Saturday, June 23, 2012

Plutarch's Lives- Part 1

The waggish part of my brain wonders if St. Augustine wasn't included in this series for the sole purpose of making future difficult reads seem more palatable.

Before I started reading Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, I pulled a small mass-market paperback copy from my personal library.  I try to get my own copies of the books in this series because not underlining or writing in the margins is, to me, a bit like trying to read in a straightjacket.  However, when I perused the table of contents of the actual Harvard Classics edition in the Chico Library, I distinctly remembered Demosthenes being a figure covered in the book (it stuck in my brain because of the joke commonly attributed to Alexander Woollcott "Demosthenes can do is bend and hold the legs together.")  It turned out that my yellowed and foxing Dell Laurel edition was an abridgment.  Hastened I to the used bookstore where I found this Modern Library edition:

You will note the "Volume 1" on the cover.  I instantly noted that the volume was about twice as long as the Harvard Classics version and knew in my heart that our good captain Dr. Eliot has made his own abridgment (from the Dryden for those who care.)  Back I went to the Chico Library.

The main issue with this book, at least so far in my reading, is that Plutarch does not write biography in the manner to which we have grown accustomed.  This presents the reader with the challenge of modifying one's expectations.  It also called for frequent visits to other sources to fill in information that the author presumes upon the reader. For several of the subjects I came to the text with some knowledge of their lives (Pericles, Coriolanus, Cicero, Caesar, Antony), which seems to aid comprehension of the author's intent when, say, discussing a conflict between two specific individuals without explaining who these two individuals are.  Perhaps an example might illuminate what I'm on about.  Here is a line from the opening paragraph of the book, in the section about Themistocles, specifically referring to his mother:
"Yet Phanias writes that the mother of Themistocles was not of Thrace, but of Caria, and that her name was not Abrotonon, but Euterpe; and Neanthes adds farther that she was of Halicarnassus in Caria."
Who were Phanias and Neanthes?  What is the significance of the different names attributed to his mother?  What would it suggest if one was from Thrace or Caria or Halicarnassus?  Is this like saying "the musician claims to have grown up on the streets of Compton, but records show that he was president of the chess club at the Palos Verdes Preparatory School"?  We don't know!  At least not specifically from the text.

This would be an exercise in frustration were it not for the fact that Plutarch's purpose is not that of a historian or a biographer.  His purpose is that of a moralist and he is employing (or, for the cynical, exploiting) the lives of the noble ancients for the purpose of illustrating traits that the author feels one ought to either emulate or eschew.   

My first section comprises Themistocles, Pericles, and Aristides.  There is a great deal of battle in these lives which, to me, is only slightly more interesting than sports writing.  I have spent most of my time of reading this book trying to discern what lessons I might glean and, to be perfectly frank, disregarding the rest.  Of the three, the latter was my favorite, likely because one of the chief lessons was nobility in poverty.  Themistocles is sort of a cautionary tale.  He is lauded after great success in battle, but later ostracized over unpopular political decisions, and then re-lauded after his death. 

While I appreciated the section on Aristides, the section on Pericles was the section I found most gripping so far.  Pericles is a great man, ruling in the Golden Age of Athens.  Socrates makes a few appearances.  There is political maneuvering against Cimon.  There are mystical visions.  There is, of course, one of the most famous wars in history, The Peloponnesian.  There is even the suggestion of a love story/scandal with the fascinating character of Aspasia (I am amazed that no one has written a play or novel about that woman!)  There is even more coloring of character than in the other sections so far (for example, apparently the man had a very large head.)

With eight more sections to go, I am out of the least familiar territory historically speaking.  But I do have a bit of that feeling I have about an hour and a half into Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg when I am enjoying it tremendously to be sure, but I also know that it is miles to go before I sleep.

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