Parallel LivesParallel Lives by Plutarch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ease, and speed of execution, seldom produces work of any permanent value or delicacy. It is the time which is spent in laborious production for which we are repaid by the durable character of the result.

In the course of his grand theory of history, Oswald Spengler distinguishes what he sees as the fundamental difference between the ancient Greco-Roman and the contemporary Western cultures: the Greek’s ideal concept was of bounded, perfect forms, while the Western soul craves the boundless, the formless, and the infinite. It is a somewhat vague statement, I know, but I kept coming back to Spengler’s idea as I read Plutarch’s Lives.

Specifically, I kept thinking of Spengler’s idea as I mentally compared Plutarch’s conception of personality with Montaigne’s. I could not help making this comparison, you see, since it was Montaigne who led me to Plutarch. The Frenchman idolized the Greek; and the Essays are full of quotes of and references to Plutarch. Indeed, Montaigne specifically praises Plutarch for his insight into human nature:

The historians are my right ball, for they are pleasant and easy, and where man, in general, the knowledge of whom I hunt after, appears more vividly and entire than anywhere else… the variety and truth of his internal qualities, in gross and piecemeal, the diversity of means by which he is united and knit, and the accidents that threaten him. Now those that write lives, by reason they insist more upon counsels than events, more upon what sallies from within, than upon what happens from without, are the most proper for my reading; and, therefore, above all others, Plutarch is the man for me.

For my part this quote better describes Montaigne than Plutarch. Since it is exactly in this—the representation of personality—that I think Spengler’s idea most aptly applies in these two writers.

Compare the representation of a person in a classical Greek statue and in a portrait by Rembrandt, and I think you will catch my meaning. The first is all surface—shapely limbs, a well-proportioned body, a harmonious face, whose eyes nevertheless stare out serenely into vacancy, suggesting nothing internal. In Rembrandt it is exactly the reverse: the face may be ugly, the body largely hidden in shadows, yet all the energy is focused on the expression—an expression of endless suggestion, which brings to us a definite human personality.

I feel the same contrast between Plutarch and Montaigne. Plutarch’s method of characterization is statuesque. He enumerates his heroes’ virtues and qualities as if they were set in stone; and he derives all of their actions from these static characteristics. Montaigne is completely the reverse: he contradicts himself a thousand times in his book, and in the process reveals the qualities of his mind far more exquisitely than any straightforward description could accomplish. Plutarch’s heroes never change: their character is their destiny; whereas Montaigne is nothing but change. Indeed, for me it is hard to say that Plutarch’s heroes have “personality,” in the sense that I can imagine meeting them. They are no more relatable than a Greek statue.

They were certainly relatable to Plutarch himself, however, as he writes in a famous passage:

It was for the sake of others that I first undertook to write biographies, but I soon began to dwell upon and delight in them for myself, endeavoring to the best of my ability to regulate my own life, and to make it like that of those who were reflected in their history as it were in a mirror before me. By the study of their biographies, we receive each man as a guest into our minds, and we seem to understand their character as the result of personal acquaintance, because we have obtained from their acts the best and most important means of forming an opinion about them.

This quote also illustrates Plutarch’s moral purpose. For a book written by a Greek living under Roman domination, comparing the lives of Greeks and Romans, he seems to have been quite bereft of political purpose. He is, rather, a moralist. Through his biographies he hopes to determine which actions are noble, which nobler, and which noblest, an analysis he performs through his comparisons at the end of the paired lives. He writes biographies in the conviction that we naturally imitate which we see and admire; we are drawn in by the attraction we feel for noble characters, and become ennobled ourselves in the process. This is why Plutarch eschews writing strict history:

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege. Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

This sounds promising enough: teaching moral lessons through depicting great personalities. My problem—aside from not being able to relate to the heroes—was that I questioned the very greatness of their actions. Of course there are many virtuous actions recorded here, worthy of praise and emulation. However, nearly all of Plutarch’s heroes are military commanders; and these pages are spattered with blood. The cutthroat world of ancient political squabbles, territorial conquests, internal strife, did not strike me as promising ground to teach virtue. Voltaire was perhaps thinking of Plutarch when he made this remark:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

Plutarch, to his credit, does give a remarkable portrait of the Newton of his time: Archimedes. But this is tucked away in his life of the Roman general, Marcellus.

For these reasons I had a great deal of difficulty in finishing this book. After every couple Lives I had to take a break; so it took me three years of on-again, off-again reading to finally get to the end. My ignorance did not help, either. Plutarch, being an ancient author, sometimes presumed a great deal more knowledge that I possessed about the relevant political history; and so I found myself frequently lost. And his style, though eloquent, is also monotonous (at least in translation), which was another challenge to my attention.

But I am glad I read Plutarch. This book is an extraordinary historical document, an invaluable (but not infallible) source of information about these ancient figures. Plutarch loved a good story and these pages are rich in anecdote—some of them so famous that it is likely you know one even if you have not read Plutarch. And though I struggled through many of the less famous figures, I was entranced by Plutarch’s biographies of the heroes I was acquainted with: Pompey, Alexander, Cicero, Brutus, and Antony. (Shakespeare followed the latter two Lives very closely in his Roman plays.) If Plutarch was good enough for Montaigne then, by Jove, he is good enough for me.

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