Plutarch was a philosopher, historian, politician and priest, who lived in Chaeronea in Greece from roughly 46 AD to 120 AD. As a young man, Plutarch traveled all across the Mediterranean, taking notes on the cultures he visited, and lecturing on philosophy in Rome. When he returned to Chaeronea, he set up a school, taught philosophy, and wrote books on everything from poetry to biology. His most famous book is Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (commonly known as Parallel Lives), which presents portraits of 46 historical figures from Rome and Greece. Plutarch typically pairs off a Greek and Roman hero, and compares the two. The book includes portraits of figures including Cicero, Cato the Younger, Alexander the Great, Pericles and Julius Caesar. It’s very well written, and for centuries was one of the best known books in European culture. A translation of it was Shakespeare’s main source for his Roman plays, for example.

So he was a historian rather than a philosopher? 

He was both. The aim of his Parallel Lives was mainly ethical. He believed that if young people study the lives of great heroes, and are taught to consider their virtues and flaws, they will naturally emulate them and use them as role models. He believed young people are driven by the passion for emulation, and he saw this passion at work in many of the heroes he wrote about: Alexander the Great emulated Achilles and wanted to imitate and exceed his feats; Julius Caesar emulated Alexander; and so on. Their emulation of previous heroes drove these figures on to great deeds. Likewise, teachers can spur children on to great deeds by giving them role models or patterns to imitate. This is the idea behind the technique of the exemplum, which was popular in ancient philosophy and still used today in psychology.

What’s the exemplum?

The exemplum simply means a moral example. The ancient philosophers would often use role models to inspire their students to virtue. They would tell their students about the exemplary lives of great figures like Socrates or Diogenes, to show them a pattern of a philosophical life. The technique is based on the idea that humans are intensely social animals. We’re always watching how others behave, and imitating their behaviour. This much has been supported by social psychologists like Albert Bandura, whose Bobo doll experiments illustrated how children watch and imitate adults – you can watch a video about the experiments here.

Louis Ferrante initially lacked positive role models

Usually this imitation of others is unconscious and automatic. That can get us in trouble if  we grow up in an environment where the dominant role models are insalubrious. In the book, for example, we meet Louis Ferrante, who grew up in New York neighbourhood surrounded by gangs. He followed the model, and became a gangster himself in John Gotti’s Mafia clan. It was only when he was in prison, at the age of 22, that he started to question the role models and value system he had unconsciously followed.

However, Plutarch suggests that we can consciously choose our role models, in order to cultivate the best sides of our character, rather than the worst. That’s what Parallel Lives aims to do. Plutarch directs our attention to his heroes’ strengths and defects, so that we can imitate the former and avoid the latter. The idea is reading these exemplary tales will transform us, morally, by guiding our natural desire to imitate and emulate. In Louis’ case, it seemed to work. He came across a copy of Parallel Lives in prison, read it, stole it, felt bad about stealing it, put it back, and started to read other lives of great historical figures. He says reading biographies inspired him to change his course in life, to leave crime, and become a writer and campaigner for literacy.

So what sort of virtues does Plutarch applaud in his historical subjects? 

As you’d expect from a member of the Socratic tradition, Plutarch admires the Socratic virtues of self-control, temperance, hardiness and so forth. But his portraits are almost all politicians and military men, and he admires the worldly virtues of courage, daring, adventurousness and political savvy. There is a realpolitik side to his heroes, which Machiavelli would later admire. Above all, his heroes need philosophy, which provides them with the ‘equipment’ to be great rulers. Many of his heroes have famous tutors: Alcibiades is taught by Socrates, Pericles by Anaximander, Alexander the Great by Aristotle. The philosopher’s role is as a tutor to future rulers, who are instilled with correct principles which they can spread across the world.

Plutarch even wonders if Alexander the Great might be the greatest ever philosopher, not for the originality of his ideas, but for his ability to spread Hellenistic culture across half the world. To change the world, then, the philosopher doesn’t need to lead a revolution. They just need access to the wax-like minds of future leaders, on which they can implant philosophical ideas which the leaders will one day be able to spread across their society. It’s quite an elitist view of politics and philosophy, but that doesn’t take away from Plutarch’s skill as a writer, and from the intelligence of his psychological ideas and techniques.

How influential was Plutarch and the cult of the hero after the fall of the Roman Empire? 

The Uffizi is a walk-through education in heroic role-models

Extremely influential, and it’s strange how far his star has sunk in modern times. The Christians may have decried the classical cult of the military hero that Plutarch celebrated, which Christians denounced as worldly, vain-glorious and deluded. But they still used the technique of the exemplum, by disseminating lives of the saints for the faithful to imitate, via books, woodcuts and stained glass windows. In the Middle Ages, the Church tried to civilise the warrior class by creating and circulating chivalric romances for them to emulate. In the Renaissance, Plutarch’s Lives were hugely popular with everyone from Shakespeare to Machiavelli to Giorgio Vasari, designer of the Uffizi gallery in Florence. In fact, the Uffizi is, in some ways, a walk-through education in heroic role-models.

And the Plutarchian cult of the hero was championed in the 19th century by thinkers like Thomas Carlyle, who seemed to believe that hero-worship could replace Christianity as the glue that held society together.  But Plutarch’s ‘great man’ theory of history was criticised and undermined from the middle of the 19th century by rival theories of history, particularly Marxism, which insisted that historical events were driven not by ‘great men’ but by impersonal socio-economic forces. And after the terrors of Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism, the idea of emulating or even worshipping military heroes seemed dangerously fascist.

In the the chapter, I interview the politician and adventurer, Rory Stewart,  who says he was very inspired by the classical cult of the hero when he was a boy. But, he muses, with the decline of empires in the 20th century, there was no longer a space for military heroes to play out their grand conceptions of self. Anyone who tries to play the grand hero in modern politics ends up looking ridiculous. As he notes, the classical ideal of the hero only really exists on our film screens, blown up to ridiculous proportions as superheroes. You can watch the interview with Rory here.

So Plutarch’s theory of education through emulation is in the dustbin of history? 

Not quite. In fact, his theory of education has enjoyed something of a comeback in the last few years, as psychologists and educational theorists come back to the importance of ‘character’ in education. Have a look, for example, at the British think-tank Demos’ Character Inquiry or at this article  on Plutarch and education by the conservative thinker Roger Kimball. There’s actually a leadership coaching organisation in the US that explicitly uses Plutarch’s ideas and techniques, called  Agathon Associates.

We’re also seeing growing interest in the importance of role models in character development, even among psychologists who were once rather sceptical of the idea of moral character. The psychologist Philip Zimbardo, for example, who in the 1970s insisted that who we are depends purely on the situation in which we find ourselves, is now interested in the idea that we can strengthen our characters by studying and emulating heroic role models. You can hear about his new project, which is called the Heroic Imagination Project, here.