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Reading Plutarch

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Plutarch in his book “Parallel Lives” compares the lives of famous Greeks and Romans. Always a good read. He tells of the lives of people like Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Pompey, Solon, Pericles and so on.

What I liked best were the lives of Brutus, Cato the Younger, Pompey, Antony, Crassus, Pericles, Alcibiades, Nicias, Lycurgus, and Theseus. Sometimes it is the man I like (Brutus), sometimes it is the times he lived in (Alcibiades), and sometimes it is the tragedy of his life (Crassus).

Plutarch writes about men’s lives to see how their virtue and vice, their moral decisions, their character – what we  in our time call “values” – affected their lives. If I had read Plutarch when I was younger he would have affected me more deeply.

The book is about long as the Bible and, surprisingly, makes a far better case for living a moral life. The Bible’s case is based mainly on fear of God and has few down-to-earth examples to model your life on (King David comes the closest). Even though Plutarch’s examples are generals and statesmen, they seem far closer to everyday men than do Moses or Jesus. Plutarch’s feet are planted on this earth, and that too makes him easier to believe.

Although he is a follower of Plato, he also makes a better case than Plato himself, and for the same reasons: he writes about this earth and its men and their lives, not all this hot air about a higher plane of being.

Things I learned from Plutarch:

  1. Sometimes it’s safer to be brave than not.
  2. Philosophy, like religion, can be a way of life and not simply a way of making sense of the world. (The respectable religions of his day were worn out.)
  3. Moral character  rests on a base of self-control.
  4. Men are defined by their actions, not by their position or property. But then the Bible tells that too.
  5. One of the best things about television is that it shows the terror and waste of war far more than its glory. Plutarch is blinded by the glory. He tells the story from the general’s camp, not from the streets that run with blood.
  6. That maybe Sparta, not Athens, was the crown of Greek achievement.
  7. That war and prison are true tests of a man’s character. I used to hate prison films. No more.

Like the earlier Greeks, he places a lot of value on courage, especially the physical kind. Like them, he sees the glory of war far more than its blood and waste – and this even though he knows from his grandfather’s knee what Mark Antony put Greece through in his failed attempt to rule the world.

Yet unlike the earlier Greeks, Plutarch  does not have the tough, clear mind they had, people like Sophocles, Thucydides and Aristophanes. His thought is based more on hopes and feelings than on reason and a clear eye.

– Abagond, 2008.

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