Last reviewed: June 2018
Greek biographer and essayist
Chaeronea, Boeotia, Greece
Chaeronea, Boeotia, Greece
The biographer Plutarch (PLEW-tawrk) was born in Boeotia, a district that had always had the unlucky reputation of producing stupid men. Plutarch himself shared in the belief, though he could have professed that in his own person he belied it. He came from a wealthy magisterial family. In youth he studied philosophy under Ammonius of Delphi, who is thought to have been of the Academic school, or possibly of the Stoic. Plutarch
Plutarch’s works show traces of Stoic teaching, especially as regards steadfastness under pain, but they reject the Stoic idea of rewards and punishments for the dead. They embrace the Pythagorean doctrine of metempsychosis, the passing of the soul at death into another body. Plutarch is said to have visited Egypt; in view of the knowledge of Egyptian mythology and religion exhibited in his “On Isis and Osiris,” the probability is high.
He was initiated into the Dionysiac mysteries and journeyed to Rome, where, it is assumed, he wrote his moral treatises. There, certainly, he became renowned as a teacher of philosophy, and he is declared by some authorities to have been appointed Trajan’s tutor. He gained the friendship of the consul Sosius Senecio and was himself elevated by Trajan to the consular rank.
On his retirement he returned to Greece, where he held the procuratorship under Hadrian. He passed his later years at Chaeronea, where he died as archon and as priest of Apollo. Although his Roman literary contemporaries are silent concerning him, Eusebius and Aulus Gellius revered him.
Plutarch wrote more than two hundred works. In medieval and later times Plutarch was one of the most widely read Greek authors, chief attention being accorded to his Parallel Lives. That collection, first printed at Florence in 1517, has the distinction of having provided William Shakespeare, through Sir Thomas North’s 1579 English translation of the Amyot French version, with the plots of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and (in part) Timon of Athens. The plan of Parallel Lives, which seem to belong to Plutarch’s later period, was to set beside each other, in pairs, illustrious Greek and Roman commanders or statesmen and then, in a separate essay, to compare their traits of character for the purpose of moral instruction. With Theseus, for example, he compared Romulus; with Alcibiades, Coriolanus; with Aristides, Cato; and with Demosthenes, Cicero. Several of the comparative essays have been lost, but forty-six lives are extant; to these are appended four others unconnected with one another. The greatest virtue of Parallel Lives lies in Plutarch’s richness of anecdotal detail, for his circumstantial disclosures of homely incident are often illuminating as well as startling. The work is deeply learned and must have required an enormous amount of research. Its greatest flaw results from Plutarch’s tendency to distort facts when dealing with personages concerning whom, for moral reasons, he was biased.
About sixty of his other works, known collectively as the Moralia, have a good deal of philosophic and antiquarian interest. They fall into various classifications according to their emphasis upon political, scientific, historical, moral, or religious matters. Among them should be mentioned “The Malignity of Herodotus,” which reflects Plutarch’s dislike for that historian’s preference of Athens over Sparta; the essay “On the Face Appearing on the Disk of the Moon”; the treatise “Whether an Old Man Ought to Engage in Politics”; and the disquisition “On Isis and Osiris,” a source of much material to early students of Egyptian culture. In the essay “On the Cessation of Oracles” occurs the memorable story of the voice that cried, from the island of Paxi, “Great Pan is dead!”—a tale often stimulating, in later times, to the romantic fancy. Plutarch also wrote a “Consolation to Apollonius,” which was much imitated during the Renaissance, and a “Consolation to His Wife,” by which he hoped to mitigate her grief over the death of their little daughter Timoxena. Plutarch’s works preserve a remarkable quantity of information that is of lasting value to historians, philosophers, and literary scholars alike.