The Mind Is Not a Vessel That Needs Filling, But Wood That Needs Igniting

William Butler Yeats? Plutarch? Socrates? Plato? Apocryphal?

yeatsplutarch03Dear Quote Investigator: There is a superb quotation about education that I have encountered many times. Here is a collection of examples with attributions that I have been accumulating. None of the examples came with citations:

  • Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel —Socrates
  • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. —William Butler Yeats
  • Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. —Plutarch
  • The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting. —Plutarch

What do you think? Who should properly be given credit, and what was the original statement? It is embarrassing to find that even educators who should be sensitized to the problems of improper or non-existent citations are sometimes careless. But my criticism is muted because determining a proper ascription can be difficult, as your website illustrates.

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Socrates or William Butler Yeats produced one of these sayings. These two attributions apparently are incorrect.

This family of statements probably originated with a passage in the essay “On Listening” in Moralia by the Greek-born philosopher Plutarch who lived between 50 and 120 AD. 1 The following excerpt was translated by Robin Waterfield for a 1992 Penguin Classics edition. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbours for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his innate flame, his own intellect, …

Here is an alternative translation of the first sentence published in the 1927 Loeb Classical Library edition: 3

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

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Plato did employ the fire metaphor while discussing the communication of philosophical ideas from a teacher to a student. “Plato: Complete Works” edited by John M. Cooper included Letter VII from Plato to the “Friends and Followers of Dion” which contained the following passage. The spelling “straighway” appeared in the translated text: 4

For this knowledge is not something that can be put into words like other sciences; but after long-continued intercourse between teacher and pupil, in joint pursuit of the subject, suddenly, like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straighway nourishes itself.

In 1892 the classical scholar Benjamin Jowett published an edition of “The Dialogues of Plato” which he had translated. In the introduction to “The Republic” Jowett wrote the following: 5

Education is represented by him, not as the filling of a vessel, but as the turning the eye of the soul towards the light.

This statement partially overlapped the saying under investigation, and it is possible that the later misattribution to Socrates was facilitated by the existence of this sentence about Plato-Socrates by Jowett.

In 1966 a version of the saying was credited to Socrates in the Malaysian Journal of Education. This excerpt placed the word “education” outside the quotation marks. Some later versions incorporate the word “education” directly into the quote: 6

Socrates aptly described education as “the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” With this concept of education in mind, educators bear the responsibility of helping the student to lead a richer and fuller life and developing his mental and spiritual qualities to the utmost.

In 1968 a version of the saying was ascribed to Plutarch in the book “Vision and Image: A Way of Seeing” by James Johnson Sweeney. This instance placed “education” into the quote, and it used the word “pail” instead of “vessel”. Interestingly, the Plutarch quotation was immediately adjacent to a quote credited to W. B. Yeats. One important mechanism for generating misattributions is based on the misreading of neighboring quotations. A reader sometimes inadvertently transfers the ascription of one quote to a contiguous quote: 7

William Butler Yeats has expressed the heart of this viewpoint in his statement, “Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them” and Plutarch in “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

In 1987 the “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations” included an aphorism that exactly matched the instance above, but the words were credited to Yeats instead of Plutarch. This reassignment fits the pattern of misattribution just described: 8

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeats

The statement attributed to Yeats is popular. Here is an example printed in a North Carolina newspaper in 1997: 9

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
Irish poet and dramatist, quoted outside uptown library as part of yearlong celebration of reading.

In conclusion, Plutarch is properly credited with the quotation given near the beginning of this article (in two translations). The saying ascribed to William Butler Yeats is stylish, but evidence suggests that the linkage was a mistake. The attribution to Socrates also is unsupported.

(Thanks to Stephen Fahey and Andrew Old whose tweet of inquiry on this topic gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Scott Senn of Longwood University who told QI about Plato’s Letter VII listed above. Also, thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote.)

Update History: On February 14, 2017 the citation to Plato’s Letter VII was added.

Notes:

  1. 2008, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn, (2nd revised edition), Entry: Plutarch, Oxford University Press, (Accessed Online Oxford Reference on March 28, 2013)
  2. 1992, Essays by Plutarch, Translation by Robin Waterfield, On Listening, Quote Page 50, Penguin Classics, London and New York. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1927, Moralia by Plutarch, Volume 1 of the Loeb Classical Library edition, “De auditu” by Plutarch, (“On Listening to Lectures”), Webpage maintained by Bill Thayer. (QI has not verified this text on paper) (Accessed penelope.uchicago.edu on March 28, 2013) link
  4. 1997 Copyright, Plato: Complete Works, Edited by John M. Cooper, Section: Letters, Translated by Glenn R. Morrow, Letter VII: Plato to the Friends and Followers of Dion: Welfare, Start Page 1646, Quote Page 1659, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified on paper or with scans)
  5. 1892, The Dialogues of Plato: Translated into English, with Analyses and Introductions by Benjamin Jowett, Volume 3, Third Edition, Section: Introduction, Quote Page cci, Oxford University Press, London. (The First edition was printed in 1871; Second edition 1875) (Thanks to the Wikiquote editors of the Socrates entry for pointing out this citation) (HathiTrust) link link
  6. 1966 June, Malaysian Journal of Education, Volume 3, Number 1, The Role of Music in Education by Tan Soon Tze, Start Page 83, Quote Page 84, Published by Educational Journal Press, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Verified with scans; special thanks to a librarian at the University of Chicago library system)
  7. 1968, Vision and Image: A Way of Seeing by James Johnson Sweeney, Series: Credo Perspectives, Quote Page 119, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Thanks to the Wikiquote editors of the Socrates entry for pointing out this citation) (Verified on paper)
  8. 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Quote Page 112, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1997 July 10, Charlotte Observer, Section: Editorial, Quotable, Page 14A, Charlotte, North Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News)