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  Lectures on the Harvard Classics.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
II. Plutarch
By Professor W. S. Ferguson
PLUTARCH was a kindly man, well educated in philosophy and rhetoric. He lived between 46 and 125 A. D. in little, out-of-the-way Bœotian Chæronea. He spent his days lecturing and in friendly correspondence and conversation with many cultivated contemporaries among both Greeks and Romans. He was fortunate in his age. “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would,” says Gibbon, “without hesitation, name that” in which Plutarch wrote. It was the twilight time of antiquity; and in the works of Plutarch 1 are clearly mirrored the charm and languor, the incentive to stroll and loiter, and the dimming of vision, characteristic of the hour before “the sun sank and all the ways were darkened.”  1

  His versatility is remarkable, and he has ever at hand an apt illustration for every situation; but his fertility tempts him to digress, and his learning is not matched by critical power. An admirable example of his mode of thought as well as an epitome of his natural philosophy appears in the following passage from his “Life of Pericles”: “There is a story, that once Pericles had brought to him from a country farm of his, a ram’s head with one horn, and that Lampon, the diviner, upon seeing the horn grow strong and solid out of the midst of the forehead, gave it as his judgment, that, there being at that time two potent factions, parties, or interests in the city, the one of Thucydides and the other of Pericles, the government would come about to that one of them in whose ground or estate this token or indication of fate had shown itself. But that Anaxagoras, cleaving the skull in sunder, showed to the bystanders that the brain had not filled up its natural place, but being oblong, like an egg, had collected from all parts of the vessel which contained it, in a point to that place from whence the root of the horn took its rise. And that, for that time, Anaxagoras was much admired for his explanation by those that were present; and Lampon no less a little while after, when Thucydides was overpowered, and the whole affairs of the state and government came into the hands of Pericles. And yet, in my opinion, it is no absurdity to say that they were both in the right, both natural philosopher and diviner, one justly detecting the cause of this event, by which it was produced, the other the end for which it was designed. For it was the business of the one to find out and give an account of what it was made, and in what manner and by what means it grew as it did; and of the other to foretell to what end and purpose it was so made, and what it might mean or portend. Those who say that to find out the cause of a prodigy is in effect to destroy its supposed signification as such, do not take notice that, at the same time, together with divine prodigies, they also do away with signs and signals of human art and concert, as, for instance, the clashings of quoits, fire-beacons, and the shadows on sun-dials, every one of which things has its cause, and by that cause and contrivance is a sign of something else. But these are subjects, perhaps, that would better befit another place.”

  Plutarch was a widely read man. The world in which he lived was rather the world which his mind portrayed than that upon which his eyes looked. In other words, he lived in his past much more fully than in his present. For everything that had happened he had a gentle but persistent curiosity. Customs hallowed by time evoked in him the utmost tenderness; but his nature was without a vestige of fanaticism. To the hot, strenuous youth of his age, to zealots for preserving the old, and to harsh innovators alike he seemed probably a trifler and perhaps a bore. They must have turned with impatience from his universal charity; for he was a widely loyal man, loyal to his petty civic duties, his family obligations, his friends, his reputation, his race.
  By his interest in, and profession of, practical morality Plutarch was called to be a biographer, but it is to his loyalty to his people that we owe his “Parallel Lives.” In their composition he was guided by the desire to show the arrogant Romans and the later Greeks in whose midst he lived, that a great Hellenic man of affairs could be put in worthy comparison with every outstanding Roman general and statesman.  4

  Biography in antiquity was a branch of science and also a branch of philosophy. Scientific biography was interested in facts as such, in the collocation of miscellaneous information about persons. It laid claim to objectivity of details, but left free room for individuality to display itself in their selection. The principle of choice might be pruriency, political, class, or philosophic animosity, or mere love of scandal. Such biography might be with or without style, with or without painstaking: it was commonly without critical method. The precipitate of much lost scientific biography lies before us in the “Lives of the Twelve Cæsars” by Plutarch’s contemporary, Suetonius.
  In Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives,” we have, on the other hand, the precipitate of much lost philosophic biography. He stands for us at the end of a long development, in the course of which many contemporary, or approximately contemporary, biographies were produced, each to be superseded perhaps by its successor, as they all were finally superseded and destroyed by those of Plutarch. The plundering of the countless books and pamphlets, plays, and memoirs, cited in the “Parallel Lives,” the culling of the multitude of anecdotes and bons mots with which they are set and enlivened, were by no means the personal work of Plutarch. Many, if not most, of them he found gathered for him by his nameless predecessors. He was under no professional sense of duty to look up and verify his references, and he regularly omitted to do it. Mistakes abound in Plutarch’s “Lives.” But even the historian finds them pardonable when he has the assurance that the materials in conjunction with which they appear were taken by men of greater patience and leisure than Plutarch from works, many of them lost, reaching back over the centuries to the earliest Greek literature.  6

  The “Lives” of Plutarch are thus in a sense the product of many ages and of many minds. But, like mediæval cathedrals, they have unity of design and style. This is not wholly the result of their origin in a community of philosophic biographers. It is in large part the result of Plutarch’s own architectonic powers. He was far from being a colorless and characterless compiler. His “Lives” seldom seem “lumpy.” They reveal, throughout, the quaint personality of the author. His philosophic standpoint is betrayed in almost every line of criticism they contain. His mastery of literary technique is never wanting. The quiet humor, unobtrusive and delicate, is unmistakably his. Piquancy is a Greek trait, and Plutarch was a Greek. He is never indecent, as his contemporaries understood that term, but he never forgot the natural human interest in the intimate relations of men and women. His dramatic sense needs no more than mention: Shakespeare’s debt to Plutarch in his “Julius Cæsar,” “Coriolanus,” and “Antony and Cleopatra” speaks volumes on this point.
  Yet, when everything has been said in praise of his fine qualities, it is still true that his mind, like that of the philosophic biographers who preceded him, was an unfortunate medium for the great men of affairs of antiquity to have to pass through on their way to us. They were all sicklied over by the pale cast of ethical interpretation. Men of flesh and blood, actuated by all the reasons and passions of which human beings of diverse but distinguished endowments were capable, tend to appear as puppets exemplifying laudable virtues and deterrent vices. Man whose natures are truly revealed only in the work which they accomplished are isolated from their societies, and characterized by what they did or said at insignificant moments. Trivialities serve Plutarch’s purpose of ethical portraiture as well as or better than the historic triumphs and failures of his heroes. Trite ethical considerations are made decisive for the formation of policies and the reaching of decisions instead of the realities of each historical situation. Hence one of the chief duties of modern historians and modern historical biographers has been to murder “Plutarch’s men,” and put in their stead the real statesmen and generals of ancient times. The latter part of their task, however, they could not even attempt without the materials Plutarch furnishes to them. As for the difficulty of the former, it is well disclosed by the story Mahaffy tells of the illiterate Irish peasant who said of a certain fortunate neighbor that “he had as many lives as Plutarch.”  8
Note 1. For a volume of selected “Lives,” see Harvard Classics, xii. [back]


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