I have always been an avid reader, ever since I was a child and first learned to read. While my tastes in literature have changed considerably over my lifetime, and still is rather varied, the past several years I have been reading, usually for the first time, some of literature’s classics; in particular, I have been reading quite a bit from the Classical period of the Greeks and the Romans. A lot of this has been driven by my interest in ancient history, but partly it’s because there is a lot of things that I never got around to reading for one reason or another.
For the past several weeks I have been reading with great interest The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, written by the Greek author Plutarch. The copy that I own is the complete work, which runs some 876 pages in hardback (I also own a paperback copy, but it is a much abridged version featuring only the most prominent persons), and was published as part of the Great Books of the Western World series first published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952. (This series of books covers most of the last 2,400 years and a wide variety of subjects; I highly recommend it if you can find them.)
Plutarch was a Greek author from the small town of Chaeronea, somewhat to the northwest of Athens, and he lived from around 46-120 AD. He studied philosophy and history at Athens and while he was reputed to be a good philosopher, his true gift was writing about history. His Lives concerns itself with the Greeks from early times to well into the period of their subjugation to Rome, and with the Romans from the founding of the city in the Ninth Century BC to the early Imperial period. Plutarch was an excellent scholar and a gifted writer with a keen insight into human nature; he utilized all of the written and verbal sources available to him, and whenever there were differences of opinion concerning certain events or people he was diligent in listing them and presenting the opposing opinions for the reader to decide upon.
Rather than writing a review of his work, which I am sure has been extensively done in the past by better scholars and writers than myself, what I want to discuss in this post are some of the observations that I have made during the course of my reading.
The first of my observations is that the ancient Greeks and Romans who were remembered the most fondly and received the most favorable treatment by Plutarch were those who were the most virtuous, not necessarily those who conquered the most territory or won the most battles. Those men (and women) who practiced kindness, justice, honesty, generosity and temperance in the way they lived were held in the highest esteem, unless of course they were surrounded by greedy, drunken debaucherers and the ruthless, in which case they were generally hated by most of the people around them. The persons who led the most virtuous lives were held up as examples to their fellow citizens in hopes that more people would emulate their virtues, but human nature being what it is, they tended to be the exceptions rather than the rule.
Secondly, I was struck by how many of these great people, Plutarch included, expressed a belief in God as being the supreme being higher in stature and power than any of the pagan gods. Whenever God was mentioned it was always with a sense of respect and reverence, which to me shows that Paul was right in Romans 1:18-20 when he said that since the earliest times God had made his presence known through Creation and nature, and then a little later in Romans 2:14-15 when he stated that humanity had God’s laws imprinted in their consciences to be followed or ignored. (Socrates in particular, though he was not included in Plutarch’s writings, had a keen sense of God and His laws, which probably has a lot to do with why he was forced to kill himself, but that is another tale entirely.)
Next, and this is something that I had discovered long ago from reading about ancient history, people were no better or worse in ancient times than they are today, and by this I mean the common people. There were many people who lived their lives temperately, justly and honestly, who were content to live simple lives in humility. There were also people who lived by avarice and greed, who would steal from anyone they could if it gave them an advantage, who would lie to cheat honest men, who allowed their greed and ambitions to lead them into all sorts of evil. Then just as now, the people wanted security and a secure source of food, and they weren’t afraid to work hard for what they got or to fight when their country called them to service. But the people were also easily inflamed and swayed by the clever words of the politicians, and often seditions and revolts against the commonwealth were demanded by the masses as a result of somebody else’s political designs.
And fourthly, Plutarch gives example after example of how factions and internal squabbling ruined cities and realms. At least part if not most of the lives of nearly every person he wrote about was spent dealing with one faction or another, each with its own agenda. Except for during times of anarchy, and even during the better times of freedom and democracy, the policies of the realm involved was always dictated by the wealthy, who used everything from gifted orators to outright bribery and pandering to further their aims. Sometimes the city or nation was blessed with a strong, just leader who was able to thwart the designs of the greedy and ambitious, but for a great deal of time the leaders were mediocre and easily swayed by riches. When great men would arise and challenge the existing power elite, they were nearly always plotted against, lied about, charged with crimes they did not commit, and often either exiled or outright murdered. And while the elite paid lip service to their religious beliefs and principles, they generally just used religion as a way to impress the populace and sway public opinion through offering games and entertainments in the name of some god or another.
In the long run, things today are no different no matter how often we are told that they are. Western society is still governed by a power elite who use rhetoric, entertainments and lies to sway public opinion to fit their aims. There is still greed, avarice, debauchery, lies, plotting and factious infighting. There are also still those who are just, kind and honest, who are content to live within their means and who find the pursuit of wealth for its own sake odious, but the past few years it seems that they are becoming the minority. In fact, when I compare the last few decades of the Roman Republic with Western society, especially here in the U.S., I see parallels that are too striking to be ignored; that bodes ill for our immediate future, but as Plutarch often said, that is a subject best left for another time.
So, for anyone with the inclination and the patience for giving Plutarch a read, I strongly recommend him. Not only is his work very informative on the two cultures that Western civilization is built upon, but one can also gain a number of insights into the present and why some things are the way they are. I hope that you have enjoyed reading this, dear reader, and as always I look forward to hearing from you.