“Now the first tragedies were being performed then, under the direction of Thespis and his fellow poets, and the novelty of the enterprise was attracting crowds of people, even though it had not yet been developed as a competitive contest. Since Solon was naturally fond of a recital and eager to learn, and even more because in his old age he was giving himself over to relaxation and fun – yes, and even to drinking and music – he went to watch Thespis personally acting in one of his own plays, as was the custom in the old days. After the performance he had a question for Thespis: ‘Aren’t you ashamed to tell such enormous lies in front of so many people?’ he asked. Thespis replied that there was nothing wrong with saying and doing this kind of thing for fun, whereupon Solon gave the ground a mighty blow with his stick and said, ‘But if we accept this “fun” and think highly of it, before long we’ll start to find it cropping up in important areas of life.'” – Plutarch’s Greek Lives, Oxford University Press, pg. 74
Plutarch, reading your Greek Lives (I am sorry if skipping over the other part of your Lives is sacrilegious to you) has sparked a number of thoughts in my head.
First, I wonder what your editing process looks like. This is something I have wondered before while reading Augustine’s City of God and Calvin’s Institutes. Where and what do the authors of these great books edit? Would it even be admirable to analyze one of their works exclusively on a stylistic basis? We analyze a work like The Divine Comedy stylistically, although it seems like criticizing it theologically happens less often.
I am not saying that students never criticize or analyze – whatever you want to call it, I want to think of it as the act of looking for imperfection – wholly, looking at the style, cultural context, later implications, etc. I am saying that some works, we emphasize one angle over another. I can still grant that the City of God is a major achievement, a gem in the crown of the Church (do you know what I mean?), but why can I not pick apart a section and conclude that it is poorly written? I feel like a historian or a theologian would lean over my shoulder and say, “That’s not the point. The point is that this was influential.”
But so? Isn’t the point that Augustine – really, we can think of a different example now – wanted his thoughts to be engaged with by others? As a human from a different culture than him, I have to spend time in all of these preliminary causeways before I can actually have a conversation with Augustine. But once I am at the point in my studies when Augustine deems me worthy, we will open up a bottle of wine, and sit across from each other at a table. Once we begin talking, isn’t analysis of how he communicates as equally essential to his communication as, say, understanding his cultural context once was for me in the beginning of my studies?
The goal with reading any ancient or influential text, I believe, is to converse with its author. The effect of this is to learn. Learning from a great mind ought to be a whole affair. I don’t just learn from Augustine that he was influential, for example. I learn from him what how not to think or to think. I can also learn from him how to write well or poorly. Instead of focusing on the single aspect that made a work influential – for The Divine Comedy, largely it is style and for The Institutes, it is largely theology – why not see the work as a whole, written by imperfect people?
I am not saying they are sinful people or even flawed, just imperfect. Their imperfection is as intriguing and influential as the places where they came close to perfection.
The other thought was that you are – your translation, at least – quite an excellent writer. There is something worth quoting on every page. You have changed – just in seventy pages – my entire way of thinking about the Spartans and Athenians. That is a significant thing to have changed.
The last thought you gave me – since I have forgotten all the rest by now – is a large one. I could state it in the most cliche way possible; some things never change. I can state it in a provocative way; liberal and progressive politics work effectively and are good for some states.
The strict communism and rigidness of Sparta was a good thing for Sparta.
The hate crimes and legalized morality in Athens was a good thing for Athens.
I am not a situationalist, if that means that goodness is determined exclusively by a situation. But, I do see that the actions of the federal government in America now, which conservatives see as immoral or ineffective, are not deficient in themselves (some of them are and always will be). Rather, they are deficient because they do not take into account the situation of the United States. I think it was a good thing, for example, that Athens had hate crimes. I think it was a good thing that Spartans ate together in messes and shared their goods and wealth was nearly abolished (for a time). Any sort of strict and minute control like this would be ineffective for the United States. This is a grand claim and I don’t want to prove it right now. The beginning proof is as basic as the United States having a diverse population. The Spartans were unified in almost every way imaginable before Lycurgus’ rhetrae.
I also have to take into account with all of this, Plutarch, that you give away some of your worldview describing Lycurgus and his laws in Sparta. From the way you present the narrative, it seems like evil can be reduced to excesses or deficiencies of material things. When Lycurgus replaced the currency with brittle iron, for example, it seems like wealth was therefore taken away. Greed was later on introduced to Sparta only through material goods.