Euripides’ views on Education – Virtue is teachable

In this post we present and discuss an excerpt from Euripides‘ “Suppliants” (or “Suppliant Women“).


v. 911-917

Ancient Greek: “τὸ γὰρ τραφῆναι μὴ κακῶς αἰδῶ φέρει: αἰσχύνεται δὲ τἀγάθ᾽ ἀσκήσας ἀνὴρ κακὸς γενέσθαι πᾶς τις. ἡ δ᾽ εὐανδρία διδακτός, εἴπερ καὶ βρέφος διδάσκεται λέγειν ἀκούειν θ᾽ ὧν μάθησιν οὐκ ἔχει. ἃ δ᾽ ἂν μάθῃ τις, ταῦτα σῴζεσθαι φιλεῖ πρὸς γῆρας. οὕτω παῖδας εὖ παιδεύετε.“

English: “for noble nurture carries honour with it, and every man, when once he hath practised virtue, scorns the name of villain. Courage may be learnt, for even a babe doth learn to speak and hear things it cannot comprehend; and whatso’er a child hath learnt, this it is his wont to treasure up till he is old. So train up your children in a virtuous way. “

(Source for the Ancient Greek text)

(Source for the English text)

NovoScriptorium: First, it is necessary to correct the translation quite a bit. 

“τὸ γὰρ τραφῆναι μὴ κακῶς αἰδῶ φέρει” = “for when one is nurtured without malice/evilness, he carries pudency

“αἰσχύνεται δὲ τἀγάθ᾽ ἀσκήσας ἀνὴρ κακὸς γενέσθαι πᾶς τις” = “every one who has exercised goodness, feels ashamed to become evil” 

“ἡ δ᾽ εὐανδρία διδακτός, εἴπερ καὶ βρέφος διδάσκεται λέγειν ἀκούειν θ᾽ ὧν μάθησιν οὐκ ἔχει” = “prowess/bravery is teachable, like the baby is being taught to say things that it hears, of which it has no knowledge of”

“ἃ δ᾽ ἂν μάθῃ τις, ταῦτα σῴζεσθαι φιλεῖ πρὸς γῆρας. οὕτω παῖδας εὖ παιδεύετε” = “whatever a person learns (since being a baby), he loves to maintain them until his old age. For this reason, educate the children towards Good

Even though “words speak for themselves” here, let’s add a few extra thoughts.

The quality of the received education (Paedeia) was considered by the Philosophers as the most important thing in a Man’s life, as it has the potential to affect not only the individual or his relatives and friends, but, the Polity (or even Humanity) as a whole.

Moreover, it can affect not only one’s life but also one’s death (and this is because the Philosophers firmly believed in the “court of Hades” and the after-life divine crisis/judgement).

Therefore, an educational system oriented towards Good-only must be the ultimate goal (the maximum, we could say).
Since we are talking about Human and not Angelic societies though, a more realistic goal would be to make every possible effort to avoid teaching Evilness (the minimum, we could say).

The terms “καλῶς or εὖ” and “μὴ κακῶς” denote exactly this. Not at all coincidentally, but rather fully consciously, the proposition brought forth is to nurture the youngest “μὴ κακῶς”. Then comes the addition of “exercising goodness”. Avoid Evil first, then try to teach Good as much as you can (“if you can’t do good, at least try to avoid doing evil”).

What would be the benefits of a Man nurtured like this? Well, Pudency would be his guide for life. And this can only be a good thing; if every individual felt ashamed to become evil or do evil, then the society that produces such individuals could only grow in Virtue and its wonderful products.

The Philosophers back then had realized  a paedagogical truth which, in our epoch, has been scientifically confirmed; the first years in a Man’s life are the most crucial for the developing of his personality. And any good or bad that happened in the beginnings of one’s life is carried along until their old age. Of course, if it is Virtue that is carried, that can only be a good thing, and that is exactly what Euripides here suggests. He also emphasizes that difficult notions/behaviours/life stances, as “bravery/prowess” is, are teachable.

Euripides (and the Philosophers) suggested an educational system that would not be afraid to teach children “difficult” things. On the contrary, it was largely believed that in order for them to achieve great deeds as adults, they should be trained in many “difficulties” from their earliest days.

Pudency, Prowess/Bravery, Exercise (Ascesis) and, of course, Piety were considered by the Philosophers to be the basic constituents of Virtue. Certainly, there is nothing more difficult to teach than Virtue. Clearly though, Euripides (like the Philosophers) suggested that Virtue is teachable and, moreover, that we should not be afraid to teach it to our children. On the contrary: it is our greatest obligation towards them, our family, our polity, our nation, towards Humanity itself.

Concluding our short analysis, we cannot resist the temptation to suggest our reader to make a comparison of the ancient educational suggestions vs. our contemporary educational systems.

The least we can say is that children are not at all protected from Evilness (quite the contrary is observed), they are trained in spiritual laziness rather than hardship, while we must note with bold letters the almost complete absence of “higher values” teachings. All these cannot ever have a good outcome neither for the individuals, neither for the polities, neither for Humanity.

Research-Analysis for NovoScriptorium: Isidoros Aggelos

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