Saturday, July 7, 2012

Plutarch's Lives- Part 3: Demosthenes and Cicero

Cicero and Demosthenes were both orators of great acclaim in their respective places. Demosthenes had to work for his oration skill and in that sense reminded me a bit of Milton.  He expended a great deal of time and energy on honing his skill, then reaped the benefit (sort of... for a time anyway.)  He was occasionally mocked for his practiced orations, but it seems no one took such criticisms seriously in light of the man's oratory skill.  He, perhaps ill advisedly, entered politics, which ultimately lead to drinking poison to avoid falling into the hands of his enemies.

I have noticed Plutarch seeming to show marked favoritism towards the Roman figures.  I may be reading too much into this (or it may simply be a result of the choices in this abridgment) and it may have more to do with Plutarch's familiarity and the availability of information to him, but it really does seem to me that the Roman pieces are far more compelling and perhaps a bit more on the noble side.

The story of Cicero was a bit more engaging, especially since it is building to the end of the reading in Plutarch.  The book ends with Caesar and Antony.  There is overlap with Cicero's story in each of those. 

Cicero's death was absolutely grizzly.  Something about cutting off someone's hands and head and then traveling with them to a place where they are to be put on spikes doesn't sit well with me.  I know that Julius Caesar is said to have remarked, ominously, that the best sort of death is a sudden one.  I'm not sure I agree with that.  Dying at the violent hands of others seems terrible to me.  I imagine my final thought would be something like "I never made it through Infinite Jest!"  What a horrible way to go!  I increasingly find myself feeling that a good death is a lingering one, like Mozart who laid on his deathbed composing his Requiem (apocryphally it seems, but it makes a nice story, what?)

It would be difficult for me to not love Cicero.  He was a bit of a rascal and his wit was enviably keen.  The accounts seem to suggest a decent and lovable man, but he had this knack for boasting and self-promoting that put me in mind of a modern day rapper.

Rather than rehashing the details of their lives, I should, as Plutarch intended in writing these lives in the first place, focus on what lessons I gleaned from reading about these two men.  I think that Plutarch would agree that looking at the lives of the great people of history can and should inspire the reader and instruct them in good living, be it in the positive or negative example (with the added level of whether or not the reader agrees with the author's point of view.)  I would add, and I also think Plutarch and Dr. Eliot would back me up on this, that this is precisely why a work like this ought to be requisite to the education of young people.  Perhaps this might serve as a drop of antidote in the ocean of arrested adolescence which comprises the culture in which they bob rudderless (there I go mixing metaphors again.  Oh well.  I've buttered my bread and now I must lay in it.)  Aside from the historic material from, what one could certainly argue if one were so inclined, two of the most important civilizations of all time, one gets the distinct impression that the true function of the book is examples of great men towards which one can aspire.  I found the lives of these two men to be an inspiration to strive towards excellence.

There was also, I felt, a theme emerging which I know will be a through-line in the remainder of my reading: beware of the shifting sands of politics.  Both men are essentially destroyed by the capricious nature of the divine right of kings, which seems to have been especially capricious in times of capricious divinity.  That may sound like a dig against antiquity, but I will reveal my opinion that I feel much the same way about the prevailing directions of religious devotion in my own time and country.

Both men shared the experience of aligning themselves with a political position that eventually led to their respective deaths.  I suppose this could be taken in a number of ways.  I could see this suggesting the path of political forbearance.  I could also see this suggesting the nobility of staying true to one's cause even unto death.  Not knowing any political leaders personally and having zero interest in politics, my interest in this thought experiment seemed theoretical on the surface.  But I think that these lessons transfer on a micro-scale.  Politics touch all of our interpersonal interactions, be it in our workplace, our churches, or even our homes.  I am not talking exclusively about political ideology, but also about the teetering balances of power found anywhere power is available.  I think one of the major lessons from the lives of the noble ancients is to let truth and virtue be your leader and even if you find yourself on the business end of a vial of poison, you will be exactly where you are supposed to be.


  1. Plutarch is in my future. I have more Plato, some Aristotle, and some Aristophanese to get through first, but I've been looking forward to this.

    I am currently sidetracked, while I read Shakespeare Use of the Arts of Language, and the same author's book on the Trivium. I think you would probably like these books.

  2. Thought you might like to see this -- Montaigne on Plutarch: