Plutarch’s lessons in leadership

I have to begin this post by apologizing to all who follow my blog for not blogging regularly over the last few months. This is especially true of neglecting the timetable I set for my reading and blogging about the 10-year reading plan for the Great Books of the Western World. I do, however, have a good excuse! The vast majority of my time this summer went to writing and revising (and revising [and revising (and etc.)]) my MA thesis on W. E. B. Du Bois’s ideas about education and the application that might be made of them to educating disadvantaged youth in the 21st century. I have (finally) finished the writing and revision process (for the most part) and will be defending my thesis on the evening of August 6, which I am very excited about.

As a result of the strenuous efforts of thesis writing and revision, I have been unable to keep up with the schedule I set for following the 10-year reading plan and blogging about it. According to my estimate, I am about 4 months behind on reading and about 5 months behind on blogging. With that said, one of my goals is to catch up by the end of 2015, and this post is a good place to start. Because my reading of Plutarch’s lives of Lycurgus, Numa, Alexander, and Caesar was stretched over such a long period and because I am so far behind, I will not get especially deep into analysis and criticism. Instead, I want to offer just a few thoughts.

First, the theme I am just now beginning to pick up on for this year is one of leadership. “What does the ideal leader look like?,” seems to be one of the primary questions that is being asked. Of course, as a leader is first and foremost a role model, there is also the theme of “what does the ideal person look like?” Each of the four great men whose biographies we read in “March” were men who were simultaneously great and flawed. Caesar’s ambition is perhaps the most famous and obvious of the flaws of these four leaders, but one might also point to Alexander’s vainglory, Numa’s shortsightedness, and Lycurgus’s harshness, for example, as the flaws which eventually led to the dissolution of their respective peoples’ independence.

As a teacher, these are lessons I take to heart. For 190 days out of the year I have to stand in front of almost 100 students and throughout the school days am seen by hundreds more. Even “off-duty,” so to speak, and even with the size of Savannah, I frequently run into my students while out and about. Every mistake I make is, in a sense, an action that will become acceptable in their eyes. Every flaw I have has the potential to replicate itself through their respect for me and their following of the example that I role model. I’m no Alexander or Caesar, obviously, but I am a leader whose decisions have serious ramifications for the lives of those whom I teach, not to mention my own three young children.

As a husband and a father, I also see a great deal to learn from this month’s readings. As the head of my household and the leader of my family, the example that I set, the rules I enforce and the reasons why and how I enforce them, the care that I show, will all determine the course that my family will take. Arrogance, pride, shortsightedness, cruelty, impatience, and so on will each bring about their fruits within only a generation, as well each of their virtuous opposites.

It will be interesting to see whether and how this theme continues to be discussed and played out as we continue the readings this year. There are some very interesting examples of leaders, both magnificently great and tragically flawed, which we will see in this year’s coming readings. We move next to the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles, two biblical texts which trace the great leaders of the Christian tradition, beginning with the Lord Himself and moving to the Apostles, including especially Peter and Paul. I hope to finish this reading and have my blog post about these up by mid-August so that we can then move on to arguably the greatest medieval figure of the Christian tradition, St. Augustine.

If you have been keeping up with the readings or have read these biographies of Plutarch in the past, please leave a comment and let me know what you think! Do you see the same theme in this year’s readings? What lessons on leadership do you see in Plutarch and the other readings we’ve covered so far?

The Jewish People (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.1)

When we studied the history of the Jewish people, you learned that they were able to establish their own kingdom in about 1000 BC. This kingdom did not last long, however. After the end of the reigns of their great kings, David and his son Solomon, the kingdom of Israel erupted in civil war. The nation was split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Each of these kingdoms claimed to be the real Israelite kingdom. In 722 BC Israel was swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire and in 586 both kingdoms were conquered by the Babylonians. In 536, it was the Persian Empire’s turn to conquer the Babylonian Empire, which included the land of Israel.

Later, in about 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. Israel then became part of Alexander’s empire. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire was divided up among his generals. The area where the Jews lived at first went to a general named Antigonus. In 301 BC, Seleucus, another of Alexander’s former generals, conquered the land and made it part of his new Seleucid Empire.

The Jews remained under the control of the Seleucids until the reign of a man named Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Alexander, Antigonus, Seleucus, and the other Greeks who ruled over the Jews allowed them to continue their traditional religious practices. The Greeks viewed many Jewish customs, such as not eating pork and only worshipping one God, as rather strange, but they believed it was important to respect the traditions of the peoples they ruled over. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who became the king of the Seleucid Empire in 175 BC, did not believe in religious tolerance. Instead, he tried to force the Jews to become more like the Greeks.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes passed laws that made the Jews very angry. For example, he issued an order that all Jewish people must appear before a government official and be seen eating pork. The punishment for not obeying these laws was the death penalty. Some Jews chose to die rather than do things their God had commanded them not to do.

Finally, in 167 BC, a revolution erupted in the land of the Jews, now called Judea. When a Jewish priest named Mattathias refused to sacrifice to the Greek gods, another Jew stepped forward to offer the sacrifice instead. When Mattathias saw what he was doing, Mattathias killed him. Mattathias and his five sons then ran away into the desert to escape punishment. Other Jews who opposed Antiochus joined them and eventually an army was formed. This war of the Jews against their Greek rulers is called the Maccabean Revolt after one of its earlier leaders, Judas Maccabeus.

In 160 BC, the Jews triumphed over the Greeks and again won their freedom. For the first time in over 500 years, the Jews had their own independent kingdom. According to stories told after that time, when the Jewish fighters went into Jerusalem they found that the temple of their God had been filled with items used for the worship of the Greek gods. There was even a large statue of Zeus in the most holy part of the temple. They removed these objects and decided to once again use the temple for the worship of the God of the Jews. They lit the menorah, a lamp with seven candles that was traditionally kept burning inside the temple. Unfortunately, they discovered that they only had enough oil for the candles to last one day. The lamp continued to burn for eight days, however, until more oil could be brought to Jerusalem to keep the lamp lighted. The Jews considered it a miracle and a sign from God that he was still taking care of them in spite of everything they had been through. Today, Jewish people celebrate this miracle on the holiday called Hanukah, which lasts for eight days and involves giving gifts and lighting a menorah in every Jewish home.

Jewish independence did not last long. In 63 BC, another large and powerful empire came to conquer Judea. This time it was the Romans. The Jews fought fiercely to protect their new kingdom and their holy city, but the Romans were too strong for them. During the conquest of Jerusalem, more than 12,000 Jewish soldiers died defending their city while only a few Roman soldiers were killed. The Jews once again became a small part of a very big empire.


Review Questions

 Create a timeline that includes the events that occurred in each of these years:

    1. 722 BC
    2. 586 BC
    3. 536 BC
    4. 332 BC
    5. 323 BC
    6. 301 BC
    7. 175 BC
    8. 167 BC
    9. 160 BC
    10. 63 BC


Vocabulary Words

 Religious tolerance – allowing others to practice or believe things you do not agree with

Alexander the Great (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.11)

Aristotle had many outstanding students. One of his students, a man named Theophrastus, for example, wrote two of the earliest books on botany. Perhaps the most famous and important of Aristotle’s students, however, was a young prince named Alexander.

Alexander, who would later be known as Alexander the Great, was not a Greek. Instead, he lived in a small kingdom just north of Greece called Macedonia. His father, Philip, was the king there. Aristotle was hired by Philip to be Aristotle’s personal teacher. Alexander learned many things from Aristotle. Among the subjects Alexander most enjoyed learning about were philosophy, religion, and art. Alexander was also very interested in literature. He loved the works of Homer so much that Aristotle gave him his own copy of the Iliad. Alexander later carried the book with him every time he left home.

In 336 BC, Alexander’s father, Philip, died and Alexander became king of Macedonia. Alexander had been eagerly waiting for the day when he would become king. He was very inspired by the stories of the great warriors and kings who had come before him. He dreamed of a conquering a vast empire like the conquerors he had read about.

Alexander set out on his conquests almost immediately. Within twelve years, Alexander conquered the largest empire that the world had ever seen. Alexander’s conquests included even the once-powerful kingdom of Egypt and the Persian Empire. In all of the twelve years he spent on his conquests, Alexander never lost a single battle. By the time Alexander was 32, his empire stretched from Macedonia to India.

He probably would have continued to conquer more land and expand his empire. At the age of 32, however, Alexander suddenly fell ill and died. After his death, Alexander’s empire was divided up among his top generals. The world would not see another empire as large as Alexander’s empire until the formation of the Roman Empire several hundred years later.

Although Alexander lived a short life and his empire broke up very quickly, he still had a very large impact on history. Through his conquests, Alexander spread Greek culture to other lands far away from Greece, such as Egypt. Greek language very quickly became the most popular and important language nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean Sea. Greek ideas, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, also spread nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean and changed the way that people thought. Most of all, Alexander’s conquests set the stage for the conquests of the Romans that would soon come.


Review Questions

 1. Who was Alexander the Great’s teacher?

2. What happened to Alexander’s empire after he died?