and vicious perturbations? yea, and if it happen that nature of herself bring forth some good and honest actions, the same straightways are darkened, corrupted and in a manner marred, by certain strange mixtures of contrary matters that creep into them, like as when among good com there grow up weeds and wild bushes that choke the same; or when some kind and gentle fruit is clean altered by savage nourishment.

Men learn to sing, to dance, to read and write, to till the ground, and to ride horses, they learn likewise to shoe themselves, to do on their apparel decently; they are taught to wait at cup and trencher, to give drink at the table, to season and dress meat: and none of all this can they skill to perform and do handsomely, if they be not trained thereto: and yet shall that, for which these and such-like qualities they learn, to wit, good life and honest conversation, be reckoned a mere casual thing, coming by chance and fortune, and which can neither be taught nor learned? Oh, good sirs, what a thing is this? In saying that virtue cannot be taught, we deny withal that it is, or hath any being. For if it be true that the learning of it is the generation and breeding thereof, certes he that hindereth the one disannulleth the other: and in denying that it may be taught, we grant that no such thing there is at all: And yet, as Plato saith, for the neck of a lute not made in proportion to the rest of the body, there was never known one brother go to war with another, nor a friend to quarrel with his friend, nor yet two neighbour cities to fall out and maintain deadly feud, to the interchangeable working and suffering of those miseries and calamities which follow open war. Neither can any man come forth and say, that by occasion of an accent (as, for example, whether the word telchines should be pronounced with the accent over the second syllable or no) there arose sedition and dissension in any city; or debate in a house between man and wife about the warp and woof of any web: Howbeit never man yet would take in hand to wear a piece of cloth, nor handle a book, nor play upon the lute or harp, unless he had learned before; for albeit he were not like to sustain any great loss and notable damage thereby, yet he would fear to be mocked and laughed to scorn for his labour, in which case, as Heraclitus saith, it were better for a man to conceal his own ignorance: and may such an one think, then, that he could order a house well, rule a wife, and behave himself as it becometh in marriage, bear magistracy, or govern a commonweal as he ought, being never bound and brought up to it? Diogenes, espying upon a time a boy eating greedily and unmannerly, gave his master or tutor a good cuff on the ear: and good reason he had so to do, as imputing the fault rather to him, who had not taught, than to the boy, who had not learned better manners. And is it so indeed? ought they of necessity, who would be mannerly at the table, both in putting hand to a dish of meat, and taking the:up with a good grace, or as Aristophanes saith,

At board not feeding greedily,
Nor laughing much, indecently,
Nor crossing feet full wantonly,

to be taught even from their infancy. And is it possible that the same should know how to behave themselves in wedlock, how to manage the affairs of state, how to converse among men, how to bear office without touch and blame, unless they have learned first how to carry themselves one toward another?

Aristippus answered upon a time, when one said unto him, And are you, sir, everywhere? I should (quoth he, laughing merrily) cast away the fare for ferriage, which I pay unto the mariner, if I were everywhere. And why might not a man say likewise, If children be not the better for their teaching, the salary is lost which men bestow upon their masters and teachers. But we see that they taking them into their governance presently from their nurses, like as they did form their limbs and joints featly with their hands, do prepare and frame their manners accordingly, and set them in the right way to virtue. And to this purpose answered very wisely a Laconian schoolmaster to one who demanded of him, what good he did to the child of whom he had the charge? Marry (quoth he), I make him to take joy and pleasure in those things that be honest. And to say a truth, these teachers and governors instruct children to hold up their heads straight as they go in the street, and not to bear it forward: also, not to dip into sauce but with one finger: not to take bread or fish but with twain: to rub or scratch after this or that manner: and thus and thus to truss and hold up their clothes.

What shall we say then to him who would make us believe that the art of physic professeth to scour the morphew, or heal a whit-flaw: but not to cure a pleurisy, fever, or the phrensy? And what differeth he from them who hold that there be schools and rules to teach petties and little children how to be mannerly, and demean themselves in small matters, but as for great, important and absolute things, it must be nothing else but use and custom, or else mere chance and fortune that doth effect them? For like as he were ridiculous, and worthy to be laughed at, who should say that no man ought to lay hand upon the oar for to row but he that hath been prentice to it; but sit at the stem and guide the helm he may who was never taught it: even so, he who maintaineth that in some inferior arts there is required apprentissage, but for the attaining of virtue none at all, deserveth likewise to be mocked.

And verily, he should do contrary unto the Scythians: For they, as Herodotus writeth, use to put out the eyes of their slaves only to the end that being blind they might turn round about with their milk, and so stir and shake it. But he forsooth putteth the eye of reason into these base and inferior arts, which are no better than servants waiting upon others; but plucketh it from virtue. Iphicrates answered contrariwise, being demanded of Callias, the son of Chabrias, by way of contempt and derision, in this wise, What are you, sir? An archer? A targetiere? A man at arms? or a light-armed soldier? I am none (quoth he) of all these, but rather one of those who commandeth them all. Well, ridiculous then is he, and very absurd, who would say there were an art to be taught of drawing a bow and shooting, of fighting close at hand being armed at all pieces, of discharging bullets with a sling, or of sitting and riding an horse; but forsooth to lead and conduct an army there was none at all: as who would say that feat were a thing not learned, but coming by chance, I know not how. And yet I must needs say, more sottish and foolish were he who should hold and affirm that prudence only could not be taught, without which no other arts and sciences be worth ought, or avail any whit. That this is true, and that she is alone the guide which leadeth and guideth all other sciences, arts, and virtues, giving them every one their due place and honour, and making them profitable to mankind, a man may know by this, if there were nothing else, that there would be no grace at a feast, though the meat were never so well dressed and served up by skilful cooks, though there were proper esquires or shewers to set the dishes upon the board, carvers, tasters, skinkers, and other servitors and waiters enough, unless there be some good order observed among the said ministers, to place and dispose everything as it ought.