Plutarch’s biographical essays on ancient Greeks and Romans were the studies that Shakespeare relied on for his historical plays. They also nurtured the thought of the Founding Fathers. Along with the Bible, Plutarch’s chronicles were one of most read works of eighteenth century America. All of the men examined in the Lives are historical personalities, with the exception of Theseus and Romulus, the mythical founders of Athens and Rome. These are the least satisfactory and least interesting biographies, since the charm of Plutarch’s moralizing lies in the fact that he is dealing with real and believable characters. The study of the ancient world therefore really begins with the famed lawgivers: Lycurgus of Sparta (c. 820-730 BC), Numa Pompilius of Rome (753-673), Solon of Athens (638-558), and Publicola of Rome (d. 503).
Of these Lycurgus is the least appealing, despite Plutarch’s inexplicable admiration for this highly capable yet callous and officious statesman. Solon, by contrast, was more sensible. Thus when “asked if he had left the Athenians the best laws that could be given, he replied, ‘The best they could receive.'” Though proclaiming a one-time revocation of debts, he did not attempt the equalization of property as rigorously imposed by Lycurgus, and instead moderately increased the franchise so as to balance the commons against the aristocracy without attempting wealth redistribution. Unlike the Spartans, Solon also encouraged commerce and manufacture: “fitting his laws to the state of things, and not making things to suit his laws, and finding the ground scarce rich enough to maintain the husbandmen, and altogether incapable of feeding an unoccupied and leisured multitude, brought trades into credit….”
Ultimately any political system (including our own) must fall short of its ideal. As Plutarch relates in the life of Solon: “Anacharsis, being once at the [Athenian] Assembly, expressed his wonder at the fact that in Greece wise men spoke and fools decided.” It is not the presence or absence of certain things which, in themselves, guarantees our happiness. “We must not,” warns the ancient author, “provide against the loss of wealth by poverty, or of friends by refusing all acquaintance, or of children by having none, but by morality and reason.” In this respect he preaches moderation for the mass of people. Perfection is for genuine sages and saints, who never make their standards mandatory but prefer to lead by example. And certainly there are many excellent examples to learn from in reading Plutarch’s Lives.