October Discussion Review

October 27, 2017

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

In most cases, letter writing became fashionable only after the establishment of a postal service. However, state business has been conducted via the written letter since the beginning of formal governments. Our most recent Quarterly Discussion focused on six different letters from the likes of Seneca all the way up to George H. W. Bush. We looked at Leonardo da Vinci's job application in the form of a letter to the Duke of Milan. We discussed Gandhi's letter to Hitler. We wondered about Plutarch's letter to his wife upon the loss of their child. These letters are rich with details about time periods, but also about the human condition. I am so grateful to the people who dedicated time out of their day to chat with me about the curiosities and random features of these letters.

"Man Writing a Letter" by Gabriël Metsu - National Gallery of Ireland, Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.

"Man Writing a Letter" by Gabriël Metsu - National Gallery of Ireland, Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.


The discussion hit upon many fascinating ideas that are still relevant and resonant. For example, Seneca's letter XLVII is often described as his letter regarding “Masters and Slaves”. There is much more to this letter, however, which addresses friendship in general. He asks that we care for others rather than expect something from them. His insistence that fortune changes often and without warning is a universal message, affecting everyone from emperors to slaves. In this letter, he asks that we value character, not utility. Plutarch, likewise, places importance on virtue. In his letter to his wife, he admonishes societies that seek pleasure rather than virtue. His idea of happiness has nothing to do with temporal or momentary enjoyment. Instead, he writes, “For you have often heard that felicity depends on correct reasoning in a stable habit, and that the changes due to fortune occasion no serious departure from it and do not bring with them a falling away that destroys the character of our lives.” A “stable habit” ensures that reason and virtue weigh all actions.

And these two ideas – virtue universally applied coupled with Plutarch's warnings – bring me to the Gandhi's letter to Hitler. In 1940, Gandhi proposed a path of non-violence to one of the world's the most violent men. I find it striking, but also completely appropriate, that Gandhi should write a direct appeal to Hitler. Gandhi claims that violence is “nobody's monopoly”. He further explains that violence always tries to outdo itself, so someone will get a bigger, better system, regardless of all of your preparations. In other words, these means come to a fruitless end. Gandhi proposes non-violence instead, which he claims is a force that, “if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all of the most violent forces in the world.” One of the participants in our discussion noted the amazing complexity of the following argument. Gandhi proposes non-violence, but also says that he will not use non-violence to fight the British rule in India. He suspends all non-violent efforts. He claims that the British have overextended themselves and does not want to detract them from war efforts. It is astounding to think that, after a lifetime of protest and at a time particularly suited to his success, he would set aside political differences. He must, of course, make it clear to Hitler that he will not be a tool in Hitler's destructive agenda. In other words, Hitler's community will never include India, despite the fact that Gandhi desperately wants his country's freedom. The fact that he sets aside his entire life's agenda makes me believe that Gandhi understood the stakes.

However, some participants also questioned Gandhi's naiveté. And this question plagues me. Is Gandhi naïve in addressing Hitler? Or is it exactly to his point? I think that Gandhi's modus operandi seeks to always address others with respect and humility. He achieves this tone -even!- in his letter to Hitler. Two things that I wonder. First, is the divide between complete pacifist and one bent upon destruction too great? Are they simply incompatible notions, so much so, that a mind devoted entirely to one of those principles will not be able to identify with or understand the principles of the other? Also, non-violence has never been tested against something as drastic as total annihilation. Would a non-violent solution have worked quickly enough to counter something like the Holocaust? It seems that talking about colonization, while problematic, divisive and destructive, is not the same thing as talking about Hitler's vision of purity. Are we talking about different degrees of the same thing, or entirely separate things altogether? In other words, I wonder if Gandhi was indeed a bit naïve in the sense that he simply could not imagine destruction on the pace and scale that Hitler imagined. Of course, this question remains unanswerable. I find it important, however, that this letter is available for the historical record, if for no other reason than it demonstrates a great generosity and the willingness to communicate. He writes, “We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness.” Gandhi separates the man from his actions, which creates space for reversal or change. Unfortunately, Hitler disregarded the appeal.

If history is to offer us any roadmap for the future, it is well worth our time to step into letters from the past. Many thanks to those who spent time opening my eyes to the layers hidden within these letters.

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July Quarterly Discussion Review

July 28, 2017

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

“what other end or period is there of all the wars and dangers which hapless princes run into, whose misery and folly it is, not merely that they make luxury and pleasure, instead of virtue and excellence, the object of their lives, but that they do not so much as know where this luxury and pleasure are to be found?” - Plutarch, “Demetrius”

Plutarch considers the lives of Antony and Demetrius to be filled with vice. And yet, he includes these two lives in his volume dedicated to virtue. It reminds me of the wandering post I wrote about vice last year. I ended that blog with the question about whether or not an intimate understanding of vice could possibly lead to virtue. It seems that Plutarch at least weighs the idea of gaining virtue through a peek at vice in these two chapters. He likens the experience to a way of learning music. He writes, “Ismenias the Theban used to exhibit both good and bad players to his pupils on the flute and say, 'you must play like this one', or again, 'you must not play like this one'; and Antigenidas used to think that young men would listen with more pleasure to good flute-players if they were given an experience of bad ones also. So, I think, we also shall be more eager to observe and imitate the better lives if we are not left without narratives of the blameworthy and the bad.” In other words, virtue is not inherent, but must be taught. Therefore, Plutarch details the lives of Demetrius, the “City-besieger” and Antony, the “Imperator” as examples of how not to live life. In fact, as the introductory quote explains, Demetrius and Antony seem to have set off on the wrong path from the beginning of their lives. Both were from excellent families and both excelled in military skills, but failed to understand virtue off of the battlefield. For example, Antony's earliest friends included cheaters and thieves. He loved ostentatious displays of rhetoric, passion, emotion and drama. Demetrius also loved to appease his own appetites. He appeared to have no understanding of virtue as demonstrated by his extreme desire for pleasure.

It seems to me that their downfall resulted from a desire or need for pleasure. And yet, the way they went about pleasure-seeking seems entirely different to me. Once Demetrius freed Athens, he was rewarded with a room in the Parthenon. This previously unheard of gesture emboldened him, rather than humbled him. Therefore, he darkened the Parthenon (a temple dedicated to the virgin Athena) with prostitution and liquor. Even late in his life, as a prisoner, he eventually gave in to these desires. Rather than pursuing virtuosity, Plutarch notes that he ended his life playing dice and drinking, as if unaware that material pleasures are not the true path towards excellence. This seems, to me at least, to represent his own selfishness. Yet, Antony, who also demonstrated much selfishness, directed all of his passion towards Cleopatra. Plutarch often condemns Cleopatra's hold over him and claims that she manufactured some of his downfall. Cleopatra and Antony also held ridiculously lavish feasts and created unnecessary expenses. However, he was devoted solely to Cleopatra in something more akin to obsession. For her, he abandoned wives and battles and all duties. I wonder if this devotion is different from Demetrius' passion for pleasing himself. I am not sure whether the need to please always stems from selfishness or not. Regardless, these men lost great amounts of money and lives in the pursuit of satisfying their own pleasures. Worse than that, neither had much remorse for having done so. And either way, Plutarch condemns them both. Reading these chapters, I am continually reminded of the War of the Roses as portrayed by Shakespeare. A great many lives were unnecessarily ruined in both cases. And more than that, what they started had incredibly disastrous ends, not for themselves, but for entire civilizations.

Even though I have read Plutarch's analysis, and even though he explains the points at which he finds fault with Demetrius and Antony, I struggle to find one indictment stronger than the other. I wonder, which one does he believe to be better? Yet, it strikes me, while reading through these lives, that there is no better or worse, per se. Instead, I feel that Plutarch wants us to understand complexity. Even these two people who had all the fortunes necessary to be great, could not be great. And in the case of Antony, he faults the public for some of Antony's shame. Plutarch explains that Antony played the part so well, was so charming and lovable, that in the end, the people wanted more from him than he did himself. This strikes me as devastatingly tragic. Likewise, the people of Athens played to Demetrius' ego, and in doing so, they created (or ignited) a monster.

I am indebted to those who spent time on the phone with me in discussing Plutarch's dense text. I continue to learn so much, not only from Plutarch, but from others response to his words. Our next Quarterly Discussion will occur in October and I invite you to join the conversation. Email me at for more information.

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Numa Creates the Calendar

July 21, 2017

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

Last week we introduced a couple of less than mainstream calendars . This week, we want to move back into a look at the contemporary calendar, as based upon the Roman calendar. Julius Caesar, of course, attended to the discrepancies in the calendar. Astronomers of each age are challenged to find clever fixes for slight discrepancies, which, over a period of one thousand years, begins to add up. Caesar understood that growing seasons were being negatively affected by these seemingly minor errors and he corrected some of them. But his calendar was not the first Roman calendar. Other Roman emperors tampered with their own versions of a calendar, and often for less respectable reasons than Caesar. Some emperors wanted to place their names into the calendar as a sort of legacy. Others decided to celebrate festivals whenever they wanted, thus changing the custom and the calendar simultaneously.

Numa Pompilius (8th-7th century B.C.) was one of the first Roman emperors to set a fixed calendar. The following text comes entirely from Plutarch's chapter on Numa in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. It describes how the calendar came about from Plutarch's point of view. This discussion continues to develop our understanding of the cultural understanding of time, but also of the contemporary cultures who base their calendar on similar features. As societies fanned out, and the Roman civilization fell, threads of their society transferred to many other places. The transformation was not uniform, however, and so this investigation into time is meant simply to know more about the origin of our modern day customs.

“He attempted, also, the formation of a calendar, not with absolute exactness, yet not without some scientific knowledge. During the reign of Romulus, they had let their months run on without any certain or equal term; some of them contained twenty days, others thirty-five, others more; they had no sort of knowledge of the inequality in the motions of the sun and moon; they only kept to the one rule that the whole course of the year contained three hundred and sixty days. Numa, calculating the difference between the lunar and the solar year at eleven days, for that the moon completed her anniversary course in three hundred and fifty-four days, and the sun in three hundred and sixty-five, to remedy this incongruity doubled the eleven days, and every other year added an intercalary month, to follow February, consisting of twenty-two days, and called by the Romans the month Mercedinus. This amendment, ,however, itself, in course of time, came to need other amendments.

“He also altered the order of the months for March, which was reckoned the first, he put into the third place; and January, which was the eleventh, he made the first; and February, which was the twelfth and last, the second. Many will have it, that it was Numa, also, who added the two months of January and February; for in the beginning they had a year of ten months; as there are barbarians who count only three; the Arcadians, in Greece, had but four; the Acarnanians, six. The Egyptian year at first, they say, was of one month; afterwards, of four; and so, though they live in the newest of all countries, they have the credit of being a more ancient nation than any, and reckon in their genealogies, a prodigious number of years, counting months, that is, as years.

“That the Romans, at first, comprehended the whole year within ten, and not twelve months, plainly appears by the name of the last, December, meaning the tenth month; and that March was the first is likewise evident, for the fifth month after it was called Quintilis, and the sixth Sextilis, and so the rest; whereas, if January and February, in this account, preceded March, Quintilis would have been fifth in name and seventh in reckoning. It was also natural that March, dedicated to Mars, should be Romulus's first, and April, named from Venus, or Aphrodite, his second month; in it they sacrifice to Venus, and the women bathe on the calends, or first day of it, with myrtle garlands on their heads. But others, because of its being p and not ph, will not allow of the derivation of this word from Aphrodite, but say it is called April from aperio, Latin for to open, because that this month is high spring, and opens and discloses the buds and flowers. The next is called May, from Maia, the mother of Mercury, to whom it is sacred; then June follows, so called from Juno; some, however, derive them from the two ages, old and young, majores, being the name for older, and juniores for younger men. To the other months they gave denominations according to their order; so the fifth was called Quintilis, Sextilis the sixth, and the rest, September, October, November and December.

“Afterwards Quintilis received the name of Julius, from Caesar, who defeated Pompey; as also Sextilis that of Augustus, from the second Caesar, who had that title. Domitian, also, in imitation, gave the two other following months his own names, of Germanicus and Domitianus; but, on being slain, they recovered their ancient denominations of September and October. The two last are the only ones that have kept their names throughout without any alteration.

“Of the months which were added or transposed in their order by Numa, February comes from februa; and is as much a Purification month; in it they make offerings to the dead, and celebrate the Lupercalia, which, in most points, resembles a purification. January was so called from Janus, and precedence given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred before those of war.”

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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 .)

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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