Plutarch's Lives Volume One (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Lives, Vol 1 (Library of Essential Reading) - Plutarch, Clayton Miles Lehmann, Arthur Hugh Clough, John Dryden Dense. And not a lot of fun.

Plutarch, a Greek in the first century A.D. who later became a Roman citizen, drafted his Lives as a moral inquiry. He selected from history a well-known Greek and a well-known Roman and wrote briefly on each. He then concludes with a couple pages comparing their lives in terms of who can be thought of as a better man- in terms of generalship, politics or whichever other quality he feels is most comparable between them. Today, these comparisons have been collected into a couple volumes (or 11 if you want to shell out the money for the incomparable Loeb collection).

He is considered one of the first biographers and is credited with preserving the views that Roman citizens had of these prominent figures. However, as history, it is suspect. Plutarch, much like Herodotus, loves the story more than the facts. His Lives are filled with inconsequential anecdotes next to tales of military campaigns. But the anecdotes are not inconsequential to Plutarch. Since he is more interested in moral development, the quiet moments of distinguished men are considered to be more indicative of character than their accomplishments on the world stage. Unfortunately, according to people who really know their history, the recitations of the more historically significant events contain inaccurate dates and events, which relegates Plutarch to an archiver of perception rather than fact. For some, this may be just as interesting.

Plutarch’s purpose fits with his time. His life was during the time of Middle Platonism. The good was something that was inherent and could be seen in the mind. Therefore, men of quality could be learned from if,in turn, we are in a place to accept our failings“…for high and noble minds seldom please the vulgar…” (pg. 764, The Comparison of Lucullus with Cimon).

I was hoping after this first one hundred, two hundred or three hundred pages, I’d get into the rhythm of this book and it would read easier. I didn’t and it didn't. This translation was assembled by John Dryden in the 17th century and was revised by the English poet A.H. Clough in the 19th century. And it feels like it. It’s dry and ponderous. But maybe Plutarch was too. I don’t read Latin so I’m stuck with what’s given to me. This is probably best read in pieces as it was originally compiled. Short comparisons between two lives. It was not originally intended as an 800 page monolith.

And this is just Volume 1.


My favorite passage came out of the life of Marcus Cato and it's not even about him:
The little country house of Manius Curius, who had been thrice carried in triumph, happened to be near his farm; so that often going thither, and contemplating the small compass of the place, and plainness of the dwelling, he formed an idea of the mind of the person, who being one of the greatest of the Romans, and having subdued the most warlike nations, nay, had driven Pyrrhus out of Italy, now, after three triumphs, was contented to dig in so small a piece of ground, and live in such a cottage. Here it was that the ambassadors of the Samnites, finding him boiling turnips in the chimney corner, offered him a present of gold; but he sent them away with this saying;

that he, who was content with such a supper, had no need of gold; and that he thought it more honorable to conquer those who possessed the gold, than to possess the gold itself. pg. 503.