Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Plutarch's Lives

FEW books have exercised a wider influence, or possess greater claims to the reputation which they have acquired, than Plutarch's Lives. Hardly any other classical hook, with the single exception of Aesop's Fables, has become part of the popular literature of modern times. The great poets, philosophers, and historians of Greece and Rome are, indeed, known by early association to those who have received a classical education, but they are known to very few who have not. There are probably not a hundred people in England who have read Gifford's Juvenal or Hobbes' Thucydides, except as commentaries on the original. Pope's Homer has a permanent popularity, but it is a popularity which Pope won for himself, and not for the author whom he translated. With Plutarch's Lives the case is entirely different. Almost every one is more or less acquainted with them, but hardly any one, however good a scholar he may be, has read them in Greek. As the book does not form part of the ordinary course of reading which entitles people to claim the honours of classical scholarship, and as it is very bulky, the latter fact is easily explained; but its abiding and extensive popularity is owing to deeper causes. Plutarch's Lives unquestionably present at once the most complete and the most interesting picture of the ancient heathen world that any single hook affords; indeed, it is the only picture of those times which it is possible to accept as being at once authentic and lively. Most of the ancient histories require a degree of collateral knowledge to make them intelligible which no one can possess without a thorough classical training. To an ordinary English reader, a mere translation of Thucydides would be all but unintelligible, and utterly uninteresting, whilst the works both of Tacitus and Livy derive nearly the whole of their character and most of their interest from peculiarities of style which no translation could possibly retain. Each of these books, moreover, gives only a fragment of the history of Greece or Rome, and an ordinary, or even an instructed reader, would derive far more knowledge of the character of those countries from the works of Mr. Grote and Mr. Merivale, than from any secondhand acquaintance with classical authors. This is by no means true of Plutarch. The vast portrait gallery of eminent Greeks and Romans of various ages which he has preserved, throws a light on the character of the ancient heathen civilization which enables an attentive observer to trace its main features with little extrinsic aid. No one can read Plutarch carefully, even in the common translations, without being in a position to form a conception— the clearness of which will, of course, depend on the amount of independent knowledge which he brings to the consideration of the subject, but which is pretty sure to be accurate as far as it goes—of what men were during the period towards which our early attention is so strenuously directed. Indeed, it is surprising to find, upon returning to the subject in maturer life, how much our earliest notions of Greeks and Romans were derived from Plutarch. There are probably few persons who, when they think of classical times, have not an indistinct notion of a set of venerable men always saying and doing memorable things. A certain dignified completeness, like that of the figures in Raphael's picture of the School of Athens, always seems to attend upon their names —a statue-like repose and composure which extends to the language which they used, with its orderly precision and various but systematic inflexions.

It requires no profound classical knowledge to be aware of the fact that this impression is by no means a true one. The increased intelligence and sympathy with which ancient history has been studied since the beginning of the present century has effectually taught us that the ancients were not mere embodied sentiments engaged in acting copy-slip maxims for the benefit of posterity, but real men and women, very much like ourselves. Niebuhr, Dr. Thirlwall, Mr. Grote, Dr. Arnold, and Mr. Merivale have effectually destroyed the pedantry which threw so thick a veil over the eyes of an earlier generation. It may almost be doubted whether they have not gone too far, and induced us to overlook the differences which really do exist between ancient and modern society.

Plutarch's Lives certainly produce an impression which modern historians have disturbed, and to some extent exploded; and it seems natural to suppose that his view of the subject of his memoirs should have been more true and more sympathetic than any modern view can possibly be. This is, no doubt, to some extent, the result of the artistic beauty of the Lives—a beauty which the stiffness inseparable from translation veils, though it makes it, in some respects, more expressive than the original would be; just as a piece of furniture looks stronger and more solid when the varnish is partly rubbed off than when it is quite new. Viewed merely as models of style and composition, there is nothing in modern literature to equal them. The mixture of gravity and spirit with which each successive story is told is infinitely delightful. We get a perfectly distinct notion of each individual without reading a line which inclines us to despise the writer. One of the favourite cants of the present day is that which consists in scoffing at the dignity of history. Instead of pompous accounts of public transactions, give us, it is said, those minute but characteristic incidents which show men as they are—such incidents as novelists invent when they wish to introduce their characters to their readers. It is one of Lord Macaulay's dicta that Sir W. Temple's love-letters have a far greater historical importance than cartloads of protocols and despatches. In the hands of a man of genius like Lord Macaulay himself, such a doctrine may, perhaps, be turned to good results; but as nothing can be more flattering to the idleness and feebleness of common minds, no principle is more dangerous in the hands of common writers. Masses of trivial, irrelevant twaddle have been offered to the world on the strength of it, which will go far to make posterity believe either that we were a generation of fools or that we deputed the fools of the generation to write accounts of the rest. Plutarch furnishes an excellent example of the means by which this folly may be avoided, whilst the grain of truth which it feebly tries to grasp is retained. Nearly every life contains characteristic anecdotes, many of which have almost passed into proverbs— each gives a clear portrait of the person described— and each conveys a broad, definite impression of the principal transactions in which he was engaged. If any one will try to imagine the sort of lives which Plutarch would have written of Mr. Douglas Jerrold, and which Mr. Blanchard Jerrold would have written of Cato the Censor, he will have a faint conception of the grovelling degradation into which modern biography has fallen. The full bitterness of the melancholy truth can be realized only by those whose province it is to review whatever rubbish the booksellers find it profitable to publish.

There are circumstances connected with Plutarch's Lives which, though independent of their artistic merits, tend to heighten their pictorial, or, rather, statue-like effect. We all remember the parable in the Pilgrim's Progress, according to which, when Christian went to the Interpreter's house, he saw a room which looked clean and orderly. A servant entered the room to sweep it, and, as soon as she had done so, raised clouds of dust which quite destroyed its former propriety. Afterwards, she brought a basin of water, and sprinkling that about the room enabled it to be thoroughly and effectually cleansed. According to Bunyan, the room is the heart of man, the dust his natural corruption, and the sweeping the law which brings it to light and makes him conscious of it. The water is grace, by which the final purification is effected. It is impossible to read Plutarch without realizing the truth of the first part of this allegory; the third belongs to another order of thought and experience. The repose of the heathen and the conflict of the Christian world is the most striking contrast which this world of contrasts affords. In an exaggerated form it may still be seen in India and China. Those countries, and especially the latter, present the spectacle of a people who have their own laws and landmarks, and their own ideal of excellence, and who are not only contented with it, but astonished and horrified at the notion that it should not be universally accepted. The contrast of race and temperament between the East and West is so great, that it prevents us from recognizing in its full force the contrast of religious belief; but with the ancient Greeks and Romans it was otherwise. They were Europeans imbued with all the instincts of Western Europe in their strongest form, and connected with us as ancestors with descendants.

In Plutarch's Lives we see the picked specimens of our predecessors as they were before Christianity had introduced new elements into every department of human life. A more profoundly interesting spectacle cannot be imagined. In what respects do we excel these great men? In what do we fall short of them? Whatever we may be inclined to believe from vanity and that time-serving disposition which, for the present, finds it convenient to claim (too often successfully) an exclusive title to the advantages, temporal and eternal, of Christianity, it is a truth which every candid and thoughtful man must admit, that each half of the question urgently stands in need of an answer. There are points, no doubt, of vital importance on which Plutarch's Lives may lead us to congratulate ourselves; but there are other points, and they are neither few nor small, on which they read us a different lesson. Perhaps, the most remarkable respect in which the ancient heathen world differed from our own is in the estimate which those who lived in it formed of themselves and of their own lives and actions. That side of religious belief which contemplates futurity is by no means an exclusively Christian possession. The lessons of " the great teacher Death" are taught impartially in every age and nation of the world, and the various aspects which men may wear in his presence—resigned, defiant, hopeful, or indifferent—found their expression then as they do now. When Bion lamented that the mallow, the parsley, and the anise had a fresh birth every year, whilst we men sleep in the hollow earth a long, unbounded, never-waking sleep—when Cephalus told Socrates, who came to question him on the nature of justice, that as life drew on, Hades, and the shades and judges who peopled it, assumed a dreadful substance and reality—when Horace preached the doctrine of eating and drinking, for to-morrow we die, they only expressed feelings with which sceptical, believing, and indifferent observers in the present day regard the Christian doctrines respecting the rewards and punishments of a future state. Though the nature of the view which men take of the world to come in many essential respects remains the same, however much its intensity may have altered, the view which ancients and moderns entertain respecting the present -world has undergone a profound change—a change which may be described to some extent by saying that the prevailing temper of modern times has almost always been one of deep-seated discontent. It may be said, with considerable plausibility, that that which we call reform and social progress is only a transient and exceptional phenomenon, and that its connection with Christianity is less intimate than it is usually supposed to be, and not by any means certain beyond dispute. But it cannot be denied that it has often, perhaps generally, been the special characteristic of Christian societies to believe in the existence of an ideal of goodness and purity which makes the common affairs of life bear an imperfect and wretched appearance, and to have also a conception of the demands of duty, its sources and its sanctions, which makes every common fault appear greatly more dreadful than it appeared to heathens. M. Hue tells us that one of the greatest of the Chinese emperors on his death-bed commented on his past life by saying that he was the greatest and most fortunate of men—that he had nothing to wish for, nothing to repent of, no flaw in his happiness and prosperity; and that, having had enough, though not too much, he was now quite willing to die. Hardly any man in a Christian country could entertain such a feeling; and if he did, regard for the common sentiments of his friends would prevent him from expressing it. Plutarch certainly stops far short of the insolent, self-satisfaction of the Chinese; and by his constant references to the instability of human affairs, and his belief in supernatural interferences with the common course of events arising, as he says, from the envy of fortune or the decrees of fate, he shows that he appreciated, to a considerable extent, the seamy side of human affairs. But the temper which pervades his Lives is one of great self-satisfaction. It is easy to conceive the astonishment and disgust with which he would have listened to a petition on the part of Aristides or Timoleon, that neither the splendour of anything that was great, nor the conceit of anything that was good in them, might withdraw their eyes from looking on themselves as sinful dust and ashes.

It is of course an easy, as it is a common thing, to make the very consciousness of sin and guilt which distinguishes the Christian from the heathen world a subject of Pharisaical self-righteousness. Too many persons in the present day like to be despised and to despise themselves; and popular lecturers seldom hit a more fruitful vein than when they pick holes in the characters of the great and good men of the ancient world, and pour contempt on them in comparison with the Sunday-school teachers of the present day. Indeed, official comparisons have been published between Plutarch's Lives and the little books which are published by tract societies, very greatly to the advantage of the latter. This estimate of human nature is a very poor and bald one. The lives of Timoleon, of Pericles, and of Scipio, are far more wholesome and instructive than the life of the Heir of Eedclyffe. And full sympathy is due to the spirit which, half-unconsciously, half-accidentally, has made the study of classical times and the admiration of the heroes of classical history essential parts of a liberal education. It is at once a memorable and melancholy truth that human nature is corrupt—that it contains much that is evil—bad thoughts, which stimulate bad passions and lead to bad actions; and the fact is one which can never be safely forgotten or kept out of sight; but it is also true, and hardly less important, that evil is a corruption, an accident, a perversion, and not the essence of human nature, and that its great constituent elements are not bad but good. The moral law is a series of prohibitions—" Thou shalt not kill," "Thou shali not steal; " but utter immobility and vacancy, though it might involve no breach of any one of these rules, is not the ideal of human nature. Who would really wish his children to be idiots or to die in their infancy? That which is thus restrained and hemmed in—the stream to which morality supplies the flood-gates and dams—must be good, and that stream is fed by the normal passions and inclinations of man. Under the existing dispensation men are too apt to lose sight of this great truth, and to make the tacit assumption that it is only by a happy inconsistency that good men ever take part in the common affairs of life. Perhaps this habit of mind is less common at present than it sometimes has been, but it exists very widely, and a vast proportion of the language which people use on these subjects could be justified only by assuming its wisdom.

Plutarch's Lives are as forcible and convincing a protest against this view of life as could be mentioned. It is right that boys should know that there is a light which lighteth not only those who do, but those who, from the nature of the case, never could, read the Bible, and that some of the greatest and most important virtues that men can exercise are to be learned from a source which is open to all mankind. It is also right that they should be taught to see that goodness cannot be estimated by a debtor and creditor account of good and bad deeds, but that it resides in the general temper of the mind, and is capable of being delineated as a whole, apart from details. It is true that these lessons might be learnt from the Old Testament even more emphatically than from Plutarch, but the moral of the lives of Moses and Joshua, Samuel and David, is not weakened, but strengthened, by a comparison with those of Lycurgus, Solon, Aristides, and Cato.

It would be a great omission in noticing Plutarch's Lives to pass over entirely without remark their historical importance. The influence which they exercised over the minds of the more cultivated actors in the French Revolution can be compared only to that which the Bible exercised over the Puritans; and if any evidence were wanted to show the superiority of the scriptural over the classical view of life, it might be derived from a comparison between the Girondins and the Puritans of the Long Parliament. The characteristic levity and ignorance with which large bodies of clever Frenchmen applied the precedents of Plutarch to their own circumstances is one of the most curious facts in modern history. That ignorance of the Bible which, in the present day, led an ingenious Frenchman to quote the text "Man shall not live by bread alone" as "Cette belle et touchante parole de Chateaubriand," suggested to them the notion that the virtues of a citizen and soldier were incompatible with those of a Christian; and Plutarch would seem to have stood to many of them in the place of a sort of revelation. Madame Roland and Charlotte Cordav are well-known instances of this. Few things can be more striking than the vague but powerful impression which was produced on the minds not only of women, but of men whose experience might have been expected to have taught them something better, that at some time or other, and under some circumstances or other—though time, place, and circumstances alike seem to have been shadowy in the extreme—there had been a sort of Golden Age of Republicanism, in which all political arrangements had worked justly and smoothly, and in which a pitch of virtue had been developed never since attained. Plutarch really does lay a sort of foundation for such an impression as this, but it would show wonderful ignorance in any one in the present day to adopt such a view. The dark side of ancient life is so abundantly notorious that it is needless even to point it out, nor could any one in our days read a volume of Plutarch without seeing the broadest evidence of it in every page. That it should have appeared to disclose to many Frenchmen before the Revolution a state of society infinitely preferable to that which they saw around them, is a curious commentary both on the state of France at that time and on the degree of ignorance which prevailed in it respecting the characteristics of the ancient world. The manner in which the French missed the point of that part of Plutarch which they did appreciate is no less remarkable. They mistook its calmness and compression for theatrical effort, and supposed that because Plutarch describes his heroes with the dignified composure which is one of the first requisites of art, the heroes themselves were always striking attitudes, and saying to the world, "See how composed and dignified we are." Anything more really and essentially unlike an ancient Greek or Roman than a modern Frenchman it is impossible to conceive. When they tried their very best to be ancient Republicans they resembled them only as a plaster cast resembles a marble statue.

Saturday Review, April 2, 1859.

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