The essay on listening to lectures was first delivered as a formal lecture, and afterwards written out for the benefit of the young Nicander, who had just assumed the toga virilis, and was about to take up the serious study of philosophy. One can see in Terence, Andria, i. 1. 24, for example, how the young men of good family, suddenly released from the care of tutors by assuming the toga virilis, conventionally took up a more or less serious avocation. Some took to horses or hunting, while others went on to the higher studies.

It must be quite evident that this essay is, in a way, a supplement and corollary to the preceding essay on the study of poetry. The former is concerned with the young, the latter with the more mature who are undertaking serious study, and particularly the study of philosophy, in which Plutarch was intensely interested. But it is quite clear that the lectures to which he refers dealt with many other subjects besides philosophy.

The essay has an astonishingly modern tone. The different types of students — the diffident student, the lazy student, the contemptuous student, the over-enthusiastic student who makes a nuisance of himself, the over-confident student who likes to ask questions to show off his own scrappy knowledge, [p. 202] the student who has no appreciation of his privilege in hearing a great scholar—all these are portrayed in a thoroughly realistic manner.

Stress is laid on the great contrast between the scholar (particularly the philosopher) and the popular lecturer (the sophist). Then as now, it seems, people were not always willing to listen patiently to the scholar, but more often inclined to resort to lectures of the lighter and more entertaining sort. In this matter, as in many others, Plutarch marks the distinction of character—the character of the lecturer, and the effect of the lecture on the character of the hearer. The sophists, having no particular character themselves and being below the general average of mankind, can do little or nothing to improve the character of their hearers, but, on the other hand, practically everything that the scholar says or does has its value for the upbuilding of character if only one have the ability to profit by it.

Proper behaviour in the lecture-room is the main theme of the essay. No lecture can be so bad that it contains nothing good, and while the lecture itself must be subjected to unsparing criticism, the lecturer must always be treated with kindly consideration, and must not be disturbed by any improper behaviour on the part of his audience.

It is worth while to compare Pliny's Letters, vi. 17 and i. 13 for the record of certain improprieties committed by audiences in Rome. On the general subject of higher education and the wide diffusion of knowledge at this time and later, reference may be made to W. W. Capes, University Life in Ancient [p. 203] Athens, and J. W. H. Walden, The Universities of Ancient Greece (New York, 1909).

In the catalogue of Lamprias, in which this essay is No. 102, the title is given as Περὶ τοῦ ἀκούειν τῶν φιλοσόφων, ‘On Listening to the Lectures of Philosophers,’ but it is probable that this title is merely explanatory, for Plutarch himself uses ἀκούειν alone in this sense in the very first line of the essay.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: