Roman Thought

From Cicero to Trump – They’re All in Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ …

Posted on September 4, 2017. Filed under: Personalities, Roman Thought |

From The Wall Street Journal –

Thucydides has been enjoying quite the media moment, despite being dead for more than 2,400 years. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster have both been known to cite the Greek historian’s “Peloponnesian Wars,” which narrates the ancient conflict between Athens and Sparta.

Not to knock Thucydides, but Washington should reconfigure its reading list. There’s a better book for today’s times: Plutarch’s “Lives.”

“They just don’t come any better than old Plutarch,” President Harry Truman told biographer Merle Miller after he’d left office. “He knew more about politics than all the other writers I’ve read put together. When I was in politics, there would be times when I tried to figure somebody out, and I could always turn to Plutarch, and 9 times out of 10 I’d be able to find a parallel in there.”

Until fairly recently, the leading lights of Europe and America would have agreed. Plutarch’s “Lives,” which details the characters and careers of Greek and Roman men of action, were considered essential reading for citizens and statesmen.

When the Founding Fathers clashed in political pamphlets, they wrote under names like Publius, Cato and Brutus. Alexander Hamilton was a huge Plutarch fan. So was his rival Thomas Jefferson, who recommended the “Lives” to several correspondents and made sure the University of Virginia had a copy. For more than a century after America’s founding, the classicist Meyer Reinhold has claimed, Plutarch’s Lives was the country’s most-read book after the Bible.

What made Plutarch so popular? He offered an education in civic virtue, packaged in a way that was pleasant to read. Our closest translation of the Greek word for “life” used in the book’s title is “biography,” but it can also mean “way of life.” Plutarch’s “Lives” offered both: It described each subject’s actions and character from birth to death, providing models for the reader to emulate. Thanks to Plutarch’s taste for the fine details that he says reveal “the signs of the soul in men,” citizens of the new American republic could intimately know the legends of antiquity and shape their own souls accordingly.

Plutarch also wrote his lives in parallel: He paired Greeks and Romans, concluding each presentation with a short “comparison” that prodded readers to decide which of the two was superior and in what respects. The point wasn’t to show that the Greeks were better than the Romans or vice versa, but to reveal the character of the competitors and nudge readers to form judgments about virtue.

Consider one pairing: Pericles, the great Athenian general who lived around 450 B.C., and Fabius, the consul of the Roman Republic who came along about 200 years later. It’s easy to admire both passively. Asking readers which of the two is better forces them to consider what exactly “better” means and how it applies to particular cases. Plutarch put his readers into the role of citizens casting a vote between worthy statesmen.

Plutarch did so, however, long after the ancient republics had declined. A citizen of the Roman Empire, he lived around A.D. 100 in the small Greek city of Chaeronea. He held local office and spoke with disdain of talented peers who decamped for careers in the metropolis. Fellow Greeks, he advised, should keep good relations with their Roman rulers, but not be too hasty to involve Rome in local affairs.

Plutarch worried that demagogues might elicit Roman intervention, and thus he offered tips to fellow elites in how to oppose them. His “Lives” were meant in part to remind contemporaries what politics looked like before centralized Roman power eclipsed the cities. If a man acts on behalf of the polis, Plutarch once wrote, he is not ignoble; on the contrary, his “attention to duty and zeal are all the greater when applied to little things.”

Because Plutarch wrote at some remove from the lost world he depicted in his “Lives,” some readers have found him unreliable and out of touch. The British historian Thomas Macaulay wrote in 1828 that Plutarch and similarly earnest writers “conceived of liberty as monks conceive of love.” But Plutarch’s distance from the pre-imperial politics he depicted was also an advantage. It allowed him to view the sweep of history, from the formation of the Greek cities to their subjugation, and from the mythical founding of Rome to the end of the Republic. Plutarch distilled it all into a curriculum of contests meant to stimulate civic virtue no matter the context of his readers.

Today statesmen are scouring Thucydides for some rule so timeless that it applies to modern America just as well as it did to ancient Greece. To the extent that any such rules exist, Thucydides is surely a worthy guide. But Plutarch suggests that citizens and politicians need a different kind of education. The goal is teaching them to practice good judgment and hone their ability to discern when a proposition holds true and when it does not.

Plutarch aspired to shape character, whether his readers were local leaders in small Greek cities or important officials in Rome’s imperial hierarchy. He showed citizens how to admire and censure those in power, not to mention how to evaluate candidates for such positions. Two millennia later, in an age of novel threats and rising dangers, they still don’t come any better than old Plutarch.

Ms. Burgess manages the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Liebert is an associate professor of political science at the U.S. Military Academy and author of “Plutarch’s Politics: Between City and Empire.”

For more on Plutarch – https://improveacrati.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/plutarch-the-provincial-moralist/

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A Greater than Napoleon – Scipio Africanus …

Posted on June 9, 2010. Filed under: Guide Posts, Personalities, Roman Thought |

Scipio Africanus was,. among other things, a Roman intellectual who wrote his memoirs in Greek.

As a soldier he defeated Hannibal at Zama, the final battle of the Second Punic War – having replaced Fabius’ tactic of not giving battle for safety sake. Recognized as one of the finest commanders in military history, he was Rome’s greatest general who never lost a battle.

Livy, the Roman historian, narrates that when Scipio and Hannibal met afterwards, Hannibal took the high road and said that the greatest generals were Alexander, Pyrrhus and himself. When Scipio asked what would have been the order had Hannibal defeated Scipio, the reply was that then Hannibal would have been the greatest.

Here are Scipio’s few known sayings. which indeed, mirror the man.

I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.

I’m never less at leisure than when at leisure. Or less alone than when alone.

It is the part of a fool to say that which I shouldnot have even thought.

Just prior to Zama, Livy writes that Scipio’s men captured a couple of Hannibals spies. Scipio ordered that they be fed and feted and shown around the entire camp before being escorted back midway to Hannibals camp.

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Marcus Fabius Quintilian …

Posted on March 19, 2009. Filed under: Roman Thought |

Quintilian was a rhetorician much referred to in medieval schools of rhetoric and in Renaissance writing.

While we are making up our minds as to when we shall begin, the opportunity is lost. We must form our minds by reading deep rather than wide. 

Men, even when alone, lighten their labors by song, however rude these may be.

The perfection of art is to conceal art.

The pretended admission of a fault on our part creates an excellent impression.


 

 

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Lucretius …

Posted on March 15, 2008. Filed under: Roman Thought |

Lucretius was poet and philosopher. Author of the epic philosophical poem on Epicureanism

Pleasant it is to behold feats of war over the plains with no part of you in peril.

The fall of dropping water wears away the Stone. The sum of all sums is eternity —- Life is one long struggle in the dark.

The greatest wealth is to live content with little, for there is never want where the mind is satisfied.

 

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Juvenal …

Posted on March 15, 2008. Filed under: Roman Thought |

Juvenal was a poet  and author of the Satires. which inspired many authors, including Samuel Johnson

And life is given to none freehold, but it is leasehold for all.  Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.

One globe seemed all too small for the youthful Alexander.

Censure acquits the raven, but pursues the dove. I wish it, I command it. Let my will take the place of a reason.

There is hardly a case in which the dispute was not caused by a woman.

 

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Marcus Aurelius … of ‘Gladiator’ fame …

Posted on February 7, 2008. Filed under: Personalities, Roman Thought |

Marcus Aurelius Antonious was last of the Five Good Emperors and the most important stoic philosopher. His tenure was marked by wars in Asia and with Germanic tribes in Gaul and across the Danube. His Meditations, written on campaign is revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty.

Begin – to begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished. Forward, as occasion offers. Never look round to see whether any shall note it.

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive -to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. Be satisfied with success in even the smallest matter.

When thou art in any measure angry, bethink thee how momentary is man’s life. How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it?

Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place; and this too will be swept away. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last.

Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. Your life is what your thoughts make it. You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.

Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live. We ought to do good to others as simply as a horse runs, or a bee makes honey, or a vine bears grapes, season after season, without thinking of the grapes it has borne.

There are three classes into which all the women past seventy that ever I knew were to be divided: 1. That dear old soul; 2. That old woman; 3. That old witch.

 

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Virgil …

Posted on January 16, 2008. Filed under: Roman Thought |

Virgil was a classical Roman poet,  author of epics and the Aeneid. This was an epic poem in the heroic mode and comprised twelve books (as opposed to 24 by Homer). It became the Roman Empire’s national epic.

Fortune favours the bold. Go forth a conqueror and win great victories. They succeed, because they think they can. They are able because they think they are able. Who asks whether the enemy was defeated by strategy or valor?

Come what may, all bad fortune is to be conquered by endurance. Perhaps even these things, one day, will be pleasing to remember.

Wherever the fates lead us let us follow.  Cease to think that the decrees of the gods can be changed by prayers. But meanwhile time flies; it flies never to be regained.

Even virtue is fairer when it appears in a beautiful person. Happy is he who can trace effects to their causes.

The world cares very little about what a man or woman knows; it is what a man or woman is able to do that counts.

If ye despise the human race, and mortal arms, yet remember that there is a God who is mindful of right and wrong. Myself acquainted with misfortune, I learn to help the unfortunate.

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Marcus Tullius Cicero

Posted on October 29, 2007. Filed under: Personalities, Roman Thought |

People do not understand what a great revenue economy is.

Patience is the companion of wisdom.

Brevity is a great charm of eloquence.

Before beginning, plan carefully.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC). Roman statesman, lawyer, political theorist, philosopher. widely considered one of Rome’s greatest orators. During the civil wars and the dictatorship of Gaius Julius Caesar, his career was marked by a tendency to shift his position in response to changes in the political climate.

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Ovid …

Posted on July 28, 2007. Filed under: Roman Thought |

Ovid was a Roman poet who lived around the time when BC turned into AD. He is ranked alongside Virgil and Horace and considered master of the elegiac couplet.

A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn. It can be stabbed to death by a quip or worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow.

Chance is always powerful. Let your hook always be cast. In the pool where you least expect it, there will be fish.

Courage conquers all things. It even gives strength to the body. Habits change into character. Happy is the man who has broken the chains which hurt the mind, and has given up worrying once and for all.

Bear and endure. This sorrow will one day prove to be for your good. Time is generally the best doctor. It is the devourer of all things. Everything comes gradually and at its appointed hour.

Take rest. A field that has rested gives a beautiful crop. In our leisure we reveal what kind of people we are. Thou seest how sloth wastes the sluggish body, as water is corrupted unless it moves.

Fair peace becomes men. Ferocious anger belongs to beasts. Whether they give or refuse, it delights women just the same to have been asked.

Love and dignity cannot share the same abode. Majesty and love do not consort well together, nor do they dwell in the same place.

An anthill increases by accumulation. Medicine is consumed by distribution. That which is feared lessens by association. This is the thing to understand.

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HORACE … (Quintus Horatius Flaccus).

Posted on April 15, 2007. Filed under: Great Writing, Guide Posts, Roman Thought |

Horace was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.

Who then is free? The wise man who can govern himself. You traverse the world in search of happiness, which is within the reach of every man; a contented mind confers it on all.

Begin, be bold and venture to be wise. Don’t think, just do. Dare to be wise. Begin. He has half done who begins. If matters go badly now, they will not always be so. In bad times we hope and in good times we fear a change in fortune.

Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work; leave the rest to the gods. When things are steep, remember to stay level-headed. Always keep your composure; else you can’t score from the penalty box; to win, you have to score.

He gains everyone’s approval who mixes the pleasant with the useful. Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans. It is lovely to be silly at the right moment.

Whatever advice you give, be short. Words will not fail when the matter is well considered. It is no great art to say something briefly when, like Tacitus, one has something to say.

Good sense is both the first principal and the parent source of good writing. The pen is the tongue of the mind. I never think at all when I write. Nobody can do two things at the same time and do them both well.

How great, my friends, is the virtue of living upon a little! Clogged with yesterday’s excess, the body drags the mind down with it. What we learn only through the ears makes less impression upon our minds than what is presented to the trustworthy eye.

Anger is a short madness. A word once uttered can never be recalled. Labor diligently to increase your property. Your own safety is at stake when your neighbor’s wall is ablaze.

Strange – is it not? That of the myriads who before us passed the Door of Darkness through; not one returns to tell  us of the road, which to discover we must travel too.

 

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