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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 hmu.edu .)

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 asimon@hmu.edu for more information.

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