Plutarch, Diogenes and the Moral Imagination

[W]e are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure. —Johnson, Rambler (No. 60)

In his varied writings, Plutarch (c. 45 – 125 A.D) reflected on the common themes of humanity,drawing from them lessons about virtue, heroism, vanity and vice. Just to give one example of his acute reflection, dealing with education:

Lack of rules (which the undisciplined sector of the young call freedom) sets masters over one which are more tyrannical than the teachers and trainers familiar from childhood – these masters are the desires, when they have broken out of prison . . . .

Plutarch is best known for his Lives of famous Greeks and Romans. But these have overshadowed his moral epistles. If you’re just developing a taste for ancient wisdom, try sampling such pithy essays as “On Garrulousness,” “On Being a Busybody,” or “On Envy and Hate,” before wading into the lengthier metaphysical tomes of Aristotle and Plato. The complete Moralia published by Loeb, can be found at better libraries, or you can look for the affordable Essays (ed. Ian Kidd, transl. Robin Waterfield, Penguin ed.)

Along these same lines are the Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius (also published by Loeb). They are short, some no more than a couple of pages, and full of delightful anecdotes – often apocryphal, but all of them instructive and entertaining. But let’s have Diogenes speak for himself, as in the life of Chilon (c. 560 B.C.):

These again are some of his precepts: To control the tongue, especially at a banquet. . . . Do not use threats to anyone; for that is womanish. Be more ready to visit friends in adversity than in prosperity. . . . De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Honour old age. . . Prefer a loss to a dishonest gain: the one brings pain at the moment, the other for all time. Do not laugh at another’s misfortune. When strong, be merciful, if you would have the respect, not the fear, of your neighbours. Learn to be a wise master in your own house. Let not your tongue outrun your thought. Control anger.

What is the common thread to these great moralists? It is the appeal to goodness and the ability to view the human condition through the lens of genuine understanding. Russell Kirk sums it up best in discussing T.S. Eliot who understood the value of those permanent verities that help us make sense of our experience. “Resort to the moral imagination as a path to wisdom liberates the thinker from the narrow limits of personal experience and individual rational faculties.” Without such guidance – a wisdom which depends on our own humility – we “tend to mistake [our] private immediate experience for certain knowledge.”

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