Wednesday, October 30, 2013


He Makes You to Love Your Kind

J.P. Mahaffy (1839-1919), Rambles and Studies in Greece (London: Macmillan and Co., 1876), pp. 203-205:
But, small as it is, there are few more interesting places than the only spot in Chaeronea where we can say with certainty that here Plutarch sat—a man who, living in an age of decadence, and in a country village of no importance, has, nevertheless, made his genius felt over all the world as much as any of his countrymen. Apart from the great stores of history brought together in his Lives, which, indeed, even now are our only source for the inner life and spirit of the greatest Greeks of the greatest epochs—the moral effect of these splendid biographies, both on poets and politicians through Europe, can hardly be overrated. From Shakespeare and Alfieri to the wild savages of the French Revolution, all kinds of patriots and eager spirits have been excited and delighted by these wonderful portraits. Alfieri even speaks of them as the great discovery of his life, which he read with tears and with rage. There is no writer of the Silver Age who gives us anything like so much valuable information about earlier authors, and their general character. More especially the inner history of Athens in her best days, the personal features of Pericles, Cimon, Alcibiades, Nicias, as well as of Themistocles and of Aristides, would be completely, or almost completely, lost, if this often despised but invaluable man had not written for our learning. And he is still more essentially a good man—a man better and purer than most Greeks—another Herodotus in fairness and in honesty. A poor man who lived at Howth, and was himself reputed by his neighbours 'a terrible historian,' remarked to a friend of mine, who used to lend him Scott's novels, 'that Scott was a great historian,' and being asked his reason, replied, 'He makes you to love your kind.' There is a deep sense in this vague utterance, and in this sense it may be eminently applied to our dear old Plutarch. 'Here in Chaeronea,' says Pausanias, 'they prepare unguents from the flowers of the lily, and the rose, and the narcissus, and iris. These are balm for the pains of men. But that which is made of roses, if even old images made of wood are anointed with it, saves them, too, from decay.' He little knew how eternally true his words would be, for though the rose and the iris grow wild and neglected, and yield not now their perfume to soothe the ills of men, yet from Chaeronea comes the eternal balm of Plutarch's wisdom, to sustain the oppressed, to strengthen the patriot, to purify with nobler pity and terror the dross of human meanness. Nay, even the crumbling images of his gods arrest their decay by the virtue of his morals, and revive their beauty in the sweetness of his simple faith.

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