Saturday, September 19, 2015

Don’t Let This Happen to You

Lucy Ricardo once wrote a novel. (Season 3, episode 23: I’m sure you can find a link somewhere.) When Ricky, Fred, and Ethel read it and discover that Lucy has based an unlikeable character on each of them, they burn the typescript to try to keep it from publication. Of course wily Lucy has made other copies and sent them to publishers. But her husband and friends still have nothing to worry about: the only publisher interested in Lucy’s work wants to include an excerpt of it in a book on how to write a novel – in a chapter entitled “Don’t Let This Happen to You.”

Plutarch starts his biography of Demetrius, a Hellenic king, by saying that amidst all the examples of virtuous people he has put forward, it could be instructive to see an example of bad living. In other words, Plutarch’s life of Demetrius is his “Don’t Let This Happen to You” chapter. And I think Plutarch was exactly right: the tale of Demetrius makes for some of the most compelling reading in the whole expansive tome.

Demetrius reveals his character early on when he brings women into the temple of Jupiter for sexual dalliances. I mean, come on, Demetrius! There are some Roman temples you have sexual dalliances in and some you don’t, and Jupiter’s temple is definitely one of the ones you don’t have sex in.

But worse in Plutarch’s eyes – and more instructive for modern readers – was Demetrius’ tyranny. Living in the second generation after Alexander, Demetrius vied and jockeyed with the other heirs of the Great King for power in the region of the Macedonian Empire. Early in his campaigns he freed Athens from the tyranny of others only to implant his terrible rule even more firmly. Plutarch partly blames the Athenians for rewarding Demetrius so lavishly and letting the adulation go to his head. He soon calls himself King of Kings and assigns humiliating titles to Seleucus and Ptolemy and the other kings from the realm. This of course only brings their wrath and armies down on him. His fortunes go up and down rapidly, but every time he gains a throne, he uses its power only for his own comfort and pleasure while ignoring the people’s needs, the tending of which Plutarch rightly calls the true work of a king.

At one point in the story of Demetrius, the great biographer of the classic world makes the point that people erect statues for kings for one of two reasons: either adoration or fear. This remark about statues activated a memory of a modern-day ruler who could stand to learn from Plutarch’s negative lesson. For I know a president of a university who lives in a white house, calls his wife “First Lady,” commissions statues and paintings of himself for the campus, and has seen to it that the university has a street and a college named after him. He has publicly stated that his goal as president is to become the longest-sitting occupant of that office in the history of the university, without so much as mentioning the educational mission of the institution, i.e., the needs of the people. Ironically, in the first speech I ever heard from him, he mentioned Plutarch’s Lives.

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