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P L O U T A R ΗO S
(circa 45 – 125 A.D.)
Priest of the Delphic Oracle
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Greece, by the turn of the first millenium, was a sad ruin of its former glory. Mighty Rome had looted its statues and reduced Greece to conquered territory. 1 Despite these circumstances, Mestrius Plutarchus (known to history as Plutarch) lived a long and fruitful life with his wife and family in the little Greek town of Chaeronea.
For many years Plutarch served as one of the two priests at the temple of Apollo at Delphi (the site of the famous Delphic Oracle) twenty miles from his home. By his writings and lectures Plutarch became a celebrity in the Roman empire, yet he continued to reside where he was born, and actively participated in local affairs, even serving as mayor. At his country estate, guests from all over the empire congregated for serious conversation, presided over by Plutarch in his marble chair. Many of these dialogues were recorded and published, and the78 essays and other works which have survived are now known collectively as the Moralia.
After the horrors of Nero and Domitian, and the partisan passions of civil war, Rome was ready for some gentle enlightenment from the priest of Apollo. Plutarch’s essays and his lectures established him as a leading thinker in the Roman empire’s golden age: the reigns of Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian.
The study and judgment of lives was always of paramount importance for Plutarch. In the Moralia, Plutarch expresses a belief in reincarnation. 2 His letter of consolation to his wife, after the death of their two-year-old daughter, gives us a glimpse of his philosophy:
“The soul, being eternal, after death is like a caged bird that has been released. If it has been a long time in the body, and has become tame by many affairs and long habit, the soul will immediately take another body and once again become involved in the troubles of the world. The worst thing about old age is that the soul’s memory of the other world grows dim, while at the same time its attachment to things of this world becomes so strong that the soul tends to retain the form that it had in the body. But that soul which remains only a short time within a body, until liberated by the higher powers, quickly recovers its fire and goes on to higher things.”
Once his judgment had been seasoned by maturity, and his writing skill by long practice on his essays, Plutarch commenced the composition of his immortal Parallel Lives. The language Plutarch wrote in was Attic Greek, which was well-known to the educated class in the Roman Empire. The installments of this ponderous work (what has survived totals approximately 800,000 words, ~1300 pages of fine print) were sent to Sosius Senecio, who was consul of Rome during the years 99, 102, and 107 A.D. Through Sosius, Plutarch had the ear of the emperor Trajan and the means to have many copies of his work made.
Plutarch’s plan in the Lives was to pair a philosophical biography of a famous Roman with one of a Greek who was comparable in some way. A short essay of comparison follows most of the pairs of lives. His announced intention was not to write a chronicle of great historical events, but rather to examine the character of great men, as a lesson for the living. Throughout the Lives, Plutarch pauses to deliver penetrating observations on human nature as illustrated by his subjects, so it is difficult to classify the Lives as history, biography, or philosophy. These timeless studies of humanity are truly in a class by themselves.
Plutarch’s Greek heroes had been dead for at least 300 years by the time he wrote their lives (circa 100 A.D.). Plutarch therefore had to rely on old manuscripts, many of which are no longer available. But even the legends of antiquity may be smelted by the power of reason to yield some insight, as Plutarch assures us at the beginning of his life of Theseus. It is up to the reader to use this divine spark to intuit the truth from the details by means of the power of abstraction, which is “passing from a plurality of perceptions to a unity gathered together by reason.” (Plato, Phaedrus 249). Plutarch himself had no faith in the accuracy of even the purportedly factual materials he had to work with, as is evident from this comment in his life of Pericles:
“It is so hard to find out the truth of anything by looking at the record of the past. The process of time obscures the truth of former times, and even contemporaneous writers disguise and twist the truth out of malice or flattery.”
The Romans loved the Lives, and enough copies were written out over the next centuries so that a copy of most of the lives managed to survive the coming Dark Ages of dogma and neglect. However, many lives which appear in a list of his writings, such as those of Hercules, Scipio Africanus, and Epaminondas, have not been found and may be lost forever.
At the beginning of the Italian Renaissance, it was the rediscovery of Plutarch’s Lives that stimulated popular interest in the classics. Epitomes, which hit the highlights of the best stories and were written in Tuscan and other local dialects, circulated as popular literature. Captains and merchants took time to read the popularized Plutarch for its practical wisdom, and thus the Lives not only survived, but became a huge hit all over Europe during the Renaissance. 3 “We dunces would have been lost if this book had not raised us out of the dirt,” said Montaigne of the first French edition (1559). 4 C.S. Lewis concludes that in Elizabethan England, “Plutarch’s Lives built the heroic ideal of the Elizabethan age.” 5 Sir Thomas North prepared the first English edition of Plutarch’s Lives in 1579, and Shakespeare borrowed heavily from it. 6 In 1683, a team of translators headed by John Dryden authored a complete translation from the original Greek (North had translated from Amyot’s French edition).
Great souls have found comfort in Plutarch’s wisdom. Beethoven, growing deaf, wrote in 1801: “I have often cursed my Creator and my existence. Plutarch has shown me the path of resignation. If it is at all possible, I will bid defiance to my fate, though I feel that as long as I live there will be moments when I shall be God’s most unhappy creature … Resignation, what a wretched resource! Yet it is all that is left to me.” Facing death in Khartoum, General Gordon took time to note: “Certainly I would make Plutarch’s Lives a handbook for our young officers. It is worth any number of ‘Arts of War’ or ‘Minor Tactics’.” 7 Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Lives “a bible for heroes.” 8
By the twentieth century, however, Plutarch’s popularity began to fade. Professional classicists produced no revitalizing new edition of the Lives in modern English, and by the 1990’s, classical studies had so declined in popularity that a riot at Stanford University featured thousands of the top students in the United States chanting the battlecry of the new creed, Diversity: “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Culture’s Got To Go.” Plutarch’s heroes had no place in their brave new world of gray equality, populated by puppets of money, resentful of eminence.
Moreover, all discrimination between good and bad was actively suppressed among the intelligentsia. In the words of Simone Weil: “The essential characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century is the growing weakness, and almost the disappearance, of the idea of value. … But above all [those responsible were] the writers who were the guardians of the treasure that has been lost; and some of them now take pride in having lost it.” 9
Another cause for Plutarch’s loss of popularity was that reading skills declined generally with the advent more seductive entertainment such as television and Nintendo games, and the decline of public schools. Plutarch’s elaborate sentence structure and long digressions, preserved in the Dryden edition, are a challenge to modern young readers of English, who, if they read at all, require a pruned-down text that gets to the point.
As classics departments continue to close, embattled scholars demand cramdown Greek grammar for all, and Greek drama in the original. The best has indeed become the enemy of the good. Scholastic diligence has produced such a dense cloud of ink that the ancient light grows dim, and so, at the end of the twentieth century, the cycle of Plutarch’s popularity has reached its perigee
But Plutarch will always come back, as he has after other dark ages. We find Plutarch surprisingly relevant today because nothing really has changed in human nature over the nineteen centuries since Plutarch wrote. As the greatest English thinker, Samuel Johnson, put it: “… we are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.” The Rambler, No. 60. And we all need heroic examples to show us the way.
There is a definite effect on readers of these ancient stories. Emerson said: “We cannot read Plutarch without a tingling of the blood; and I accept the saying of the Chinese Mencius: ‘A sage is the instructor of a hundred ages. When the manners of Loo are heard of, the stupid become intelligent, and the wavering, determined.’ ” 10 The spiritually inductive power of Plutarch’s heroes, apart from Plutarch’s own skill at sketching character and imparting wisdom, may explain the perennial appeal of the Lives.
To the biographies of his heroes, Plutarch brought a master’s eye for the essence. Impressionist artists and poets are not to be faulted for failing to record every detail of their subjects with scrupulous fidelity, and likewise we should recognize that a deft sentence from Plutarch means more than volumes from minor scribes. Historical details are only incidental to the character of Plutarch’s subjects. He clearly disclaims any pretensions to being a historian at the beginning of his life of Alexander: “My intention is not to write histories, but lives.” The difference between Plutarch and a dry chronicle of the times is the difference between a cake and a pile of ingredients, understanding and knowledge, a person and a corpse.
It is this difference which makes a classic. Plutarch transcends the historical subjects he deals with and the period he wrote in. As Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare, we may say of Plutarch: “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
Go to Home Page for 15 Greek Heroes from Plutarch’s Lives
1. Rome destroyed Corinth and enslaved its population in 146 B.C. Macedonia had already been crushed at the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C. The Peloponnesus became a Roman province in 27 B.C.
2. Plutarch believed in one unitary god, with different names for its different aspects. In between god and mortal men, Plutarch believed that there was an infinite hierarchy of other beings, who were subject to death and rebirth but on longer cycles. Inasmuch as they had not completely purged all of their passions, these spiritual beings had weaknesses, such as anger. Men could be promoted into angels, and angels could be demoted into men, according to how they had lived their previous lives.
3. One of the first books printed was a complete edition of the Lives translated into Latin from the original Greek, published in Rome in 1470. First publication of the Lives in the major European languages occurred as follows: Italian (1482), Spanish (1491), German (1541), French (1559), and English (1579).
4. Montaigne, “To Morrow is a New Day,” in The Essayes of Montaigne, tr. John Florio (paraphrased) (New York: Random House, 1933).
5. C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954) p. 305.
6. For the influence of Plutarch on Shakespeare, see Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Timon of Athens. Characters having Plutarchean names are found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pericles, and The Winter’s Tale.
7. C.G. Gordon, The Journals of Major-Gen. C.G. Gordon, C.B., at Khartoum, edited by A. Egmont Hake (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1885) p. 64. Cf. pp. 163 and 240.
8. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Introduction” to Plutarch’s Morals, edited by William W. Goodwin (London: Sampson, Low, 1870) p. xxi.
9. Simone Weil, “The Responsibility of Writers” in The Simone Weil Reader, edited by George A. Panichas (New York: David McKay Co., 1977).
10. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Uses of Great Men” in Representative Men (1850).www.e-classics.com/plutarch.htm