An Introduction to Plutarch

Often regarded as first among the biographers of antiquity, the details of Plutarch’s life are somewhat opaque. Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus was born in Chaerona, a small town in Boetia (located north-west of Attica along the road between Athens and Delphi). He was likely born at some point during the reign of Claudius (perhaps somewhere around 45-50 AD) to a wealthy and well-connected Greek family within the Roman Empire. Plutarch’s lineage included a line of magistrates. Some of his family members are briefly mentioned in the Lives. His great-grandfather Nicarchus was whipped by Roman soldiers and forced to carry grain to the coast (mentioned in the “Life of Antony”), and his grandfather Lamprias was an eloquent speaker, often under the influence of wine. He studied philosophy under Ammonius in Athens during the reign of Nero when the emperor made his incursion into Greece during the twelfth year of his rule (the sixty-sixth year of the new Christian era). 

By all accounts, Plutarch lived a temperate and contented life –he was a friend of emanant figures in his day. He was a lover of the finer things in life, a lover of animals and a despiser of all things pretentious and haughty. He was a thinker and a writer, and therefore, an elite in ancient culture, writing with an eye toward the literate and high-born patricians. Plutarch and his wife Timoxena may had as many as five children, three of whom likely died in childhood (a common tragedy in those days). A particularly notable Plutarchian letter survives to this day which sought to address his wife’s grief at the loss of their daughter. Plutarch was a worldly man, a cosmopolitan intellectual who traveled widely to places like Egypt, Italy, and Asia Minor. In Rome, he delivered a series of famous lectures on philosophy in Greek and only learned Latin later in life when he retired to his “small town” of Chaerona where he set about to write the “Parallel Lives,” his magnum opus. He also served in a political role as commissioner of sewage and public buildings. Plutarch was appointed Archon of the city as well as a lifetime priest at Delphi. Apparently, he lived to be an old man and died at some point during the reign of Hadrian. His two surviving sons gathered the corpus of Plutarch’s writings, but sadly most of these are lost to us now. The two chief works that have endured today are the Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (or simply the “Lives”) and the Moralia (a collection of Plutarch’s essays on a myriad topics).   

Throughout Plutarch’s writings, he stresses a practical philosophy –he believes people should strive toward harmony with the world and with oneself. Like Plato, Plutarch does not seek flight or retreat from this world. He rejects the Stoic school of thought, but he encourages self-control and rejection of the passions like anger or pity or grief because they lead to bitterness, resentment, and antipathy. Plutarch believes the art of reading is a moral activity, it is an aesthetic experience and therefore the act of imitation, or mimesis, is paramount to understanding good writing and how to be a good person. Thus his great work, the Lives, is less a work of history in the vein of Herodotus or Thucydides, and more an ambitious moral project –an effort to offer ancient biographies which encourage imitation of great and noble deeds. Some lives are exemplary and therefore worthy of imitation (like Lycurgus), while others are not (like Cato). However, Plutarch is rarely explicit in which lives he elevates for readers to imitate –we must discover them for ourselves.     

Additionally, Plutarch is hardly a nostalgic simpleton nor is he a mere hero worshiper, although he can be somewhat loose with the truth on occasion. His series of intimate portraits are derived from letters, rumors, anecdotes, and dialogues –all more commonly acceptable forms of authority in his day. Each biography contrasts the life of a Roman man with the life of a Greek man (purportedly demonstrating the superiority of the latter). Plutarch does not write about politics and war on a grand scale, but rather he describes an individual’s moral character and offers it up for scrutiny. An account of a particular life is a different form of story-telling from either a Platonic dialogue or an Aristotelian treatise, it offers anecdotes. Plutarch is a moralist, and as such, he believes the question of historia (or “inquiry”) is subordinate to the pursuit of moral character. The Lives is a work of instruction. It forces us to ask, amidst the rise and fall of empires throughout history, who are the men who truly lived well?

In Plutarch, we are given the image of a blissful man –an intellectual scholar and a friend to many, a pleasant fellow perhaps residing on a vast country villa in a rural region of Greece under the Roman Empire, prior to the overwhelming dominance of the Christian revolution. His domestic tranquility was matched only by his love of learning. Appropriately, many of the Lives are addressed to one of Plutarch’s closest friends, Quintus Sosius Senecio, honorary consul who served alongside Roman Emperor Trajan. While the facticity of Plutarch’s biographies will forever exist beyond the veil, Plutarch nevertheless supersedes other ancient biographers, like Diogenes Laertius, in revealing certain deeper truths about human nature. The impoverishment of the biographic format still allows for a courageous pursuit of philosophic inquiry. In reading the Lives, it becomes apparent that Plutarch is a devotee of Plato and Aristotle. He looks fondly back to the Greeks for strength and admiration. The intended order of Plutarch’s Lives remains somewhat ambiguous, but the Lives, themselves, remain one of the most authoritative windows into antiquity –indeed Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Rousseau all found refuge and inspiration within the Lives of Plutarch.

For this reading I used the John Dryden translation of Plutarch’s Lives with revisions by Arthur Hugh Clough.  

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