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This webpage reproduces the essay
An virtus doceri possit


as published in Vol. VI
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

(Vol. VI) Plutarch, Moralia

p2 Can Virtue Be Taught?


The work appears in pp2‑13 of Vol. VI of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of the Moralia, first published in 1939. It is now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1967 and was not renewed at the appropriate time, which would have been that year or the year before. (Details here on the copyright law involved.)

Loeb Edition Introduction

The slight and possibly fragmentary essay, or declamation, makes no considerable addition to the theory of knowledge. Virtue is assumed to be an "art"; since the practice of all other arts is unsuccessful without instruction, Virtue (ἀρετή), or the Good Life (τὸ εὖ ζῆν), or Prudence (φρόνησις) — for Plutarch appears to equate the three — must be learned, if we are to be successful in the dependent arts. Plutarch appeals as usual to common sense, but does not take the trouble to prove any of his assumptions; yet the work, even in its present mutilated state, is a graceful exercise in popular philosophy.

While Plutarch's slipshod and half-defined position is not directly contrary to that of Plato (e.g. in the Meno), it must be observed that two pupils of Socrates, Crito and Simon, wrote works with the titles, ῞Οτι οὐκ ἐκ τοῦ μαθεῖν οἱ ἀγαθοί (That Men are not made Good by Instruction) and Περὶ ἀρετῆς ὅτι οὐ διδακτόν (That Virtue cannot be Taught), respectively.1 Whether these books differed radically from the Platonic or Socratic position, as developed in the Meno and the Republic, cannot be argued here.

We must note in passing that G. Siefert (Commentationes Ienenses, 1896, pp102‑105) held that Plutarch p3wrote this work in connexion with the De Fortuna (see the parallels recorded in the notes) and that it is not mutilated, but unfinished.2 This is quite possible.3

The text is very uncertain, for although the essay appears in several important classes of MSS., they differ considerably among themselves. The text which must serve as the basis of the present translation is only presented with the greatest hesitation.

The work appears as No. 180 in the Lamprias catalogue, where it bears the title Περὶ ἀρετῆς εἰ διδακτέον4 ἡ ἀρετή.

p5 (439) 1 1   [link to original Greek text] When we discuss Virtue we debate the question whether Prudence, Justice, and the Good Life can be taught; then we are surprised that the achievements of orators, pilots, musicians, architects, and farmers are past counting, bwhereasº "good men" is only a name and a mere term, like "Centaurs," "Giants," or "Cyclopes"! And it is impossible to find any deed that is faultless as regards its virtue, or any character undefiled by passion, or any life untouched by dishonour; but even if Nature does spontaneously produce something that is excellent, this excellence is obscured by much that is foreign to it, like wheat mixed with wild and impure stuff.5 Men learn to play the harp, to dance and to read, to farm and to ride the horse; they learn to put on shoes and to don garments, they are taught to pour wine and to bake meat. All these things it is impossible to do properly without instruction; but shall that for the attainment of which all these things are done, that is, the Good Life, be unteachable, irrational, requiring no skill, and fortuitous?

2 1   [link to original Greek text] O mortal men! Why do we assert that virtue p7is unteachable, and thus make it non-existent? For if learning begets virtue, the prevention of learning destroys it. Yet truly, as Plato6 says, just because a foot of verse is out of measure with the lyre and fails to harmonize with it, brother does not war with brother, nor does friend quarrel with friend, nor do states conceive hatred toward other states and wreak upon each other the most extreme injuries and suffer them as well; dnor can anyone say that civil strife has ever broken out in a state over a question of accent, as, for instance, whether we should read Télchines or Telchínes,7 nor that a quarrel has ever arisen in a household between husband and wife as to which is the warp and which the woof. Yet, for all that, no one, unless he has received instruction, would attempt to handle a loom or a book or a lyre, though he would suffer no great harm if he did so, but he is merely afraid of becoming ridiculous (for, as Heraclitus8 says, "It is better to conceal ignorance"); but everyone thinks that without instruction he will handle successfully a home, a marriage, a commonwealth, a magistracy — though he has not learned how to get along with wife, or servant, or fellow-citizen, or subject, or ruler!

Diogenes, when he saw a child eating sweet-meats, gave the boys' tutor a cuff, rightly judging the fault to be, not that of him who had not learned, ebut of him who had not taught. Then, when it is impossible p9to eat and drink politely in company if one has not learned from childhood, as Aristophanes9 says,

Not to laugh like a clown, nor dainties gulp down, nor to cross one leg on the other;

yet can men enter without censure the fellowship of a household, a city, a marriage, a way of life, a magistracy, if they have not learned how they should get along with fellow-beings? When Aristippus was asked by someone, "So you are everywhere, it seems, aren't you?" "Well then," he replied with a laugh, "I am wasting my fare,10 if indeed I am everywhere." Why, then, would you also not say, "If men do not become better by teaching, fthe fee given to their tutors is wasted"? For these are the first to receive the child when it has been weaned and, just as nurses mould its body with their hands,11 so tutors by the habits they inculcate train the child's character to take a first step, as it were, on the path of virtue. So the Spartan,12 when he was asked what he effected by his teaching, said, "I make honourable things pleasant to children." And yet what do tutors teach? To walk in the public streets with lowered head; to touch salt-fish with but one finger, but fresh fish, bread, and meat with two;13 to sit in such and such a posture; 440in such and such a way to wear their cloaks.14

p11 3 1   [link to original Greek text] What then? He who says that the physician's art concerns itself with rashes and hang-nails, but not with pleurisy or fever or inflammation of the brain, in what does he differ from one who says that schools and lectures and precepts are for instruction in trifling and childish duties, but that for the great and supreme duties there is only brute knocking about and accident? For just as he is ridiculous who declares that one must be taught before pulling at the oar, but may steer the boat even without having learned; so one who grants that the other arts are acquired by learning, but deprives virtue of this, appears to be acting directly contrary to the practice of the Scythians. For the Scythians, as Herodotus15 says, blind their slaves that these may hand over the cream to themselves; bbut such a man as this gives Reason, like an eye, as it were, to the subservient and ancillary arts, while denying it to virtue.

Yet when Callias, son of Charias, asked the general Iphicrates,16 "Who are you? Bowman, targeteer, horseman, or hoplite?" Iphicrates replied, "None of these, but the one who commands them all." Ridiculous, therefore, is the man who declares that the art of using the bow, or of fighting in heavy armour, or of manipulating the sling, or of riding a horse may be taught, but that the art of commanding and leading an army comes at it chances and to whom it chances without previous instruction! Surely he is more ridiculous who affirms that prudence alone cannot be taught, for without prudence p13there can be no gain or profit from the other arts. But if prudence is in command, the principle which orders all the arts, which assigns each person to a place of usefulness,17 what joy, for instance, can one have at a banquet, cthough the servants are well-trained and have learned to

Carve the meat and roast it well and pour the wine,18

if there be no system nor order in the servitors?19

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Diogenes Laertius, II.121, 122.

2 "Ne hic quidem liber fragmentum est, sed schedula tantum a Plutarcho in suum usum obiter composita."

3 Xylander's supposition, recently repeated without argument by Hartman, that this is not a work by Plutarch, seems untenable.

4 Bernardakis would rightly emend to διδακτὸν.

5 i.e. tares; cf. Moralia, 51A.

6 Cleitophon, 407C; cf. Moralia, 534F.

7 The latter, according to Herodianus Technicus, I p17 (ed. Lentz).

8 Diels, Frag. d. Vorsokratiker5, I p172, Frag. 95; the fragment is given more fully in Moralia, 644F and in a different form in Frag. 1 of That Women Also Should be Educated (Bernardakis, vol. VII p125).

9 Adapted from Clouds, 983.

10 Cf. Juvenal, VIII.97: furor est post omnia perdere naulum, which indicates the proverbial character of the expression. Aristippus, having the entrée everywhere, need waste no money in transit.

11 Cf. Moralia, 3E; Plato, Republic, 377C.

12 Cf. Moralia, 452D, infra.

13 The point is obscure and the text corrupt.

14 Cf. Moralia, 5A and 99D. See Aristophanes, Clouds, 973 ff., for the way good boys should sit and walk in public; Birds, 1568, for the proper way to wear a cloak.

15 Herodotus, IV.2, which passage is not at all explicit, but appears to mean that the slaves are blinded to prevent their stealing that part of the milk considered most valuable by their masters.

16 Cf. Moralia, 99E, 187B.

17 There is, perhaps, a lacuna at this point, as indicated by Pohlenz, who supplies "how, then, must one not pay even more heed to prudence than to the other arts?"

18 Homer, Od. XV.323.

19 Possibly a large part of the essay is missing.

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Page updated: 18 Nov 12