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Principles from Plutarch (11) – Education and Worldly Success

Last week I wrote about the importance of habituating our children to diligence in little things in order to set them up to succeed in greater things. Today I am going to end my “Principles from Plutarch” series of messages by writing about seeing education as providing things more valuable than worldly success. 

According to Plutarch, “Poverty is dishonorable not in itself, but when it is a proof of laziness, intemperance, luxury, and carelessness; whereas in a person that is temperate, industrious, just, and valiant, and who uses all his virtues for the public good, it shows a great and lofty mind. For he has not time for great matters who concerns himself with petty ones; nor can he relieve many needs of others, who himself has many needs of his own.”

Though hard work, honesty, thrift, and faithfulness often lead to worldly success and wealth, they don’t always. If we see these virtues only as means to worldly success, we will abandon them when they fail to bring us worldly success.  

Consider Job. Job was wealthy and greatly blessed by God. But more importantly, he was a man of faith and righteousness. When he lost all his worldly goods—from his wealth to his health and his children to his good name, he did not curse God. He did not change course and abandon righteousness and faith. He did not do this because his goal in living a faithful and righteous life was never worldly success. Had he been living for worldly goods, he may well have ‘cursed God and died’ as his wife counselled him to do. Job is a model of how we ought to raise our kids. Lord willing they will not find themselves impoverished, but if their poverty is not the result of their vice and if they are living lives of goodness and truth, there is no shame in it.

This is important to keep in mind when thinking about the purpose and value of education. I vividly remember being in 9th grade and my school’s guidance counselor sitting down with my class. She showed two graphs: one of a person who worked at McDonald’s and one that went to university. In the short term the McDonald’s worker earned more, but over the course of a lifetime the college educated worker earned more. This is why, we were told, we should all go to a four year university. In the end, the purpose of education was not to learn what is true or to live a life of goodness and beauty, it was simply to make more money (I should note here that I went to a Christian school).

I think this was terrible and ungodly advice for a number of reasons, but I will mention only two here.

First, believing that the value of education is found in the level of income it provides assumes that the most important thing about a person is his or her income and level of worldly success. If people were just physical bodies that lived on earth and then died, this might be true. But we are immortal image bearers of God, so this is most certainly false. Our bodies are not unimportant, but our souls are of far more importance. True education recognizes this and prioritizes the development of the soul over the body.

Second, a college a degree is not a surefire road to success (especially when it is coupled with the assumption of a crippling load of debt). There are many opportunities for honest and productive work that don’t require a university degree. Some of children may be fine tradesmen or entrepreneurs and we do them no favors when we try to force them all down the same path.

I want to end this series with one of my favorite anecdotes from Plutarch. The enemies of Rome came and visited a prominent Roman leader with the goal of bribing him to betray his city. When they came to his house they found him, this powerful man, in a simple house, eating turnips he had grown in his garden on a table he had made with his own hands conserving and supping with his servants. They at once gave up all hope of bribing him: ‘A man that is content with turnips, how can he ever be bought or cajoled?’

Because this man was content with simple things he would not sin or compromise in an attempt to attain or hold on to power. As a result he could be trusted with great power and responsibility. Likewise, because he was content with simple things, he could be generous.

As Plutarch wrote in the initial quote of this message, the one that is concerned with small things has no room in his life for great things. Being concerned with popularity, reputation, worldly success, how many “likes” a post gets—these things crowd out the pursuit of the qualities that prepare an individual to do great things—faithfulness, honesty, temperance, courage, and the like. In the same way, the pursuit of physical comforts, if left unregulated, can come to consume our income and thereby make us incapable of generosity.

We cannot control how much money our children will make or what opportunities they will have. But we can do much to prepare them to make the most of their opportunities and to have a character that will be neither corrupted by success nor crushed by defeat.

I hope that you have found these messages edifying.