Plutarch’s Exemplary Lives

An ancient Greek wrote the book on biography then and now

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Plutarch said that he wrote biography as a form of moralism, to "arouse the spirit of emulation." But his Lives were also a warning. Coriolanus, for example, has come down from Plutarch through Shakespeare as a caution against an arrogance so ruthless that it becomes savage narcissism.

"My design is not to write Histories, but lives," Plutarch explained. "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 character and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments...."

Most of the characters, Greek and Roman, who come to us in the Parallel Lives had too much of the complexity of human nature to be either saints or villains. Plutarch was far too intelligent and urbane not to see the crosscurrents of their natures. What makes the Lives entertaining, and true after so many centuries, is, precisely, their continuing, vivid life—and their capacity to surprise.

There are no inevitabilities for the connoisseur of character. If the moralist in Plutarch urges toward perfection, the mature realist delights in inconsistencies, even perversities, of personality. Cato the Younger, that paragon of fierce austerity who tried to preserve the RomanRepublic against power seekers such as Caesar, sometimes behaves pretty weirdly. Plutarch records that when Cato was made praetor (magistrate), "he would often come to the court without his shoes, and sit upon the bench without any undergarment, and in this attire give judgment in capital causes, and upon persons of the highest rank." Perhaps by way of explanation, Plutarch notes, "It is said, also, that he used to drink wine after his morning meal, and then transact the business of his office." Plutarch adds judiciously: "This was wrongfully reported of him."

Plutarch's voice is decent, tolerant, knowing—the voice of a grown-up. In his life of Cleomenes (III), Plutarch declares: "I write this...out of pity to the weakness of human nature."

Like Herodotus, that earlier connoisseur of heroes and myths, he savors the irrepressible peculiarities of people. Thus Plutarch is bemused—a little amazed—by the cultural shiftiness of Alcibiades, whose unscrupulous behavior helped stir up the Peleponnesian War: "Alcibiades, whether with good men or with bad, could adapt himself to his company, and equally wear the appearance of virtue or vice. At Sparta, he was devoted to athletic exercises, was frugal and reserved; in Ionia, luxurious, gay, and indolent; in Thrace, always drinking; in Thessaly, ever on horseback; and when he lived with Tissaphernes, the Persian satrap, he exceeded the Persians themselves in magnificence and pomp."

In his treatment of large figures, Plutarch also mixes a due respect and even reverence with strokes of deflation. He grants the preeminent Athenian leader Pericles "a weight and grandeur of sense, superior to all arts of popularity...elevation and sublimity of purpose and of character." But, he adds, "His head was somewhat longish and out of proportion. For which reason almost all the images and statues that were made of him have the head covered with a helmet....The poets of Athens called him Schinocephalos, or squill-head, from schinos, a squill or sea-onion."

One savors Plutarch for such cunning, lifelike oddments. There is a lovely moment in his life of Caesar: "Cicero was the first who had any suspicions of [Caesar's] designs upon the government, and as a good pilot is apprehensive of a storm when the sea is most smiling, saw the designing temper of the man through this disguise of good humour and affability, and said, in general, that in all [Caesar] did and undertook, he detected the ambition for absolute power."

Cicero goes on: "But when I see his hair so carefully arranged, and observe him adjusting it with one finger, I cannot imagine it should enter into such a man's thoughts to subvert the Roman state." That "with one finger" is a little touch of narrative genius.

It is said against Plutarch that his characters do not develop—they only stand for types. But do any of us "develop?" Did Richard Nixon? Did Bill Clinton? Did Morris' Teddy Roosevelt, of whom British commissioner in Egypt Cecil Spring Rice remarked in 1902, a few months into Roosevelt's administration: "You must always remember that the President is about six." If Plutarch's men are types, they are rich types that give an antique gloss to Hemingway's line, "The most complicated subject that I a man’s life."


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