Plutarch’s Exemplary Lives

An ancient Greek wrote the book on biography then and now

The first years of the millennium have become, for interesting reasons, a golden age of popular political biography. The young British writer Simon Sebag Montefiore has just produced Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, a savagely intimate portrait of one of history's more impenetrable characters. In Grace and Power, Sally Bedell Smith has brought her impressive gifts as a reporter to bear upon the Kennedy White House. Ron Chernow, John D. Rockefeller's biographer, has written a brilliant new study of Alexander Hamilton. Doris Kearns Goodwin, biographer of the Kennedys and Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, will publish a new examination of Abraham Lincoln next spring. Edmund Morris is taking a break from his Theodore Roosevelt sequence to write a book about Beethoven. Robert Caro's epic life of Lyndon Johnson, now running to three volumes, with more to come, is one of the great American biographies.

And so on. In the age of chaotic electronic information, there seems to be an indefatigable production line turning out big, solid biographies, written to the weight and bulk of footlockers. It is as if Thomas Carlyle's Great Man theory of history, a rather heavy 19th-century idea, had been genetically crossed with People magazine to create a genre of historical infotainment: retrospection compounded of scholarship, vivid period drama and soap opera at the highest levels.

The current harvest of popular political biography—a higher and more literate form, perhaps, of the TV and tabloid stories that reigned during the decade of O.J., Diana, John Jr., Columbine, and Elián González—comes to us, in part, courtesy of the end of ideology and of the idea of historical inevitability. Human nature has reverted to its love of gossip and personalities and stories—narratives that have not essentially altered since people started exchanging scandalous news about the activities of the gods.

If edmund morris, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and the rest of today's practitioners belong to a post-ideological order of public biography, their ancient progenitor, Plutarch, represents the pre-ideological origins of the form.

A Greek from a wealthy family born around a.d. 46 in east-central Greece, Plutarch lived in his own golden age, during the reigns of Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian. The author of more than 200 works, he is known primarily for his Parallel Lives, biographies that over the centuries have heavily shaped popular ideas of Greek and Roman history.

In his design of Parallel Lives, written in Attic Greek—the literary language used by the educated of the Roman Empire—Plutarch paired famous Romans with famous Greeks, presenting them side by side and then comparing them in a short essay. (Twenty-two such pairs survive.) Thus, for example, he contrasts the Greek orator Demosthenes with Rome's Cicero. He fetches far back sometimes into myth. He opens the Lives by comparing the Greek hero Theseus and Rome's co-founder Romulus—among other things indicting Theseus as a rapist (of Ariadne, Antiope, Anaxo the Troezenian and Helen) and giving some space to whether the so-called rape of the Sabines by Romulus was excusable as a kind of aggressive sociobiology.

Down the centuries, the same criticism has been aimed at Parallel Lives that is now directed at our biographical bestsellers: too much history by anecdote. The Victorian scholar Arthur Hugh Clough, who updated the poet John Dryden's superb translation of Plutarch to give us the best available version in English, remarked in an introduction: "It cannot be denied that [Plutarch] is careless about numbers, and occasionally contradicts his own statements. A greater fault, perhaps, is his passion for anecdote; he cannot forbear from repeating stories, the improbability of which he is the first to recognise."

Plutarch admits the impossibility of being accurate, opening his account of Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta, by throwing up his hands: "There is so much uncertainty in the accounts which historians have left us...that scarcely anything is asserted by one of them which is not called into question or contradicted by the rest." Thus, one seeks not so much the historical fact as the exemplary story—the applicable anecdote, the usable history. But if life is anecdote, history is anecdote with life-and-death consequences, gossip enlarged to the scale of epic.

Writers instinctively love Plutarch, as professional ancestor and as resource. The first great modern essayist, Montaigne, remarked: "Those who write biographies, since they spend more time...on what comes from within than what happens without, are most suited to me. That is why, in every way, Plutarch is my man." Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his journal, permitted himself a racy metaphor that sounded like Walt Whitman: "Away with your prismatics. I want a spermatic book.... Plato, Plotinus & Plutarch are such.”

Certainly Plutarch's Lives has been seminal; from its raw material, Western dramatists and poets—especially Shakespeare, of course, in Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra—have been extruding (er, stealing) plots and characters for nearly 2,000 years. Shakespeare's Coriolanus is intricately filched from Plutarch, whose Lives were first published in an English translation by Sir Thomas North in 1579. As for Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, here is a line from Plutarch's life of Brutus: "'It is not,' said [Caesar], 'the fat and the long-haired men that I fear, but the pale and the lean,' meaning Brutus and Cassius." Or as Shakespeare put it, "Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; he thinks too much: such men are dangerous."

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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