Harrison Middleton University

Plutarch Meets McCullough

Plutarch Meets McCullough

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


November 4, 2022

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

For the October Quarterly Discussion, we read Plutarch’s “Coriolanus” and a speech by David McCullough titled “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are.” I was not really sure if this combination would work because of the great differences between the two pieces. Plutarch’s biography portends to be history, but is simultaneously a commentary on culture, life, and ethics. McCullough, too, writes about culture, life and ethics, but this speech does not recount history. It merely asks us to reconfigure where history sits within our educational system and our cultural awareness. Plutarch, also, asks citizens for more awareness of their history. In other words, I hoped that different styles, but similar topics might make for a great discussion. I was not disappointed.

Plutarch wrote Parallel Lives with the intention of discovering and defining virtue. However, as he wrote, he began to feel a great benefit in his own personal growth. For some reason, his own growth surprised him so much that, in “Timoleon,” he writes: “It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.”

Though I had read the life of Coriolanus a number of times, discussion always brings out something new. In this case, we compared language between the Great Books version (Dryden Translation) and the Loeb Classical Library version, translated by Bernadotte Perrin. (Online versions often contain helpful footnotes which place the work in context and add historical cross-referencing. In addition, the Loeb version has numerical references throughout for easy passage identification.)

The October Quarterly Discussion participants brought up many interesting ideas. I will only have space to address two of them here. First, I want to talk about a difference between the two translations. And second, I will focus on the type of virtue that Coriolanus displayed.

Among other distinctions, the translations slightly differ in their description of Caius Marcius (Coriolanus) as a boy. Dryden’s translation explains that he was orphaned at an early age, but then explains that his mother raised him. Loeb’s version says that he lost his father at an early age, but does not call him an orphan. I found this striking because I thought that an orphan was defined as the loss of both parents. However, according to Merriam-Webster, an orphan is “a child deprived by death of one or usually both parents.” Since Coriolanus’s mother plays such a primary role, not just in his upbringing, but also in his eventual defeat, I find it important to understand this term and relationship.

Plutarch focuses on the fact that Coriolanus was raised by a single mother. Despite her crucial role, Plutarch feels that his mother did not provide the discipline necessary to correct such a strong nature. The Loeb edition reads: “Caius Marcius, whose life I now write, lost his father at an early age, and was reared by his widowed mother. He showed, however, that such loss of a father, although otherwise bad for a boy, need not prevent him from becoming a worthy and excellent man, and that it is wrong for worthless men to lay upon it the blame for their perverted natures, which are due, as they say, to early neglect. On the other hand, the same Marcius bore witness for those who hold that a generous and noble nature, if it lack discipline, is apt to produce much that is worthless along with its better fruits, like a rich soil deprived of the husbandman’s culture.” Whether or not orphan is the best word choice, Plutarch makes it clear that Coriolanus lacked the necessary education for his temperament and abilities. This quote also explains the complicated nature of Plutarch’s own view of Coriolanus. Plutarch both praises him as worthy and excellent, but also notes the way that he succumbed to his worse faults. In the end, Plutarch carefully sets out Coriolanus as a character worthy of study, despite the loss of his father, and despite his arrogance and rough behavior.

More than translation, Coriolanus’s career also intrigues me. Almost from the beginning, Coriolanus excelled at military pursuits. In fact, Plutarch explains that, in Rome, courage was tantamount to virtue itself. He says: “[I]n those days Rome held in highest honour that phase of virtue which concerns itself with warlike and military achievements, and evidence of this may be found in the only Latin word for virtue, which signifies really manly valour; they made valour, a specific form of virtue, stand for virtue in general.” If virtue at that time really meant “manly valour,” then Coriolanus certainly achieved virtue. His battles were legendary. His strength, fortitude, excellence, and ambition, unparalleled. In fact, much of the roughness of his behavior stems from the fact that the public (and senators) did not relate to his commanding presence, though Roman culture encouraged this behavior on the battlefield.

One discussion participant noted that his strengths on the battlefield did not translate to a civil life, and placed him in awkward situations in the city. While senators and citizens ogled over his scars and bravery and achievements, they disdained his speech and behavior as uncivilized, rough, passionate, and arrogant. Furthermore, the one person he wanted to please, his mother, encouraged and embraced his arrogance, military success, and battle wounds. Plutarch notes, “the end of his glory was his mother’s gladness.” In other words, Coriolanus grew to be a great warrior and leader in battle. However, he never learned the roles of a statesman. Is he to blame for this? The same participant noted that the demands made of Coriolanus are analogous to the life of a soldier, who must be decisive and aggressive in battle, but then immediately change behaviors upon entering civil society. From a soldier’s perspective, this is no easy task.

Finally, we addressed ideas of history through the lens of McCullough who blames ignorance of history for the declining state of politics today. In the speech, McCullough notes that history should be taught for pleasure. He feels that curiosity in and about our own history will “make us better citizens,” which reiterates Plutarch’s quote from “Timoleon.” Although Plutarch began Parallel Lives for other people, in the end, he benefitted most of all.

I tend to agree with both Plutarch and McCullough. Curiosity about our own history can only better prepare us for the future. For this reason alone, I suggest picking up anything by either author.

Thanks to those who participated in the October Quarterly Discussion. The January Quarterly Discussion will focus on Natural Science. These discussions are open to friends, staff, family, students, and graduates. We hope to see you there!

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