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Why Plutarch matters

Fascination with the lives of our societal leaders began centuries ago, scratching a voyeuristic itch in the reading public. Knowing a good thing, publishing houses keep churning out fresh interpretations of these profiles. While such biographies remain popular today, the seeds of this frenzy were planted several millennia ago by Plutarch.5-3-oped-TK-plutarch
Already the premier essayist of his time, Plutarch (A.D. 46-120) was a philosopher, teacher, and one of the high priests of the Delphic Oracle. However, he left his mark on history with an account of 50 famous Greeks and Romans, "Parallel Lives." Breaking from the accepted biographical template of the classical period, Plutarch added three unique elements to his style which remain influential, as well as spur controversy.
First, instead of listing chronologies and events, Plutarch added the dimension of behavior and thought to his subjects. As far as scholars know, he was the first biographer to attempt this maneuver.
For example, getting inside Antony's head to evaluate his love for Cleopatra and the context in which it existed to satisfy her political ambitions is one thing. Telling us he ruled the eastern Roman provinces, and had a fling with the queen of Egypt is quite another. While such an interpretation is problematical to modern historians given the lack of Plutarch's primary sources, it remains visionary, and added much needed spice to an otherwise bland recipe.
Next, Plutarch used comparative analysis. At the conclusion of his 50 short biographies, he formed 18 pairs, one Greek and one Roman in each, chosen for similar time periods or official roles. He then scrutinized their similarities, differences, and related effects.
From there, he examined the psychology for why one subject chose a particular course, while the second subject chose another. This was another unheard of technique, which opened the gates to his final motive.
Plutarch always drew ethical conclusions from the behavior of famous leaders, which is consistent with his background as a priest and his other writings, such as the widely read "Moral Essays."
While this served his era well, it has run Plutarch into trouble today. In an increasingly relativistic world defined by ethical gray areas and the constant vacillation of religion's relevance, many postmodern scholars chided Plutarch's judgmental approach.
Nevertheless, the ancients were concerned with identifying right from wrong, even if they didn't always practice it. Unlike Thucydides, Plutarch didn't consider politics and warfare as bodies of work from which to provide future governing models. "Parallel Lives" focused on the struggle of living rather than the lives themselves. Plutarch cared more for why statesmen and soldiers do what they do, so that his readers could understand their rulers — a populist rationale.
And enduring. Embattled college classics departments survived the postmodern scourge and in the last decade have experienced a renaissance. The influence of "Parallel Lives" in the great works of literature and government is legion, and provides a solid foundation for human philosophy in both creative and pragmatic endeavors.
Ultimately, this is why Plutarch still matters today, and why biographies of civic leaders remain top bestsellers.
Shakespeare is one such example of Plutarch's nuanced influence. His dramatic works are rife with moralistic tales and psychological character profiles. The Bard's table of contents is peppered with names from the main index of "Parallel Lives." All faced ethical choices in real life: Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Coriolanus, to name a few. The plays reveal more names familiar to Plutarch, as well as dramatization of his exact behavioral evaluations.
The Founding Fathers also sought inspiration from "Parallel Lives." In "The Federalist," Hamilton, Madison and Jay invoke Plutarch's tone in arguing for ratification of our Constitution, however imperfect a document they knew it to be. They assessed the struggle to create a system of rule by recounting the travails of such past upstarts as the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, and the Athenian ruler Pericles.
The Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, a Shakespeare devotee, once noted: "Just as there is one geometry, there is one morality." In this same vein, there is a reason why we flock to biographies, especially those of politicians and generals.
"Parallel Lives," which has influenced all such accounts to this day, remains not only an opus about how leaders live, but about why. Were he alive now, and almost three centuries after first reading Plutarch, Voltaire would still approve.

(Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. You may contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or follow him on Twitter at @TellyHalkias.)

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