An ancient guide to wise leadership
Selected, translated and introduced by Jeffrey Beneker ISBN 978-0-691-19211-6 Princeton £13.99

 reviewed by Alan Dent

Plutarch lived from c 46 to 120. He was an admirer of Sparta whose decline he found hard to accept. His most famous work is Lives, in which he writes about leading Greek and Roman figures focussing more on their character than the historical events in which they engaged. Gathered here are three essays: To An Uneducated Leader, How To Be A Good Leader and Should Old Men Engage in Politics, in dual language form. The preoccupation of Lives is, to a degree, replicated her. Plutarch is interested in character, something we have more or less lost sight of. We are encouraged to admire people for wealth, money, fame, prowess, but character? A person of character is an anachronism. The measures of success have no need of such a definition. 

            Plutarch’s definition of “educated” differs from ours. The possession of a degree from a Russell Group university is not what he intends; rather being educated means understanding the moral responsibility of power. An educated leader is disinterested. Serving needs other than their own, educated leaders rise above egotism, pride, and self-advancement. The MPs’ expenses scandal would have been for Plutarch evidence of uneducated leaders. Interestingly, the MP with the lowest expenses claims today is Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps that makes him  closer to Plutarch’s ideal than many of his colleagues.                        

                        “Depravity, once combined with political power, races to give expression to every emotion..” 

Plutarch quotes Dionysus who said that when he could carry out his wishes quickly he felt at his most despotic. Power is attractive to those whose emotions remain regressed. Nye Bevan accused Churchill of “congealed adolescence”. Plutarch’s insistence is that leaders who are in it for themselves, even to a small degree, are unworthy.                        

                        “Cracked souls cannot contain political power…” 

This is reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s observation that anyone can cope with adversity, but if you want to test a man, give him power. The leader who can put aside his or her own desires and be devoted to something beyond themselves is very rare. Yet this is what Plutarch argues must characterise an educated leader. This begs the question, in a democracy, of educated voters. To elect people of character requires voters of character, something not much in evidence today. The cracked souls can be those of the people as much as the leaders.  

                        “…ignorance of people’s character leads to missteps and mistakes no less in our political system than in the entourages of kings…”           

            The return to character reveals Plutarch’s moral orientation:

                        “Politicians do not give an accounting only for the things they say and do in the public sphere.”           

            In our post-shame culture, politicians are judged must less stringently. This isn’t particularly modern, it could be argued: the chaotic private life of John Wilkes was thought  by some to be irrelevant to his politics. Perhaps this shows us what happens in divided societies: people will vote for anyone who represents their interest. 

            In the second essay, Plutarch treats the matter of eloquence. Politics is, of course, principally about the capacity to persuade and those who can produce mellifluous language prosper:

                        “It’s a pity human deeds cannot speak for themselves. Then those who are clever at speaking would amount to nothing.” 

When, today, we see footage of the Nuremberg rallies, they seem ridiculous. How could all those people have been fooled? They were the wrong side of the gas chambers. We are all always the wrong side of politicians’ promises. Even incoherent, contradictory speakers can rally people if they are convinced their interests are at stake.  

            Themistocles is quoted: “May I never sit upon the sort of throne that prevents me from giving more to my friends than everyone else.” 

This is the misuse of power Plutarch thinks is characteristic of the uneducated leader. Leaders must serve what is good. The exercise of power is a matter of virtue and true leaders are those who work out what is good and serve it. Needless to say, this is a high-minded view, at odds with the modern conception. Machiavelli, for example, would have considered politics as the pursuit of moral good as far removed from the machinations necessary to rulers, believing as he did in a strict division between private and public morality and seeing vice as a potential contributor to the security and stability of the State, which ought to be the main concern of a leader. Machiavelli and his inheritors, Mandeville for example, represent the death of moral decision-making in public life. A moral decision consists in this: a perceived advantage has to be resisted because its achievement requires denial of a moral imperative. How do we know what is a moral imperative ie that something is wrong? Moral relativity asserts that this changes from culture to culture, but the ability to recognise wrong must be consistent. It must be wired in. It consists in the simple matter of being able to recognise that others have needs like our own. As we would be injured by an affront our own needs, so we should avoid affronting the needs of others. Modern politics rejects this in favour of the doctrines of legitimate interest, balance of powers and so on. Yet no one can stop the moral imperative bubbling to the surface, so even the most cynical politicians have to claim to be serving some good. Even Hitler had to claim he was liberating the master race by pursuing genocide. We are moral creatures by nature which means nothing more or less than we share a common condition. This is the meaning of equality. Our common biological inheritance is a given, in spite of all differences of wealth, power or status. Whatever denies it is essentially morally dubious, differences of wealth, power and status for example.            

            “..there is nothing honourable or democratic in the love of holding office.”

            Plutarch recognises in the love of power a destructive form of egotism. Good leaders rid themselves of it. To them, office may be a burden borne for the sake of the good of others.  

            “Now the love of honour, though it is a more impressive quality than the love of profit, is no less ruinous to a political system.”  

            This dismissal of the pursuit of private gain is apparently contradicted by a later mention of “the authority that comes from wealth”, but perhaps Plutarch, in the second comment, is merely recognising a social fact rather than asserting what he values. In any case, his view is astringent. It is the opposite of our flabby assumption that people pursue “honour” (how old fashioned it sounds in our culture of vacuous celebrity) as a natural aim. What Plutarch is always pointing towards is the stern self-discipline by which people keep their worst impulses in check, a difficult notion for a culture of self-abandonment and sloppy indulgence.  

            Of course, Plutarch was no democrat in the contemporary sense. He thought monarchy “the most perfect and greatest of all constitutions”. Yet his view of monarchy was demanding: it was a heavy responsibility and if carried out properly would impose strictures that would prevent anyone from envying its power. He could nevertheless write this: 

                        “Politics is not a public service with a functional objective. Rather, it is a way of life for a tamed, political, and social animal, one that by its nature must live its whole life interacting with its fellow citizens, pursuing what is good and caring for humankind.” 

            The final essay asks if this can be done by the old (men, of course, though today we can apply what he says to women). His conclusion is that there is every reason for the old to continue to be engaged. 

                        “Envy…which is the greatest evil in political life.. hardly comes into conflict with old age…” 

The old, he implies, are more or less beyond ambition, willing to give others a hand, unlikely to push themselves forward at every opportunity and to try to seize every office.            

                        “We do not take leadership roles for ourselves but rather we surrender ourselves to being leaders.”           

            This raises an interesting idea: perhaps people should be forbidden from putting themselves forward for election but instead should be invited by those who know them, have experience of them and wish them to stand. Perhaps it wouldn’t lead to much change, but perhaps it would nudge our elected leaders towards that pursuit of the good Plutarch believes in.  

            The young, says Plutarch, are not ready for “the mobs that treat politicians unfairly”. It is the older who must bear “the enmity that comes from doing what is good for the people”. A curious idea, but perhaps one Freud would have understood. Watching people get angry at those who are trying to do what is good for them and embrace what will damage them is pretty much the unedifying spectacle of modern politics. Across the globe are leaders Plutarch would have undoubtedly designated uneducated, in his sense. Prominent amongst them, of course, the leader of what is hailed as the world’s greatest democracy. Government by the good and wise evades us. Why? It’s a complex and vexed question but to read Plutarch is a sensible way to at least start thinking critically about it.