Twain's pejorative definition of `classic' need not apply. I define classic as that (text) which speaks to the heart over an extended duration - perhaps for several generations, as in `classic rock', or several millennia, as in Plutarch's "Lives". I probably never would have read Plutarch, were it not for a glorious discovery of Montaigne in mid-life. Having acquired enough distaste for the copious demands required to master classical languages after five years of Latin in secondary school, I made an arbitrary and direly misguided vow to eschew all Classics courses at the university level. And thus again is revealed the fateful difference between post-modern (post-1945), and the modern (c. 1500 - August 5, 1945) pedagogy, of which I unwittingly, if serendipitously, caught the tail end. The modern cannon required thorough immersion in the classics, and, for many years, Plutarch was required reading in the best schools, and should be even now. The author of the Shakespearian plays came to Plutarch by way of Montaigne (and likely read the Amyot translation, and only later the North, if at all), and the English schools came to Plutarch by way of Shakespeare. We might say that the revival of Plutarch was one of the most far reaching achievements of the Northern Renaissance.
At one point in his celebrated chronicle of the self, Montaigne (as a shaper and bona fide member of that cannon, guardian of some of what is best in our cultural inheritance) amusedly reveals that, when his critics believe they are attacking his work, they are actually attacking Plutarch and/or Seneca, so profound is their presence in his writing, and, in his "Defense of Plutarch and Seneca", he declares that . . . "my book [is] built up purely from their spoils".
And what a book it is! But Plutarch's magnum (see the 14 volumes of the Loeb Classical Library for his other works), is the greater. Montaigne is one of the great students of the self. Plutarch is the first (and may yet still be the definitive) historian of virtue. Montaigne, in scrutiny of his own nature, seeks to recognize the limitations and potentials of the self, and thereby sketch our general spiritual contours. Plutarch, in an unparalleled series of real life, historically and culturally pivotal, examples, shows us what they are.
The book records in the most remarkably intimate style (Plutarch has few peers as a master of narrative and an uncanny ability to ferret out of detail the significance of individual actions as a unified whole), the major events in the lives of the most impacting figures of the ancient world. Therefore, like the best novels, the book forms a world in itself, a lost world, the world of our ancestors, through a landscape drawn of actions and consequences. The structure of the book is such that an account of the seminal moments in the life of a noble Greek and then of a noble Roman are brought forth in pairs, followed by a comparison. In some sections of the work these comparisons are absent. They appear at some point in antiquity to have either been lost to or removed from the text, which would seem to explain why, for instance, there is no comparison of Alexander and Caesar. But the comparisons are brilliant, and eminently instructive.
Of course, from the details alone, we may draw our own inferences. Alexander, as a mere teen, leading his troops in hand-to-hand combat, won his first battle fighting uphill at night. Caesar, a heavy drinker, was wont to ride horseback at full tilt with his hands clenched behind his back. He had a life-long passion for Cato's sister and it is said that from their relationship, which continued through their respective marriages, Brutus was born. Et tu? Of course, one cannot fail to mention, even in this briefest review of the abundantly rich description in the nearly 1,300 pages which comprise the book, the death of Cato the Younger - one of the most exquisitely drawn figures in the book. Hunted down with the remnants of his troops into the wastelands of Carthage by the army of Octavius Ceasar in an effort to snuff out the last vestiges of republican resistance and opposition to Empire, realizing that the last realistic hope for freedom is lost, Cato attempts ritual suicide (a Stoic custom common to Roman nobility) by disembowelment. As Plutarch describes the scene, ". . . he did not immediately die of the wound; but struggling, fell off the bed, and throwing down a little mathematical table that stood by, made such a noise that the servants, hearing it, cried out. And immediately his son and all his friends came into the chamber, where, seeing him lie weltering in his own blood, great part of his bowels out of his body, but himself still alive and able to look at them, they all stood in horror. The physician went to him, and would have put in his bowels, which were not pierced, and sewed up the wound; but Cato, recovering himself, and understanding the intention, thrust away the physician, plucked out his own bowels, and tearing open the wound, immediately expired." In Seneca's words: "For Cato could not outlive freedom, nor would freedom outlive Cato."
However, the life most appropriate for the contemporary reader, I feel (and wish that every member of the shadowy corporate/military junta that seems to be ruling us these days would read and take to heart) is the life of Crassus. Crassus was the most successful businessman in the history of the Roman Empire. Plutarch relates that at one time he owned virtually one-third of the real estate in Rome. However, such mind-boggling success was not enough for him. His yen, and later, obsession, was to be revered as a great military leader, a world conqueror, expand the domain of the already burgeoning Empire, and the object of his fantasies was the area of the world at that time known as Mesopotamia and Persia, today as Iraq and Iran. We follow as he makes extensive preparations, investing his own fortune and a great deal of the nation's wealth into outfitting an army for the venture. And at first, the invasion of Mesopotamia seems to go well. But the centers of population are spread out over great stretches of desert, and the occupation never really succeeds, because a central authority cannot be solidly established. Crassus, however, remains undaunted, even though the troops are becoming mutinous as supplies begin to run thin. Led on by treacherous advisors, he enters Parthia (somewhere in the vicinity of modern day Syria). Plutarch describes the grueling denouement with his usual detachment, aplomb, and gifted eye for pertinent detail. Having lost the greatest fortune in the world, he proceeds to lose his troops, then his sons, and finally his life. These lessons are never too late for the learning, and my apologies to Twain, but a classic is a text which retains its urgency to be read, and read now.
I read the Dryden/Clough translation. Dryden was never my favorite writer of his period, the late 17th century - hardly a match for Burton or Milton, in my opinion, but he was poet laureate, and this work I love - his English is fine, and resonates with classic dignity. Clough, the mid-nineteenth century British scholar who revised the translation, befriended Emerson when he traveled to England, and became a sort of mentor to the New England Transcendentalists in general. We can be grateful for such a wonderful rendering for one of the very greatest and most edifying masterpieces.