Saturday, September 15, 2012

Plutarch's Secrets

As usual, in reading Plutarch this year, I’m enjoying the political stories and pondering his analysis of the morals of his subjects, but above all struck by the intriguing tangential remarks he makes about seemingly random details. Plutarch’s enormous compendium of biographies seems to be mostly about battles and stratagems, whether in the assembly or on the field. But at times he actually seems more interested in religion, philosophy, astronomy, and the arts. Truth be told, I often get confused in Plutarch’s long stories about military campaigns and end up rushing through the play-by-play, only to slow down during the color commentary. Much of the problem in the battlefield narratives comes down to pronouns. When one army is attacking another and Plutarch refers to each in rapid alternation, the pronoun “they” doesn’t clarify which army is the subject of the clause. And yet Plutarch resorts to pronouns routinely. The problem may be one of translation; I know Latin has different pronouns for the more recently named subject and the more remotely mentioned, and perhaps Greek does as well. The Latin forms work like our “the former” and “the latter,” although they’re rarely translated that way. In any case, I don’t worry too much about catching all the details in these action-packed passages, mostly looking instead for the other topics; since they happen to be among my strongest interests as well, I naturally feel an affinity with Plutarch and suppose that he enjoyed a secret love for them.

The little references to his secret loves come up fairly regularly, one or two in every biography. In his story of Nicias, the Athenian general blamed for disaster in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, Plutarch mentions a lunar eclipse that frightened the Greeks, and he takes the opportunity to go over a brief history of the science of eclipses. “Even ordinary people,” he says, knew that solar eclipses came about when the moon moved in front of the sun, but the cause of lunar eclipses remained a mystery among the general public. Anaxagoras had learned the truth but was keeping it a secret because of the bad reputation natural philosophers held at his time. The problem, says Plutarch, is that by giving natural explanations for phenomena in the skies, they seemed to deny divine agency. He credits Plato for establishing the good name of science by subordinating material explanations to first principles in divine providence. It seems obvious to me. “Ordinary people” deal with proximate and remote causes everyday: the ball went over the fence because of the motion imparted to it by contact with a swinging bat, but the bat swung because a batter decided to swing it, and he swung the bat because a pitcher delivered the ball to the plate. If western civilization had not lost the wisdom of Plato and Plutarch about the compatibility of material and divine causes, discussion between science and theology over the last two-hundred years or so might have been less heated and more fruitful .

A few pages later, Plutarch tells a delightful story about slave traders who gave preferential treatment to prisoners who could quote Euripides. I immediately remembered William Shatner once sharing with Johnny Carson that several former POWs of the Viet Cong told him they had kept their sanity among insane conditions by reenacting scenes from Star Trek. Stories in which the arts act as antidotes to the madness of war are worth slowing down to savor.

In his life of Crassus, Plutarch says that the Parthians were right to beat drums to frighten the enemy since “of all the senses, hearing most confounds and disorders us.” True? The bagpipe and the rebel yell on the battlefield and the creaky door in the haunted house movie provide persuasive examples. It’s a cliche of popular film analysis that Williams’s two-note theme frightened people more than the appearance of the shark. Are the violin shrieks of Psycho more disturbing than the picture of Janet Leigh’s scream or of the blood flowing down the drain?

A final example for today: in the comparison of Nicias and Crassus, Plutarch makes this observation:
One scrupulously observed, the other entirely slighted the arts of divination; and as both equally perished [in military disasters], it is difficult to see what inference we should draw.
Plutarch’s curtness seems to suggest a touch of irony. He may not have had any trouble at all drawing the inference about the effectiveness of divination, but maybe like Anaxagoras, he shrewdly kept his conclusion a secret.

No comments:

Post a Comment