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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Reading Gibbon

April 29, 2016

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

The following list compiles ten things I learned about Gibbon by reading the footnotes from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. First of all, I highly recommend his footnotes, just for the fun of trying to puzzle out what Gibbon deems worthy of being source-material. But also, because his notes guide the reader to understand how he uses source materials, which is very relevant to his historical work. Gibbon's sources span the spectrum from poetry to legal documents to government decrees to military speeches. Without the footnotes, it is impossible to weed out fact from possible fiction. At times, too, he includes sarcasm without alerting the reader (outside of the footnote reference). And at times, he acts as if in mid-conversation with the reader, expecting us to know the reference and text as thoroughly as he does. He also expects us to know Latin and Greek. The following list is far short of all of the hilarious notes I have compiled, but it gives a sense of Gibbon's tone, irony, sarcasm, writing style, and most of all, his ego.

1] Gibbon plays fast and loose with translations. One example of this is footnote 34, Chapter XXXI, which reads: “It is incumbent upon me to explain the liberties which I have taken with the text of Ammianus. 1. I have melted down into one piece the sixth chapter of the fourteenth and the fourth of the twenty-eighth book. 2. I have given order and connection to the confused mass of materials. 3. I have softened some extravagant hyperboles and pared away some superfluities of the original. 4. I have developed some observations which were insinuated rather than expressed. With these allowances my version will be found, not literal indeed, but faithful and exact.” I laugh out loud at his idea of faithful representation every time. Of course, he could very well be much depends upon our own perspective. (I give him much credit for incorporating the original text in the footnotes so that the reader can measure the citation for himself (if one is able to read foreign languages)). Which brings me to point number two.

2] Gibbon incorporates a lot of Greek, Latin and some French in his footnotes. He does not offer the translation for the reader because we are meant to understand the context from his text. He fluidly jumps back and forth and he expects much from the reader's ability too. (I find no need to place an example, but his footnotes are riddled with foreign languages).

3] Gibbon clearly read as much material as possible in preparation for writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As much as he relies on these sources, he rarely grants a full compliment to the writer. Even to Ammianus, who is the most highly esteemed source in the text, I believe, he offers some remark of dissatisfaction. Gibbon usually couples a compliment with a derogatory remark of nearly equal weight. In the following example, he speaks harshly of St. Ambrose (one of his least favorite sources, who he, ironically, cites quite a bit). In footnote 96 from Chapter XXVII, he writes: “His epistle is a miserable rhapsody on a noble subject. Ambrose could act better than he could write. His compositions are destitute of taste or genius; without the spirit of Tertullian, the copious elegance of Lactantius, the lively wit of Jerom, or the grave energy of Augustin.” (It should be noted that all of the authors whom he compliments here, he also derides at some point, though not with such harshness).

4] Gibbon's sources span the spectrum of poetry, history, philosophy, religious and legal texts. This does not mean that he places equal importance on each of these styles. Instead, he offers the reader his personal account of the individual author of these accounts. Some of which he finds decent historians (regardless of their genre) and some of them he finds false and witless. He draws meaning from many texts and then presents it so that one can understand how Gibbon reads a text and what he might be looking for (as historian and/or philosopher). Footnote 149 from Chapter XXXI reads: “I have disdained to mention a very foolish, and probably a false, report..., that Honorious was alarmed by the loss of Rome till he understood that it was not a favourite chicken of that name, but only the capital of the world, which had been lost. Yet even this story is some evidence of the public opinion.”

5] Sometimes I do not know if Gibbon is being ironic or not. But I take this footnote as an honest desire to save the beauty and perfection of his contemporary British society. (In which case, this tremendous history of Rome may have been written as a cautionary tale). In footnote 15, from Chapter XXXIX, Gibbon writes, “The merit of discovery has too often been stained with avarice, cruelty, and fanaticism; and the intercourse of nations has produced the communication of disease and prejudice. A singular exception is due to the virtue of our own times and country. The five great voyages, successively undertaken by the command of his present Majesty, were inspired by the pure and generous love of science and mankind. The same prince, adapting his benefactions to the different stages of society, has founded a school of painting in his capital, and has introduced into the islands of the South Sea the vegetables and animals most useful to human life.”

6] Gibbon can be quite pointed. If he doesn't like something, the reader will likely know. Footnote 23 from Chapter XXXVII reads, “All that learning can extract from the rubbish of the dark ages is copiously stated by Archbishop Usher in his Britannicarum Ecclesiarum”.

7] Gibbon is not overwhelmingly sympathetic or flexible. Footnote 27 of Chapter XXXI reads, “[A]mbiguity is an inexcusable fault in the language of laws.”

8] Sometimes Gibbon treats the authors of religious texts a bit harshly. On his hierarchical scale of a source's credibility, he would probably place religious texts at the lower end. For example, footnote 77 of Chapter XXX reads, “How many interesting facts might Orosius have inserted in the vacant space which is devoted to pious nonsense.” (In other words, Orosius was writing of miracles and religious history, but not 'credible', 'factual' history that Gibbon desired. And yet, Gibbon uses Orosius as a source and the reader only knows of Gibbon's feelings from the footnotes).

9] Gibbon clearly has a preconceived notion of the 'true Roman'. Footnote 75 from Chapter XXX reads, “Yet the Jupiter of Radagaisus, who worshipped Thor and Woden, was very different from the Olympic or Capitoline Jove. The accommodating temper of polytheism might unite those various and remote deities; but the genuine Romans abhorred the human sacrifices of Gaul and Germany.” I wonder, what exactly did Gibbon believe was “the genuine Roman”?

10] Gibbon likes sarcasm and employs it liberally, particularly in reference to any religious miracle. For example, Gibbon laughs off the notion of a miracle in the form of a dead man talking. Footnote 76 from Chapter XXVIII reads, “Martin of Tours...extorted this confession from the mouth of a dead man. The error is allowed to be natural; the discovery is supposed to be miraculous. Which of the two was likely to happen most frequently?”

11] Just for a bonus: Gibbon loves his own wit and sometimes cannot stop himself from making a ridiculous comment. For example, footnote 118 from Chapter XXXVII discusses corrections to the Bible. Gibbon quips: "Notwithstanding these corrections, the passage is still wanting in twenty-five Latin MSS... the oldest and the fairest; two qualities seldom united, except in manuscripts."

I have compiled pages of notes on Gibbon's notes and I sincerely suggest any serious reader of Gibbon to do the same. It's absolutely fun and instructive. Please add any additional comments on Gibbon or his footnotes. Thanks for reading!


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From Severus to Severe

December 11, 2015

Tracing a word back to its origins offers a fun experiment, even a well-known word that is easily understood. This simultaneously enables the ancient contexts and the word to come alive. For example, reading about the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, the word 'severe' often comes to mind, which is not entirely a coincidence. Severus was severe in his treatment of enemies, opponents and those who felt entitled to goods without earning them. His strict policies did restore an element of harmony to the Roman world, and for a short time, the people enjoyed adequate food and peace. However, when Severus softened his strict authority over the Praetorian guards, they became lazy, indulgent and vain. As a result, the Roman world once again crumbled. Ironically, a certain severity somehow maintains a balance against easy and appealing luxuries that seem to condemn a nation. Severus was felled by illness, but the walls were already disintegrating about him.

For today's blog, the import rests on the fact that Severus, trained in the military, devoutly adhered to a militant view of his person and the majority of his rule. His name, Severus, is the root of the word that we currently use to mean 'severe'. In contemporary diction, we understand this word in a variety of ways, all of which relate back to Severus's policies and attitude. Today's blog looks at the various current definitions of severe (as defined by Merriam-Webster) paired with citations regarding Severus' character and reign (all taken from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). May they both come alive.


Severe, adj., from Latin Severus. First known use: 1548.

1] rigidly restrained in style, taste, manner, etc. simple, plain or austere.

“Till the reign of Severus, the virtue and even the good sense of the emperors had been distinguished by their real or affected reverence for the senate, and by a tender regard to the nice frame of civil policy instituted by Augustus. But the youth of Severus had been trained in the implicit obedience of camps, and his riper years spent in the despotism of military command. His haughty and inflexible spirit could not discover, or would not acknowledge, the advantage of preserving an intermediate power, however imaginary, between the emperor and the army. He disdained to profess himself the servant of an assembly that detested his person and trembled at his frown; he issued his commands, where his request would have proved as effectual; assumed the conduct and style of a sovereign and a conqueror, and exercised, without disguise, the whole legislative as well as the executive power.”


2] rigidly exact, accurate, or methodical: severe standards

“The uncommon abilities and fortune of Severus have induced an elegant historian to compare him with the first and greatest of the Caesars. The parallel is, at least, imperfect. Where shall we find, in the character of Severus, the commanding superiority of soul, the generous clemency, and the various genius, which could reconcile and unite the love of pleasure, the thirst of knowledge, and the fire of ambition? In one instance only they may be compared with some degree of propriety, in the celerity of their motions and their civil victories. In less than four years (A.D. 193-197), Severus subdued the riches of the East, and the valour of the West. He vanquished two competitors of reputation and ability, and defeated numerous armies, provided with weapons and discipline equal to his own. In that age, the art of fortification, and the principles of tactics, were well understood by all the Roman generals; and the constant superiority of Severus was that of an artist who uses the same instruments with more skill and industry than his rivals.”


3] causing discomfort or distress by extreme character or conditions, as weather, cold, or heat; unpleasantly violent, as rain or wind, or a blow or shock.

“[H]is unforgiving temper, stimulated by avarice, indulged a spirit of revenge where there was no room for apprehension. The most considerable of the provincials, who, without any dislike to the fortunate candidate, had obeyed the governor under whose authority they were accidentally placed, were punished by death, exile, and especially by the confiscation of their estates. Many cities of the east were stript of their ancient honours, and obliged to pay, into the treasury of Severus, four times the amount of the sums contributed by them for the service of Niger.”


4] difficult to endure, perform, fulfill, etc. : a severe test of powers.

“Such rigid justice, for so he termed it, was in the opinion of Severus, the only conduct capable of ensuring peace to the people, or stability to the prince; and he condescended slightly to lament, that, to be mild, it was necessary that he should first be cruel.”


5] harsh; unnecessarily extreme: severe criticism, severe laws.

“Yet the arts of Severus cannot be justified by the most ample privileges of state reason. He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin; and however he might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.”


6] serious or stern in manner or appearance: a severe face.

7] grave; critical: a severe illness

“The contemporaries of Severus, in the enjoyment of peace and glory of his reign, forgave the cruelties by which it had been introduced. Posterity, who experienced the fatal effects of his maxims and example, justly considered him as the principal author of the decline of the Roman empire.”

Synonyms: brutal, extreme, hard, harsh, intense, rigorous, serious.

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