Oh, what a difference 40 years makes….

18 June 2009

Plutarch, bust from the museum of Delphi.

Plutarch, or at least the body of work transmitted to us under his name, covers a multitude of sins.

Some of these works are so fragmentary as to be next to nothing; some very few are so bizarre or so inept that they cannot possibly be by him (unless they’re impish self-parodies); some seem to be his own working notes or collections extracted from him by others; some are abstruse Gnostic-like disquisitions on the slenderest of topics, the kind of thing that gives philosophy a bad name; finally, many are banal and derivative; and many, and not just either the longest and the best-known, are marked by warmth, humanity, psychological insight, humor, and outright genius: the Plutarch of Montaigne and Shakespeare.

I’ve just put online two of these unpredictable critters — as it turns out, one each of the last two types mentioned; amazing they should be by the same man, but to me, at least, they both bear the unmistakable imprint of Plutarch: the first, the dull one, On the Love of Wealth (De cupiditate); the other, Should Old Men Take Part in Affairs of State? (An seni respublica gerenda sit). The “only” thing that separates them is forty years or so of living; the latter is clearly addressed by one old man to another he has known for many years — “neither of us shall desert the long companionship in the journey which we have thus far made together” — this one sentiment and the gracious expression of it sufficient to place the essay in a class of its own; the other essay, so the Loeb editor tells us, is characterized by youthful “exuberance and fancifulness of diction”: but we need not be proficient in ancient Greek prose style to recognize it clearly as the work of a very young man, just by its inadequate and regurgitative treatment of the subject.

I feel privileged to see the beginning and end of such a man’s life, and as it were share in his journey; would we all did so well in the business and art of being human.

No Greek onsite for either one, since Philippe Remacle has the Greek original of both on his site; I was off the hook easily: you will find links to him on each of my pages, under the Greek and French flags of course.


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