Book Review: Plutarch’s Lives

Plutarch’s Lives of Themistocles, Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades and Coriolanus, Demosthenes and Cicero, Caesar and Antony, edited by Charles W. Eliot

A friend of mine purchased this book and sent it to me, and I have to admit I was pleased to receive it and read it, for Plutarch’s writing has long been of interest to me [1], even if I have not been very familiar directly with many of his writings.  This book does not include all of Plutarch’s writings nor does it include many of them (with the exception of two collections of paired laws) in the form that he originally wrote it as parallel lives, but even with these flaws this collection is definitely one to appreciate, coming as it does from Dryden’s translation, corrected and revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, and serving as volume twelve of the lengthy collection of Harvard classics.  Reading this book almost makes me want to hunt down some more of these volumes to read for myself, as it represents an accessible collection of classical literature for the intelligent reader, and not the sort of thing that we can expect to be recreated anytime soon in our own day and age.

Plutarch as a writer was well aware of his goals and his limitations and his approach.  While he serves as the only or almost the only known historian for certain incidents and periods of Greco-Roman history, his writing looms larger than it would have at the time, when his work was part of a larger context of writings.  In this particular collection, we have a nice balance between Greek and Roman lives, which were originally put in parallel for purposes of moralizing and drawing conclusions about character and not necessarily a detailed discussion of all of the noteworthy deeds of the people in question.  In this collection, for example, we see the trouble that Greek leaders had in terms of keeping the unstable democracies of Athens on their side, the experience of leaders in exile, the question of cowardice and moral corruption, and the relationship between public and private virtue.  Some of the discussions are somewhat short, and some of them very long, and many of them involve tragic ends relating to suicide and assassination.  Even though this particular book is aimed at presenting historical heroes in their humanity and complexity, it left this reader at least with a great deal of melancholy feelings about the relationship between challenging times and capable men and the price that is paid for leading others.

Plutarch’s skill as a moralist is especially in evidence here, and he does not whitewash the people here, although it must be admitted as well that this version does not include the nastiest rumors about some of these historical figures that we have, such as Julius Caesar’s rumored time as the “Queen of Bithynia.”  Even so, there are a lot of aspects of the leaders discussed here that are worthy lessons for others.  We see from leaders like Themistocles and Alcibiades how virtue and reputation can be ruined by having a reputation for treachery and corruption of various kinds.  We see from Coriolanus how those who hunger and thirst after political power need to develop charisma and learn to control their temper to prevent themselves from destroying their lives.  The lessons these figures can help teach are of great interest for present and potential leaders, and it is little wonder that these works in their original and translation were sought after for centuries and why they remain relevant for readers today.  It is immensely worthwhile to learn through the example of others rather than have to make every mistake for oneself, after all.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Plutarch’s Lives

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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