Why read Plutarch?

We need role models. What do we do when there aren’t many in our immediate surroundings?

I remember suggesting, in a class on Aboriginal perspectives in education, that we should bring to life the virtues and nobility of First Nations leaders such as Poundmaker. This idea has its critics, such as those who wish to uphold the authority of the elders, and the importance of oral transmission, rather than the imperialist technology of the book.

The great Cree chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, or "Poundmaker" (1885)

The great Cree chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, or “Poundmaker” (1885)

I read a couple character sketches of Poundmaker and Big Bear in school. Some of them were written before the turn of the 20th century, and were clearly influenced by the “great men” view of history. The historian Thomas Carlyle famously said that the “history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Noting the obvious sexism in this view, I want to observe the classical background of this view, which is supported by a moral argument about education.

Reading biographies is one way to cope in the absence of role models. From a scientific standpoint, we now know that “visualizing” is a great cognitive benefit. “Visualizing” is used by Olympic athletes, surgeons, and musicians to rehearse actions they wish to take in the future, so why couldn’t reading and meditating on inspirational leaders do something similar, but in the realm of desire and ethics?

Visualizing yourself acting virtuously has been around a long time, and was even proposed by the Persian philosopher Ibn Miskawayh in 10th century Baghdad. He followed the works of Aristotle, who had analyzed the problem of wanting to be virtuous, but lacking the desire to act virtuously.

It is natural to recognize parts of yourself in other people, especially the desires that lead to actions. We all feel either ennobled or sickened by the actions of actors when we go to the movies. Maybe for this reason, it is important to be exposed to the foibles, but especially the virtues of past generations, so that we can feel ennobled by kinship, to be comforted in our failures, but also spurred on to goodness and greatness.

The Greek biographer Plutarch knew this, even though he focused exclusively on the “great men” of his age. Here is Plutarch at the beginning of his life of Timoleon:

I began the writing of my “Lives” for the sake of others, but I find that I am continuing the work and delighting in it now for my own sake also, using history as a mirror and endeavouring in a manner to fashion and adorn my life in conformity with the virtues therein depicted. 2 For the result is like nothing else than daily living and associating together, when I receive and welcome each subject of my history in turn as my guest, so to speak, and observe carefully “how large he was and of what mien,”1 and select from his career what is most important and most beautiful to know.

3 “And oh! what greater joy than this canst thou obtain,”2

4 and more efficacious for moral improvement? Democritus says we ought to pray that we may be visited by phantoms which are propitious, and that from out the circumambient air such only may encounter us as are agreeable to our natures and good, rather than those which are perverse and bad, thereby intruding into philosophy a doctrine which is not true, and which leads astray into boundless superstitions. 5 But in my own case, the study of history and the familiarity with it which my writing produces, p263enables me, since I always cherish in my soul the records of the noblest and most estimable characters, to repel and put far from me whatever base, malicious, or ignoble suggestion my enforced associations may intrude upon me, calmly and dispassionately turning my thoughts away from them to the fairest of my examples. 6 Among these were Timoleon the Corinthian and Aemilius Paulus, whose Lives I have now undertaken to lay before my readers; 7 the men were alike not only in the good principles which they adopted, but also in the good fortune which they enjoyed in their conduct of affairs, 8 and they will make it hard for my readers to decide whether the greatest of their successful achievements were due to their good fortune or their wisdom.3

Plus, after reading about guys like Aemilius Paulus, you learn cool stuff, like how his dad was defeated by Hannibal at Cannae (along with the famous pincer movement that won the battle for the outnumbered Carthaginians, Hannibal carried a cool Iberian sword called a Falcata), and his son , Scipio Africanus went on to destroy Carthage at the battle of Zama.

An Iberian “falcata,” which combines a sword with the center of gravity of an axe:

An Iberian "falcata," which combines a sword with the center of gravity of an axe.

 

Biographies have always been a productive escape for me personally. There is always a sense of kinship, no matter who the subject is. One of my favourites is “Memoirs of a Revolutionist” by Peter Kropotkin.

Peter Kropotkin, a Russian prince who gave up his title to work with the illiterate peasants
Peter Kropotkin, a Russian prince who gave up his title to work with the illiterate peasants

How did they cope with the same passions, the same questions, and the same relationships – how was their childhood? how did they deal with their first love? what decisions did they make under stress? Contemplating these is always the beginning of a moral philosophy, of an internal dialogue about how to live one’s life. There is always a kind of judgment of character lurking in the background while reading histories and biographies.

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