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Plutarch by D. A. Russell


by D. A. Russell

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201748,182 (3.5)2



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6. Plutarch by Donald Andrew Russell
published: 1972
format: 178 page hardcover
acquired: Library
read: Jan 20-28
time reading: 8 hr 8 min, 2.7 min/page
rating: 3

An odd sequence of historical occurrences seems have led to Plutarch becoming a major influence on later Tudor England, especially on Shakespeare, and throughout western Europe for several hundred years. (Just scanning online I stumbled across a copy of his work in Thomas Jefferson's library, in Greek, with handwritten notes, also in Greek)

Plutarch was Greek scholar under imperial Rome (c. 46 – 120 CE) who wrote exclusively in Greek. There are 227 known titles of his works, most of which are lost. His main philosophical treatises were scattered, occasionally collected by scholars with resources to make copies until a Byzantine Monk Maximus Planudes (c 1255-1305) pushed a critical collection of the eventual 78 treatises we still have (several of which were likely not actually his). His main and most popular work, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, fared better and most of these lives, but not all, have come down to us. Translation to Latin came late. The first major vernacular translation was in French by Jacques Amyot in 1655, and this version was translated into English by Thomas North in 1579, just in time for it to be news for William Shakespeare (who turned 15 in 1579).

Plutarch was maybe a difficult author, or maybe his readership had as much trouble with his Platonic rhetoric as I did reading about it. His works are rhetorical attacks on Stoicism and Epicureanism (see, for example, Lucretius) in favor of his own Platonic ideas, with maybe an undercurrent of Greek moral superiority. It seems in Lives he hit the right tune, mixing some of his natural flourish with his moralisms for nice literary balance. The moralism would make him really popular in Shakespeare's day, and lead him to fade away later on, his literary skills apparently not really appreciated by conventional wisdom. His writing was considered plain.

Donald Russell is an active Oxford professor at age 98, and this was apparently his second book. The first chapter was nice, explaining the context of where Plutarch lived and how he interacted with Roman intelligentsia, possibly never really learning Latin himself. Then comes chapter 2. Most of this book was tough reading, especially if rhetorical arguments for and against Stoicism and Platonism are not something your mind effortlessly adapts to. But it was nice to get an overview, a context and a sense of the history of the preservation and translations. He spends several pages comparing the dramatic difference in style between the original Greek with what Shakespeare read in English, and it's actually fascinating. So, scholarly work of general appeal, but still a little beyond my philosophy-resistant self. ( )
3 vote dchaikin | Jan 29, 2019 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0684133512, Hardcover)

Plutarch's "Lives" and "Morals" are among the formative books of western civilisation, Written around AD 100, in Greece under Roman rule, they reflect conditions of that time: not only the political limitations, but - more importantly - the rich inheritance of post-classical as well as classical Greek thinking. Russell sets out to explain what it is like to read Plutarch and what one needs to bear in mind in order to read him with understanding and appreciation. Plutarch is seen in his historical context, his language and style, as a scholar of the past, as philosopher and moralist. The "Lives" are then discussed with specific examples in more detail - Alcibiades and some of the main generals of the late Roman republic; in the final chapter Russell examines the reception of Plutarch down to the time of North's translation and Shakespeare's reliance on it. Each chapter is generously laced with quotation (in translation), so that the student and general reader get a feeling for Plutarch's work.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:45 -0400)

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