Monday, August 31, 2009

Get a "Lives"...

I'm sure my son, Ben (the Classicist) would be impressed if he knew I was spending some time contemplating Plutarch today. Plutarch, of course, wrote The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans: a collection of stories and comparisons of great Romans and Greeks.

A friend on my classical education loop asked today why she should consider adding the reading of some Plutarch to her already busy homeschool. I answered off the top of my head that I thought reading Plutarch was the next thing to do after reading mythology: he tells us of the virtues of great men from early Western culture. Reading Plutarch helps us to understand Western Civilization. I plan to use some Plutarch in my composition class this year, as a matter of fact.

Later, I discovered that George Grant says it even better (no surprise about that!) in his essay on "Why Read Plutarch?".
In part, Dr. Grant says:
It was the primary textbook of the Greek and Roman world for generations of students throughout Christendom. It was the historical source for many of Shakespeare's finest plays. It forever set the pattern for the biographical arts. It was the inspiration for many of the ideas of the American political pioneers--evidenced by liberal quotations in the articles, speeches, and sermons of Samuel Adams, Peyton Randolph, Patrick Henry, Samuel Davies, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Henry Lee, John Jay, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, after the Bible it was the most frequently referenced source during the Founding era. For these and a myriad of other reasons, Plutarch's Lives is one of the most vital and consequential of all the ancient classics...

...But why [is reading Plutarch so important]?

First, a classic worth reading is one that has influenced our own day to some extraordinary degree. If we are to understand why people think as they do, act as they do, or feel as they do; if we are to comprehend the foundations of our institutions, the tenacity of our traditions, or the precariousness of our policies then we need to have substantive background information. Plutarch's Lives has been the primary lens through which western intellectuals, educators, artists, musicians, dramatists, and historians have viewed the Greco-Roman world. If for no other reason than to grasp the significance of that influence, the Lives is vitally important. But the influence goes even beyond that, extending to the form and function of all the "Social Sciences." Plutarch's Lives is seminal.

Second, good books should make us think. Great books are those that provoke us to think in great ways. The Lives certainly fills the bill in that regard. For hundreds of years, great minds have wrestled with Plutarch's ideas and ideals. And that wrestling has given rise to many of our greatest freedoms. It was only as the American founders for instance, struggled with the ideas of a benevolent dictatorship like that of Lycurgus, or of a military tyranny like that of Sulla, or of a fractious anarchy like that of Antony--all of which were presented in the pages of the Lives--that they were able to hammer out their peculiar notions of liberty.

Third, good books should be artistically beautiful. Great books should epitomize glorious art. As Leland Ryken has asserted, "Any encyclopedia can give us facts but art gives us truth." In other words, a book that gets its facts wrong--as Plutarch undoubtedly does--can nevertheless sometimes lead us to the truth. There is no question that Plutarch's prose styling and his literary construction is brilliantly artistic. We can learn much from his pioneering efforts.

The whole essay is very convincing. So, Gentle Readers, as Dr. Grant says, "Get a Lives..."

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