"A few vices are sufficient to darken many virtues." -- Plutarch
Plutarch, born Plutarchos (Greek: ??????????) then, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus (???????? ??????????), c. 46 — 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia. He was born to a prominent family in Chaeronea, Boeotia, a town about twenty miles east of Delphi.
"All men whilst they are awake are in one common world: but each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own.""An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.""Character is long-standing habit.""Character is simply habit long continued.""Courage consists not in hazarding without fear; but being resolutely minded in a just cause.""Courage stands halfway between cowardice and rashness, one of which is a lack, the other an excess of courage.""Do not speak of your happiness to one less fortunate than yourself.""Fate leads him who follows it, and drags him who resist.""For to err in opinion, though it be not the part of wise men, is at least human.""I don't need a friend who changes when I change and who nods when I nod; my shadow does that much better.""I would rather excel in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and possessions.""If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.""In words are seen the state of mind and character and disposition of the speaker.""It is indeed a desirable thing to be well-descended, but the glory belongs to our ancestors.""It is part of a good man to do great and noble deeds, though he risk everything.""It were better to have no opinion of God at all than such a one as is unworthy of him; for the one is only belief - the other contempt.""Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly.""Let us carefully observe those good qualities wherein our enemies excel us; and endeavor to excel them, by avoiding what is faulty, and imitating what is excellent in them.""Medicine to produce health must examine disease; and music, to create harmony must investigate discord.""Moral habits, induced by public practices, are far quicker in making their way into men's private lives, than the failings and faults of individuals are in infecting the city at large.""Neither blame or praise yourself.""No man ever wetted clay and then left it, as if there would be bricks by chance and fortune.""Nothing is harder to direct than a man in prosperity; nothing more easily managed that one is adversity.""Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.""Perseverance is more prevailing than violence; and many things which cannot be overcome when they are together, yield themselves up when taken little by little.""Prosperity is no just scale; adversity is the only balance to weigh friends.""Silence at the proper season is wisdom, and better than any speech.""The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.""The omission of good is no less reprehensible than the commission of evil.""The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.""The very spring and root of honesty and virtue lie in good education.""The wildest colts make the best horses.""Those who aim at great deeds must also suffer greatly.""To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days.""To find fault is easy; to do better may be difficult.""To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.""We ought not to treat living creatures like shoes or household belongings, which when worn with use we throw away.""What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.""When the strong box contains no more both friends and flatterers shun the door."
Plutarch was born in 46 AD in the small town of Chaeronea, in the Greek region known as Boeotia. His family was wealthy. The name of Plutarch's father has not been preserved, but it was probably Nikarchus, from the common habit of Greek families to repeat a name in alternate generations. The name of Plutarch's grandfather was Lamprias, as he attested in Moralia and in his Life of Antony. His brothers, Timon and Lamprias, are frequently mentioned in his essays and dialogues, where Timon is spoken of in the most affectionate terms. Rualdus, in his 1624 work Life of Plutarchus, recovered the name of Plutarch's wife, Timoxena, from internal evidence afforded by his writings. A letter is still extant, addressed by Plutarch to his wife, bidding her not give way to excessive grief at the death of their two year old daughter, who was named Timoxena after her mother. Interestingly, he hinted at a belief in reincarnation in that letter of consolation.
The exact number of his sons is not certain, although two of them, Autobulus and second Plutarch, are often mentioned. Plutarch's treatise on the Timaeus of Plato is dedicated to them, and the marriage of his son Autobulus is the occasion of one of the dinner-parties recorded in the 'Table Talk.' Another person, Soklarus, is spoken of in terms which seem to imply that he was Plutarch's son, but this is nowhere definitely stated. His treatise on Marriage Questions, addressed to Eurydice and Pollianus, seems to speak of her as having been recently an inmate of his house, but without enabling us to form an opinion whether she was his daughter or not.
Plutarch studied mathematics and philosophy at the Academy of Athens under Ammonius from 66 to 67.. He had a number of influential friends, including Quintus Sosius Senecio and Fundanus, both important senators, to whom some of his later writings were dedicated. Plutarch travelled widely in the Mediterranean world, including central Greece, Sparta, Corinth, Patrae (Patras), Sardes, Alexandria, and two trips to Rome.
At some point, Plutarch took up Roman citizenship. As evinced by his new name, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, his sponsor for citizenship was Lucius Mestrius Florus, a Roman of consular status whom Plutarch also used as an historial source for his Life of Otho.
He lived most of his life at Chaeronea, and was initiated into the mysteries of the Greek god Apollo. However, his duties as the senior of the two priests of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi (where he was responsible for interpreting the auguries of the Pythia) apparently occupied little of his time. He led an active social and civic life while producing an extensive body of writing, much of which is still extant.
For many years Plutarch served as one of the two priests at the temple of Apollo at Delphi (the site of the famous Delphic Oracle) twenty miles from his home. By his writings and lectures Plutarch became a celebrity in the Roman empire, yet he continued to reside where he was born, and actively participated in local affairs, even serving as mayor. At his country estate, guests from all over the empire congregated for serious conversation, presided over by Plutarch in his marble chair. Many of these dialogues were recorded and published, and the 78 essays and other works which have survived are now known collectively as the Moralia.
In addition to his duties as a priest of the Delphic temple, Plutarch was also a magistrate in Chaeronea and he represented his home on various missions to foreign countries during his early adult years. Plutarch held the office of archon in his native municipality, probably only an annual one which he likely served more than once. He busied himself with all the little matters of the town and undertook the humblest of duties.
The Suda, a medieval Greek encyclopedia, states that emperor Trajan made Plutarch procurator of Illyria. However, most historians consider this unlikely, since Illyria was not a procuratorial province, and Plutarch probably did not speak Illyrian.
According to the 10th century historian George Syncellus, late in Plutarch's life, emperor Hadrian appointed him nominal procurator of Achaea – a position that entitled him to wear the vestments and ornaments of a consul himself.
The first biographical works to be written by Plutarch were the Lives of the Roman Emperors from Augustus to Vitellius. Of these, only the Lives of Galba and Otho survive. The Lives of Tiberius and Nero are extant only as fragments, provided by Dasmascius (Life of Tiberius, cf. his Life of Isidore) and Plutarch himself (Life of Nero, cf. Galba 2.1), respectively. These early emperors’ biographies were probably published under the Flavian dynasty or during the reign of Nerva (AD 96-98).
There is reason to believe that the two Lives still extant, those of Galba and Otho, “ought to be considered as a single work.” Therefore they do not form a part of the Plutarchian canon of single biographies — as represented by the Life of Aratus of Sicyon and the Life of Artaxerxes (the biographies of Hesiod, Pindar, Crates and Daiphantus were lost). Unlike in these biographies, in Galba-Otho the individual characters of the persons portrayed are not depicted for their own sake but instead serve as an illustration of an abstract principle; namely the adherence or non-adherence to Plutarch’s morally-founded ideal of governing as a Princeps (cf. Galba 1.3; Moralia 328D-E). Arguing from the perspective of Platonian political philosophy (cf. Republic 375E, 410D-E, 411E-412A, 442B-C), in Galba-Otho Plutarch reveals the constitutional principles of the Principate in the time of the civil war after Nero’s death. While morally questioning the behavior of the autocrats, he also gives an impression of their tragic destinies, ruthlessly competing for the throne and finally destroying each other. “The Caesars’ house in Rome, the Palatium, received in a shorter space of time no less than four Emperors,” Plutarch writes, “passing, as it were, across the stage, and one making room for another to enter” (Galba 1).
Galba-Otho was handed down through different channels. It can be found in the appendix to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives as well as in various Moralia manuscripts, most prominently in Maximus Planudes’s edition where Galba and Otho appear as “Opera” XXV and XXVI. Thus it seems reasonable to maintain that Galba-Otho was from early on considered as an illustration of a moral-ethical approach, possibly even by Plutarch himself.
Plutarch's best-known work is the Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans, arranged in pairs to illuminate their common moral virtues and vices. The surviving Lives contain 23 pairs, each with one Greek Life and one Roman Life, as well as four unpaired single Lives.
As is explained in the opening paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with history so much as the influence of character, good or bad, on the lives and destinies of men. Whereas sometimes he barely touched on epoch-making events, he devoted much space to charming anecdote and incidental triviality, reasoning that this often said far more for his subjects than even their most famous accomplishments. He sought to provide rounded portraits, likening his craft to that of a painter; indeed, he went to tremendous effort (often leading to tenuous comparisons) to draw parallels between physical appearance and moral character. In many ways he must count among the earliest moral philosophers.
Some of the Lives, such as those of Heracles, Philip II of Macedon and Scipio Africanus, no longer exist; many of the remaining Lives are truncated, contain obvious lacunae or have been tampered with by later writers. Extant Lives include those on Solon, Themistocles, Aristides, Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Demosthenes, Pelopidas, Philopoemen, Timoleon, Dion of Syracuse, Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus of Epirus, Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Coriolanus, Aemilius Paullus, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Gaius Marius, Sulla, Sertorius, Lucullus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Mark Antony, and Marcus Junius Brutus.
Life of Alexander
Plutarch's Life of Alexander, written as a parallel to that of Julius Caesar, is one of only five extant tertiary sources on the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great. It includes anecdotes and descriptions of events that appear in no other source, just as Plutarch's portrait of Numa Pompilius, the putative second king of Rome, holds much that is unique on the early Roman calendar.
Plutarch devotes a great deal of space to Alexander's drive and desire, and strives to determine how much of it was presaged in his youth. He also draws extensively on the work of Lysippus, Alexander's favourite sculptor, to provide what is probably the fullest and most accurate description of the conqueror's physical appearance.
When it comes to his character, however, Plutarch is often rather less accurate, ascribing inordinate amounts of self-control to a man who very often lost it. It is significant, though, that the subject incurs less admiration from his biographer as the narrative progresses and the deeds that it recounts become less savoury.
Much, too, is made of Alexander's scorn for luxury: "He desired not pleasure or wealth, but only excellence and glory." This is most true, for Alexander's tastes grew more extravagant as he grew older only in the last year of his life and only as a means of approaching the image of a ruler his Persian subjects were better accustomed to - thus making it easier for him to succeed in uniting the Greek and Persian worlds together, according to the plan he had announced in his famous Speech given in Opis in 324 BC.
Life of Pyrrhus
Plutarch's Life of Pyrrhus is a key text because it is the main historical account on Roman history for the period from 293 to 264 BC, for which neither Dionysius nor Livy have surviving texts.
Criticism of Parallel Lives
Plutarch stretches and occasionally fabricates the similarities between famous Greeks and Romans in order to be able to write their biographies as parallel. The lives of Nicias and Crassus, for example, have nothing in common except that both were rich and both suffered great military defeats at the ends of their lives.
In his Life of Pompey, Plutarch praises Pompey's trustworthy character and tactful behaviour in order to conjure a moral judgement that opposes most historical accounts. Plutarch delivers anecdotes with moral points, rather than in-depth comparative analyses of the causes of the fall of the Achaemenid Empire and the Roman Republic, and tends on occasion to fit facts to hypotheses rather than the other, more scholastically acceptable way round.
On the other hand, he generally sets out his moral anecdotes in chronological order (unlike, say, his Roman contemporary Suetonius) and is rarely narrow-minded and unrealistic, almost always prepared to acknowledge the complexity of the human condition where moralising cannot explain it.
The remainder of Plutarch's surviving work is collected under the title of the Moralia (loosely translated as Customs and Mores). It is an eclectic collection of seventy-eight essays and transcribed speeches, which includes On Fraternal Affection...a discourse on honour and affection of siblings toward each other, On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great...an important adjunct to his Life of the great king, On the Worship of Isis and Osiris (a crucial source of information on Egyptian religious rites), along with more philosophical treatises, such as On the Decline of the Oracles, On the Delays of the Divine Vengeance, On Peace of Mind and lighter fare, such as Odysseus and Gryllus, a humorous dialogue between Homer's Odysseus and one of Circe's enchanted pigs. The Moralia was composed first, while writing the Lives occupied much of the last two decades of Plutarch's own life.
On the Malice of Herodotus
In On the Malice of Herodotus Plutarch criticizes the historian Herodotus for all manner of prejudice and misrepresentation. It has been called the “first instance in literature of the slashing review.” The 19th century English historian George Grote considered this essay a serious attack upon the works of Herodotus, and speaks of the "honourable frankness which Plutarch calls his malignity." Plutarch makes some palpable hits, catching Herodotus out in various errors, but it is also probable that it was merely a rhetorical exercise, in which Plutarch plays devil's advocate to see what could be said against so favourite and well-known a writer. According to Plutarch scholar R. H. Barrow, Herodotus’ real failing in Plutarch’s eyes was to advance any criticism at all of those states that saved Greece from Persia. “Plutarch,” he concluded, “is fanatically biased in favor of the Greek cities; they can do no wrong.”
Book IV of the Moralia contains the Roman and Greek Questions. The customs of Romans and Greeks are illuminated in little essays that pose questions such as 'Why were patricians not permitted to live on the Capitoline?' (no. 91) and then suggests answers to them, often several mutually exclusive.
Pseudo-Plutarch is the conventional name given to the unknown authors of a number of pseudepigrapha attributed to Plutarch. Some editions of the Moralia include several works now known to be pseudepigrapha: among these are the Lives of the Ten Orators (biographies of the Ten Orators of ancient Athens, based on Caecilius of Calacte), The Doctrines of the Philosophers, and On Music. One "pseudo-Plutarch" is held responsible for all of these works, though their authorship is of course unknown. The thoughts and opinions recorded are not Plutarch's and come from a slightly later era, though they are all classical in origin.
The Romans loved the Lives, and enough copies were written out over the centuries so that a copy of most of the lives managed to survive to the present day. Some scholars, however, believe that only a third to one-half of Plutarch’s corpus is extant. The lost works of Plutarch are determined by references in his own texts to them and from other authors' references over time. There are traces of twelve more Lives that are now lost.
Plutarch's general procedure for the Lives was to write the life of a prominent Greek, then cast about for a suitable Roman parallel, and end with a brief comparison of the Greek and Roman lives. Currently, only nineteen of the parallel lives end with a comparison while possibly they all did at one time. Also missing are many of his Lives which appear in a list of his writings, those of Hercules, the first pair of Parallel Lives, Scipio Africanus and Epaminondas, and the companions to the four solo biographies. Even the lives of such important figures as Augustus, Claudius and Nero have not been found and may be lost forever.
Plutarch was a Platonist, but was open to the influence of the Peripatetics, and in some details even to Stoicism despite his polemics against their principles. He rejected absolutely only Epicureanism. He attached little importance to theoretical questions and doubted the possibility of ever solving them. He was more interested in moral and religious questions. In opposition to Stoic materialism and Epicurean "atheism" he cherished a pure idea of God that was more in accordance with Plato. He adopted a second principle (Dyad) in order to explain the phenomenal world. This principle he sought, however, not in any indeterminate matter but in the evil world-soul which has from the beginning been bound up with matter, but in the creation was filled with reason and arranged by it. Thus it was transformed into the divine soul of the world, but continued to operate as the source of all evil. He elevated God above the finite world, and thus daemons became for him agents of God's influence on the world. He strongly defends freedom of the will, and the immortality of the soul.
Platonic-Peripatetic ethics were upheld by Plutarch against the opposing theories of the Stoics and Epicureans. The most characteristic feature of Plutarch's ethics is, however, its close connection with religion. However pure Plutarch's idea of God is, and however vivid his description of the vice and corruption which superstition causes, his warm religious feelings and his distrust of human powers of knowledge led him to believe that God comes to our aid by direct revelations, which we perceive the more clearly the more completely that we refrain in "enthusiasm" from all action; this made it possible for him to justify popular belief in divination in the way which had long been usual among the Stoics. His attitude to popular religion was similar. The gods of different peoples are merely different names for one and the same divine Being and the powers that serve it. The myths contain philosophical truths which can be interpreted allegorically. Thus Plutarch sought to combine the philosophical and religious conception of things and to remain as close as possible to tradition.
Plutarch's writings had an enormous influence on English and French literature. Shakespeare in his plays paraphrased parts of Thomas North's translation of selected Lives, and occasionally quoted from them in verbatim.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists were greatly influenced by the Moralia ... so much so, in fact, that Emerson called the Lives "a bible for heroes" in his glowing introduction to the five-volume 19th-century edition. He also opined that it was impossible to "read Plutarch without a tingling of the blood; and I accept the saying of the Chinese Mencius: 'A sage is the instructor of a hundred ages. When the manners of Loo are heard of, the stupid become intelligent, and the wavering, determined.'"
Montaigne's own Essays draw extensively on Plutarch's Moralia and are consciously modelled on the Greek's easygoing and discursive inquiries into science, manners, customs and beliefs. Essays contains more than 400 references to Plutarch and his works.
James Boswell quoted Plutarch on writing lives, rather than biographies, in the introduction to his own Life of Samuel Johnson. Other admirers included Ben Jonson, John Dryden, Alexander Hamilton, John Milton, and Francis Bacon, as well as such disparate figures as Cotton Mather and Robert Browning.
Plutarch's influence declined in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it remains embedded in the popular ideas of Greek and Roman history.
There are translations in Latin, English, French, German, Italian and Polish.
Giuliano Pisani, Moralia I - «La serenità interiore» e altri testi sulla terapia dell'anima, with Greek text, Italian translation, introduction and notes, La Biblioteca dell'Immagine, Pordenone 1989, pp. LIX-508 (De tranquillitate animi; De virtute et vitio; De virtute morali; An virtus doceri possit; Quomodo quis suos in virtute sentiat profectus; Animine an corporis affectiones sint peiores; De vitioso pudore; De cohibenda ira; De garrulitate; De curiositate ; De invidia et odio ; De cupiditate divitiarum)
Giuliano Pisani, Moralia II - L'educazione dei ragazzi, with Greek text, Italian translation, introduction and notes, La Biblioteca dell'Immagine, Pordenone, 1990, pp. XXXVIII-451 (De liberis educandis; Quomodo adolescens poetas audire debeat ; De recta ratione audiendi ; De musica, in collaboration with Leo Citelli)
Giuliano Pisani, Moralia III - Etica e politica, with Greek text, Italian translation, introduction and notes, La Biblioteca dell'Immagine, Pordenone, 1992, pp. XLIII-490 (Praecepta gerendae rei publicae; An seni sit gerenda res publica; De capienda ex inimicis utilitate; De se ipsum citra invidiam laudando; Maxime cum principibus philosopho esse disserendum; Ad principem ineruditum; De unius in republica dominatione, populari statu et paucorum imperio; De exilio)
Giuliano Pisani, Plutarco, Vite di Lisandro e Silla, Fondazione Lorenzo Valla, 1997 (in collaboration with Maria Gabriella Angeli Bertinelli, Mario Manfredini, Luigi Piccirilli).
Jacques Amyot's translations brought Plutarch's works to Western Europe. He went to Italy and studied the Vatican text of Plutarch, from which he published a French translation of the Lives in 1559 and Moralia in 1572, which were widely read by educated Europe. Amyot's translations had as deep an impression in England as France, because Thomas North later published his English translation of the Lives in 1579 based on Amyot’s French translation instead of the original Greek.
Plutarch's Lives were translated into English, from Amyot's version, by Sir Thomas North in 1579. The complete Moralia was first translated into English from the original Greek by Philemon Holland in 1603.
In 1683, John Dryden began a life of Plutarch and oversaw a translation of the Lives by several hands and based on the original Greek. This translation has been reworked and revised several times, most recently in the nineteenth century by the English poet and classicist Arthur Hugh Clough which can be found in The Modern Library Random House, Inc. translation.
In 1770 the English brother John and his brother William Langhorne published "Plutarch's Lives from the original Greek, with notes critical and historical, and a new life of Plutarch" in 6 volumes and dedicated to Lord Folkestone. Their translation was re-edited by Archdeacon Wrangham in the year 1819.
From 1901—1912, American classicist Bernadotte Perrin produced a new translation of the Lives for the Loeb Classical Library series. The Moralia are also included in the Loeb series, though are translated by various authors.
There are multiple translations of Parallel Lives into Latin, most notably the one titled "Pour le Dauphin" (French for "for the Prince") written by a scribe in the court of Louis XV of France and a 1470 Ulrich Han translation.
Johann Friedrich Salomon Kaltwasser
Plutarch's Lives and Moralia were translated into German by Johann Friedrich Salomon Kaltwasser:
Vitae parallelae. Vergleichende Lebensbeschreibungen. 10 Bände. Magdeburg 1799-1806.
Plutarch of Chaeronea by Jona Lendering at Livius.Org
The International Plutarch Society
When the gods ceased to speak Lecture about Plutarch's De Defectu Oraculorum, held at the New Testament Society of South Africa in Stellenbosch.
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