There is no better school of instruction for our own lives than in learning about the lives and trials of great men. By following their experiences, struggles, and adversities, we can in some way calibrate our own responses to life’s inevitable whirlwinds. The reward is made even greater when the narrator of such biographies is an urbane, classically-trained rhetorician whose primary focus is on the moral development of his readers. Just such a teacher is Plutarch.
Plutarch (c. A.D. 45- c. 120) was a Greek writer who received the best education possible in his day; he served in several official posts, and received official recognition from the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian for his extensive writings. Plutarch is primarily famous for his Parallel Lives, which is a compendium of comparative biographies of famous Greek and Roman statesmen. His other major work, the Moralia, is a collection of essays, dialogues, and observations on various moral and philosophical subjects. Both of these works make for wonderful reading, but I want to focus on the Parallel Lives here, as it is more likely to be of interest to the average reader.
There is no other work quite like Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. He must have had to collate and synthesize dozens of original sources, much of it in a language that was not native to him. Some of what we know about major figures of antiquity appears in no other work than in his. Plutarch’s main motivation was to examine what factors made great men great, and how the average man could employ those virtues. He pairs an eminent Greek with an eminent Roman (choosing figures with lives that roughly had some things in common, such as Theseus and Romulus, Lycurgus and Numa Pompilia, Solon and Publicola, etc.), and outlines the life of each figure. Then, in a conclusory essay, he compares both figures and tells us the key virtues of each, and why he believes one was better than the other. This comparative technique suits his purposes admirably: it brings into sharp focus the qualities, decisions, and actions that made each great man great.
Another virtue of the Parallel Lives is the quality of the writing. There is here no turgid prose, no boring digressions: every sentence counts, every paragraph sparkles with anecdotes, explanations, and an epigram that drives home the author’s point. This is history presented as a moral exercise. We can judge the quality of the Parallel Lives by their unbroken popularity down the centuries. They were cherished by Renaissance humanists, plundered for plots by Shakespeare, pored over hungrily by Montaigne, and beloved by Napoleon. Scarcely has any one book so instructed statesmen over such a long period.
The most important quality of the Lives—what gives it its charm–is that Plutarch is writing as a teacher of young men. He is concerned with our development and sincerely wants to be our guide. In his day, the education of young men was concerned as much with the development of character and morals as with the imparting of knowledge. (This focus, of course, is sorely missed today). Modern biographies do not normally provide this sort of thing: they are more concerned with cluttering their narratives with footnotes and scholarly apparatus than with helping us become better men.
There are many versions of the Lives in print, and choosing which one can present something of a problem and a compromise. Plutarch’s original plan was to have the reader work through each pairing together, and then read his comparison essay at the end. Unfortunately, the Lives stretch through several thick volumes, and many readers will not want to wade through them all. Buying the entire set is not practical for most (although recommended). Some readers will only want to read about Greeks, some only about Romans. Editors over the years have often chopped up the Lives in various ways, which does violence to Plutarch’s literary plan and pedagogical purposes. From examining several editions of the Lives, my opinion is that retaining some of Plutarch’s comparative pairing scheme is vital. I like the Penguin editions the best: the editors group the biographies into periods of time and by nation, but still keep the best comparative essays.
Some Final Comments
I want to close this article by saying a few related words. My desire to recommend Plutarch’s Lives to our readership grew out of some recent events in the news that all readers will by now be familiar with. It occurred to me that now, more than ever, young men are in critical need for instruction, guidance, and self-improvement. Never before have so many been so lost, and so in need of guidance. The quest to enrich, ennoble, and improve our young men has become, to use the words of H.G. Wells, “a race between education and catastrophe.”
Frequent readers will note that I have long emphasized historical and philosophical topics as ways to make larger points. There is a deliberate reason for this. By invoking the past, I have tried to remind readers of the glories of leadership, character, and masculine virtue that can change their lives. By bringing up the past, a time before masculine virtues were shamed and punished, we remind readers of the glories that will be theirs in the future if they follow the right paths. We want to inspire, uplift, and ennoble you. “The mind is not a vessel to be filled,” says Plutarch, “but a fire to be kindled.”
We at Return of Kings have been unapologetic and relentless in our quest to improve our readers’ lives with actionable, specific advice and wisdom. Sadly, there are forces which do not want to see our young men improve themselves: these forces seek to emasculate our young men, to turn them into compliant hewers of wood and drawers of water for their ideologically driven overlords. One can even imagine a future where classical knowledge will be driven underground, purged from schools, or bowdlerized, as not being in tune with modern political correctness. The degradation of humanistic learning has come as a direct result of the feminization of society. We cannot permit this to happen. The commissars of modern culture don’t want you to know too much about history, about how things were like in previous eras. This would invite uncomfortable questions, and uncomfortable comparisons with the sorry state of masculinity today.
Of our detractors, not one commenter—not one—has ever mentioned our focus on improving the minds and bodies of our readers. But we go about our work regardless. We know our readers better than they. We have lived their same struggles, hungers, and secret aspirations, and always viewed the inner longings of our brothers with patience and understanding. We know that many of our readers, in this era, are being allowed to flounder helplessly in a wilderness not of their own choosing, with their masculine potential denigrated or scorned by a media elite that values only you-go girlist frivolities and feminist dialectic. This tide will be reversed. And we will forever remain passionately dedicated to restoring the lost glory that once was ours.
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