This is the first post in what I intend to write as a long, drawn-out series. Many of you know that teaching Plutarch is one of the great loves of my life. There are countless wisdom gems in Plutarch, and I hope this series will be a sort of vault where I can store them away for future reflection. Currently, I’m teaching the Life of Julius Caesar, so that is where I’ll be drawing lessons for now.
Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
— James 3:5b
If it is so easy for ourselves to take up a new habit, it is tenfold as easy for the children; and this is the real difficulty in the matter of the education of habit. It is necessary that the mother be always on the alert to nip in the bud the bad habit her children may be in the act of picking up from servants or from other children.
— Charlotte Mason (Home Education)
After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.
— CS Lewis, The Silver Chair
Julius Caesar is a fascinating character. Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar draws us in right away. We want to like Caesar, yet he is horrifying. He is charming, in the same vein as pedophiles and con artists. We watch when he is kidnapped by pirates. We laugh when he does or says something amusing — they demand a ransom of twenty talents, but Caesar insists he is worth so much more than that. He sends his servants out to gather money, that he might pay the ransom himself, and as a result he stays with the pirates for almost forty days.
During that time, Caesar treats the pirates like dirt. He may be their prisoner, but it’s only a formality. When he wants to take a nap, he commands them to keep silent. They put up with it — “wait upon [him] as a prince,” as Plutarch puts it — because he is young, and they’ll make over twice as much as originally expected in the end.
Caesar enters into all their pirate games. He writes poetry and speeches, which he reads aloud, expecting them to be an attentive audience. If they do not understand, he berates them for how stupid they are and threatens to hang them all.
They laugh. Isn’t he funny?
The ransom paid, Caesar is set free. He immediately arms himself and his men, hires a boat, and goes after the pirates. He attacks them, plunders their ships, and brings them back prisoners. When the local praetor can’t be bothered to enforce the law, Caesar takes matters into his own hands and crucifies them all, “as he had oftentimes promised them in the isle he would do, when they thought he did but jest.”
Turns out, he wasn’t joking.
It’s hard to read this opening scene without an ominous little sick feeling in our stomachs. He seems so good-natured, yet the danger is palpable: behind the joke is deadly seriousness.
Caesar was about twenty-five when this happened.
By thirty-five, Caesar is climbing the ladder of power in earnest. He’s worked his way up to aedile, which is a sort of facilities manager for the Temple. He’s responsible for Temple maintenance, buildings, and Games. Like all crafty men before and after him, he’s well able to grow in the esteem of the common man. He has all the things they like: good manners and courtesy — he’s friendly and ingratiating. And of course, the way into the hearts of Romans was to practice hospitality. Spreading a lavish table where many could come and feast kept Caesar high in public esteem.
Caesar’s growth in popularity and power sobers a few of the leading men, but they naively assume this is a passing fancy of the people, that when Caesar’s resources run out (and presumably he can no longer host his great feasts) so will his popularity, so they leave him alone. His power continues to increase until it is finally too late. Says Plutarch:
[I]n fine, when they had thus given him the bridle to grow to this greatness, … they could not then pull him back, though indeed in sight it would turn one day to the destruction of the whole state and commonwealth of Rome.
What horror they must have felt when they realized their mistake and that the opportunity of correcting it had passed for good.
[T]oo late they found, that there is not so little a beginning of anything, but the continuance of time will soon make it strong.
We have certain sayings today that embody this truth. We say things must be “nipped in the bud.” Or that you “can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
It is so human to believe that a small thing will remain so — that we have nothing to fear from small things. While it’s important to overlook and forgive small things, many small things must be corrected while they are small. That’s the wisdom Plutarch offers us in this passage.
We make the fatal mistake of underestimating important small things in our personal lives, our relationships, and even our governments.
How many of us ignore our own “small” sins? It’s not a big deal, we think. It’s not a big deal that I … thought a wicked thought about that person … coveted what that person had … allowed a bit of bitterness to creep in … lusted … lied. No one knew, no one saw, no one was hurt.
That’s all well and good, but sin always always always requires repentance. It’s true, we probably don’t need to spend a lot of time beating ourselves up over small sins. But this doesn’t mean any sin is too small for repentance. What did James tell us about the words that come out of our mouths? We must be careful for how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
This is what Plutarch is trying to tell us: it is not that small things are strong, it’s that continuance of time makes them strong. The small weeds, when they are not dealt with, grow up and become big weeds and eventually they destroy the garden.
We see a similar application for relationships. How many relationships are broken because the “little beginnings” of problems were left to the continuance of time, which allowed those problem to grow?
We think, perhaps, it doesn’t matter that we didn’t bother to formally reconcile with that person. It was a small matter. It’ll all blow over in time, we assume. We meet people who haven’t talked with their own family for a decade and shake our heads, wondering how such things happen. Sometimes, big, bad, awful things blow up a family. It’s true. But lots of time, little things grow up into big things because no one thought they were worth bothering about.
Plutarch teaches us that no bad thing is ever so small that it ought not be dealt with. No sin is worth ignoring.
Of course, these are analogical lessons drawn from the text. The most obvious and literal lesson is political. Don’t assume a bad leader will get better with time. There were a million red flags from the time Julius Caesar was a teenager, and it only got worse. What Plutarch calls Caesar’s “magnificent shows” as aedile keep him on the upward-bound elevator of public esteem, and it is then that Caesar decides to test the waters.
Years before, there had been a civil war. The two main factions were led by Lucias Cornelius Sulla (the victor) and Gaius Marius (Caesar’s uncle-by-marriage, the defeated). One morning, the city awakes to find that “images of Marius and figures of Victory, with trophies in their hands” had magically appeared in the Capitol during the night. Plutarch assures us this is controversial at best (and treasonous at worst). These beautifully wrought statues are celebrating “such honours as before had been trodden under foot and forgotten, by common decrees and open proclamation.”
While no one formally took credit for this shocking act, Plutarch assures us everyone knew well enough who it was.
There are two responses to this event. On the one hand, there is the faction that is appalled and see this for exactly what it was: “no more but a bait to gauge the people’s good wills, which [Caesar] had set out in the stately shews of his common plays, to see if he had brought them to his lure, that they would abide such parts to be played, and a new alteration of things to be made.” Those with eyes to see immediately connect this to a desire to set up a tyranny. They understand that Caesar is trying to assess the temperature of the room: How much can I get away with? he asks.
The second response is from Marius’ extended family. They burst out in tears of joy and praise Caesar, declaring him the best man in the whole Marian family for doing this great and daring deed and publicly honoring their defeated patriarch Gaius Marius.
The lesson lies not in Caesar’s actions, but in the response of those in authority. Plutarch tells us the greatest man in Rome at that time was Catulus Luctatius. He came out and immediately condemned Caesar’s actions. He warned them all — Caesar is no longer working in secret but is publicly trying to alter the state of their government. Luctatius sees it all so clearly.
But Caesar has a smooth tongue. He parries Luctatius’ verbal attacks so well that all the Senators were satisfied. And so once again, Caesar, who is no longer a small problem, is left, like many of our own horrifying public officials today, to the indulgence of time, and what was once so easily swept under the rug no longer fits so tidily.
The wisdom of Plutarch would advise us to deal with the problems — whether they are within ourselves, our relationships, or our public leadership — while they are yet small, before the flame has grown into a raging fire.