And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their character and inclinations than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in any other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men …
This purpose is characterized by James Atlas, with a note of indulgent condescension, as “moralizing,” as if it were rather peculiar, in considering the lives of historically important figures, to be interested chiefly in the moral quality of their character. Perhaps he is willing to allow Plutarch his moralizing because Atlas himself acknowledged in an interview shortly after the publication of his biography of Saul Bellow:
We want to know how people lived, we want instruction in what critics used to call “manners and morals.” Biography is our school, our church, our family, our community. It does the work the novel used to do: it educates us.
Robin Seager goes beyond questioning Plutarch’s “moralizing tendencies” — he blames Plutarch for failing to credit historical figures for their cleverness in political scheming. Take, for instance, his editorial note on Plutarch’s life of Gaius Marius; the historical record clearly shows Marius to have been a ruthless self-promoter with little regard for the rule of law and a nasty taste for bloody vengeance against his political rivals, but Seager seems to think that Plutarch takes too dim a view of these facts and fails to show “appreciation of the political skill with which Marius fostered and exploited equestrian and popular discontent in order to oust Metellus from the Numidian command.”
… unless you’re Macchiavellian
|Livy and Sallust, two unabashedly
“moralizing” Roman historians.
This view, to me, smacks of a modern, Machiavellian expectation that political figures should be judged for the crude efficacy, rather than the morality, of their actions, which is completely at odds with the view of classical writers. The historian Livy would have had few quibbles with Plutarch’s “moralizing,” as he himself said, in the preface to his history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, that his purpose in writing was to provide examples of men and actions to imitate or to avoid — that is, he intended his history to provide moral instruction, and he thought his presentation would make it plain enough which actions had been destructive and which admirable. He says:
The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these – the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.
In other words, in Livy’s view, a high moral standard produced social benefits, and declining morals brought about social ruin. He wrote, for the generation following the collapse of the Republic, to help people of his own day avoid repeating the disasters of the past and, in fact, his History reads like a series of moral vignettes. It has always struck me as quite inexplicable that Machiavelli, who was well-read in classical history and even wrote a famous commentary on Livy (his Discourses on Livy), seems not to have been influenced at all by the classical tendency to equate personal morality with the public good; in fact, in The Prince, he quite explicitly denies this equation, urging the prince to do what is expedient rather than what is ethical.
Perhaps, though, Robin Seager, in complaining that Plutarch fails to appreciate Marius’s political savvy, is not so much reflecting a Machiavellian preference for expediency over ethics as he is revealing his own preoccupation as a biographer — Seager has published two well-received political biographies of Roman figures whose lives were also treated by Plutarch: Pompey and Tiberius Caesar. At any rate, it certainly seems that modern biographers do not share Plutarch’s interest in “moralizing.” I, however, am looking forward to seeing what moral lessons Plutarch draws out in his Lives.