Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.08

Tim Duff, Plutarch's Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000.  Pp. 444.  ISBN 0-19-815058-X.  £55.00.  

Reviewed by Simon Goldhill, King's College, Cambridge (
Word count: 1769 words

When Frankenstein's monster turns up in the hut of the poor old man -- and I am talking of Mary Shelley's version, not Mel Brooks' -- cultural education is the novel's evident agenda, both for the monster and for us. The old man has only three books, but how many do you need to civilize a monster? For religious feeling -- a necessary starting point -- there is Milton (a very Romantic and radical gesture this, to turn to the high peaks of poetry rather than the more obvious choice of the Bible). For sentimental education there is Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (it would have to be Goethe for anyone in Shelley's circle). And for everything else? Plutarch. History, morality, science -- Plutarch has it all. He sums up a whole world of Western knowing, a stupendous body of work which, like Milton or Goethe, has the power to make a monster transcend himself.

It is snapshots like this that remind us just how much we have lost Plutarch. Over the centuries, for traditionalists and radicals alike, Plutarch could provide an essential educational and ethical resource. He was the paradigm of what made the classics classical. And nowadays? How many departments feel the need to hire a Plutarchan expert? How many courses or curricula take it for granted that knowing Plutarch is a bedrock of the value of classics? Plutarch, above all other authors, shows the fallacy of assuming that classics maintains a stable canon or that scholars across the generations can expect to share an intellectual horizon.

This is especially true of Plutarch's Lives. Once the staple read for a Shakespeare, a Lord Chesterfield, a Macaulay, they have so fallen out of fashion that they largely feature only in historians' footnotes, a pit of fragmentary source hunting from which Tim Duff's monograph -- the first monograph in English on the Lives for a quarter of a century -- hopes to lift them. He does not aim to put Plutarch back on his pedestal as the paradigm of classical learning, but he does want to read Plutarch's Lives seriously, as coherent texts in themselves and as key documents of the early Greek negotiation of the Roman Empire. He is building here on the work of Christopher Pelling and Simon Swain in particular, and his book length study offers an intelligent, controlled, and scholarly development of his central claims.

These claims can be simply expressed in nuce. First, the Lives are written to a moralizing programme: they set out to construct not full biographies but ethical discussions through the narrative of life stories. Second, this moralizing programme, although it has some normative principles -- ambition and anger are consistently 'the most deadly passions,' good education is a necessary tempering of both -- also aims at a more open-ended and exploratory didacticism. Hence Duff's subtitle, 'Exploring Virtue and Vice' -- the exploration is both Plutarch's and ours. Third, and most insistently, central to this process of moralizing and of exploration is the structuring device of synkrisis, the formal pairing of two Lives, and the act of comparing and contrasting which the synkrisis itself embodies. Duff is consistently -- almost pathologically -- polite in the book, but he does allow himself one moment of scornful anger when he considers modern scholars who have offered editions or translations of half of a pair of lives (Caesar without Alexander, as it were); and there is one moment of surprised regret expressed for those benighted souls who have thought that the synkriseis are of a lower level of prose from the biographical narrative. This reading of the Lives as an integral process of contrast and comparison feeds directly back into the moralizing agenda: it is by exploring such narratives that your own life finds both its paradigms and its evaluations. But also it leads to a fourth and final point that the process of synkrisis between Greek and Roman heroes constructs a political project of locating (contemporary) Greek life in and against the power of the Roman Empire.

As with so much of Plutarch, the proof of the pudding is not only in the gnomic conclusions but also in the narrative travelling which ends in such wisdom. Duff's book is structured to develop at length the readings necessary to justify and explore his claims. The first section of the book, entitled 'the moralizing programme', looks at the programmatic statements of Plutarch -- what he claims he is doing. The study of the past is 'a morally improving activity,' argues Duff, and 'through reading [Plutarch's] own literary work' you should learn to 'imitate virtuous men.' This leads to a treatment of the normative principles evident throughout Plutarch and his carefully constructed image of a 'hero's soul.' The second section of the book is four case studies (Pyrrhus/Marius; Phokion/Cato Minor; Lysander/Sulla; Coriolanus/Alciabiades), cases which are seen as increasingly complex in their exemplary function, until with Alcibiades we are offered a figure who is difficult to fit into any normal model, 'hard to define, hard to judge,' and thus: 'How could Alcibiades be a paradigm for anything -- except individuality itself?' Duff sees this open-endedness not as a paradox for his whole project but as the great strength of Plutarch's portraiture. The final section of the book, 'writing in parallel,' first looks at synkrisis as a device in the Lives and secondly considers the politics of conjoining Greek and Roman Lives in a world where Greek cultural capital was in stark contrast with Roman imperial authority.

The qualities of Duff's work are varied and sterling. The book is largely reliable and scholarly (with over 100 pages of bibliography and indices, and no page without a ringfence of footnotes). The readings in general are careful and precise, and the structure of the argument is intelligent and its conclusions convincing. It is particularly important that the last chapter, the briefest, on the politics of comparison, is there. It resituates the apparently controlled and judgmental intellectual world of 'compare and contrast' within the far messier business of cultural engagement and the vagaries of power-brokering. It opens a new vista for the literary work of the previous sections and reminds us of what can be at stake in Plutarch. The central claims of the book are admirably demonstrated, although there is too much rather plodding exposition of Plutarch's texts for my taste. If his general conclusions seem unadventurous, it remains a telling indication of the state of Plutarch studies that they still need to be forcibly made and defended at such length. It is a book that will be used, as well as read, by scholars, and if it succeeds in resuscitating the idea of actually reading Plutarch's corpus it will have proved itself a major achievement.

Can one, then, ask for more? I think one can, and in at least two ways. First, on politics. Duff is, in my view, certainly right to see the Lives as a document in the politics of Greek enagagement with the Empire. But there is much more to be said. Although Duff sensibly turns to the Political Precepts to give a privileged guide, that text is only one of a host of relevant works in Plutarch and elsewhere. Like Simon Swain in Hellenism and Empire, Duff exclusively privileges texts that talk explicitly and overtly about Roman power, as if the business of negotiating with a dominant system is only conducted face to face. He does not discuss the reception of Plutarch's (political) writing, nor explore the multiple possibilities of reading Plutarch's self-representations and his representations of other figures. Greek culture/Roman power is a necessary matrix for understanding the work of this period, but it needs more nuance, more sense of the differing strategies of self-definition and public display if it is to be adequate to the complexities of the cultural politics of this period. How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend, say, or in a different way, Sympotic Questions, or even On Isis and Osiris are also about Greekness, civic identity under new circumstances, finding one's place in the order of things. They bear on how Plutarch represents himself as a Greek scholar in a Roman context. It would have been good to see Duff extend this final chapter and to try to work its insights back through and into the readings of the Lives themselves in a more systematic and developed way.

The second area is the ethical politics of imitation. Duff does not push very hard against the central concepts of 'imitation' or 'exemplarity,' and has little interest in following what Plato and others in the ancient world have to say, let alone Kant (among others among the moderns) with his distinction between Nachahmung and Nachmachung. He does not, for example, analyze in any depth what the implications of his view of the Life of Alcibiades are. If Alcibiades is an example of individuality, what are you doing when you read -- follow -- it? What lessons can or ought you draw? If 'hard to judge' is your judgment on Alcibiades what moralizing lesson follows? How do such questions relate to a 'moralizing programme?' Duff does not wish to look very hard at how models -- exemplarity -- work and/or fail nor in Plutarch's strategies for controlling (mis)reading. There is a dangerous instability integral to the process of 'compare and contrast', especially when linked to an ideal of absorbing a lesson through imitation. The difficulties of Plutarch's project are, however, rather too domesticated in Duff's account.

Plutarch was for many generations an author who provided moral inspiration, ethical education and narratives to live by. Duff, for all his talk of moralizing programmes, does not seem comfortable with this legacy. Unlike recent scholars of Plato and Aristotle (especially in political theory), Duff does not seek to find an agenda for the modern reader in Plutarch, nor does he extensively engage with that heritage. Plutarch, for Duff, is a good read, but not good for you to read. Perhaps it is our collective embarrassment at the dodgy moralizing use of classics that conspires to keep Plutarch obscure. But I suspect that not to engage more directly with that aspect of Plutarch's work sells his power short. The force of his prose to move, to teach, to inspire generations of readers should be re-explored and not forgotten nor embarrassedly ignored (however nobly motivated such embarrassment is). Duff has done a good job in giving a solid basis for the study of Plutarch's Lives, but Plutarch also need to be treated with a bit more passion if his star is going to rise again.

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