Not infrequently, writers of emails append a quotation to their electronic epistles. On the whole I give them a passing glance and move on to more pressing matters.

This morning, though, I received a mail that concluded with this:

"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited." - Plutarch

At the moment I happen to be reading some of Plutarch’s works as part of my resourcing the article I am preparing on the denotation of servile instruction-following of ‘pedagogy’ (a term that Plutarch applies to the pruning of trees!), so it was his name that first caught my eye.

While the sentiment of the given “quote” certainly fits Plutarch’s view of scholarship and has the ring of his use of metaphor, I was not convinced that the wording here is really a representation of what he would actually have said. In any case, whenever I'm faced with a citation I always go to the source for confirmation that it really exists as attributed.

The first problem was major - and inexcusable : the attribution.

It’s all very well attributing this apothegm to Plutarch, but this Greek-writing citizen of Imperial Rome composed well over seventy works of which we still have the texts. I searched in those interminable “quotation” banks that internet spawns, rather naively expecting them to to give the actual sources of the “quotes” that they are peddling. They don't.

This is bad practice and totally reprehensible. Furthermore, as you will confirm from your etymological sources, the orthographic denotation of <quotation> is, “give a reference by page or chapter”. So, no reference to page and chapter, no quote.

Anyway, I'm an implacable bloodhound as far as this sort of thing is concerned, and I finally tracked it down. It's taken from a passage near the end of 'De recta ratione audiendi' (On Listening to Lectures).

The first point that was clear from the Greek is that the "quote" as given is not, as I had suspected, actually what Plutarch wrote; it's a paraphrase.

The second point is the context - another matter in which I am bloody-minded in my verification of citations. Often, when I’m verifying citations, the context rather negates what the quoter was wanting the quotation to mean. It is the opposite in this case; it actually gives the citation a much increased force.

Here's the Greek source of the paraphrase.


οὐ γὰρ ὡς ἀγγεῖον ὁ νοῦς ἀποπληρώσεως ἀλλ᾽ ὑπεκκαύματος μόνον ὥσπερ ὕλη δεῖται, ὁρμὴν ἐμποιοῦντος εὑρετικὴν καὶ ὄρεξιν ἐπὶ τὴν ἀλήθειαν. 


Now here's a translation of what the Greek actually has (the source of the quoted paraphrase is highlighted) and you'll see, as I discovered to my delight, that the message is actually very powerful indeed.


But as for those lazy persons whom we have mentioned, let us urge them that, when their intelligence has comprehended the main points, they put the rest together by their own efforts, and use their memory as a guide in thinking for themselves, and, taking the discourse of another as a germ and seed, develop and expand it.

For the mind does not need filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only needs kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.

Imagine, then, that a man needs to get fire from a neighbour, and, on finding a big bright fire there, stays there continually warming himself. It just as if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, enjoying the discourse, sits enchanted. He gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but he has not dissipated nor banished the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind by the warm glow of philosophy [a term that in Greek denoted rigorously disciplined cognitive activity - not the flabby promotion of earnest opinion that it so often represents in the edubabble literature].


"Mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind" - wonderful. I would have been proud to have coined that myself.

The rather watered-down paraphrase that the "quote" sites on internet give does rather contrast with the force of what Plutarch really said.

Add to that the context and this statement about scholarship has not been bettered in the near two thousand years since it was written. It should be compulsory reading for educators everywhere.


Deborah from Qatar has made my day with her mail!