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Selected Lives: From the Parallel Lives of…

Selected Lives: From the Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (vuoden 1982 painos)

– tekijä: Plutarch (Tekijä)

JäseniäKirja-arvostelujaSuosituimmuussijaKeskimääräinen arvioKeskustelut
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The World Literature series reproduces the greatest books the world over with only the highest production standards. History, philosophy, psychology, political theory, fiction, and ancient texts are now accessible to everyone at an extremely affordable price.
Teoksen nimi:Selected Lives: From the Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
Kirjailijat:Plutarch (Tekijä)
Info:The Franklin Library (1982), Edition: 1st
Kokoelmat:Oma kirjasto, History
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Selected Lives (tekijä: Plutarch)


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Selected Lives

Wordsworth Classics, Paperback, 1998.

12mo. xxii+866 pp. Translated by Thomas North. Selected, and with an Introduction [vii-xxii], by Judith Mossman. Cover illustration: Cleopatra and Octavian (1787-88) by Louis Gauffier (1761-1801).

Originally written in Greek as Βίοι Παράλληλοι, early 2nd century AD.
French translation by Jacques Amyot, 1559.
English translation by Thomas North, 1579.
Edited by George Wyndham for the Tudor Translation series, 1895.
Wordsworth Classics, 1998.


Life of Theseus
Life of Romulus
Comparison of Theseus with Romulus

Life of Alcibiades
Life of Coriolanus
Comparison of Alcibiades with Coriolanus

Life of Pyrrus
Life of Marius

Life of Nicias
Life of Crassus
Comparison of Crassus with Nicias

Life of Alexander
Life of Julius Caesar

Life of Demosthenes
Life of Cicero
Comparison of Cicero with Demosthenes

Life of Demetrius
Life of Antonius
Comparison of Demetrius with Antonius

Life of Dion
Life of Brutus
Comparison of Dion with Brutus

Glossary of Proper Names


First of all, why read Thomas North (1579) when you can read John Dryden (1683), Aubrey Stewart and George Long (1890s), Bernadotte Perrin (1914-26), Ian Scott-Kilvert (1965, Penguin Classics) or Robin Waterfield (1998-9, Oxford World’s Classics)? Besides, North didn’t translate the Greek original but another translation, the French one by Amyot. So, not only is he “dated”, but there is a suspicious French Connection about him. So, why read him?

Well, read him for the Elizabethan connection. It is a wonderful feeling to read something that was also read by Shakespeare. Possibly the only biographical fact about the Bard that can be ascertained on no documentary evidence whatsoever – and certainly the only one that can be inferred from this plays (which are not documentary evidence, pace the zany “scholars”) – is that he read Plutarch’s Lives very carefully indeed. And he read it in the North translation, not because it was recent and easy to obtain, but because the language of his “Roman” plays leaves no doubt of that.

Second of all, it is useful to put Plutarch in the correct chronological context. If he was writing early in the 2nd century AD, as it seems probable, this already makes Cicero, Caesar, Crassus, Pompey, Brutus and Mark Antony almost two centuries old. Alexander is more than two centuries farther back. He died in 323 BC. Alcibiades, Pericles, Cimon and Coriolanus belong to the 5th century BC – just about six centuries before Plutarch. Romulus and Theseus, if they ever existed, are usually dated to the 8th and 13th centuries BC, respectively. They must have been quite mythological already in Plutarch’s time.

This is enough to put history readers on their guard. Suetonius and especially Herodotus are fanciful enough. But Plutarch is much farther removed in time from his subject than either of them. To his credit, he does realise the time scale raises serious problems of veracity. This is clearly stated in the very beginning, and not without humour (Theseus, 1):

Like as historiographers describing the world (friend Sossius Senecio) do of purpose refer to the uttermost parts of their maps the far distant regions whereof they be ignorant, with this note: these countries are by means of sands and droughts unnavigable, rude, full of venomous beasts, Scythian ice, and frozen seas. Even so may I (which in comparing noble men’s lives have already gone so far into antiquity, as the true and certain history could lead me) of the rest, being things past all proof or challenge, very well say: that beyond this time all is full of suspicion and doubt, being delivered us by poets and tragedy makers, sometimes without truth and likelihood, and always without certainty.

To be precise, however, here Plutarch refers only to Theseus and Romulus, the oldest members of his parallel company. He seems to have considered all of the others belonging to “the true and certain history”. This is nonsense, of course.

Man is a myth-making animal. There is neither any limit to his myth-making faculties nor any guarantee that they are exercised on a core of historical truth. A century, even in modern times, is quite long enough to make fact and fiction very hard to separate. Look at the wealth of spurious anecdotes around the sinking of the Titanic; were it not for Bob Ballard, we still would have thought the ship went down in one piece. Some two centuries back, look at the vast mythology around Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” or the virtuoso careers of Liszt and Paganini. Go back long enough, use some sacred text as a guide, and even the Trojan War and Jesus Christ become history.

Plutarch, again much to his credit, is quite honest with his readers. In another famous passage, he frankly admits he is not writing history at all. He is after characters, including the gossipy trifles about them which he deems (perhaps rightly) more revealing than the famous events (Alexander, 1):

For they [the readers] must remember, that my intent is not to write histories, but only lives. For, the noblest deeds do not always show men’s virtues and vices, but oftentimes a light occasion, a word, or some sport makes men’s natural dispositions and manners appear more plain, than the famous battles won, wherein are slain ten thousand men, or the great armies or cities won by siege or assault.

So, Plutarch is best read as fiction. This raises another problem. Except perversities like “required reading” in school or snobbish bookworms who struggle through the “classics” to become “well-read”, fiction is read for pleasure. Well, Plutarch doesn’t sound like a pleasant read, does he? As you can see from the quotes above, he is as turgid as they come. No doubt North had something to do with that, but apparently less than one might suppose.[1]

That said, Plutarch is an oddly engaging, even endearing, read. Whatever the deficiencies of his style, he strives to be a literary artist. The same cannot be said of Herodotus and Suetonius: I have read both for information rather than entertainment. Plutarch (and North) I have actually enjoyed. For all of his convoluted, repetitious and digressive writing, he is a swift and skilful storyteller, far superior to the ponderous rambling of Herodotus. Plutarch’s gift for drawing vivid characters and describing dramatic scenes make Suetonius sound blander than ever. And he is not as dry as you might have read in many reviews. The narrative has a lively personal touch, vigorous and compelling intensity, and even some bits of humour. Consider this hilarious detail about Alexander’s army (Theseus, 5):

And for this selfsame consideration, Alexander the Great commanded his captains to cause all the Macedonians to shave their beards: because it is the easiest hold (and readiest for the hand) a man can have of his enemy in fighting, to hold him fast by the same.

This is just as historical as Alexander’s descent from Hercules, of which the author is certain (Alexander, 2). But never mind that! Fact and fable alike are grist to Plutarch’s mill. Fable alone will also do. Consider Theseus. He defeated the Minotaur, the Amazons, the centaurs and just about anything and anybody else, putting to shame this mythological amateur Hercules; he anticipated the Trojan War by abducting Helen from Sparta, but she was too young for marriage, alas; he invented the Athenian democracy long before the 5th century BC; he organised lavish cross-dressing parties; he made even the Cretans fear Athens. Mighty creature! It would be a pity if he never existed.

Once you get used to the style, and that may take some time, you’ll have to get used to Plutarch’s moralising agenda as well. He is apt to sound contrived and superficial when he insists on comparing to death his parallel characters. He takes for certain things he has previously reported as merely said by this or that “historiographer”. The coupling criteria can be strange, too. Theseus is the founder of Athens, Romulus the founder of Rome, both were “ravishers of women”, obviously an excellent parallel couple. Last and least, the author’s judgement seems to be slightly coloured by national bias. Plutarch is a Greek patriot first and only then a Roman citizen.

On the positive side, Plutarch’s moralising is confined mostly to the “comparisons” in the end of each parallel life. These are short sections (5-10 pages at most), some of them have not made it through the last nineteen centuries, and they are more like summaries. Even in them Plutarch is seldom judgemental. He is rather excited about the contrast between his characters. Suetonius is certainly more impartial about his dozen, but for that very reason he is also more boring. That’s the nicest thing about Plutarch. He seems to have been one of those rare birds – rare even among writers who should know better – genuinely enthusiastic about the diversity of human nature.

Plutarch shares with Herodotus the curious vice of including things that “peradventure please the readers better for their strangeness and curiosity, than offend or mislike them for their falsehood” (Romulus, 12). But he does it in a more charming[2], and even more profound, way than the native of Halicarnassus. Just a little later, Plutarch defines with unexpected precision, and quite unwittingly for he is a pious man, the profane origin of all religions (Romulus, 28):

To conclude, men tell many other such wonders, that are far from any appearance of truth: only because they would make men to be as gods, and equal with them in power.

Like every great historical novelist, Plutarch is not afraid of expressing personal opinions. For example: “Alexander thinking it more princely for a king, as I suppose, to conquer himself, than to overcome his enemies” (Alexander, 21). This is debatable, of course, but the fact that Alexander didn’t assault the honour of the wife and daughters of Darius, reportedly a bunch of smashing beauties, does support Plutarch’s idea. Likewise suspicious at first sight, yet plausible on reflection, is Plutarch’s opinion that the Roman soldiers “do not so much esteem the captains that honour and reward them, as they do those that in dangerous attempts labour, and venture their lives with them” (Marius, 7). Plutarch is most fascinating about the reason for the civil war which de facto, if not de jure, destroyed the Roman Republic (Caesar, 13):

For it was not the private discord between Pompey and Caesar, as many men thought, that caused the civil war: but rather it was their agreement together, who used all their powers first to overthrow the state of the senate and nobility, and afterwards they fell at jar one with another.

Again like every great historical novelist, Plutarch is deeply interested in reasons and motives. He constantly asks the most important of all questions. Why? Why was Caesar assassinated? Why was Brutus the ringleader? Why Alcibiades (or Coriolanus, for that matter) changed sides? Why Cicero befriended Octavian? Why Marius and Sulla hated each other? Why Crassus went into Persia at all? All these questions and many others are answered, in Plutarch’s opinion if not research, and I don’t want to spoil them for you.

Plutarch’s attitude to his characters is pleasantly cynical. One was supposed to have had a single vice (greed) that drowned many virtues, but “for mine own opinion, methinks he could not be touched with that vice alone without others, since it grew so great, as the note of that only did hide and cover all his other vices” (Crassus, 2). Another one was honoured by the Athenians with a sanctuary in which the goddess Minerva was supposed to lie with him, yet “to say truly, he was too unchaste a guest, to think that a maiden goddess would be content he should lie with her” (Demetrius, 23). A third built himself a house at the market place in Rome, presumably to play a man from the people, but our smart biographer is not fooled by this (Marius, 32):

Howbeit that was not the cause indeed, but the only cause was, for that he had no natural grace nor civility to entertain men courteously that came unto him, and that he lacked behaviour besides to rule in a commonwealth: and therefore in time in peace they made no more reckoning of him, than they did of an old rusty harness or implement that was good for nothing, but for the wars only.

Now and then, Plutarch even shows traces of examining evidence like a true historian, occasionally reaching bold conclusions. Alexander’s delusions of divinity are a case in point. Having examined some remarkably irreverent comments of the legendary hero, our ancient raconteur concludes in this provocative way (Alexander, 28):

By these proofs and reasons alleged, we may think that Alexander had no vain nor presumptuous opinion of himself, to think that he was otherwise begotten of a god, but that he did it in policy to keep other men under obedience, by the opinion conceived of his godhead.

And yet, at least in the end of his life, Alexander was madly superstitious. This is only a single example of the complex and contradictory humanity that permeates Plutarch’s characters. Incidentally, the passage is beautifully written and worth quoting; note how specific example is merged with general reflection (Alexander, 75):

Now after that Alexander had left his trust and confidence in the gods, his mind was so troubled and afraid, that no strange thing happened unto him (how little so ever it was) but he took it straight for a sign and prediction from the gods, so that his tent was always full of priests and soothsayers that did nothing but sacrifice and purify, and tend unto divinements. So horrible a thing is the mistrust and contempt of the gods, when it is begotten in the hearts of men, and superstition also so dreadful, that it filleth the guilty consciences and fearful hearts like water distilling from above: as at that time it filled Alexander with all folly after that fear had once possessed him.

It is true that Plutarch is often gossipy and anecdotal, shying away neither from implausible incidents nor from atrocious melodrama. But it’s also true that he has a flair for intrigue and character that suits his subject to perfection. And what a subject! Alexander against Darius and Porus; Caesar against Vercingetorix and Pompey; Crassus and Spartacus; Cicero and the Catiline conspiracy; Romulus and the Sabine women; Marius and the Germanic tribes; Crassus losing his head at Carrhae, Cicero at Caieta and Pompey in Egypt; Brutus losing the world at Philippi and Antony at Actium; it’s all here. Some of Plutarch’s anecdotes have so firmly entered Western mythology that no amount of new evidence in favour of their fictional nature would have the slightest effect. Several examples for your delectation (Alexander, 29; Caesar, 11 & 32):

Darius at that time wrote unto Alexander, and unto certain of his friends also, to pray him to take ten thousands talents for the ransom of all those prisoners he had in his hands, and for all the countries, lands and signories on their side of the river Euphrates, and one of his daughters also in marriage, that from thenceforth he might be his kinsman and friend. Alexander imparted this to his council. Amongst them Parmenio said unto him: ‘If I were Alexander’, quoth he, ‘surely I would accept this offer.’ ‘So would I indeed,’ quoth Alexander again, ‘if I were Parmenio.’ In fine, he wrote again unto Darius, that if he would submit himself, he would use him courteously: if not, that then he would march towards him.

Another time also when he was in Spain, reading the history of Alexander’s acts, when he had read it, he was sorrowful a good while after, and then burst out in weeping. His friends seeing that, marvelled what should be the cause of his sorrow. He answered them, ‘Do ye not think,’ said he, ‘that I have good cause to be heavy, when King Alexander being no older than myself is now, had in old time won so many nations and countries: and that I hitherto have done nothing worthy of myself.’

When he was come unto the little river of Rubicon, which divideth Gaul on this side the Alps from Italy, he stayed upon a sudden. For, the nearer he came to execute his purpose, the more remorse he had in his conscience, to think what an enterprise he took in hand: and his thoughts also fell out more doubtful, when he entered into consideration of the desperateness of his attempt. So he fell into many thoughts of himself, and spoke never a word, waving sometime one way, sometime another way, and often times changed his determination, contrary to himself. So did he talk much also with his friends he had with him, amongst whom was Asinius Pollio, telling them what mischiefs the beginning of this passage over that river would breed in the world, and how much their posterity and them that lived after them, would speak of it in time to come. But at length, casting from him with a noble courage, all those perilous thoughts to come, and speaking these words which valiant men commonly say, that attempt dangerous and desperate enterprises, ‘A desperate man fears no danger: come on’, he passed over the river, and when he was come over, he ran with his coach and never stayed, so that before daylight he was within the city of Ariminium, and took it. It is said, that the night before he passed over this river, he dreamed a damnable dream, that he carnally knew his mother.

The ultimate example of history meeting mythology is, of course, the story of Antony and Cleopatra. Short of Shakespeare, you won’t find a more riveting account of this couple than Plutarch. Marcus Antonius is one of his masterpieces. It runs to 70 pages and is the second longest (after Alexander) in this book, but it makes for a totally engrossing read. If you must read but one of Plutarch’s “lives”, read this one.

No wonder the Bard found it so rewarding. For my part, nothing reveals the genius of Shakespeare better than a study of his sources, especially Plutarch. Whether he quoted the original almost word for word, as in the famous description of Cleopatra on the river Cydnus (26), or built virtually from scratch, as in the character of Enobarbus (63), Shakespeare transformed the original[4]. One of the most tremendous scenes in the Shakespeare canon (Julius Caesar, III.2.) was developed from these bare bones in Plutarch (14):

And therefore when Caesar’s body was brought to the place where it should be buried, he made a funeral oration in commendation of Caesar, according to the ancient custom of praising noblemen at their funerals. When he saw that the people were very glad and desirous also to hear Caesar spoken of, and his praises uttered, he mingled his oration with lamentable words, and by amplifying of matters did greatly move their hearts and affections unto pity and compassion. In fine, to conclude his oration, he unfold before the whole assembly the bloody garments of the dead, thrust through in many places with their swords, and called the malefactor, cruel and cursed murderers. With these words he put the people into such a fury, that they presently took Caesar’s body, and burnt it in the market-place, with such tables and forms as they could get together. Then when the fire was kindled, they took firebrands, and ran to the murderers’ houses to set them afire, and to make them come out to fight.

Brutus’s dully formal speech, so important by way of contrast to Antony’s much more emotionally charged performance, is mentioned even more briefly in his “life” (Brutus, 18). Both speeches are really Shakespeare’s original creations[5].

That said, I must admit I have been unfair to Plutarch in my Shakespearean reviews. To be sure, the Bard raised the original to another level: the plot of Antony and Cleopatra is straight out of Plutarch, if masterfully abridged, but the characters are rather more affecting (and often ruined by poor acting). And yet, the tragic foundations of Antony, if not of Cleopatra, were laid some 15 centuries earlier. Indeed, early in his narrative (Antonius, 17), Plutarch provides a general description of the tragic character which Shakespeare might not have been displeased to pen:

Every man that feeleth want or adversity, knoweth by virtue and discretion what he should do: but when indeed they are overlaid with extremity, and be sore oppressed, few have the hearts to follow that which they praise and commend, and much less to avoid that they reprove and mislike. But rather to the contrary, they yield to their accustomed easy life: and through faint heart, and lack of courage, do change their first mind and purpose.

Antony, like Byron’s Conrad, was a man of “one virtue, and a thousand crimes” (The Corsair, last line). The virtue was his attitude to the soldiers. He shared every hardship with them, be it drinking puddle water or eating roots. Antony didn’t share the wealth of conquest with his soldiers: he gave it all to them. No wonder the legions adored him even more than they did Caesar. It was this adoration, rather than any military merit, that saved Antony’s Parthian campaign from being a complete disaster. Plutarch paints this in heroic colours. If he is to be believed, it was an epic tale of survival that makes Xenophon’s Anabasis look tame. Anyway, one must admire Antony’s compassionate democracy in regard to his soldiers. It was justly rewarded by the men (43):

For indeed to say truly, there was not at that time any emperor or captain that had so great and puissant an army as his together, both for lusty youths and courage of the soldiers, as also for their patience to away with so great pains and trouble. Furthermore, the obedience and reverence they showed unto their captain, with a marvellous earnest love and goodwill, was so great, and all were indifferently (as well great as small, the noblemen as mean men, the captains and soldiers) so earnestly bent to esteem Antonius’ goodwill and favour above their own life and safety, that in this point of martial discipline, the ancient Romans could not have done any more. But diverse things were cause thereof, as we have told you before: Antonius’ nobility and ancient house, his eloquence, his plain nature, his liberality and magnificence, and his familiarity to sport and to be merry in company: but specially the care he took at that time to help, visit, and lament those that were sick and wounded, seeing every man to have that which was meet for him: that was of such force and effect, as it made them that were sick and wounded to love him better, and were more desirous to do him service, than those that were whole and sound.

Antony’s vices make quite a list. Above all and from his youth onwards, he was an incorrigible party animal. Hard drinking and hard fornication were the activities he enjoyed most. He practised them everywhere, in Rome or in the East, with unflagging passion. (What a constitution this man must have had!) He was a fine speaker, as we all know, but his style was “Asiatic [...] full of ostentation, foolish bravery, and vain ambition” (2). The concept of justice was somewhat foreign to him, too: “he purchased divers other men’s evil wills, because that through negligence he would not do them justice that were injured, and dealt very churlishly with them that had any suit unto him: and besides all this, he had an ill name to entice men’s wives” (6).

Though far from stupid, Antony was not particularly subtle in political matters. He was certainly far less astute than Caesar whom he served devotedly but perhaps misguidedly. Plutarch speculates that Antony’s ostentatious lifestyle in Rome was one of the reasons that made the conspiracy against Caesar grow stronger. As the saying goes, when the cat is away (in Spain, Gaul or Egypt), the mice (in Rome) will play. You can almost see Plutarch rubbing his hands gleefully (6, 9-10):

To conclude, Caesar’s friends that governed under him, were cause why they hated Caesar’s government (which indeed in respect of himself was no less than a tyranny), by reason of the great insolencies and outrageous parts that were committed: amongst whom Antonius, that was of greatest power, and that also committed greatest faults, deserved most blame.


...the noblemen (as Cicero saith) did not only mislike him, but also hate him for his naughty life: for they did abhor his banquets and drunken feasts he made at unreasonable times, and his extreme wasteful expenses upon vain light housewives, and then in the day time he would sleep or walk out his drunkenness, thinking to wear away the fume of the abundance of wine which he had taken overnight.
Now it grieved men much, to see that Caesar should be out of Italy following of his enemies to end this great war, with such great peril and danger: and that others in the meantime abusing his name and authority, should commit such insolent and outrageous parts unto their citizens.

This methinks was the cause that made the conspiracy against Caesar increase more and more...

It is no spoiler to say that Antony was not exactly lucky with his women. He first married the formidable Fulvia, “a woman not so basely minded to spend her time in spinning and housewifery, and was not contented to master her husband at home, but would also rule him in his office abroad [...] so that Cleopatra was to give Fulvia thanks for that she had taught Antonius this obedience to women” (10). Fulvia having done her earthly bit of mischief, Antony then took, for entirely political reasons, Octavian’s sister, Octavia. She proved to be much too saintly for him. This worked against Antony, Plutarch observes with malicious twinkle in his eyes, for many people were mightily offended that anybody could desert such a marvellous wife for what, after all, was but an Egyptian whore.

Antony’s greatest crime, according to Plutarch if not posterity, was of course his affair with Cleopatra. Our guide declares himself unable to describe “all foolish sports they made” (29); he is content to give just a few examples like their fishing joke and their roaming the city disguised (both of which Shakespeare diligently copied[6]). The parties Tony and Cleo gave regularly in Alexandria were the talk of the Roman world. This is one of the very few places (28) where Plutarch claims a personal connection with the events he describes. It is only third-hand. Plutarch’s grandfather, Lamprias, knew in his youth one Philotas, a physician, who had known one of the cooks in Antony’s house in Alexandria. That’s how he (Philotas) saw with his own eyes the ludicrous excess of those halcyon days. Many years later, he regaled Lamprias with tall stories. Many more years later, Lamprias passed this precious knowledge to his grandson. Plutarch was not amused.

For the most part, Plutarch can hardly contain his disgust with Antony’s Cleopatrian bondage. He becomes especially virulent after the truce from Tarentum gave an illusion of peace between Antony and Octavian. It really paved the way to Actium as Antony began giving Cleopatra provinces as presents. Plutarch is rightly indignant about that, but I think he errs when he reduces his condition to mere lust (43):

Then began this pestilent plague and mischief of Cleopatra’s love (which had slept a long time, and seemed to have been utterly forgotten, and that Antonius had given place to better counsel) again to kindle, and to be in force, so soon as Antonius came near unto Syria. And in the end, the horse of the mind as Plato terms it, that is so hard of rein (I mean the unreined lust of concupiscence) did put out of Antonius’ head, all honest and commendable thoughts...

This is a rare example of Plutarch the moralist invading his “lives” proper. This is where Shakespeare, the least moralising of all writers, improves most notably on his rich source. If the world in the 1st century BC was lost for love, he says, it was well lost. Octavian won the whole Empire for himself and quite long did he keep it. But his whole reign was one long anticlimax, as he recognised himself immediately after he was informed of Antony’s death (78). Never again did Octavian get another chance to contest the world. No adversary was worthy of that. Antony lost the Empire all right. But he had all the fun.

So much for Antony! Quite a character, is he? As for Cleopatra, Plutarch is kind enough to note that her charms went beyond mere physical beauty, which indeed “was not so passing, as unmatchable of other women” (27), and he does invest her lament at Antony’s burial with certain pathos (84). But on the whole he treats her like a slut and a regular home wrecker. Shakespeare does treat her even worse for most of his play, but in that tremendous final scene (V.2.) he transforms her into one of the greatest tragic heroines of all time. Plutarch’s version (83) is quite pathetic by comparison, but not out of sync with his character.

Plutarch writes with a special gusto about Antony, but he does lavish almost the same passion on the others. I have read the book more or less like I have written that review, starting with the most famous heroes and gradually working towards the more obscure names. I was pleased that even they proved to be fascinating characters. Only a few highlights may be mentioned briefly here.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, one of the most important figures in the late Republic and one of the most influential of all ancient Romans, is hardly an obscure name. But I knew little about his life and nothing about his character. Plutarch largely rectified this. He is deliberately evasive about Cicero’s famous orations and letters, though he is generous with his cutting quips. Cicero’s vital role in the Catiline conspiracy and his complex relationships with the Second Triumvirate are executed with Plutarch’s usual flair, as are Cicero’s posts as treasurer in Sicily and proconsul in Cilicia. Far from being merely a politician, Cicero was also a poet, a lawyer, a philosopher and a translator from Greek into Latin. Plutarch portrays him as an incredibly vain and ambitious man, greedy for honours and public acclaim, but not one who abused his (at times almost absolute) authority. As he writes in the “Comparison” between the two most famous orators of the ancient world:

But nothing showeth a man’s nature and condition more (as it is reported, and so is it true) than when one is in authority: for that bewrayeth his humour, and the affections of his mind, and layeth open also his secret vices in him.

No truer or more timeless statement has ever been made. The special thing about Cicero is that power seems to have revealed his virtues. He was at his best when he was “consul by name, but dictator in deed” and at his worst when he was in exile or in some other way devoid of authority.

My only Ciceronian criticism is that Plutarch could have been more detailed about the animosity between Cicero and Antony than “diversity and difference of their manners and dispositions” (43). But I do agree with him that Octavian, Antony and Lepidus, when they famously decided who should die for their convenience (46), “regarded nor kindred nor blood, and to speak more properly, they showed that no brute or savage beast is so cruel as man, if with his licentiousness he have liberty to execute his will.” This is Plutarch the moralist at his best.

Cicero was a fan of his Greek number. When he was asked which oratory of Demosthenes he liked best, he reportedly replied “The longest” (Cicero, 24). The life of Demosthenes is rather thought-provoking. Especially the early sections, mostly dedicated to his fantastically single-minded training as an orator, often read like “The Diary of a Demagogue”, or perhaps a better description would be “A Demagogue’s Dictionary”. It is disturbing how much people, then as now, are swayed by eloquence, even by trifles like facial expressions and rhetorical gestures, without paying attention to sense and meaning. Like Cicero, but to an even greater degree, Demosthenes could write orations for conflicting sides for the sheer pleasure of exercising his skill. Unlike Cicero, though he acquired fame, he never really attained power. That was perhaps fortunate for the Greeks.

Perhaps not. The ability of the ancient Greeks to turn against each other is fairly astonishing. Plutarch gives a most vivid idea of this, occasionally slipping into an almost Homeric carnage. It is curious that, of all his “lives”, only three (Themistocles, Aristides and Cimon, none included in this volume) are key figures in the Greco-Persian Wars, just about the only instance when the Greeks united themselves against a common enemy. The same number (Alcibiades, Nicias, Lysander) can be said to be central to the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), but that greatest of all Greek conflicts, far from being the end of internal discord, was merely the beginning.

Pyrrhus, who flourished at the turn of the 3rd century BC, may well serve as a symbol of Greece in Classical and Hellenistic times. He was “of such a nature, as could not long continue in peace” (Pyrrus, 12). He was King of Epirus, but he could seldom be found in his kingdom. He spent his whole life abroad, waging war against whoever could satisfy his ambition at the moment. He fought against the Macedonians, the Spartans, the Romans, the Carthaginians and the Argives. He was remarkably unsuccessful for somebody considered among the greatest commanders by Hannibal himself (8). Plutarch doesn’t coin the term “Pyrrhic victory”, but he describes it to a nicety during Pyrrhus’ ill-advised invasion of Italy (Pyrrus, 21):

And further, that there died in this battle, above fifteen thousand men, as well of Pyrrus’ side, as of the Romans’ part: and that at the last, both the one and the other did retire. And some say, that it was at that time Pyrrus answered one, who rejoiced with him for the victory they had won: ‘If we win another of the price’, quoth he, ‘we are utterly undone.’ For indeed then had he lost the most part of his army he brought with him out of his realm, and all his friends and captains in manner every one, or at the least there lacked little of it: and besides that, he had no means to supply them with other from thence, and perceived also that the confederates he had in Italy began to wax cold.

The Romans were no better, of course. Civil wars and power struggles, always bloody and often barbarous, were essential for them. Here Marius (157–86 BC) can stand as a symbol. Indeed, he is described in almost the same words as Pyrrhus: “For his nature not being framed to live in peace, and to govern civil matters, and having attained to his greatness by arms, and supposing that his glory and authority consumed and decreased altogether living idly in peace, he sought to devise new occasion of wars” (Marius, 31). Quite a character, this Marius, with his seven consulships and an endless string of wars, exiles, banishments, intrigues, flights, returns, assassinations, and so on, and so forth; most adventure novels pale in comparison. Plutarch paints him as a man of “extreme ambition” and “insatiable covetousness, which like boisterous winds made him to make shipwreck of all, in a most cruel, bloody and unnatural age.” Worst of all, Plutarch is dismayed, Marius “never learned the Greek tongue” (2). Now that is truly unforgivable.

Alexander apart, much the most interesting Greek character is Alcibiades, one of the key players in the Peloponnesian War. He is certainly more exciting than Nicias, the famous peacemaker. The life of Alcibiades is a staggering feat of opportunism and duplicity. He was an Athenian who successively defected to the Spartans and the Persians, yet managed to return to Athens as a hero – before he was exiled again. He was rich, smart, handsome, lecherous, eloquent, vain and valiant. Above all, he was chameleonic and hypocritical (23):

For among other qualities and properties he had (whereof he was full) this as they say was one whereby he most robbed men’s hearts: that he could frame altogether with their manners and fashions of life, transforming himself more easily to all manner of shapes, than the chameleon. For it is reported, that the chameleon cannot take white colour: but Alcibiades could put upon him any manners, customs or fashions, of what nation soever, and could follow, exercise, and counterfeit them when he would, as well the good as the bad. For in Sparta, he was very painful, and in continual exercise: he lived sparingly with little, and led a straight life. In Ionia, to the contrary: there he lived daintily and superfluously, and gave himself to all mirth and pleasure. In Thracia, he drank ever, or was always a-horseback. If he came to Tissaphernes, lieutenant of the mighty king of Persia, he far exceeded the magnificence of Persia in pomp and sumptuousness. And these things notwithstanding, never altered his natural condition from one fashion to another, neither did his manners (to say truly) receive all sorts of changes. But because peradventure, if he had showed his natural disposition, he might in divers places where he came have offended those whose company he kept, he did with such a visor and cloak disguise himself, to fit their manners whom he companied with, by transforming himself into their natural countenance.

Alcibiades had some rather strange ideas of gratitude. He was welcomed in Sparta as a valuable ally against his fellow Athenians. In return, “he entertained Queen Timaea, King Agis’ wife of Sparta, so well in his absence, he being abroad in the wars, that he got her with child” (23). When he was asked why he did it, he replied, in jest or not, that he wanted to put an heir on the Spartan throne.

Plutarch is rather brief on Hipparete, but he makes no bones about the abominable way in which Alcibiades treated his wife (8). She was dismayed with his constant philandering (“common light strumpets”) and tried to divorce him, but Alcibiades took her back home from the court without ceremony. This kind of “force”, Plutarch observes, “was not thought altogether unlawful, nor uncivil”. Alcibiades did even more than that actually. He brought home a slave girl whom he used as a concubine under his wife’s nose. He even had a son by her. No wonder Hipparete, who was a gentlewoman from a wealthy family, didn’t live long[7].

Alcibiades was a strong supporter of the disastrous Sicilian expedition (which Nicias opposed), but there he can’t be blamed. He was recalled to Athens to face charges of sacrilege before the debacle even began. He wisely went to Sparta and was sentenced to death in absentia in his home polis. And yet Alcibiades was not a soldier of fortune. Plutarch presents him as an Athenian patriot who was often let down by his own people (35): “For if ever man was overthrown and envied, for the estimation they had of his valour and sufficiency, truly Alcibiades was the man.” Even when he was back to power, he was eager to deserve it and careful not to abuse it (26 & 27):

First of all, they sent for Alcibiades, whom they chose their captain: then they commanded him straightly to lead them against these tyrants, who had usurped the liberty of the people of Athens. But nevertheless he did not therein, as another would have done in this case, seeing himself so suddenly crept again in favour with the common people: for he did not think he should incontinently please and gratify them in all things, though they had made him now their general over all their ships and so great an army, being before but a banished man, a vagabond, and a fugitive. But to the contrary, as it became a general worthy of such a charge, he considered with himself, that it was his part wisely to stay those, who would in a rage and fury carelessly cast themselves away, and not suffer them to do it.

So the citizens were very well pleased with Alcibiades, in so much as they sent for him to return when he thought good. But he, judging with himself it would be no honour nor grace unto him to return without some well deserving, and before he had done some greater exploit, as only upon the people’s favour and goodwill, whereas otherwise his return might be both glorious and triumphant...

Despite a string of military victories after his triumphant return to Athens, or rather because of them as they made the Athenians regard him as invincible, Alcibiades soon found himself out of favour again. A few ships were lost thanks to his lieutenant, Antiochus, “a very skilful seaman, but otherwise a hasty harebrained fool, and of small capacity” (35), but his enemies made it look quite the other way round. The Athenians lived to regret that (38), “looking back upon all their wilful faults and follies committed: among which, they did reckon their second time of falling out with Alcibiades, was their greatest fault.” Such were the reflections in Athens under Spartan occupation.

As so many of Plutarch’s heroes, Alcibiades died an unheroic death (39). He was murdered somewhere in Phrygia by the assassins of the Spartan admiral Lysander. They set his house on fire and when he got out they “bestowed so many arrows and darts of him, that they killed him”. The concubine he had been with, one Timandra, then buried his body honourably “wrapped up in the best linen she had”. This, at any rate, seems the most probable version. In the very end, with the perfect instinct of an accomplished novelist, Plutarch supplies a sting in the tail. The killers of Alcibiades may have been merely the enraged brothers of a gentlewoman he had seduced and abducted.

Why Shakespeare never wrote a play about Alcibiades is something of a mystery to me. Such a flamboyant character! Such a colourful life! Such a terrific raw material for drama! Perhaps Will didn’t have the time[8]. Fortunately for us, he did have time for the Roman colleague.

I suppose it is Plutarch whom we should thank for Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the least of his Roman plays but still a damn fine piece of drama, and Beethoven’s Coriolan, based on Collin’s play (1804) and certainly not the least of his overtures. It’s not hard to see why the Bard was inspired. The title character is a case study in pride and temper, his mother (Volumnia) and his nemesis (Aufidius) both provide scope for character development and superb dramatic situations, and last but certainly not least the subject is a convenient springboard for discussing everlasting issues like war, patriotism and the government of the many by the few. But enough about Shakespeare! I have dealt with his play elsewhere.

Plutarch’s Coriolanus, with his military prowess and haughty superiority, is a memorable character. You cannot but pay attention to a man who is described like this in the very opening paragraph (1):

This man also is a good proof to confirm some men’s opinions, that a rare and excellent wit untaught, doth bring forth many good and evil things together: like as a fat soil bringeth forth herbs and weeds, that lieth unmanured. For this Martius’ natural wit and great heart did marvellously stir up his courage, to do and attempt notable acts. But on the other side for lack of education, he was so choleric and impatient, that he would yield to no living creature: which made him churlish, uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man’s conversation. Yet men marvelling much at his constancy, that he was never overcome with pleasure, nor money, and how he would endure easily all manner of pains and travails; thereupon they well liked and commended his stoutness and temperancy. But for all that, they could not be acquainted with him, as one citizen useth to be with another in the city. His behaviour was so unpleasant to them, by reason of a certain insolent and stern manner he had, which because it was too lordly, was disliked. And to say truly, the greatest benefit that learning bringeth men unto, is this: that it teacheth men that be rude and rough of nature, by compass and rule of reason, to be civil and courteous, and to like better the mean state, than the higher

We read further that Coriolanus was “more inclined to the wars than any other gentleman of his time” (2), a blueprint for all military dictators to come. But it was not merely a passion for war, as with Pyrrhus, that led Coriolanus to fight for the Romans against the Volsces and vice versa. His motives were rather more complex, rooted in his contempt for the people and the ambivalent relations with his mother, his enemies and the Roman nobility, all analysed with great subtlety. The meetings with Aufidius (23) and Volumnia (35-6), even though the former borders on farce and the latter smacks of melodrama, are among Plutarch’s most impressive set pieces.

One notable thing about this “life” is the higher than usual number of digressions. Some of them are short but nevertheless telling about the times, for instance the humane treatment of slaves (24) or the custom to start all over again religious ceremonies in which some trifle had gone wrong (25). Since “Coriolanus” is really a nickname that comes from Corioli, a Volscian city which was taken with the active participation of our (anti)hero, Plutarch has an excellent excuse to devote one charming digression to cognomina (sing. cognomen) as the official Latin term goes. The Romans adored this sort of verbal fun. So there were third names derived from an accident of birth, such as “Proculeius” (born when his father was on a far voyage), “Posthumus” (born after the death of his father) and “Vopiscus” (survivor, i.e. of two twins). Physical deformity was also a good target, for instance “Caecus” (blind) or “Claudus” (lame), and the Romans “did wisely in this thing to accustom men to think, that neither the loss of their sight, nor other such misfortunes as may chance to men, are any shame or disgrace unto them, but the manner was to answer boldly to such names, as if they were called by their proper names” (11).

Possibly the most interesting digression is the one on God and free will (32). If I understand it aright, for when he waxes philosophical Plutarch is even more turgid than usual, our pious moralist does grant human beings some free will, although he remains convinced it is God that mostly directs and moulds this into whatever direction it seems to be heading or into whatever shape it seems to be taking. Modern psychology would rightly disclaim the divine intervention, but from that it doesn’t follow we have come much closer to explaining our own minds. Here is the complete passage (the “he” in the beginning is Homer whom Plutarch quotes several times to support his case):

But in wondrous and extraordinary things, which are done by secret inspirations and motions, he doth not say that God taketh away from man his choice and freedom of will, but that he doth move it: neither that he doth work desire in us, but objecteth to our minds certain imaginations whereby we are led to desire, and thereby doth not make this our action forced, but openeth the way to our will, and addeth thereto courage, and hope of success. For, either we must say that the gods meddle not with the causes and beginnings of our actions: or else what other means have they to help and further men? It is apparent that they handle not our bodies, nor move not our feet and hands, when there is occasion to use them: but that part of our mind from which these motions proceed, is induced thereto, or carried away by such objects and reasons, as God offereth unto it.[9]

Sometimes Plutarch is awfully naive in a secular way. An example is his firm belief that at this early period (5th century BC) bribery in Rome was unknown when election was in the air (14). It was invented and flourished much later, he claims. Poor Plutarch! He should have known better than that. Bribery and blackmail, like war and commerce (including prostitution), are surely as old as the world. For sure they can’t be younger than Rome. But Plutarch’s wisdom is never far behind, and quite often far ahead of, his folly. Two epigrammatic examples from the same chapter (10 & 21):

For it is far more commendable to use riches well, than to be valiant: and yet it is better not to desire them, than to use them well.

For when sorrow (as you would say) is set afire, then it is converted into spite and malice, and driveth away for that time all faintness of heart and natural fear.

To attempt something like conclusion, Plutarch’s Lives is an inexhaustible source of pure entertainment and sheer wisdom. This is a book that deals with the very foundations of human nature; therefore, it has aged very little, if at all. In short, a true classic!

And last but for me not least, Plutarch passed with distinction my favourite test for historical fiction. It took time and effort to go through his characters, but in the end I felt like I had known these people for years. All the time while reading, I kept saying to myself that if they were not really like that, they should have been. I am fairly certain they were a great deal duller than Plutarch made them.

Alexander, Caesar, Cicero, Antony and Cleopatra didn’t need Plutarch to make them immortal, but I suspect their posthumous fame did receive a serious boost by the native of Chaeronea. Admittedly, in the cases of Tony and Cleo, and much more in those of Brutus and Coriolanus, Shakespeare did help. As far as Alcibiades, Pyrrhus, Marius, Crassus and Demosthenes, not to mention Nicias, Dion and Demetrius, are concerned, I suspect Plutarch is the major reason for their being remembered at all – assuming they are outside the meetings of historians.

The Wordsworth Classics edition is highly selective. It reprints only 16 “lives” (out of 50!), but they already take more than 800 closely printed pages. The font is smallish and so are the margins. The spelling and the punctuation are slightly modernised, but not enough to affect the peculiar rhythm of North’s prose. The short numbered sections each “life” is split into are retained, which makes both reading and reference much easier. The glossary in the end is at once useful and useless. North did use many spellings that are obsolete today, and they were rightly left unchanged. But virtually all of them are so close to the modern versions that you don’t need a glossary (e.g. “Antonius” for “Antony” or “Pharsalia” for “Pharsalus”).

Judith Mossman has written a fine essay by way of introduction. She goes into some detail about Plutarch, his life, personality, works and posthumous reputation, including the parallel lives of Amyot and North. She even has some time to compare translations. The essential point to grasp here in that during the Renaissance “translation” was synonymous with “interpretation”. What today would be called “inaccuracies” was a standard practice at the time. A translator was expected to be an artist as well.

Ms Mossman compares the Scott-Kilvert and Amyot-North versions of the death of Alcibiades and concludes that the old translation, while less literal and more elaborate, captures better the spirit of the original. She even marks the passages where the translators departed from Plutarch and argues convincingly they were right to do so. Most of the changes were introduced by Amyot, but North did not hesitate to make some of his own. Fascinating stuff!

The North translation, excepting the parts used by Shakespeare, is rather hard to come by. Wordsworth Classics is a nice and cheap way to get at least part of it in book form. There are no notes to help you out with Plutarch’s allusions, but this is less of a problem than you might think. The more you know about Greek and Roman history and mythology, the better; the more familiar you are with Elizabethan English, also. But if you are largely ignorant of both, you can still read Plutarch’s Lives with pleasure and even profit, as the present writer can testify from personal experience.

One last piece of advice. Don’t try to read the whole thing as soon as possible; take it one or two parallel couples at a time. You might be surprised to discover this is actually fun, provided, of course, you are seriously interested in historical fiction. If you are a historian reading Plutarch professionally, I pity you with all my heart.

[1] Compare the translations of the first passage (Theseus, 1) by Dryden, Stewart & Long, Perrin and Scott-Kilvert. If any of them is easier to read and understand, this is at the expense of rhythmic and rhetorical vigour:

[Dryden, 1683:]
As geographers, Sosius, crowd into the edges of their maps parts of the world which they do not know about, adding notes in the margin to the effect, that beyond this lies nothing but the sandy deserts full of wild beasts, unapproachable bogs, Scythian ice, or a frozen sea, so in this work of mine, in which I have compared the lives of the greatest men with one another, after passing through those periods which probable reasoning can reach to and real history find a footing in, I might very well say of those that are farther off: “Beyond this there is nothing but prodigies and fictions, the only inhabitants are the poets and inventors of fables; there is no credit, or certainty any farther.”

[Stewart & Long, 1894:]
As in books on geography, Sossius Senecio, the writers crowd the countries of which they know nothing into the furthest margins of their maps, and write upon them legends such as, “In this direction lie waterless deserts full of wild beasts;” or, “Unexplored morasses;” or, “Here it is as cold as Scythia;” or, “A frozen sea;” so I, in my writings on Parallel Lives, go through that period of time where history rests on the firm basis of facts, and may truly say, “All beyond this is portentous and fabulous, inhabited by poets and mythologers, and there is nothing true or certain.”

[Perrin, 1914:]
Just as geographers, O Socius Senecio, crowd on to the outer edges of their maps the parts of the earth which elude their knowledge, with explanatory notes that ‘What lies beyond is sandy desert without water and full of wild beasts,’ or ‘blind marsh,’ or ‘Scythian cold,’ or ‘frozen sea,’ so in the writing of my Parallel Lives, now that I have traversed those periods of time which are accessible to probable reasoning and which afford basis for a history dealing with facts, I might well say of the earlier periods ‘What lies beyond is full of marvels and unreality, a land of poets and fabulists, of doubt and obscurity.’

[Scott-Kilvert, 1965:]
You know, Sosius Senecio, how geographers, when they come to deal with those parts of the earth which they know nothing about, crowd them into the margins of their maps with explanation, ‘Beyond this lie sandy, waterless deserts full of wild beasts’, or ‘trackless swamps’, ‘Scythian snows’, or ‘ice-locked sea’. Now that in writing my Parallel Lives I have reached the end of those periods in which theories can be tested by argument or where history can find a solid foundation in fact, I might very well follow their example and say of those remoter ages, ‘All that lies beyond are prodigies and fables, the province of poets and romancers, where nothing is certain or credible.’

[2] Most charming of all is the ending of a short passage about Thesta, the sister of Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse (Dion, 21): “This little digression from our history, is not altogether unprofitable.”

[3] Note that Caesar’s legendary “Let the die be cast” when he crossed the Rubicon was lost in this translation. Dryden, Stewart & Long, and Perrin all report the famous words in their translations. So does Suetonius in his “life”, and again in section 32! Personally, I like better North’s alternative. Curiously enough, at another place (Pompey, 60), Plutarch quotes the Greek original (Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος) which North then translates as “Let the dye be cast”. Go figure!

But isn’t this “damnable dream” in the end a stroke of genius? It has taxed the ingenuity of translators: “unnaturally familiar with his own mother” (Dryden), “unlawful commerce with his mother” (Stewart & Long), “incestuous intercourse with his own mother” (Perrin).

[4] I have quoted both passages from Plutarch in my review of Three Roman Plays, Penguin Classics, 1995. The relationship between Shakespeare and Plutarch is an endless study. See next two notes.

[5] If you enjoy Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, then Plutarch’s Brutus will be a most fascinating read. The Bard took many revealing details straight out of his Greek colleague. Cassius as the real ringleader behind the scenes and Brutus as an idealistic but obnoxious fool are Plutarch’s inventions. He points out Brutus’s two great mistakes – to object the murder of Antony and to let him address the crowd – with great precision (20). He mentions in the very beginning that even Brutus’s enemies were willing to admit that “if there were any noble attempt done in all this conspiracy, they refer it wholly unto Brutus, and all the cruel and violent acts unto Cassius” (1).

But the Shakespearean transformation is very subtle and often amounts to genius. Cassius as a villainous master of manipulation is really Shakespeare’s own creation. Plutarch’s Cassius seems more strongly motivated by Caesar’s tyranny. He is later described as “a hot, choleric, and cruel man”, one that “sought to rule men by fear, rather than with lenity” (29), yet for all that he bears little resemblance to Shakespeare’s Iago-like figure. Portia’s lament that Brutus wouldn’t tell her his secrets does occur in Plutarch (13), but Shakespeare makes it more affecting by emphasising the wife’s concern for her husband rather than the pride in her own masochism and ancestry; Brutus’s great pro-Hamlet soliloquy and the conspiratorial meeting earlier in the same scene (II.2) have no analogue in Plutarch. The Brutus-Cassius quarrel in Sardis (IV.3) does have a Plutarchian counterpart (34-5), but Shakespeare’s treatment is less melodramatic and more powerful.

[6] Shakespeare knew good stuff when he saw it. The party on Pompey’s ship, including the murderous offer of Menas the pirate (Antony and Cleopatra, II.7.), is copied almost verbatim from Plutarch (Antonius, 32). So is the death of Cinna the Poet (Julius Caesar: III.3. in Shakespeare, 68 in Plutarch). The latter episode and Antony’s Forum speech are also mentioned in Brutus (18 & 20).

[7] See The Greeks at War, Osprey, 2004, pp. 171-6.

[8] Alcibiades does, of course, appear in Timon of Athens. But he deserves much more than a secondary character in one of Will’s most obscure and least satisfactory plays, apparently written in collaboration with Middleton.

[9] Perhaps the version by Stewart & Long is more lucid:

But in strange and unlikely actions, where the actors must have been under the influence of some supernatural impulse, he does speak of the god not as destroying, but as directing the human will; nor does the god directly produce any decision, but suggests ideas which influence that decision. Thus the act is not an involuntary one, but opportunity is given for a voluntary act, with confidence and good hope superadded. For either we must admit that the gods have no dealings and influence at all with men, or else it must be in this way that they act when they assist and strengthen us, not of course by moving our hands and feet, but by filling our minds with thoughts and ideas which either encourage us to do what is right, or restrain us from what is wrong. ( )
  Waldstein | Apr 1, 2019 |
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