Human beings do not like human beings much in this millennium. They don’t even like to be left with themselves—creating distance from their own minds with the use of opioids and hallucinogens. They are hardly about to participate in church life or in Little League. The mediating associations Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at in America, the bulwarks of civil society, are going the way of the Dodo.
This makes it less surprising that we have soured on politics. We don’t know our political institutions, trust our politicians, or participate in political life. Erstwhile voters talk about being powerless, like subjects. We are unsure what citizenship means.
Plutarch of Chaeronea (45 AD-127 AD) was an expert on political atomization. As a Greek and appointed priest at Delphi who was also a magistrate of the Roman Empire, he strove to prevent the formerly autonomous Greek cities from “becom[ing] still less” than they were already reduced to under imperial rule. His worries were backlit by an abiding problem: the long-term failure of Greek politics and the polis despite its philosophic claims, and the success of the Roman enterprise.
He lived at a time when Greece’s best and brightest were decamping as fast as they could for careers in Rome, the apparent master of the known world. Those left behind felt marginalized and bitter. Plutarch predicted that the apathy of the remaining citizens could only mean the petering out of liberty. “When the leg has [already] been fettered,” he thought it would be deadly to “go on and subject the neck to the yoke.”
It’s here, within the landscape of a universalizing rule under which the disaffected chafe, that Hugh Liebert situates his argument in Plutarch’s Politics: Between City and Empire. The associate professor of political science at the U.S. Military Academy aims to reinstate Plutarch, who invented the literary form of the Lives as the instrument of his political teaching, in the canon of political theory relevant for contemporary discussion.
The Role of Honor in Political Life
In examining the polis, Plutarch took cues from Aristotle and Plato even as he rebelled somewhat in his approach. Lectures and dialogues suited a time when men were willing to gather together in conversation and community. Lost by Plutarch’s time was an understanding of the fundamental place of political activity in human activity, and of politics as the means by which man had “dignity” in the form of honor.
To recapture that connection required things difficult for a conquered people to access with safety: their former way of life; the honor-loving (philotimia) statesmen of the pre-imperial age; and an education in how to praise and blame properly. Greeks no longer knew how to judge between political orders and people without falling into “uncritical hagiography on the one hand, and overcritical skepticism on the other,” writes Liebert.
This situation was not going to be remedied by presenting politics from the philosopher’s vantage point, relaying a private conversation with a king about political regimes in some cloistered garden. Plutarch believed that showing the human being in political action was essential. The Life does even more, providing “an intimate portrait, replete with candid anecdotes and memorable sayings,” so that readers can see into the character of those held in the highest esteem by their peers.
Plutarch thus writes his collection of Lives of famous men from Sparta and Athens, and from Rome during the Republic, to show in the flesh the different arguments each city made about the best way of life for the human being and the community. By presenting his subjects in pairs, and rounding out each set with a Synkrisis (comparison), Plutarch leads readers to not only weigh these differences, the “strangeness of virtue” as it shows itself in lived experience, but to trace how the character of each city at its founding and in its maturity reveals what the nature of its decline or progression might be.
His project over all is to prove that Greece’s decay and Rome’s success show us how politics is intelligible, if studied. Plutarch’s narrative about Sparta and republican Rome ends with great men displaced from their homes. Liebert notes that the “death scenes of Cleomenes, the last of Plutarch’s Spartans, and Antony, the last of Plutarch’s Romans, are both set in Alexandria, far from their native cities.” The Egyptians must interpret these strange men in their midst and act accordingly. If a foreigner can interpret an exile’s actions, then a reader of Lives of individuals in bygone political systems can also learn to his practical advantage about human character and the political through a literary encounter with them.
Liebert’s insight into the purpose of Plutarch’s scenes of exile illuminates the centuries-long popularity of the Lives. He also suggests why Plutarch fell from his high place of favor, being hardly read today outside of classics departments. Plutarch’s subjects are presented as “great men,” and therefore 19th century writers interested in hagiography easily expropriated his project. Liebert does yeoman’s work in showing how Thomas Carlyle’s lectures and biographical essays promoting hero worship were thought to be inspired by Plutarch’s Lives, and how such disparate thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Alexis de Tocqueville contributed to the view of Plutarch as a storyteller of the heroic. With the advent of historical criticism, and the fall from favor of the Great Man Theory, Plutarch fell, too. Thomas Macaulay and Benjamin Constant scoffed at Plutarch’s understanding of liberty and political life as being nothing more than sententious airy-fairyness.
Not so, Liebert demonstrates. Plutarch’s appeal, he writes, was not to greatness alone but to how philotemia or the love of honor rather accounts for the behavior of outstanding individuals. Plutarch’s treatment of the honor-lover is an attempt to rescue the regime-based analysis of Socratic political philosophy for the age of political forms, when universalizing principles tied to cities and empires (and eventually nations), but not the polis, appear to set the horizon of the political community within which human beings live.
Others who studied the polis—disciples of Socrates other than Plutarch, that is—were wont to argue that the best regime was that in which the wise ruled. They suspected philotimia for being an outward-only show that courts the public eye but leaves the individual, when in private, unhindered in the pursuit of excess.
Lycurgus and Numa
In his in-depth analysis of one pair of Lives, Lycurgus of Sparta and Numa of Rome, Liebert responds to that suspicion. He reveals how Plutarch makes the counter-case in his Life of Lycurgus, where with a subtle nod to Xenophon, he shows how Lycurgus shaped that city so as to make Spartans be driven equally by desire for virtue as for public recognition. The key was to tie both of them to the praise and blame of fellow Spartans, eliminating all the distinctions of the private in favor of radical public spiritedness. This included citizens’ very bodies, in their tastes, pleasures, and pains. Radical public spiritedness required something else—the effectual elimination, for the Spartan, of the rest of the world’s opinions. If honor can only come from within Sparta, no Spartan will go abroad to seek it through conquest of other cities.
Lycurgus institutionalized the competition for honor in the rhythms of Spartan life, making the practice of virtue a spectacle for all to see, through the laws. Completely inward looking, Sparta becomes a “kosmos” unto itself, representing the city par excellence. In Plutarch’s telling, it’s the diverting of Sparta’s inward gaze to the larger Greek world and beyond that undoes her carefully wrought system of philotemia. When the later Lysander introduces gold and silver into their economic system, Spartans become outward-looking.
The Peloponnesian War exacerbates this, creating a generation of Spartan leaders who mixed with an international elite, and learned about earning honor among other Greeks. With Sparta’s victory, Lysander and Agesilaus challenge Sparta’s foundations: “If Sparta was in fact first among Greek cities, why should she not rule her fellow Greeks?” Agesilaus glories in commanding a Panhellenic campaign against the Persians, not because he is Spartan, but because he wants to accomplish a “deed worthy of remembrance in the eyes of the Greeks,” Plutarch notes. Once Sparta self-identifies as Greek, she reaches for empire over all of Greece. Lycurgus’s system of philotemia cannot in the end accommodate Sparta’s being “Greek and a city simultaneously,” writes Liebert.
Rome’s ability to transform from a city to empire is as rooted in the legislative foundation bequeathed it by Numa as Sparta’s failure is rooted in the foundation built by Lycurgus. Numa expands the limits of honor-seeking to the whole world by making the natural kosmos present to the people of Rome. Numa shows how a multitude of peoples, or ethne, who initially disagree about what makes a city, can come together in a city.
Plutarch’s Life of Numa is a real-life version of the Platonic philosopher-king. Numa is a Sabine, a philosopher not a warrior, for he “believe[d] that true bravery consisted in the subjugation of one’s passions by reason.” He would reform the violent Romans through altering the dynamics of the city’s honor. If political life could be understood as a “field for great and noble actions, where gods are honored with magnificent virtue,” then Numa’s task was to take the essential Roman material—the pursuit of martial glory—and redirect it toward esteem of the gods. To effect the transformation of philotimia into something resembling philosophia, Numa turns to the practice of political theology.
He imbues his laws with mystery and sacredness by encouraging the Romans’ belief that he shares a mystical—and physical—communion with a goddess. Numa tames the Romans’ “fierce and warlike tempers” by “sacrifices, processions, and religious dances . . . which mingled with their solemnity a diversion full of charm and a beneficent pleasure,” Plutarch writes. Numa’s success, Liebert argues, comes from convincing the Romans that “the proper expression of the soul’s capacity to admire and to love” is found in divinity, not violent action. It also rests on the order of priests Numa installs at the center of Roman life. It’s the priests who maintain contact with the divine, and it’s their perceived task of contemplating the natural kosmos that institutionalizes within Rome the awareness of universality.
This enables Rome to become an empire after Numa’s rule ends, but this does not occur through the peaceful spread of a religion. Numa’s plan goes awry in part due to the difference between public and private honor. His Rome narrows the avenue to the highest honors to the priests, whose connection to the divine is shrouded from public view. The question seems to be whether pushing philotemia to the dark edges of public life starves it out of existence, and is a better way to control philotemia’s more problematic effects than Lycurgus’ radical publicizing of honor.
Plutarch answers this dilemma oddly, by going off on a tangent in his Life of Numa about another Greek besides Lycurgus. Numa’s placement of a class of initiates at the center of political life is compared to the story of Pythagoras, and his rise to political prominence through the establishment of a highly selective philosophical school. But Pythagoras ended badly, perishing in a fire set by a son of the city’s elite whom Pythagoras had refused to admit into his school. The digression about Pythagoras (of whom no separate Life was written) suggests that the Pythagorean failure was the failure of the philosopher to “give the imperfect world of politics its due.”
The lesson for Numa, Liebert argues, is that the contemplative and active life are the most difficult of all tasks to reconcile with each other: “politicized philosophy tends either to distort or to ignore political passions, with negative consequences for both.” Numa dies peacefully, but after his death the priests revert to their old Roman ways, but now with an expanded vision of the politically possible. “Numa’s failed attempt to bring the cosmos into the city thus ends up fashioning the citizens who will extend their city to the ends of the earth,” Liebert concludes.
The Ancients and Us
Plutarch makes visible the competitions for honor and the qualities of soul that such contests engaged, breathing life into the possibility for honor-seeking under political forms other than the polis. This Plutarchian insight leads Liebert to a discussion of how Enlightenment-inspired liberalism’s response to the question of honor has placed us in comparison to the men of the Roman Empire in Plutarch’s time. This is an important discussion, made necessary by Liebert’s overarching argument about Plutarch’s modern relevance. But as Liebert himself suggests, readers interested in Plutarch’s argument can skip said discussion.
It’s regrettable that for Liebert, rehabilitating Plutarch entails emphasizing one Greek city, Sparta, as a contrast with Rome, and this largely through the Lycurgus-Numa pair of Lives, with only scattered references to a handful of Plutarch’s other leading protagonists. The absence from this work of the Life of Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, and its scant treatment of Athens in general restricts our ability to appreciate what is the full character of Greece and what of Rome; how Plutarch’s distinction between the two approaches a commentary about the philosophic city in practice and the spirited or thumotic city; and crucially, why Plutarch’s emphasis on statesmanship entails showing the vital role that education plays in attaching the pursuit of honor to preservation of the regime.
Liebert’s approach also obscures somewhat that Plutarch makes an actual call to return to political life. His argument is that only through participation in political life broadly understood can the human being achieve dignity or honor. The Life shows how this is done—it gives the world of politics its due.
Managing the State, the Household, and One’s Self
Plutarch, who seldom editorializes, nonetheless places in his Synkrisis of Aristides of Athens with the Roman Senator Marcus Cato the following observation:
Questionless, there is no perfecter endowment in man than political virtue, and of this Economics is commonly esteemed not the least part; for a city, which is a collection of private households, grows into a stable commonwealth by the private means of prosperous citizens that compose it.
“Economics” is the inadequate English word for this Greek concept of the “oikos,” which has to do with how a person’s life should best be regulated (by himself and the laws). Plutarch’s Lives are replete with anecdotes of individuals tending to or abandoning their marriages and families, their possessions, and their households, their friends and neighbors. His “oikos” is the prudent management of things, requiring almost philosophic knowledge to put into practice. After all, to manage things one first has to know the nature of those things.
Political virtue for Plutarch is rooted in this economic knowledge but superior to it; it requires the politician (statesman) to take into account the people outside his own circle who have opinions about things but less knowledge of them or how to prioritize them. Managing this relationship is therefore the most difficult of all endeavors, and those who do it well warrant our study and imitation.
Statesmanship, it turns out, is not simply about great deeds but is something practiced, always with a view to its limitations. Plutarch recalls great men and their great deeds, but his purpose is the recovery of the political art under even the most inauspicious conditions. He is truly an author for our times.
 In the interests of full disclosure, Liebert and I have spoken many times about Plutarch, and we coauthored “From Cicero to Trump, They’re All in Plutarch’s Lives,” (Wall Street Journal, September 1, 2017).