Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives” is a profoundly spiritual and moral work, and one which calls each and every one of us to become great men and not to remain in the shadow of the great men of history who may, in fact, have been petty instead of great.
Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, better known as Plutarch, lived in exciting and transformative times. The nascent religion of Christianity was beginning to spread in Asia Minor thanks to the activities of the apostles and St. Paul. The memory of Augustus Caesar still loomed over the Roman state. Rome had also reached its poetic acme with Virgil, Statius, and Ovid; one could go as far as to say Rome had reached its literary apogee in the first century B.C. and first century A.D. The nadir of the republic, but the birth of pietas, was the world that Plutarch was born into.
Plutarch was an essayist, moralist, and to many, the first systematic biographer. The 23 paired men he writes about follow a cyclical pattern: birth, adolescence, education, rise, and death. At the end of paired comparison Plutarch generally offers a moral comparison between the two. If not, his biography is sprinkled with anecdotal asides that serve as his moral voice bleeding through the lines.
That Plutarch was a moralist shouldn’t be surprising given the first-century world he lived in. The dark clouds and times which had fallen over Rome, but also Greece, was a stunning and shocking blow to the ancient glory of Athens, Alexander, and the Roman republic. How could such mighty and inspiring civilizations had fallen so low?
Augustus Caesar thought of himself as the savior of the republic. Indeed, while we call the post-Augustan settlement the Roman Empire, the Romans still considered themselves living in the republic of old. Augustus was a moralist, irrespective of his own personal moral failings. While the notion of pietas, or piety, had preceded Augustus, in many ways Augustus became the patron founder of pietas. Through the commissioned works of Virgil, Livy, Horace, the poets, writers, and other historians of the Augustan settlement, Augustus effectively invented the longstanding notion of traditional piety and conservative moral sentiment associated with Roman piety.
Augustus and the first-century intellectuals and writers realized that part of the eclipse of the republic was the moral debauchery of the state, the abdication of duty—piety—of the aristocrats, and the general descent into conflict with the rush to the lowest common denominator in human life. Rather than call men up to the gods, the setting sun over the republic was a return to the world of the sophists and dog-eat-dog individualism.
This was the world that Plutarch was born into. A world, taken captive by Rome, now embracing the virtues of what we may readily identify as traditionalism. Even St. Augustine, in critiquing the shortfalls of Rome, noted that the great Roman literati and historians, from Sallust and Livy to Marcus Varro, knew that the cardinal virtues were related to the spiritual virtues. The golden age of Rome, the age of Augustus and his successors, was a vibrant world. This emphasis on morality, spirituality, and the good life is very much tied up with Plutarch’s raison d’être.
Plutarch was a Platonist and he believed in the transmigration of the soul. This is important to remember when reading the great “biographer.” The paired Greeks and Romans, it seems from Plutarch’s subtle hand, are nearly identical with each other. They share similar personalities. They share similar lives. While some of the men who are compared with each other had overlapping lives, like Numa and Lycurgus, others are separated by several centuries like Pericles and Fabius, Demetrius and Antony, and Eumenes and Sertius. Given the reality of the transmigration of the soul from Plutarch’s perspective, one wonders if he did not see the same soul as animating the lives of these supposed great men.
In consoling his wife over the loss of their daughter, Plutarch said that the immortal soul, after death, is released from the body like a bird being freed from a cage. He also writes, “[T]he soul will immediately take another body and once again become involved in the troubles of the world.” Deviating from Plato, however, Plutarch did not believe the soul came down from the world of Forms into the body and believed that the soul had the possibility to escape this process of reincarnation if it lived an upstanding moral life. In On the Delays of Divine Vengeance, Plutarch suggests that because of eschatological balance, righteous souls will escape reincarnation. Moreover, the slowness of the anger and vengeance of God is something to imitate. Taking a moment to offer an early example of imitatio Dei, Plutarch says, “We may imitate his slowness and thus escape error.” Just as God is slow to anger we should be slow to anger too.
The spiritual side of Plutarch cannot be forgotten when reading Parallel Lives. Neither should the reality of first-century Antiquity in the post-Augustan settlement. Plutarch is riding the waves of the great attempt at moral reinvigoration by the Augustan writers. Like Livy, Plutarch does not paint a rosy picture of all the characters he samples. He condemns some of the actions of men he examines, even if somewhat comically.
In examining Marcus Cato, the furious indignation of Plutarch’s hand is seen when he discourses how good, kind, and just men treat their animals, “We see that kindness or humanity has a larger field than bare justice to exercise itself in… It is doubtless the part of a kind-natured man to keep even worn-out horses and dogs, and not only take care of them when they are foals and whelps, but also when they are grown old.” Plutarch’s world was one of intense attachments and relationality; a sacramental world which medieval Christians also saw. Attachment and relationship are equally bound up in good living and justice. “Yet Cato left that very horse in Spain which he used in the wars when he was a consul, only because he would not put the public to charge of his freight. Whether these acts are to be ascribed to the greatness or pettiness of his spirit, let everyone argue as they please,” Plutarch writes.
While Plutarch may have inserted a clause of neutrality in examining Cato’s pettiness in abandoning his noble steed, reading between the lines makes clear that Plutarch felt Cato in the wrong for heedlessly and unjustly abandoning his horse in Spain. Even how one treats the animals given to one in God’s providential stewardship has bearings on the judgment of the soul from Plutarch’s perspective. Thus one should tread carefully on all matters. That is Plutarch’s message. It is, ultimately, an ethical message to keep close to heart.
Cycling back, one of the most famous lines from Plutarch is his biography of Pericles. Pericles, the great Athenian eulogized and mythologized in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, received a much more laudable assessment by Plutarch at least in comparison to Marcus Cato. If imitation of God was something that Plutarch advocated, imitation of virtuous souls was also part of his project and outlook. In opening his biography of Pericles, Plutarch states, “Such objects we find in the acts of virtue, which also produce in the minds of mere readers about them an emulation and eagerness that may lead them on to imitation.”
Those who pillory Plutarch for his anecdotal asides—which is rather one of the great literary charms in reading the book—miss the point as consumed by the mentality of Leopold von Ranke’s “wie es eigentlich gewesen.” The moral impetus of Plutarch’s work follows in the footsteps of Livy. It is not that Plutarch, or Livy, fail to show the crassness, pettiness, and shallowness of men of history, rather, in showing those limitations and failings instead of making men impervious to criticism, Plutarch and Livy drew contrasts for their readers; contrasts which would allow “emulation and eagerness that may lead them on to imitation.”
That Plutarch’s little biographies end in death, which is the beginning of the transmigration of the soul, and with moral anecdotes, also shows that he is doing something far deeper than just providing a supposed objective account of history. He is touching the human soul. He is instructing the human soul. He is trying to direct the eyes up to the beautiful things that the heavens hold for us. In death, the soul is released back into the troubles of the world—at least this is likely to be the case. However, the righteous soul may very well escape the endless cycle of reincarnation.
The moral spirit of Plutarch’s writings puts him on the side of traditionalism; the invented traditionalism of the post-Augustan world which saw the collapse of virtue, family honor, and moral relationships which descended into civil war and tyranny. In times of crisis traditionalism asserts itself against moral degeneracy and chaos as a stabilizing anchor. The traditionalism that emerges in times of crisis is very much the traditionalism of Plutarch and the other post-Augustan moral intellectualists. Men like Plutarch understood that man’s problems were more than merely political and juridical. Men like Plutarch understood that man’s problems included the spiritual because the spiritual was the moral. If anything, the real crisis of man is primarily a spiritual one.
Plutarch’s Parallel Lives is an eternal work of literature for many reasons. It set the cornerstones for all future biography because it was a work of historical biography to a certain extent. It is filled with important historical information for contemporary readers to have a window in the world of two millennia ago. It is a work filled with great bedside and fireside asides. However, the work is profoundly spiritual and moral. To miss this essential component of Plutarch’s Lives is to miss, in my view, the real heart of Plutarch’s work. The moral center to Plutarch’s work is true basis of its enduring nature.
Moral imitation is one of the timeless realities in moral instruction. Children imitate their parents. Many look up to “great men” and celebrities for their role models to imitate. Plutarch cautions us, however, not to blindly imitate. To blindly imitate may do damage to our souls and to everything else we are interconnected to. The petty soul that does harm to horses and dogs entrusted to its goodness and kindness not only harms animals but also harms itself. The noble soul, however, is slow to anger like the God who is slow to anger; the noble soul is moved by the virtuous actions of good men, indeed, great men, to transform the soul inside of us to the greatness it is called to.
In this sense, Plutarch is calling each and every one of us to become great men and not to remain in the shadow of the great men of history who may, in fact, have been petty instead of great. Knowledge and moral embodiment go together and are the cause of greatness, not celebrity or fame. When reading Plutarch we are left to determine whether we will seize the reins of nobility or fall into pettiness. In the Lives, Plutarch rearticulates Plato’s doctrine of the charioteer through examples of historical personages.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a painting of Numa Pompilius (1828) by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781–1853), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.