Monday, July 9, 2012

Quote: Montaigne on Plutarch

My friend, Paul, has been reading and discussing Plutarch. I happened to come across this from Montaigne’s essay, “On the education of children:”

Put into his mind a decent, careful spirit of inquiry about everything: he will go and see anything nearby which is of singular quality: a building, a fountain, a man, the site of an old battle, a place which Caesar or Charlemagne passed through:

Quœ tellus sit lenta gelu, quæ putris ab œstu,

Ventus in Italiam quis bene vela ferat.

[what land is benumbed with the cold, which dusty with heat, which favourable winds blow sails towards Italian coasts.]

He will inquire into the habits, means and alliances of various monarchs,things most pleasant to study and most useful to know. In his commerce with men I mean him to include – and that principally – those who live only in the memory of books. By means of history he will frequent those great souls of former years. If you want it to be so, history can be a waste of time: it can also be, if you want it to be so, a study bearing fruit beyond price – the only study, Plato said, which the Spartans kept as their share. Under this heading what profit will he not get out of reading the Lives of our favourite Plutarch! But let our tutor remember the object of his trust, which is less to stamp the date of the fall of Carthage on the boy as the behaviour of Hannibal and Scipio; less to stamp the name of the place where Marcellus died as how his death there showed him unworthy of his task. Let him not so much learn what happened as judge what happened. That, if you ask me, is the subject to which our wits are applied in the most diverse of manners. I have read hundreds of things in Livy which another has not found there. Plutarch found in him hundreds of things which I did not see (and which perhaps the author never put there). For some Livy is purely a grammatical study; for others he is philosophy dissected, penetrating into the most abstruse parts of our nature. There are in Plutarch developed treatises very worth knowing,for he is to my mind the master-craftsman at that job; but there are also hundreds of points which he simply touches on: he merely flicks his fingers towards the way we should go if we want to, or at times he contents himself with a quick shot at the liveliest part of the subject: those passages we must rip out and put out on display. For example that one saying of his,‘that the inhabitants of Asia were slaves of one tyrant because they were incapable of pronouncing one syllable: NO,’ may have furnished La Boëtie with the matter and moment of his book De la Servitude volontaire. Seeing Plutarch select a minor action in the life of a man, or an apparently unimportant saying, is worth a treatise in itself. It is a pity that intelligent men are so fond of brevity: by it their reputation is certainly worth all the more,but we are worth all the less. Plutarch would rather we vaunted his judgement than his knowledge, and he would rather leave us craving for more than bloated. He realized that you could say too much even on a good subject, and that Alexandridas rightly criticized the orator whose address to the ephors was good but too long, saying, ‘Oh, Stranger, you say what you should, but not the way that you should!’ People whose bodies are too thin pad them out:those whose matter is too slender pad it out too, with words.

trans. M.A. Screech, from The Complete Essays

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