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From ‘Mentor’ to ‘mentor’, when myth becomes reality

Aristotle and his pupil, Alexander, Laplante, Charles, d. 1903

“Mentor’ is a word with a strong emotional impact, capable of evoking indelible memories and deep feelings. When we hear it, we immediately think of the face of a friend, a colleague, a boss, a neighbour, or a grandparent who, in our past, helped us to become what we are today.

Yet not everyone knows that the word ‘mentor’ originated at the dawn of Western culture as ‘Mentor’, with a capital ‘M’. Mentor is one of the characters in Homer’s Odyssey, admittedly much less well known than the Cyclops Polyphemus or the sorceress Circe, but no less important in the plot of the poem.

We are in Greece three thousand years ago; Ithaca is a small island on which Ulysses reigns. Like dozens of other Achaean rulers who have sworn allegiance to Menelaus, Ulysses is preparing to leave for the Trojan War, which will keep him away from his homeland for twenty years.

Who will help his wife Penelope grow their young son Telemachus into a man ready to face life's many trials? Who will teach the boy the art of war and the tricks of politics that a king must know well in a world full of enemies?

Telemachus and Mentor by Pablo E. Fabisch from Les Adventures de Telemaque

Ulysses chooses his friend Mentor, a mature, wise and loyal man, the son of Alcimus, who has repeatedly fought with the king. Up to this point, it’s just a story like many others: an affectionate father asking a friend for help. But once Ulysses has left, something exceptional happens. Athena herself, the goddess of wisdom and the art of war, descends to protect the wily hero in all his adventures. Whenever Telemachus is in real trouble, the goddess speaks directly to him, appearing to him in the form of Mentor: human and divine coming together to make a person grow and develop as he faces life, a task so arduous that it truly requires the superpowers of a god.

Over the centuries, the myth of Mentor would inspire philosophers and scholars in their search for the secret of knowledge. However, we have to wait thousands of years before this character’s name finally enters everyday language, losing the capital ‘M’.

This crucial step takes place in England, a country that thanks to the industrial revolution, is on the path to becoming the first great world power in modern history. Shortly after 1750, the Oxford English Dictionary includes the term ‘mentor’ in the English language, defining it as a “wise and trusted advisor who helps a person with little experience”. The dictionary informs readers that the word had been commonly used since Philip Stanhope IV Earl of Chesterfield had used it in his letters to his son “on the fine art of becoming a man of the world and a gentleman”.

Portrait of Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773), by Allan Ramsay

In one of these, the Count wrote to his son: “Let me be your mentor, and with your means and knowledge, I promise you, you will go far. You will have to put in, on your part, energy and attention; and I will show you the right goals towards which to direct them”. On another page, a father worried about the inexorable passing of time advised the young man to take advantage of his advice without any qualms: “Here are the decisions you must make and execute on your own, once you have lost the friendly care and support of your mentor. Before that happens, use him avidly; absorb, if you can, all his knowledge; and take the prophet’s cloak from him, before he leaves”.

Once cleared out, the word quickly gave rise to the term indicating what the mentor does, ‘mentoring’, and the person for whom he does it, ‘mentee’. The French were not long in finding its equivalent in their own language, taking care, as is their custom, not to import foreign neologisms without translating them: ‘mentoring’ became ‘mentorat’ and ‘mentee’ ‘mentoré’. The substance, however, does not change: curiosity and interest in a new discipline based on sharing knowledge and experience for the development of the individual is born and spread.

Since the post-World War II period, mentoring has found an increasing number of practical applications in every sector, from the corporate world to schools and vocational training, from sporting activities to voluntary work in the non-profit sector. America is leading the way in many fields, and Europe follows somewhat more slowly but with more emphasis on the formative rather than the emulative aspects. The examples of great mentors and excellent mentees multiply and forcefully enter the collective consciousness.

It is, for instance, well known that the great French fashion designer Christian Dior, founder of the fashion house of the same name, mentored Yves St. Laurent, who joined the fashion house in 1954 and became its artistic director. Laurent recalls: “Dior fascinated me. I couldn’t speak when I was in front of him. He gave me the basis of my art. Whatever happens to me, I will never forget the years I spent by his side”. Perhaps less well known is that Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, was a mentor to the young Mark Zuckerberg as he started Facebook. When Jobs died in late 2011, Zuckerberg published a touching post on his personal page: “Steve, thank you for being a mentor and a friend. Thank you for showing me that what we build can change the world. I will miss you.”

Different experiences, but united by something absolutely special: the relationship that is established between one who passes on a little of what he or she has had the good fortune to learn and experience in life to someone else who, in making this little treasure his or her own, makes it even more precious for those who have entrusted it to him or her. And perhaps one day, thinking back to those who have helped us, at least a little, to become what we are today, we too will hear words like those which, it is said, Alexander the Great said thinking of Aristotle, in whom he recognised a great mentor rather than a mere tutor: “To my father, I owe my life, to my teacher a life worth living”.

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Fabio Salvadori

Fabio Salvadori


Seeker. Author. Mentor. Coach. Facilitator. | I write to remind us that we are all born innovators. |