Plutarch Essay - Critical Essays


Plutarch understood his main literary activity was to involve the education of men. He clearly stood within the intellectual tradition of Greek philosophy. This philosophical base had been defined as consisting of three concerns upon which the divergent “philosophizers” focused: nature, morals, and rationality itself, so that there were three corresponding kinds of philosophy: natural, moral, and logical. It was with the moral or ethical that Plutarch principally dealt, though by no means to the exclusion of the others. His essays “Aetia physica” (“Causes of Natural Phenomena”) and “Peri tou emphainomenou prosopou toi kukloi tes selenes” (“Concerning the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon”) reveal attention to topics within natural philosophy. On the latter, the early modern astronomer, Johannes Kepler, composed a Latin translation with commentary of significance to the development of seventeenth century science.

The various essays in the collection now called Moralia were composed generally before those in the collection called Parallel Lives. Richard Chenevix Trench, archbishop of Dublin, writing on Plutarch in 1873, noted that the Moralia, in contrast to the Parallel Lives, speak “of the points of view, moral and religious, from which he contemplated not this man’s life or the other’s, but the whole life of men.” Thus, the two collections are complementary: Parallel Lives being concerned with “what the ancient world had accomplished in the world of action” and Moralia with what it “had accomplished in the world of thought.”

It can also be noted that few of Plutarch’s writings are individually of any great length, though the overall corpus is quite extensive. Of the seventy-eight essays included in the Moralia, the average length is less than seven thousand words, with but twenty-six of them exceeding that number, and with only the “Table Talk” being of a substance approaching ten times the average length. By comparison, Parallel Lives, while not a single discrete entity, is a composite work of some 518,504 words. Of its fifty “lives,” the average length is a little more than ten thousand words, with two, the “Pompeius” and the “Alexander,” each exceeding twenty thousand. If the pairings of “parallel” lives are considered, then all the pairs exceed twelve thousand words, and the most extensive, “Alexander with Julius Caesar,” is more than thirty-seven thousand, with two others, “Agesilaus with Pompeius” and “Demetrius with Antonius,” more than thirty thousand words.

The fifty surviving biographies in Parallel Lives were not the only ones written, nor do the first written appear among the survivors. Plutarch, by his own references, began with “Augustus” Caesar, evidently pursuing examples in isolation before he turned to his famed pairing. Among the caesars, these individuated examples included “Tiberius,” “Gaius,” “Caligula,” “Claudius,” “Nero,” and “Vitellius”—none of which is known. The idea was not unlike that of the somewhat younger Latin author, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, whose De vita Caesarum (c.120 c.e.; The History of Twelve Caesars, 1606; best known as Lives of the Twelve Caesars), written after the death of Domitian, alone provides an example from classical antiquity of imperial biographies from this transitional period in Roman history. While it is not quite clear about how many of the caesars Plutarch wrote, only the individuated examples of the poorly known “Galba” and “Otho” still exist. A comparison of the corresponding examples written by Suetonius show Plutarch’s to be longer. Yet one learns little from Plutarch’s biography of Otho, since his “life” is the shortest written. Otherwise, there are preserved examples only of “Aratus,” a political and military figure from the Greek city-state of Sicyon, involved in the third century struggles against Macedon; and “Artaxerxes” II, one of the Persian kings.

Even the...

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