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    Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy, Other Thoughts

    Understanding Plutarch as a Historian

    June 13, 2013 by Brandy Vencel

    One of my summer projects is to attempt to write a study guide for Plutarch’s Life of Theseus. Even though we aren’t done with school yet, I started on it because I was feeling a little off-kilter and, frankly, projects like these recharge me. At the end of a school year, no matter how good it has been (and this year fully qualifies as a good year), I’m a little dry and empty. The end run always involves giving and going a little past Empty, if you know what I mean.

    So Plutarch is one of the things filling me back up.

    The first thing I did when I started this project was to look for a free, readable, online copy of Thomas North’s translation of this life.


    That was easier said than done. A lot of the Google ebooks are fine for personal reading, but they are scanned copies, not actual text documents, and when you try and resort to text identification software {as I did}, it gets a little tricky, especially if there are pullout quotes in the margins.

    Which there were.

    Oh, there were copies of Dryden’s translation galore, and I did look at those, only to realize why it was that Charlotte Mason preferred North.

    So I’ve been typing up my own copy of North. In the process, I’ve been reading it aloud to myself, as well as modernizing spelling (but not wording), changing names to the modern version if possible (i.e., the Oracle at Delphi rather than Delphus), adding annotations and paragraph breaks, and basically any other footwork that should be done prior to trying to write any lessons for it.

    If I groaned a little at the commencement of this typing project, I have fully repented by now. I’m finding that the best way for me to become intimate with this work is exactly what I felt forced to do: type it, read it slowly and aloud, check to make sure I did it right. I’m getting a great first look at the Life.

    This summer I’ll probably be chatting about Plutarch off and on because that is where my mind is going to be. This ties in to my why-fight-it philosophy of blogging.

    What has been fascinating to me is that in this life, more than any of the others I’ve read (granted, I’ve only read four or five of them), Plutarch is explaining his work as a historian. He tells us exactly who his sources are, and why he deems them credible (or not). He admits that when we try and reconstruct the lives of very ancient persons, such as Theseus or his Roman counterpart Romulus, it is hard to know exactly what is true. So he gives the various versions he has discovered, and then speculates as to which version he likes best.

    Today I felt like a light flipped on in my brain in regard to sociological and archaeologically evidence. In the past, I’ve thought of the latter as merely all the buildings being in the right place. For example, when we say there is “archaeological evidence” for the Bible — or that there is notย archaeological evidence for some other religion’s major work ahem — we mean (or at least I mean) that the cities, buildings, and monuments are there. If the Bible says there was a big city somewhere, we find a big city there. Make sense?

    Essentially, the geography is right.

    But Plutarch is taking archaeological — and by extension sociological — evidence to a different level. Over and over again, Plutarch says things like:

    …the names of the places which continue yet to this present day to witness it…

    After reading variations of this statement 37 times, it finally dawned on me that this was significant. (Quick I am not, apparently.) Why does this matter? Well, here is the exciting thing: this culture had a habit of naming a place — or a temple or an altar or what have you — after a major event. We see this sort of thing in the Old Testament over and over as well. The Israelites experience something of significance, and they build an altar or dig a well or what have you, and the nameย of the place tells us about what happened there. The unfortunate thing about the Israelites is that sometimes they did this while wandering in a desert in which they were lost, making those specific monuments very hard to find. But Plutarch is able to say in regard to Theseus, “Hey look: we know that this happened because the city named after this event is still with us, bearing that name, even to this day.”

    This is amazing! I suppose a thousand years from now, when someone is doubting whether George Washington was ever a real person, the existence of multiple cities named after him might provide a similar sort of evidence.

    Similarly, there are semi-religious feasts that are produced as evidence. This is what I meant by sociological proof. Plutarch uses these feasts in the same way he uses architecture, even though they are technically intangible things and much more easily lost than entire cities. At the time Plutarch was writing, the people in these areas had feasts they had been celebrating for centuries. Sometimes, he offers two possible reasons for the feasts, and then explains logically which one is most probable. But the more important point he makes is that the feasts exist, therefore something happened.

    It’s sort of like how Hanukkah exists because something happened. Hanukkah does not exist because someone made up a fictional tale and thought it’d be fun to design a holiday around it.

    Here’s what I’m getting from this: the Greeks did not name their cities after, and by extension did not invent feasts celebrating, persons and events that didn’t happen. That just wasn’t done. It is because of this cultural practice that Plutarch can produce evidence of certain events in the life of Theseus, the founder of Athens.

    The interesting thing to me is that a lot of tall tales grew up around the person of Theseus over the hundreds of years between when he lived and when Plutarch wrote history. As Plutarch is trying to sift out fact from fiction, these place names and feasts are considered huge evidence. If you read a child’s story of Theseus, you will think it fiction, and for good reason. His life sounds outlandish, to say the least. And yet, Plutarch obviously believes that Theseus was a real person, and makes a valiant attempt to reconstruct his life.

    This life particularly has the spice of faerie in it, which is to say that it is going to be great fun.

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  • Reply Anonymous September 2, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    Your suggestions are just what I was looking for. I will start with the children’s version, since in this subject I have a child’s understanding of the subject. I think that I will read smaller bites and make notes while asking myself questions instead of pushing ahead to read from start to finish. I have printed your reply as a guide on how to proceed – thank you

  • Reply Anonymous September 1, 2013 at 1:51 am

    Hi folks, I recently retired and bought my first copy of Plutarch (Lives of the noble Grecians and Romans) based on a talk show discussion of this part of his discussion of history. My life career was mostly in business but now that I am retired, I thought I would take this opportunity to expand my understanding of human nature based on the greats who helped set up the basis for modern Western society. However, I am finding this book difficult to read, so I started a search using the key words” Understanding Plutarch, and that’s how I landed here. I do have a Doctorate in Business Administration, but alas, it is not in English Lit or Philosophy. My question is, Am I finding this difficult reading because this is the first book I read by Plutarch or is this difficult reading because of the subject? PAul

    • Reply Brandy Vencel September 1, 2013 at 3:15 am

      Hi Paul,

      You are probably finding it difficult reading because…it *is* difficult reading! It takes time to raise your reading ability to that level, that is for sure! But you are wise to want to do this reading–it was a favorite of our Founding Fathers and there is evidence that most, if not all, of them read it.

      I would look at the Plutarch information on the Ambleside Online website if you want some general introductory information for Plutarch. Ambleside Online also has study guides with the individual lives divided into 12 separate lessons of readings. This would be a way, even for self-study, to get Plutarch in smaller doses with some time in between to digest the information. You probably don’t need the study questions, but the introductory material and vocabulary information would probably help a lot.

      Another thing to do is to find a children’s version and read it first. I know you are a grown man, but as a grown woman, I find this very helpful. It is sort of like how reading the synopsis before an opera or musical helps you understand is better because you go into it understanding the general gist of the story. The Baldwin Project has The Children’s Plutarch online for free {or you can purchase a hard copy}. So if you pick a life to study, you could then see if it’s included in the children’s version and read that first.

      Lastly, though North’s translation is by far the best, others–such as Dryden and Clough–really are easier to read. I think the AO study guides use Dryden mostly. It is possible you bought North?

      In summary: children’s version first to get the story line, reading in small chunks {using an AO guide, or just making a point to only read a few paragraphs at a time}, giving yourself time to think through it, and being patient are really the best way. The first life I read was very difficult for me, but now I find them to be much easier because I am used to reading them.

      You may find that trying to also read Shakespeare and the King James Bible can help you with your reading ability as the language and sentence structure can be somewhat similar. Also, it is fun to keep in mind that Shakespeare wrote some of his history plays based upon Plutarch’s work, so if you find one that matches a play, it might be more interesting, and you might even be able to go see it! Just a thought.

      Oh! I almost forgot! Poplicola is a great life to start from, and he’s a very likable guy, which helps in the reading.

  • Reply Jeanne June 17, 2013 at 12:19 am

    Just curious. Are you all finding North so much better than Dryden that it is worth all the effort to type them up? I read Anne’s Dion without realising that the translator was different from the others. It seems like a huge amount of work if the benefits are not obvious.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 27, 2013 at 4:56 am

      I don’t think I am expert enough to make that call, Jeanne but North is not only the version that CM used and recommended, but it was also the version read by….Shakespeare! I have already enjoyed certain phrases which are also used in my beloved KJV and my guess is that it would also pave the way for easier reading of the Bard’s histories. For me personally, I found the act of typing it up a good way to become more intimate with the text. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply walking June 16, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    Maybe we should make of list of who is typing which Plutarch. I am typing Mark Antony!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 16, 2013 at 9:27 pm

      That is such a good idea! You want to start a thread in the Plutarch section of the forum? When they’re done, we could even put them up on Google docs to share…

  • Reply Dawn June 15, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Thanks, Anne, for weighing in…and for inspiring me to this project in the first place with your recent blog post regarding the translation differences.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 15, 2013 at 5:13 pm

      Can you give me a link to that post, please, Dawn? I thought I read everything over there but I don’t recall that one…of course I am a little behind in my Feedly. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Reply Anonymous June 15, 2013 at 10:27 pm

      Brandy, I will send you a link privately (save Dawn the trouble).

      ~~ Anne

  • Reply Anonymous June 15, 2013 at 11:27 am

    Brandy, I have a paperback copy of Wordsworth Classics, Plutarch Selected Lives (North’s translation), and it has Theseus in it. I am planning on using it this coming year to do Cicero and Demosthenes. They might not even be on the AO rotation but I think it would be cool to do them anyway.

    As for why Dryden/why North for Dion: okay, that was almost ten years ago, and yes, it was an accessibility thing, and I just liked North better for Dion and thought we should at least give him a stab.


    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 15, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      Thanks for responding here, Anne! I didn’t even have to track you down. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Did you feel it went well with Dion in North? Just curious. We haven’t done that life yet.

    • Reply Anonymous June 15, 2013 at 4:57 pm

      I’ve used the Dion notes with two of our girls, and thought they came together pretty well. I always liked the story of the spoiled prince who wants to be “besties” with Plato. I seem to remember it being a bit of work (more than usual) doing the definitions–online dictionaries are helpful, and sometimes I would just compare North’s with another translation if I couldn’t figure it out.

      ~~ Anne.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 15, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      I am completely unfamiliar with Dion so I just had to laugh at that description!

      I stumbled upon a google ebook that was North, but had updated spelling, and that has helped a lot when it came to definitions. It wasn’t easy to type from, but I kept it open in a tab for comparisons when I needed them. Of course, I feel like, with reading the KJV all the time the way I do, I’m not catching every word that needs to be defined so I’m trying to arm wrestle my husband into helping. Normally in any test of athletic prowess, he would win, hands down, but I am the milkmaid around here so I have hope. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Reply Dawn June 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    I really do think Anne used Dryden for all of her guides, Brandy, even though CM used North and I think it was an accessibility issue, although I may be off base there. Also, I didn’t realize that Dryden was pre-expurgated. That would certainly play into that decision, I bet. I, too, wish to use North, as the more I read CM the more I’d like to use her precise recommendations when possible and practical. I’m enjoying the language, too:).

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 14, 2013 at 8:17 pm

      Okay, I had to look. ๐Ÿ™‚

      She used North for Dion. Looks like that’s it. I hadn’t even realized that! I’m going to ask her why…I’m curious now. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply Dawn June 14, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    Thanks. I understand the Publicola/Poplicola better now, but now I suspect that we are using different sources as mine seems to contain the original spelling – which I haven’t been changing. What do you think? Should I? I haven’t put much thought into this, really. It is just an exercise to become better versed at the moment.

    Also, I now know to check other Lives Guides by Anne White, as I assumed they were all based on Dryden. Interestingly, it was a recent post containing a statement about the translation differences of Plutarch that made me interested in this project to begin with. Clearly Dryden is more accessible/available for those who want to pick up Plutarch and go, but I think it will be great to have two versions to read/compare if the desire arises.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 14, 2013 at 7:23 pm

      If I remember right with Poplicola some of the versions use both names because it was more of a play on words.

      I am using North because CM used North, and it hadn’t dawned on me that Anne used Dryden sometimes, and now I’m wondering if that is because the expurgated versions are already done, making it easier to set up a lesson–plus you don’t have to type it up {ha!}. North reads like the KJV which means I’m in looooooove.

  • Reply Dawn June 14, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    I neglected to check Anne’s guides initially, because I assumed they were all based on Dryden. I panicked a bit but the AO page does say Dryden’s translation by Clough for Poplicola. Phew. Is that one of the differences between North’s translations and others? Calling him Publicola rather than Poplicola??

    I’d love the full version but will probably also request the expurgated one when you have it completed if I might be so bold:).

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 14, 2013 at 7:04 pm

      I’m sorry! I didn’t realize she had used Dryden. I’m pretty sure she used North for the last life we studied, and before that I wasn’t very well versed in the differences so I don’t know that I would have noticed who was used.

      I think the spellings have evolved over time. I found a copy of North that used updated (1800s era) spelling. I think that I’m going to make my copy conform to that because when searching encyclopedias and/or Google that more modern spelling tends to be the one used.

      I haven’t edited my full version, so I’ll try to do that this weekend and then send it your way.

  • Reply Dawn June 14, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    No, I haven’t typed Theseus yet. I’d love a copy of yours:). I’m currently working on Publicola, as it will be the first one I study with my sons–but that won’t happen for years yet. I will happily share a copy with you once I finish, but it is a slow project for me. Next I am interested in typing up Solon (thanks to Roots of American Order) as well as Crassus (for the section on Spartacus), Alexander, Romulus, Caesar and Brutus. This project might well take me years to accomplish – and I may fade out of it altogether – but I will absolutely share when I complete them.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 14, 2013 at 6:27 pm

      Have you checked Anne’s guides? I believe her Poplicola has North in it, divided up between the 12 weeks. You could cut and paste and put it back together.

      Before I send you my North: do you want the full version, or my expurgated version? If you want the latter, I haven’t cut it down yet, but that is my next step. I’ll be taking out the most horrible parts, plus cutting a few ancillary materials to make it short enough for 12 weeks. It is pretty lengthy.

  • Reply Dawn June 14, 2013 at 11:11 am

    I just started this very same project a couple of weeks ago, Brandy! The typing part, at least — not the study guides yet. I did search after search for North only to settle on what sounds like the very same source. We can probably save each other some typing if we share the load, if you’d like. Mine is very slow going since I won’t actually be using them for a while.

    Thanks for sharing your light bulb moment, too. Truly enlightening…pun intended.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 14, 2013 at 3:41 pm

      Thank you, Dawn!

      I only typed up Life of Theseus. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I will definitely contact you if I need another life! Have you typed Theseus yet? If not, I can send you mine to add to your collection.

  • Reply Jeanne June 14, 2013 at 12:22 am

    Interested to see how you go with this – Theseus was such a naughty old man. I read a bit of it with Jemimah this term before seeing a performance of Racine’s Phèdre. It certainly required a bit of expurgating. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 14, 2013 at 12:35 am

      Yes, typing it up has been a bit of a horrifying experience! I think I was only familiar with the sanitized versions.

      The first parallels that have popped into my head so far have been David and Bathsheba {i.e., kings getting distracted by women and not being where they ought, when they ought to be} and Solomon, whose sole downfall was also women. I need to keep pondering whether these are reasonable and of course he was a RAPIST while the Davidic kings were not.


      I found myself wondering why Plutarch likes him. I need to read further.

      I saved your notes from your blog, Jeanne!

  • Reply Queen of Carrots June 13, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    It is strange how much more fun it is to plan next year than it is to finish up this year. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I am deeply appreciative of all the legwork done on things like Plutarch by the people ahead of me. Looking forward to starting Plutarch in another year.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 14, 2013 at 12:36 am

      So true. I like execution for about the first 2/3 of the year and then I lose steam. This is probably a character issue, which means I prefer not to think about it. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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