Now that school is back in session, I will shortly be resuming a study group that began last year on Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. I thought I might say just two things here about the particular excellence of this great book—that it fuses history and philosophy, and that it promotes the contemplation of ideals.
First, Plutarch found a felicitous way of using history to meditate on philosophical subjects. Aristotle famously wrote in the Poetics that the difference between poetry and history is that “one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.” (Aristotle, Poetics, 1451b3-6; translation by Samuel Butler)
In other words, history tells you what such-and-such a person actually did in such-and-such circumstances; poetry tells you what such-and-such a kind of person would, could, or should do in such-and-such circumstances.
Aristotle was not talking here about what we today call history. I think he was talking about what we call chronicle—a description of events that actually happened in the order in which they happened. Before travel became easy, and before the invention of the printing press, the chronicle was much a more treasured form of writing than it is today, since even a simple list of events and dates was very valuable to scholars.
Chronicle became somewhat less important after the invention of the printing press, so that we no longer think of it as “history.” Chronicle now tends to be relegated to appendices and reference books. What we call history tends to include philosophical elements that make us think about causes of events, about the character of historical figures, and about the bearing of past events on the present.
Aristotle was not unaware of this kind of history. Both Herodotus and Thucydides wrote such histories. Aristotle was simply contrasting the two types of writing that were furthest apart on the scale of philosophical content—history (that is, chronicle) containing the least, and poetry containing the most.
In his Lives, Plutarch infuses history with lots of philosophical content. By writing accounts of the lives of notable Greeks and Romans, pairing the accounts of similar figures, and then composing comparison essays about the pairs, Plutarch fills his book with philosophical content, with questions that invite contemplation about character and ethics, destiny and free will, temperament and opportunity, and much more.
My second point—that the Lives promotes the contemplation of ideals—was brought home to me in a recent article by Mark Edmundson called “Teach the Ideals!” Mr. Edmundson believes that today’s college students are generally not exposed to the long tradition of meditating on ideals in human thought and action.
I’m persuaded that right now the question it is most important to pose to our students (and also to ourselves) is the question of ideals. I ask (and hope that others will also ask) the students who take our classes where they stand on the question of the great ideals. This isn’t just an intellectually engaging question, though surely it is that. It is also a question about how the students, and their teacher, too, should lead their lives.
Why is this question most important?
I think that the enquiry into ideals is of particular importance now. This is because students at present often seem to feel that they are facing two options in life. They can pursue what I call the life of the self: They can try to succeed and prosper and live a measured, humane life; or they can reject this life as sterile and selfish. Most of my students don’t see any other possibility: they can conform, or they can quit. The life of pragmatic success and the pursuit of middle-class happiness seem all there is, and they can take it or they can leave it.
But there is another kind of life: The life devoted, in large measure, to the ideal. Those who have followed the ideal path have often lived hard lives and met harsh ends. Think of Socrates; think of the martyred saints; think of the aspiring heroes who have died young. But many men and women have also found that commitment to the ideal fills life with meaning and intensity and even sometimes with joy. Those men and women may be wrong. All the defenders of worldliness and practicality may be right. But students should be allowed to hear both sides of the debate and to decide for themselves.
Plutarch’s Lives is a treasure trove of questions about the “great ideals.” One cannot read any of the essays for long before being confronted by a question about the best way to live. The lives of Alexander and Coriolanus bring up the question of how much we should allow drives and desires to determine our choices rather than prudence and reason. The life of Theseus makes us wonder about the nature of sacrifice: How many of our own wishes should we be willing to forego for the sake of others? The comparison of the lives of Demetrius and Antony even raises questions about whether there are better and worse modes of life for those whose characters are fundamentally unsavory!
From the founding of the United States, folklore has it, until well into the nineteenth century, Platarch’s Lives was, after the Bible, the book most likely to be found on the bookshelves of Americans. If we want to reverse the disappearance of the great ideals from college syllabi and the bookshelves of Americans, there is no better book to start with than Plutarch’s Lives.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared on SignPosts for Liberal Education (September 2015) and is republished here with gracious permission.