Plutarch & the Issue of Character

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Plutarch & the Issue of Character

Kimball, Roger, New Criterion

What Histories can be found ... that please and instruct like the Lives of Plutarch? ... I am of the same Opinion with that Author, who said, that if he was constrained to fling all the Books of the Antients into the Sea, PLUTARCH should be the last drowned.

--Montesquieu, quoted by Oliver Goldsmith

Using history as a mirror I try by whatever means I can to improve my own life and to model it by the standard of all that is best in those whose lives I write. As a result I feel as though I were conversing and indeed living with them; by means of history I receive each one of them in turn, welcome and entertain them as guests and consider their stature and their qualities and select from their actions the most authoritative and the best with a view to getting to know them. What greater pleasure could one enjoy than this or what more efficacious in improving one's own character?

--Plutarch, life of Timoleon

Like all ancient authors today, Plutarch is at best a name to most people, even--especially?--to most college-educated people. You, dear reader, are of a select group, because you know that Plutarch (c. 46-c. 120) was a Greek biographer and moral philosopher who wrote, among other things, a famous series of "parallel lives" comparing various Greek and Roman figures. Perhaps, like me, you first learned about Plutarch from reading the notes to Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, or Coriolanus, the four plays for whose plots Shakespeare drew heavily upon the then-recently translated Plutarch. Perhaps you also, like me, dipped casually into the odd volume of Plutarch now and again, to find out more about Pericles, Cicero, Alexander the Great, or some other antique worthy. Probably, like me, you left it at that.

Literary fashion is a mysterious thing. Why is it that Sir Walter Scott, for example, whom generations of readers found absolutely spellbinding, is unread and, for many of us, unreadable today? Why is it that the Renaissance Italian poet Tasso, who fired imaginations from Milton and Dryden to Shelley, Byron, and Goethe, should now subsist as a decoration in scholarly footnotes instead of as a living presence? why is it that Plutarch--"for centuries Europe's schoolmaster" as the classicist C. J. Gianakaris put it--should quite suddenly move from center stage to the mental off-off-Broadway of reference books and dissertations? If Plutarch, in Sir Paul Harvey's words, is "one of the most attractive of ancient authors, writing with charm, geniality, and tact, so as always to interest the reader," why does he no longer interest us?

Doubtless there are many reasons: the shelf life of novelty, competing attractions, educational atrophy, the temper of the age. It seems clear, at any rate, that wholesale changes of taste are never merely matters of taste. They token a larger metamorphosis: new eyes, new ears, a new scale of values and literary-philosophical assumptions. It is part of the baffling cruelty of fashion to render mute what only yesterday spoke with such extraordinary force and persuasiveness. It is part of the task of criticism to reanimate those voices, to provide that peculiar medium through which they might seem to speak in the way their best, their most ardent hearers understood them.

Plutarch's best hearers form a distinguished but exceedingly various group. Erasmus, resonating to Plutarch's urbane humanism, translated and broadcast his work. Henri IV of France, in a letter to his wife, wrote that "Plutarch always delights me with a fresh novelty. To love him is to love me; for he has long been the instructor of my youth. ... [Plutarch's writing] has been like my conscience, and has whispered in my ear many good suggestions and maxims for my conduct." Shakespeare, Sidney, Ben Jonson, Dryden, Milton, and Bacon learned and freely borrowed from him, as did Shaftesbury, Winckelmann, Lessing, Hume, and Addison. ("Plutarch" Addison wrote, "has more strokes of good nature in his writing than I remember in any author. …

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