It is not histories I am writing, but lives; and in the most glorious deeds there is not always an indication of virtue or vice, indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die.”
~Plutarch (Life of Alexander/Life of Julius Caesar, Parallel Lives, [tr. E.L. Bowie])
Plutarch, (born c. 46 ad, Boeotia [Greece]—died c. 120), biographer, historian, essayist and moralist whose works strongly influenced the development of the essay, the biography, and historical writing in Europe from the 16th to the 19th century. Plutarchhas been called as one of the most important writers who ever lived. Among his roughly 227 works, the most significant are the Parallel Lives (Bioi parallēloi), in which he chronicles the noble acts and characters of Greek and Roman soldiers, legislators, orators, and statesmen, and the Moralia, or Ethica, a sequence of over 60 essays on ethical, religious, physical, political, and literary topics.
At Athens Plutarch studied physics, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine, natural science, philosophy, Greek, and Latin literature in 66 AD he received a liberal education. He may have studied under Ammonius of Lamptrae, a Plato scholar with religious and Neoplatonic worldview. Plutarch traveled widely in Greece and Asia Minor and visited Alexandria, Egypt where he finished his education. In Rome he cultivated friendships with influential Romans and lectured on philosophy and ethics throughout Italy. Between 75 and 90, he spent considerable time in Italy although ironically he actually never mastered the Latin language. In later years, Plutarch relished the intellectual benefits of the Pax Romana, primarily in Chaeronia, Italy. He held numerous civic positions; the most prominent one—that of head priest of Delphi—he held with distinction for 20 years and raised to a prominence not witnessed since the Golden Age of the Greek Empire. Near the end of his life scholars believe was the period he wrote much of his magnum opus the Parallel Lives and some portions of the Moralia.
Plutarch’s most famous works include the Moralia and the Lives, which are not only related, but have had vast impact on subsequent writers and the literatures of Europe and America. As a moralist philosopher, Plutarch was greatly concerned with the moral standing of man both as an individual with his moral conduct in the greater society during an era when mankind’s faith in religion and philosophy was declining. The Moralia is actually a collection of 83 treatises, written as dialogues, letters, and lectures, on different themes such as vegetarianism; superstition; Epicurean, Stoic, and Academic philosophy; dietetics; divine justice; prophecy; demonology; conjugal relations; family life; mysticism; and wise sayings that historically were the literary precursors to such self-help classics as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Benjamin Franklin’s Little Richard’s Almanac.
The Lives (often called Parallel Lives) probably published between 105 and 115, are timeless, eloquent and succinct biographies of statesmen and soldiers of reputation, usually presented in pairs of lives, first a Greek, then a Roman, followed by a comparison. The primary intent of the twenty-three of these which have survived and four single lives is to give guidance for moral and political conduct. Plutarch was not a reflective philosopher but a popular writer in the finest and most enduring meaning of the word. He did not create a philosophic structure but was diverse in his utilization and description of various worldviews. He zealously championed Plato and was acquainted with Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers. He brutally criticized Epicureanism and stoicism but adopted these methods to serve his philosophical ideas. While many view him today as a humanist writer; others see his worldview as favoring mysticism and monotheism.
Plutarch was a Platonist, but viewed the Peripatetic school of philosophy (Aristotle) as relevant and useful including some parts of Stoicism despite his numerous overt diatribes he launched which were contrary to their values, nevertheless he categorically rejected only Epicureanism, e.g., hedonism—the highest good was the abolition of pain and the zealous pursuit and celebration of pleasure. He committed little significance to theoretical inquiries and was a skeptic regarding the likelihood of ever explaining them. Plutarch was fascinated with moral and religious issues. In contrast to Stoic materialism and Epicurean “atheism” he valued a pure idea of God that was more in agreement with Plato. He embraced a second principle (Dyad) in order to describe the extraordinary qualities of the world. This principle expressed the idea that the evil world-soul which has from the creation been bound up with matter, but in the beginning was affected by reason and ordered by it. Accordingly Plutarch’s philosophy changed the divine soul of the world, but continued to function as the basis of all evil. He believed that God above the material world, and therefore even devils were agents of God’s power on the world. He believed very much in freedom of the will, and the immortality of the soul.
Influence in Literature
Plutarch’s writings had a colossal impact on subsequent philosophers and writers particularly in English and French and literature. Shakespeare’s plays based on Greek and Roman subjects liberally adopted large parts of Thomas North’s 1579 translation of selected Parallel Lives and Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles in several of his plays and sometimes quoted from them verbatim. Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist school held the Moralia as a model of critical philosophy to the degree that Emerson called the Lives “a bible for heroes” in his radiant introduction to the five-volume 19th-century edition. He further wrote that it was impossible to “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.’”
Montaigne’s Essays is heavily influenced by Plutarch’s Moralia and are intentionally patterned after Plutarch’s tranquil and expansive inquiries into science, manners, customs and beliefs. Essays covers more than 400 references to the writings of Plutarch. Other admirers included James Boswell who quoted Plutarch in the introduction of his own Life of Samuel Johnson, Ben Johnson, John Dryden, Alexander Hamilton, John Milton, Louis L’amour, and Francis Bacon, as well as such different people as Cotton Mather, Robert Browning, William Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells, J.W. von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller.
Plutarch in Modern Times
Plutarch’s influence declined in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it remains embedded in the popular ideas of Greek and Roman history. One of his most famous quotes was from one of his earliest works: “The world of man is best captured through the lives of the men who created history.” Another memorable quote by Plutarch likewise is demonstrable of the importance of writing from a historical worldview and not just writing biography of great and interesting people for biography’s sake. Plutarch writes, “It is not histories I am writing, but lives; and in the most glorious deeds there is not always an indication of virtue or vice, indeed a small thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of a character than battles where thousands die.”
On one occasion when Plutarch was ridiculed for his patience in discharging trivial duties famously answered, “It is not for myself, but for the city.” And by “city” he meant not Rome, where though a Roman citizen never mastered Latin, but Athens where to the end of his illustrious life he served a priest of Apollo at Delphi and in my humble opinion, served as an oracle to humanity and the world. I believe that it was this devotion to duty, to citizenship that set Plutarch from many other great writers for he lived by the credo: It is part of a man to do great and noble deeds, though he risk everything.
Epilogue—God vs. State: Problems of Supremacy
In analyzing the superiority of the commandments of God to the laws of man or the ‘State,’ theologians do not condemn the commands of the state or the duties of citizenship. Yet, essentially everyone at some point in life will discover themselves faced with a conflict between the law of the state and the divine law. Under these conditions, religious people have no choice. God’s law must be obeyed above the law of man. “Laws that are contrary to the commandments of God,” Aquinas holds, do not “bind a man in conscience” and “should not be obeyed.”
This battle between human and divine demonstrated throughout antiquity. One of my favorite examples is in the story of Antigone by Sophocles. “It was not Zeus who had published me that edict,” Antigone declares of the human law she disobeys; “nor deemed I that the decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statues of heaven. For their life is not of today or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.”
Plutarch’s ideals of citizen as delineated in writings like Parallel Lives and Moralia is the problem Antigone faces which can befall and ensnare good people minding their own business in as numerous different ways as there are possibilities of conflict between individual conscience or desire and political compulsion. Despite the form this problem takes, the conflict challenges the political philosopher with all the obligations that create the problem of loyalty between the person and society, or man and the state.
To what magnitude and it what degree is humanity sacred and inviolable in the eyes of the state? How much can the state rule over the people? The historical basis of the Bill of Rights was to render government power impotent over the individual therefore we find the repeated refrain—Congress shall make no law… How much can the state demand of an individual natural law and the natural rights given by God to every person be infringed? Is the state simply a means in the person’s pursuit of happiness, or the end to which all other laws must be connected? The question of what is a citizen is the question of is humanity made for the state, or the state for humanity?
Of course questions of this type have been addressed by Plutarch and many other philosophers before and after him, however, the answers range from philosophical anarchism at one extreme to equally philosophical totalitarianism at the other, with all degrees of individualism, fascism, hedonism, and communism in the midst. The universal problem of God (man) vs. the state, with all its provocative problems, addresses many other topics of Great Books particularly—Constitution, Good and Evil, Law, Liberty, and State, but with many Classical writers Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Mills and our subject, Plutarch, held in highest esteem first principles and the central idea of citizenship indicates the ideal state of the human condition as a person of the political community and to Christian writers particularly, Augustine and Aquinas the citizen of a free society are considered Children of God that populate “The City of God.”