- Paperback: 816 pages
- Publisher: Modern Library; Modern Library Paperback Ed edition (10 April 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375756760
- ISBN-13: 978-0375756764
- Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 2.7 x 20.2 cm
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #93,441 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Plutarch's Lives, Volume 1: The Dryden Translation (Modern Library Classics) Paperback – 10 Apr 2001
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Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Greek
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In all seriousness, Plutarch's "Lives" is an interesting examination of eminent Greeks and Romans with comparisons of like figures. I love this book, and it is certainly not something you need to sit down and read in its entirety to get a lot from. Reading just a biography or two and the accompanying comparisons Plutarch offers is a great way for anyone interested in this period or biographies in general to get a feel for a detailed perspective on figures from history.
It can be dry, but that depends upon the reader.
What I first want to do in this review is to provide a little background to a reading of Plutarch. Hopefully, this will provide an explanation of why Plutarch remains such a vital author in the Western Canon.
Plutarch lived from around 46 to 120 CE. He therefore lived in the Roman Empire from the reign of Nero to the beginnings of Hadrian's reign. He was contemporaries with Tacitus and Epictetus. He lived for a while in Rome but most of his life was spent in Boetia in Greece. He was a priest of the oracle at Delphi for several decades and a prolific writer on philosophical, scientific and ethical themes.
In addition the the Lives, Plutarch wrote many essays and dialogues that have been collected together under the general title of the Moralia. The Loeb Classical Library provides a complete English rendering and there are several good one volume selections. I mention the Moralia because I believe that a reading of some of the essays are essential to understanding the ethical explorations of the Lives.
Consider the opening to his essay, "On Moral Virtue". Plutarch starts off by distinguishing "moral" virtue from "contemplative" virtue. The differences lies "chiefly in that it has as its material the emotions of the soul and as its form reason" (p.19 of the Loeb Moralia, Vol.6).
This gives us a picture of Plutarch as Middle Platonist with an Aristotlean idea of virtue as a mean. The picture we get is of a human world where evil and vice are as real as virtue and reason, where the emotions can work as the energizing element of both virtue and vice and where the achievement of virtue is always the result of education and discipline and is never complete.
It is this picture of the world that is then explored so magnificently in the Lives. The Lives focus of the political and military realm of the statesmen and uses the various people discussed as the raw material for the exploration of all the ways that excellent men (and a few excellent women)can succeed or fail at virtuous leadership.
One of the themes that I feel Plutarch explores is whether Roman hegemony can be defended on any grounds other than their success at arms. In this, he is writing as a cultured Greek testing the Roman leadership by the standards of a conquered people.
He looks at the ways that various personal failings (lack of prudence in a general, an excessive love of drink, uncontrollable lust whether for boys or women or greed or any pretty much any excess) can waylay and overturn a lifetime of achievement.
Another favorite theme of Plutarch's is the turning of Fortuna's (or Tyche's)wheel. Plutarch exemplifies the belief that we are laid low or allowed success almost whimsically by this goddess who will surely turn our lives upside down again soon. Just because She can (At least, as far as we know).
Against these backgrounds of Roman hegemony, personal failings and the twists and turns of Fate, Plutarch tries to show us the struggle of the individual to serve his city, his Empire or his own petty whims. It is a great theme, one that he writes about with insight and with sympathy for those whose stories he is telling.
This gets to my annoyance with the Penguin volumes of the Lives. By separating the paired Greek and Roman lives and by presenting them out of sequence, Penguin is trying to present Plutarch as an historian, a role he explicitly denies for himself. While I think he is a very good historian, he is even more a uniquely great essayist in practical political and personal ethics. This is, I believe, how Montaigne read Plutarch and I think both Jefferson and Madison as well. This is how Plutarch has helped to shape our cultural history. In fact, I am going to make the claim that it is impossible to fully understand the debate around the adoption of the U.S. Constitution unless you have read the whole of both Plutarch and Livy. Anyone who wants to persue that thesis with me, please write a comment.
My recommendation is that you get the Modern Library edition and dig in. If you don't like it, wait a year or two and try it again. For Plutarch presents us with the broadest possible experience of the world. You may find, like me, that you have to wait a while for your own experience to grow broad enough in order to really see just what an amazing book this ancient neighbor of ours has given us.