Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. X. Lectures and Biographical Sketches
XI. Plutarch
                  THE SOUL
Shall have society of its own rank:
Be great, be true, and all the Scipios,
The Catos, the wise patriots of Rome,
Shall flock to you and tarry by your side
And comfort you with their high company.

IT 1 is remarkable that of an author so familiar as Plutarch, not only to scholars, but to all reading men, and whose history is so easily gathered from his works, no accurate memoir of his life, not even the dates of his birth and death, should have come down to us. Strange that the writer of so many illustrious biographies should wait so long for his own. It is agreed that he was born about the year 50 of the Christian era. He has been represented as having been the tutor of the Emperor Trajan, as dedicating one of his books to him, as living long in Rome in great esteem, as having received from Trajan the consular dignity, and as having been appointed by him the governor of Greece. He was a man whose real superiority had no need of these flatteries. Meantime, the simple truth is, that he was not the tutor of Trajan, that he dedicated no book to him, was not consul in Rome, nor governor of Greece; appears never to have been in Rome but on two occasions, and then on business of the people of his native city, Chæronea; and though he found or made friends at Rome, and read lectures to some friends or scholars, he did not know or learn the Latin language there; with one or two doubtful exceptions, never quotes a Latin book; and though the contemporary, in his youth or in his old age, of Persius, Juvenal, Lucan and Seneca, of Quintilian, Martial, Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder and the Younger, he does not cite them, and, in return, his name is never mentioned by any Roman writer. It would seem that the community of letters and of personal news was even more rare at that day than the want of printing, of rail-roads and telegraphs, would suggest to us.
  But this neglect by his contemporaries has been compensated by an immense popularity in modern nations. Whilst his books were never known to the world in their own Greek tongue, it is curious that the Lives were translated and printed in Latin, thence into Italian, French and English, more than a century before the original Works were yet printed. For whilst the Lives were translated in Rome in 1470, and the Morals, part by part, soon after, the first printed edition of the Greek Works did not appear until 1572. Hardly current in his own Greek, these found learned interpreters in the scholars of Germany, Spain and Italy. In France, in the middle of the most turbulent civil wars, Amyot’s translation awakened general attention. His genial version of the Lives in 1559, of the Morals in 1572, had signal success. 2 King Henry IV. wrote to his wife, Marie de Medicis: “Vive Dieu. As God liveth, you could not have sent me anything which could be more agreeable than the news of the pleasure you have taken in this reading. Plutarch always delights me with a fresh novelty. To love him is to love me; for he has been long time the instructor of my youth. My good mother, to whom I owe all, and who would not wish, she said, to see her son an illustrious dunce, put this book into my hands almost when I was a child at the breast. 3 It has been like my conscience, and has whispered in my ear many good suggestions and maxims for my conduct and the government of my affairs.” Still earlier, Rabelais cites him with due respect. Montaigne, in 1589, says: “We dunces had been lost, had not this book raised us out of the dirt. By this favor of his we dare now speak and write. The ladies are able to read to schoolmasters. ’T is our breviary.” Montesquieu drew from him his definition of law, and, in his Pensées, declares, “I am always charmed with Plutarch; in his writings are circumstances attached to persons, which give great pleasure;” and adds examples. Saint-Evremond read Plutarch to the great Condé under a tent. Rollin, so long the historian of antiquity for France, drew unhesitatingly his history from him. Voltaire honored him, and Rousseau acknowledged him as his master. In England, Sir Thomas North translated the Lives in 1579, and Holland the Morals in 1603, in time to be used by Shakspeare in his plays, and read by Bacon, Dryden and Cudworth.  2
  Then, recently, there has been a remarkable revival, in France, in the taste for Plutarch and his contemporaries; led, we may say, by the eminent critic Sainte-Beuve. M. Octave Gréard, in a critical work on the Morals, has carefully corrected the popular legends and constructed from the works of Plutarch himself his true biography. M. Levéque has given an exposition of his moral philosophy, under the title of “A Physician of the Soul,” in the Revue des Deux Mondes; and M. C. Martha, chapters on the genius of Marcus Aurelius, of Persius and Lucretius, in the same journal; whilst M. Fustel de Coulanges has explored from its roots in the Aryan race, then in their Greek and Roman descendants, the primæval religion of the household. 4  3
  Plutarch occupies a unique place in literature as an encyclopædia of Greek and Roman antiquity. Whatever is eminent in fact or in fiction, in opinion, in character, in institutions, in science,—natural, moral or metaphysical,—or in memorable sayings, drew his attention and came to his pen with more or less fulness of record. He is, among prose writers, what Chaucer is among English poets, a repertory for those who want the story without searching for it at first hand,—a compend of all accepted traditions. And all this without any supreme intellectual gifts. He is not a profound mind; not a master in any science; not a lawgiver, like Lycurgus or Solon; not a metaphysician, like Parmenides, Plato or Aristotle; not the founder of any sect or community, like Pythagoras or Zeno; not a naturalist, like Pliny or Linnæus; not a leader of the mind of a generation, like Plato or Goethe. But if he had not the highest powers, he was yet a man of rare gifts. He had that universal sympathy with genius which makes all its victories his own; though he never used verse, he had many qualities of the poet in the power of his imagination, the speed of his mental associations and his sharp, objective eyes. But what specially marks him, he is a chief example of the illumination of the intellect by the force of morals. Though the most amiable of boon companions, this generous religion gives him aperçus like Goethe’s.  4
  Plutarch was well-born, well-taught, well-conditioned; a self-respecting, amiable man, who knew how to better a good education by travels, by devotion to affairs private and public; a master of ancient culture, he read books with a just criticism; eminently social, he was a king in his own house, surrounded himself with select friends, and knew the high value of good conversation; and declares in a letter written to his wife that “he finds scarcely an erasure, as in a book well-written, in the happiness of his life.”  5
  The range of mind makes the glad writer. The reason of Plutarch’s vast popularity is his humanity. A man of society, of affairs; up-right, practical; a good son, husband, father and friend,—he has a taste for common life, and knows the court, the camp and the judgment-hall, but also the forge, farm, kitchen and cellar, and every utensil and use, and with a wise man’s or a poet’s eye. Thought defends him from any degradation. He does not lose his way, for the attractions are from within, not from without. A poet in verse or prose must have a sensuous eye, but an intellectual co-perception. Plutarch’s memory is full, and his horizon wide. Nothing touches man but he feels to be his; he is tolerant even of vice, if he finds it genial; enough a man of the world to give even the Devil his due, and would have hugged Robert Burns, when he cried:—
  “O wad ye tak’ a thought and mend!”
He is a philosopher with philosophers, a naturalist with naturalists, and sufficiently a mathematician to leave some of his readers, now and then, at a long distance behind him, or respectfully skipping to the next chapter. 5 But this scholastic omniscience of our author engages a new respect, since they hope he understands his own diagram.
  He perpetually suggests Montaigne, who was the best reader he has ever found, though Montaigne excelled his master in the point and surprise of his sentences. Plutarch had a religion which Montaigne wanted, and which defends him from wantonness; and though Plutarch is as plain-spoken, his moral sentiment is always pure. What better praise has any writer received than he whom Montaigne finds “frank in giving things, not words,” dryly adding, “it vexes me that he is so exposed to the spoil of those that are conversant with him.” It is one of the felicities of literary history, the tie which inseparably couples these two names across fourteen centuries. Montaigne, whilst he grasps Etienne de la Boèce with one hand, reaches back the other to Plutarch. These distant friendships charm us, and honor all the parties, and make the best example of the universal citizenship and fraternity of the human mind.  7
  I do not know where to find a book—to borrow a phrase of Ben Jonson’s—“so rammed with life,” and this in chapters chiefly ethical, which are so prone to be heavy and sentimental. No poet could illustrate his thought with more novel or striking similes or happier anecdotes. His style is realistic, picturesque and varied; his sharp objective eyes seeing everything that moves, shines or threatens in nature or art, or thought or dreams. Indeed, twilights, shadows, omens and spectres have a charm for him. He believes in witchcraft and the evil eye, in demons and ghosts,—but prefers, if you please, to talk of these in the morning. His vivacity and abundance never leave him to loiter or pound on an incident. I admire his rapid and crowded style, as if he had such store of anecdotes of his heroes that he is forced to suppress more than he recounts, in order to keep up with the hasting history.  8
  His surprising merit is the genial facility with which he deals with his manifold topics. There is no trace of labor or pain. He gossips of heroes, philosophers and poets; of virtues and genius; of love and fate and empires. It is for his pleasure that he recites all that is best in his reading: he prattles history. But he is no courtier, and no Boswell: he is ever manly, far from fawning, and would be welcome to the sages and warriors he reports, as one having a native right to admire and recount these stirring deeds and speeches. I find him a better teacher of rhetoric than any modern. His superstitions are poetic, aspiring, affirmative. A poet might rhyme all day with hints drawn from Plutarch, page on page. No doubt, this superior suggestion for the modern reader owes much to the foreign air, the Greek wine, the religion and history of antique heroes. Thebes, Sparta, Athens and Rome charm us away from the disgust of the passing hour. But his own cheerfulness and rude health are also magnetic. In his immense quotation and allusion we quickly cease to discriminate between what he quotes and what he invents. We sail on his memory into the ports of every nation, enter into every private property, and do not stop to discriminate owners, but give him the praise of all. ’T is all Plutarch, by right of eminent domain, and all property vests in this emperor. 6 This facility and abundance make the joy of his narrative, and he is read to the neglect of more careful historians. Yet he inspires a curiosity, sometimes makes a necessity, to read them. He disowns any attempt to rival Thucydides; but I suppose he has a hundred readers where Thucydides finds one, and Thucydides must often thank Plutarch for that one. He has preserved for us a multitude of precious sentences, in prose or verse, of authors whose books are lost; and these embalmed fragments, through his loving selection alone, have come to be proverbs of later mankind. I hope it is only my immense ignorance that makes me believe that they do not survive out of his pages,—not only Thespis, Polemos, Euphorion, Ariston, Evenus, etc., but fragments of Menander and Pindar. At all events, it is in reading the fragments he has saved from lost authors that I have hailed another example of the sacred care which has unrolled in our times, and still searches and unrolls papyri from ruined libraries and buried cities, and has drawn attention to what an ancient might call the politeness of Fate,—we will say, more advisedly, the benign Providence which uses the violence of war, of earthquakes and changed water-courses, to save underground through barbarous ages the relics of ancient art, and thus allows us to witness the upturning of the alphabets of old races, and the deciphering of forgotten languages, so to complete the annals of the forefathers of Asia, Africa and Europe.  9
  His delight in poetry makes him cite with joy the speech of Gorgias, “that the tragic poet who deceived was juster than he who deceived not, and he that was deceived was wiser than he who was not deceived.” 7  10
  It is a consequence of this poetic trait in his mind, that I confess that, in reading him, I embrace the particulars, and carry a faint memory of the argument or general design of the chapter; but he is not less welcome, and he leaves the reader with a relish and a necessity for completing his studies. Many examples might be cited of nervous expression and happy allusion, that indicate a poet and an orator, though he is not ambitious of these titles, and cleaves to the security of prose narrative, and only shows his intellectual sympathy with these; yet I cannot forbear to cite one or two sentences which none who reads them will forget. In treating of the style of the Pythian Oracle, he says:—  11
  “Do you not observe, some one will say, what a grace there is in Sappho’s measures, and how they delight and tickle the ears and fancies of the hearers? Whereas the Sibyl, with her frantic grimaces, uttering sentences altogether thoughtful and serious, neither fucused nor perfumed, continues her voice a thousand years through the favor of the Divinity that speaks within her.”  12
  Another gives an insight into his mystic tendencies:—  13
  “Early this morning, asking Epaminondas about the manner of Lysis’s burial, I found that Lysis had taught him as far as the incommunicable mysteries of our sect, and that the same Dæmon that waited on Lysis, presided over him, if I can guess at the pilot from the sailing of the ship. The paths of life are large, but in few are men directed by the Dæmons. When Theanor had said this, he looked attentively on Epaminondas, as if he designed a fresh search into his nature and inclinations.”  14
  And here is his sentiment on superstition, somewhat condensed in Lord Bacon’s citation of it: “I had rather a great deal that men should say, There was no such man at all as Plutarch, than that they should say that there was one Plutarch that would eat up his children as soon as they were born, as the poets speak of Saturn.”  15
  The chapter “On Fortune” should be read by poets, and other wise men; and the vigor of his pen appears in the chapter “Whether the Athenians were more Warlike or Learned,” and in his attack upon Usurers.  16
  There is, of course, a wide difference of time in the writing of these discourses, and so in their merit. Many of them are mere sketches or notes for chapters in preparation, which were never digested or finished. Many are notes for disputations in the lecture-room. His poor indignation against Herodotus was perhaps a youthful prize essay: it appeared to me captious and labored; or perhaps, at a rhetorician’s school, the subject of Herodotus being the lesson of the day, Plutarch was appointed by lot to take the adverse side.  17
  The plain speaking of Plutarch, as of the ancient writers generally, coming from the habit of writing for one sex only, has a great gain for brevity, and, in our new tendencies of civilization, may tend to correct a false delicacy.  18
  We are always interested in the man who treats the intellect well. We expect it from the philosopher,—from Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza and Kant; but we know that metaphysical studies in any but minds of large horizon and incessant inspiration have their dangers. One asks sometimes whether a metaphysician can treat the intellect well. The central fact is the superhuman intelligence, pouring into us from its unknown fountain, to be received with religious awe, and defended from any mixture of our will. 8 But this high Muse comes and goes; and the danger is that, when the Muse is wanting, the student is prone to supply its place with microscopic subtleties and logomachy. It is fatal to spiritual health to lose your admiration. “Let others wrangle,” said St. Augustine; “I will wonder.” Plato and Plotinus are enthusiasts, who honor the race; but the logic of the sophists and materialists, whether Greek or French, fills us with disgust. Whilst we expect this awe and reverence of the spiritual power from the philosopher in his closet, we praise it in the man of the world;—the man who lives on quiet terms with existing institutions, yet indicates his perception of these high oracles; as do Plutarch, Montaigne, Hume and Goethe. These men lift themselves at once from the vulgar and are not the parasites of wealth. Perhaps they sometimes compromise, go out to dine, make and take compliments; but they keep open the source of wisdom and health. Plutarch is uniformly true to this centre. He had not lost his wonder. He is a pronounced idealist, who does not hesitate to say, like another Berkeley, “Matter is itself privation;” and again, “The Sun is the cause that all men are ignorant of Apollo, by sense withdrawing the rational intellect from that which is to that which appears.” He thinks that “souls are naturally endowed with the faculty of prediction;” he delights in memory, with its miraculous power of resisting time. He thinks that “Alexander invaded Persia with greater assistance from Aristotle than from his father Philip.” He thinks that “he who has ideas of his own is a bad judge of another man’s, it being true that the Eleans would be most proper judges of the Olympic games, were no Eleans gamesters.” He says of Socrates that he endeavored to bring reason and things together, and make truth consist with sober sense. He wonders with Plato at that nail of pain and pleasure which fastens the body to the mind. The mathematics give him unspeakable pleasure, but he chiefly liked that proportion which teaches us to account that which is just, equal; and not that which is equal, just.  19
  Of philosophy he is more interested in the results than in the method. He has a just instinct of the presence of a master, and prefers to sit as a scholar with Plato, than as a disputant; and true to his practical character, he wishes the philosopher not to hide in a corner, but to commend himself to men of public regards and ruling genius: “for, if he once possess such a man with principles of honor and religion, he takes a compendious method, by doing good to one, to oblige a great part of mankind.” ’T is a temperance, not an eclecticism, which makes him adverse to the severe Stoic, or the Gymnosophist, or Diogenes, or any other extremist. That vice of theirs shall not hinder him from citing any good word they chance to drop. He is an eclectic in such sense as Montaigne was,—willing to be an expectant, not a dogmatist.  20
  In many of these chapters it is easy to infer the relation between the Greek philosophers and those who came to them for instruction. this teaching was no play nor routine, but strict, sincere and affectionate. The part of each of the class is as important as that of the master. They are like the baseball players, to whom the pitcher, the bat, the catcher and the scout are equally important. And Plutarch thought, with Ariston, “that neither a bath nor a lecture served any purpose, unless they were purgative.” Plutarch has such a keen pleasure in realities that he has none in verbal disputes; he is impatient of sophistry, and despises the Epicharmian disputations: as, that he who ran in debt yesterday owes nothing to-day, as being another man; so, he that was yesterday invited to supper, the next night comes an unbidden guest, for that he is quite another person.  21
  Except as historical curiosities, little can be said in behalf of the scientific value of the Opinions of the Philosophers, the Questions and the Symposiacs. They are, for the most part, very crude opinions; many of them so puerile that one would believe that Plutarch in his haste adopted the notes of his younger auditors, some of them jocosely misreporting the dogma of the professor, who laid them aside as memoranda for future revision, which he never gave, and they were posthumously published. Now and then there are hints of superior science. You may cull from this record of barbarous guesses of shepherds and travellers, statements that are predictions of facts established in modern science. Usually, when Thales, Anaximenes or Anaximander are quoted, it is really a good judgment. The explanation of the rainbow, of the floods of the Nile, and of the remora, etc., are just; and the bad guesses are not worse than many of Lord Bacon’s.  22
  His Natural History is that of a lover and poet, and not of a physicist. 9 His humanity stooped affectionately to trace the virtues which he loved in the animals also. “Knowing and not knowing is the affirmative or negative of the dog; knowing you is to be your friend; not knowing you, your enemy.” He quotes Thucydides’s saying that “not the desire of honor only never grows old, but much less also the inclination to society and affection to the State, which continue even in ants and bees to the very last.”  23
  But, though curious in the questions of the schools on the nature and genesis of things, his extreme interest in every trait of character, and his broad humanity, lead him constantly to Morals, to the study of the Beautiful and Good. Hence his love of heroes, his rule of life, and his clear convictions of the high destiny of the soul. La Harpe said that “Plutarch is the genius the most naturally moral that ever existed.”  24
  ’T is almost inevitable to compare Plutarch with Seneca, who, born fifty years earlier, was for many years his contemporary, though they never met, and their writings were perhaps unknown to each other. Plutarch is genial, with an endless interest in all human and divine things; Seneca, a professional philosopher, a writer of sentences, and, though he keep a sublime path, is less interesting, because less humane; and when we have shut his book, we forget to open it again. There is a certain violence in his opinions, and want of sweetness. He lacks the sympathy of Plutarch. He is tiresome through perpetual didactics. He is not happily living. Cannot the simple lover of truth enjoy the virtues of those he meets, and the virtues suggested by them, so to find himself at some time purely contented? Seneca was still more a man of the world than Plutarch; and by his conversation with the Court of Nero, and his own skill, like Voltaire’s, of living with men of business and emulating their address in affairs by great accumulation of his own property, learned to temper his philosophy with facts. He ventured far—apparently too far—for so keen a conscience as he inly had. Yet we owe to that wonderful moralist illustrious maxims; as if the scarlet vices of the times of Nero had the natural effect of driving virtue to its loftiest antagonisms. “Seneca,” says L’Estrange, “was a pagan Christian, and is very good reading for our Christian pagans.” He was Buddhist in his cold abstract virtue, with a certain impassibility beyond humanity. He called pity, “that fault of narrow souls.” Yet what noble words we owe to him: “God divided man into men, that they might help each other;” and again, “The good man differs from God in nothing but duration.” His thoughts are excellent, if only he had the right to say them. Plutarch, meantime, with every virtue under heaven, thought it the top of wisdom to philosophize yet not appear to do it, and to reach in mirth the same ends which the most serious are proposing.  25
  Plutarch thought “truth to be the greatest good that man can receive, and the goodliest blessing that God can give.” “When you are persuaded in your mind that you cannot either offer or perform anything more agreeable to the gods than the entertaining a right notion of them, you will then avoid superstition as a no less evil than atheism.” He cites Euripides to affirm, “If gods do aught dishonest, they are no gods,” and the memorable words of Antigone, in Sophocles, concerning the moral sentiment:—
  “For neither now nor yesterday began
  These thoughts, which have been ever, nor yet can
  A man be found who their first entrance knew.”
  His faith in the immortality of the soul is another measure of his deep humanity. He reminds his friends that the Delphic oracles have given several answers the same in substance as that formerly given to Corax the Naxian:—
  “It sounds profane impiety
  To teach that human souls e’er die.”
He believes that the doctrine of the Divine Providence, and that of the immortality of the soul, rest on one and the same basis. He thinks it impossible either that a man beloved of the gods should not be happy, or that a wise and just man should not be beloved of the gods. To him the Epicureans are hateful, who held that the soul perishes when it is separated from the body. “The soul, incapable of death, suffers in the same manner in the body, as birds that are kept in a cage.” He believes “that the souls of infants pass immediately into a better and more divine state.”
  I can easily believe that an anxious soul may find in Plutarch’s chapter called “Pleasure not attainable by Epicurus,” and his “Letter to his Wife Timoxena,” a more sweet and reassuring argument on the immortality than in the Phædo of Plato; for Plutarch always addresses the question on the human side, and not on the metaphysical; as Walter Scott took hold of boys and young men, in England and America, and through them of their fathers. His grand perceptions of duty lead him to his stern delight in heroism; a stoic resistance to low indulgence; to a fight with fortune; a regard for truth; his love of Sparta, and of heroes like Aristides, Phocion and Cato. He insists that the highest good is in action. He thinks that the inhabitants of Asia came to be vassals to one, only for not having been able to pronounce one syllable; which is, No. So keen is his sense of allegiance to right reason, that he makes a fight against Fortune whenever she is named. At Rome he thinks her wings were clipped: she stood no longer on a ball, but on a cube as large as Italy. He thinks it was by superior virtue that Alexander won his battles in Asia and Africa, and the Greeks theirs against Persia.  28
  But this Stoic in his fight with Fortune, with vices, effeminacy and indolence, is gentle as a woman when other strings are touched. He is the most amiable of men. “To erect a trophy in the soul against anger is that which none but a great and victorious puissance is able to achieve.”—“Anger turns the mind out of doors, and bolts the door.” He has a tenderness almost to tears when he writes on “Friendship,” on the “Training of Children” and on the “Love of Brothers.” “There is no treasure,” he says, “parents can give to their children, like a brother; ’t is a friend given by nature, a gift nothing can supply; once lost, not to be replaced. The Arcadian prophet, of whom Herodotus speaks, was obliged to make a wooden foot in place of that which had been chopped off. A brother, embroiled with his brother, going to seek in the street a stranger who can take his place, resembles him who will cut off his foot to give himself one of wood.”  29
  All his judgments are noble. He thought, with Epicurus, that it is more delightful to do than to receive a kindness. “This courteous, gentle and benign disposition and behavior is not so acceptable, so obliging or delightful to any of those with whom we converse, as it is to those who have it.” There is really no limit to his bounty: “It would be generous to lend our eyes and ears, nay, if possible, our reason and fortitude to others, whilst we are idle or asleep.” His excessive and fanciful humanity reminds one of Charles Lamb, whilst it much exceeds him. When the guests are gone, he “would leave one lamp burning, only as a sign of the respect he bore to fires, for nothing so resembles an animal as fire. It is moved and nourished by itself, and by its brightness, like the soul, discovers and makes everything apparent, and in its quenching shows some power that seems to proceed from a vital principle, for it makes a noise and resists, like an animal dying, or violently slaughtered;” and he praises the Romans, who, when the feast was over, “dealt well with the lamps, and did not take away the nourishment they had given, but permitted them to live and shine by it.”  30
  I can almost regret that the learned editor of the present republication has not preserved, if only as a piece of history, the preface of Mr. Morgan, the editor and in part writer of this Translation of 1718. In his dedication of the work to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wake, he tells the Primate that “Plutarch was the wisest man of his age, and, if he had been a Christian, one of the best too; but it was his severe fate to flourish in those days of ignorance, which, ’t is a favorable opinion to hope that the Almighty will sometime wink at; that our souls may be with these philosophers together in the same state of bliss.” The puzzle in the worthy translator’s mind between his theology and his reason well reappears in the puzzle of his sentence.  31
  I know that the chapter of “Apothegms of Noble Commanders” is rejected by some critics as not a genuine work of Plutarch; but the matter is good, and is so agreeable to his taste and genius, that if he had found it, he would have adopted it. If he did not compile the piece, many, perhaps most of the anecdotes were already scattered in his works. If I do not lament that a work not his should be ascribed to him, I regret that he should have suffered such destruction of his own. What a trilogy is lost to mankind in his Lives of Scipio, Epaminondas, and Pindar. 10  32
  His delight in magnanimity and self-sacrifice has made his books, like Homer’s Iliad, a bible for heroes; and wherever the Cid is relished, the legends of Arthur, Saxon Alfred and Richard the Lion-hearted, Robert Bruce, Sydney, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Cromwell, Nelson, Bonaparte, and Walter Scott’s Chronicles in prose or verse,—there will Plutarch, who told the story of Leonidas, of Agesilaus, of Aristides, Phocion, Themistocles, Demosthenes, Epaminondas, Cæsar, Cato and the rest, sit as the bestower of the crown of noble knighthood, and laureate of the ancient world.  33
  The chapters “On the Fortune of Alexander,” in the Morals, are an important appendix to the portrait in the Lives. The union in Alexander of sublime courage with the refinement of his pure tastes, making him the carrier of civilization into the East, are in the spirit of the ideal hero, and endeared him to Plutarch. That prince kept Homer’s poems not only for himself under his pillow in his tent, but carried these for the delight of the Persian youth, and made them acquainted also with the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. He persuaded the Sogdians not to kill, but to cherish their aged parents; the Persians to reverence, not marry their mothers; the Scythians to bury and not eat their dead parents. What a fruit and fitting monument of his best days was his city Alexandria, to be the birthplace or home of Plotinus, St. Augustine, Synesius, Posidonius, Ammonius, Jamblichus, Porphyry, Origen, Aratus, Apollonius and Apuleius.  34
  If Plutarch delighted in heroes, and held the balance between the severe Stoic and the indulgent Epicurean, his humanity shines not less in his intercourse with his personal friends. He was a genial host and guest, and delighted in bringing chosen companions to the supper-table. He knew the laws of conversation and the laws of good-fellowship quite as well as Horace, and has set them down with such candor and grace as to make them good reading to-day. The guests not invited to a private board by the entertainer, but introduced by a guest as his companions, the Greek called shadows; and the question is debated whether it was civil to bring them, and he treats it candidly, but concludes: “Therefore, when I make an invitation, since it is hard to break the custom of the place, I give my guests leave to bring shadows; but when I myself am invited as a shadow, I assure you I refuse to go.” 11 He has an objection to the introduction of music at feasts. He thought it wonderful that a man having a muse in his own breast, and all the pleasantness that would fit an entertainment, would have pipes and harps play, and by that external noise destroy all the sweetness that was proper and his own.  35
  I cannot close these notes without expressing my sense of the valuable service which the Editor has rendered to his Author and to his readers. Professor Goodwin is a silent benefactor to the book, wherever I have compared the editions. I did not know how careless and vicious in parts the old book was, until, in recent reading of the old text, on coming on anything absurd or unintelligible, I referred to the new text and found a clear and accurate statement in its place. It is the vindication of Plutarch. The correction is not only of names of authors and of places grossly altered or misspelled, but of unpardonable liberties taken by the translators, whether from negligence or freak.  36
  One proof of Plutarch’s skill as a writer is that he bears translation so well. In spite of its carelessness and manifold faults, which, I doubt not, have tried the patience of its present learned editor and corrector, I yet confess my enjoyment of this old version, for its vigorous English style. The work of some forty or fifty University men, some of them imperfect in their Greek, it is a monument of the English language at a period of singular vigor and freedom of style. I hope the Commission of the Philological Society in London, charged with the duty of preparing a Critical Dictionary, will not overlook these volumes, which show the wealth of their tongue to greater advantage than many books of more renown as models. It runs through the whole scale of conversation in the street, the market, the coffee-house, the law courts, the palace, the college and the church. There are, no doubt, many vulgar phrases, and many blunders of the printer; but it is the speech of business and conversation, and in every tone, from lowest to highest.  37
  We owe to these translators many sharp perceptions of the wit and humor of their author, sometimes even to the adding of the point. I notice one, which, although the translator has justified his rendering in a note, the severer criticism of the Editor has not retained. “Were there not a sun, we might, for all the other stars, pass our days in the Reverend Dark, as Heraclitus calls it.” 12 I find a humor in the phrase which might well excuse its doubtful accuracy.  38
  It is a service to our Republic to publish a book that can force ambitious young men, before they mount the platform of the county conventions, to read the “Laconic Apothegms” and the “Apothegms of Great Commanders.” If we could keep the secret, and communicate it only to a few chosen aspirants, we might confide that, by this noble infiltration, they would easily carry the victory over all competitors. But, as it was the desire of these old patriots to fill with their majestic spirit all Sparta or Rome, and not a few leaders only, we hasten to offer them to the American people.  39
  Plutarch’s popularity will return in rapid cycles. If over-read in this decade, so that his anecdotes and opinions become commonplace, and to-day’s novelties are sought for variety, his sterling values will presently recall the eye and thought of the best minds, and his books will be reprinted and read anew by coming generations. And thus Plutarch will be perpetually rediscovered from time to time as long as books last. 13  40
Note 1. Dr. Holmes said, in his Memoir of Mr. Emerson, that “the Essay on Plutarch has a peculiar value from the fact that Emerson owes more to him than to any other author except Plato, who is one of the only two writers quoted oftener than Plutarch. Mutato nomine, the portrait which Emerson draws of the Greek moralist might stand for his own.” There is much truth in this remark. Throughout Plutarch’s writings the gracious and humane personality is singularly apparent, and the reasons of this sympathy across the centuries are plain.
  Mr. Emerson as a boy read Plutarch, and never tired of this early friend. When I was fourteen years old, he put Plutarch’s Lives into my hand and bade me read two pages every week-day and ten every holiday. It seemed at first an irksome task, but my mother asked me to read them aloud to her, and this made it easier. Lycurgus’s training of the Spartan boys, Archimedes’s amazing military engineering in the defence of Syracuse, Hannibal’s passage of the Alps, Scipio’s magnanimity and Cæsar’s courage and genius won their own way, as my father knew they would with a boy, and, what is by no means common with authors, the personality of the writer also, as, for instance, where he drops the narrative to hotly censure the meanness of Cato the Elder in selling his slaves when they were past service. The style of Plutarch could commend itself even to a boy. Mr. Emerson loved the racy English of Morgan’s edition of the Morals of 1718, and while sure of the accurate scholarship of Professor Goodwin in his revision of the work, I think interceded with him in advance to save the old English phraseology where possible, which was done. The correction of the inaccuracies, often gross, and the clearing up of obscurities by Professor Goodwin gave him, as he says in the essay, great pleasure.
  He was sure that Plutarch was as good reading for to-day as for men or boys nineteen centuries ago. He wrote, “When I read Plutarch, or look at a Greek vase, I am inclined to accept the common opinion of the learned, that the Greeks had cleaner wits than any other people. But there is anything but time in my idea of the Antique. A clear and natural expression by word or deed is that which we mean, when we love and praise the Antique. In society, I do not find it; in modern books, seldom; but when I come into the pastures, I find antiquity again. Once in the fields with the lowing cattle, the birds, trees, waters, and satisfying curves of the landscape, and I cannot tell whether this is Thessaly and Enna, or whether Concord and Acton.”
  This paper was originally printed as an introduction to Plutarch’s Morals, edited by Professor William W. Goodwin, and published, in 1871, by Messrs. Little, Brown & Co., through whose courtesy it is included in this edition. [back]
Note 2. Jacques Amyot (1513–1593), a youth of humble parentage, went to the College of France, and there underwent great privations in his zeal for learning. He soon after was made Professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Bourges. He there translated some of Plutarch’s Lives, which he dedicated to Francis I., who was so much pleased that he gave him the revenues of the Abbey of Bellezane. Amyot’s dream was to translate Plutarch, and he went to Italy in the train of certain prelates to see the best texts. Henry II. made him tutor to his two sons, later Charles IX. and Henry III., and for his success and his translations of Plutarch’s Lives and Morals made him grand almoner and Bishop of Auxerre. This necessitated his temporarily leaving the study of the Pagan writers to learn a little divinity. His royal pupils befriended him, but in the time of the League sad reverses befell him. [back]
Note 3. Jeanne D’Albret, queen of Navarre, of whom it was said that she was “a princess with nothing of the woman but the sex, with a soul full of everything manly, a mind fit to cope with affairs of moment and a heart invincible in adversity.” [back]
Note 4. La Cité Antique, by Coulanges, is the work here alluded to. [back]
Note 5. Probably the chapter which Mr. Emerson had to skip because of its technicality was the one “Concerning Music.” [back]
Note 6. This is a favorite doctrine of Mr. Emerson’s appearing in many places, especially in “Quotation and Originality” (Letters and Social Aims), that a good quoter acquires some rights in the original. Speaking of Shakspeare’s borrowings, in Representative Men, he said, “A great poet who appears in illiterate times absorbs into his sphere all the light which is anywhere radiating.” [back]
Note 7. This recalls the paper by Oscar Wilde “On the Decay of Lying,” a suggestive article on Art, in spite of the whimsical form in which it is clothed. [back]
Note 8. Mr. Emerson spoke in “The Over-Soul” of “that flowing river which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season its streams into me.” See also the poem, “The Two Rivers.” [back]
Note 9. This passage is one of those in which the likeness spoken of by Dr. Holmes between Plutarch and Emerson is conspicuous, the latter eager for all facts the naturalist could give, but using them as keys to higher laws. [back]
Note 10. In the journal, Mr. Emerson quotes Clough’s choice,—“Plutarch’s best life is Antony, I think.” [back]
Note 11. This is characteristic of Mr. Emerson. He willingly gave to proper persons letters of introduction, but he almost never used them. He said, “My practice is to go to the inn in the town where the person I wish to see lives and send a note to him thence. He can judge by the note whether I am a person he cares to see, or no.” [back]
Note 12. This phrase pleased Mr. Emerson; he used it, slightly modified, in the first stanza of “The Poet,” where the verse
  Fell unregarded to the ground.
Unseen by such as stood around.
The pious wind took it away.
The reverent darkness hid the lay.
Note 13. Journal, 1860. “Plutarch, the elixir of Greece and Rome,—that is the book which nations want to compose. If the world’s library were burning, I should as soon fly to rescue that as Shakspeare and Plato, or next afterwards.” [back]

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.