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ROMAN CONTEMPLATIONS (8 of 12)

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Plutarch – Esteemed Biographer

Plutarch lived between the years 46 and 120 – years of early Christianity. He was a Greek while Greece was part of the Roman Empire. He was a historian, biographer and essayist, and he admired the works of Plato. Plutarch wrote the most ambitious biographic project of ancient times, titled Lives, a series of biographies that was well received throughout the Roman Empire, giving Plutarch great esteem during his lifetime.

Like other successful men of letters in ancient times, Plutarch had the advantage of an education available to the sons of the well-to-do. He furthered his education by travels. He was amiable, highly social and benefited from good conversation. He has been described as practical, as having been a good son who became a good husband, father, and friend and with a taste for "the common life."

As he explained in his first paragraph on Alexander the Great, he was exploring the influence of character on the destinies of famous men. His biographies became popular again during England's Elizabethan era, and he was to be read for lessons by George Washington.

Plutarch describes Alexander as having a violent temper and a rash and impulsive nature. This part of his personality he suggested gave him the same "weakness for alcohol" possessed by some of today's boys in college. Plutarch describes Alexander as having been infatuated by Roxanne when they first met.

He wrote: "No beast is more savage than man when possessed with power answerable to his rage." He is also quoted as follows:

Do not speak of your happiness to one less fortunate than yourself.
Know how to listen, and you will profit even from those who talk badly.
Rest is the sweet sauce of labor.
The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.

Plutarch's popularity can be attributed in part to a conforming prejudice, to his not being overly offensive to his fellow Romans. He claimed that truth in religion was the product of the Greek and Roman traditions and religions and that outside of these traditions (including Judaism and Christianity) were superstitions, that they were the product of people not using their intelligence in thinking about the gods. He saw as superstitious those who attributed to the gods a power that overrode their own will and responsibility, and he saw the superstitious as those who believed in the traditional Greek gods opposed by Plato: gods who treated people capriciously. The superstitious person, Plutarch wrote, believed in gods because he was afraid not to. In other words, belief in the gods was supposed to be a work of reason, perhaps in line with the reasoning of his fellow pagan, Plato.

Plutarch's belief in tradition included a tolerance for slavery and an acceptance of monarchy as the best form of government. Philosophically, in addition to admiring Plato he sided with the Stoics, but foreshadowing developments within Christianity he forgave human frailty more than did the Stoics. And as would many Christians, he described Epicureanism as pernicious.

Plutarch never mentioned Christianity in his works. Christians were still a little noticed sect. But in some respects, the everyday values of Christians differed little from those expressed by Plutarch. Letters appearing in the New Testament written by Peter and Paul giving advice to husband and wives resemble what can be found in the writings of Plutarch. There is also suspicion among a few that the New Testament's Luke involved some plagiarism from Plutarch. A comparison between the two is described at gottnotes.com.

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