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?

Primary Source Selection: “Life of Julius Caesar” by Plutarch (ca. 100 AD) (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.8)

There was added to these causes of offence his insult to the tribunes. It was, namely, the festival of the Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy. These ceremonies Caesar was witnessing, seated upon the rostra on a golden throne, arrayed in triumphal attire. And Antony was one of the runners in the sacred race; for he was consul. Accordingly, after he had dashed into the forum and the crowd had made way for him, he carried a diadem, round which a wreath of laurel was tied, and held it out to Caesar. Then there was applause, not loud, but slight and preconcerted. But when Caesar pushed away the diadem, all the people applauded; and when Antony offered it again, few, and when Caesar declined it again, all, applauded. The experiment having thus failed, Caesar rose from his seat, after ordering the wreath to be carried up to the Capitol; but then his statues were seen to have been decked with royal diadems. So two of the tribunes, Flavius and Maryllus, went up to them and pulled off the diadems, and after discovering those who had first hailed Caesar as king, led them off to prison. Moreover, the people followed the tribunes with applause and called them Brutuses, because Brutus was the man who put an end to the royal succession and brought the power into the hands of the senate and people instead of a sole ruler. At this, Caesar was greatly vexed, and deprived Maryllus and Flavius of their office, while in his denunciation of them, although he at the same time insulted the people, he called them repeatedly Brutes and Cymaeans.

Primary Source: From the “Moralia” by Plutarch (ca. 100 AD) (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.9)

Plutarch was a Roman author who lived in 46-120 AD. He is most famous for the many biographies he wrote about important people of the Greek and Roman worlds. The selections below are about Sparta and are from his “Moralia,” a collection of short stories and sayings.

35. [In Sparta], when the time had arrived during which it was the custom for the free boys to steal whatever they could, and it was a disgrace not to escape being found out, when the boys with him had stolen a young fox alive, and given it to him to keep, and those who had lost the fox came in search for it, the boy happened to have slipped the fox under his garment. The beast, however, became savage and ate through his side to the vitals; but the boy did not move or cry out, so as to avoid being exposed, and left, when they had departed, the boys saw what had happened, and blamed him, saying thatit would have been better to let the fox be seen than to hide it even unto death; but the boy said,”Not so, but better to die without yielding to the pain than through being detected because of weakness of spirit to gain a life to be lived in disgrace.

36. Some people, encountering Spartans on the road, said, “You are in luck, for robbers have just left this place,” but they said, “Egad, no, but it is they who are in luck for not encountering us.”

37. A Spartan being asked what he knew, said, “How to be free.”

55. While the games were being held at Olympia, an old man was desirous of seeing them, but could find no seat. As he went to place after place, he met with insults and jeers, and nobody made room for him. But when he came opposite the Spartans, all the boys and many of the men arose and yieldedtheir places.Whereupon the assembled multitude of Greeks expressed their approbation of the custom by applause, and commended the action beyond measure; but the old man, shaking his grey-haired head and with tears in his eyes, said, “Alas for the evil days! Because all the Greeks know what is right and fair, but the Spartans alone practice it.”

69. Another, passing by a tomb at night, and imagining that he saw a ghost, ran at it with uplifted spear, and, as he thrust at it, he exclaimed, “Where are you fleeing from me, you soul that shall die twice?”

71. Another, in the thick of the fight, was about to bring down his sword on an enemy when the recall sounded, and he checked the blow. When someone inquired why, when he had his enemy in his power, he did not kill him, he said, “Because it is better to obey one’s commander than to slay an enemy.”




Review Questions


  1. Why did all of the Spartans at the Olympic Games stand up in 55? Answer in a sentence.


  1. In a paragraph, describe the sort of virtues the Spartans practiced according to these selections from Plutarch’s writing.