Plutarch: At best a name to most people

By ROGER KIMBALL  |  July 1, 2002 at 10:52 AM
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NEW YORK, July 1 (UPI) -- Like all ancient authors today, Plutarch is at best a name to most people, even to most college-educated people.

You, dear reader, belong to a select group, because you know that Plutarch (c. 46 - c. 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.

These days, in fact, Plutarch is little more than an item on scholarly bibliographies.

It wasn't always this way.

Indeed, until quite recently, Plutarch was one of the most eagerly read and deeply influential writers in history, his work acclaimed (in the words of one commentator) as "among the formative books of Western civilization."

Plutarch's influence was wide as well as deep. From him we learn much of what we know about various luminaries from the ancient world.

But Plutarch was not only a biographer. He was also a moral philosopher of immense influence. His moral and occasional essays were published traditionally under the Latin title "Moralia" -- "Moral Matters."

Some of the issues he raised have a distinctly contemporary relevance.

Item: "That one should guard especially against the pleasures derived from degenerate music, and how to do so."

Many of the essays in the Moralia began life as lectures. 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 Plato's philosophy, on Stoicism, on Epicureanism.

Some of Plutarch's 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 wrote beautifully on the philia that animates married love.)

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 one's toes).

In "How a Man May Become Aware of His Progress in Virtue," we find a superb compendium of common sense about moral self-scrutiny. The habit of translating words into deeds, Plutarch observes, is one good mark of moral progress. "An indication of this is, in the first place, the desire to emulate what we commend ... and, on the other hand, unwillingness to do ... what we censure."

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 (81 - 96), Nerva (96 - 98), and Trajan (98 - 117); 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 world -- the 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.

Plutarch himself helped to extend that spiritual autumn by serving for many years as a priest at the Delphic Oracle. His life and writings continually bore witness to the famous maxims inscribed at Delphi: "Know Thyself" and "Avoid Extremes."

Plutarch regarded himself first of all as a philosopher, and he 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 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 discussed.

Villains are worthy of our interest not 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."

Still, notwithstanding a few exemplary cases of evil, it was Plutarch's general policy either to winnow out what was disreputable or to surround it with exculpating extenuations.

In his life of the Athenian commander Cimon, Plutarch writes that "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 man's conduct ... we should regard rather as the defects of goodness than the misdeeds of wickedness."

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 men's 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 sophisticated moderns tend to chalk up Plutarch's belief in the magnetic properties of the moral good to his "charming naïveté."

It is significant that today we are much more apt to emulate what pleases us than what we approve.

Hence it is that the contemporary equivalents of Plutarch's 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 Plutarch's 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.

Until the events of Sept. 11, it seemed as though we had lost our taste for that species of nobility. Character no longer impressed us.

Has that changed? Perhaps. A good test is the extent to which Plutarch and the humanity he championed once again resonate with our deepest concerns.

(Roger Kimball is managing editor of The New Criterion. He can be contacted at

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