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The history of the Victorian Age will never be written; we know too much about it. For ignorance is the first requisite of the historianignorance, which simplifies and clarifies, which selects and omits, with a placid perfection unattainable by the highest art.
Lytton Strachey, preface to Eminent Victorians
Plutarch did not invent biography, any more than he invented the ethical essay; only the accident of transmission leaves us the impression that he did so, for almost nothing of Greek literature survives from the two centuries before him. Nor did he first distinguish history from biography, eschewing the complete story of the events of a life in favor of an evocation of its character, a distinction that resurfaces in the attitude exemplified by Strachey’s dismissal of history-writing, which in its affront to scholarly history led, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to a stiffening of the traditional divide between history and biography. Strachey further emulates Plutarch’s approach to biography when he calls on the biographer to attend to unexpected angles, illuminate dark corners, drop a bucket into the ocean of detail, and work with whatever “characteristic specimens” it chances to bring up. Plutarch explains these aspects of his biographical writings with reference to his lives of Alexander and Caesar:
I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. The most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others.
As a result, Alexander scholars note with chagrin, Plutarch directs his attention so strictly onto his hero and his hero’s character that military historians cannot reconstruct the battles he described so vividly. The parallel lives of Alexander and Caesar exemplify the two distinctive qualities of Plutarchan biography: comparative and ethical.
In the Hellenistic period biographers developed the serial biography to treat, for example, the kings of a country or the heads of philosophical schools. Plutarch followed this approach in his lives of the Roman emperors from Augustus to Vitellius, of which only Galba and Otho survive. Some of his predecessors treated Greeks and Romans together. But Plutarch’s real contribution to the genre of biography lies in the systematic pairing and comparing of lives with similar careers and characters so as to serve his particular goal of moral instruction. That he pairs a Greek with a Roman in each case reflects, additionally, the various political or cultural intentions discussed in the introduction to volume 1. So, for example, the pairing of Alexander and Caesar treats two great conquerors and empire-builders, two men of enormous ambition, generosity, self-control, and mercy, who turned tyrannical at the end of their lives. The pair Alcibiades and Coriolanus treats two great generals who found themselves in exile leading armies against their mother cities.
Plutarch established a certain formality in the composition of each life within a generally but not rigorously chronological framework. A preface introduces the two subjects for comparison, and where possible Plutarch mentions a statue of the subject so as to show how appearance reflects character. He then explores the subject’s family, education, and youth in order to show where the man’s qualities have their origin, as well as their debut into public life. Plutarch then highlights the public career to show how character develops as the subject encounters adversity, success, and failure, as well as the influence of friends and enemies, good luck and bad.
We can reconstruct the chronology of the composition of the Parallel Lives only in part. Because Plutarch dedicated some of them, including the first pair, to Sosius, his friend in imperial government, he had to have written them before the latter’s death sometime before 116 CE; perhaps the series began in honor of Sosius’s consulship in 99 CE. Evidence scattered throughout the Parallel Lives indicates that the lives of Epaminondas and Scipio came first (the only pair no longer surviving), the lives of Demosthenes and Cicero came fifth, Pericles and Fabius tenth, and Dion and Brutus twelfth. Caesar refers to Brutus as complete, but Brutus refers to Caesar in the same way. Therefore Plutarch either published these respective pairs together or issued subsequent editions. Similar cross-references elsewhere frustrate an attempt to establish the original sequence. All modern editions arrange the pairs in chronological order of the subjects’ lives.
Until the late twentieth century, modern scholars tended to dismiss Plutarch as merely a mine for the earlier sources that he unthinkingly copied into his Lives. He did cite some 150 historians, including about twenty who wrote in Latin. But careful analysis of his work has led to a new appreciation of Plutarch as a literary craftsman, and to a better understanding of the process of literary composition and rhetorical training in antiquity that shows us that Plutarch did not blindly follow some epitome or other. Instead, he depended on extremely broad reading and a highly developed memory in order to assemble the examples that served the ends of a unique project, which was principally moral rather than historical.
In his student days in Athens, Plutarch, like any young man of his time pursuing advanced education, studied rhetoric, science, politics, ethics, and psychology. The immense Plutarchan corpus offers us a vivid glimpse into the character and content of ancient education, which had since the time of Socrates involved a tension or struggle for primacy between style and content, between rhetoric and philosophy, and between word and action. Plutarch lived at the beginning of the intellectual revival known as the Second Sophistic, which privileged rhetorical display above philosophical content. He learned well the techniques of effective rhetoric, and some of the Moralia evidently belong to an early period when he indulged in rhetoric at the expense of truth. Speeches about whether Alexander owed his success to fortune or to his own virtue, for example, exalt Alexander’s character and exaggerate his bad luck in order to make the case for virtue. Plutarch clearly benefited from the emphasis of rhetorical training on memory and wide if superficial reading to provide examples to illustrate speeches; over all, his writings include some seven thousand quotations. But in his maturity, Plutarch rejected the rhetorical orientation of the education of his day and subordinated rhetoric to philosophy. Some have unfairly suggested that Plutarch failed as a rhetorician and so remained on the fringe of the Second Sophistic; perhaps we should merely accept Plutarch’s argument for the priority of living well over the virtue of dazzling speech.
In the school of the famous philosopher Ammonius in Athens, Plutarch became a Platonist, but not a rigid onefor example, his attitudes toward women, poetry, and sexuality differ markedly from Plato’s. He read deeply into all the philosophical traditions of his time: the Platonic Academy, the Aristotelian Peripatetics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans. His personal philosophy emerges clearly in the Moralia, and we may perhaps accurately label him an eclectic with a pronounced Platonic tendency. Not an original thinker, Plutarch nonetheless represents comprehensively the intellectual culture of his age to such an extent that one Plutarch scholar branded him a “milch-cow of practical philosophy” who browsed on literature and philosophy and yielded rich cream for his readers. He was hostile to the Epicureans on account of their advocacy of withdrawal from public life and to the Stoics on account of their hostility to passion. Plutarch’s ethics required a person to seek happiness through right conduct, which included duty to fellow citizens, and which depended not on the eradication of the passions but their control through the power of reason.
The Peripatetics taught that character (ethos) consists of its unchanging essential nature (physis) and a variety of qualities that change and develop as a result of education (paideia), philosophy (logos), habitual action, and reaction to events. Character reveals itself through action (praxis) and speech (lexis). So Plutarch writes of Brutus:
having to the goodness of his disposition added the improvements of learning and the study of philosophy, and having stirred up his natural parts, of themselves grave and gentle, by applying himself to business and public affairs, [he] seems to have been of a temper exactly framed for virtue.
The virtues are not static but can developone can learn excellence. Good education joins with good environment, good habits, good opinion, and good customs in order to strengthen the rational part of the soul and help it to control the irrational, enabling one to lead a life of moderation between excesses and defects. A person fails or succeeds according to the quality of his moral development. Biography gives examples of how to achieve moderation, like case-studies of the interaction of reason and emotion. So in his Lives, Plutarch constantly watches out for the mildness and humanity (philanthropia) of his subjects, their domestic love and friendship. The greatest danger to the moral life comes from flatterersa Cleopatra who would destroy an Antony. Without gentleness and humanity flattery can turn the powerful virtues of otherwise great men such as Marius to violence and brutality.
The life of the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus highlights the importance of good educational institutions. In the comparison of Lycurgus with Numa, whose failure to give Rome a similar system resulted in the collapse of his good work after his death, Plutarch observes:
no sooner did [Numa] expire his last breath than the gates of Janus's temple flew wide open, and, as if war had, indeed, been kept and caged up within those walls, it rushed forth to fill all Italy with blood and slaughter; and thus that best and justest fabric of things was of no long continuance, because it wanted that cement which should have kept all together, education.
Plutarch’s most explicit statement of his educational program comes in Timoleon:
It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking-glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life. Indeed, it can be compared to nothing but daily living and associating together; we receive, as it were, in our inquiry, and entertain each successive guest, view
"Their stature and their qualities,"
and select from their actions all that is noblest and worthiest to know.
"Ah, and what greater pleasure can one have?"
or what more effective means to one's moral improvement?
He continues by describing the changes in his soul that biographical study effected.
My method, on the contrary, is, by the study of history, and by the familiarity acquired in writing, to habituate my memory to receive and retain images of the best and worthiest characters. I thus am enabled to free myself from any ignoble, base, or vicious impressions, contracted from the contagion of ill company that I may be unavoidably engaged in; by the remedy of turning my thoughts in a happy and calm temper to view these noble examples.
Biography proved an ideal mechanism for Plutarch’s moral project. As we have seen, he explicitly distinguished history from biography, and so gave morality first place: the biographer describes not so much what the subject did as how he responded to what he experienced, how he controlled his passions. Plutarch chose his subjects not so much because they played decisive roles in history, but rather because they displayed powerful human qualities. This sort of approach has blemished Plutarch’s validity for modern readers who expect objectivity and accuracy. Such an approach also leads to a certain one-dimensionality of his subjects, whereby a man becomes typical of a certain virtue or set of virtues and other features of his life appear marginalized. Plutarch’s preoccupation with moral instruction means that although he does not change the facts, he does select them with a moral eye and a weighing of evidence toward the likely and seemly rather than toward the demonstrable. For example, although Plutarch knew that Croesus ruled a generation after Solon, he disregarded the chronological discrepancy, calling the encounter famous, widely reported, and appropriate to Solon’s character. Furthermore, Plutarch judged chronological problems as irreconcilable. Finally, Plutarch’s understanding of bias differs greatly from the modern. By a biased historian he did not mean so much one who tells lies as one who tells too much truth about the unseemly. In Pericles he wrote, “So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history, when, on the one hand, those who afterwards write it find long periods of time intercepting their view, and, on the other hand, the contemporary records of any actions and lives, partly through envy and ill-will, partly through favor and flattery, pervert and distort truth.” Plutarch disparaged apparently evil-intentioned historians such as Herodotus who would frustrate his moralizing project just as he disparaged flatterers who lead otherwise great men astray. Evil acts generally should be passed over: yes, men do shameful things, but we must not dwell on them: For as we would wish that a painter who is to draw a beautiful face, in which there is yet some imperfection, should neither wholly leave out, nor yet too pointedly express what is defective, because this would deform it, and that spoil the resemblance; so since it is hard, or indeed perhaps impossible, to show the life of a man wholly free from blemish, in all that is excellent we must follow truth exactly, and give it fully; any lapses or faults that occur, through human passions or political necessities, we may regard rather as the shortcomings of some particular virtue, than as the natural effects of vice; and may be content without introducing them, curiously and officiously, into our narrative, if it be but out of tenderness to the weakness of nature, which has never succeeded in producing any human character so perfect in virtue as to be pure from all admixture and open to no criticism. The exception proves the rule. Plutarch included one pair of lives, Demetrius and Antony, expressly to show “that great natures produce great vices as well as virtues. Both alike were amorous and intemperate, warlike and munificent, sumptuous in their way of living and overbearing in their manners.” He explained, “Medicine, to produce health, has to examine disease, and music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.” Justice and wisdom must take account of injustice, and ignorance: And, though I do not think it consistent with humanity or with civil justice to correct one man's morals by corrupting those of another, yet we may, I think, avail ourselves of the cases of those who have fallen into indiscretions, and have, in high stations, made themselves conspicuous for misconduct . . . . Young people would take greater pleasure in hearing good playing, if first they were set to hear bad, so, in the same manner, it seems to me likely enough that we shall be all the more zealous and more emulous to read, observe, and imitate the better lives, if we are not left in ignorance of the blameworthy and the bad. In his book Plutarch, that did much to revive scholarly appreciation of its subject, D. A. Russell showed how Plutarch reflects a universal feature of ancient literature, where a writer aimed not to “express himself” but rather to make a “persuasive presentation. The reference to the audience determines almost everything.” Plutarch does not merely put down facts; rather, he makes an argument and uses the tools of rhetoric to convince by “brilliance and erudition.” The rhetorical aspect makes Plutarch strange to us. So does his moral emphasis. The other feature of Plutarch’s biographies that offends our modern expectation lies in the way he enhances moral edification at the expense of accuracy. And yet, despite these alien features of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, the awesome spectacle of the actions of men of enormous desires and ambitions responding to impossible situations, as well as the sheer narrative vividness of the lives of these great Greeks and Romans, make Plutarch impossible to put down. And so he has, more than any other writer ancient or modern, determined how we think about the ancients.
Clayton Miles Lehmann teaches history at the University of South Dakota. He has published widely on various topics in Greek and Roman history and archaeology.