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Echoes of the Past


As the shadow is reflected in the sun's rays, so do we find the shadow of Plutarch reflected in his famous "Lives of Illustrious Men." The true character of the man, his beautiful morality and integrity, his nobleness of mind and deep philosophy shine forth in everything he says.

The sound of other echoes faintly reach the ear, but the utterances of Plutarch reverberate again and again clear and resonant above all other sounds, albeit they reach us from the distant past of nearly eighteen centuries.

Menage says, "If all the books in the world were in the fire, there is not one which would so eagerly snatch from the flames as Plutarch. That author never tires; I read him often, and always find new beauties."

Space forbids but the reproduction of a limited few.

Conscience: "It is reported that the cantharides fly, by a certain kind of antipathy, carries within itself the cure of the wounds it inflicts. On the other hand, wickedness, at the same time it is committed, engendering its own vexation and torment, not at last, but at the very instant of the injury offered, suffers the reward of the injustice it has done. And as every malefactor bears his own cross to the place of execution, so are all the various torments of various wicked actions prepared by the several sorts of wickedness themselves. Such a diligent architectress of a miserable and wretched life is wickedness, wherein shame is still accompanied with a thousand terrors and commotions of the mind, incessant repentance, and never-ceasing tumult of the spirits. There are, however, some people that differ little or nothing from children, who many times beholding malefactors on the stage, in their gilded vestments and short purple cloaks, dancing with crowns upon their heads, admire and look upon them as the most happy persons in the world, till they see them goaded and lashed, and flames of fire curling from under their sumptuous and gaudy garments...For the daring rashness and precipitate boldness of iniquity continues violent and active till the fact be perpetrated; but then the passion, like a surceasing tempest, growing slack and weak, surrenders itself to superstitious fears and terrors."

Justice to Enemies: "This is the greatest and by far the most illustrious instance of virtue, the more we accustom ourselves to deal justly and uprightly with our enemies, then we shall not fail to behave ourselves so towards our friends...Wherefore let us enter the lists with our enemies, and contend with them for true glory, lawful empire, and just gain. Let us not so much debase ourselves as to be troubled and fret at any possessions they enjoy more than we have. Let us rather carefully observe those good qualities wherein our enemies excel us, so that by these motives we may be excited to outdo them in honest diligence, indefatigable industry, prudent caution, exemplary sobriety.

"If our enemies arrive at high places in the courts of princes, and by flattery or frauds, by bribery and gifts, we should not be troubled at it, but rather pleased in comparing our undisguised and honest way of living with theirs that is quite contrary."

Learning: "Glory is a thing deserving respect, but unstable. Beauty is a prize that men fight to obtain, but when obtained it is of little continuance. Health is a precious enjoyment, but easily impaired. Strength is a thing desirable, but apt to be the prey of diseases and old age, and that which is a great mistake in any man, even while he enjoys it, to value himself upon, for what indeed is any proportion of human strength if compared to that of other animals, such as elephants and bulls and lions? But learning alone, of all things in our possession, is immortal and divine."

The friendship of the Great: "The palaces of noblemen and princes appear guarded with splendid retinues of diligent obsequious servants, and every room is crowded with a throng of visitors, who caress the great man with all the endearing gestures and expressions that wit and breeding can invent; and it may be thought, I confess, at first sight, that such are fortunate in having so many cordial real friends at their command, whereas it is all bare pageantry and show. Change the scene and you may observe a far greater number of flies as industriously busy in their kitchens, and as these would vanish were the dishes empty and clean, so neither would that other sort of insects pay any further respect were nothing to be got by it."

Virtue and Vice: "It is apparent that clothes do not make a man warm by warming him themselves, or by imparting heat to him (for every garment is of itself cold, which is the reason that we see those that are very hot, and in a fever, often shifting and changing one thing for another), but that heat which a man exhales out of himself, the garment, lying close to his body, keeps together and contracts, and when it hath driven it inward, it will not suffer it again to dissipate. This is the very case of external affairs too, and this it is that cheats vulgar heads by making them think that if they might enclose themselves in great houses, and keep together abundance of slaves and riches, they might then live to their own minds. But an agreeable and gay life is not to be found without us; on the contrary, it is man, that out of his own temper, as out of a spring, adds pleasure and gaiety to the things about him. Since we see how that, through a mild and tame disposition, men can bear poverty, banishment, and old age easily and every state and condition of life, if accompanied by virtue, is undisturbed and delightful. But when vice is intermixed it renders even the things that appear splendid, sumptuous, and magnificent, most distasteful, nauseous, and unacceptable to the possessors...

"Heap up gold, gather together silver, raise up walks, fill your house with slaves, and the town with debtors; if you do not appease the disorders of your own mind and stint your insatiable desire, and deliver yourself from fears and cares, you do but rack wine for a man in a fever, and administer honey to a man disturbed with cholera, and prepare meat and good cheer for people that have the flux or gripes, who can neither retain it nor be strengthened by it, but are over and above spoiled by it. Do you not see how such persons loathe, spit out, and refuse the finest and most costly meats forced upon them, and how again, when their complexion alters, and good spirits, sweet blood, and a connatural heat is engendered, they get up and gladly and willingly eat brown bread, cheese, and cresses? Such a disposition as this is it that reason works in the mind, and you will have efficiency if you will but learn what a notable and generous mind is. You will live luxuriously in poverty, and be a prince; you will be as much in love with a vacant and private life as with that of a general or a king. If you once apply to philosophy you will never be without pleasure, but you will learn to be everywhere pleased, and with everything. You will be pleased with wealth, for making you beneficial to many, and with poverty, for not having much to care for, with fame, for being honored, and with obscurity, for being unenvied." In a letter to Trajan, Plutarch said: "If you make virtue the rule of your conduct and the end of your actions, everything will proceed in harmony and order."

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Thomas W. Allen

  • Brother of author James Allen
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