Tutelage in Greek Culture

Written by Dr. Jason Rheins on June 24, 2021

The emergence of education in Ancient Greece occurred against the backdrop of tutelage in an oral culture. That is, general characterological and specialized vocational education were all done via one-on-one instruction delivered by an expert.

These passages and analyses indicate some key pedagogical, epistemic, and culture features of this tutelage.

Iliad 9.438-45

"It was to thee that the old horseman Peleus sent me on the day when he sent thee to Agamemnon, forth from Phthia, a mere child, knowing naught as yet of evil war, neither of gatherings wherein men wax preeminent. For this cause sent he me to instruct thee in all these things, to be both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds. Wherefore, dear child, I am not minded hereafter to be left alone without thee."

In the poems of Homer, the model of education is tutelage. On this model, a younger man or boy is taken under the wing of an older man and given instruction, in some special art such as medicine or more general guidance. Here, Phoenix son of Amyntor, Achilles’ chief tutor reminds Achilles of how he was assigned by his father Priam to instruct him in battle and in counsel, the two chief areas wherein an Homeric hero can earn renown and prove his excellence or aretē.

Phoenix, who is trying to win over Achilles in the famous “Embassy” scene of the Iliad, mentions his fondness for the young warrior, which points to the affectionate relationship that Greeks expected to form between tutor and charge. Such was Homer’s influence, that ideal of the tutor overseeing the instruction and even moral development of the pupil would remain a powerful educational model for centuries to come.

The relationship became more complicated, and often more controversial, at least among some of the Greeks, when it took on pederastic qualities. In some parts of Greece this was extremely common. In others, it was rare and more frowned upon. In all cases, however, whether tutor and pupil or “lover” and “beloved”, the older man was expected to provide a strong moral example to the young man or boy.

Iliad 11.828-32

This plea for healing is extended to Patrocles, Achilles’ companion. Patrocles has learned the healing arts from Achilles who learned them in turn from Chiron, the famous tutor of heroes and “most civilized of centaurs”.

Medicine—including the ability to treat battle wounds, set bones, and use healing herbs—is one of the expertises recognized in the Homeric poems. Like other expertises, it is expected to be learned through tutelage, I.e. one on one instruction from someone already an expert in the art.

In addition to illustrating this notion of tutelage, this quote also suggests another key Greek assumption about expertise and skill acquisition: experts are expected to be able to teach their art. In general, the Greeks assumed that an expert in X could make others become experts in X, or that knowledge could be transmitted from one person to their associates through a process of teaching.

In fact, if a person could not parlay their knowledge to someone else, the Greeks would be skeptical if they had expert knowledge at all. This differs from modern assumptions that an expert might not be a good teacher or that teachers might not be masterful experts in all the subjects that they teach.

Plutarch Life of Solon 22

This report tells us that, under adverse economic conditions, Solon instituted a law requiring that fathers teach their sons a trade or else forego the right to compel their future support. Since sons were expected to support their parents in old age, this was effectively a requirement to educate male children in a trade for families without independent fortunes.

This law points to the fact that education in a trade typically was passed from father to son, (although apprenticeship was sometimes possible), and speaks to the generally familial nature of the transmission of knowledge in conjunction with child-rearing in the time of Solon’s influence.

Dr. Jason Rheins

Dr. Jason G. Rheins is a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In 2003 he received his BA with honors in Philosophy and Classical Studies from Stanford University. In 2010 he earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught or held professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, UNC Chapel Hill, St. John’s University, and Loyola University Chicago. He has published articles and book chapters on the history of philosophy, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics. He is currently completing a monograph on Plato’s theology.