Sunday, August 7, 2011

By the Way

My original ten-year plan, the one that came with the Britannica Great Books set, made only a few assignments from Plutarch's Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans: Theseus, Romulus, Lycurgus, and Numa from the legendary or semi-legendary times, and the more historical Alexander and Caesar. That's only six of the forty-eight essays, one-eighth of the whole book, so, since I enjoyed them all so well, I made sure to include Plutarch in my second decade, assigning the lives a few each year so I would have finished the entire book by the end of the tenth year.

And Plutarch has never disappointed me. Now, I need help with context since he doesn't include any kind of dating system and tells the stories of these lives out of order; Plutarch simply assumes his readers know geography and the general outline of history. But with some maps and a timeline, the stories start to fall into their places in the puzzle, and the panorama that takes shape includes interesting political events, exciting stories, and -- above all -- valuable moral lessons.

Plutarch's general goal is to prove that morals had declined by the eighth Roman century (roughly our second century), but he doesn't seem to sugar-coat his biographies. I've just started Pyrrhus this year, and already in the first few pages, Plutarch has reported several occasions on which Pyrrhus made a bad decision. He arranges his stories in pairs (thus the title) in order to compare characters and to draw lessons. Perhaps, for instance, courage and determination remain valuable only while the determined plan stays wise; a comparison of Flamininus and Philopoemen helps us consider the problem. "As to their failings," Plutarch says frankly, "ambition was Titus's [i.e. Flamininus's] weak side, and obstinacy Philopoemen's." At the end of his comparison, he concludes, "Since it does not appear to be easy, by any review or discussion, to establish the true difference of their merits and decide to which a preference is due, will it be an unfair award in the case, if we let the Greek bear away the crown for military conduct and warlike skill, and the Roman for justice and clemency?"

Many of the most interesting passages in the book are secondary to the main stories: backstories, sidestories, and philosophical observations told by the way. Last year, for instance, in the history of Marcellus, I read about the famous scientist and engineer Archimedes, a story that especially tickled my fancy since my grandson shares that name. According to Plutarch, Archimedes possessed "a profound soul" and engaged in mathematical speculations "in which the only doubt can be whether the beauty and grandeur of the subjects examined, or the precision and cogency of the methods and means of proof, most deserve our admiration." (I have no doubt that his twenty-first-century namesake will follow in his footsteps.) And in the tale of Aristides, I read a valuable passage on a comparison of various divine attributes. We honor the gods, Plutarch says, for immortality, power, and virtue, but surely virtue is the greatest and the most desirable. He offers two arguments. First, irrational things can be immortal (remember what the ancients thought about the heavens) and powerful, but only a person can be virtuous. Second, we do not admire people who have long lives and great power but lack in virtue, so we should covet virtue the most of all the divine attributes.

Plutarch came up with that view having only the Roman gods as models. Translating his argument into Christian terms and pondering the question of which attributes of Christ we should most want to emulate (his ability to calm waves, for instance, or his compassion?) could be valuable and instructive.

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