Plutarch's Lives


The Translation called Dryden’s. Corrected from the Greek, and Revised, by A. H. CLOUGH, sometime Fellow and Tutor of Oriel College, Oxford, and late Professor of the English Language and Literature at University College, London. Boston : Little, Brown, & Company. 1859. Five vols. 8vo.
IN these five handsome volumes, we have, at length, a really good edition in English of Plutarch’s Lives. One of the most delightful books in the world, one of the few universal classics, appears for the first time in our language in a translation worthy of its merits.
Mr. Clough, whose name is well known, not only by scholars, but also by the lovers of poetry, has performed the work of editor with admirable diligence, fidelity, and taste. The labor of revision has been neither slight nor easy. It has, indeed, amounted to not much less than would have been required for the making of a new translation. The versions in the translation that bears Dryden’s name, made, as they were, by various hands, and apparently not submitted to the revision of any competent scholar, were unequal in execution, and were disfigured by many mistakes, as well as by much that was slovenly in style. At the time they were made, scholarship in England was not at a high point. Bentley had not yet lifted it out of mediocrity, and the translators were not stimulated by the fear either of severe criticism or of comparison of their labors with any superior work. The numerous defects of this translation are spoken of by the Langhornes, in the Preface to their own, with a somewhat jealous severity, which gives unusual vigor to their sentences. “The diversities of style,” say they, “were not the greatest fault of this strange translation. It was full of the grossest errors. Ignorance on the one hand, and hastiness or negligence on the other, had filled it with absurdities in every Life, and inaccuracies on almost every page.” This is a hard, perhaps an extreme judgment; but it serves to show the difficulties that would attend a revision of such a work. These difficulties Mr. Clough has fairly met and overcome. We do not mean to say that he has reduced the whole book to a perfect uniformity, or even to entire elegance and exactness of style ; but he has corrected inaccuracies, he has removed the chief marks of negligence or haste; and, after a careful comparison of a considerable portion of the work as it now appears with the Greek text, we have no hesitation in saying that this translation answers not merely to the demands of modern scholarship, but forms a book at once essentially accurate and delightful for common reading.1 We think, moreover, that Mr. Clough was right in choosing the so-called Dryden’s translation as the basis of his work. Its style is not old enough to have become antiquated, while yet it possesses much of the savor and raciness of age. The book is interesting from Dryden’s connection with it, but still more so — considering how slight that connection was, his only contribution to it being the Life of Plutarch—from the fact, that the translations of some of the Lives were made by famous men, as that of Alcibiades by Lord Chancellor Somers, and that of Alexander by the excellent John Evelyn ; while others were made by men who, if not famous, are at least well remembered by the lovers of the literature of the time,—as that of Numa by Sir Paul Rycaut, the Turkey merchant, and the continuer of Dr. Johnson's favorite history of the Turks,—that of Otho by Pope’s friend, the medical poet, Dr. Garth,—that of Solon by Creech, the translator of Lucretius,—that of Lysander by the Honorable Charles Boyle, whose name is preserved in the alcohol of Bentley's classical satire, — and that of Themistocles by Edward, the son of Sir Thomas Browne.
But Mr. Clough's labors have not been merely those of reviser and corrector. He has added greatly to the value of the work by occasional concise foot-notes, as well as by notes contained in an appendix to each volume. So excellent, indeed, are these notes, so full of learning and information, conveyed in an agreeable way, that we cannot but feel a regret (not often excited by Commentators) that their number is not greater. In addition to these, the fifth volume contains a very carefully prepared and full Index of Proper Names, which is followed by a list for reference as to their pronunciation.
When this version, to which Dryden gave his name, was made, there was no other in English but that of Sir Thomas North, which had been made, not from the Greek, but from the French of Amyot, and was first published in 1579. it was a good work for its time, and worthy of being dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, although, as the knight declares, “she could better understand it in Greek than any man can make it English.” Its style is rather robust than elegant, partaking of the manly vigor of the language of its time, and now and then exhibiting something of that charm of quaint simplicity which belongs to its original, Montaigne’s favorite Amyot. “Of all our French writers,” says the incomparable essayist, “I give, with justice, I think, the palm to Jacques Amyot”;2 and thereupon he goes on to praise the purity of his style, as well as the depth of his learning and judgment. But, although Amyot had “a true imagination” of his author, he was not always exact in giving his meaning. The learned Dr. Guy Patin says: “On dit que M. de Meziriac avoit corrigé dans son Amyot huit mille fautes, et qu’Amyot n’avoit pas de bons exemplaires, ou qu’il n’avoit pas bien entendu le Grec de Plutarque.”3
Amyot’s eight thousand errors were not diminished in passing into Sir Thomas North’s English ; but their number mattered little to the readers of those days, who found in the thick folio enough of interest to spare them from making inquiry as to the exactness of its rendering of the meaning of Plutarch. From, the time of its first publication, for more than a hundred years, it was one of the most popular books of the period, as was proved by the appearance of six successive editions in folio.4 Some of these clumsy volumes may, no doubt, have been put to uses as ignoble as that which Chrysale, in “Les Femmes Savantes,” suggests for his sister’s similar copy of Amyot:—
“Vos livres éternels ne me ebntentent pas;
Et, hors un gros Phitarque à mettre mes rabats,
Vous devriez bruler tout ce meuble inutile";—
but duller books of the same size, of which there were many in those days of patient readers, would have had an equal value for such economical purposes as this, and “The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans by that Grave Learned Philosopher & Historiographer Plutarch” were too entertaining to young and old to be left for any length of time quietly upon the shelf. They were the familiar reading of boys who were to become the actors in the great drama of the Rebellion and the Commonwealth, or who a little later were to frequent the dissolute court of Charles, presenting in their own lives, whether in camp or court, as patriots or as traitors, parallels to those which they had read in the weighty pages of the old biographer.
Nor in more recent times has North’s version failed of admirers. Godwin declared, that, till this book fell into his hands, he had no genuine feeling of Plutarch’s merits, or knowledge of what sort of a writer he was. But the chief interest of this translation at the present day, except what it possesses as a storehouse of good mother-English, comes from the fact that it was one of the books of Shakespeare’s moderate library, and one which he had thoroughly read, as is manifest from the use that he made of it in his own works, especially in "Coriolanus,” “Julius Ca;sar,” and “Antony and Cleopatra.” It was from the worthy knight’s folio that he got much of his little Latin and less Greek. He helped himself freely to what was to His purpose; and a comparison of the passages which he borrowed from with the scenes founded upon them is interesting, as showing his use of the very words of the author before him, and as exhibiting the new appearances which those words take on under his plastic hand. We have no space for long extracts; but a short illustration will serve to show that Shakespeare is the best translator of Plutarch into English that we have had. Compare these two passages:—
“Therefore, when she [Cleopatra] was sent unto by drivers letters, both from Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made so light of it, and mocked Antonius so much, that she disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus; the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the Sound of the musick of flutes, howboys, citherns, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself, she was laid under a pavillion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus, commonly drawn hi picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with which they fanned wind upon her. Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the Nymphs Nereides (which are the Myrmaids of the waters) and like The Graces; some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of the which there came a wonderful passing sweet savour of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf’s side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people. Some of them followed the barge all along the river side; others also ran out of the city to see her coining in. So that in the end there ran such multitudes of people one after another to see her, that Antonius was left post, alone in the market-place, in his imperial seat to give audience."—NORTH'S Plutarch, Life of Antonius, p. 763. Ed. of 1676.
Enobarbus. When she first met Mark Antony, she pursed up his heart upon the river of Cydnus.
Agrippa. There she appeared, indeed; or my reporter devised well for her.
Eno. I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burnt on the water : the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick; with them the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water, which they beat, to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, (cloth of gold, of tissue,)
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork Nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-color'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid, did.
Agr. Oh, rare for Antony!
Eno. Her gentlewomen, like the Nereids,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes.
And made their bends adorning?: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers; the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her, and Antony,
Enthron’d i’ th’ market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air, which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in Nature.
Antony and Cleopatra. Act II. Sc. 2.
The operations of Shakespeare’s creative imagination are rarely to be observed more distinctly than in such instances as this, where we see the precise source from which he drew, in all its original limitations and native character. Books were to him like ingots of gold, which, passing through tlio mint of his brain, came out thence stamped coin, current for all time. Viewing some of his plays, it may be said, with no real, though with apparent contradiction, that no man ever borrowed more from books, and yet none ever owed less to them. For the Roman times Plutarch served him, as Holinshed and Hall supplied him for his English histories. Under Plutarch’s guidance he walked through the streets of ancient. Rome, and became familiar with the conduct of her men. He is more Roman than Plutarch himself, and by divine right of imagination he makes himself a citizen of the Eternal City. While Shakespeare was using Plutarch to such advantage, on the other hand, Ben Jonson seems to have borrowed little or nothing from him in his Roman plays. He got what he wanted out of the Latin authors, and he succeeded in Latinizing his plays,—in giving to his characters the dress, but not the spirit of Rome.
It was toward the end of the seventeenth century that Dryden’s translation appeared, and for about fifty years it held much the same place with the reading public that North’s had filled for previous generations. It was, no doubt, in this version that Mrs. Fitzpatrick amused herself during her seclusion in Ireland, as she tells Sophia Western, with reading “a great deal in Plutarch’s Lives.” But this was at length superseded by the translation of the brothers Langhorne, which, spite of its want of vivacity, its labored periods, and formal narrative, has retained its place as the popular version of Plutarch up to the present day. One can hardly help wishing— so little of Plutarch’s spirit survives in their dull pages—that a similar fate had overtaken these excellent men to that which carried off the gentle Abbé Ricard with the grippe, when he had published but half of his translation of the Philosopher of Cheronæa.
It is a proof of the intrinsic charm of Plutarch’s Lives, that thus, notwithstanding the imperfect manner in which they have been, up to this time, presented to English readers, they should have been so constantly and so generally read.5 They have given equal delight to all ages and to all classes. The heavy folio has been taken from its place on the lower shelves in the quiet libraries of English countryhouses, and been read by old men at their firesides, by girls in trim gardens, by boys who cared for no other classic. The cheap double-column octavo has travelled in peddlers’ carts to all the villages of New England, to the backwoodsman’s cabin in the West. It has taken its place on the clockshelf, with only the Bible, the “Pilgrim's Progress,” and the Almanac for its companions. No other classic author, with, perhaps, the single exception of Æsop, has been so widely read in modern times; and the popular knowledge of the men of Greece and Rome is derived more from Plutarch than from all other ancient authors put together. The often-repeated saying of Theodore Gaza, who, being once asked, if learning should suffer a general shipwreck, and he had the choice of saving one author, which he would select, is said to have replied, “ Plutarch,”—“and probably might give this reason,” says Dryden, “that in saving him he should secure the best collection of them all,”— this saying is but a sort of prophecy of the decision of the common world, who have chosen Plutarch from all the rest, and find, as Amyot says, “no one else so profitable and so pleasant to read as he.”6
Nor is it merely the common mass of readers who have chosen Plutarch as their favorite ancient. The list of great and famous men who have made him their companion is a long one. Men of action and men of thought have taken equal satisfaction in his pages. Petrarch, the first scholar of the Revival, held him in high esteem, and drew from him much of his uncommon learning. Erasmus, the first scholar of the Reformation, made his writings a special study, and translated from the Greek a large portion of his Moral Works. Montaigne has taken pains to tell us of his affection for him, and his Essays are full of the proofs of it. “I never seriously settled myself,” he says, “to the reading of any book of solid learning but Plutarch and Seneca.”7 And in another essay he adds,— “The familiarity I have had with these two authors, and the assistance they have lent to my age, and to my book wholly built up of what I have taken from them, oblige me to stand up for their honor.”8 And again he declares, — “The books I chiefly use to form my opinions are Plutarch, since he became French, and Seneca.”9 The genial humanity and liberal wisdom of Plutarch claimed the sympathy of Montaigne, while his discursive style and love of story-telling suited no less the taste of his disciple. Montaigne, as it were, makes Plutarch a modern, and uses his books to illustrate the passing times. He introduces him to new characters, and reads his judgment upon them. He finds in him a hundred things that others had not seen. It is a wide step from Montaigne to Rousseau, and yet, spite of the naturalness of the one and the artificiality of the other, there were some points of resemblance between them, and they harmonize in their love for a common master. Rousseau has written of Plutarch as Montaigne felt,— “Dans le petit nombre de livres que je lis quelquefois encore, Plutarque est celui qui m’attache et me profile le plus. Ce fut la premiere lecture de mon enfance, et sera la dernierc de ma vieillesse; c’est presque le seul auteur que je n’ai jamais lu sans en tirer quelque fruit.”10 Plutarch’s Lives was one of the few hooks recommended to Catharine II. of Russia, as she herself tells us, wherewith to solace and instruct herself during the first wretched years of her miserable married life. It is, perhaps, not impossible to trace in some passages of her later life the results of what she then read.
And thus we might go on accumulating the names of men and women whom all the world knows, who have confessed their obligations to the old biographer,—philosophers like Bacon, warriors like Bossy d’Amboise, poets like Wordsworth ; while many a one has owed much to him who has made no open acknowledgment of his debt. Montaigne somewhere complains of the unlicensed stealings from his author; and Udall, in his Preface to the Apophthegms of Erasmus, declares,—“It is a thing scarcely believable, how much, and how boldly as well, the common writers that from time to time have copied out his [Plutarch’s] works, as also certain that have thought themselves liable to control and amend all men’s doings, have taken upon them in this author, who ought with all reverence to be handled of them, and with all fear to have been preserved from altering, depraving, or corrupting.”11
The question naturally arises, What are the qualities in Plutarch which have made him so Universal a favorite, which have attracted towards him men of such opposite tempers and different lives ? It is not enough to say that all real biography is of interest,—that every man has curiosity about the life of every other man, and finds in it illustrations of his own. Other writers of lives have not had the same fortune with Plutarch. For one reader of Suetonius or of Diogenes Laërtius, there are a thousand of Plutarch. Nor is it that the subjects of his biographies are greater or more famous than all other men. Some of the noblest and best known men of Greece and Rome are omitted from Plutarch’s list.12 The true grounds of the general popularity of Plutarch’s Lives are not to be found in their subjects so much as in his manner of treating them, and in the qualities of his own nature, as exhibited in his book. At the tomb of Achilles, Alexander declared that he esteemed him happy in having had so famous a poet to proclaim his actions; and scarcely less fortunate were they who had such a biographer as Plutarch to record their lives. He himself has given us his conception of the true office of a biographer, and in this has explained in great part the secret of his excellence. "It must be borne in mind,” he says, “that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men ; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore, as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men; and, while I endeavor by these to portray their lives, may he free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others.13
It is his fidelity to this principle, his dealing with events and circumstances chiefly as they illustrate character, his delineation of the features of the souls of men, that constitutes Plutarch’s highest merit as a biographer. He is no historian; he often neglects chronology, and disregards the sequence of events; he omits many incidents, and he avoids the details of national and political affairs. The progress of the advance or decline of states is not to he learned from his pages. But if his Lives be read in chronological order, much may be inferred from them of the moral condition and changes of the communities in which the men flourished whose characters and actions he describes. Biography is thus made to cast an incidental light upon history. The successes of Alexander give evidence of the lowering of the Greek spirit, and illustrate the immemorial weakness of Oriental tyrannies. The victories and the defeats of Pyrrhus alike display the vigor of Republican Rome. The character and the fate of Mark Antony show that vigor at its ebb, and foretell the near fall of the Roman liberties. Thus in his long series of lives of noble Grecians and Romans, the motives and principles which lay at the foundation of the characters of the men who moulded the fate of Greece and Rome, the reciprocal influences of their times upon these men and of these men upon their times, may all be traced with more or less distinctness and certainty. It was not Plutarch’s object to exhibit them in sequent evolution, but, in attaining the object which he had in view, he could not fail to make them manifest to the thoughtful reader. His book, though not a history, is invaluable to historians.
But the character of Plutarch himself, not less than his method of writing biography, explains his universal popularity, and gives its special charm and value to his book. He was a man of large and generous nature, of strong feeling, of refined tastes, of quick perceptions. His mind had been cultivated in the acquisition of the best learning of his times, and was disciplined by the study of books as well as of men. He deserves the title of philosopher; but his philosophy was of a practical rather than a speculative character,—though he was versed in the wisest doctrines of the great masters of ancient thought, and in some of his moral works shows himself their not unworthy follower. Above all, he was a man of cheerful, genial, and receptive temper. A lover of justice and of liberty, his sympathies are always on the side of what is right, noble, and honorable. He believed in a divine ordering of the world, and saw obscurely through the mists and shadows of heathenism the indications of the wisdom and rectitude of an overruling Providence. To him man did not appear as the sole arbiter of his own destiny, but rather as an unconscious agent in working out the designs of a Higher Power; and yet, as these designs were only dimly and imperfectly to he recognized, the noblest man was he who was truest to the eternal principles of right, who was most independent of the chances and shiftings of fortune, who, “fortressed on conscience and impregnable will,” strove to live in the manliest and most self-supported relations with the world, neither fearing nor hoping much in regard to the uncertainties of the future, and who
“metus omnes et inexorabile fatum Subjecit pedibus.”
In his whole character, Plutarch shows himself one of the best examples of the intelligent heathen of the later classic period. His writings contain the practical essence of the results of Greek and Roman life and thought. His intellect, equally removed from superstition and from skepticism, was open with a large receptiveness, which sometimes approaches to credulity, to the traditions of early wonders, to the reports of recent miracles, and to the stories of the deeds and sayings of men.14 The evidence upon which he reports is often insufficient, to establish the statements that he makes; but his readiness to tell the current stories gives to his biographies a peculiar interest, adding to their entertainment, and at the same time to their value as representations of common beliefs and popular fancies. He is one of the best story-tellers of antiquity, and from his works a series of “Percy Anecdotes” of ancient men might easily be compiled. “Such anecdotes will not,” says he, in his Life of Timoleon, “he thought, I conceive, either foreign to my purpose of writing lives, or unprofitable in themselves, by such readers as are not in too much haste, or busied and taken up with other concerns." It is this fulness of anecdote, which, perhaps, more than any other quality of his writings, makes him the favorite of boys as well as of men. He treasures up pithy sayings, and his own reflections are often epigrammatic in expression, and always full of good sense.
In his Life of Demosthenes, in a passage which is pleasant on account of its personal reference, Plutarch speaks of the advantage that it would be for a writer like himself to reside in some city addicted to liberal arts, and populous, where he might have access to many books, and to many persons from whom he might gather up such facts as books do not contain. "But as for me,” he says, “I live in a little town, where I am willing to continue, lest it should grow less.” And he goes on to excuse himself for his imperfect knowledge of the Roman tongue, which unfits him to draw a comparison between the orations of Demosthenes and of Cicero. But, although his acquaintance with the structure and powers of the language may have been insufficient to enable him to venture on literary criticism, his acquaintance with the books of the Romans was considerable, and he had thoroughly studied the Greek authors who had written on Roman affairs. His own library, or the libraries to which he had access at Chæronea, must have been well furnished with the books most important for his studies, He is said to quote two hundred and fifty authors, some eighty of whom are among those whose works have been wholly or partly lost. He made careful use of his materials, which were, of course, more abundant for his Greek than for his Roman narratives. “If we would put the Lives of Plutarch to a severe test,” says Mr. Long, than whom no one is better qualified to speak with authority upon the subject, “we must carefully examine his Roman Lives. He says that ho knew Latin imperfectly, and he lived under the Empire, when many of the educated Romans had but a superficial acquaintance with the earlier history of their state. We must therefore expect to find him imperfectly informed on Roman institutions; and we can detect him in some errors. Yet, on the whole, his Roman Lives do not often convey erroneous notions; if the detail is incorrect, the general impression is true. They may he read with profit by those who seek to know something of Roman affairs, and have not knowledge enough to detect an error. They probably contain as few mistakes as most biographies which have been written by a man who is not the countryman of those whose lives he writes.”
Yet, spite of his general accuracy and his impartial temper, the representations which Plutarch makes of the characters which he describes are not always to be accepted as fair delineations. Unconscious prejudice, or misconception of circumstances and relations, sometimes leads him into apparent injustice. Thus, for example, while he bears hardly upon Demosthenes, and sets out many of his actions in too unfavorable lights, he, on the other hand, interprets the conduct and character of Phocion with manifest indulgence, and presents a flattered portrait of a man whose death turned popular reproaches into pity, but was insufficient to redeem the faults of his life.
Mr. Grote, in his History, passes a very different judgment upon these two men from that to which one would be led by the perusal of Plutarch's narratives merely. And it is an illustration, at once, of the honesty of the ancient biographer, and of the ability of the modern historian, that Mr. Grote should not infrequently derive from Plutarch’s own account the means for correcting his false estimate of the motives and the actions of those whom he misjudged.
In an excellent passage in his Preface, Mr. Clough remarks that
“Much has been said of Plutarch’s inaccuracy; and it cannot be denied that he is careless about numbers, and occasionally contradicts his own statements. A greater fault, perhaps, is his passion for anecdote; he cannot forbear from repeating stories the improbability of which he is the first to recognize, which, nevertheless, by mere repetition, leave unjust impressions. He is unfair in this way to Demosthenes and Pericles,—against the latter of whom, however, he doubtless inherited the prejudices which Plato handed down to the philosophers.
“It is true, also, that his unhistorical treatment of the subjects of his biography makes him often unsatisfactory and imperfect in the portraits he draws. Much, of course, in the public lives of statesmen can find its only explanation in their political position; and of this Plutarch often knows and thinks little. So far as the researches of modern historians have succeeded in really recovering a knowledge of relations of this sort, so far, undoubtedly, these biographies stand in need of their correction. Yet, in the uncertainty which must attend all modern restorations, it is agreeable, and surely also profitable, to recur to portraits drawn ere new thoughts and views had occupied the civilized world, without reference to such disputable grounds of judgment, simply upon the broad principles of the ancient moral code of right and wrong.
. . . . We have here the faithful record of the historical tradition of Plutarch’s age. This is what, in the second century of our era, Greeks and Romans loved to believe about their warriors and statesmen of the past. As a picture, at least, of the best Greek and Roman moral views and moral judgments, as a presentation of the results of Greek and Roman moral thought, delivered, not under the pressure of calamity, but as they existed in ordinary times, and actuated plain-living people, in country places, in their daily life, Plutarch’s writings are of indisputable value.”
Of all the biographies contained in his work, none might excite greater suspicion of incorrectness than that of Timoleon, on account of the extraordinary character both of the man and of the incidents of his career. His story reads like a romance of the ancient times, like a legend of some half-mythical hero, rather than like the true account of an actual man. There is, perhaps, none among his Lives which Plutarch has written with greater spirit, with livelier sympathies, than this. And yet, in spite of all its seeming improbability, there is little reason to question its essential truth. It corresponds, with some minor exceptions, with all that can be ascertained from other ancient authors who wrote concerning the deliverer of Sicily; and even Mitford, with all his zeal in the cause of tyrants, can find little to detract from the praise of Timoleon, or to diminish our confidence in the truth of Plutarch’s account of him.
But, in addition to the interest that belongs to these biographies, from their intrinsic qualities, as affected by the character of Plutarch,—beside the interest which the common reader or the student of biography and history may find in them, they possess a still deeper interest for the student of human nature, in its various modifications, under varying influences, and in different ages, from exhibiting to him, in a. long series, many of the chief characters of the heathen world in such form as fits them for comparison with the prominent men of Christian times. The question of the effect of Christianity upon the characters and lives of the leading actors in modern history is not more important than it is difficult of solution. Plutarch, better than any other ancient writer, affords the means of estimating the motives, the principles, the objects, of the men of the old time. We see in his pages what they were; we see the differences between them and the men of later days. How far are those differences exhibitions of inferiority or of superiority? How far do they result from the influence of secondary causes ? how far from the change in religious belief?
No man who knows much of the course of history will venture to insist greatly on any essential change for the better having been wrought as yet by Christianity in the manner in which the affairs of the world are carried on. Christianity has not yet been fairly tried. Nations calling themselves Christian are still governed on heathen principles. Christianity has been for the most part perverted and misunderstood. The grossest errors have been taught in its name, are still taught in its name. Falsehood has claimed the authority of truth, and its claim has been granted, The stream which flowed out pure from its source has been caught in foul cisterns, has been led into narrow channels, has been made stagnant in desolate pools and wide-spread weedy marshes. The doctrine of Christ has had thus far in the world but very few hearers who have understood it. Many a modern creed might well go back to heathenism for improvement. This perversion of Christianity is a chief element in the difficulty of tracing the real influence of true Christian teaching upon character. It is this which compels us to draw a parallel, not so much between the actual characters of ancient and modern times, if we would rightly understand the differences between them, as between what wo may assume to be the idea! standards of the heathen and the Christian. But to treat this subject with the fulness and in the manner which it deserves would lead us too far from Plutarch, and we have done enough in suggesting it as matter for reflection to those who read his Lives.
One of the most marked differences in the position of the ancient and the modern man is that which has been quietly and gradually brought about by science; but its effect is little recognized by the mass of men or the most wide-spread churches. It is the difference of his recognized relations to the universe. While this earth was supposed to be the central point and main effort of creation, while the earth itself was unknown, and all the regions of space were regarded as void and untenanted, save by the inventions of fancy, man may have seemed to himself a creature of large proportions and of considerable importance. He measured himself with the gods and the half-gods, and found himself not much their inferior. In reading Plutarch, one cannot fail to he struck with the manly self-reliance of his best men of action. Their piety had no weakness of selfabasement in it. They possessed a piety toward themselves as well as toward the gods. Timoleon, who was attended by the good-fortune that waits on noble character, erected in the house which the Syracusans bestowed upon him an altar to Αὐτοματία winch, as Mr. Clough well remarks, in a note, “ is almost equivalent to Spontaneousness. His successes had come, as it were, of themselves,” The act was an acknowledgment of divine favor, and an assertion at the same time of his individual independence of action. This spirit of seltdependence was the grandest feature of Greek and Roman heathenism; and it is in this, if in anything, that a superiority of character is manifest in the men of ancient times. The famous passage in Seneca's tragedy, in which Medea asserts herself as sufficient to stand alone against the universe, contains its essence and is its complete expression.
Nutr. Spes nulla monstrat rebus adflictis viam.
Med. Qui nil potest sperare, desperst nihil.
Nutr. Abiere Colchi; coujugis nulla est fides;
Nihilque superest opibus e tantis tibi.
Med. Medea superest; hic mare et terras vides,
Ferrumque, et ignes, et deos, et fulmina.
Medea, Act ii. 162-167.
Here is self-reliance at its highest point; the strength of resolute will measuring itself singly and undauntedly against all forces, human and divine.
But, as a necessary consequent of this spirit, as its implied complement in the balance of human nature, we find, as a distinct trait in the lives of many of the manliest ancients, an occasional prevalence of a spirit of despondency, a recognition of the ultimate weakness of man when brought by himself face to face with the wall of opposing circumstance and the resistless force of Fate. Will is strong, but the powers outside the will are stronger. Manliness may not fail, but man himself may be broken. Neither the teachings of natural religion, nor the doctrines of philosophy, nor the support of a sound heart are sufficient for man in the crisis of uttermost trial. Without something beyond these, higher than these, without a conscious dependence on Omnipotence, man must sink at last under the buffets of adverse fortune. Take the instances of these great men in Plutarch, and look at the end of their lives. How many of them are simple confessions of defeat! Themistocles sacrifices to the gods, drinks poison, and dies. Demosthenes takes poison to save himself from falling into the hands of his enemies. Cicero proposes to slay himself in the house of Ciesar, and is murdered only through want of resolution to kill himself. Brutus says to the friend who urges him to fly,—“Yes, we must fly; yet not with our feet, but with our hands,” and falls upon his sword. Cato lies down calmly at night, reads Plato on the Soul, and then kills himself; while, after his death, the people of Utica cry out with one voice that he is “the only free, the only undefeated man.” It may be said that even in suicide these men displayed the manliness of their tempers. True, but it was the manliness of the deserter who runs the risk of being shot for the sake of avoiding the risks and fatigues of service in war.15
Again, we must be content rather to hint at than to develop the matter for reflection and study that Plutarch affords, and unwillingly pass by, without even a glance at them, large domains of thought that lie within his pages. We are glad to believe, that, through the excellent edition before us, his Lives will be more widely read than ever. In this country, where the tendency of things is to the limited, but equal development of each individual in social and political life, and hence to the production of a uniform mediocrity of character and of action, these biographies are of special value, as exhibiting men developed under circumstances widely contrasted with our own, and who may serve as standards by which to measure some of our own deficiencies or advantages. Here were the men who stood head and shoulders above the others of their times; we see them now, “foreshortened in the tract of time,”—not as they appeared to their contemporaries, but in something like their real proportions. But the greatness of those proportions for the most part remains unchanged. How will it be vvitli our great men two thousand years hence ? Will the numerous “most distinguished men of America” appear as large then as they do now ? Will the Speeches of our popular orators be read then ? Will the most famous of our senators be famous then ? Will the ablest of our generals still he gathering laurels ?
There is a story told by the learned Andrew Thevet, chief cosmographer to Henry III., King of France and Poland, to the effect that one Triumpho of Cumarino did most fantastically imagine and persuade himself that really and truly one day “he was assembled in company with the Pope, the Emperor, and the several Kings and Princes of Christendom, (although all that while he was alone in his own chamber by himself,) where he entered upon, debated, and resolved all the states’ affairs of Christendom; and he verily believed that he was the wisest man of them all; and so he well might he, of the company.” The fantastical imagination of this Triumpho furnishes a good illustration of the reality of companionship which one who possesses Plutarch may have in his own chamber with the greatest and most interesting men of ancient times. If he be worthy, he may make the best of them his intimates. He may live with them as his counsellors and his friends. Whether he will believe that he is “the wisest man of them all ” is doubtful; but, however this may be, he will find himself in their company growing wiser, stronger, tenderer, and truer.
It has been well said, that “ Plutarch’s Lives is the book for those who can nobly think and dare and do.”
  1. For the sake of illustration of the care and labor given by Mr. Clough to the revision, we open at random on the Life of Dion, Vol. V., p. 291, and, comparing it with the original Dryden, we find, that in ten pages, to the end of the Life, there are but three, and they short sentences, in which changes of more or less consequence have not been made, "these changes amount sometimes to entire new translation, sometimes consist merely in the correction of a few words. Throughout, the hand of the thorough scholar is apparent. The earlier volumes of the series would, probable, rarely exhibit such considerable alterations.
  2. Essays, Book II. 4.
  3. Patiniana.
  4. In 1579, 1595, 1602, 1631, 1657, 1676. Mr. Homer, in his Introduction to Chapman’s Homer, London, 1857, says, that “the edition of 1657 was published under the superintendence of the illustrious Seldeu." We do not know his authority for this statement. The fact, if it be one, is very remarkable, as Selden’s death took place in 1654.
  5. We have not spoken of Mr, Long’s translations of Select Lives from Plutarch, which were published in the series of Knight's Weekly Volumes, under the title of The Civil Wars of Rome, because, although executed in a manner deserving the highest praise, they presented to English readers but a limited number of Plutarch’s biographies. Mr. Clough says, justly, in his Preface, that his own work would not have been needed, had not Mr. Long confined his translations within so narrow a compass.
  6. De tous les auteurs,” says the Baron de Grimm, “qui nous restent de l'antiquité, Plutarque est, sans contredit, celui qui a recueilli le plus de vérités de fait et de spéculation. Ses œuvres sont une mine inépuisable de lumières et de connaissance; c'est vraiment l'encyclopédie des anciens.” Memoires Historiques, etc., I., 312.
  7. Essays. Book I., Chapter 25.
  8. Essays, II. 23.
  9. Ibid. II. 10.
  10. Les Rêveries d'un Promeneur Solitaire. Quatrième Promenade.
  11. The following passage presents a view of some of the uses to which Plutarch's narratives were turned during the Middle Ages. “Or personne n'ignore que les chroniquenrs du moyen age compilaient les faits les plus romarquables de l'Écriture Sainte ou des histoires profanes pour les meler a leurs récits. C'est ainsi que ceux qui ont écrit la vie de Du Guesclin ont mis sur le compte de ce héros ce que Plutarque rapporte de plus memorable des grands hommes de l’antiquité.”—SOUVESTRE. Les Derniers Bretons. I. 147.
  12. In Rogers’s Recollections, Grattan is reported as saying,—“ Of all men, if I could call up one, it should be Scipio Africanus. Hannibal was perhaps a greater captain, but not so great and good a man. Epaminondas did not do so much. Themistocles was a rogue.” It is curious that Themistocles is the only one of these men of whom we have a biography by Plutarch. His Lives of Scipio and Epaminondas are lost. Hannibal did not come within the scope of his design.
  13. Life of Alexander, at the beginning.
  14. There are two remarkable passages in the Life of Coriolanus which illustrate Plutarch’s opinions upon these points. The first (ii. 91) treats of the divine influence on the human will and action; the second (ii. 97-98) relates to the mode of regarding events seemingly incredible. This latter is peculiarly distinguished by its good, sense and clear statement. It closes with the memorable saying, “Knowledge of divine things for the most part, as Heraclitus says, is lost to us by incredulity.”
  15. There is a striking passage in Seneca’s treatise De Consolatione, which may, perhaps, be not unfairly regarded as the expression of a sentiment common among the better heathens in regard to death,—a sentiment of profound sadness. He says,—“Mors dolorum omnium solutio est et finis, ultra quam mala nostra non exeunt, quæ nos in illam tranquillitatem, in qua antequam nasceremur jacuimus, reponit.” xix. 4.