Looking forward by looking back

One of the most important functions of tradition is that it serves as a point of reference which allows us to make sense of our own all-too-often chaotic and confusing lives by furnishing us with a rich vocabulary and a storehouse of symbols and stories from the past that can be used to explain and make sense of our contemporary situations so that we are able to safely navigate its perilous terrain.

This is something that Plutarch of Chaironeia knew well. He was a man of astounding intellect and ambition who had it in him to be one of Greece’s greatest political or military figures. And perhaps we would remember him today in the company of Leonidas and Pericles had he not had the grave misfortune of being born into the time and place that he was. By the first century of the common era Greece’s golden days of glory and power were long behind her. Though Alexander the Great had succeeded in forging the quarrelsome city-states of Hellas into a tight-knit confederation that established its dominion to the edges of the known world and beyond, this vast empire was already coming apart at the seams before the son of Zeus succumbed to grief and illness in Babylon. It wasn’t long before his creation fragmented irreparably into a series of geographically determined kingdoms ruled by Alexander’s former Generals. For the next two hundred years or so these Successors waged constant warfare by land and sea, jockeying for prestige and expanded territory regardless of the cost to themselves or their subjects. The brunt of this conflict was borne by the cities of the Greek mainland since the Hellenistic Dynasts had come from there and control of Greece was a way of establishing legitimacy in the eyes of their neighbors. Whole regions were utterly despoiled, forests cut down to build naval vessels and machines of war, hills plundered of mineral resources, fields burnt and salted or left fallow when the farmers were massacred or carried off into slavery. After such a prolonged period of conflict the Successor Kingdoms exhausted their strength and had difficulty repulsing foreign invasions. First came the Gauls who managed to cut a swath through Greece all the way to Delphi where they sacked the temple of Apollon before being driven out through a collective effort and forced to settle in Anatolia. But this was nothing compared to Rome. One after another of the Successor Kingdoms fell to the superior organization and military might of the Romans until the whole of Greece and the Hellenistic East were swallowed up and made part of the Imperium – save only Ptolemaic Egypt, which had long been a dependent ally. Then, with the forced suicides of Marcus Antonius and Kleopatra Philopator one of the bloodiest periods of history was brought to a close and Rome was left the undisputed master of the Mediterranean.

Many Greeks undoubtedly welcomed their Roman overlords with great fondness for it meant an end to all that conflict and chaos. Indeed under Roman rule they experienced peace, prosperity, law and order and all the good things associated with the empire such as her justly famed roads, aqueducts, and efficient bureaucracy. Such things were not without a price, however. Greece was forced to give up her autonomy and longstanding institutions such as direct democracy and city councils. They still existed in some places, but without any genuine power or influence. In fact in the first few generations after Octavian cemented his sole rule of Rome there was very little for a politically-minded Greek to do. You got nowhere without extensive social contacts in Rome – and the wealth to travel in such circles – and even then there were limits on how high one could aspire. Many Romans looked down their noses at their Greek subjects, except when it came to the arts and philosophy where they were grudgingly accepted as their superiors. Thus many cities such as Athens, Alexandria and Antioch became little more than college towns where wealthy Romans sent their sons for proper education, deeming them worthy of little else.

This is the era into which Plutarch was born. At one point he even moved to Rome seeking a promising career. Though he made many close friends and met with modest success he eventually bumped into the glass ceiling and grew frustrated with the realization that he could progress no further. So he returned to his hometown, once the shining star of Boiotia but now a pitiful backwater, and spent the remainder of his days active in small-time local politics, serving as a priest at Delphi and pursuing antiquarian and philosophical studies. Plutarch devoted much of his writing to showing his countrymen how to get by in this drastically changed environment. Even if they could no longer aspire to the greatness and might of their ancestors, like him they could devote their efforts to serving their local communities and keeping their beloved cities running smoothly. More, in the few arenas where the Romans allowed them to participate they had an obligation to excel and prove that some greatness still dwelt within them.

Towards that end Plutarch set himself the task of preserving and popularizing the noble accomplishments and wise sayings of his people so that they would serve as reminders for the generations yet to come. Though Plutarch produced a staggeringly large body of work on a variety of historical, ethical, religious, philosophical and even scientific and mathematical subjects he is perhaps best remembered today for his Parallel Lives which is a collection of biographies of important Greeks and Romans. His intention with these, as the title suggests, was to show similarities between the two groups, emphasizing continuity between their respective cultures and demonstrating that greatness is not a respecter of race. Though the Romans were now on top of the world the Greeks once had been and might be again if they could learn how to get by in this changed environment. His writing is fundamentally didactic, not historical – though it does a good job in that regard too. Each of these Lives was chosen to highlight the values that made the men such outstanding examples and also to warn against the vices that had brought so many of them low, not merely to relate a bunch of trivial facts and figures. The morals of these tales were meant to be taken to heart and put into practice through daily life. Even if one could not accomplish the sort of things that a Theseus or a Scipio Africanus had, one could certainly apply the same principles and lessons to one’s own goals and aspirations.

And this is one of the many (many, many) things that I agree with Plutarch on. No matter how much our external circumstances may seem to change the fundamentals of human experience do not. Our needs and desires, the way our brains function, how we respond to external stimuli, what works, what doesn’t and why – all of this has remained essentially the same since the early Paleolithic. We benefit greatly, then, from understanding what has come before us, how others have dealt with such things and what happened when they failed to. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel nor should we ever delude ourselves into believing that we are the first and only ones to feel such things or face such obstacles. In fact we can draw moral strength merely by realizing that another person has faced the same crisis that looms before us, whether or not they ultimately proved successful against it. A keen familiarity provides countless blessings, but certainly this must be among its foremost.