Plutarch had the good fortune to live during the period from the accession of Trajan to the death of Marcus Aurelius when the Mediterranean world which had seen the rise and fall of so many empires had reached its zenith. The revolutions, convulsions, and wars were now all in the past and it was now left to the present generation in their peace and prosperity to reflect on what had gone before.
The Roman Empire was built up of many nations speaking many different tongues but in the west Latin was the first language of many and the second language of the rest. In the east, it was Greek that was used to communicate by strangers who could not otherwise understand one another.
While the Roman Empire was vast and various, it was Roman and although the Romans admired the grace of their letters, and the beauty of their arts, they nevertheless considered even the most illustrious of the forefathers of the Greeks inferior to themselves. Himself a Greek, Plutarch designed his Parallel Lives to assert the equality of the greatest of the Greeks with the greatest of the Romans, the sons of Achaea with the sons of Troy.
These were biographies of the great soldiers and statesmen of the past, some leaning to the martial and some to the civil but every public figure partaking of both. Every notable Roman was paired with a Greek whom he resembled in character, whether in their virtues, or in their faults, whether coming to a violent end long before their time, or in enjoying a long life and a peaceful death. These were not biographies in the modern sense, so much as moral studies.
It was the middle course where virtue and wisdom were to be found. Courage lay between rashness and timidity, sagacity between indifference to the appreciation of the good and longing for the acclamation of the mob, temperance between the indulgence of the appetites in gluttony and lasciviousness and insensibility to the pleasures of this life. When rediscovered during the Renaissance, his readers encountered the fullest articulation of what it meant to be a good pagan and how markedly it differed from what the Church demanded of a good Christian.
While Christians were in the world but not of the world, the pagans thought the only worthwhile life was a public life. Christianity extolled the ascetic, the anchorite, the hermit, while for the pagans any man who was blessed with good health, had been granted a comprehensive education, and enjoyed the means to be independent, owed it to his fellows to render his service to the state. Such a man could withdraw from public life only under some excuse, such as illness, grief, or misfortune. The morality presented and the lively stories of the triumphs and failures of these illustrious statesmen made a great impression on these first Renaissance readers and subsequent generations.
The tales of the lives and deaths of Caesar, Coriolanus, Mark Antony, and Timon became the basis for plays by Shakespeare. This classical morality that made virtue not faith the highest aspiration of the human soul was the model for the leaders of the French Revolution. Plutarch always takes great pains to contrast the true statesman from the demagogue. The true statesman tells the truth to people even when it’s disagreeable or disheartening. When they are faced with unavoidable hardship, toil, and poverty he reconciles them to their fate and fortifies them against what is to come.
The demagogue can never speak such hard truths but assures them that happy days are just ahead. Lest some ask why he alone can discern the solution and take the measures needed to end the troubles that afflict the state, he distracts the mob by flattering them and inflaming their petty resentments. He points out a small group amongst them and blames them for their misfortunes and promises that they will soon be dealt with harshly. He leads them into foolish and ignoble acts and they compound their misery with shame.
Plutarch always felt that feeling and passion must be controlled and mastered by reason. He extols strength, courage, and restraint and has little patience for human weakness. His ideal is the soldier-statesman, a life of exertion and discipline but he has nothing to say to or for the artist, the lover, the mother, the outcast.