September 2, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Years ago, under the pressures of student life, I read the full volume of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (often referred to as Parallel Lives). Honestly, I was dreading it because I harbored assumptions about some of these ancient texts. (And we all know what a mistake it is to assume anything.) At that time, my knowledge of Plutarch consisted of, well, I knew the name meant something in terms of history, I just did not know what. Like many, I had seen Plutarch take Seneca’s place as gamemaker in The Hunger Games series, but knew little else. In that series, Plutarch Heavensbee famously states, “Anyone can be replaced.” However, if history has anything to say, then Plutarch, the ancient Greek, might disprove Heavensbee’s statement. Plutarch continues to thrive in studies as diverse as writing, law, history, education, politics, and religion. Moreover, Plutarch’s language (which I first read in the Dryden translation) astounded me for its style, relevance, and insight. As with all historical writing, it has issues of truth, fact, hyperbole and anecdote all of which Plutarch noted himself. Yet the idea of writing about those lives which might offer important insights to future generations was unique and new. In all honesty, the book caught me off guard and has become one of my top five favorites among the Great Books series, which is why I return to it again and again.
For the next Quarterly Discussion at the end of October, we will read Plutarch’s “Coriolanus.” Join us for a discussion of this great life as seen through the eyes of Plutarch. Coriolanus demonstrates a classic human character who contains both positive and negative traits which are exacerbated by the nature of his environment. Plutarch begins this section with the following:
“But Caius Marcius, of whom I now write, being left an orphan, and brought up under the widowhood of his mother, has shown us by experience, that, although the early loss of a father may be attended with other disadvantages, yet it can hinder none from being either virtuous or eminent in the world, and that it is no obstacle to true goodness and excellence; however bad men may be pleased to lay their blame of their corruptions under that misfortune and the neglect of them in their minority.
“Nor is he less an evidence of the truth of their opinion who conceive that a generous and worthy nature without proper discipline, like a rich soil without culture, is apt with its better fruits to tend to produce also much that is bad and faulty. While the force and vigour of his soul, and a persevering constancy in all he undertook, led him successfully into many noble achievements, yet, on the other side, also, by indulging the vehemence of his passion, and through an obstinate reluctance to yield or accommodate his humours and sentiments to those of a people about him, he rendered himself incapable of acting and associating with others. Those who saw with admiration how proof his nature was against all the softnesses of pleasure, the hardships of service, and the allurements of gain, while allowing to that universal firmness of his the respective names of temperance, fortitude, and justice, yet, in the life of the citizen and the statesman, could not choose but be disgusted at the severity and ruggedness of his deportment, and with his overbearing, haughty, and imperious temper. Education and study, and the favours of the muses, confer no greater benefit on those that seek them than these humanising and civilising lessons, which teach our natural qualities to submit to the limitations prescribed by reason, and to avoid the wildness of extremes.”
The life of Coriolanus contains all the makings of both excellence and tragedy, which is why Shakespeare borrowed a great deal from Plutarch in order to write his play. It is also as relevant today as it ever was. Consider discussing the lives of great leaders, history, and education in the upcoming October Quarterly Discussion. Email Alissa at as****@hm*.edu for more information and to register.
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