Plutarch on envy & hatred

Today, I thought as I was rising (under lockdown conditions), I should be reading Plutarch. Gentle reader may know this author, born into the middle of the first century, chiefly through Shakespeare, born fifteen centuries later. For Plutarch’s voluminous Parallel Lives is primary source material for Shakespeare’s plays set in antiquity, and necessary background for his broader views on history, on public life and politics, civic virtue, and on ethics in a more contemplative sense. But Plutarch was also central to Rabelais, Montaigne, and many other leading figures of the Renaissance and later. Successive translations of Plutarch have been formative within all European literatures. My own reprint of Philemon Holland’s into English (he was the translator-general to the Elizabethan age) is an irreplaceable treasure: accurate in a way our breathless contemporary translations have ceased to be.

The Plutarch I have loved most, from my own formation in grade school, is the Plutarch of the Moralia — that sprawling collection of the miscellaneous essays plausibly attributed to him. So many survived the “fall of Rome” because they remained current in the unfallen Eastern Rome of Byzantium, in Plutarch’s famously transparent, accessible Greek. He was known at least vaguely to our own Middle Ages in the West, and wherever he could be read, was beloved. This was so in his own lifetime, too. More even than the Orwell-like clarity of his language, it was his spirit that was so attractive, so warmly companionable; his genius in expressing a learned and uncontentious authority. Where, for instance, he finds malice in his biographical subjects, he neither condemns nor excuses.

Plutarch draws us in, simultaneously: to the world of mind, and the world of action. This is why he can seem so recent, still. The reader is confident that he is telling the truth about events, in a way blind, like justice. He is chaste, in the non-ribald sense. His freedom from pomposity never strays into the opposite vice, of excessive familiarity. To his contemporaries, exactly as to us, he was the reliable advisor, above party or faction.

Paradoxically, most great writers, in all languages I think, are bad at second languages. Though resident in the city of Rome in his prime, and its, he was a poor Latinist, and rather part of the élite ghetto of Greek-speakers there; but “urbane, cosmopolitan.” He considered himself a Roman, and acquired the citizenship. He apparently thought as a Roman, even in youthful travels to Egypt and perhaps beyond. Returned and retired to his native Chaeronea, a mere village in Boeotia, he is a proud local patriot, and a patriotic Roman; a citizen of the world.

Coming only decades after Christ, he is still pre-Christian pagan in his knowledge. He represents the best of that classical civilization: the very humanity that was finally able to receive Christ. In moments, he seems almost a pagan Augustine in his morally-passionate, unexcitable calm, his immortal kindliness and peaceful, settled courage — in his immovable common sense.

He knows the human condition, and reading, this morning, “over his shoulder” again, I find him truly informative on envy and hatred. If he hates, he hates the former much more than the latter.

For envy undermines all amity of feeling; is the great destroyer of brotherly love. It invades the heart of the self-righteous, whereas our pure prejudicial hatreds are shared with the mindless brute beasts. One might thus say that they are innocent, by comparison. But Envy seeks mischief, and can never be assuaged.

For any one, at any time, Christian or non-Christian, this is an important thing to know; to be on one’s guard against envy building in one’s own soul. It easily masks itself as virtue. We would rather detract from and subvert the accomplishments of others, than benefit ourselves. It is a “hate crime” that worms beyond any hate crime, and there are moments when it is governing the world.