PLUTARCH (Gr. Πλούταρχος) (c. A.D. 46–120), Greek biographer and miscellaneous writer, was born at Chaeronea in Boeotia. After having been trained in philosophy at Athens he travelled and stayed some time at Rome, where he lectured on philosophy and undertook the education of Hadrian.[1] Trajan bestowed consular rank upon him, and Hadrian appointed him procurator of Greece. He died in his native town, where he was archon and priest of the Pythian Apollo. In the Consolation to his Wife on the loss of his young daughter, he tells us (§ 2) that they had brought up four sons besides, one of whom was called by the name of Plutarch's brother, Lamprias. We learn incidentally from this treatise (§ 10) that the writer had been initiated in the secret mysteries of Dionysus, which held that the soul was imperishable. He seems to have been an independent thinker rather than an adherent of any particular school of philosophy. His vast acquaintance with the literature of his time is everywhere apparent.

The celebrity of Plutarch, or at least his popularity, is mainly founded on his forty-six Parallel Lives. He is thought to have written this work in his later years after his return to Chaeronea. His knowledge of Latin and of Roman history he must have partly derived from some years' residence in Rome and other parts of Italy,[2] though he says he was too much engaged in lecturing (doubtless in Greek, on philosophy) to turn his attention much to Roman literature during that period.

Plutarch’s design in writing the Parallel Lives—for this is the title which he gives them in dedicating Theseus and Romulus to Sosius Senecio—appears to have been the publication, in successive books, of authentic biographies in pairs, taking together a Greek and a Roman. In the introduction to the Theseus he speaks of having already issued his Lycurgus and Numa, viewing them, no doubt, as bearing a resemblance to each other in their legislative character. Theseus and Romulus are compared as the legendary founders of states. In the opening sentence of the life of Alexander he says that “in this book he has written the lives of Alexander and Caesar” (Julius), and in his Demosthenes, where he again (§ 1) mentions his friend Sosius, he calls the life of this orator and Cicero the fifth book.[3] It may therefore fairly be inferred that Plutarch’s original idea was simply to set a Greek warrior, statesman, orator or legislator side by side with some noted Roman celebrated for the same qualities, or working under similar conditions. Nearly all the lives are in pairs; but the series concluded with single biographies of Artaxerxes, Aratus (of Sicyon), Galba and Otho. In the life of Aratus, not Sosius Senecio, but one Polycrates, is addressed.

The Lives are works of great learning and research, long lists of authorities are given, and they must for this very reason, as well as from their considerable length, have taken many years in compilation. It is true that many of the lives, especially of Romans, do not show such an extent of research. But Plutarch must have had access to a great store of books, and his diligence as an historian cannot be questioned, if his accuracy is in some points impeached. From the historian’s point of view the weakness of the biographies is that their interest is primarily ethical. The author’s sympathy with Doric characters and institutions is very evident; he delights to record the exploits, the maxims and virtues of Spartan kings and generals. This feeling is the key to his apparently unfair and virulent attack on Herodotus, who, as an Ionian, seemed to him to have exaggerated the prowess and the foresight of the Athenian leaders.

The voluminous and varied writings of Plutarch exclusive of the Lives are known under the common term Opera moralia. These consist of above sixty essays, some of them long and many of them rather difficult, some too of very doubtful genuineness. Their literary value is greatly enhanced by the large number of citations from lost Greek poems, especially verses of the dramatists, among whom Euripides holds by far the first place. The principal treatises in the Opera moralia are the following:—

On the Education of Children (regarded as spurious by some) recommends (1) good birth, and sobriety in the father; (2) good disposition and good training are alike necessary for virtue; (3) a mother ought to nurse her own offspring, on the analogy of all animals; (4) the paedogogus must be honest and trustworthy; (5) all the advantages of life and fortune must be held secondary to education; (6) mere mob-oratory is no part of a good education; (7) philosophy should form the principal study, but not to the exclusion of the other sciences; (8) gymnastics are to be practised; (9) kindness and advice are better than blows; (10) over-pressure in learning is to be avoided, and plenty of relaxation is to be allowed, (11) self-control, and not least over the tongue, is to be learned; (12) the grown-up youth should be under the eye and advice of his father, and all bad company avoided, flatterers included; (13) fathers should not be too harsh and exacting, but remember that they were themselves once young; (14) marriage is recommended, and without disparity of rank; (15) above all, a father should be an example of virtue to a son.

How a Young Man ought to Hear Poetry is largely made up of quotations from Homer and the tragic poets. The points of the essay are the moral effects of poetry as combining the true with the false, the praises of virtue and heroism with a mythology depraved and unworthy of gods, εἰ θεοί τι δρῶσι φαῦλον, οὐκ εἰσὶν θεοί (§ 21).

On the Right Way of Hearing (περὶ τοῦ ἀκούειν) advocates the listening in silence to what is being said, and not giving a precipitate reply to statements which may yet receive some addition or modification from the speaker (§ 4). The hearer is warned not to give too much weight to the style, manner or tone of the speaker (§ 7), not to be either too apathetic or too prone to praise, not to be impatient if he finds his faults reproved by the lecturer (§ 16). He concludes with the maxim, “to hear rightly is the beginning of living rightly,” and perhaps he has in view throughout his own profession as a lecturer.

How a Flatterer may be Distinguished from a Friend is a rather long and uninteresting treatise. The ancient writers are full of warnings against flatterers, who do not seem to exercise much influence in modern society. The really dangerous flatterer (§ 4) is not the parasite, but the pretender to a disinterested friendship—one who affects similar tastes, and so insinuates himself into your confidence. Your accomplished flatterer does not always praise, but flatters by act, as when he occupies a good seat at a public meeting for the express purpose of resigning it to his patron (§ 15). A true friend, on the contrary, speaks freely on proper occasions. A good part of the essay turns on παρρησία, the honest expression of opinion. The citations, which are fairly numerous, are mostly from Homer.

How one may be Conscious of Progress in Goodness is addressed to Sosius Senecio, who was consul in the last years of Nerva, and more than once (99, 102, 107) under Trajan. If, says Plutarch, a man could become suddenly wise instead of foolish, he could not be ignorant of the change; but it is otherwise with moral or mental processes. Gradual advance in virtue is like steady sailing over a wide sea, and can only be measured by the time taken and the forces applied (§ 3). Zeno tested advance by dreams (§ 12); if no excess or immorality presented itself to the imagination of the sleeper, his mind had been purged by reason and philosophy. When we love the truly good, and adapt ourselves to their looks and manners, and this even with the loss of worldly prosperity, then we are really getting on in goodness ourselves (§ 15). Lastly, the avoidance of little sins is an evidence of a scrupulous conscience (§ 17).

How to get Benefit out of Enemies argues that, as primitive man had savage animals to fight against, but learnt to make use of their skins for clothing and their flesh for food, so we are bound to turn even our enemies to some good purpose. One service they do to us is to make us live warily against plots; another is they induce us to live honestly, so as to vex our rivals not by scolding them, but by making them secretly jealous of us (§ 4). Again, finding fault leads us to consider if we are ourselves faultless, and to be found fault with by a foe is likely to be lain truth speaking, ἀκουστέον ἐστὶ παρὰ τῶν ἐχθρῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν (§ 6). Jealousies and strifes, so natural to man, are diverted from our friends by being legitimately expended on our enemies (§ 10).

On Having Many Friends, On Chance, On Virtue and Vice, are three short essays, the first advocating the concentration of one’s affections on a few who are worthy (τοὺς ἀξίους φιλίας διώκειν, § 4), rather than diluting them, as it were, on the many; the second pleads that intelligence, φρόνησις, not mere luck, is the ruling principle of all success; the third shows that virtue and vice are but other names for happiness and misery. All these are interspersed with citations from the poets, several of them unknown from other sources.

A longer treatise, well and clearly written, and not less valuable for its many quotations, is the Consolation addressed to Apollonius (considered spurious by some) on the early death of his “generally beloved and religious and dutiful son.” Equality of mind both in prosperity and in adversity is recommended (§ 4), since there are “ups and downs” (ὔψος καὶ ταπεινότης) in life, as there are storms and calms on the sea, and good and bad seasons on the earth. That man is born to reverses he illustrates by citing fifteen fine verses from Menander (§ 5). The uselessness of indulging in grief is pointed out, death being a debt to all and not to be regarded as an evil (§§ 10-12), Plato’s doctrine is cited (§ 13) that the body is a burden and an impediment to the soul. Death may be annihilation, and therefore the dead are in the same category as the unborn (§ 15). The lamenting a death because it is untimely or premature has something of selfishness in it (§ 19), besides that it only means that one has arrived sooner than another at the end of a common journey. If a death is more grievous because it is untimely, a new-born infant’s death would be the most grievous of all (§ 23). One who has died early may have been spared many woes rather than have been deprived of many blessings; and, after all, to die is but to pay a debt due to the gods when they ask for it (§ 28). Examples are given of fortitude and resignation under such affliction (§ 33). If, says the author in conclusion, there is a heaven for the good hereafter, be sure that such a son will have a place in it. The author has borrowed from the Περὶ πένθους of Crantor.

Precepts about Health commences as a dialogue, and extends to some length as a lecture. It is technical and difficult throughout, and contains but little that falls in with modern ideas. Milk, he says, should be taken for food rather than for drink, and wine should not be indulged in after hard work or mental effort, for it does but tend to increase the bodily disturbance (§ 17). Better than purges or emetics is a temperate diet. which induces the bodily functions to act of themselves (§ 20). Another wise saying is that idleness does not conduce to health (οὐδ' ἀληθες ἐστι τὸ μᾶλλον ὑγιαινειν τους ἡσυχίαν ἄγοντας) (§ 21), and yet another that a man should learn by experience his bodily capabilities without always consulting a physician (§ 26).

Advice to the Married is addressed to his newly wedded friends Pollianus and Eurydice. It is simply and plainly written, and consists chiefly of short maxims and anecdotes, with but few citations from the poets.

The Banquet of the Seven Wise Men (considered spurious by some) is a longer treatise, one of the several "Symposia" or imaginary conversations that have come down to us. It is supposed to be given by Periander in the public banqueting-room (ἑστιατόριον) near the harbour of Corinth (Lechaeum) on the occasion of a sacrifice to Aphrodite. The whole party consisted of "more than twice seven," the friends of the principal guests being also present. Like Plato's Symoposium this treatise takes the form of a narrative of what was said and done, the narrator being one Diocles, a friend of Periander, who professes to give Nicarchus a correct account as having been present. The dinner was simple, and in contrast with the usual splendour of "tyrants" (§ 4). The conversation turns on various topics; Solon is credited with the remarkable opinion that "a king or tyrant is most likely to become celebrated if he makes a democracy out of a monarchy" (§ 7). There is much playful banter throughout, but neither the wit nor the wisdom seems of a very high standard. Solon delivers a speech on food being a necessity rather than a pleasure of life (§ 16), and one Gorgus, a brother of the host, comes in to relate how he has just shaken hands with Arion, brought across the sea on the back of a dolphin (§ 18), which brings on a discussion about the habits of that creature. Among the speakers are Aesop, Anacharsis, Thales, Chilo, Cleobulus and one Chersias, a poet.

A short essay On Superstition contains a good many quotations from the poets. It opens with the wise remark that ignorance about the gods, which makes the obstinate man an atheist, also begets credulity in weak and pliant minds. The atheist fears nothing because he believes nothing; the superstitious man believes there are gods, but that they are unfriendly to him (§ 2). A man who fears the gods is never free from fear, whatever he may do or whatever may befall him. He extends his fears beyond his death, and believes in the "gates of hell," and its fires, in the darkness, the ghosts, the infernal judges, and what not (§ 4). The atheist does not believe in the gods; the superstitious man wishes he did not, but fears to disbelieve (§ 11). On the whole, this is a most interesting treatise

On Isis and Osiris is a rather long treatise on Egyptian symbolism, interesting chiefly to students of Egyptology. It gives an exposition of the strange myths and superstitions of this ancient solar cult, including a full account of the great antagonist of Osiris, Typhon, or the Egyptian Satan. Plutarch thus lays down the Zoroastrian theory of good and bad agencies (§ 45): "If nothing can happen without cause, and good cannot furnish cause for evil, it follows that the nature of evil, as of good, must have an origin and principle of its own."

On the Cessation of Oracles is a dialogue, discussing the reasons why divine inspiration seemed to be withdrawn from the old seats of prophetic lore. The real reason of their decline in popularity is probably very simple; when the Greek cities became Roman provinces the fashion of consulting oracles fell off, as unsuited to the more practical influences of Roman thought and Roman politics. The question is discussed whether there are such intermediate beings as daemons, who according to Plato communicate the will of the gods to men, and the prayers and vows of men to the gods.

The possibility of a plurality of worlds is entertained, and of the planets being more or less composed of the essence of the five elements, fire, ether, earth, air and water (§ 37). The whole treatise is metaphysical, but it concludes with remarks on the exhalations at Delphi having different effects on different people and at different times. The ancient notion doubtless was that the vapour was the breath of some mysterious being sent up from the under-world.

On the Pythian Responses, why no longer given in Verse, is also a dialogue, the first part of which is occupied mainly with conversation and anecdotes about the statues and other offerings at Delphi. It is rather an amusing essay, and may be regarded as a kind of appendix to the last. The theory propounded (§ 24) is that verse was the older vehicle of philosophy, history and religion, but that plain prose has become the later fashion, and therefore that oracles are now generally delivered "in the same form as laws speak to citizens, kings reply to their subjects, and scholars hear their teachers speak." Discredit, too, was brought on the verse-oracle by the facility with which it was employed by impostors (§ 25). Moreover, verse is better suited to ambiguity, and oracles nowadays have less need to be ambiguous (§ 88).

On the E at Delphi is an inquiry why that letter or symbol was written on or in the Delphic temple. Some thought it represented the number five, others that it introduced the inquiry of oracle-seekers, If so-and-so was to be done, while one of the speakers, Ammonius, decides that it means Εἶ, "thou art," an address to Apollo containing the predication of existence (§ 17).

On the Face of the Moon's Disk is a long and curious if somewhat trifling speculation, yet not without interest from its calculations of the sizes and the distance from earth of the sun and moon (§ 10), and from the contrast between ancient lunar theories and modern mathematics. The cause of the moon's light, its peculiar colour, the possibility of its being inhabited and many kindred questions are discussed in this dialogue, the beginning and end of which alike abrupt. Some of the "guesses at truth" are very near the mark, as when it is suggested (§§ 21-22) that the moon, like earth, contains deep recesses into which the sun's light does descend, and the appearance of the "face" is nothing but shadows of streams or of deep ravines.

On the Late Vengeance of the Deity is a dialogue consequent on a supposed lecture by Epicurus. An objection is raised to the ordinary dealings of providence, that long-delayed punishment encourages the sinner and disappoints the injured, the reply to which is (§ 5) that the god sets man an example to avoid hasty and precipitate resentment, and that he is willing to give time for repentance (§ 6). Moreover, he may wish to await the birth of good progeny from erring parents (§ 7). Another fine reflection is that sin has its own punishment in causing misery to the sinner, and thus the longer the life the greater is the share of misery (§ 9). The essay concludes with a long story about one Thespesius, and the treatment which he saw, during a trance, of the souls in the other world.

On Fate (probably spurious) discusses the law of chance as against the overruling of providence. This treatise ends abruptly; the point of the argument is that both fate and providence have their due influence in mundane affairs (§ 9), and that all things are constituted for the best.

On the Genius of Socrates is a long essay, and, like so many of the rest, in the form of a dialogue. The experiences of one Timarchus, and his supernatural visions in the cave of Trophonius, are related at length in the Platonic style (§ 22), and the true nature of the δαίμονες is revealed to him. They are the souls of the just, who still retain regard for human affairs and assist the good in their efforts after virtue (§ 28). The dialogue ends with an interesting narrative of the concealment of Pelopidas and some of the Theban conspirators against the Spartans in the house of Charon.

On Exile is a fine essay, rendered the more interesting from its numerous quotations from the poets, including several from the Phoenissae. Man is not a plant that grows only in one soil; he belongs to heaven rather than to earth, and wherever he goes there are the same sun, the same seasons, the same providence, the same laws of virtue and justice (§ 5). There is no discredit in being driven from one's country; Apollo himself was banished from heaven and condemned to live for a time on earth (§ 18).

The Consolation to his Wife, on the early death of their only daughter Timoxena (§ 7), is a feeling and sensible exhortation to moderate her grief.

Nine books of Symposiaca extend to a great length, discussing inquiries (προβλήματα) on a vast number of subjects. The general treatment of these, in which great literary knowledge is displayed, is not unlike the style of Athenaeus.

The Amorous Man is a dialogue of some length, describing a conversation on the nature of love held at Helicon, pending a quinquennial feast of the Thespians, who specially worshipped that deity along with the Muses. It is amply illustrated by poetical quotations. In § 24 mention is made of the emperor Vespasian. It is followed by a short treatise entitled Love Stories, giving a few narratives of sensational adventures of lovers.

Short Sayings (ἀποφθέγματα), dedicated to Trajan, extend to a great length, and are divided into three parts: (1) of kings and commanders (including many Roman); (2) of Spartans; (3) of Spartan women (a short treatise on Spartan institutions being interposed between the last two). The names of the authors are added, and to some of them a large number of maxims are attributed.

A rather long treatise On the Virtues of Women contains a series of narratives of noble deeds done by the sex in times of danger and trouble, especially from "tyrants." Many of the stories are interesting, and the style is easy and good.

Another long and learned work bears the rather obscure title Κεφαλαίων καταγραφή. It is generally known as Quaestiones Romanae and Graecae, in two parts. In the former, which contains one hundred and thirteen headings, the inquiry (on some matter political, religious or antiquarian) always commences with διὰ τί, usually followed by πότερον, with alternative explanations. In the Greek Questions the form of inquiry is more often τίς or τίνες, not followed by πότερον. This treatise is of great interest and importance to classical archaeology, though the inquiries seem occasionally trifling, and sometimes the answers are clearly wrong.

Parallels (spurious) are a series of similar incidents which occurred respectively to Greeks and Romans, the Greek standing first and the Roman counterpart following. Many of the characters are mythological, though Plutarch regards them as historical.

On the Fortune of the Romans discusses whether, on the whole, good luck or valour had more influence in giving the Romans the supremacy. This is followed by two discourses on the same question as applicable to the career of Alexander the Great, and Whether the Athenians were more renowned for War or for Wisdom? The conclusion is (§ 7) that it was not so much by the fame of their poets as by the deeds of their heroes that Athens became renowned.

Gryllus is a most amusing dialogue, in which Circe, Odysseus and a talking pig take part. Odysseus wishes that all the human beings that have been changed by the sorceress into bestial forms should be restored; but the pig argues that in moral virtues, such as true bravery, chastity, temperance and general simplicity of life and contentment, animals are very far superior to man.

Whether Land Animals or Water Animals are the Cleverer is a rather long dialogue on the intelligence of ants, bees, elephants, spiders, dogs, &c., on the one hand, and the crocodile, the dolphin, the tunny and many kinds of fish, on the other. This is a good essay, much in the style of Aristotle’s History of Animals.

On Flesh-eating, in two orations, discusses the origin of the practice, viz. necessity, and makes a touching appeal to man not to destroy life for mere gluttony (§ 4). This is a short but very sensible and interesting argument. Questions on Plato are ten in number, each heading subdivided into several speculative replies. The subjects are for the most part metaphysical; the essay is not long, but it concerns Platonists only. Whether Water or Fire is more Useful is also short; after discussing the uses of both elements it decides in favour of the latter, since nothing can exceed in importance the warmth of life and the light of the sun. On Primary Cold is a physical speculation on the true nature and origin of the quality antithetical to heat. Physical Reasons (Quaestiones Naturales) are replies to inquiries as to why certain facts or phenomena occur, e.g. “Why is salt the only flavour not in fruits?” “Why do fishing-nets rot in winter more than in summer?” “Why does pouring oil on the sea produce a calm?” On the Opinions accepted by the Philosophers (spurious), in five books, is a valuable compendium of the views of the Ionic school and the Stoics on the phenomena of the universe and of life. On the Ill-nature of Herodotus is a well-known critique of the historian for his unfairness, not only to the Boeotians and Lacedaemonians, but to the Corinthians and other Greek states. It is easy to say that this essay "neither requires nor merits refutation”; but Plutarch knew history, and he writes like one who thoroughly understands the charges which he brings against the historian. The Lives of the Ten Orators from Antiphon to Dinarchus (now considered spurious) are biogaphies of various lengths, compiled, doubtless, from materials now lost.

Two rather long essays, Should a Man engage in Politics when he is no longer Young, and Precepts for Governing (πολιτικὰ παραγγέλματα), are interspersed with valuable quotations. In favour of the former view the administrations of Pericles, of Agesilaus, of Augustus, are cited (§ 2), and the preference of older men for the pleasures of doing good over the pleasures of the senses (§ 5). In the latter, the true use of eloquence is discussed, and a contrast drawn between the brilliant and risky and the slow and safe policy (§ 10). The choice of friends, and the caution against enmities, the dangers of love, of gain and of ambition, with many topics of the like kind, are sensibly advanced and illustrated by examples.  (F. A. P.; J. M. M.) 

Bibliography.—Editio princeps, by H. Stephanus (1572); other complete editions by J. J. Reiske (1774–1782), J. G. Hutten (1791–1804), T. Dohner and F. Dubner (1846–1855). Of the Lives, there are editions by A. Coray (1809–1814), C. Sintenis (1839–1846; ed. min., 1874–1881), and of many separate lives by Siefert-Blass, Sintenis-Fuhr, Holden, Hardy and others. There are many English translations, of which the most popular is that by John and William Langhorne; also the old French) version by Jacques Amyot (1559) from which Sir Thomas North’s (1579) was made, newly edited by G. Wyndham (1895); many of the Roman lives have been translated, with notes, by George Long. The Moralia has been edited by D. Wyttenbach (1795–1830), and G. N. Bernardakes (1888–1896). The old English translation by Philemon Holland (1603) has been revised by C. W. King and A. R. Shilleto in Bohn’s Classical Library (1882–1888), and a ater translation by various hands (London, 1684–1694), edited by W. W. Goodwin with introduction by R. W. Emerson, has been republished at Cambridge, Massachusetts (1874–1878). Mention may also be made of P. Holland’s Romane Questions, edited with introductory dissertations by F. B. Jevons (1892); Roman Problems, with essay on “Roman Worship and Belief,” by G. C. Allen (1904); De la Musique, ed. H. Weil and Th. Reinach (1900); J. Oakesmith, The Religion of Plutarch as expounded in his Ethics (1902); Archbishop Trench, A Popular Introduction to Plutarch (1873); O. Gréard, De la Morale de Plutarque (1866); R. Volkmann, Leben, Schriften und Philosophie des Plutarch (1869). The earlier literature of Plutarch is very extensive, for which W. Engelmann, Scriptores graeci (1881), may be consulted.

  1. There seems no authority for this statement earlier than the middle ages.
  2. Demosth. § 2. Plutarch’s orthography of Roman words and names is important as bearing on the question of pronunciation. A curious example (De fortun. Rom. § 5) is Virtutis et honoris, written Οὐιρτοῦτίς τε καὶ Ὁνῶρις. The Volsci are Οὐολοῦσκοι, ibid.
  3. It is quite evident that the original order of the books has been altered in the series of Lives as we now have them.