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Can Plutarch Regain Popularity?

By Roger Kimball

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.

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, my conscience, and has whispered in my ear many good suggestions and maxims for my conduct." Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Milton, Bacon, and many others learned and freely borrowed from him. The person who brought Plutarch to Western Europe was Jacques Amyot, who published a French translation of the Lives in 1559. Amyot's translations swept educated Europe. In a way, they made as deep an impression in England as France, for Thomas North, who published an English translation of the Lives in 1579, based his work not on Plutarch's Greek but on Amyot's French. It was North's Plutarch that Shakespeare, for example, absorbed and refigured to such happy effect. Here is Plutarch, in North's translation, on Antony's first glimpse of Cleopatra:

[S]he disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her.

And here is Shakespeare:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water; the poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that
The winds were love-sick with them, the oars were silver
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their stroke. For her own person,
It beggared all description; she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold of tissue—
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature; on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool.

It is pretty clear that Plutarch regarded himself first of all as a philosopher. But posterity has tended to regard him rather as a kind of moral compendium: a repository of vivid characters, arresting anecdotes, dramatically engaging conflicts. Plutarch regarded history as a moral theater whose performances it was his task to recapitulate for the edification of himself and his readers. Considered as a "mirror" for the soul (as Plutarch says in his life of Timoleon), history provided a series of cautionary tales, of virtue compromised and virtue salvaged.

Plutarch did not go in for salacious details about his subjects as, for example, did his younger Roman contemporary Suetonius (c. 70–c. 160) in his Lives of the Caesars. But his biographies, though sometimes rambling, are nonetheless powerfully entertaining and informative. How could they fail to be? Plutarch had assembled some of the most extraordinary personalities of antiquity, and he endeavored to portray not so much what they did but who they were.

Again and again Plutarch stresses that his overriding purpose is to edify. In his life of Demetrius, one of the bad hats who scrambled for power after the death of Alexander the Great, Plutarch acknowledges that evil men must be discussed—not for themselves but because "we shall be all the more eager to watch and imitate the lives of the good if we are not left without a description of what is mean and reprehensible." In general, it was Plutarch's policy either to winnow out what was disreputable or to surround it with exculpating extenuations.

Plutarch pursued this high-minded procedure not out of primness or timidity but because he thought it the most effective propaganda for virtue. There is something about the display of virtuous character, Plutarch believed, that inspires emulation. In a famous passage in his life of Pericles, Plutarch notes that there are many things which we admire that we do not seek to imitate or emulate. When it comes to "perfumes and purple dyes," for example, we may be "taken with the things themselves well enough, but we do not think dyers and perfumers otherwise than low and sordid people." But the spectacle of virtue in action is different. The "bare statement of virtuous actions," Plutarch wrote,

can so affect men's minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them. The goods of fortune we would possess and would enjoy; those of virtue we long to practice and exercise: we are content to receive the former from others, the latter we wish others to experience from us. Moral good is a practical stimulus; it is no sooner seen, than it inspires an impulse to practice.

We moderns, of course, chalk up Plutarch's belief in the magnetic properties of the moral good to his "charming naïveté." It is curious that today we are much more apt to emulate what pleases us than what we approve. Hence it is that the contemporary equivalents of Plutarch's perfumers and dyers are among our most prominent culture heroes, as of course are celebrity artists of all sorts. What does this change tell us about ourselves? What does it mean that a rock star or television personality is adulated by millions? The issue of character, in both senses of "issue," was at the heart of Plutarch's teaching. It was also at the heart of Western culture for the centuries in which Plutarch was accounted an indispensable guide. Countless people turned to Plutarch not only for entertainment but also for moral intelligence. He was, as one scholar put it, "simply one of the most influential writers who ever lived," not because of his art but because of the dignity he portrayed. We have lost our taste for that species of nobility. To an extraordinary extent, character has ceased to impress us. Which is one reason, I believe, that Plutarch and the humanity he championed have become increasingly inaccessible.

Roger Kimball is co-editor and publisher of the New Criterion and president and publisher of Encounter Books. Excerpted with permission from "Plutarch and the Issue of Character," New Criterion, Volume 19, No. 4, December 2000.