Culture > Books

Books: The lives of Plutarch

Books | Timeless lessons available from the classic book of virtues

Issue: "Federal Testing," Sept. 13, 1997

It was the primary textbook about the Greek and Roman world for generations of students throughout Christendom. It was the historical source for many of Shakespeare's finest plays. It forever set the pattern for the biographical arts. It was the inspiration for many of the ideas of the American political pioneers-evidenced by liberal quotations in the articles, speeches, and sermons of Samuel Adams, Peyton Randolph, Patrick Henry, Samuel Davies, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Henry Lee, John Jay, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, after the Bible it was the most frequently referenced source during the Founding era. For these and a myriad of other reasons, Plutarch's Lives is one of the most vital and consequential of all the ancient classics. '

Written sometime during the tumultuous days of the second century, it was organized as a series of parallel biographies-alternating between famous Greeks and Romans. A character from the Golden Age like Pericles, Alcibiades, Lycurgus, Alexander, or Solon is compared with one from the Splendorous Age like Cicero, Brutus, Cato, Antony, or Caesar. Plutarch's aim was primarily didactic, so the Lives abound with lessons about honor, valor, wisdom, temperance, and duty. It was a paean to morality in a pagan culture. It was the original "Book of Virtues."

Interestingly, the various profiles are notorious for their mixture of fact and fiction, history and myth, verity and gossip. Plutarch was a lover of tradition, and his desire was both to memorialize past glories and to reassert them as living ideals. Thus, whether an event actually occurred was of little consequence to him-what mattered was the lessons from those events and their place in the cultural consciousness.

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"When a story is so celebrated and is vouched for by so many authorities," he commented in his profile of Croesus, "I cannot agree that it should be rejected because of the so-called rules of chronology." And again, in his biography of Theseus, he wrote, "May I therefore succeed in purifying fable, making her submit to reason and take on the semblance of history. But where she obstinately disdains to make herself credible and refuses to admit any element of probability I shall pray for kindly readers and such as receive with indulgence the tales of antiquity."

Thus did Plutarch become the father of that modern branch of the theological arts we oddly call "Political Science." And thus did he forge the cardinal model for all succeeding disciplines of the "Divinities" such as "Sociology," "Psychology," "History," and the "Social Sciences." Indeed, the tenured place of "Moral Philosophy" in Western thought owes more to Plutarch than almost any other single artisan-at least in form if not in substance.

This seminal work seems to have passed out of educational and literary fashion. Though there are a few paperback editions that collect selected portions of the work, such anthologies do violence to Plutarch's intended comparative structure. Once an indispensable part of every secondary and collegiate curriculum, reprinted in innumerable inexpensive formats, it is now only available in America in this rather expensive, unabridged single-volume edition.

Despite these encumbrances, The Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans ought to find its way into every family's library-as it once did.

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