Father’s Advice

The latest Kosmos Book Club Discussion included a passage about a father giving advice to his son. An experienced father was lending his knowledge to his child. Ovid’s story of Phoebus and Phaethon inspired us to look at other passages from antiquity with father figures advising their children.

In the production of children both [parents] share alike; but each makes a different contribution to their upbringing. It is the mother who nurtures, and the father who educates.

Aristotle Economics 1344a, translated by G.C. Armstrong

Plutarch says a good father is a good role model. If not, their children will suffer.

Once I add a few more things, I will complete my proposals. Beyond all other things, it is necessary that fathers, by avoiding transgressions and doing everything that is required, offer themselves as a clear example to their children, so that when looking at their father’s life as if in a mirror they may turn away from shameful deeds and words. Whoever makes the same mistakes as those for which they punish their sons become their own accusers under their sons’ names without realizing it. Men who live life poorly in every way do not possess the right to criticize their slaves, much less their sons. In addition, they could become their sons’ advisors and teachers of crime. For whenever old men behave shamefully, it is by necessity that their young are the most shameless.

Plutarch, On the Education of Children 20, Sententiae Antiquae

Fathers can only try as much as possible in giving advice. When Apollo warns his son Phaethon, he is clear in his instructions but the young son fails to follow them. We read the story in Ovid.

The first part of the track is steep, and one that my fresh horses at dawn can hardly climb. In mid-heaven it is highest, where to look down on earth and sea often alarms even me, and makes my heart tremble with awesome fear. The last part of the track is downwards and needs sure control. Then even Tethys herself, who receives me in her submissive waves, is accustomed to fear that I might dive headlong. Moreover the rushing sky is constantly turning, and drags along the remote stars, and whirls them in rapid orbits.  I move the opposite way, and its momentum does not overcome me as it does all other things, and I ride contrary to its swift rotation. Suppose you are given the chariot. What will you do? Will you be able to counter the turning poles so that the swiftness of the skies does not carry you away? Perhaps you conceive in imagination that there are groves there and cities of the gods and temples with rich gifts. The way runs through ambush, and apparitions of wild beasts! Even if you keep your course, and do not steer awry, you must still avoid the horns of Taurus the Bull, Sagittarius the Haemonian Archer, raging Leo and the Lion’s jaw, Scorpio’s cruel pincers sweeping out to encircle you from one side, and Cancer’s crab-claws reaching out from the other. You will not easily rule those proud horses, breathing out through mouth and nostrils the fires burning in their chests. They scarcely tolerate my control when their fierce spirits are hot, and their necks resist the reins. Beware my boy, that I am not the source of a gift fatal to you, while something can still be done to set right your request!

Ovid Metamorphoses, Book II: 63-89, translated by A.S. Kline

Phaethon falling from the sky because he didn't listen to his father's advice
Phaéthon, Gustave Moreau, Louvre Museum

This story draws parallels with another young son failing to follow his father’s advice: Daedalus and his son Icarus.

He instructed the boy as well, saying ‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. And I order you not to aim towards Bootes, the Herdsman, or Helice, the Great Bear, or towards the drawn sword of Orion: take the course I show you!’ At the same time as he laid down the rules of flight, he fitted the newly created wings on the boy’s shoulders. While he worked and issued his warnings the ageing man’s cheeks were wet with tears: the father’s hands trembled.

He gave a never to be repeated kiss to his son, and lifting upwards on his wings, flew ahead, anxious for his companion, like a bird, leading her fledglings out of a nest above, into the empty air. He urged the boy to follow, and showed him the dangerous art of flying, moving his own wings, and then looking back at his son. Some angler catching fish with a quivering rod, or a shepherd leaning on his crook, or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough, saw them, perhaps, and stood there amazed, believing them to be gods able to travel the sky.

And now Samos, sacred to Juno, lay ahead to the left (Delos and Paros were behind them), Lebinthos, and Calymne, rich in honey, to the right, when the boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher. His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him. The unhappy father, now no longer a father, shouted ‘Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?’ ‘Icarus’ he called again. Then he caught sight of the feathers on the waves, and cursed his inventions. He laid the body to rest, in a tomb, and the island was named Icaria after his buried child.

Ovid Metamorphoses, Part of Book 8.183–235, translated by A.S. Kline

Icarus' wings melts from the sun and he falls and dies. His father Daedalus watches his son fall with despair.
The Fall of Icarus, Prado Museum

Pandaros, son of Lykaon, speaking to Aeanas, reflects that he didn’t listen to his father’s good advice.

I was sure I should send him hurrying to the world below, but it seems that I have not killed him. There must be a god who is angry with me. Moreover I have neither horse nor chariot. In my father’s stables there are eleven excellent chariots, fresh from the builder, quite new, with cloths [195] spread over them; and by each of them there stand a pair of horses, champing barley and rye; my old father Lykaon urged me again and again when I was at home and on the point of starting, to take chariots and horses with me [200] that I might lead the Trojans in battle, but I would not listen to him; it would have been much better if I had done so, but I was thinking about the horses, which had been used to eat their fill, and I was afraid that in such a great gathering of men they might be ill-fed, so I left them at home and came on foot to Ilion [205] armed only with my bow and arrows.”

Iliad 5.190–205, Sourcebook

Nestor advises Antilokhos on how to win the chariot race. What Nestor is saying can also be received as a life lesson.

[313] Come, my philos, put in your thūmos every sort of skill [mētis], [314] so that prizes may not elude you. [315] It is with mētis rather than force [biē] that a woodcutter is better. [316] It is with mētis that a helmsman [kubernētēs] over the wine-dark sea [pontos] [317] steers his swift ship buffeted by winds. [318] It is with mētis that charioteer is better than charioteer… [326] I [= Nestor] will tell you [= Antilokhos] a sign [sēma], a very clear one, which will not get lost in your thinking. [327] Standing over there is a stump of deadwood, a good reach above ground level. [328] It had been either an oak or a pine. And it hasn’t rotted away from the rains. [329] There are two white rocks propped against either side of it. [330] There it is, standing at a point where two roadways meet, and ithas a smooth track on both sides of it for driving a chariot. [331] It is either the tomb [sēma] of some mortal who died a long time ago [332] or was a turning point [nussa] in the times of earlier men. [333] Now swift-footed radiant Achilles has set it up as a turning point [terma plural]. [334] Get as close to it as you can when you drive your chariot horses toward it, [335] and keep leaning toward one side as you stand on the platform of your well-built chariot, [336] leaning to the left as you drive your horses. Your right-side horse [337] you must goad, calling out to it, and give that horse some slack as you hold its reins, [338] while you make your left-side horse get as close as possible [to the turning point], [339] so that the hub will seem to be almost grazing the post [340]—the hub of your well-made chariot wheel. But be careful not to touch the stone [of the turning point], [341] or else you will get your horses hurt badly and break your chariot in pieces. [342] That would make other people happy, but for you it would be a shame, [343] yes it would. So, near and dear [philos] as you are to me, you must be sound in your thinking and be careful, for if you can be first to round the post [345] there is no chance of anyone giving you the go-by later, not even though he had Arion, the horse of Adrastos, a horse which is of divine race, or the horses of Laomedon, which are the noblest in this land.”

23.313–318, 326–348, Sourcebook

 Attic red-figure calyx-krater, Nestor with white beard and hair with his sons at a sacrifice
Nestor and his sons

When there is no father around to give advice, the child feels that loss.

[215] “My mother,” answered the spirited Telemachus, “tells me I am son to Odysseus, but it is a wise child that knows his own father. Would that I were son to one who had grown old upon his own estates, for, since you ask me, there is no more ill-starred man under the sky than he [220] who they tell me is my father.”

1.215–220 Sourcebook

When such a figure appears, it is much appreciated, such as when Athena as Mentes guides Telemachus in a fatherly way.

[295] you may kill these suitors in your own house. You are too old to plead infancy any longer; have you not heard how people are singing Orestes’ praises [kleos] for having killed [300] his father’s murderer treacherous Aegisthus? You are a fine, smart looking young man; show your mettle, then, and make yourself a name in story. Now, however, I must go back to my ship and to my crew, who will be impatient if I keep them waiting longer; [305] think the matter over for yourself, and remember what I have said to you.”

“Sir,” answered the spirited Telemachus, “it has been very kind of you to talk to me in this way, as though I were your own son.”

Odyssey 1.269–270, 294–308, Sourcebook

Line drawing of Athena as Mentor, a bearded man, leading Telemachus, a young man
Mentor and Telemachus

At Olympus, Zeus the father of all gods needs to help Aphrodite. In this passage, Aphrodite has been physically hurt and has sought comfort from her mother Dione. Athena, another of Zeus’ daughters (who has engineered the whole situation), is making fun of Aphrodite. Whether or not he is convinced by Athena’s explanation, Zeus seems to be comforting and giving advice at the same time, but he sends Aphrodite back to her usual function.

… she [=Dione] wiped the ikhōr from the wrist of her daughter with both hands, whereon the pain left her, and her hand was healed. But Athena and Hera, who were looking on, began to taunt Zeus son of Kronos with their mocking talk, [420] and Athena was first to speak. “Father Zeus,” said she, “do not be angry with me, but I think the Cyprian must have been persuading some one of the Achaean women to go with the Trojans of whom she is so very fond, and while caressing one or other of them [425] she must have torn her delicate hand with the gold pin of the woman’s brooch.”

The father of gods and men smiled, and called golden Aphrodite to his side. “My child,” said he, “it has not been given you to be a warrior. Attend, henceforth, to your own duties exciting desire in marriage, [430] and leave all this fighting to sudden Arēs and to Athena.”

Iliad 5.416–430, adapted from Sourcebook

This time it is Artemis who goes to be comforted by her father Zeus, after being wounded by Hera. Zeus reassures her pleasantly.

She [=Hera] caught both Artemis’ wrists with her left hand as she spoke, [490] and with her right she took the bow from her shoulders, and laughed as she beat her with it about the ears while Artemis wriggled and writhed under her blows. Her swift arrows were shed upon the ground, and she fled weeping from under Hera’s hand as a dove that flies before a falcon [495] to the cleft of some hollow rock, when it is her good fortune to escape. Even so did she flee weeping away, leaving her bow and arrows behind her. Then the slayer of Argos, guide and guardian, said to Leto, “Leto, I shall not fight you; it is ill to come to blows with any of Zeus’ wives. [500] Therefore boast as you will among the immortals that you worsted me in fair fight.” Leto then gathered up Artemis’ bow and arrows that had fallen about amid the whirling dust, and when she had got them she made all haste after her daughter. [505] Artemis had now reached Zeus’ bronze-floored mansion on Olympus, and sat herself down with many tears on the knees of her father, while her ambrosial raiment was quivering all about her. The son of Kronos drew her towards him, and laughing pleasantly the while began to question her saying, “Which of the heavenly beings, my dear child, [510] has been treating you in this cruel manner, as though you had been misconducting yourself in the face of everybody?” and the fair-crowned goddess of the chase answered, “It was your wife Hera of the white arms, father, who has been beating me; it is always her doing when there is any quarreling among the immortals.”

Iliad 21.489–513, Sourcebook

Apart from these goddesses, the examples we encountered are mainly fathers advising their sons. The scarcity of passages of fathers advising their daughters is significant and deserves its own investigation.

Fathers are giving cautionary advice, lending their knowledge and experience for their children to survive and continue. On the Forums, please do share more passages, and your own advice to your children. Happy Father’s Day to all the father figures who are with us and departed!

Related posts

Fathers and Sons


Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 18, translated by G.C. Armstrong. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1935.
Online at Perseus

Plutarch Advice on Being a Good Father, via Sententiae Antiquae, June 19, 2016

Ovid, Metamorphoses translated by A.S. Kline—online, at the University of Virginia

Sourcebook: Homeric Iliad Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power. 
Online in the Kosmos Society Text Library

Sourcebook: Homeric Odyssey Translated by Samuel Butler. Revised by Soo-Young Kim, Kelly McCray, Gregory Nagy, and Timothy Power.
 Online in the Kosmos Society Text Library

Texts accessed June 2023

Image credits

Phaéthon, Gustave Moreau, Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Fall of Icarus, Jacob Peter Gowy, Prado Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nestor and his sons, National Archaeological Museum, Spain, Marie-Lan Nguyen (photo), CC2.5 Generic via Wikimedia Commons

Mentor and Telemachus, after John Flaxman, Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)
via Tate

Images accessed June 2023
Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible on those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons, at the time of publication on this website.

Janet M. Ozsolak and Hélène Emeriaud are members of Kosmos Society