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Plutarch & the issue of character
was right!Support The
What Histories can be found . . . that please and instruct like
the Lives of Plutarch? . . . I am of the same Opinion with that
Author, who said, that if he was constrained to fling all the
Books of the Antients into the Sea, PLUTARCH should be the last
Using history as a mirror I try by whatever means I can to
improve my own life and to model it by the standard of all that
is best in those whose lives I write. As a result I feel as
though I were conversing and indeed living with them; by means of
history I receive each one of them in turn, welcome and entertain
them as guests and consider their stature and their qualities and
select from their actions the most authoritative and the best
with a view to getting to know them. What greater pleasure could
one enjoy than this or what more efficacious in improving ones
Like all ancient authors today, Plutarch is at best a name to most people, evenespecially?to most college-educated people. You, dear reader, are of a select group, because you know that Plutarch (c. 46c. 120) was a Greek biographer and moral philosopher who wrote, among other things, a famous series of parallel lives comparing various Greek and Roman figures. Perhaps, like me, you first learned about Plutarch from reading the notes to Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, or Coriolanus, the four plays for whose plots Shakespeare drew heavily upon the then-recently translated Plutarch. Perhaps you also, like me, dipped casually into the odd volume of Plutarch now and again, to find out more about Pericles, Cicero, Alexander the Great, or some other antique worthy. Probably, like me, you left it at that.
Literary fashion is a mysterious thing. Why is it that Sir Walter Scott, for example, whom generations of readers found absolutely spellbinding, is unread and, for many of us, unreadable today? Why is it that the Renaissance Italian poet Tasso, who fired imaginations from Milton and Dryden to Shelley, Byron, and Goethe, should now subsist as a decoration in scholarly footnotes instead of as a living presence? Why is it that Plutarchfor centuries Europes schoolmaster, as the classicist C. J. Gianakaris put itshould quite suddenly move from center stage to the mental off-off-Broadway of reference books and dissertations? If Plutarch, in Sir Paul Harveys words, is one of the most attractive of ancient authors, writing with charm, geniality, and tact, so as always to interest the reader, why does he no longer interest us?
Doubtless there are many reasons: the shelf life of novelty, competing attractions, educational atrophy, the temper of the age. It seems clear, at any rate, that wholesale changes of taste are never merely matters of taste. They token a larger metamorphosis: new eyes, new ears, a new scale of values and literary-philosophical assumptions. It is part of the baffling cruelty of fashion to render mute what only yesterday spoke with such extraordinary force and persuasiveness. It is part of the task of criticism to reanimate those voices, to provide that peculiar medium through which they might seem to speak in the way their best, their most ardent hearers understood them.
Plutarchs best hearers form a distinguished but exceedingly various group. Erasmus, resonating to Plutarchs urbane humanism, translated and broadcast his work. Henri IV of France, in a letter to his wife, wrote that Plutarch always delights me with a fresh novelty. To love him is to love me; for he has long been the instructor of my youth. my conscience, and has whispered in my ear many good suggestions and maxims for my conduct. Shakespeare, Sidney, Ben Jonson, Dryden, Milton, and Bacon learned and freely borrowed from him, as did Shaftesbury, Winckelmann, Lessing, Hume, and Addison. (Plutarch, Addison wrote, has more strokes of good nature in his writing than I remember in any author.) The nineteenth-century French critic Brunetière argued that what Homer was to the Greek tragedians, Plutarch was to the classical French dramatists. Cotton Mather proclaimed Plutarch necessary reading for a person of good sense. Browning drew on his life of the Athenian general Nicias for Balaustions Adventure, Wordsworth on his depiction of the death of Dion for his poem of that name. Emerson adulated him, as, alas, did Rousseau, who started to read Plutarch when he was six. (The life of Lycurgus, the man who made Sparta spartan, made an especially deep impression on Rousseau.) Boswell, who quoted a few lines from Plutarchs life of Alexander toward the beginning of his Life of Johnson, called him the Prince of ancient biographers. And Montaigne, to end this catalogue of ships, is inconceivable without the example of Plutarch. His essays, which contain more than four-hundred references to Plutarch and his works, are consciously modelled on the Greeks easygoing, discursive inquiries into science, manners, customs, and beliefs. When I write, Montaigne noted in his essay On Some Verses of Virgil,
I prefer to do without the company and remembrance of books, for fear they may interfere with my style. . . . But it is harder for me to do without Plutarch. He is so universal and so full that on all occasions, and however eccentric the subject you have taken up, he makes his way into your work and offers you a liberal hand, inexhaustible in riches and embellishments. It vexes me that I am so greatly exposed to pillage by those who frequent him. I cannot be with him even a little without taking out a drumstick or a wing.Plutarchs writing divides into essentially three parts. One part is the Lives. Extant are twenty-three pairs of lives (including one double pair) and four singletons. Scholars believe that we have between a third and one-half of Plutarchs corpus; missing are not only the companions to the four solo biographies but also the lives of such important figures as Augustus, Claudius, and Nero, and other works. The dual biographies begin, in the traditional order, with the mythological figures of Theseus, supposedly an early king of Athens, and Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome; they conclude with lives of Dion, the philosopher and brother-in-law of the Syracusan tyrant Dionysius, and Brutus. The lives were written late in Plutarchs career, probably between 105115. His general procedure was to write the life of a prominent Greek, then cast about for a suitable Roman parallel. In the text that we now have, nineteen of the parallel lives end with a brief comparison; probably they all once did.
Some of the comparisons are distinctly more compelling than others. There are obvious parallels between the orators Demosthenes and Cicero, for example, or the conquerors Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. But many of Plutarchs pairings seem arbitraryor, if that seems too severe, let us say merely convenient. One often feels, in any event, that he was more interested in the exhibition than the analysis of character. Reflecting on his task at the beginning of his life of Alexander, Plutarch tells his readers that
I am not engaged in writing history, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavor by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated by others.It was the bit about a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest that Boswell quoted to help justify his own procedure in dealing with Dr. Johnson. Both biographers rely on the friction of anecdotethe arresting detail, the turn of phrase, the private manner of public mento elicit the moral bearing of their protagonists.
The second part of Plutarchs work is several volumes of symposia or table talk, occasional pieces that he wrote up following spirited after-dinner-party conversations at his home or the homes of friends in Athens, Eleusis, Corinth, Delphi, Thermopylae, Rome, and elsewhere. These bagatelles are usually light, sometimes trivial, but are always entertaining. Plutarch begins by indicating the topic and the speakerswhich often included Plutarch himselfwho debate it: Whether it was a good custom to deliberate over wine (yes); Whether the hen or the egg came first (probably the hen); Why old men hold writing at a greater distance for reading (he got this one wrong); Why we take pleasure in hearing actors represent anger and pain but not in seeing people actually experience these emotions (complicated: you will have to read this one to learn his answer).
Some of the issues raised in the table talk have a distinctly contemporary relevance. Item: That one should guard especially against the pleasures derived from degenerate music, and how to do so. One of the guests recalls another dinner at which the host provided an elaborate musical entertainment. It seemed a fine performance at first.
But then, shaking the hall and filling it with resounding noise, when [the performer] perceived that most of the auditors were so overwhelmed as to allow him, under the spell of pleasure, to do with them what he pleased and hypnotize them with his piping or even with licentious movements, he cast off all disguise and showed that music can inebriate, more effectively than any wine, those who drink it in as it comes, with no restraint. For the guests were no longer content to shout and clap from their places, but finally most of them leapt up and joined in the dancing, with movements disgraceful for a gentleman, though quite in keeping with that kind of rhythm and melody.It is a pity that one cannot enlist Plutarch to report on the next big rock concert.
The third part of Plutarchs work consists of somewhat more formal essays, many of which began life as lectures. Like the table-talk, these pieces betray a hearty, somewhat garrulous curiosity. Several are in the form of a dialogue. Begun in the 80s, most were written before Plutarch embarked on the Lives. Although today the Lives are far and away Plutarchs most popular workinsofar as any of it can still be said to be popularat one time his essays exercised a nearly equal claim to attention. Many bear dedications to Plutarchs friends; some were written on request for guidance or information. They range over a wide number of topics, moral, cosmological, etymological, hortatory, and numerological. There are treatises on love, on education, on whether animals have reason, on superstition, on Platos philosophy, on Stoicism, on Epicureanism. (Plutarch was sound on Epicurus, as you can tell from this title: You Cannot Live a Happy Life if You Follow Epicurus.)
Although generally moderate in tone, Plutarch could be a severe critic. In On Herodotus Spite, which has been called the first instance in literature of the slashing review, he takes the historian to task for all manner of prejudice and misrepresentation. He makes some palpable hits, catching Herodotus out in various errors. But as the Plutarch scholar R. H. Barrow observed, Herodotus real failing in Plutarchs eyes was to advance any criticism at all of those states that saved Greece from Persia. Plutarch, he concluded, is fanatically biased in favor of the Greek cities; they can do no wrong.
Plutarch does not often wander into purely literary terrain, but when he does he lets you know where he stands. In the fragmentary Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander, he clearly awards the palm to the decorous New Comedy of Menander. The witticisms of Aristophanes, he wrote,
are bitter and rough and possess a sharpness which wounds and bites. And I do not know wherein his vaunted cleverness resides, whether in his words or his characters. Certainly even whatever he imitates he makes worse; for with him roguishness is not urbane but malicious, rusticity is not simple but silly, facetiousness not playful but ridiculous, and love not joyful but licentious.Menander, by contrast, is said to bring us a polished diction whose ingredients are mingled into . . . [a] consistent whole. (It is hard for us to judge, since most of what we have of his work is fragmentary.)
Some of Plutarchs essays sound a more personal note. There is, for example, a touching letter of consolation to his wife on the occasion of the death of their only daughter. Plutarch also had some useful things to say about how one can distinguish between a flatterer and a genuine friend (for one thing, a true friend is willing to disagree and criticize one) and how to turn the hatred of others to good account (like fire, the enmity of others keeps one alert and on ones toes). The single longest essay is devoted to the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris, an historical-anthropological work full of arcane information and conjecture and still often referred to by Egyptologists.
Plutarchs essays and table-talk are published together and are generally known by their Latin title, Moralia, moral matters. As for translations, there were early on various translations into Latin (by the Italian humanist Guarinus, for example). But the person who really brought Plutarch to Western Europe was Jacques Amyot, who published a French translation of the Lives in 1559 and Moralia in 1572. Amyots translations swept educated Europe. In a way, they made as deep an impression in England as France, for Thomas North, who published an English translation of the Lives in 1579, based his work not on Plutarchs Greek but on Amyots French. It was Norths Plutarch that Shakespeare, for example, absorbed and refigured to such happy effect. Here is Plutarch, in Norths translation, on Antonys first glimpse of Cleopatra:
[S]he disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her.And here is Shakespeare:
The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,And so on.
Norths translation was more inspirational than accurate. In 1683, John Dryden began a life of Plutarch and oversaw a translation of the Lives by several hands and based on the original Greek. This translation has been reworked and revised several times, most recently in the nineteenth century by the English poet and classicist Arthur Hugh Clough. There have been other translations of the Lives, but Cloughs edition remains the handiest complete edition. 
It is a curious irony that Plutarch, who expended so much energy bringing other people to life in his biographies, should himself remain a somewhat shadowy figure. We have some of the standard externals. We know that he was born to a prominent family in Chaeronea, Boetia, a town about twenty miles east of Delphi. He studied philosophy in Athens and emerged a worldly and undoctrinaire Platonist. Like Plato, he believed that to know the good was tantamount to following it. That is one reason Plutarch is often described as naïvea diminishing adjective that, like charming, one finds regularly employed to describe him. Identifying evil with ignorance, Platonists unwittingly discount the reality of sin. (As Coleridge observed, sin consists in seeing the good, understanding it, and choosing evil anyway.) But Plutarch did not share Platos systematizing ambitions or his contempt for the flesh. He entertained often. He was happily married his wife, Timoxena, peeks glancingly through at us from his table talk, a dignified, hospitable presenceand had at least five children.
Plutarch was officially critical of Stoicism, but the scholar who refers to his recessive stoicism, poised between the pessimism of stoicism and the optimism of humanism, has it about right. He was above all a proud, civic-minded Greek at a time when Greek power was definitively eclipsed by Rome. Historical marker: Plutarch wrote most of his work during the reigns of Domitian (8196), Nerva (9698), and Trajan (98117); his contemporaries writing in Rome included Tacitus, Martial, Pliny the Younger, and Juvenal. If there is a current of pathos in Plutarch, it has to do with the recognition that his worldthe world of the Greek gods and Hellenic culture had declined into a sort of posthumous existence. What were living realities to him in his relative backwater had long since become museum pieces to the world at large. As Sir Paul Harvey observed, much of Plutarchs work was an attempt to satisfy the demand for moral guidance in an age of reaction against the decadence of the Roman world, when the faith in the old gods and philosophies was failing.
Plutarch himself helped to extend that spiritual autumn by serving for many years as a priest at the Delphic Oracle. Delphi, as one commentator noted, was almost a second home to Plutarch. His interventions helped to restore the oracles outward fortunes for a time. Although his own commitment seems never to have wavered, there are many suggestions that he understood he was tending a guttering flame. The power comes from the gods and demigods, he wrote at the end of his essay On the Obsolescence of the Oracles, but, for all that, it is not unfailing nor imperishable, nor ageless. Still, Plutarchs life and writings continually bore witness to the famous maxims inscribed at Delphi: Know Thyself and Avoid Extremes.
Plutarch traveled extensively. A long trip to Alexandria stocked his mind with material for his monograph on Isis and Osiris. He was clearly in Rome, though how often and for how long is not known. His knowledge of Roman literature was poor; he acknowledges in his life of Demosthenes that he did not know much Latin until he was well into middle age. He never mentions Ovid or Virgil; when he cites a passage from Horace, it is in a Greek translation. Nevertheless, Plutarchs lectures in Rome were popularso popular, indeed, that his friend Sosius Senecio, to whom the Lives are dedicated, seems to have procured him an honorary Roman citizenship from Trajan. Many ancient sourcesPlutarchs works prominent among themprovide a tolerably detailed picture of the stage set upon which Plutarch performed. What we are missing, by and large, is the actor himself. Plutarch exists as a genial but disembodied authorial presence, a courteous ghost. Over the centuries, there have been several lives of Plutarch, but nothing that gives us a Plutarchs life of Plutarch.
It is pretty clear that Plutarch regarded himself first of all as a philosopher. But posterity has tended to regard him rather as a kind of moral compendium: a repository of vivid characters, arresting anecdotes, dramatically engaging conflictsthe drumsticks and wings to which Montaigne refers. R. H. Barrow is right that Plutarch, although deeply immersed in Greek philosophy,
originated nothing. His mind was not adventurous; it did not use its accumulated knowledge as a springboard to make a leap; it may have lacked imagination. Yet in one particular realm Plutarch was a man of genius. For he had a supreme gift of sensitiveness to religious and moral values which was acutely alive to inconsistency and was profoundly disturbed by it. It would be wrong to say that this sensitiveness issued in a passion for truth; for truth is apt to be lifted to a metaphysical plane. Plutarchs mind worked on lower levels. It would be better therefore to say that he had a passion for sincerity, and was able to discriminate values with precision and delicacy.Clough, in the introduction he provided to his edition of the lives, made a kindred point.
In reading Plutarch the following points should be remembered. He is a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world.In short, Plutarch regarded history as a moral theater whose performances it was his task to recapitulate for the edification of himself and his readers. Considered as a mirror for the soul (as Plutarch says in his life of Timoleon), history provided a series of cautionary tales, of virtue compromised and virtue salvaged.
Plutarch did not go in for salacious details about his subjects as, for example, did his younger Roman contemporary Suetonius (c. 70c. 160) in his Lives of the Caesars. But his biographies, though sometimes rambling, are nonetheless powerfully entertaining and informative. How could they fail to be? Plutarch had assembled some of the most extraordinary personalities of antiquity, and he endeavored to portray not so much what they did but who they were.
Consider Alcibiades, one of the most gifted and treacherous figures in history. The Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos (c. 99c. 24 B.C.Plutarch knew some of his work) begins his chapter on Alcibiades by noting that it is agreed by all who have written his biography that he was never excelled either in faults or in virtues. Immensely rich, he was also widely reckoned the handsomest man of his times. A skilled orator, he seemed to be able to talk his way out of, or into, anything. Alcibiades was also a military genius of sorts: as able leading an army as commanding a naval assault. If, like Emma Woodhouse, he was handsome, clever, and rich, he was unlike that heroine in that his vanity and hubris were never checked. Chameleon-like, he displayed character without ever possessing one. At Sparta, Plutarch tells us, he was devoted to athletic exercises, was frugal and reserved; in Ionia, luxurious, gay, and indolent; in Thrace, always drinking; in Thessaly, ever on horseback; and when he lived with Tissaphernes the Persian satrap, he exceeded the Persians themselves in magnificence and pomp.
Educated in part by Pericles, Alcibiades (as readers of Platos Symposium will remember) became an intimate of Socrates. Boundless narcissism combined with extravagant gifts of fortune made Alcibiades a prodigy of ambition. When he decided to enter public life, Plutarch notes, his noble birth, his riches, the personal courage he had shown in many battles, and the multitude of his friends and dependents, threw open, so to say, the folding-doors for his admittance. During the Peloponnesian War, he was one of Athenss greatest assets; he was also her most horrible liability. It was Alcibiades who helped destroy the so-called Peace of Nicias and masterminded the disastrous Sicilian Expedition. He undertook the risky expedition solely for his own greater glory; its failure would eventually cost Athens her empire.
Traitor does not encompass Alcibiades perfidy. Virtually on the eve of the Athenian fleets departure to Sicily, many sacred statues were mutilated in Athens. It is likely that Alcibiades, on a drunken rampage with friends, was guilty of the outrage. He was allowed to set sail, but was later called back to Athens to stand trial. He then went over to Sparta. Learning that his property had been confiscated and that he had been condemned in absentia to die, he remarked: I will make them feel I am alive. As indeed he did. For his advice to the Spartan forces was directly responsible for the defeat of Athens in Sicily. Probably the Spartans would never have completely trusted Alcibiades, but he sealed his fate with them by seducing the wife of a Spartan general and having a son by her. He then fled to Sardis where he was taken in by Tissaphernes. In short order, he betrayed him as well. Briefly imprisoned, he managed to escape and offered his services once again to Athens as the war dragged on. He won some brilliant victories for his native city. But the end came after his good advice was ignored by the Athenian commander at Aegospotami. The Athenian fleet was utterly destroyed and Athens was at the mercy of Sparta. Alcibiades fled to Phrygia, but a Spartan condemnation followed him. The assassins did not dare confront him face to face. But one night as he lay sleeping with a mistress a young lady of a noble house, Plutarch comments, whom he had debauchedhe woke to find his house on fire. He managed to escape, but was felled by a cataract of darts and arrows.
I have always been surprised that more is not made of Alcibiades today. He seems the perfect contemporary hero: rich, handsome, brilliant, amoral; he had it all. He was even bisexual, virtually a prerequisite for appearing well-rounded these days. Plutarch notes that when it came to temperance, continence, and probity, Alcibiades must be judged the least scrupulous and most entirely careless of human beings. But he forgives him a lot, not least because he was often of service to Athens, both as a soldier and a commander.
In fact, Plutarch nearly always attempted to accentuate the positive. Again and again he stresses that his overriding purpose is to edify. In his life of Demetrius, one of the bad hats who scrambled for power after the death of Alexander the Great, Plutarch acknowledges that evil men must be discussednot for themselves but because we shall be all the more eager to watch and imitate the lives of the good if we are not left without a description of what is mean and reprehensible. In general, it was Plutarchs policy either to winnow out what was disreputable or to surround it with exculpating extenuations. Since, he writes in his life of the Athenian commander Cimon,
it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to exhibit a life which is blameless and pure, . . . we must select its good elements and in these we must satisfy truth and present a likeness. The shortcomings and faults which run through a mans conduct owing to individual passion or political necessity we should regard rather as the defects of goodness than the misdeeds of wickedness; these our narrative should not display eagerly or gratuitously; rather it should show restraint out of regard for human nature, which produces nothing of unalloyed nobility, no character beyond the criticism of goodness.
Plutarch pursued this high-minded procedure not out of primness or timidity but because he thought it the most effective propaganda for virtue. There is something about the display of virtuous character, Plutarch believed, that inspires emulation. In a famous passage in his life of Pericles, Plutarch notes that there are many things which we admire that we do not seek to imitate or emulate. When it comes to perfumes and purple dyes, for example, we may be taken with the things themselves well enough, but we do not think dyers and perfumers otherwise than low and sordid people. The fact that we admire a statue by Phidias does not mean that we admire Phidias himself. But the spectacle of virtue in action is different. The bare statement of virtuous actions, Plutarch wrote,
can so affect mens minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. The goods of fortune we would possess and would enjoy; those of virtue we long to practice and exercise: we are content to receive the former from others, the latter we wish others to experience from us. Moral good is a practical stimulus; it is no sooner seen, than it inspires an impulse to practice.
We moderns, of course, chalk up Plutarchs belief in the magnetic properties of the moral good to his charming naïveté. It is curious that today we are much more apt to emulate what pleases us than what we approve. Hence it is that the contemporary equivalents of Plutarchs perfumers and dyers are among our most prominent culture heroes, as of course are celebrity artists of all sorts. What does this change tell us about ourselves? What does it mean that a rock star or television personality is adulated by millions? The issue of character, in both senses of issue, was at the heart of Plutarchs teaching. It was also at the heart of Western culture for the centuries in which Plutarch was accounted an indispensable guide. Countless people turned to Plutarch not only for entertainment but also for moral intelligence. He was, as one scholar put it, simply one of the most influential writers who ever lived, not because of his art but because of the dignity he portrayed. We have lost our taste for that species of nobility. To an extraordinary extent, character has ceased to impress us. Which is one reason, I believe, that Plutarch and the humanity he championed have become increasingly inaccessible.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 December 2000, on page 4
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