Sunday, September 11, 2016

Call Not Plutarch Happy Until You’ve Read to the End

All year I’ve been finishing volumes of my beloved Britannica Great Books set. Greek drama. Plato. Volume I of Gibbon. This month I’m finishing up Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. I enjoyed the ancient biographer’s account of Brutus immensely when I read it last week. It might have helped that I knew something about Brutus already – and had known for quite a while. But here he isn’t just the side character who delivers the most unkindest cut in someone else’s story. Here Brutus is the main attraction. And in Plutarch’s hands, his story just builds and builds in a most compelling way.

Plutarch gives Brutus the best possible treatment. During the scrap between Julius Caesar and Pompey, Brutus changes sides but finds favor with Caesar after Pompey’s death because Caesar knows he had the purest motive for siding with the enemy. But then the people start calling for a descendant of Junius Brutus, the kingslayer, to free them from a return of royalty. If the reader wonders, even after learning of this tremendous social pressure, how Brutus can participate in the assassination of the man who has forgiven him so generously, Plutarch answers with a positive spin: Brutus loved his country and hated tyranny so much, he even consented to killing a man he personally admired. The country seems grateful at first until Marc Antony turns them against Brutus with his funeral oration the next day. (Are we surprised that Shakespeare altered the documented chronology in order to suit his dramatic purposes?) So poor Brutus, a victim to mob opinion once more, flees Italy. What’s more, he now finds that “young Caesar” (i.e. Octavius Caesar, soon to be Caesar Augustus) may be just as bad as his predecessor, so he gathers an army in the East and approaches the capital. When captured, he falls on his own sword. All these actions Plutarch commends as most virtuous. In his eye, Brutus is indeed “an honourable man.”

Not everyone agrees, though. I’m preparing my first lesson on The Divine Comedy for the world-lit class I’m teaching to home-schoolers. Just after finishing Plutarch’s account, I opened up Inferno to a random page, and my eyes fell immediately on a passage reminding me that Dante placed Brutus and co-conspirator Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell: the place devoted to sinners who broke faith and betrayed others.

As good as Plutarch’s story of Brutus is, I find my mind wandering as I read the next life in the book, that of Achaian League champion Aratus. Why do I care about finishing this book? I asked myself. In one nostalgic fit of wool-gathering, I held my place with my finger and turned the pages back to the first few biographies, just to see what notes I had written in the margins nine years ago. There I found exactly the kind of story that led me to read all of Plutarch: the account of Croesus and Solon. I first learned of King Croesus of Lydia in Herodotus’ wonderful Histories. But I’ve seen his name invoked many times since, especially in novels. I think he must have been much more commonly known in the past; I’m sure one of the Austen girls describes some local gentleman as “rich as Croesus.” Croesus was rich indeed and proud of his riches. When meeting Solon the lawgiver, he took offense that the philosophical Solon refused to praise him on account of his amassed wealth. Did this petty man not know greatness when he sees it?

But, as Plutarch points out, all the king’s riches did nothing to stop Cyrus’s Persian tide from rolling westward. As Cyrus prepares to kill Croesus, the captive king shouts out Solon’s name three times. Curious, Cyrus halts the proceedings and asks who or what this Solon might be. Croesus identifies him as a teacher who once tried to warn him not to take pride in uncertainties nor to think himself happy until he came to the end of his life. Wondering at such great wisdom made manifest before his eyes, Cyrus releases his captive and showers him with honors the rest of his life. Thus, concludes Plutarch, “Solon had the glory, by the same saying, to save one king and instruct another.”

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