Plutarch’s Lives: Instructive Biography

Comparing two modern editions of Plutarch’s Lives shows how the modern world has learned to scorn the value of moral character.

Lessons in Character and Leadership

WHILE I’VE GOT ROME ON MY MIND, I’ve begun dipping into some of the biographies of ancient Romans (and Greeks) written by Plutarch, who is credited with being the author of the literary genre we know as “biography.” The most famous of these are Plutarch’s “parallel lives,” in which he pairs up a Greek and a Roman figure who share some significant biographical features (e.g., Demosthenes and Cicero were both renowned orators), describes the life of each, and then compares the points on which each should or should not be admired (Demosthenes was more mercenary than Cicero, but Cicero engaged in unseemly boasting about his own abilities and accomplishments).

I’ve got two different editions of Plutarch on hand to choose from: one is the Penguin Classics’ Fall of the Roman Republic, a selection of Plutarch’s Roman biographies that highlights figures who played a key role in the collapse of the Roman Republic (Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cicero). This edition presents a modern translation by Rex Warner, with an introduction by Robin Seager. The other book is Volume II of the Modern Library edition of Plutarch’s Lives, some of which are paired and compared, while others are “solo.” This volume contains the (17th century) Dryden translation of the Lives, along with a 19th century Preface by Arthur Hugh Clough and an editorial introduction by American biographer, James Atlas.

“Biography Is Our School”

An old-fashioned approach to biography

Differences between the two editions prompt me to make a comparison of my own. Before I began reading any of the biographies themselves, I read the editorial introductions and the preface by Clough, and I noticed something that struck me as rather curious, namely the fact that modern scholars, although they acknowledge the importance of Plutarch’s work, seem to regard his method and purpose as quaint and even illegitimate. Plutarch himself made it plain that, in writing these biographies, his intention was to examine the character of the men whose lives he was writing rather than to analyze their historical importance (“My design is not to write Histories but Lives”). Merely being famous, in his view, was not enough to make a man admirable:

[T]he 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, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore, as portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in any other parts of the body, so I must be  allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men . . .

Plutarch
Modern preference for political scheming

This purpose is characterized by James Atlas, with a note of indulgent condescension, as “moralizing,” as if it were rather peculiar, in considering the lives of historically important figures, to be interested chiefly in their moral character. Perhaps he is willing to allow Plutarch his moralizing because Atlas himself acknowledged in an interview shortly after the publication of his biography of Saul Bellow:

We want to know how people lived, we want instruction in what critics used to call “manners and morals.” Biography is our school, our church, our family, our community. It does the work the novel used to do: it educates us.

James Atlas interview

A Machiavellian Approach to Biography

Robin Seager goes beyond questioning Plutarch’s “moralizing tendencies”—in fact, he blames Plutarch for failing to credit historical figures for their cleverness in political scheming. Take, for instance, his editorial note on Plutarch’s life of Gaius Marius: the historical record clearly shows Marius to have been a ruthless self-promoter with little regard for the rule of law and a nasty taste for bloody vengeance against his political rivals, but Seager seems to think that Plutarch takes too dim a view of these facts and fails to show “appreciation of the political skill with which Marius fostered and exploited equestrian and popular discontent in order to oust Metellus from the Numidian command.”

This view, to me, smacks of a modern, Machiavellian expectation that political figures should be judged for the crude efficacy, rather than the morality, of their actions, which is completely at odds with the view of classical writers (who were never shy about moralizing).

Livy and Sallust: Two Roman historians who did not hesitate to “moralize”

The historian Livy said, in the preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, that his purpose in writing was to provide examples of men and actions to imitate or to avoid—that is, he intended his history to provide moral instruction, and he thought his presentation would make it plain enough which actions had been destructive and which admirable. In fact, he instructs his readers to search for the moral lessons in the historical account:

The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these—the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which, through domestic policy and foreign war, dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

Livy’s preface to Ab Urbe Condita (The History of Rome)

In other words, in Livy’s view, a high moral standard produced social benefits, and declining morals brought about social ruin. His immediate audience was the generation following the collapse of the Republic, and he sought to help people of his own day avoid repeating the disasters of the past. Indeed, his History reads like a series of moral vignettes. It has always struck me as quite inexplicable that Machiavelli, who was well-read in classical history and even wrote a famous commentary on Livy (his Discourses on Livy), seems not to have been influenced at all by the classical tendency to equate personal morality with the public good; in fact, in The Prince, he quite explicitly denies this equation, urging the prince to do what is expedient rather than what is ethical.

Perhaps, though, Robin Seager, in complaining that Plutarch fails to appreciate Marius’s political savvy, is not so much reflecting a Machiavellian preference for expediency over ethics as he is revealing his own preoccupation as a biographer—Seager has published two well-received political biographies of Roman figures whose lives were also treated by Plutarch: Pompey and Tiberius Caesar, neither of them great moral exemplars but both excellent at grasping power. At any rate, it certainly seems that modern biographers do not share Plutarch’s interest in “moralizing.” I, however, am looking forward to seeing what moral lessons Plutarch draws out in his Lives.

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