The Roman writer Aelian makes an interesting comment in his Varia Historia (II.39) about the education of Cretan youths in ancient times. He says that the children of citizens (presumably both boys and girls) would learn the laws of their island with musical accompaniment as an aid to memorization.
We can assume that the laws were rendered into verse form to assist in this task; and one of the benefits of this practice was that “if they committed some forbidden act, they would not be able to plead ignorance.” But this method of learning was not limited to the law, Aelian tells us. This method of musical versification was also used to teach Cretan children the hymns to the gods, as well as the “encomia of brave men.” So here we have three independent subjects being taught in verse form, with the aid of music as a memorization tool: (1) law, (2) religion, and (3) character lessons from the deeds of great men. What a marvelous method, and what proud citizens this educational method must have produced!
There is much that we could learn from this technique today, for it bonds pupils to a venerable tradition, teaches them to be proud of their nation, and assists in the formation of good character. The Cretans recognized that, to inculcate the ethic of self-reliance, they first had to make pupils feel connected to a historical tradition. No man will shoulder burdens to protect his nation if he feels alienated from it. If he knows his nation’s laws, if he is familiar with the great deeds of his nation’s distinguished men, and if he respects the social utility of religious belief, he will be more willing to take the initiative in improving his community. He will feel he has a stake in his nation’s fate, and that his own fortunes rise or fall with those of his people.
Let us linger for a moment on this subject of self-reliance. I remember a fable recounted in Aulus Gellius’s Attic Nights (II.29) on this very subject. Aulus says that the original source of the fable is Aesop, but I do not recall encountering it in other collections of that famous Phrygian’s tales. But perhaps my memory fails me, as it sometimes does; in any case, we will relate it here, for the amusement and reflection of the reader.
The bird we know as the lark lives within fields where grains are raised and harvested. The birds try to time the rearing of their hatchlings such that their chicks are ready to leave their nests just as the fields are ready to be harvested. This life-cycle ensures that the nests, and the hatchlings, are not destroyed by the workers reaping the fields. One mother lark built her nest in a field that had been sown earlier in the year. Her chicks hatched just as the grain was becoming ready for harvesting. When the lark would leave her nest in search of food, she told her chicks to let her know if they saw anything unusual when she was away.
While the mother lark was away, the chicks overheard the field’s owner speaking to his son. He told him, “This field is ready for harvest. Look at the good color and shape of these kernels. Talk to our friends and ask them to help us reap the grain tomorrow.” The chicks were very alarmed to hear this, and when their mother returned to the nest, they conveyed this information to her. They tried to pressure their mother to move them to a safer location without delay. Upon hearing what her chicks told her, the lark said, “Do not worry about this. If the farmer is trying to enlist others to help him reap, nothing will happen by tomorrow. We do not need to move today.”
The next day, the mother lark again left the nest in search of food. As the day wore on, the field was not reaped; nothing at all happened. But the farmer did walk around in his fields, and again spoke to his son. He told him, “It seems our friends are unwilling to help us. Why don’t you instead go and speak to our relatives about helping us reap this field. Tell them to be here early tomorrow morning.” And with this, the boy ran off to try to enlist some relatives. Of course the young chicks heard this conversation, and conveyed it to their mother when she returned to the nest later that day. The lark said to her chicks, “There is no urgent need for us to move. Almost no relative or kinsman is going to be ready to help another relative on one day’s notice. That is just not how most people operate.” She still counseled her chicks, however, to be alert and to listen to what was being said around them.
On the next day, of course, no relatives appeared to help. The mother lark left the nest in search of food. The farmer again walked through his fields with his son, and told him. “I’m tired of these so-called friends and relatives. No one cares and no one is doing anything to help us. Tomorrow, I want you to bring scythes and the other harvesting tools. We will just have to do this ourselves.” Now when the mother lark returned to the nest later that day, her offspring dutifully reported this conversation to her. She said to them, “All right. Now it is time for us to leave. This time, the farmer and his son really will harvest this field. And do you want to know why? For now the harvest depends on the man who actually has a stake in the outcome. It does not depend, as before, on the whims of friends or relatives.” And with this, the lark moved her nest and her hatchlings, and the field was harvested early the following morning.
We can readily understand what Aesop was trying to tell us. Reliance on friends or family is usually misplaced: if you are dealing with something that has direct importance to you, the only one who will truly care about it is you. In this regard I very much like an Arabic proverb from Egypt that conveys the same idea:
عند المضيق لا اخ و لا صديق
And this means, “At the narrows, there is no brother and no friend.” That is, when a man’s ship enters the constricted waters of a narrows, he will only be able to rely on himself, and not on the promises of others. The best reliance of all is self-reliance.
But there is an interesting permutation of this moral that often goes unnoticed. Sometimes, even if one’s friend or family does want to help, or does try to help, it may still make no difference. In fact, sometimes “help” from friends and relatives turns out to be an offer in futility, or is provided in such a grudging spirit that it looks more like an attempt at demoralization than true help. We have a perfect example of this in another short anecdote found in Aelian’s Varia Historia (II.27), that concerns no less a personage than the great Plato himself. Plato, like all of us, was neither a demigod nor perfect; he made mistakes too, and we should always keep this in mind. The story is as follows.
There was a young man named Anniceris of Cyrene who trained as a student at Plato’s Academy. He took great pride in his horsemanship. His special skill was in the handling of chariots, which were known to be a very difficult machine to master. One day, Anniceris wanted to demonstrate his skills to his teacher Plato, whom he loved and respected as a great man. He drove his chariot several times around the grounds of the Academy with great skill; indeed, he was so skilled a driver that he could make the chariot’s wheels follow exactly the same tracks etched in the dirt from earlier circuits. Everyone was amazed at this but Plato. The master found the display to be a rather meaningless exercise. He told Anniceris, “Someone who wastes his time perfecting petty things can never devote himself to worthwhile things. When one’s mind is filled with distracting nonsense, he will inevitably neglect what is truly worthy of glory and admiration.”
Of course, we can see the point that the crusty son of Ariston was trying to make with his acid comment. I believe he meant well, but Plato should have known that a remark like this to an impressionable young man can wound deeply. Young men are justifiably proud of their physical achievements, and desire recognition and approval of them; the wise instructor will give them this respect, and save his comments for another day. We can say that Plato lacked some practical wisdom here himself. For who can say what skills will, and will not, be useful in life? Who can say with finality who will prove to be a good man, and who will not? Perhaps Plato should have held his tongue, and considered that Anniceris’s chariot-handling skills took years of discipline and study to master; and perhaps he should have appreciated that such a level of commitment spoke volumes about Anniceris’s character.
There is one final twist to this story that, I think, proves just how mistaken Plato was in his judgment. It is something that would have even made the gods smile in its exquisite irony. It reminds us that even the wisest of the wise cannot know all things, or predict all twists of fate. For according to the biographer Diogenes Laertius (III.20), when Plato was later sold into slavery, it was Anniceris of Cyrene, the man whose talents Plato had scorned, who freed Plato from slavery by paying his ransom.
Read more lessons in character and morals in the new translation of Cicero’s On Moral Ends: