POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Thursdays with Plutarch, Part One

by David Trumbull

February 24, 2006

Every politician we know wants to be a statesman looking out for the future of his town, state, and country. Few ever get beyond merely positioning for the next re-election. Every businessman knows that obsessive concern about the current and next quarter is crippling the ability to do long term planning. But few know how to get out of the current cycle. Our top people in government, business, and other fields fail us not because they are bad men and women, or even inattentive. They fail to rise to great leadership because they lack the tools. In sum, contemporary culture has lost the ability to produce an F.D.R. who can restore our confidence even in the midst of an economic depression and rally an unprepared and unwilling populace to fight a necessary but unwelcomed war. Our schools of business do not --cannot-- turn out a Henry Ford who raised the wages of his workers and thus created a new group of purchasers of his motorcars.

The current dearth of leaders is directly due to the severing of our cultural and intellectual ties to the great classical tradition of morally-centered leadership that for millennia passed on to generation after generation the collected and distilled knowledge gained painfully over the centuries. To study that tradition my colleague Chris Murphy and I shall be leading a class next month where we'll read selections from Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.

The course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education will be seven Thursday evenings. We'll cover six of Plutarch's Lives: Themistocles (the savior of Greece), Pericles (the visionary) Alexander (the empire builder), Caesar (the innovator), Cicero (the role of rhetoric in leadership), Anthony (the brilliant but flawed commander). The final selection of Lives to cover will take into consideration the interests of the students as expressed in the first class meeting.

For each of these biographies we'll provide the student with a brief synopsis and identify a dominant theme in the life of the character (such as Pericles calling forth the greatness latent in the Athenians). Together teachers and students will explore the aspects of the character's family background, education, tastes, strengths, and weakness, that contributed to the greatness of the leader. Finally the class will apply the lessons learned to contemporary experiences in work, school, friendships and other social interactions.

The primary text is the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, written (in Greek) by Plutarch in about the year 100. English translations are readily available. We've made available free, on-line, the complete text with annotations on our website