Who is Plutarch?
Plutarch (sometimes called by his Roman name Plutarchus) was a Greek who lived from 46-126 CE and wrote the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, more commonly called Parallel Lives or Plutarch’s Lives. They were a series of biographies that illuminated the character strengths and flaws of famous Greek and Roman leaders. They were presented in pairs and some of them contain a short comparison essay at the end. Twenty-three pairs and four singles have survived in various Greek manuscripts. Plutarch had previously written Moralia (translated as Morals), a text that contains 78 essays and speeches which describe the various customs and mores of the people and culture of the Greek and Roman empires.
Why Should We Study Plutarch?
Miss Mason listed Plutarch’s Lives as a part of Citizenship. It was read alongside various citizenship texts and her religious treatise, Ourselves. They were not read as history and they did not line up with any of the ancient history readings. They were read as character studies.
Miss Mason knew that western civilization was built on the foundation of Greek and Roman government and culture. In addition, Victorian England was enamored with classical history and culture.
Parallel Lives were seen, not necessarily as history (and indeed many of the historical facts presented by Plutarch are quite questionable) but as stories of virtue and villainy. They are meant to be read a tales of leadership and morality.
How Did Miss Mason Study Parallel Lives?
In looking over ten years and 30 terms of PNEU programmes and the Plutarch’s Lives that Charlotte Mason recommended, it is clear that there was a rough five year rotation, but while she had a few favourites that repeated in each rotation, she also removed Lives that had been studied in the past rotation and added in new ones without any apparent reason. It is also very apparent that though the original treatise was presented in pairs – one biography of a Greek citizen matched with one biography of a Roman citizen and then sometimes a comparison, Miss Mason did not generally use them in pairs and so did not seem to use the comparison sections at all. Neither were they studied in Form 5 or 6 but only from Form 2A up to From 4. Upper form students (in high school) instead moved on to other challenging reads about the nature of democracy, government and economics while continuing to read a citizenship-focused text and Ourselves.
Since part of the goal of the Wildwood Curriculum is to recreate the original Charlotte Mason education, and because the choice of which Plutarch’s Lives to read does not need to be made modern, we have planned a program of Plutarch as it was offered by Miss Mason’s schools. We have created a five-year rotation to be read through Forms 2A to Form 4.
The Lives are meant to be studied as a family with all forms together. We have listed them yearly so Wildwood members can work together and pool resources, but you are welcome to study them in any order you like, or even to choose other Lives (please preview any other Lives you may choose – some of those Greeks and Romans were pretty nasty people!)
Why so Many Versions and Which is Best?
In 1559 Jacques Amyot translated the relatively unknown Greek text into French. Then in 1579, Sir Thomas North translated this French version into English. This is the version that Shakespeare used to create his plays. This is also the version that Miss Mason used in her schools. (North version here)
The poet, John Dryden embarked on his own translation from the Greek in 1579. (Dryden version here)
This edition went through several updates over the years, and then in 1859, poet and classical scholar, Arthur Hugh Clough reworked Dryden’s text and created what is often seen as the most popular version. (Clough version here)
The first American translation was done in 1901 by an American classicist, Bernadotte Perrin for the Loeb Classical Library by Harvard University Press. (Perrin version here)
Penguin Classics commissioned a new version in the late 1950’s using several translators, but mostly by Rex Warner and Ian Scott-Kilvert. These versions have recently been updated and re-issued. (Penguin Classics here)
The most recently translated version, which Susan Wise Bauer calls a “more engaging modern translation”, is published by Oxford World Classics and translated by Robin Waterfield. (Oxford versions here and here)
There are many other versions, and each language has its own history of translation over the centuries. Every Plutarch lover has a translation they have fallen in love with and will defend as the best, or the most poetic, or the definitive version.
And many argue since North is the version used by Miss Mason, it is the one that should be used by those trying to replicate her curriculum.
But the reality is that Miss Mason herself changed books without seeming explanation. She was constantly revising and revamping her curriculum, often replacing older books with newer ones or more easily accessible books.
Scholar J. M Cohen observed that “Every great book demands to be re-translated once in a century, to suit the change in standards and taste of new generations, which will differ radically from those of the past.” John Denton in looking for the definitive translation concluded that “The problem…lies in the idea, or rather illusion, of ‘permanence’. Translations of an important classic like Plutarch’s Parallel Lives will, with varying degrees of overtness, always reflect the ideological and cultural context in which they are produced and the translator’s and his/her commissioner’s view of readers’ needs. The definitive translation is always a mirage” (emphasis added).
So the best version is the one that you will read! Wildwood recommends that you choose a translation that best serves your family and will help you and your children discover what makes for good leadership and good citizenship.
Plutarch Seems So Difficult?
Much like Shakespeare, our modern sensibilities sometimes find it hard to read and master Plutarch. The language is difficult, the names can be confusing, and the cast of characters is sometimes unknown. It is best to approach it knowing that it will take work for you and your children to master, and that time will make it easier and more fruitful.
Just as with Shakespeare, before you tackle a Life, it might be best to read a children’s version of the biography, and then to look up a little about the history of the individual. Get to know a bit about the person beforehand so that you can better be able to tackle the translation you have chosen.
Plutarch’s Lives for Boys and Girls by W.H. Weston
Our Young Folks’ Plutarch by Rosalie Kaufman
The Children’s Plutarch: Tales of the Greeks by F. J. Gould
The Children’s Plutarch: Tales of the Romans by F. J. Gould
Do We Have to Study Plutarch?
Of course not! The goal is to teach our children what it means to be good citizens. Every family will have a different way of approaching this. If you have a way of teaching good citizenship to your children that does not include Plutarch, then use that. If you’ve tried several times but just can’t get any passion behind the study, then look for something else to fill the gap (we offer electives in World Religion and Logic and Philosophy). Or perhaps you come from a heritage that is not based in the Western world, and wish to find and read literature that captures the citizenship values of another culture. That is wonderful! Just make sure when you find something that works that you share it with us!
Agis and Cleomenes
Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus
Cato the Elder (Marcus Cato)
Alexander the Great (1st half)
Alexander the Great (2nd half)
Pompey (1st half)
Pompey (2nd half)
Rotation begins again
Plutarch Study Guides by Anne White and Ambleside Online available for free (written from a Christian viewpoint)