Plutarch Review

May 19, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's review. (This was originally published in the HMU: Dialogues May 2017 newsletter. You can find the rest of the newsletter at .)

Plutarch. The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Roman; The Dryden Translation.

Throughout the Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, Plutarch surprised me with his repeated generosity and devotion to virtue. I choose the word generosity deliberately. In his writings, Plutarch enables the reader to meet a variety of great characters, but he also expresses information and emotion regarding the virtues of their interaction with others.

Each narrative builds a world around the main individual and describes them in the fullest context available. He discusses ancestry, birth, heritage, expectations, culture, education, friendships, travel and, of course, warfare. This is all in an attempt to better understand virtue. He also includes information about the women closest to them. He endeavors with great effort to learn about and write about the entire environment of the times while simultaneously excluding his own prejudices (which he admits is partially unavoidable).

Plutarch's Lives do not move chronologically. Instead, he chooses parallel leaders of similar virtues, explaining the history of each, first Greek and then Roman. He then writes a short comparison which includes his analysis of the leader, the times and the leader’s reaction to the times. At the beginning of his section on Alexander, he writes, “My design is not to write histories, but lives.” The distinction is important. Plutarch never intends to tell a chronological story. He never intends to map a geography. His proposal, and I believe, his great success, is to recreate a story of a real man who became larger than life and had to wrestle with extraordinary circumstances in his pursuit of excellence. In each section, the man outgrows his life, many of them with heartbreaking results. For example, Cato the Younger takes his own life after many long years of arguing that Julius Caesar's path would be ruinous to Rome. In other words, Cato, who self-identified as a stoic, took his own life when he realized that he was an anomaly according to contemporary society. He saw none of his own values reflected back to him from the society which had chosen Caesar. It is unclear whether the people chose, or whether the many factors involved became too complex a web to change. Either way, Cato, feeling sadness and defeat, removes himself. From this example, the reader better understands the complexity of the pursuit of virtue.

In another example, Tiberius Gracchus and his defenders are brutally butchered by senators wielding benches and the paraphernalia from the senate room. Plutarch notes, “[O]f the rest there fell above three hundred killed by clubs and staves only, none by an iron weapon.” He also notes that this was the first seditious act experienced in Rome. Though Tiberius was a prized soldier, which is most often to be prized, it seems even more incongruous and painful for such a man to fall in an enclosed room of angry and jealous senators who disliked his austerity and friendship with the poorer class. Plutarch paints a brutal portrait of greed, jealousy and fear. In the comparison, then, it is not surprising to find that Plutarch prizes Tiberius' lack of aggression. In a life led by reason, logic and temperance, Plutarch is understandably outraged by a lack of compassion and civility, but can in no way support fighting one's own countrymen.

In the history itself, Plutarch discusses possible motivations and often comments on abuses, but he reserves final judgement until he places that person in contrast with another person. This is remarkable for two reasons. First, Plutarch himself struggles with the cultural ties that bind his own perspective. In order to better understand the intricate strings woven into culture, he identifies these great, heroic, brave and revered men, and places them one against another. This instructive device formalizes a sort of compassion that is difficult to demonstrate, especially in historical writings. This compassion, however, is a foundational piece of Plutarch.

He genuinely felt the importance of each scene that he describes, and most definitely understood the intricate web of events and backstory. Secondly, Plutarch's reluctance to judge based upon immediate evidence leads to a broader discussion and development of virtue. At times, he finds the cultural hero to be of lower virtue than previously imagined. Myth often breeds inaccuracies. Plutarch attempts to enlighten us by removing the heroic figure from the man in discussion of the path from man to cultural hero. Therefore, his writings instruct future generations on a vast conglomeration of past actions. The importance of this cannot be underscored enough.

My main frustration with Plutarch's text is that a few of his comparisons are missing, most notably, Caesar and Alexander. I wonder what he actually said when comparing these two great leaders and warriors. Plutarch often scolds others for an over-abundance of ambition, which is undoubtedly true in the case of these great warriors. But, is it possible that Plutarch noted a greater good extending from the leadership and actions of these two who undoubtedly caused greatness to be mixed with much ruin and destruction? The reader is meant to ponder, and so, as is always the case with a great work, one is left with more questions than answers.

Plutarch values love, but does not condemn the men whose marriages are without love. Plutarch values compassion, but does not condemn the actions that seem to lack compassion. Plutarch values action, but does not immediately revere a man of action. Instead, the magic of this text is that Plutarch describes life, in all its complexity. He honestly recreates the lives of famous individuals and then offers judgement based upon all of the gathered information, including cultural restrictions. I strongly feel that this invaluable text should still be studied and discussed because it deals with the idea of virtue from the very beginnings of human history. It grants a sweeping view of history, but also reinforces the fact that we experience the same emotions, desires and needs as our ancestors. This history is not so ancient as to be irrelevant, but quite the reverse. Plutarch's exhaustive research and careful reason are still worthy of attention. I do not intend to say that one must agree with Plutarch's definition of virtue, but rather how fruitful it is to see history through someone else's eyes.

If you are interested in Plutarch, consider joining our July Quarterly Discussion which will focus on Plutarch's Lives. Email for more information.

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Picking Up On The Cues

May 12, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Communication necessarily involves empathy. To listen requires a silencing of the self. However, to understand requires tools contained within the self. This opens up a paradox: how to listen and translate at the same time. Non-verbal communication often enhances face-to-face interactions. Literature gives any number of wonderful scenes enhanced by non-verbal cues. As I think about and develop an understanding of non-verbal communication for today's post, I am going to focus on three works. First, a quote by Plutarch regarding Caius Gracchus, then a scene from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov and, finally, a scene from the 2016 film Arrival.

Plutarch spends quite a bit of time discussing communication in the Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans. He claims that a real understanding of character comes not through actions alone, but through the way a man uses words, interacts with others and his style of living. Plutarch often notes that temperance is a trait common to many of these great men, but what temperance is, remains to be seen. Plutarch indicates that abstaining from excess – in all aspects of one's life – is a necessary attribute of temperance. This is proven through the detail provided regarding style of food, sleep, and dress, among other things. But most importantly, temperance can be shown in a man's speech and public behavior. Plutarch's favorite exchanges involve senators who spoke their minds but held their tempers.

Plutarch's frustration with political corruption is apparent when he notes that senators have become afraid to vote according to their conscience. He gives exceeding praise, however, to those men who risk their support by offering thoughtful discussion of a new idea. In the following long quote, Plutarch describes the scene of the senate, brimming with corruption. Caius Gracchus, after having witnessed his brother's brutal death by senators in the senate chamber, proceeded to win a popular vote. He too decided to support the populace and not necessarily the wealthy senators. His action speaks loudly.

Plutarch writes: “While he was arguing for the ratification of this law, his behavior was observed to show in many respects unusual earnestness, and whereas other popular leaders had always hitherto, when speaking, turned their faces towards the senate house, and the place called the comitium, he, on the contrary, was the first man that in his harangue to the people turned himself the other way, towards them, and continued after that time to do so. An insignificant movement and change of posture, yet it marked no small revolution in state affairs, the conversion, in a manner, of the whole government from an aristocracy to a democracy, his action intimating that public speakers should address themselves to the people, not the senate.” In this single, dramatic action, Caius demonstrates the way in which speech succeeds better when directed at the party one wishes to address, regardless of prior custom. In other words, body language is a form of presence, a form of signification that transfers audibly.

Dostoevsky describes an extremely awkward moment in Brothers Karamazov in which the action of bowing can be seen as a form of speech. Upon Alyosha's entrance into the monastery, his family meets with Zosima, the elder. Generally, an elder warrants great respect. In this case, however, Alyosha's family is unable (or unwilling) to demonstrate appropriate respect. Whether or not they believe in a higher order (though they all verbally claim to) does not matter. What matters is Dostoevsky's description of their awkward introduction, which speaks volumes.

Dostoevsky writes: “The elder Zosima came out accompanied by a novice and Alyosha. The hieromonks rose and greeted him with a very deep bow, touching the ground with their fingers, and, having received his blessing, kissed his hand. When he had blessed them, the elder returned the same deep bow to each of them, touching the ground with his fingers, and asked a blessing of each of them for himself. The whole ceremony was performed very seriously, not at all like some everyday ritual, but almost with a certain feeling. To Miusov, however, it all seemed done with deliberate suggestion. He stood in front of all his fellow visitors. He ought – and he had even pondered it the previous evening – despite all his ideas, just out of simple courtesy (since it was customary there), to come up and receive the elder's blessing, at least receive his blessing, even if he did not kiss his hand. But now, seeing all this bowing and kissing of the hieromonks, he instantly changed his mind: gravely and with dignity he made a rather deep bow, by worldly standards, and went over to a chair. Fyodor Pavlovich did exactly the same, this time, like an ape, mimicking Miusov perfectly. Ivan Fyodorovich bowed with great dignity and propriety, but he, too, kept his hands at his sides, while Kalganov was so nonplussed that he did not bow at all. The elder let fall the hand he had raised for the blessing and, bowing to them once more, invited them all to sit down. The blood rushed to Alyosha's cheeks; he was ashamed.” Custom has been cast aside on a whim, or perhaps an emotion. Either way, Miusov's very quick change of mind affects the entire room, who follows his example. All of this seems to be driven by an inability to set ego aside.

Likewise, in Arrival, Professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), is the only one able to set aside her ego and, miraculously, her fear. This film offers an excellent look at all aspects of communication. Since Louise Banks tries to communicate with aliens, she is forced to start at the very beginning of language, but even determining what is the beginning may seem confusing. In a very dramatic scene, she removes all protective gear and shows her bare hand to the aliens. This hand on the wall gives them a visual indication of one defining characteristic of humans. We use our hands for everything even down to our greetings. In presenting her bare-skinned hand, her face (without a helmet) and her eyes, she makes an offering. This gesture is simultaneously weak and strong. Weak because she has taken a chance on being misunderstood (in addition to the idea of alien contamination, etc.); strong because she boldly announces her ability and desire to communicate. And, of course, the aliens respond enthusiastically. This position recreates the very paradox of communication itself: how to listen and translate at the same time, how to be simultaneously open and closed (or weak and strong). 

These three examples illustrate some of the potential forces which can block or affect communication. In the first, Caius balances custom with his desire to actually speak to the people. Knowing that the senators would not approve, knowing that his abrupt change could be mistaken or disliked, he bravely took a chance. In Dostoevsky's hilarious scene, Miusov throws both custom and respect out the window on a whim. It appears that his fragile ego will not stand the idea that, in this spiritual world, even novices receive signs of great respect. Perhaps, he is intimidated by their spirituality. Perhaps he thinks all religion is hogwash. Either way, he instantly pulls back and refuses a proper introduction, which influences the next person's bow, and on down to the last member of the party, causing great anguish for the young Alyosha. Finally, Arrival depicts the courage necessary to step as far outside of oneself as possible in order to listen to another's language. To make meaning of these cues, is the next part of the story.

The simplest sentences can be bungled and confused between two people who speak the same language. These three examples exhibit the hilarious, intimidating, nervous or frightening experiences that may accompany communication. Our world depends upon understanding. These three examples substantiate why we might want to attend to the non-verbal aspects of communication in addition to the words.

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Discussion of Dante's Inferno

May 5, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Enjoy Liszt's “Dante Sonata” while reading today's journey into hell.

I spent a few hours last week discussing the various virtues of Dante's Inferno. I could spend endless hours discovering the ways in which one gains knowledge of virtue through sin in Dante. His brilliant and horrific punishments both captivate and repel. Clearly, Dante thought deeply about the idea of judgment and what it means to live an honorable life. I am not sure that the answer is as clearcut as we would like for it to be, however. As Dante struggled to navigate the religious division of his times, he placed popes and clergy in this dark narrative. This real-life divide, which would have affected his family, neighbors and community, may be one reason that he deals so harshly with people who have caused other schisms. Either way, it demonstrates that, for Dante, virtue is not necessarily tied to the church, but only what is right in the church. In this sense, the Inferno leads the reader to a path of divinity.

In Dante's Inferno, the reader listens to Dante's questions and Virgil's answers in a descent through the many circles of Hell. (I have often wondered how we are participating? Are we a fly on the wall?) For this discussion, we focused on the Malebolge section, which descends into the darkest realms of Hell. Virgil guides as Dante observes and questions. In nearly every section, Virgil gives concise, straightforward answers meant to keep Dante on the right path (and on time!). Hell includes a hodge-podge of mostly male unrepentant sinners. These people come from all walks of life, some mythic and some from Dante's own life. While they witness absolutely horrific punishments (dreamed up by Dante and meant to match the crime), Dante expresses sympathy, anguish, and horror. Virgil rejects all of these emotions, claiming that those who have sinned must be punished. In Canto 29, Dante identifies a family member, and Virgil reprimands his emotional response. He says, “Be no longer broken/ Thy thought from this time forward upon him;/ Attend elsewhere, and there let him remain”. This lack of mercy or emotion confuses me, however. If this is an educational journey, why are we to completely disregard or remove emotion? Is emotion a hindrance on the path to virtue?

Our wonderful discussion enlightened many aspects of this educational journey. Yet, in addition to the question above, I have a few more questions that bear contemplation, and so I list them here. Feel free to add to the discussion!

First, why does Dante mix real-life figures with those of mythology? Is he trying to do more than write an instructional guide to virtue? Is this a work of art which he intends (or hopes) will rival those of Ovid and Virgil? If so, why is Virgil his guide? More than that, isn't it a bit problematic that pride is a sin, and yet, Dante wants to broadcast his own genius?

In partial answer to a discussion of genius, I think that Dante attempts to deal with this idea of pride and genius in Canto 26. In a beautiful section of the Inferno, Dante recounts Ulysses' actions and ambition. As a punishment apparently fit for the overly ambitious, flames continually devour Ulysses. Whereas Dante thanks God for his ability and genius, Ulysses ambitiously pursued knowledge, wisdom and virtue on his own. Perhaps this inclusion of Ulysses is meant to instruct Dante on how to avoid arrogance. So, what is an appropriate amount of pride, and how must it be demonstrated in order to avoid the flames of Dante's Inferno?

Secondly, in Canto 25, Dante uses very little dialogue, which stands out when compared to other sections. Generally speaking, each canto relies heavily on dialogue between Dante and Virgil. A lot of information is transmitted through this question and answer pattern. In fact, it is an efficient use of space considering the fact that the reader meets people from all walks of life (and myth). Dialogue offers a nice, succinct style of filling in the details. In Canto 25, however, Dante describes mythological beings in such a way that might rival literature from antiquity. Was that one of the goals when writing the Inferno, or did his pen get away from him here?

Third, what is the relation of sinners to those who punish sinners? All sorts of beasts mete out punishment. Where do these beasts come from and, in being relegated to live in Hell, are they in a sense also being punished for some fault of their own?

And finally, is there an element of witness that makes sin that much worse? In walking this cavernous dark hole, many of the sinners ask Dante to remember him. I wonder why? Do they want him to remember the crime, or the man before the crime? Do they want to be remembered for greatness, even if it is their sin which causes them to be great? What is it about witness that allows an entrance to memory? Is the reader also participating in this act of witness? Is memory an important element of education, experience, knowledge or something else?

I will have to leave the answers to someone else. I look forward to future discussions on Dante, but greatly thank those who took the time with me last week. Our upcoming July Quarterly Discussion will focus on Plutarch. Email for more details and information.

Sites that I found useful while reading Dante's Inferno:

- The Paris Review runs through each Canto with a little wit, humor and information:

- An introduction into Dante's Worlds by Dr. Guy Raffa:

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National Poetry Month

April 28, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Did you know that Poetry is listed as one of the Great Ideas in the Syntopicon? If you didn't you are not alone. However, the importance of this inclusion is often overlooked. Since it is National Poetry Month, now is the best time to better understand why poetry might be considered one of the “great ideas”. For me, poetry is an easy sell. It's like a puzzle that the reader can assemble and reassemble at will. It may continue to be a puzzle, and maybe the final piece remains missing or blurred. I do understand how annoying it can be when we do not understand something. Yet, I continue to be drawn into poems because of the universality of the emotions and ideas given through a unique voice, experience and vision.

Mortimer Adler links the poetic conversation back to Aristotle and Socrates. In the Syntopicon, Adler suggests that authors like Kant and Plato judge poetry by its contribution to knowledge. Poetry, without a doubt, creates connections that can lead to knowledge. Furthermore, Adler suggests that poets have an obligation to speak or find a truth. Poetry brings this about not through fact alone, but by imaginative associations. For Bacon, poetry leads the imagination of the reader through the imagination of the author. This is important because it is precisely this technique that defines the great ideas themselves. All of this learning, education and fact-finding is founded upon the idea that great ideas have traveled and changed throughout history, by a variety of peoples and cultures. These great writers transcribed their thoughts, experiences, facts and data into conversations. Poems, then, are simply structured rooms of play that allow one to learn, grow or understand through someone else's eyes and experience.

The following examples give just a taste of some poetic voices that we discuss.


“So, on you move/ Over the seas and mountains, over streams/ Whose ways are fierce, over the greening leas,/ Over the leafy tenements of birds,/ So moving that in all the ardor burns/ For generation and their kind's increase,/ Since you alone control the way things are./ Since without you no thing has ever come/ Into the radiant boundaries of light,/ Since without you nothing is ever glad,/ And nothing ever lovable, I need,/ I need you with me, goddess, in the poem/ I try to write here, on the Way Things Are.” - Lucretius, The Way Things Are


"I and my company were old and slow/ When at the narrow passage we arrived/ Where Hercules his landmarks set as signals,/ That man no farther onward should adventure./ On the right hand behind me left I Seville/ And on the other already had left Ceuta./ 'O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand/ Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,/ To this so inconsiderable vigil/ Which is remaining of your senses still/ Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge, following the sun, of the unpeopled world./ Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;/ Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,/ But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.'" - Dante Alighieri, "The Inferno"


“Our terrors and our darknesses of mind/ Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine's rays,/ Not by those shining arrows of the light,/ But by insight into nature, and a scheme/ Of systematic contemplation. So/ Our starting-point shall be this principle:/ Nothing at all is ever born from nothing/ By the god's will.” - Lucretius, The Way Things Are


“What are the stars? There is the sun, the sun!/ And the most patient brilliance of the moon!/ And stars by the thousands!/ Point me out the way/ To any one particular beauteous star,/ And I will flit into it with my lyre,/ And make its silvery splendour pant with bliss./ I have heard the cloudy thunder: Where is power?/ Whose hand, whose essence, what divinity/ Makes this alarum in the elements,/ While I here idle listen on the shores/ In fearless yet in aching ignorance?/ O tell me, lonely Goddess, by thy harp,/ That waileth every morn and eventide,/ Tell me why thus I rave, about these groves!/ Mute thou remainest – Mute! Yet I can read/ A wonderous lesson in they silent face:/ Knowledge enormous makes a God of me./ Names, deeds, gray legends, dire events, rebellions,/ Majesties, sovran voices, agonies,/ Creations and destroyings, all at once/ Pour into the wide hollows of my brain,/ And deify me, as if some blithe wine/ Or bright elixir peerless I had drunk,/ And so become immortal.” - John Keats, “Hyperion”


“Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs;/ Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,/ Let's choose executors and talk of wills: And yet not so, for what can we bequeath/ Save our deposed bodies to the ground?/ Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke's,/ And nothing can we call our own but death/ And that small model of the barren earth/ Which serves as pste and cover to our bones./ For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings:/ How some have been deposed; some slain in war;/ Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;/ Some poison'd by their wives; some sleeping kill'd;/ All murder'd: for within the hollow crown/ That rounds the mortal temples of a king/ Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,/ Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ Allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks,/ Infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ As if this flesh which walls about our life/ Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus/ Comes at last and with a little pin/ Bores through this castle wall, and farewell king!” - Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of King Richard II”


“And no rock/ If there were rock/ And also water/ And water/ A spring/ A pool among the rock/ If there were the sound of water only/ Not the cicada/ And dry grass singing/ But sound of water over a rock/ Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees/ Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop/ But there is no water.” - T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”


“Enter: two rivers, gracefully bearing/ countless little pellucid jellies/ in cut-glass epergnes dragging with silver chains./ The flight is safe; the weather is all arranged./ The waves are running in verses this fine morning./ Please come flying.” - Elizabeth Bishop, “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”


“proud flesh,/ as all flesh/ is proud of its wounds, wears them/ as honors given out after battle,/ small triumphs pinned to the chest - / And when two people have loved each other/ see how it is like a/ scar between their bodies,/ stronger, darker, and proud;/ how the black cord makes them a single fabric/ that nothing can tear or mend.” - Jane Hirshfield, “For What Binds Us”

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