Tag Archives: Plutarch

We Of The Unpleasant Curiosity

 He was so much in love that he was unable to tear himself away from her, but since we hear that she was in love with him too, perhaps this was also a factor. (270)  – Plutarch, Roman Lives (Pompey)

IMG_0395I tried mightily to understand that sentence. Without success. It seems to me that Plutarch, as a mere afterthought or maybe it was  an act of condescension, suddenly decided  that perhaps it does make a difference to a man if the woman he loves loves him back. How gracious. Still, he leaves room- he can only commit himself to say “perhaps this was also a factor.” Well, don’t go out on a limb there, Man! Plutarch is never at ease discussing matters of the heart. How annoying it must have been for him to have had to acknowledge the relentless ubiquity of romantic subplots, or heaven forbid, plots!  His disapproval of Pompey’s overdeveloped interest in love is clear well before this quote appears, but it’s just such a bizarre thing to say. It makes me wonder a few things about Plutarch rather than question what I take to be a perfectly sensible and worthy interest for any man or woman to have. Between Pompey and Caesar (where I will be leaving the Noble Lives) there are more than the usual references to the various women in their lives, despite Plutarch’s efforts to downplay such frivolity, these men (more so, Pompey) were very much lovers as well as warriors.

Within the first few pages Plutarch relates a bit about the courtesan Flora. I was immediately put on guard as I love the account Lucretius gives of their famed affair, and I am sorry to say Plutarch rather bungles it. He dryly describes their love and some gossip surrounding it, but important details are conflicting (who left bite marks on whom?). And more importantly, the story is bled of all passion and fun. Plutarch would rather look for some reasonable explanation of Pompey’s seemingly busy and overwhelmingly satisfying love life. Speaking of one of the early wives (Caesar’s daughter Julia):

In all likelihood the love she bore her husband was inspired by his self restraint, since he never had any extra-marital affairs (270).

Yes, because there is no other reason why a woman might love a man. Geesh, Plutarch,  a little therapy might be in order. What kind of relationships did Plutarch have that led him to believe that that is the most a woman should aspire to or be inspired by? Given his opinion of women, I suppose he had very little hope of experiencing what came so easily to the charming Pompey.  When Pompey marries Cornelia, Plutarch allows that she is beautiful, talented and intelligent but then stupidly adds:

She also combined these qualities with a character that was free from the unpleasant curiosity which these intellectual interests tend to inflict on young women (273).

Hrmph. Now I’m starting to get irritated. But maybe that’s my problem. I too have been inflicted with unpleasant curiosity, and with no Pompey of my own to sooth my nerves I haven’t the verve to sustain the indulgent relativity that reading Plutarch has required of me.

*Oxford World’s Classics, Plutarch, Roman Lives. Translated by Robin Waterfield

Plutarch Part One: Lives, Noble or Not
Plutarch Part Two: Argue As You Please
Plutarch Part Three: An Accord Sown

An Accord Sown

The first thing [Alexander] did in Persia was pay the womenfolk their money, in accordance with the custom by which whenever Persian kings arrive in the country they give some gold to every woman there. This explains why some of them apparently did not go there very often.
Plutarch, Roman Lives (Alexander, 374)

DSC_0840I burst out laughing when I read the above quote. I was at work, but I couldn’t help myself. One of my jobs is the type in which I can read without getting in trouble.  I finished the, ironically, rather long “life” of Alexander and was a little depressed to discover that I hadn’t even done away with an hour of my five hour shift. A patron came in and asked me a question regarding the show that is currently being shown in the gallery and then he asked me what I was reading. I paused. “Plutarch,” I finally admitted. “Well, somebody should be,” he laughed and walked away. I tried to imagine poor Alexander’s reaction to the disinterest he (mostly) inspires, and I felt bad for him. He really tried very hard. A smart and honorable fellow, perhaps a slave to his ambition, but he wasn’t a scoundrel, and really, at a certain point isn’t that all that matters?

Darius was already on his way down from Susa, with his confidence boosted not just by the size of his army [..], but also by a dream which the Magi had interpreted in a manner designed to please him rather than to accord with probability (327).

I was planning to someday have a staff of Magi to interpret my dreams in a pleasing way, but even I can learn from history- accord with probability– I must remember that. It would make an excellent mantra, and as Darius would surely attest-  save a lot of pain. Plutarch would have been the man to do justice to the noble life of Darius had he a Persian section of Noble Lives, but even still, as he often does,  when he is ostensibly talking about one noble man, he can’t help but go on at length about that noble man’s most worthy foe. By Plutarch’s own measure, that sense of decency makes Plutarch himself something of a noble man.

And he used to say that there was nothing better than sleep and sex for reminding him that he was not a god (332).

Now I’ve never confused myself with a god, but I think I will agree with Alexander that there are not many better things than sleep and sex to remind you of your body. If perfectly sated both activities transport one away from their body, but in their unrealized incarnations there can be no mistaking of one’s mortal state whilst tired or pining. But besides such winning bon mots as that, the question of why anyone should read Plutarch is legitimate. After all, I have no reason other than fun and interest to slog through some of the many nobel lives of Plutarch’s opinion. But I suppose that is the very thing. Plutarch is fun. And he is interesting. Alexander is a fabulous character and the sheer storytelling virtuosity that Plutarch excels in makes it compelling reading. The passage in which Plutarch describes Alexander facing down the gossip of his friend’s supposed betrayal is so marvelous I had to stare out into space for a bit to revel in it. After receiving “news” that Philip (of Acarnania) is planning to poison him, Alexander says nothing; Philip comes to him with a potion to cure him of a minor illness, (but only after overcoming the fear of wrath and retribution should Alexander’s health worsen by his care)  Alexander hands Philip the incriminating letter of accusation:

The ensuing scene was wonderful and worthy of the stage: one of them was reading the letter and the other drinking the potion, and they both looked at each other, but not with the same significance” (328)

What faith in friendship. What wonderful stuff mankind can be made of. This is why one reads Plutarch. Aristotle’s rules of writing: discovery, peripety, and suffering are all on display in the lives of these mostly extraordinary men. The seeds of history: lessons can be learned, bon mots can be savored, models of nobility can be aspired to, and – good storytelling is good storytelling. Period.

*excerpts from Plutarch Greek Lives published by Oxford World’s Classics translated by Robin Waterfield

Plutarch part 1: Lives (Noble or Not)
Plutarch part 2: Argue As You Please
Plutarch segue: Blindfold Art

Blindfold Art

I leaned me forward to find her lips,
And claim her utterly in a kiss

– D.H. Lawrence, from Lightning

IMG_1030After renewing my copy of Everybody’s Plutarch, one, possibly two, times more than the officially allowable amount, I reluctantly returned it. I thought I’d be tricky by getting another copy at a different library. Instead, I ended up with the book,  An Uninhibited Treasury of Erotic Poetry. I know, I love the title too.

Catullus, you’re a fool. I said,
What’s lost is lost, what’s dead is dead.
The game is over, that you know;
So let the little strumpet go.

Catullus, from Catullus Talks to Himself

I wasn’t even going to be picky, I know there are many editions of Noble Lives,  but just you try to search for a single book in a library that is many stories tall with all the ordinances accounted for. Let me save you some trouble by saying, it ain’t easy. First stop: the computer catalogue. I came away from that aspect ratio of small proportion’ s labyrinth with a piece of paper on which I had scrawled as many call numbers as I could fit. Next: pitstop at the circulation desk to pick up a copy of the floorplan. Third stop: level A, west wing.

In the secrets of your flesh
I make myself words
to be read by you alone

– Eve Merriam, from The Moment Before Conception

A partial but useless success- Plutarch in Latin. But why dwell on thoughts that serve as cruel metaphors for life? Moving on: level three, north wing, where I find a trove of books about Plutarch. Down a level: no luck at all. Back up a couple levels: berating myself for not organizing my list geographically,  looking for the 900 section, wait, no- the 800s, focus, Jessica!…disoriented, the low lights and lack of humans among the rows of books are so comforting as to begin to disconcert me. I put my bag on the floor and crouch down, sitting upon my heels for a moment’s respite.

Love Poem

Oh, your thighs
are numbered:

Two

But they are
as poles of the earth

And all
that there is

Is

Between them

-Judson Crews

Up a level, down, south, was it west? …my memory fades…A Modern Plutarch sits on the shelf. In fact it now sits on the desk next to me. But a comparison of, for example,  Mark Twain and Anatole French, while a good idea, was neither well executed nor the thing I was after.

Teach me, only teach, Love!
As I ought
I will speak thy speech, Love
Think thy thought-

– Robert Browning, from A Woman’s Last Word

Next to A Modern Plutarch, sat An Uninhibited Treasury of Erotic Poetry, which I did not attempt to resist. I opened to a random page – two lines that I know well. I don’t need much more encouragement than that.

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove

Marlowe, The Passionate Shepard to His Love. I read an article once regarding pronunciation which suggested that “love” would have rhymed, back then, with “prove.” Love and prove, I find much pleasure in making the words sound alike in various combinations in my head (I think the article describe how it had been pronounced and rhymed, but I can’t recall).  Later in the poem “love” is rhymed with “move,” consequently I now relish saying Louvre whenever I see the word love. Love, prove….There is something that pulls those words to each other, love: tested, withstood, evidenced. They seem to belong together.

* Title from Lawrence’s Lightning-
“Repeating with tightened arms, and the hot blood’s
blindfold art.”

** The Uninhibited Treasury of Erotic Poetry (“edited and with a running commentary by”) Louis Untermeyer. He makes clear in his introduction that by “erotic,” a more classic sense, by way of Eros (love), is meant.

Back to Plutarch- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Argue as You Please

No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it; by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion required.
-Plutarch (on Archimedes) Everybody’s Plutarch (322)

IMG_0831I find myself talking to Plutarch. I have a few questions for the man. I know he  worked very hard to make an academic study of the “nobel lives” of various Greek and Roman men. That would be question number one. Plutarch, come on, it wouldn’t have killed you to mention a woman or two. And no, I won’t give you credit for your one page on Aspasia (loved by the great and noble Pericles). We already heard tell from my drinking buddy Herodotus about her fabulousness. Well, alright, I’ll give maybe a partial credit, as it’s a sunny day, the sky is brilliant blue, and why not?  Aspasia’s ‘ill repute’ as a ‘Madame,’ is mentioned in a single sentence.  Her charm and status as a woman who taught great men the art of speaking, including “Socrates himself [who] would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintances with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her” (180) in two more. But Plutarch flies through Pericles’ first marriage, (which ends by mutual consent) with such speed that we’ve hardly digested this rather reasonable and progressive version of divorce by irreconcilable indifference when he is finishing off the paragraph with a hilariously staid description of the passion between Pericles and Aspasia.

And he loved her with wonderful affection; every day, both as he went out and as he came in from the market-place, he saluted and kissed her. (180)

Well, it’s not much, but it’s all he gives, so there you have it-  hello and goodbye with a kiss. What are we to think by this account? Perhaps it was so very common for women of this day to be regarded with such respect for their intellect and allure that a longer mention would have seemed unseemly. But somehow, I doubt it.

The chapter on Marcellus seemed to me to be as much about Archimedes as it was about Marcellus. And that leads me to my second question. I find a blatant bias towards the Greeks in these writings. If anyone out there is reading Plutarch’s Lives then chances are good that you, like I, are reading an abridged version. But the original format was to take a Greek life and then a Roman life and compare the two. Most of what I have read thus far has been about the martial prowess of the Romans compared to the martial (of course- that’s pretty much how the “Nobles” get the title) but also, mental and moral acumen of the Greeks. In fact Plutarch openly questions Marcus Cato’s “nobel-ness.” After  spending far more time discussing Cato’s penny-pinching austerity mode of living than Aspasia’s “make love not war” modus operandi, he unusually inserts his own opinion into the matter by questioning Cato’s treatment, for one, of aging servants that have out-lived their usefulness and are cast out into the world in order to preserve Cato’s own bottom line and warped sense of economy.

Whether these acts are to be ascribed to the greatness or pettiness of spirit, let every one argue as they please (357).

And that is the fun of Plutarch. His histories are slightly more personalized and it is really his personality that keeps me interested in all the rest. And I love a good argument, as long as (and perhaps if Plutarch had told us more I could know if Aspasia would agree with me) no one gets hurt.

Everybody’s Plutarch arranged and edited by Raymond T. Bond, Drydan’s translation.

Plutarch part one: Lives: Noble or Not
Plutarch part three: An Accord Sown

Lives (Noble, or Not)

This narrative […] is suspected by some, because of its dramatic and fictitious appearance; but it would not wholly be disbelieved, if men would remember what a poet fortune sometimes shows herself
-Plutarch, Everybody’s Plutarch (21) Romulus

IMG_0816I am beginning  a potentially long term relationship with Plutarch, even the abridged versions demand commitment. The other day this thought traipsed through my head- “I have to go buy a bra and then I’ll read more Plutarch.” I had to pause a moment to take in the unique ridiculousness of that sentence. In the end I didn’t get a bra- it would only bring me pleasure and there was a small rug for about the same money that would bring my children untold pleasure to sit upon as they served almost two years in a house full of animals that made proximity to the floor an extremely negative experience. But, I digress.

Herodotus says, that, requiring money of those of the island of Andros, [Themistocles] told them that he had brought with him two goddesses, Persuasion and Force; and they answered him that they had also two great goddesses, which prohibited them from giving him any money, Poverty and Impossibility. – (121) Themistocles

Those goddesses sure do get around. Boy, I miss Herodotus, but, Plutarch knows a hilarious retort when he sees one. His reports on the lives of noble Greeks and Romans are fascinating because he spends much more time, then seems to be the norm for the time, discussing the personalities, ideas, and feelings that may have contributed to the “nobleness” of these men. Of course there are no noble women, if you’re a woman and you can get yourself upgraded from harlot to mistress- consider that a boon. Actually, scratch that, if you find yourself a mistress instead of a harlot, thank Salon. Plutarch tells us that Salon is the founding father of what psychologists now refer to as “re-framing.”

[Salon] was afterwards asked if he had left the Athenians the best laws that could be given, he relied, “The best they could receive.” The way which, the moderns say, the Athenians have of softening the badness of a thing, by ingeniously giving it some pretty and innocent appellation. (74) Salon

“Softening the badness.” I quite like that. Salon seemed to be thoroughly  smart and articulate. He was a humanitarian that sought to codify good sense and a quality of life that is, sadly, enviable to this day. And he believed in love. He forbade dowries, and “would not have marriage contracted for gain or an estate, but for pure love, kind affection, and birth of children.” (78)

“Strike if you will, but hear.” (113) Themistocles

An interesting point considering many an argument has been made, (and countered on this blog) claiming “romantic love” is a more recent invention. But I never gloat.

It is shocking (I even feel embarrassed on behalf of these ancient writers and “nobles”) to have such prolific histories told with nary a mention of half the population, but this may be why there is even a quasi legitimate claim on the idea that romantic love is for the weaker sex, domestic life of no interest, daily dealings devoid of true insight. In absentia, the onus for proof, rather than being on common experience and common sense, is boiled down to written proofs- a bar that leaves women and illiterate cultures fighting to prove their worth.

But an internal battle between a bra and rug which is rife with all the dimensions of real life- finances, sexuality, maternal urges, hierarchy of needs, materialism, and utilitarianism are eternal battles wage by all. Okay, fine, maybe just me. Then again, when I told a friend of mine that I was simultaneously contemplating Plutarch and bras, he sent me this quote:

“The brassiere is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”- Plutarch

And this is why Plutarch remains so readable, he does actually touch upon the personal, even if it is with the barest whisper, he takes history out of the strictly martial arena and speaks to what really makes a man noble- his passion and his humanity.

AEsop, who wrote the fables[…] gave [Salon] this advice: “Salon, let your converse with kings be either short or seasonable.” “Nay, rather,” replied Salon, “either short or reasonable.” (86) Salon

*Everybody’s Plutarch Arranged and Edited for the Modern Reader by Raymond T. Bond, Dryden’s translation, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough

Plutarch Part Two: Argue As You Please
Plutarch Part Three: An Accord Sown