Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reading classics of Antiquity VIII: Plutarch: Parallel Lives

Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912): The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra in 41 BC, 1885, oil on panel, 65.5 × 92 cm (25.8 × 36.2 in), Private collection, source: All Art Painting, public domain, Wikipedia.

Plutarkhos: Bioi paralleloi
Πλούταρχος: Βίοι παράλληλοι / Plutarch: Parallel Lives / Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans / Plutarch's Lives. Written in Chaeronea / Delphi (Boeotia, Roman Empire), 115 AD, in Ancient Greek. Originally published on papyrus in the scroll format (in tomes / volumines).
    Survival status: 48 biographies survive. The lives of Epaminondas and Scipio Africanus are considered lost; many others are truncated.
    Read in the Finnish digest:
    Plutarkhos: Kuuluisien miesten elämäkertoja. Translated from Ancient Greek by Kalle Suuronen in the 1940s. The translation supervised and the introduction and the glossary written by Edwin Linkomies. 626 p. Porvoo / Helsinki: WSOY, 1955.
    This Finnish digest is a selection. Of the 48 surviving biographies only 11 are included. The parallel structure has been dissolved, the chapters are in reversed chronological order, and the introductions save one have been omitted.

I read for the first time Plutarch whose Parallel Lives is one of the most influential works in history.

The 1565 French translation by Jacques Amyot became a classic in its own right, influencing Montaigne, Rabelais, Corneille, Racine, Rousseau, and de Maistre. Based on it Thomas North made his 1579 English translation, influencing in turn Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton, and Emerson. Frederick the Great and Napoleon were inspired by the world-historical figures depicted, and in Germany, Goethe and Schiller were under its spell, as well.

Plutarch, the philosopher and priest of Delphi preferred to stay in his home land Chaeronea in Boeotia, but he was highly educated and enjoyed the trust of the good emperors Trajan and Hadrian.

All the 11 biographies in the selection I read are amazing, in this edition they appear in reversed chronological order: Anton, Brutus, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Sulla, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Demosthenes, Alexander, Alcibiades, and Pericles. One can understand how Shakespeare got a spark from here for Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Timon of Athens.

Plutarch is not one of the great historians in terms of accuracy, consistency and source criticism; he is not in the same league as Tacitus. Neither is he an entertainer in the manner of Cornelius Nepos who also created a series of parallel lives (almost all of which are consided lost). Plutarch belongs to the school of Herodotus: he is a master storyteller who follows the basic currents of historical reality but has also always an appetite for the grand tale. More than him, and uniquely, he has rare psychological insight and a profound understanding of the human nature. Plutarch is not only interested in fact but the fundamental motivations, the passions, the ambitions. He is fascinated to discover what makes these extraordinary men move.

Because of this his lives are still alive and engrossing to read.

And we need to get all of them translated into Finnish, following the original parallel structure. But the translation in our existing samples is also very good, indeed. Plutarch has not only inspired Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Goethe, but translators in many languages, as well!

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