HOW THE YOUNG SHOULD STUDY POETRY (QUOMODO ADOLESCENS POETAS AUDIRE DEBEAT)
Plutarch's essay on the study of poetry is not a discussion of the essentials
of poetry, nor an analysis of its various kinds after the manner of
Aristotle's Poetics, but it is concerned with poetry only as a means of
training the young in preparation for the study of philosophy later. Some
experience with the adumbrations of philosophic doctrines which are to be
found in poetry will, in the opinion of the author, make such doctrines seem
less strange when they are met later in the actual study of philosophy.
This training is to be imparted, not by confining the reading to selected
passages, but by teaching the young to recognize and ignore the false and
fabulous in poetry, to choose always the better interpretation, and, in
immoral passages where art is employed for art's sake, not to be deluded
into approving vicious sentiments because of their artistic presentation.
Such passages may be offset by other passages from the same author or from
another author, and, as a last resort, one may try his hand at emending
unsavoury lines to make them conform to a higher ethical standard. This last
proposal seems to the modern reader a weak subterfuge, but it was a practice
not unknown even before Plutarch's time.
Philology, in the narrower sense, Plutarch says, is a science in itself, and
a knowledge of it is not [p. 73]
essential to an understanding of
literature (a fact enunciated from time to time by modern educators as a new
discovery). But, on the other hand, Plutarch strongly insists that an exact
appreciation of words and of their meanings in different contexts is
indispensable to the understanding of any work of poetry.
The various points in the essay are illustrated by plentiful quotations drawn
in the main from Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus, Pindar, Simonides, Theognis,
Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Menander. These are accompanied by many
keen and intelligent observations (such, for example, as that regarding
Paris), which attest Plutarch's wide and careful reading in the classical
The fact that Plutarch does not use the methods of historical criticism will
not escape the reader, and, although this seems to us a great defect in the
essay, it is wholly in keeping with the spirit of Plutarch's age. On the
other hand there is well shown the genial and kindly Plutarch, who wishes to
believe only good of all men, including the poets, however much they may
fall short of the standards set by the divine Homer.