The Greek biographer, historian, essayist, and moralist Plutarch (ca. 46-ca. 120) has been described as one of the most influential writers who ever lived.
Paradoxically, Plutarch the man who was the biographer of many others, had no biographer except for a scant notice in Suidas. What we know of his life is reconstructed from casual references in his own works. Plutarch was apparently born of a wealthy family in Chaeronia in Boeotia, had two brothers, Timon and Lamprias, and a grandfather named Lamprias. His parents' names are uncertain. Some say his father's name was Autobulus, some say Nicarchus, and we do know of a great-grandfather named Nicarchus. Plutarch is believed to have had a liberal education at Athens, where he studied physics, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine, natural science, philosophy, Greek, and Latin literature in 66. Ammonius of Lamptrae, a Plato scholar with religious and Neoplatonic interests, may have been his tutor. To complete his education, Plutarch traveled extensively in Greece and Asia Minor and visited Alexandria, Egypt.
Plutarch married Timoxena, daughter of Alexion (ca. 68), who bore him four sons, Soclarus, Chairon, Autobulus, and Plutarchus, and one daughter, Timoxena. Only Autobulus and Plutarchus survived Plutarch. All evidence indicates a happy marriage and a close family. Other relatives by marriage mentioned as members of the family in the Moralia are Craton, Firmus, and Patrocleas.
Plutarch taught in Chaeronia and represented his people before the Roman governor and in Rome. In Rome he made important contacts and lectured on philosophy and ethics in various parts of Italy. He spent much time in Italy between 75 and 90; he apparently never mastered the Latin language, though he gained the friendship of notable Romans. The latter half of his life, Plutarch enjoyed the intellectual benefits of the Pax Romana, mostly in Chaeronia. He held many civic positions, both high and low; the most notable one—that of head priest of Delphi—he held with distinction for 20 years and elevated to an importance it had not had in his time. During the latter part of his life he is thought to have written most of the Lives and some portions of the Moralia.
Plutarch is perhaps best known for the Moralia and the Lives, works which have much in common and have had enormous influence on later writers and the literatures of Europe and even America. He was very much concerned with men's moral conduct and individual moral guidance in an age when men were losing their faith in religion and philosophy. The Moralia, written as dialogues, letters, and lectures, is really a collection of 83 treatises on diverse subjects such as vegetarianism; superstition; Epicurean, Stoic, and Academic philosophy; dietetics; divine justice; prophecy; demonology; conjugal relations; family life; mysticism; and helpful precepts.
The Lives (often called Parallel Lives) are biographies of soldiers and statesmen of repute, generally presented in pairs of lives, first a Greek, then a Roman, followed by a comparison. Twenty-three of these have survived and four single lives; that is, four comparisons are lacking. There is no detailed chronology, but the Lives were probably published between 105 and 115. Plutarch utilizes Greek sources primarily and is interested in providing pleasure and guidance for moral and political behavior. Plutarch's language is generally lucid and crisp.
Plutarch was not a profound philosopher but a popularizer in the best and most enduring sense of the word. He did not establish a philosophic system but was eclectic in his use of various systems. He warmly admired Plato and knew Pythagoras and other Greek philosophers. He severely criticized Epicureanism and stoicism but used these systems as it suited him. One critic finds him a humanist par excellence; others see him inclined toward mysticism and monotheism. He was an author of uncommon common sense who influenced Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, John Dryden, John Milton, Robert Herrick, George Chapman, Jonathan Swift, Walter Savage Landor, William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells in England; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville in the United States; J.W. von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller in Germany; and French drama of the late 16th and the entire 17th century. Sir Thomas North's English translation of the Lives (1579) provided Shakespeare with the sources for three plays, and it was the translation (1559) by Frenchman Jacques Myot that made Plutarch available to North and through North to the English-speaking world.
Further Reading on Plutarch
The Loeb Classical Library's Plutarch's Lives, translated by Bernadotte Perrin (11 vols., 1914-1926), is indispensable, as is the Loeb's Plutarch's Moralia, translated by Frank Cole Babbitt and others (15 vols., 1927-1969). An exhaustive and still essential study is Bishop Richard C. Trench, Plutarch: His Life, His Lives and His Morals (1873), which remained the primary study until Reginald Haynes Barrow, Plutarch and His Times (1967). C. J. Gianakaris, Plutarch (1970), is a convenient synthesis and appraisal which contains an extensive bibliography. A work on Plutarch's moral interests is George D. Hadzsits, Prolegomena to a Study of the Ethical Ideal of Plutarch and of the Greeks of the First Century A.D. (1906); and on religion, John Oakesmith, The Religion of Plutarch (1902).
Special studies provide powerful evidence of Plutarch's widespread influence: Frederick Morgan Padelford, trans. and ed., Essays on the Study and Use of Poetry by Plutarch and Basil the Great (1902); Roy Caston Flickinger, Plutarch as a Source of Information on the Greek Theater (1904); Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke, ed., Shakespeare's Plutarch (2 vols., 1909); Roger Miller Jones, The Platonism of Plutarch (1916); Edmund Grindlay Berry, Emerson's Plutarch (1961); and Terence John Bew Spencer, ed., Shakespeare's Plutarch (1964). Recommended surveys of classical historiography which include discussions of Plutarch are Michael Grant, The Ancient Historians (1970), and Stephen Usher, The Historians of Greece and Rome (1970).