Teaching Plutarch in the Age of Hollywood

In the summer of 2006, at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., I had the pleasure of working with a dozen Los Angeles high school teachers, test-driving the classics in the curriculum. Part of a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities project, the two-week workshop explored lessons and resources for high school classrooms, connecting antiquity to the here and now. I learned a lot from those teachers, including where the classics can better fit into history and English lessons. But when I reflect on our time together, what really stands out is one memorable June afternoon meeting centered on Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans.

The Lives present a challenge for teachers, as do other classical works: Gladiators may have some student appeal, as the success of the recent film 300 suggests, but the classics' more typical fare is a tougher sell. Teachers often wonder if classical stories and the role models they hold up have much bearing on contemporary student life. In addition, Plutarch's language is daunting. Even short extracts in translation are challenging. Worse, they sometimes elicit hostility from teachers, especially among those who want to feature contemporary issues and new heroes. All in all, Plutarch's reputation is not what it used to be. Today, many regard his work as the musty old thing in the attic.

In the age of Hollywood, Plutarch has something of a style problem. Plutarch's idea of a role model is not a prince or a movie star—nor would he admire their "messages." His moral preferences are not ambiguous or easily ducked. Plutarch is not an admirer of a "whatever" view of one's own life. Thinking many of his principles of character to be wise, my aim in this article—as it was on that June afternoon in California—is to look at Plutarch from a more positive angle.

But first, why should we care about Plutarch and his Lives at all?

The Lives were the most ambitious biographical project in the ancient world. The biographies were written about 100 A.D., after Rome had conquered the Mediterranean and Europe. Many are lost, but enough remain, about 50 of them, varying in length up to 30,000 words, to fill volumes and volumes.

Plutarch was a sage and celebrity in the Roman Empire, a leading thinker whose biographies, commentaries, and moral philosophy provided "a lesson for the living." The age in which he lived—recorded by the contemporary poet Juvenal—was one of rich, worldly power and literary achievement. The culture was sophisticated in ways like our own.

Plutarch, a Greek writing in Greek, the language of the educated classes throughout the Roman world, was equally versed in two cultures. He made his reputation in Rome. His "famous men" had lived centuries before, but they had names as well known to first-century Greeks and Romans as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are to Americans today. He sought to link the heroes of Greece and Rome, making comparisons. Writing about them as pairs and "parallel lives," Plutarch meant to blunt the sharp stereotypes that were common then of powerful, commercial, practical Rome and scholarly, esthetic Greece, once mighty, but now overtaken. The Lives were designed to encourage mutual respect and bonds between Greeks and Romans. The stories stressed their common heritage. In designing his Lives in such a way, Plutarch sought to forge bonds between Greece and Rome—and in doing so, was taking on what amounted to a bicultural project.

The Lives were immensely popular throughout the Roman Empire. They were a revived "hit" in the Elizabethan era. There is no telling how many of Shakespeare's Julius Caesars are being read in classrooms across America on any given day, but the whole story comes, replete with quotations, from Plutarch. Harry Truman claimed his first source of political wisdom came from Plutarch, read to him by his father. Mary Shelley's self-aware monster explains in a beautiful passage how Plutarch has given him humanity. Plutarch's Lives and the Bible were the two most widely read books in America between 1750 and 1900.

Epitomes—short, abridged "good parts" in translation—made Plutarch familiar to people of all ages and backgrounds. Plutarch entered European letters and American lore. Pericles, Solon, Alexander, Cicero, Cato, Brutus, Antony, Caesar, and Cleopatra, among others, became symbols to which all educated people referred and made allusions. Some became so well known that they were stock figures in theater and drama, books and treatises, popular speech, and political oratory.

The Lives were more than a handbook of public leadership, although they were that. Before Sigmund Freud, psychology, and self-help books, for many generations and countless people, Plutarch provided a guide to probity and time-honored clues to a successful life. Plutarch admired steadiness and condemned rashness, illustrating its perils repeatedly though his examples. As he tells his stories, he comments on the attitudes, personalities, styles, manners, winning ways, and character defects that animate the great and move them toward success or failure.

In his life of Pericles, the great Athenian leader who had lived 500 years before, Plutarch reflected on the intricacies of writing history and biography:

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 favour and flattery, pervert and distort truth.

From the Renaissance to modern times, kings and courtiers read Plutarch for guidance on conduct and public affairs. In time, people of all backgrounds and classes read Plutarch for self-improvement, for self-help, and for insight into human character. Plutarch had an enormous influence on the 18th-century revolutions. George Washington modeled himself on Plutarch's old heroes, and Napoleon considered the Lives a manual of military and civil rule. Regarding character formation, Plutarch may be ancient, but he is far from musty. The Lives offer role models that are truly timeless.

Plutarch may enrich lessons in social studies, government, ancient and modern history, biography, and literature. Let's examine some of these applications.

Plutarch and the Founders

In the late 18th century, spurred by classical ideas, Americans established a republican government modeled on Greek and Roman principles. This was a form of government that cherished liberty, using ancient models to try to reform government, protect individuals, advance liberty, and constrain tyranny. As Brown University historian Gordon S. Wood observes, "Such classicism was not only a scholarly ornament of educated Americans; it helped to shape their values and their ideals of behavior." Classicism was filtered through the experience of the Enlightenment, inspiring leaders in American thought and culture for several generations. For Americans, the "traits of character most praised were classical ones" and the classics were "crucial to their attempt to understand the moral and social basis of politics."

Eighteenth-century American revolutionaries were looking for keys to successful government. In an age of kings, republican examples were few. The American Founders wanted to protect citizens against monarchical rule. For the Founders, the ancient opponents of tyranny and monarchy portrayed in Plutarch's Lives provided illustrations of heroism. In addition, the revolutionaries admired antiquity's unprecedented achievements in political order ("government by the governed"), especially Roman models of law and jurisprudence ("the rule of law"). These, said the Founders, were the foundations of enlightened liberalism, and as such, deserved popular respect and knowledge. The Greeks and Romans had debated and developed the principles of justice, the rule of law, and due process over the course of centuries, the Americans knew, and what had resulted were the first versions of democracy and citizenship.

Plutarch's account of Cato the Younger, adapted by the great 18th-century playwright Joseph Addison, impressed George Washington as did no other classical story. To spur morale, he produced the play for his troops at Valley Forge. Facing the encroaching Caesar and his split forces, in the Addison version, Cato makes the following speech on liberty:

The hand of fate is over us, and heav'n
Exacts severity from all our thoughts:
It is not now a time to talk of aught
But chains or conquest; liberty or death.

As his fate is sealed, Cato offers his case for freedom and liberty:

Alas! my friends!
Why mourn you thus? let not a private loss
Afflict your hearts. 'Tis Rome requires our tears.
The mistress of the world, the seat of empire,
The nurse of heroes, the delight of gods,
That humbled the proud tyrants of the earth,
And set the nations free, Rome is no more.
O liberty! O virtue! O my country!

The play does not have a Hollywood ending. Cato commits suicide rather than submit to Caesar. He chooses death over surrender, the loss of liberty, and the takeover of his country. Cato's valor in the face of defeat by Caesar was the source of a powerful line of American thinking, one shared by citizens young and old: "Live free or die" and "Give me liberty or give me death."

Plutarch met the needs of other eminent Americans as well: His stories of the patriotic Spartan women stirred Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and Judith Sargent Murray. And textbook author Noah Webster turned to Plutarch for basic themes in his early American civics and readers, advertising Plutarch's ethics and ideals to later American generations.

In Plutarch's moral stories and insights, we may discern the sources and substance of American idealism. Clarifying these ideals helps us grasp the ancient origins of very modern notions of freedom and individuality. By studying Plutarch, students may obtain insight into the foundation of their liberties. The classics are everywhere in the American language, government, and widely held notions of good and bad.

Plutarch and Your Students

Interested in applying Plutarch's Lives to more than just history courses, the Los Angeles teachers I worked with, who were part of a consortium called Humanitas, sought more inventive applications. They turned to Plutarch's own description of what he sought to take from history:

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?

And Plutarch's explanation of how he intended to do it:

I am not engaged in writing history, but lives. And 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.

These inquiries into character raise the subject of role models, what Plutarch and the 18th-century revolutionaries in North America and France called exempla virtutis (examples of virtue). Plutarch gives plenty of insight into psychology and what makes people tick, especially political leaders. Plutarch's moral narratives, contrasting as they do with some contemporary mores, can act as sharp foils in classroom discussions about ideals and role models.

Plutarch assumed that personalities were shaped by example. Role models affected the development of attitudes—habits of thought and action—that lasted a lifetime. Said Plutarch tartly, "if you live with a lame man, you will learn to limp." In a complex effort meant to entertain and edify, Plutarch provided historical models to his readers designed to free them, to continue the tart metaphor, from the lame.

In his annals of greatness, Plutarch emphasized bravery, endurance, generosity, and constancy. He praised simplicity in manners, love of beauty and liberty, and patriotism. As one teacher remarked during the workshop, there is a clear connection between Plutarch-style virtue and the Boy Scout code: Plutarch idealizes trust, loyalty, help, friendship, courtesy, kindness, obedience, and more. According to his eminent translator Arthur Clough, Plutarch's "interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity."

One teacher who attended the 2006 workshop uses Plutarch in an original way. He builds from Plutarch's construct of the "parallel lives." Plutarch compared the achievements of Greeks and Romans in pairs, for example, Demosthenes and Cicero, making comparisons between men of different centuries to illuminate the constancy of virtue and worthy action over time and in different places. In such a vein, after introducing Plutarch's project, the teacher asks students, in the style of Plutarch, to choose two American figures, one from the 19th and the other from the 20th century, then write an essay that explains their common qualities of style and achievement.

Adolescence presents young people with choices about lifestyle and attitude. They'll imitate something: What will it be? By high school, students know that behavior has consequences; they have noble sentiments and face manifold temptations. Contemporary culture tends to rig the contest on behalf of character traits that Plutarch would frown upon.

The cultural critic Tyler Cowen observes that different role models capture public attention today: "Entertainers and sports figures have displaced politicians, military leaders, and moral preachers as the most famous individuals in society, and in some cases, as the most admired." Furthermore, he says, "many people seek out whichever role models will validate that behavior…. fans use the famous for their own purposes." Thus, bad behavior by celebrities is not only made to seem glamorous and fun, it is useful for individuals who are attracted to (and looking for excuses to pursue) easy pleasure and anti-social behavior.

The workshop teachers agreed that positive role models for students often came from their own families. Some families provide magnificent role models in distressing circumstances. But "good" family values, the teachers observed, are not always dominant in character formation. They noted the modeling power of television and ubiquity of social arrangements that undercut families.

The manners and tastes promoted by television have long interested sociologists. In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neal Postman argued that electronic media increasingly entertain rather than inform, a trend that is having an immense impact on schools and other cultural institutions. What Hollywood often glorifies is rash, showy, adversarial behavior. Bravery and violence go hand in hand. Similarly, Times columnist Maureen Dowd coined the phrase "Hollywood values" to describe the combination of "out-of-control egos, blatant materialism, a dog-eat-dog ethos, and a devotion to pretense" that she thought had become conspicuous features of leadership in American politics.

Ever the moralist, Plutarch pitches a different recipe for success and happiness, not only in his Lives but also in his other writing on moral philosophy:

Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.

Good fortune will elevate even petty minds and give them the appearance of a certain greatness and stateliness, as from their high place they look down upon the world; but the truly noble and resolved spirit raises itself, and becomes more conspicuous in times of disaster and ill fortune.

Man is neither by birth nor disposition a savage, nor of unsocial habits, but only becomes so by indulging in vices contrary to his nature.

A shortcut to riches is to subtract from our desires.

The very spring and root of honesty and virtue lie in good education.

The wisdom that these maxims are trying to convey is worth exploring and writing about in high school courses. The values contest is perpetual, something faced by each generation. Will tomorrow's model be Tiger Woods or 50 Cent? Plutarch would have an easy time here. He would not hesitate making a choice, describing in graphic language why one values recipe is superior to the other, and what makes a hero and a scoundrel. Nor would he hesitate in arguing that such clarity is exactly what our students need.


Gilbert T. Sewall is the president of the Center for Education Studies and director of the American Textbook Council in New York City. Previously, he was a university professor, an education editor at Newsweek, and a high school history teacher.


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