Plutarch's Moralia (Holland)

Plutarch's Moralia  (1911) 
by Mestrius Plutarchus, translated by Philemon Holland








TRAVEL Aldus001.jpg SCIENCE Aldus001.jpg FICTION

Koran squiggle.png


London: J. M. DENT & SONS, Ltd.
New York: E. P. DUTTON & CO.









Translated by




Philemon Holland, designated (not inaptly) by Fuller as "the translator-generall of his age," was born at Chelmsford in 1552, the year of Spenser's birth, and twelve years before Shakespeare. He was educated at Chelmsford Grammar School, and at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a pupil of Whitgift, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury. He not only took his degree of M.A., but, later in life, graduated M.D. As no record of this degree is to be found in the Oxford or Cambridge registers, it has been thought that it was conferred upon him either at a Scotch or Continental University.

Soon after taking his M.D., Holland settled at Coventry, which was to be his home till he died in 1637 (the year of Ben Jonson's death). His medical practice being small, he eked out his time and a somewhat precarious income by devoting himself to translations of the classics. The chief of these translations, published in vast folios that are nowadays somewhat scarce and difficult to procure, are: Livy, Ammianus Marcellinus, Pliny's Natural History, Suetonius, and the Morals of Plutarch. The most popular of these versions was, perhaps, the Pliny, issued in two folios in 1601. The Plutarch was published two years later; twenty years after his death it was re-issued, in "a revised and corrected" form, we are told. Since then it has not been reprinted until now; the present volume is a selection from the moral essays of the popular Greek writer, whose Parallel Lives, as Englished by North, have become an English classic.

In the year 1608, Holland, already famous as a translator (even in an age of famous translations), became usher of the free school at Coventry; twenty years later he was appointed to the headmastership. He was an old man at the time of his appointment; and the duties–at any time irksome to a scholar of his parts–must have proved too exhausting. Whatever be the cause, he resigned the post at the end of ten months. The remainder of his life was clouded by pecuniary anxieties. The res angusta domi was, unhappily, no trifling nor temporary discomfort, aggravated as it was by failing health. It is, however, to be remarked that in 1632 a small pension—a pittance, rather—was awarded him by the city he had served so well both in scholastic and civic capacities; and not long afterwards, in consideration of his "learning and worthy parts," he received some monetary assistance from Magdalene College, Cambridge. It was not creditable that his own college, "the royal and religious foundation" of Trinity, apparently made no provision for her distinguished "alumnus," despite his evident claims on her liberality.

Holland was, almost to the end, an indefatigable student. His contemporaries, prone to notice such trivialities, remarked (inter alia) that he never wore spectacles; and it was commonly reported that he wrote one of his folios with a single quill pen. His eyesight must have been extraordinarily good. There is a beautiful specimen, still preserved at Coventry, of his Greek caligraphy; and Baskerville—a fine judge in such matters—borrowed this when cutting the matrices for his famous fount of Greek type.

Holland's renderings are, in their own way, unique. "He had," says one writer, "a most admirable knack in translating books … several of the most obscure being translated by him, one of which was Plutarch's Morals." Pope, in the Dunciad, mentions the fine old Tudor writer only to gibe at the "weight" (in avoirdupois) of his huge folios—a just enough criticism, it is true, but apt to mislead the unwary reader. It was an age of huge folios; most of them do but cumber the shelves in our great public libraries, where they lie, undusted and unread. But the books of Philemon Holland deserve a better fate than to be ensepulchred in the untoward company of forgotten divines. They have a fine literary flavour about them; there is a spaciousness of diction, combined with a pomp of words, in their pages which arrests and charms those of us who have grown aweary of the smartness and trim perspicacity of the Macaulayesque tradition. "Construes" his renderings certainly are not; but they are translations in the best sense of the term; that is, they "carry over" the sense of the original into an alien language, not without a considerable—perhaps undue—heightening of effects. Of the severity and self-constraint of the Latin or Greek they have little trace; grave Roman and delicate Hellene appear, in his pages, tricked in the ruffles of the Elizabethan age. Holland has indeed transmuted the form of his original, and given it alike the spaciousness and the quaintness of a later and more elaborate epoch.

Let me take, by way of illustration, an example from Livy; I give first of all a literal rendering of the Latin, followed by Holland's version: the passage is from the celebrated twenty-first book, where the Roman historian gives us an unforgetable picture of Hannibal's crossing of the Alps.

"On the ninth day they reached the crest of the Alps by paths for the most part trackless, and by winding ways, caused either by the treachery of the guides, or, when these latter were distrusted, by rash entry into valleys on the part of men conjecturing as to the route. For two days fixed quarters were held on the ridge, and rest was allowed the soldiers wearied by toil and fighting; and a number of beasts of burden, which had fallen among the rocks, reached camp by following the footprints of the column. To men wearied with the fatigue of so many misfortunes, a fall of snow (for the Pleiades were now setting) brought fresh alarm. When, after the standards had been moved forward at dawn, the column was advancing over ground everywhere blocked with snow, and listlessness and despair were noticeable in the looks of all, Hannibal moved to the van; he bade his soldiers halt on a certain spur of rock, whence there was a view far and wide, and pointed out Italy and the plains about the Padus lying at the foot of the Alps; saying that they were crossing not only the walls of Italy, but the walls also of Rome. The rest of the journey would be straightforward, and downhill. By one, or at most two, battles, they would hold in their power and grip the citadel and capital of Italy."

This appears in Holland's version as follows:

"The ninth day he woon the verie tops of the Alpes, through by-lanes and blind cranks: after he had wandered many times out of the way, either through the deceitfulness of their guides, or for that, when they durst not trust them, they adventured rashly themselves upon the vallies, and guessed the way at adventure, and went by aime. Two days abode he encamped upon the tops thereof; and the soldiers, wearied with travaile and fight, rested that time: certain also of the sumpter horses (which had slipt aside from the rockes) by following the tracks of the armie as it marched, came to the campe. When they were thus overtoiled and wearied with these tedious travailes, the snow that fell—for now the starre Vergilie was set and gone downe out of that horizon—increased their feare exceedingly. Now wheneas at the breake of day the ensignes were set forward, and the army marched slowly, through the thicke and deepe snow; and that there appeared in the countenance of them all slouthfulness and desperation: Anniball advanced before the standerds, and commaunded his soldiours to stay upon a certaine high hill (from whence they had a goodly prospect and might see a great way all about them), and there showed unto them Italie, and the goodly champion fields about the Po, which lie hard under the foote of the Alpine mountains; saying, That even then they mounted the walls, not only of Italy but also of the citie of Rome; as for all besides (saith hee) will be plaine and easie to be travelled: and, after one or two battles at the most, ye shall have at your command the verie castle and head citie of all Italy."

Philemon Holland's knowledge of the classics, unlike that of North, who made his version through the proxy of Amyot's renderings, was accurate and thorough. But above all, his knowledge of his mother tongue was rare and consummate. "Have I not (he asks) Englished every word aptly?" There is but one answer; apt he was, not in rendering one author, but in all that he attempted. He had a positive genius for style, the distinguished Tudor style, so full of music, so rich, so ardent. He has none of the "concinnity" (to use such a word) of the writers of a succeeding date; he produced his effects by means familiar enough to Jeremy Taylor, to Hooker, to Milton, but alien from the austerity of his models as from the fashion of essayists trained in the later French school.

Old Thomas Fuller, in discoursing upon Holland, declared "that the books alone of his turning into English will make a country gentleman a complete library for historians." Be that as it may—and the implied compliment has something of a double edge—we may safely accept the dictum of a just and clear-sighted modern critic[1] when he says: "Philemon Holland still remains the first translator of his age; and if the Bible is the Shakespeare of translation, then Philemon Holland is the ingenious Ben Jonson of a splendid craft."

Note on Plutarch

Curiously, little is known of the life of Plutarch, considering his fame both in ancient and modern times. The main facts appear to be as follows: He was born somewhere about A.D. 50, at Chæronea, in Bœotia. He studied at Athens under Ammonius, a philosopher of some distinction at the time, whose lectures and teaching gave a lasting bent to his pupil's mind; for Plutarch was nothing if not a moral philosopher. The aim of his life, as it has been justly said, was the illumination of mind by morality; even his biographies are ethical.

He travelled a little, visiting, among other places, Egypt. But it was with Italy, and Rome, that he became most familiar, and his sojourn in the great metropolis—where he gave lectures on philosophical questions—was, doubtless, a determining factor in his own intellectual life. At Rome he contracted a number of friendships, though his lack of acquaintance with Latin literature may have deprived him of the full value of such friendship, from the purely intellectual standpoint.

On returning to his native town Plutarch devoted himself not merely to writing biographies and essays, but to the active business of civic life, even in the circumscribed sphere in which he found himself. It was no part of his duty, as he conceived it, to become the mere scholar-recluse; his ideal of civic virtue forbade it. The ethical side of his character was as pronounced in the practical, as in the contemplative, side of life. It is certain that his Lives would not have possessed the influence that they have assuredly exercised on men so widely different as Rabelais, Montaigne, Jeremy Taylor, Rousseau, and Shakespeare, had he allowed the high duties of an enlightened citizenship to remain unemployed. As it is, the Lives have had more influence on the modern world than almost any other book of classical antiquity.[2] Of Shakespeare's indebtedness to Plutarch little need be said; it is writ large in many of his historical plays, as every student is aware.

The Moralia, or "Morals," are less well known than these biographical portraits, but they are worthy of attention, if only for the admirable spirit which breathes through the sixty odd "essays" of which the collection is composed. The essay on Superstition (included in the present selection) is, says a good authority, "one of the most eloquent and closely-reasoned compositions of antiquity."[3] Though not a deep thinker, "the devout and cultured"[4] Plutarch was a man of rare gifts, with an encyclopædic range. We love him for his kindliness and his urbanity, his sincerity and his real goodness of heart. Professor Mahaffy has happily described him as "the spokesman of the better life that still survived in the Greek world," in the autumn of its history.[5]

As to the chronological order of his works, we are still greatly in the dark. Probably their composition was spread over a considerable period; none appear to have been written in early life. If we date the bulk of his essays as belonging to the years A.D. 90–110, we shall probably not be far astray. He died somewhere about A.D. 120.


The King's School, Ely.
December 31, 1911.



Original Text.—First edition, Florence, August 1517; later editions, Schaefer, 1812–18, 1820–21, 1825–30; Sintenis, 1839–46, 1884–88; Doehner, 1846–55; Bekker, 1855–57.

Translations.—By Sir Thomas North, from James Amyot's French text, 1575, 1579, 1595, 1603 (with additional lives); later editions, the 1676 being the last complete one: edited, with Introduction by George Wyndham, Tudor Translations, 1895; by W. H. D. Rouse, "The Temple Plutarch," 10 vols., 1898, 1899; Selections, for the illustration of Shakespeare's plays, with notes, glossary, etc., by W. W. Skeat, 1875. By several hands, with life by Dryden (by whose name the translation is commonly called), 1683–6; there were many later editions of which the most important is that edited and freely revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, 1864, 1876. By W. Langhorne, 1770; later editions: edited by F. Wrangham, 1826; Bohn, 1853; Chandos Classics, 1884; Camelot Classics (Selections), 1886; Lubbock's Hundred Books, No. 39. By A. Stewart and G. Long, with Life of Plutarch, Bohn's Standard Library, 1880–82.


Original Text.—First edition, Venice, 1509; later editions, H. Stephanus, 1572; H. Estienne, 1573; Ruauld, 1624; J. J. Reiske, 1774–1782; J. G. Hutten, 1791–1804; D. Wyttenbach, 15 vols, (unfinished), 1795–1830; F. Dübner, 1846–1855; Bernardakis, 1888–1896.

Translations.—By Philemon Holland, 1603; revised, 1657. Translation by C. W. King and A. R. Shilleto, 1882–1888; re-issued, 1908. Another translation by several hands, 1684–1694; re-issued, 1704, 1718. Ed. by W. W. Goodwin, with a preface by R. W. Emerson, 1874–1878. Selections: Plutarch's Morals by Way of Abstract (published by Nicholson, London), 1707; Selected Essays from, by way of abstract, 1771.

The present edition is a reprint of Philemon Holland's, as published in 1603.


"Plutarch's teaching is too full of topical inconsistencies to be formalised into a system of Philosophy. But the dominating principle of his teaching, the paramount necessity of finding a sanction and an inspiration for conduct in what the wisdom of the past had already discovered, is so strikingly conspicuous in all his writings that his logical inconsistencies appear, and are, unimportant.

"It is this desire of making the wisdom and traditions of the past available for ethical usefulness which actuates his attempt to reconcile the contradictions, and remove the crudities and inconsistencies, in the three sources of religious knowledge—Philosophy, Law, Tradition. This is the principle which gives his teaching unity, and not any external circumstances of his life, or his attitude in favour of or in opposition to the tenets of any particular school."—Oakesmith, The Religion of Plutarch, 1902.


"'The profoundest, the most essential and paramount theme of human interest,' says Goethe, 'is the eternal conflict between Atheism and Superstition.' Plutarch's tract is a classical sermon on this text, although, in his presentment of the subject, the mutual antagonism of the two principles receives less emphasis than the hostility which both alike direct against the interests of true Religion. He has no sympathy with any notion similar to that current since his days, in many religious minds, that Superstition is but a mistaken form of Piety, deserving tenderness rather than reprehension; and he maintains that absolute disbelief in God is less mischievous in its effects upon human conduct and character than its opposite extreme of superstitious devotion."—Oakesmith, The Religion of Plutarch, p. 179.

Bacon speaks similarly in his Essay on Superstition: "It were better to have no opinion of God at all than such an opinion as is unworthy of Him;" and quotes Plutarch in support of his dictum.

Cf. Harnack's paper, "Greek and Christian Piety," in the Hibbert Journal for October 1911.


P. 140, lines 32 and 35, for "ὄπιχαιρεσκακία," read "ἐπιχαιρκακία."

P. 178, line 11, for "ἡδὺ μοὶ," read "ἡδύ μοι."

P. 306, line 21, for "ἕταῖρος," read "ἑταῖρος."

P. 64, note, for "και," read "καὶ."

P. 162, note, for "ρυφερήν," read "τρυφερήν."

  1. Mr. Charles Whibley, in his Introduction to the reprint of Holland's Suetonius in the Tudor Translations Series (1899).
  2. "As a literary art ancient biography reached its highest perfection in Plutarch's gallery of great men" (Bury, Ancient Greek Historians).
  3. Cf. Campbell, Religion in Greek Literature, p. 372; Taylor, Ancient Ideals, ii. 79; Bigg, The Origins of Christianity, pp. 133–135.
  4. H. M. Gwatkin, Early Church History, ii. 136.
  5. "To soften Paganism by a gentler philosophy of life, which approached Christianity, is the great speciality of Plutarch; and he idealised both ancient religion and ancient history" (Gregorovius, The Emperor Hadrian).