By Will Durant, 1944

An Excerpt From Chapter 23 of “Caesar and Christ”

Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives,” written some 1900 years ago, was a cornerstone of historical education for centuries. “Greece has not left us a more precious book,” says historian Will Durant, who suggests that Napoleon literally carried the book into battle. Churchill probably did too, at least in a figurative sense. Durant comments on Plutarch in his “Caesar and Christ,” volume three of the monumental, highly readable 11-volume “The Story of Civilization.” (“Caesar and Christ” was published before Will began sharing authorial credit with his wife Ariel.) – H.F.


He was born (in Greece in) about A.D. 46, and died there about 126. He was a student at Athens when Nero collected triumphs in Greece. He must have had a fair income, for he traveled in Egypt and Asia Minor and twice in Italy; he lectured in Greek at Rome and seems to have served his country in some diplomatic role. He liked the great capital and the good manners and honorable life of its new aristocracy; he admired their stoic code, and agreed with Ennius that Rome had been made by morality and character. As he contemplated these living nobles and the noble dead, the thought came to him of comparing the heroes of Rome with those of Greece. He proposed not merely to write history or biography, but to teach virtue and heroism by historic exemplars; even his “Parallel Lives” were in his mind “Moralia.” He was always a teacher and never lost a chance to tie a moral to a tale; but who has ever done it more gracefully? He warns us, in his “Alexander,” that he is more interested in character than in history; he hopes that by paring and comparing great Romans with great Greeks he will pass on some moral stimulus, some heroic impulse, to his readers. With disarming candor he confesses that he himself has become a better man through keeping company so long with distinguished men.

We must not expect to find in him the conscience and accuracy of a proper historian; he is rich in errors of name and place and date and occasionally (if we may judge) misunderstands events; he even fails in two major tasks of the biographer – to show the derivation of his subject’s character and work from heredity, environment, and circumstance, and the development of character through growth, responsibility, and crisis; in Plutarch, as in Heracleitus, a man’s character is his fate. But no one who has read the “Lives” can feel their shortcomings; these are lost in the vivid narrative, the exciting episodes, the fascinating anecdotes, the wise comments, the noble style. In all these 1500 pages there is not a line of padding; every sentence counts. A hundred eminent men – generals, poets, and philosophers – have borne witness to the book; “it is,” said Mme Roland, “the pasture of great souls.” “I can hardly do without Plutarch,” wrote Montaigne; “it is my breviary.” Shakespeare takes many stories here, and his view of Brutus goes back through Plutarch to Roman aristocrats. Napoleon carried the Lives with him almost everywhere, and Heine, reading them, could hardly restrain himself from leaping upon a horse and riding forth to conquer France. Greece has not left us a more precious book.

….His lectures and essays have properly been collected under the title “Moralia” (separate from his “Lives”)….most of them are simple and genial preachments on the wisdom of life. They discuss everything from the advisability of keeping old men in public office to the priority of the chicken or the egg. Plutarch is fond of his library, but confesses that good health is more precious than good books…The thrill of religious emotion was in his judgment the most deepening experience of life….Tolerant as well as pious, he almost founded the study of comparative religions by his treatises on Roman and Egyptian cults….He thought it an obligation to combine public office with his scholarly pursuits….He follows Plato in advocating equal opportunity for women, and gives many examples of cultured ladies in antiquity….We rise from these charming essays warmed by the fellowship of a man humane, essentially wholesome, and complete. We are not offended by the commonness of his ideas; his moderation is a welcome antidote to the ideological hysteria of our time; his good sense, his kindly humor, and his engaging illustrations carry us on unresisting, even over the shoals of his platitudes. It is refreshing to find a philosopher who is wise enough to be happy. Let us be thankful, he counsels us, for the common boons and graces of life, and feel them none the less gladly for their permanence.