Thursday, August 11, 2011

Random Lessons from Plutarch

As usual, I've been enjoying Plutarch, reading in the pages of his Parallel Lives short biographies of memorable Greeks and Romans whose histories provide many moral examples -- sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Here are a few of the stories and observations I've read in the last few days in the lives of Pyrrhus and of Caius Marius.

Plutarch says that Pyrrhus's actions corroborated an observation by Homer to the effect that fortitude is the only virtue that appears in a frenzy. I agree that frenzies seem to preclude the presence or application of temperance, wisdom, and justice. And I agree that a person in a frenzy often does things he would normally be afraid to do. But I don't think the actions of a frenzied person should be credited to fortitude, which requires a rational understanding of the good purpose that outweighs the risks and makes those risks worth taking. I might be persuaded, though, to say that a frenzy can be prompted by love or wisdom, as when a mother becomes fierce in protection of her children or when a baseball manager decides that the time is right to argue with the ump and get thrown out of the game.

In his summary of Pyrrhus, Plutarch says that he showed courage that never wavered and military intelligence, but lost all that he ever gained because of "vain hopes" and "desires of what he had not." I can't help but take note of that sobering lesson, teaching us to keep from constantly casting our eyes to the ends of the earth. But it seems to me, the way Plutarch tells the story, that Pyrrhus didn't show such unconquerable courage, since he gave up almost every enterprise he entered on just as it got most difficult. Oh, sure, he was constantly getting requests from various nations asking him for help in overthrowing their oppressors, but he certainly seemed to take on these missions every time just as the previous liberation got messy. And I still can't shake the question that Cineas asked him: "If you're fighting all these fights in order to win a life of leisure, why not just stop fighting and live at ease now?" (More on that story in the previous post.) I think he just liked to fight.

Caius Marius seemed to have superhuman tolerance for pain and complete rational control over his passions. Plutarch tells of a surgical procedure that he endured without anasthesia. Having tumors in both legs, he asked a surgeon to remove them and lay still without a twitch while the lesions from one leg were removed. But when the surgeon moved to the other side, Marius stopped him and said, "I see the cure is not worth the pain." Cool, collected, cost-risk analysis.

In the Roman civil war that Julius Caesar's ascendancy put an end to, Marius took the side of the plebeians against the patricians and Sulla. He demonstrated his preference for the commoner early on, when against all custom he recruited commoners to his legions the first time he was elected consul. He won their loyalty by sharing in their labor, which "is felt as an easing of that labour, as it seems to take away the constraint and necessity of it." Plutarch goes on to say that the Roman soldiers "do not so much admire those that confer honours and riches upon them, as those that partake of the same labour and danger with themselves." I've tried to keep in mind such counterintuitive truths about power any time I've been given leadership; sometimes I've even succeeded in keeping them in mind. I wish university administrators understood the lessons. Maybe I should distribute a few copies of Plutarch around campus.

Marius shows awareness and creativity in other ways, too. While waiting behind fortifications for an opportune time to attack some Teutonic barbarians, he has all his men take turns on the walls so they can see what the enemy looks like. "For he very rationally supposed that the strangeness of things often makes them seem formidable when they are not so; and that by our better acquaintance, even things which are really terrible lose much of their frightfulness." I love the way Plutarch takes the opportunity to approve Marius's plan as rational. And I think he's right; I've certainly seen the principle borne out in my life. I wish I could remember where I read that people generally get braver as they grow older because they have learned what kinds of adversities they survive; I've certainly experienced that progression.

As a final entry in this random list of observations, I'll note that Plutarch fills the story of Marius with an unusual number of vivid scenes and tableaus. Marius dams the Rhone, for instance, to make an easier approach for his ships. The Teutons descend from the alpine foothills by sliding down the ice on their shields. Plutarch seems to understand the spherical shape of the earth, because he says the Teutons live in a place where the "declination of the parallels" results in the celestial north pole lying very close to the zenith, and notes that they divide the whole year into one long day and one long night. OK, so he doesn't know geography well enough to know that Switzerland is not above the arctic circle, but he has heard marvelous-yet-true stories about someone and offers an explanation.

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