Saturday, June 30, 2012

Plutarch's Lives part 2: Alcibiades and Coriolanus

Socrates finds Alcibiades. Being a wise man, he knew where to look.

We seem to have turned a corner fairly quickly and my initial reactions may only apply to the initial material.  The two sections that I have just completed were a rip-roaring good read.  We also seem to have entered the portion in which the parallel lives is fleshed out a bit more fully by the author, even so far as to include a sum up in which he states what specific parallels he is intending to illustrate with these lives.  The two lives are interesting, explained to the reader with clarity, and I did not come away feeling that the comparison was in any way forced.

The thrust of the comparison, as I understood it, is as follows: Alcibiades and Coriolanus were successful in battle on more or less an equal level.  They both had equal reasons to be loved by their societies on that level.  In politics and personal lives, Alcibiades was dissolute and luxurious.  He was unscrupulous and false.  He caused a great deal of trouble and discord.  He was, however, charismatic and, therefore, got away with it.  Coriolanus', as the author puts it, "pride and self-will, the consort, as Plato calls it, of solitude, made him insufferable."

I found that I could relate to both and thus benefited from their cautionary tales.  Alcibiades, with his bravado, his chameleon nature to circumstance, his flamboyance and tendency towards hedonism, all remind me of the younger version of myself.   Coriolanus' insouciance towards public opinion (while aligning himself with extraordinarily unpopular opinion), or, it would seem, any form of compassion left him... well, dead eventually, but strongly and widely disliked.

While I am not like Coriolanus in his anti-social behavior, this speaks to the introvert's dilemma.  I certainly have a great deal of compassion, but I find that I am one of those who needs a greater amount of time alone for every amount of time I spend with people, in order to "recharge" as it were.  I am also disinclined to be in or near a crowd (defined as more than 3 people) and tend to be too heavy in lighter social situations.  While Plutarch doesn't go so far as to lay out a system like Dale Carnegie, his underlying suggestion seems to be "make a little effort here, people."  I felt like this is a lesson in particular that could use a bit of reviving in this age where everyone behaves as both a monarch and an island, answerable to none.

Likewise, the lesson of Alcibiades seems to be that one ought to exhibit a modicum of restraint in regards to self-indulgence.  One ought to have a consistent character rather than flattering and manipulating to get one's way.  This, too, I feel is an important lesson for today.  At first, I thought I would be writing about striking a balance in one's life and behavior in regards to the two extremes presented in these two lives, however, upon reflection, I am finding that Plutarch is simply showing two sides of the same coin.  Both are men whose self-interest precluded compassion. 

I would add that Plutarch succeeds in communicating the tone of these lives in the reaction he seeks to elicit from the reader.  I found myself charmed by Alcibiades in spite of the dastardly actions he is frequently described as undertaking, and found myself strongly disliking Coriolanus.  As it said at the end of Barry Lyndon "They are all equal now."

It seems to be smooth sailing from here on.  I have two great orators next and then two of the most famous leaders of antiquity. 

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