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Dr. Larry Arnn on Plutarch’s Comparison Of Theseus And Romulus

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HH: Much as I am tempted to spend another day talking about Anthony Weiner, I’m not going to. In fact, this is a very different hour. For those of you who listen to every hour, every week, you know that the last broadcast hour of the week, I give over to a conversation with one of the great faculty or staff at Hillsdale College in Michigan, our Western Civilization series. And we’ve done that since the beginning of the year, more often than not with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, sometimes with one of his colleagues, as we march through the great texts of Western Civilization. It’s a great way to end the week. But it also happens to have the downside that if you’re not listening on Friday, you never get to hear the hour. And therefore, today I am playing the hour in a different time slot just to introduce and tempt all of you into either the Hughniverse or over to, or to, so that you can go back to the beginning when we began with the Iliad and the Odyssey in January and catch up on the Hillsdale Dialogues. Today, I have Dr. Larry Arnn with me. Dr. Arnn, a good day to you, a different time spot, but I think it will go very well.

LA: I look forward to it. And we’re trying to get new listeners, and if we’re abandoning representative, or former Representative Weiner, let me just say that two of the guys we’re going to talk about today were guilty or terrible sex scandals.

HH: Oh, there you have it. So it’s actually in keeping with it. Now before we dive into the terrible sex scandals, though, we’re doing Plutarch, for the benefit of the audience. This is the first time since 1894 that there have been three royal heirs alive in the line of the succession. Now all of English history, which you know so well, is riven by succession crises. You and I are just simply not going to live to see one of those, are we?

LA: I don’t think so. You know, they’ve even changed the law so that it’s immaterial now whether the heir, whether the next in line is a girl or a boy. And so that gives, they decided that doesn’t matter. And of course, that’s a big decision. That changes things a lot. But that means that the famous thing from all the really great movies about the English monarchy, like Anne Of A Thousand Days, is they have the baby, and all the officials are standing around at the bed where the baby is born to see what emerges. And if it’s a girl, there’s terrible disappointment. They don’t even have that anymore.

HH: No, and so we are all, we’re free of all drama from the royals, and poor Churchill would be spinning in his grave knowing that there will be no more succession crises, at least for the time being. I wish to begin this week by playing for you four minutes of the speech by my friend, Archbishop Charles Chaput, which he delivered on July 8th in Washington, D.C, because we’ve been talking about biography and the impact of great men on history, because we’re talking about Plutarch. And he talks about one of your favorites in this, and I’d like your reaction to it before we go back to Coriolanus, and then forward to Theseus and Romulus. Here is Archbishop Chaput earlier this month.

CC: A long time ago in Germany, a man kept a diary. And some of his words are worth hearing today, because they’re a good place to begin our discussion. The man wrote, “Speak both to the powerful and to every man, whoever he may be, appropriately and without affectation. Use plain language. Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance, and be ready to let it go. Order your life well in every single act. Behave justly to those who are around you. Be vigilant over your thoughts so that nothing should steal into them without being well-examined.” He wrote, “Every moment, focus steadily on doing the task at hand with perfect and simple dignity, and with feeling of affection and freedom and justice. Put away hypocrisy. Put away self-love and discontent with your portion in life. We were made for a cooperation, and to act against one another is contrary to nature. Accept correction gladly, to each without anger. Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, a friend of justice, kind, affectionate, and strenuous in all proper acts.” And finally, he wrote, “Take care never to feel towards those who are inhuman the way they feel towards other men.” The dictionary in my home in Philadelphia defines wisdom as the understanding and pursuit of what is true, right or lasting. If that’s so, and I believe it is, the words from the diary we just heard are wisdom. They offer us a map to living a worthy life, a life of interior peace flowing out of moral character and purpose. They’re as valuable today as when they were first written. But what’s interesting is this. They were written more than 1,800 years ago. The author probably didn’t intend to see his work published. He wrote mainly for himself to strengthen his convictions. And many of this thoughts, which we now call The Meditations, were written at war, at night, in winter, from the inside of a Roman military tent on the German frontier. In his 19 years as emperor, Marcus Aurelius Antonius had no long period of peace. He spent much of his life away from Rome with his army. He fought one brutal war after another against invaders. And he did it to defend a society that had already lost the values he held dear. Moreover, in the long run, he failed. The barbarians won. Rome rotted out and unraveled. His own son, Commodus, became one of the worst tyrants in history. So why do we remember him? We remember him because nothing is more compelling than a good man in an evil time.

HH: Now Dr. Larry Arnn, I thought that was a perfect way to explain why we care about Plutarch, and also remarkable to have been delivered in the Basilica of Washington, D.C., in early July, 2013.

LA: Boy, you know, I’ve never heard that man speak before, Hugh, but you’re right about that guy, aren’t you?

HH: Yeah, well, you’re a big emperor fan anyway.

LA: Oh, yeah. Well, he, you know, the Meditations, one tip for everybody, we can actually, from this, this is a very good lead-in. We can explain why we’re reading Plutarch and the classic works. But also, everybody should get Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There’s a good translation by Scott Hicks. There are several, but they are also free all over the place if you read e-books. And take it with you. It’s not very big. And it’s tremendous. Just about any page you open and read in is good for you. It’s a tremendous book, and everybody ought to read that book. And I have it with me all the time.

HH: Oh, I did not know that. And I do think it illumines why we’re reading Plutarch, but explain.

LA: Well, if you heard the tenor of that, so we’re reading these parallel lives that Plutarch wrote, and they’re all people who have claims of greatness. There’s always a Greek and a Roman. And as you said at the beginning, these lives are lives that are extremely significant in the history of those two countries. And they are, the parallel lives are written after Greek has failed and Rome is failing. And so there’s an effort at revival implicit in Plutarch’s parallel lives. He is one of the figures in Roman history who tries to save Rome, ultimately unsuccessfully. Marcus Aurelius is another. And what they’re trying to save is the virtue of Rome. And then come to find out the way these lives are written, Plutarch is able to teach us how inside the souls of these men are microcosms of the virtues and the vices of those two cities, Rome and Greece, or Athens, especially, but also Sparta. So you can see them play out. And that piece read from Marcus Aurelius by the, he’s a cardinal, isn’t he?

HH: Archbishop.

LA: Archbishop. The piece read by him, that’s a description of how every one of us would wish to comport himself. And of course, Marcus Aurelius was a late pagan, right? Christianity is abroad in the world, right, and so he, there’s a kind of merging that goes on in him. And all of us can recognize those words and say to ourselves, if we could have that said of us about any particular act, it wouldn’t matter the outcome. We would be satisfied with our comportment in that act.

HH: Exactly. Exactly. And that is why we read these lives.

— – – –

HH: I want to go back, Dr. Larry Arnn, as president of Hillsdale College, and last week we talked about two very interesting men – Coriolanus and Alcibiades. And we didn’t finish, really, with enough of Coriolanus Caius Martius. Is that how you say it? Martius?

LA: Caius Martius.

HH: Because when we left off, I was quoting Plutarch by indulging the vehemence of his passions, and through an obstinate reluctance to yield or accommodate his humors and sentiments to those of the people around him. He rendered himself incapable of acting and associating with others. In other words, he was a stubborn mule of a man, and haughty and arrogant. Why do we care about him?

LA: Well, that’s a, now go back to that quote that the Archbishop read from Marcus Aurelius. We all want to be remembered for acting that way. These parallel lives show how seldom it is that any person, even among the great, acts that way consistently or through a life. And so Coriolanus did a very, you know, he did two really great things for which he is rightly remembered. One is darned if he didn’t lead his, first, he went by himself, but lead a small contingent of troops inside the gates, which were closed, of a hostile city, and fight its army with about two dozen men, and get the gates back open and get everybody else back in. He was extremely brave, and also brilliant commanding troops. The second thing is after that, they gave him great riches in honor of what he did, and he gave them back. So this was a man of high and compelling honor. And to be like him on those occasions, everybody swells up and wants to be like that. And then there are these other occasions, and they are really numerous, and they lead to his tragedy, because he is haughty, and that’s a misjudgment as well as a moral vice, because it’s too important to him to lord it up over people who don’t have his qualities of courage and generalship, right? He values them too highly, actually. And then second, doing that, he cannot for the life of him control his rage. And so there’s a flaw in the man to go along with these fantastic qualities. And to read the qualities is an appeal to every one of us to develop them in himself. And to read the flaws is a caution to every one of us that no matter what our excellences are, we’ve got to be careful, because only virtue in the round can lead to a well-lived life.

HH: There is a quote in this life by Plutarch. He quotes Antipater in a letter written upon the death of Aristotle, and he says, Aristotle the philosopher, “Antipater observes that among Aristotle’s other gifts, he had that of persuasiveness. And the absence of this in the character of Coriolanus made all of his great actions and noble qualities unacceptable to those whom they benefitted. Pride and self-will, the consort, as Plato calls is, of solitude, made him insufferable.” And he goes on to contrast him with Alcibiades, who was sweet. “His very heirs at times being accompanied by something of grace and felicity. So in spite of great an frequent hurt that he had done to Athens, he was repeatedly appointed to the office in command of the city.” And I thought of Bill Clinton, Larry Arnn.

LA: Yeah (laughing) Yeah, without the martial virtue.

HH: Without the martial virtue. But just, no matter what he does, he’s so winsome that he gets back in our good graces.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. He’s a charming rogue. And see, now that’s a very good way to think about this book. And I appeal to people, Hugh Hewitt is so often wrong, but in this case, he’s very right. Everyone should read Plutarch. It’s really great. And you will…and see, the reason you read it is it is an examination of human characters, and you can compare them to the ones you see. What is it about Bill Clinton, right? Now imagine, however, Bill Clinton, who’s a great conqueror. And you know, they used to say of Clinton, he’s so ambitious, you know, and his wife is now going to be president after him, they say, and he’s going to be the head of the U.N., or he’s going to get on the Supreme Court. He’ll never stop, right?

HH: Right.

LA: Well, you know, maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not true. Alcibiades was setting things up so that he could conquer the whole world and use his own city to do it. And if he couldn’t get it done with that, he would use his own city’s prime enemies, either one of them or both of them, both of whom he joined.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So this is like Bill Clinton more so.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And with enormous abilities added, and that’s why, you know, how long is it? It’s 2,400 years, 2,500 years since Alcibiades lived, and we read about him.

HH: I also want to, from the life of Coriolanus, just read something about Rome which I think is so appropriate to us. “All at Rome were in great disorder. They were utterly adverse from fighting, and spent their whole time in cabals and disputes, and reproaches against each other, until news was brought that the enemy had laid close siege. These tidings produced a change as universal as it was extraordinary in the thoughts and inclinations of the people, but yet occasioned a stranger revulsion to feelings among the patricians.” In other words, when doom threatens, countries tend to get their acts together when it comes to leadership.

LA: Yeah, and that’s why, you know, we, I mean, why did Britain turn to Winston Churchill in September of 1940? What he had done, he had a tremendous war reputation, because he was a very find soldier and very highly-decorated, very successful. But what they knew about him was he was firm. He just, you couldn’t break the guy. And all those qualities that made you think of him, he was stubborn as a mule, and nobody could work with him. They would think that. And he would do these brilliant, imaginative things that upset everything and came out of nowhere, right? Now, the situation is different. Hey, let’s get that guy, you know? And they don’t think that anymore about Stanley Baldwin.

HH: No.

LA: …who is essentially a calming influence, right?

HH: I do have to say, though, you, for Larry Arnn to say September of 1940 as opposed to May of 1940, I can’t let that pass.

LA: Yeah, I got my year wrong.

HH: You got your month wrong.

LA: September of 1939, the war started, because here’s what happened. In October of 1938, and see, now let’s go back and explain why this matters. In these lives of these people, all of them, or almost all of them, have occasions when they are not at their best, because their characters are not formed to be good in all circumstances. That’s extremely rare, you know, George Washington, right, Winston Churchill, I think. Well…

HH: Hold that, we’re going to go to the break, then we come back to those occasions when they are not at their best.

— – – –

HH: It’s Hugh Hewitt with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College on Plutarch and on why sometimes the greatest people have their bad periods and their off days, and why we have to study those as well as their glories.

LA: What I was saying was, and see, for some reason, this seems important in part because you began with the beautiful quotation from Marcus Aurelius and the Archbishop. People should remember what their lives consist in. Life is a series of examinations. Circumstances are presented to one, and one must figure out how to act rightly, and especially when the circumstances are difficult. And different sets of circumstances challenge different things in us. All the moral and intellectual virtues are solicited by events. And you can see these guys falling down, and I was just telling a quick Churchill story. In 1938, in the summer of 1938, Neville Chamberlain made his deal with Adolf Hitler about Czechoslovakia and waived the paper, there’s peace in our time, and this was concluded on October 4th or 5th, 1938, I think. And Chamberlain was at the peak of his power. And Churchill, in one of the very greatest speeches he gave on October the 5th, 1938 in the House of Commons, took that on in the debate over the Munich Accords. And it’s beautiful how it ends. It’s tremendous, he says, and see, remember about Churchill. You just said about Coriolanus, he was not persuasive.

HH: Right.

LA: More than Washington, more than, know, Churchill, Hamilton, even that, Churchill could write, and he could speak. And it was brilliant when he stood up, always, right? He had an enormous reputation. So he stands up, and he gets to the end, and it’s like a scene in Macbeth. He says, “This is but the first foretaste, the first sip of a cup that will be proffered to us again and again. We will drink from this cup, and learn what is coming upon us,” he says. And it ends with, “Until the dread judgment is levied, thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting.” That’s what he says to Chamberlain at the peak of Chamberlain’s popularity.

HH: Right, that is bold.

LA: There is no trimming, and it was so powerful, that it left the House in silence, right? And it interrupted the celebration. Now in March of 1939, so October, November, December, January, February, March, six months later, Hitler does what he promised not to do. He takes the rest of Czechoslovakia. And so it lasted six months, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: How long’s it been since the last election? Or since the inauguration of Obama in the second time?

HH: Yeah.

LA: This time’s gone, right? Already. So in six months, all of a sudden, events have vindicated this speech, which everybody knew about, right? And so all over London appeared from nowhere signs on a white background, black letters, huge, what price Churchill? Billboards, right? So there wasn’t any choice but to ask him into the government in September, ’39. And then in May, as you rightly say, 1940, the Chamberlain government fell, and by a whisker, Churchill was chosen over another man to become the prime minister. And then everything changed.

HH: Now who put those signs? Was it Beaverbrook who arranged for those signs? Do we know?

LA: It still isn’t known.

HH: We don’t know?

LA: We don’t know.

HH: I find that, whoever put those signs up deserves a footnote somewhere along the way.

LA: Yeah, and took trouble not to get it, whoever did it.

HH: Yeah, that’s interesting. That’s very interesting. All right, now we must turn to mythical beings – Theseus and Romulus. That’s who we’re doing this week. We have a minute here, and then we have a couple of segments thereafter. And so the first question in a minute, Larry Arnn, why study mythical beings? I know myths are stories intended to be believed, but why study them?

LA: Well, two of the greatest civilizations, cities ever founded, have mythical stories about their founders. That tells you something about the cities as well as, by the way, offering another kind of examination of human character in operation amidst events.

HH: Because we’ve got as solid, as rock solid characters as Caesar, whose life is etched in detail that anyone could possibly want from ancient times, and yet Plutarch treats them as equally worthy of study.

LA: Yeah, well, that’s been, you know, if you want, because just remember, and we have to sort of get a political education to follow all this, so I’ll tell you think after the break.

— – – – – –

HH: So Dr. Arnn, you were saying we need a political education before we proceed to Theseus and Romulus. Of what sort?

LA: Well, it works this way. If you want to understand your country, one of the questions you have to ask is what kind of person does it produce, because the ultimate aim of politics is certain forms of human character, certain ways of living. And this correspondence between the city and man, which is one of the great classical themes, is close, because politics arises naturally from the signal attributes of human nature. We are rational creatures, which makes us able to talk to each other. It gives us our moral concerns, and draws us together into politics. That’s the classical argument. So much so that in Plato’s Republic, young men challenge Socrates to show them that justice is good for its own sake, and Socrates replies okay, but we can see the point better if we write it larger. Let’s describe the just city. That’s why it’s called republic, the public things, you see? So when you’re reading about these two mythical founders, this tells you something about the Athenians, which also tells you something about Themistocles, a real guy, and Pericles, a real guy. They aren’t ruling and working amidst a people who value greatly this story about Theseus.

HH: And Theseus and Romulus, they’re both killers. This is, they’re both not to be trusted. And they are both very brutal people. These are not, they’re not happy talk, cherry tree cutting down myth. These are founding myths full of rape and pillaging and slaying of beasts and double crosses.

LA: Yeah, and that’s what’s really good about them, I guess. But no, both of them, see, they’re both, like many of these characters, there’s a few of these characters, in fact, when we get ready to summarize all these years we’re going to spend in Plutarch because you like it so much, we should go down and try to rank them. Who are the ones that shine the brightest and most consistently, right? Well, like the ones who don’t shine consistently, both Romulus and Theseus do magnificent things, tremendous things, very worthy things, things that you would be proud if one of your children did, extremely proud, right? You’d think it a signal fact in their lives and yours. They did many things like that, like for example, Romulus, it’s attributed to him the Roman genius that made the expansion of Rome possible…

HH: Yes.

LA: When they took a people, when they conquered a people, they made them equals. They invited them in. And what they had to invite them into was strong enough to remain a whole with an integrity, although it was growing. And so Rome, and that started with Romulus.

HH: Yeah, when he…

LA: And after he killed his brother.

HH: When he beat people, he invited them to be citizens. “And indeed, there was nothing that did more to advance the greatness of Rome that she did always unite and incorporate those whom she conquered into herself.”

LA: Why was Rome greater than Persia? The answer is in Persia, everyone was equal, but also, in some sense, equal as a slave to one man, the emperor. And in Rome, equal citizens is what people were. And that gave them a dignity. And the Roman republic was a thriving and growing thing such as had never been seen, because it showed a way to do that. And that fact is part of the Romulus myth that all Romans looked to, because Romulus is the name, Rome is the namesake of Romulus.

HH: There is also in the Theseus story the first big friendship, Theseus and Pirithous, but also this, which is not normally the case. “Hit tomb is a sanctuary and a refuge for slaves, and all those of mean condition that fly from the persecution of men in power in memory that Theseus, while he lived, was an assistor and protector of the distressed, and never refused the petitions of the afflicted that fled to him.” Good bit of advice for rulers of all ages.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. And worth comparing, by the way, because in Theseus, the myth story, Theseus is more populist than Romulus, he’s more passionate, he’s a serial rapist.

HH: Yes, he is.

LA: He’s more wily. You know, the Athenians love Odysseus. He’s clever. He can talk, right? And Theseus does great acts of heroism, but sometimes he does it by trick. He kills this monster, and he does it with thread, you know, finding his way out of the labyrinth. And he’s a very tricky, wily guy, as well as being shrewd and heroic. And so there’s qualities that the Athenians value, qualities that you can hear echo in Pericles’ funeral oration.

HH: He also, your comment on it, he punished evil men with the same violence that they had inflicted upon others.

LA: Yeah, justice.

HH: Proportional, Old Testament, really.

LA: That’s it. That’s it, yeah. Justice is a kind of equality. It makes things, puts things back into balance.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, on this, the week on Tuesday, a federal district court in Ohio, operating off of the Supreme Court decisions of last month, struck down the Ohio laws limiting marriage to one man and one woman, saying it was unconstitutional, given Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Windsor. And I found it interesting as I read Theseus and Romulus to prepare for this week that marriage is a key theme of both of these books. And his high praise for Romulus is, Plutarch’s, to the reverence and love and constancy he established in matrimony many can witness, and that it was important to the state that he did so.

LA: Yeah, you know, and the story is, and see, you have to remember about the Romans. The Romans had a principle of self-restraint in them. They were very pious and very devoted to virtue. And it is the loss of that in the great men and in the citizens that leads to the decline of both Greece and Rome. And the way you treat your women is crucial. It’s a barometer of the state of our soul. And the Romans didn’t have any women, and so they went and stole the Sabine women, but the story has a happy ending, because then later, the Romans are at war with the last group of the Sabines, and their women, now long become Roman women, rush out onto the battlefield and stop the battle, and said we don’t want to lose either of our homes. Let us unite. And so that brings together, and see, it’s a simple necessity that for some reason we can’t seem to understand in these court cases, that human beings have to propagate for each generation to be successful. That means the young need the middle aged, and the old need the middle aged. And the work of childbearing is a basic work of human life, and it takes place in the family, and that is a subject under our discretion.

HH: You know, but Judge Walker, in the district court case, in the Prop. 8 case, said we can’t read Plutarch. He can’t be admitted to the courtroom. We can’t read any of these old, dead guys, or old, dead ladies, because they can’t be admitted to the courtroom to testify.

LA: Because they’re dead?

HH: Because they’re dead.

LA: Yeah, that’s it. And you know, by the way, read the stories of the diseases that came into these two societies as they’re discussed in Plutarch, and those diseases are to be repelled, right? And I think there’s a moral lesson for us in that.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, next week to Sulla and Lysander, one of my favorite guys, Sulla, absolutely one of…his tomb says no friend has ever done me a favor, nor an enemy an injury that I have not repaid in full. Not particularly Christian, is it?

LA: Well, he’s, Sulla’s not the best fellow we’re going to read about.

HH: But effective, very, very effective.

LA: Very effective.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you., America. Go and get all of these, or go to, or the button is linked over at

End of interview.


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