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The Moral Philosophy of Plutarch

While not all of his essays are explicitly moral in orientation, nearly all of Plutarch’s essays have moral instruction and guidance baked into them.”

Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, better known as Plutarch, was the finest essayist of antiquity and the author of the famous and witty Parallel Lives. Plutarch was long an influential force in the development of Western humanities; a biographer, essayist, philosopher, and historian, his writings touched on all the subjects of the humanities from history and politics to philosophy and theology. The Parallel Lives might be his most famous work, but his collection of essays remembered to posterity as the Moralia is the most enduring.

Parallel Lives

Moralia is an appropriate name for Plutarch’s essays. While not all of his essays are explicitly moral in orientation, nearly all of Plutarch’s essays have moral instruction and guidance baked into them. This is also true when properly understanding the nature and purpose of the Parallel Lives. Plutarch was, first and foremost, a moralist. His reflections on great men, history, and politics are all subordinate to Plutarch’s ambitious moral project which, in turn, was a byproduct of his Platonism.

Plutarch, like many of the new Platonists (Plutarch is generally considered belonging to the school of “Middle Platonism”), believed in an interconnected and relational cosmos. This is not necessarily surprising. The Platonist tradition in philosophy, Stoicism, and Christianity all conceived of a similar interconnected and enchanted cosmos. But this relational reality to Plutarch’s philosophical and cosmic beliefs is undeniably visible in his many writings. The moral philosophy of Plutarch is never in isolation; it is on this account that Plutarch sharply broke with the Stoics and often criticized them (even if he was not fully aware of or charitable to their beliefs). 

Parallel Lives is reflective of this interconnected world that Plutarch inhabited by the fact that he pairs the great men of his quasi-biographical history. The Parallel Lives is not simply a celebration of great men and their deeds in history; it is, in fact, a deconstruction of some great men and celebration of others. The contrasts that Plutarch constructs in his composition of the Parallel Lives is meant to allow “emulation and eagerness that may lead [the readers] on to imitation.” But Plutarch does not explicitly tell us whom to emulate. We are meant to find that out for ourselves through our relational give-and-take with the great men of the Parallel Lives.

Let us look, for example, at two of the men Plutarch discusses: Pericles and Marcus Cato (Cato the Elder). These two men are not paired with each other; Pericles is paired with Fabius Maximus and Cato with Aristides. I have chosen to highlight Pericles and Cato because, in this examination of Pericles and Cato, we see the same contrasts that Plutarch sometimes constructs in his pairing of the great men throughout the book. I should add that the pairings do not necessarily stop with the two men contrasted with each other in the form Plutarch produced—all the men in the Parallel Lives are contrasted with each other, and this we should never forget.

Moral imitation and instruction are essential parts of Plutarch’s philosophical project and the Parallel Lives. This is fully revealed when Plutarch writes, “Since, then, our souls are by nature possessed of great fondness for learning and fondness for seeing, it is surely reasonable to chide those who abuse this fondness on objects all unworthy either of their eyes or ears, to the neglect of those which are good and serviceable…Such objects are to be found in virtuous deeds; these implant in those who search them out a great and zealous eagerness which leads to imitation.” Plutarch understands, or believes, that moral instruction and imitation go together. Imitation of virtuous souls is part of Plutarch’s energetic writings.

The art of reading, as Plutarch knew, was itself a dialectic of encounter and engagement. The men whom he biographized do not stand alone. They are paired with another. That Plutarch wrote with a general reading audience in mind also reflects the dialectical and relational nature of reading and education. The art of reading, which is a moral enterprise for Plutarch, is being able to weed through the hazy maze of human action to find the good and bad and imitate only the good. This is why Plutarch contrasts good and bad men over the course of the Parallel Lives.

Plutarch’s Case Studies: Men to Emulate, and Not

Pericles, for instance, is a man whom Plutarch so clearly admires and thinks is worthy of emulation:

“As a young man, Pericles was exceedingly reluctant to face the people, since it was thought that in feature he was like the tyrant Peisistratus; and when men well on in years remarked also that his voice was sweet, and his tongue glib and speedy in discourse, they were struck with amazement at the resemblance. Besides, since he was rich, of brilliant lineage, and had friends of the greatest influence, he feared that he might be ostracized, and so at first had naught to do with politics, but devoted himself rather to a military career, where he was brave and enterprising. However, when Aristides was dead, and Themistocles in banishment, and Cimon was kept by his campaigns for the most part abroad, then at last Pericles decided to devote himself to the people, espousing the cause of the poor and the many instead of the few and the rich, contrary to his own nature, which was anything but popular.”

Upon the death of Pericles Plutarch writes, “So, then, the man is to be admired not only for his reasonableness and the gentleness which he maintained in the midst of many responsibilities and great enmities, but also for his loftiness of spirit, seeing that he regarded it as the noblest of all his titles to honor that he had never gratified his envy or his passion in the exercise of his vast power, nor treated any one of his foes as a foe incurable.”

Marcus Cato, a well-known Roman and hero of the Republic, is a more sensitive subject. Having become a Roman citizen, Plutarch had to walk a fine line between praise and criticism of the heroic Roman pantheon. But when we read his reflections on Cato, we begin to see a subtle hand of criticism which suggests Cato is not a man entirely worthy of emulation.

Plutarch took his spiritual moralism to the point of vegetarianism and was, arguably, an early proponent of animal-rights. When talking about Cato Plutarch writes, “We see that kindness or humanity has a larger field than bare justice to exercise itself in; law and justice we cannot, in the nature of things, employ on others than men; but we may extend our goodness and charity even to irrational creatures; and such acts flow from a gentle nature, as water from an abundant spring.” Here, we see how human morality is tied to the broader world in which we inhabit and exist in. 

We have interconnected relationships with even the “irrational animals” that walk and run on four legs and depend on us for acts of compassion and kindness. In what becomes a moving and infuriating passage, Plutarch informs us about how Cato treated a noble horse he had reared from its youth: “Yet Cato for all this glories that he left that very horse in Spain which he used in the wars when he was consul, only because he would not put the public to the charge of his freight. Whether these acts are to be ascribed to the greatness or pettiness of his spirit, let every one argue as they please.” Plutarch might qualify for us that we may argue as we please over the moral merits of Cato’s action, but it is clear enough that Plutarch did not like Cato’s decision to abandon his noble horse to die in Spain.

Yet, in the baseness of some men, there is also grandeur and goodness. As Plutarch says:

“[Cato] was also a good father, an excellent husband to his wife, and an extraordinary economist; and as he did not manage his affairs of this kind carelessly, and as things of little moment, I think I ought to record a little further whatever was commendable in him in these points. He married a wife more noble than rich; being of opinion that the rich and the high-born are equally haughty and proud; but that those of noble blood would be more ashamed of base things, and consequently more obedient to their husbands in all that was fit and right. A man who beat his wife or child laid violent hands, he said, on what was most sacred; and a good husband he reckoned worthy of more praise than a great senator; and he admired the ancient Socrates for nothing so much as for having lived a temperate and contented life with a wife who was a scold, and children who were half-witted.”

We, in reading, must be able to determine the good from the bad and therefore not idolize men of renown without due criticism and reservation; some men might be worthy of outright emulation and imitation. Others are only worthy of some emulation and imitation, while realizing the bad that should be shunned and purged.

Moral Imitation and Progression

The importance of moral imitation and virtue is perhaps most explicitly seen in Plutarch’s essay “On Being Aware of Moral Progress.” The essay is a critique of Stoic moral philosophy which, at least as conceived of by Plutarch, leaves the individual in a state of limbo not knowing whether or not he or she is progressing in moral virtue. Plutarch seeks, in accord with his interconnected philosophy, a harmony of self with the world and a harmony of self with practical living. 

Plutarch proceeds to offer a list and interpretation of signs which we can be assured indicate moral progression. Befitting the relation between Plutarch’s cosmic vision and the importance he placed on friendship, one such sign is our ability to take criticism from friends who seek our growth and maturation. Warranted criticism, and being moved by it, is evidence of moral progression:

“Their own weakness, however, is not the only factor which can make students of philosophy waver and double back. The earnest advice of friends and the mocking, bantering attacks of critics, can also, on their occurrence, warp and sap resolve, and have been known to put some people off philosophy altogether. Therefore, a good indication of an individual’s progress would be equanimity when faced with these factors, and not being upset or irritated by people who name his peers and tell him they are prospering at some royal household, or are marrying into money or are going down to the agora as the people’s choice for some political or forensic post.”

This matches with Plutarch’s assessment that if we admit our faults and take criticism—warranted, to be sure—this is a definite sign of moral progress. Therefore, the man who insulates himself from any criticism and thinks himself superior is not progressing morally and reflects his own foolishness. As Plutarch writes, “The same goes for people with faults: it is the incurable ones who get angry and behave aggressively and fiercely towards anyone who tries to rebuke and reprimand them, whereas those who put up with rebuke and do not resist are in a more composed state.” Given that Plutarch was writing in an age when reading and writing were elite and intellectual endeavors, this constitutes an esoteric critique aimed at stuffy and prideful intellectuals and wannabes who curse those who offer critiques and other views and, in their rage, reveal themselves to be petty and not worth listening to. If our so-called teachers, like the sophists in Plato’s dialogues, fly into bestial rages at criticism, they reveal themselves to be frauds not worth emulating or learning from.

Imitation, moreover, is the ultimate manifestation of moral progression just as was explicitly stated in the Parallel Lives. When discussing the relationship and friendship of Miltiades and Themistocles, Plutarch writes that Themistocles “was also moved to emulate and imitate Miltiades. So we must regard our progress as minimal as long as our admiration of success lies fallow and remains inadequate in itself to spur us to imitation.” If we cannot come to imitate the good and honest, the virtuous and wise, that speaks volumes of our own baseness and lack of moral progression. We must, as Plutarch writes, “love the character of those whose conduct we desire to imitate, and always to accompany our wanting to be like them with goodwill which awards them respect and honor. On the other hand, anyone feeling competitively envious of his betters must realize that it is jealousy of a certain reputation or ability that is provoking him, and that he is not respecting or admiring virtue.”

Plutarch defends the view that we can know our moral progress—not to or never to be aware of our moral progress is self-defeating. Moral progress has a practical manifestation: how we live and act in life, especially in relations with others. Plutarch sees philosophy in the theoretical sense—as it was descending into during his time, especially as reflected by the Stoics—as problematic. We need to move beyond the self-absorption of mere theory to practical action and human living. This is the ultimate realization of moral progress: the imitation of good men and to live in harmony with friends and neighbors. 

Anger and Harmony

“On the Avoidance of Anger,” another one of Plutarch’s influential essays, is odd in that it starts as a dialogue in the style of Plato but quickly descends into a monologue, with Fundanus becoming the sole speaker as the essay progresses. Yet the fact that this essay is a dialogue with two friends establishes the theme of relational friendship and the importation of wisdom from one friend to another, which are quintessential Plutarchan themes. For, as the dialogue-essay proceeds, one of the things we realize about the problem of anger is how it destroys one’s relationship with the world and with friends.

The extreme passion of anger is a product of unreason, to be governed by anger is to be enslaved to passion. “It is best,” Plutarch writes, “therefore, to keep calm, or alternatively to run away and hide and find refuge in silence, as though we realized that we were about to have a fit, and wanted to avoid falling, or rather falling on someone—and it is friends above all whom we must often fall on. We do not feel love or jealousy or fear for everyone but anger leaves nothing alone, nothing in peace: We get angry at enemies and friends, at children and parents, and even at gods and animals and inanimate objects.”

Anger, as Plutarch deftly says, touches everything and can destroy everything—even those relationships that are most sacred and most cherished. (And let us not forget that certain figures in the Parallel Lives, like Pelopidas, are examples of how anger leads to destruction.)

Returning to imitation and virtue, Fundanus (who is the mouthpiece of Plutarch), says “I tried to understand anger by watching others.” Moral imitation is—as should be clear by now—perhaps the greatest Plutarchan theme. Anger ruins the self and all relations the self has. Imitation of those who do not fly into rages of anger and destruction are the very persons whom we should imitate in our own avoidance of anger for the sake of harmony with the world and our friends. Even listening, as Plutarch explains in “On Listening,” embodies this dialectical and imitative reality of moral progression and maturation.

Not only should we avoid anger, but we should also avoid excessive grief as well. In his most intimate and touching letter, “In Consolation to His Wife,” Plutarch writes to Timoxena that they should be thankful for what was and what was not. Rather than dwell in the pit of despair and grief for not being able to see their only daughter grow up into adulthood and marriage, they should remember the joy that their infant daughter brought them before her passing. “No, our daughter,” Plutarch reminds Timoxena, “was the sweetest thing in the world to hug and watch and listen to, and by the same token she must remain and live on in our thoughts.”

Plutarch’s philosophy of memory, as indicated here, is also not an insular or isolative reality (ore even activity). Memory, too, is related and attached to others and the world and has moral consequences for us. To remember in fondness brings stability and joy—to remember in grief and animosity brings revulsion and, eventually, anger. Affection, Plutarch reminds us in reminding his wife, is greater than grief. To fly away from grief to affection is just as much part of our moral pilgrimage as imitation of virtuous friends is: “Affection is what we gratify by missing, valuing, and remembering the dead, but the insatiable desire for grief—a desire which makes us wail and howl—is just as contemptible as hedonistic indulgence.”

If grief entirely overwhelms us, we descend into a state of resentment and hatred, which is the pinnacle of darkness in Plutarch’s philosophy: “You see, my dear, we will seem to regret that our child was ever born if we find more to complain about now than in the situation before her birth. We must not erase the intervening two years from our memories, but since they brought happiness and joy, we must count them as pleasant. The good was brief, but should not therefore be regarded as a long-term bad influence; and we should not be ungrateful for what we received just because our further hopes were dashed by fortune.” By becoming miserable in our grief, we begin to hate ourselves and hate the world. In doing so we make everything around us miserable, too. 

In a world often governed by passion, rage, and anger, Plutarch’s moral philosophy and advocacy of harmony with others and the world stands out as a small but glistening light in the darkness. Those who complain about Plutarch’s writings being tainted by his own voice, his own “ideological” program, completely miss the point of Plutarch’s writings. Plutarch is not writing in the vein of Leopold von Ranke and the absurd notions of “history as it was.” Plutarch sees the world of human action—which is encompassed in history—as a moral minefield that we must navigate in our ascent to moral perfection and harmony with the world.

This pilgrimage to find harmony in the world that exists is, in fact, deeply Platonic. It is erroneous to maintain that Plato’s philosophy and the Platonic tradition advocated world flight. Plato’s philosophy sought harmony in the world of nature because the world of nature reflected the ideal forms. The ideal forms, it is true, exist beyond our realm of nature but are accessible to us. In imitation of the ideal on earth, we become the ideal incarnate and instantiated. Because Plutarch’s philosophy has a practical function (as did Plato’s philosophy properly understood in its moral and political context), the practical manifestation of Plutarch’s moral philosophy is the good and harmonious life in this world and not the next. 

In reading Plutarch, we must seize the reins of the chariot of “ascent” and become noble souls who become lights in the world for others to emulate, imitate, and become friends with. Plutarch’s philosophy is a grand revision of Plato’s doctrine of the charioteer, with deep and profound implications for our lives and our world. Plutarch may have fallen on hard times recently because his vision of a harmonious world of moral relationships is the opposite of the so-called enlightened vision of a disconnected world of isolative individuals pursuing “hedonistic indulgence,” but his vision of an interconnected and intimate life of moral purpose and friendship endures for eyes to see and ears to hear.

Paul Krause is a humanities teacher, classicist, and literary essayist. He contributed to the book The College Lecture Today (Lexington Press, 2019), is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView, and is host of the podcast Literary Tales.

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