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Principles from Plutarch – (1) Serve Something Higher than Yourself

In this series of messages I am going to try something different. I am going to attempt to write a series of messages that take ideas from a classical work and show how these ideas contain principles that can help to guide our lives today, specifically in our roles as parents and co-teachers. You can call this an attempt at “applied Classical education” or “practical Classical education”.  

Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that “a page in history is worth a volume of logic.” If that is true, imagine the relative merit of a page of history in comparison to a self-help book! It is my conviction that there are almost unfathomable depths of wisdom in some classic works of history and literature. Yet these treasures require a lot of work and dedication to unearth. On the other hand pithy contemporary works that offer “10 Steps to a Better You” are far more accessible, but they are correspondingly shallower. What is a co-teacher that wants to grow as a leader to do? Plutarch may be wiser than the self-help guru of the week, but his Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans is 1,400 pages long. Given its length this book requires a tremendous investment, and this investment requires an amount leisure that many people don’t have. A contemporary book may be shallower, but at least it is accessible.

In an attempt to ‘split the baby’ I’ve put together a number of pithy insights by Plutarch along with some commentary. I hope that these insights are both immediately accessible and that they encourage some of you to read Plutarch yourselves! I am planning to do eleven total; the first begins below.  

In the “Life of Sertorius” Plutarch wrote that Sertorius “looked upon it as his duty to enlarge the Roman possessions by his conquering arms, and not to increase his own power by the diminution of the Roman territories.”

This is a primary and absolutely essential principle of leadership, but it is easy to misinterpret. It is easy to read this and come to the conclusion that a good leader uses violence or relies on brute force. But that is not the lesson. Rather, this passage shows the fundamental truth that a good leader, a good parent, a good co-teacher serves something higher, something better than himself and he uses his talents, his abilities, and his resources to advance the thing he serves.

The opposite of this is the sinful, selfish man that takes the gifts God gives him and uses them to serve himself. He uses his good looks to attract undue attention, his health supports a lifestyle of intoxication, his wealth advances his vainglory, and his intellect bolsters his pride. Like a parasite he uses the gifts God has given him to advance his own kingdom, while undermining the glory of God’s.

Every parent has a number of resources and abilities at his or her disposal. A God-fearing leader sees herself connected to something greater than herself, namely the Kingdom of God. This person, like Sertorius, cares not about her reputation or standard of living, she cares not for hardship or tribulation, rather she dedicates all that she has, all that she is, to advancing God’s Kingdom. She does this because she sees God’s kingdom as the source of her identity and the very reason for her being. Without this she will live vicariously through her child, tying her value to his success or good behavior. She will pamper him when she should challenge him and push him at other times out of pride. So long as her value is tied to her performance, she will live a life of constant anxiety. It is only in pursuing the highest of all callings, it is only in seeking the Kingdom of God first and foremost, that can we can have the security to faithfully execute our calling of being parents and teachers.