Plutarch's Idea of Leadership

October 21, 2016

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

Leadership has been on nearly everyone's mind as of late. Unfortunately, it is not a Great Idea in the Great Books canon. However, there are many categories that touch upon ideas of leadership, such as Government, Man, Constitution, and Virtue and Vice. There is very little agreement about what makes a good leader. In fact, the only point of nearly universal agreement among Great Books authors is that some sort of government is necessary for the life of a state. The authors tend to talk about government through a specific lens, such as religion or family or state. As a result, Mortimer Adler decided to split this idea of leadership and government into categories. In other words, researching leadership will take you through a number of Great Ideas. Combining a group of Great Ideas as they pertain to leadership or government may be very instructive.

Perhaps the lack of holistic instruction in the form of leadership is due in part to a lack of imagination. It is ironic that sometimes I find history (and historical fiction) to be as difficult to identify with as science fiction. Science fiction is a relatively new 'genre'. H.G. Wells really inspired the field of science fiction that we know today (though works such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein existed prior to Wells). When he published War of the Worlds in the 1890s, he explored a path for scientists to discuss potential futures as related to the advancement of science. In other words, in combining two previously unlike entities he created an entirely new entity. Or, an entirely new lens. This is important for the current discussion, since we are attempting to discover a way to enlighten leadership through universalities. Plutarch offers one enlightening experiment that discusses leadership from a variety of perspectives.

In Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Plutarch compares two successful leaders of different societies. He gives a full account of one leader, then another, and then compares the two based upon their birth, education, actions, events, environment, and government style. His combination of virtues depends upon the success of the civilization. He defines this success in a number of ways: longevity, certainly, but also through moral and virtuous actions of the citizens and sustainable structures that supported these citizens. (I intend “structures” to include both physical and intangible elements, such as city development in combination with legal and cultural developments too.) In each case, however, Plutarch focuses on the behaviors in which the leader was not focused on himself, but on the people. So, even though their laws may seem odd or harsh to a contemporary reader, the leader earned respect from their community for having attained a level of safety, peace and prosperity, not for themselves, but for the survival of a race.

From a contemporary standpoint, it can be really difficult to understand virtue as demonstrated by some of these leaders and their corresponding societies. We almost have to think in terms of science fiction – as something that stretches beyond current possibilities. Lycurgus, a Spartan king included in Plutarch's Lives, as an example, created an insular society completely independent (and undesirable) to outsiders by replacing the currency. Plutarch writes, “[Lycurgus] commanded that all gold and silver coin should be called in, and that only a sort of money made of iron should be current, a great weight and quantity of which was very little worth; so that to lay up twenty or thirty pounds there was required a pretty large closet, and to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen”. This change also affected foreign trade and travel. Without traveling merchants or any immigration, Sparta became insulated, safe and constant. They maintained peace because no one desired goods or money. In this case, the science fiction aspect relates to how he used technology to completely eradicate wealth. Plutarch writes, “It was certainly an extraordinary thing to have brought about such a result as this, but a greater yet to have taken away from wealth, as Theophrastus observed, not merely the property of being coveted, but its very nature of being wealth”. I simply cannot imagine how we could remove wealth or make it meaningless in today's society, in the globalized society. I find it more likely that we will be able to populate Mars with potatoes (as in The Martian), than to eradicate the idea of wealth. I am quite sure that this is due to my short-sightedness. (Star Trek's government also disregarded the importance of wealth. A topic to be discussed on a future blog, I hope).

My point is that perhaps it is due to a lack of imagination that some societal problems persist. I enjoy Plutarch's experiment and gain much from his manner of writing as well as the historical comparisons he offers. The biographical note claims that “[Plutarch] states that his original intention had been to instruct others, but in the course of writing he discovered that more and more it was he himself who was deriving profit and stimulation from 'lodging these men one after another in his house'”. I believe that there is much profit to be gained by exploring two unlike entities, comparing, contrasting, allowing for context and measuring results as we alone would measure them. It is important to answer these questions for ourselves through thorough investigation. Plutarch, therefore, challenges both my imagination and my understanding, which leads me to, at the very least, a better understanding of leadership.


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