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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Plutarch (c. 45–120 A.D.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward Bull Clapp (1856–1919)
 
“STUDY your Plutarch, and paint,” said the great French classicist to his pupil. The advice was sound; for though the unequaled literature of Greece boasts of many names more illustrious than Plutarch’s for original genius and power, yet the world in general has drawn from him, more than from any other source, its conception of the heroic men of Greece and Rome. “He was one of Plutarch’s men,” is the eulogy often spoken over the grave of some statesman or general whose rugged grandeur of character seems to harmonize with the splendid portraits drawn for us by the old Greek biographer. And so, although this author does not occupy the very highest place either as philosopher or historian, yet there are few ancient writers who are more interesting or important than he.  1
  We know but little of his life. He was born about half a century after the beginning of our era, at Chæronea in Bœotia; a portion of Hellas popularly credited with intellectual dullness, though the names of Pindar and Epaminondas go far to vindicate its fame. He seems to have spent some time at Rome, and in other parts of Italy; but he returned to Greece in his later years, closing his life about the year 120. He thus lived under the Roman emperors from Nero to Trajan, and was contemporary with Tacitus and the Plinys. It is remarkable, however, that he does not quote from any of the great Romans of his time; nor do they, in turn, make any mention of him.  2
  Greece had at this time long since lost her political independence. Even in literature her creative genius had spent itself, and in its place had come the period of elegant finish and laborious scholarship. Alexandria, which had supplanted Athens as the intellectual center of the world, was now herself beginning to yield precedence to all-conquering Rome. Theocritus, the last Greek poet of the highest rank, had died nearly three centuries before, while Lucian, the gifted reviver of Attic prose, was yet to come. The only other Greek writer of this period whose works have been widely popular was the Hebrew Josephus, who was a few years older than Plutarch.  3
  Born of a wealthy and respected family, and living the peaceful and happy life of the scholar and writer, Plutarch was the faithful exponent of the literary tendencies in his time. His knowledge of Greek literature was apparently boundless; and his writings are enriched by numerous quotations, many of which are from works which are lost to us, so that these remnants are of the greatest value. In all that he wrote we see the evidence of a mind well stocked with the varied learning of his day, interested and curious about a great variety of problems, fond of moral and philosophical reflections, but not the originator of new views, nor even the advocate of any distinct system in philosophy. We admire his sweetness and purity of character, his culture of mind and heart, and his wide knowledge of men and life, rather than the depth of his thought or the soaring height of his genius.  4
  The writings of Plutarch fall naturally into two classes: the historical and the ethical. The chief work in the first class is the ‘Parallel Lives,’ consisting of forty-six biographies arranged in pairs, the life of a Greek being followed in each case by the life of a Roman. Nineteen of these double biographies are accompanied in our text by comparisons of the two characters depicted, though these are probably spurious, and not the work of Plutarch. In this juxtaposition of the great men of the conquered and the conquering race we recognize the patriotic pride of the Greek biographer. Living at a time when his country was in servitude to Rome, he delighted in showing that Greece too, in her palmy days, had produced warriors and statesmen who were worthy to stand in company with the men who had made Rome the mistress of the world. In the selection of his pairs Plutarch was guided, to some extent at least, by a real or fancied resemblance in the public careers of his heroes. Thus he groups together Theseus and Romulus as legendary founders of States, Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius as mythical legislators, Demosthenes and Cicero as orators and statesmen. But in many cases, it must be confessed, the resemblance is slight or entirely wanting.  5
  As a writer of biography the world has scarcely seen the superior of Plutarch. To be sure, his methods of historical research were not severely critical, and modern scholars are forced to use his statements with some degree of caution. But it is biography that he means to write, and not history; and his clear conception of the difference in spirit between the two forms of composition has done much to give his ‘Lives’ their boundless popularity. His purpose was to portray character rather than narrate events. For this purpose the many personal touches which he introduces, the anecdotes which he repeats without too close a scrutiny, are of more value than many pages of meaningless events, however accurately told. He distinctly states in his life of Nicias that he will pass over much that is told by Thucydides, while he endeavors to “gather and propound things not commonly marked and known, which will serve, I doubt not, to decipher the man and his nature.” None of Plutarch’s anecdotes are empty or pointless. They always help to light up the character which he is describing, and many of them are treasures which we could ill afford to spare.  6
  But besides these bits of personal character, Plutarch abounds in grand historical pictures of a sober eloquence, which touches us all the more because of the severe self-restraint which the writer never lays aside. He never strives for pathos or dramatic effect; and when he thrills his reader it is the result of a passionate earnestness, like that of Thucydides, which cannot be concealed.  7
  In the light of what has been said, it is easy to understand why the ‘Lives’ has been perhaps the most widely beloved among all the literary treasures of Greece. Statesmen and generals, poets and philosophers, alike have expressed their admiration for this book, and the traces of its influence are to be found everywhere in modern literature.  8
  The English translation by Sir Thomas North, published in 1579, though it was not made from the original Greek, but from the great French version of Amyot, and though it abounds in errors, is yet a work of the utmost importance, both as a specimen of vigorous and racy English, and because it is the channel through which Plutarch became known to the writers of the Elizabethan age, and especially to Shakespeare. Shakespeare knew no Greek, and his acquaintance with Plutarch, and through him with the spirit of ancient life, must be due chiefly to Sir Thomas North. Three of his greatest plays, ‘Coriolanus,’ ‘Julius Cæsar,’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ are based on the ‘Lives’ to such an extent that it is not too much to say that they would not have been written had not Shakespeare made the acquaintance of the old Greek biographer. This is especially true of ‘Julius Cæsar,’ in which not merely are the incidents due to Plutarch, but even much of the language is suggested by Sir Thomas North. Many other English writers have given us pictures of ancient life, whose inspiration is plainly drawn from the same abundant source.  9
  As hinted above, Plutarch is not a critical historian according to modern standards. He does not reach even the plane of historical accuracy attained by Thucydides or Polybius. But he evidently consulted the best authorities accessible to him, and used them with conscientious diligence. We must admit that numerous errors and contradictions in details have been found in his biographies; and in particular, his comprehension of Roman politics seems not always to be clear. But in the portrayal of character he is always effective and usually correct. Only in his attack upon Herodotus (in the ‘Moralia’) for partiality in favor of Athens, he is influenced by his Bœotian patriotism to do injustice to his great predecessor. (The authenticity of this tract is much disputed.)  10
  Of Plutarch’s ‘Moralia,’ or moral essays, we must speak more briefly. This vast collection, of more than sixty treatises upon a great variety of subjects, has not received of late the attention which it deserves. The subjects treated are ethical, literary, and historical; and they are illustrated with a wealth of anecdote and quotation unequaled even in the ‘Lives.’ In these charming essays the Greek author appears as the serene scholar, the experienced and philosophic observer, throwing light on each subject he touches, and delighting the reader with wise reflection and with quaint and unusual learning. Among the most interesting portions of the ‘Morals,’ are the essays on the Late Vengeance of the Deity, the Education of Children, the Right Way of Hearing Poetry, on Superstition, and the so-called Consolation to Apollonius (on the death of his son). But Plutarch treats also of more obscure and recondite subjects, such as the Dæmon of Socrates, the Cessation of Oracles, Isis and Osiris, and others. Indeed, it would be necessary to quote the whole list of titles of the essays in order to give an adequate conception of their diversity of subject, and the wide scope of knowledge which they display. No ancient writer shows so complete a command of Greek literature and history, combined with so rich a fund of information bearing upon religion, philosophy, and social life. The style of these essays is scarcely less admirable than their matter; for while sometimes rugged and involved, it is never marred by affectation or straining for effect.  11
  It is inevitable to compare Plutarch, in the ‘Morals,’ with Seneca, who was only fifty years his senior; but the Greek appears to the better advantage in the comparison. While Seneca is often prosy and tiresome, Plutarch is always genial and sympathetic; and his genuine nobility of sentiment and moral feeling is far more attractive than the somewhat formal sermonizing of the Roman Stoic. Nor can we forget that Seneca was the supple minister of one of the worst of the Roman emperors, while Plutarch’s life is free from the smallest taint of insincerity.  12
  In many aspects Plutarch suggests Montaigne, who was one of his most sympathetic readers. The witty Frenchman was perhaps his superior in originality and point; but Plutarch far excels his modern admirer in elevation of thought and purity of tone. Yet no one has praised Plutarch more worthily, or more sincerely, than Montaigne. “We dunces had been lost,” he says, “had not this book raised us out of the dust. By this favor of his we dare now speak and write. ’Tis our breviary.”  13
 
 
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