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Larry Arnn On Plutarch’s Comparison Of Alcibiades And Coriolanus

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HH: Time for the weekly Hillsdale Dialogue with Dr. Larry Arnn or one of his colleagues. Dr. Arnn, of course, is the president of Hillsdale College, All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at, and the link is over at Dr. Arnn, always a pleasure, thank, good to talk to you.

LA: Good to talk to you, too.

HH: I would like to get back to Plutarch in a hurry, but first, it was an extraordinary day today in Washington, D.C., when President Obama went to the press office to speak for 17 minutes, which I played earlier in the show, about a criminal prosecution that ended in a not guilty verdict, against the backdrop of revolution in Egypt, civil war in Syria, Russia’s got Snowden, the Castro brothers are sending missiles to North Korea, bad economy, I mean, all sorts of stuff going on, and the President spoke for 17 minutes about this. What do you make of this, Dr. Arnn?

LS: Well, it’s the racial divide in the country, which the President fosters and benefits from. And what he said today was actually mostly good, except for one thing he didn’t say. He said that the judge did a good job, and that in our system, that’s it, he said in our system. He might have said very well, it’s the hallmark of our system that the law is applied to individuals by an independent branch of government. But he said, he acknowledged that, and then he implied that the Justice Department is not going to bring civil charges, civil rights violation charges, against Zimmerman. So I thought those were good things. What he might not have said was, what he might have said that he didn’t say is shouldn’t we all remember that the facts in the case have to be judged on their own, and that Trayvon Martin and Mr. Zimmerman, have to be adjudged by the same standard, whatever their color might be.

HH: Yeah, he ought to have said that. That would have been in keeping with the legacy of Lincoln in the 14th Amendment. What I’m alarmed by, Dr. Larry Arnn, is that this is so obviously off of his duties chart, and that a Friday afternoon press appearance with no other questions against the backdrop of these sweeping important events diminishes the importance of them, and magnifies what was in essence a waning public moment. It’s as though he threw another log on the fire.

LA: Well, you know, the census data about the election comes up and says he did, you know, extraordinarily well with the black vote, which grew, and which the blacks voted in greater percentages than the whites. He’s probably mindful of that. And you know, those things that you’re talking about that are going on in the world that he didn’t mention, he did mention them at the beginning and said we’ll have a press conference soon about all that stuff. But today, it’s this thing. And it’s very right. Where’s Calvin Coolidge when we need him, who had the way of saying just the thing it was appropriate for the president of the United States to say. And you know, think of another court case. There was a court case that Abraham Lincoln didn’t like, really didn’t like, and it has massive implications for the Constitution in national policy, the Dred Scott decision, which basically decided that the platform of the Republican Party was illegal. So had it been carried into effect, what Lincoln wanted to do, forbid slavery in the federal territories, could not have been. What did Lincoln say about that? In a very beautiful beginning, he said, that in cases between two parties, courts decide, and that is it. And so emphatic like that, that’s the think a president might very well have said.

HH: Now in the bridge to our conversation today, and we are talking about two of the lives in Plutarch, specifically Alcibiades and Coriolanus, and at the end of the comparison of those two lives, and we’ll talk about them, Plutarch says Alcibiades never professed to deny that it was pleasant to him to be honored, and distasteful to him to be overlooked. And I, having just read this in preparation to talk to you, the President’s appearing today, he can’t stand not to be at the center of this stuff, Larry.

LA: Yeah, and it’s an opportunity for him. And his own upbringing, by the way, he went to Punahou School, I think is how you say it, in Honolulu, which is an elite, private school. His name was not even Barack Obama at the time that he went. And you know, he says that in his youth, he might have been Trayvon Martin. He had a very different kind of upbringing from Trayvon Martin. And that’s just not right, you know? In other words, he might have said much more truly, those of us who have not lived in the conditions that Trayvon Martin lived in should think hard about that. But he should have said us, because he’s never lived in those conditions.

HH: The end of that paragraph I read continues, “For his temperance, continence and probity, he claims to be compared with the best and purest of the Greeks, not in any sort of kind with Alcibiades, the least scrupulous and most entirely careless of human beings in all these points.” You think the President is careless of his duties, Larry Arnn?

LA: I do, and I think the President, the President loves the imperative mood, that’s the grammatical construction, you must, you do this, you do that, go there, go there, sort of the way my mother always talked to my father, and made him happy by doing it. But that a marriage, right? And this is politics. The tone of the greatest presidents is a tone of explanation and reasoning. And that’s the key. And also, the failure of Alcibiades ultimately, and the decisive failure of Coriolanus, about whom we’re going to talk, is especially Coriolanus was unable to stoop to conquer, a favorite expression of Winston Churchill’s. It’s, you know, why shouldn’t he speak of his own failings all the time?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And that would be better, right? And he would carry the office better if that was his way.

HH: A last comment or comparison. I was looking for an analogy to today’s 17 minute ramble, and I came up with in 1970, on May 9th, 1970, President Nixon, obviously emotional, jumped in a car without a Secret Service, and directed to be driven to the Lincoln Memorial where the anti-war protestors were, and it was pre-dawn. It was a very famous but bizarre moment, it was just so not what presidents do. Today, of course, it’s dressed up in the White House Press Office, and it’s much more presidential than driving to the Lincoln Memorial. But it was an emotional, I think maybe he just felt like he had to do this, that his inner emotions drove him to this. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for a statesman?

LA: Well, you know, his job, I think, is to take, well, I don’t think, it is. His job is to take care that the laws are faithfully executed. And the best statesmen breed respect for one another among the citizen body, and don’t divide them. I mean, they look for ways to unite them. And they often do that by sacrificing themselves. And of course, it takes enormous restraint. I mean, we’re going to talk about Coriolanus, but in the end, he came to death and disaster, because he couldn’t hold his temper.

HH: Yup. All right, so let’s turn to that. The pair that we have chosen, and I have in backup as well, Theseus and Romulus, because they’re mythical, and I figure we can always spend as much time as we want there. But there was some debate for a long time if Coriolanus was actually mythical or not. And I think the better part of people believe he was a real general. And they’re roughly contemporaries, aren’t they?

LA: Roughly, still a debate, but yeah. But no, no, Coriolanus was earlier, you know, a hundred years or so. But there is some debate about Coriolanus, still, but it is a brilliant pairing of the two of them, because they both were leaders and saviors of their country, and they both joined the chief enemies of their country and fought against it.

HH: You see, that is, that’s why he joined them. Last week, when we concluded our first conversation, and we had talked about Pericles and Scipio, who were these incredibly successful, not Scipio, but Fabius, these incredibly successful, flawless, almost, people, you said let’s go find a couple of flawed guys. And so this wasn’t a hard choice, was it?

LA: No, these guys are, and see, to remind people why this is so great, human character, and that word character comes from a Greek word that means to etch or engrave. It’s the thing that’s deep in you, the things that make you what you are. I read today a transcript of your long interview with the fellow who wrote that book, This Town.

HH: Yes.

LA: And it was delightful. And also, by the way, it was, your part of it, Hugh, that was you. That’s what you’re like. You’re enthusiastic, you interrupted him, you heard him, you looked for good things to say about people, and you’re driving towards some hard point. And I giggled to myself while I was reading, I said oh, Hugh’s really on a roll with this man. That’s Hugh. And that’s, and see, when you see Hugh in motion, the character of Hugh, a unique thing, right, and Hugh is indignant about the fact that the governing classes, that there are such things in America, and they hold the people in contempt. And your way of explaining that was so terribly like you. And that means we’re all like that. And if you study our lives, you can find out what we’re like.

HH: Amen to that, and a high compliment. Thank you for that.

— – – –

HH: I want to warn all of you listening today that next week, our Hillsdale Dialogue is going to be on Thursday, not Friday, for the simple reason that I am making the annual trek to Disneyland for the broadcast there to help out Disneyland, and we have to do our Hillsdale Dialogue on Thursday. Dr. Arnn, you mentioned the conversation I had on Wednesday with Mark Leibovich of the New York Times Magazine. I don’t know if you’ve read This Town, yet, but you actually put your finger exactly on what drove me into that book so deep. I am disgusted at elites in secret cabals, and that’s going to come up a lot in these two lives. I gather at the Kirby Center, you work to correct that. But I am truly beginning to despair of Washington being able to be fixed.

LA: Well, what’s ill there has a deep cause. First of all, I don’t really see the Washington that is described in that book, which I can by the way only extrapolate what’s in the book from reading two reviews of it and now your interview. But I don’t see that, because I’m not in that circuit, and it doesn’t please me to be. I’ve got a bunch of kids to teach. What we do at the Kirby Center is teach people who want to learn. And people who want to learn old stuff don’t tend to be that kind of person. But I do take the point, and I think I know what causes it. A long time ago, and it’s more than a hundred years ago now, a class of people arose in America, influenced by strange and German philosophy, and here’s what they concluded from it. If we can apply the tools of science to the administration of the American society, we can transform the society into something much better. And it has to be led by a new administrative class that is sophisticated in the science of administration, which the conception was invented at this time, right?

HH: Right.

LA: Politics is not understood to be a science, but an art, obedient to nature and meeting the challenges that nature present in human affairs. The science of administration is reducing things to objective knowledge so as to manipulate them. And so we set out to build a new class of the government. This deal in the Senate was made about the filibuster precisely so that those people can be appointed more freely.

HH: Yes.

LA: The Senate actually voted to confirm four people who are all in agencies quite outside the control of the popular branches. In other words, the Senate voted to reduce its own power at the expense of this administrative state. And we don’t much believe in the perfection of the country anymore, because that’s a vain task, and it’s had generations of failure now. But the people who are in that administrative class are very attached to it nonetheless. And they have voted themselves more power recently than ever they had before, for example, on the National Labor Relations Board, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which are the two main things that were decided by the confirmations that were voted as a way to get Harry Reid not to end the Senate filibuster, a generations old practice.

HH: Yeah.

LA: So the government is streamlining itself, the popular branches, in order to give its power in ways that are unaccountable to people who were not elected, or accountable to those who are.

HH: Now the incident this week of the threatened destruction of the filibuster, which instead resulted in its mere hollowing out, its euthanasia, in essence, reminded me we are dealing this week, last week, and a couple of weeks hence in Plutarch, a lot of the lives which come from the period of the Roman revolution, which stretches over many decades, where the game kept changing, and old ways were set aside, and people tried new radical innovations. And I keep thinking that the Washington, D.C. of the last fifteen years, actually since Ted Kennedy came out against Robert Bork, has been one long throwing overboard of the traditions of the past, to which end, I think, is instability. What do you think?

LA: I think a lot of the things that are happening now, first of all, Rasmussen, whom I think is a very interesting pollster, he reports that very, you know, the latest poll is 25% of the American people believe they live under a system of consent of the governed. They think the government has passed outside their hands. And that trend quickened this week, and the arguments, one thing that’s frustrating is the arguments as they were reported against it, you know, is the man’s name Leibovich that you interviewed for three hours?

HH: Yeah, Mark Leibovich.

LA: Yeah, Leibovich. He’s a very smart guy, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And I think he must be a good guy for doing that.

HH: Yeah, I think so.

LA: We need people like him to be able to identify better what the heart of the matter is, so that the arguments are sharpened, and there’s more confrontation on the fundamental points. Nobody really said look, look at the character of these agencies. Are they, in fact, are they manifestations of popular rule? Are they the abnegation of that kind of rule? Because that is, in my opinion, what they are.

HH: Yup, yup, totally ignored.

LA: And so you are, and see, Plutarch is interesting here. I’ll make a point for Hugh on the Plutarch front. Plutarch is interesting, because as we said, he’s a Greek who lives in the time of Rome in Rome, and he’s comparing these two societies, both of whose constitutions have been impaired, and the unity and the strength of Greece, and the virtues of Greece, have been compromised. And Rome is on its way to that, he fears. And so he tells the lives of these great people in order partly to tell the story, and also describe the interplay of virtues and vices that has led to this terrible past. And you see a lot of the same thing in America today.

HH: And we could spend weeks on Alcibiades. In fact, our friend, Victor Davis Hanson, wrote a marvelous novel of this character called Tides Of War, which I would recommend to people, a lot of which is based on Plutarch, obviously. And I thought I’d get in one question before the break, which is that when Plutarch takes him up, he comments on his brilliant and extraordinary beauty, and the fact that while it said he lisped, he spoke well and rapidly. But this beauty that he refers to, is that a curse on public men and women?

LA: Only beauty is, of course, a virtue. And it’s only a curse if they use it well. And by the way, Steven Pressfield wrote that book, your other friend.

HH: I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

LA: And Victor Hanson wrote other brilliant books. But yeah, of course. If any asset or capacity abused is made worse, it’s worse if you have a lot of it, if it’s abused. And Alcibiades is one of the greatest abusers in history. I mean, it’s remarkable. A little quick story, Alcibiades helped to provoke and lead in the war against the Spartans that would eventually destroy Athens. Athens turned against him, he defected to the Spartans, he showed the Spartans the way to defeat Athens, and was responsible ultimately for the destruction of Athens, before he then defected to the Persians, and then back to the Athenians. So there are many steps in this story. Darned if he didn’t sleep with the wife of the Spartan king and get her pregnant, and that is the ultimate reason for his death. And it was his beauty, and his persuasiveness, and his glorious possession of the martial virtues that made it possible for him to do the evil that he did as well as the good.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, let me read to you from Plutarch, “For never,” and that’s a big word, “for never did fortune surround and enclose a man with so many of those things which we vulgarly call goods, or so protect him from every weapon of philosophy, and fence him from every access of free and searching words as she did Alcibiades, who from the beginning, was exposed to the flatteries of those who sought merely his gratification such as might well unnerve him, and indispose him to listen to any real advisor or instructor.” In other words, from the beginning, he was doomed, because he was impervious to counsel.

LA: He was. He was so fast, you know, so quick and so brilliant. In the symposium they record, that he tried to seduce Socrates in order to get Socrates to give him wisdom. And Socrates replied that that would be a bad bargain, because I would get a vulgar pleasure, and you would get something of ultimate worth. It shows the scale of values with Alcibiades. And you know, think…I don’t know if I should even say this or not, but I thought of someone. Like I’m a cycling fan, and this is the, tomorrow is the second to the last day of the Tour de France, and it’s a tremendous spectacle and fun to watch. You should watch it. But I think of Lance Armstrong, because he was an incredibly gifted human being, and he rides a bicycle as beautifully and as powerfully as anyone has ever done. But you know, he bullied, by report at least, the people around him, and he violated the drug policies and lied about it on an kind of engineering scale. And in the end, and he abused, and everybody who accused him…

HH: Yeah.

LA: He tried to destroy their lives. Well, he was a man of incredible gifts and natural beauty, and Alcibiades is like that, you know, but more, right, because Lance Armstrong is riding a bicycle. Alcibiades is fighting wars on land and sea, and he was incredibly good at it.

HH: Plutarch says Alcibiades dreamed of nothing less than the conquest of Carthage and Libya, and by the accession of these, conceiving himself as once the master of Italy and the Peloponnese, seemed to look upon Sicily as little more than a magazine for war. And here’s the killer, the young men were soon elevated with these hopes, and listened gladly to those of riper ears. So he stirred everyone up so he could become the king of the world.

LA: That’s it, and you know, he said, it’s recorded, Plutarch records of him that asked about sleeping with the wife of the Spartan king, he said he did it because he wanted the dynasty of Sparta to be his. He wanted his offspring to rule Sparta. And that, you know, you can’t really understand the Plutonic dialogues in my opinion, until you understand that they’re a contest between people who counsel power, and Socrates, who raises the question of the good. And of course, two of those dialogues are about Alcibiades, and he’s in a third one.

HH: And so the bottom line of reading this, why does Plutarch, he doesn’t begin the lives with them, but he’s very, very close to the front. And what are we supposed to say about him at the end?

LA: Well, Alcibiades is, in my opinion, Athens personified. The vices, the virtues of Alcibiades are very much the virtues of Athens. They’re eloquent, they’re fast, they’re bold, they’re courageous in war, they can do a thousand things at once, they’re artful. And their vices, they’re changeable, they get driven by their passion. You know, they betrayed him as well as him betraying them.

HH: Right, when he went off to conquer Sicily.

LA: And then the minute, yeah, and you know, his enemies in Athens, orators, and see, there you talk about diseases in our republic, they found that they weren’t strong enough to accuse him of made up impieties. He’s supposed to have defaced a sacred statue as he was gathering his troops for war, and so they waited until he had left. And then, absent, they whipped the crowd up and got him accused of a capital crime. And so the point is they’re acting like he acts, and if you’re looking for the cause of the destruction of Athens, there was a fever in it, right? And it was not that solid, pious, dutiful thing that it had been. It was now this glory-seeking, pleasure-seeking, passionate thing.

HH: And no good thing came.

— – – – – –

HH: We have been focused on Alcibiades, but Coriolanus is the other one. And Dr. Arnn, I’m just going to step back, because here is a story, and this is a story. So tell people the story and what we ought to draw from it.

LA: Well, let me first of all refer you to the greatest of all storytellers. Shakespeare did a play about Coriolanus. I was privileged to see it, one of the famous productions of it back in 1977, when I was courting Penny Houghton in London. And there’s a recent film starring Ralph Fiennes…

HH: Yes.

LA: Worth watching. Go watch Coriolanus. And here’s the point of man. Coriolanus is a brilliant warrior, and he’s extremely proud. He’s a member of the Senate, and he’s an aristocrat, and Rome at this time is in the republican stage where the Plebeians and the Patricians are fighting, and a thing happens that actually happened many times in history. The Plebeians are needed to join the army and fight against an enemy, and they would go and retire and fortify themselves on a nearby hill and refuse to do it until they got certain concessions, often having to do with food and land reform. And in one of those during Coriolanus’ life, and Coriolanus’ real name was Martius Caius, and they were going to go fight the Volscians, whose prime city was Corioles, and they did that. They retired to a hill, and one of the concessions they got was the appointed appointment of tribunes to speak for the people before the Senate, and they became representatives of the people. Well, Coriolanus goes off to Corioles, and in this battle, which is a tremendous thing, they confront the Volscic, the citizens of Corioles, the Volscians, outside the city gates, and they win the battle. And the army of the Volscians retires inside the city, and Martias Caius goes with them into the city. At first, just one man, and then only about thirty. And they’re surrounded, and the whole army turns on them. And they fight with such fury that they throw them back. And they’re inside the city by themselves, and they get the gates open, and the army comes in and relieves them. They conquer the city. It’s a tremendous thing. And for that, Coriolanus, Martius Caius, is offered a horse with ornate armor, and one-tenth of the treasure taken in Corioles. And in a brilliant move, he accepts the horse as an honor, and refuses the treasure. And of course, everybody loves him. So then they give him the name, Coriolanus, the conqueror of Corioles. And he goes back, and he’s put up for a consul, and that’s the senior executive post in Rome. And he served that for one year with one other. They take turns. And that’s a big deal to be the consul of Rome. And at this time to be the consul of Rome, you have to display yourself before the people. And they are something of a rabble. And one of the things you’re supposed to do is dress plainly and show them your wounds. And he holds them in such contempt that he can’t control himself. And he begins to denounce them. He thinks they’re beneath him, and he cannot stop himself from showing it. And in the play that I saw, and Alan Howard, a great raw Shakespeare company actor, he actually is spitting while he speaks at them, just without spitting at them. He’s just speaking so emphatically, his spittle goes upon them. And it turns into a melee. And that goes on for a while, and he is banished from the city in a trial. And that’s terrible, right? And so now this great warrior has been banished from the city, and all he had to do, the same thing that Winston Churchill loved. He just had to walk humbly in front of them a little bit, right? And they were going to give him great power and respect for his worthiness of it. Well, he can’t bear, and see, and the point is, it’s like a thing that’s common to me. So I often say to a kid who’s the younger sibling of a kid who’s a Hillsdale student, they’ll say I don’t want to go where my brother went. And I’ll say well, that’s just another way of being controlled by your brother.

HH: Ha. (laughing)

LA: And it’s true, right? It always stops them, too. You know, you can’t make a mark in a place where he’s been, is that what you’re saying? And they, Coriolanus is terribly like that. In other words, honor is so important to him, he doesn’t understand the real meaning of honor. Now it’s important to lodge at this point that Coriolanus is a mama’s boy. He still lives at home with his mother. And his mother has picked his wife. And so off he goes, and he goes to the Volscians to Corioles, and he goes to the great warrior there, a man named Aufidius, whom he’s fought, and they hate each other. And he says I want to join you. We can conquer Rome. And they go set out to do that. And they destroy Roman armies, and they take many cities outside Rome, and they’re besieging the city. And the Romans come and plead with him to come back, and he sits on a throne and greets them hotly. Then they send the priests, and the priests come and sacrifice and remind him that it’s his city and his sacred soil. And he sends them away hotly. And then they send his mother and his wife. The mother is the one who is important. In the Shakespeare play, the wife is saying that I am his woman, and we are joined as one. And the mother replies, her name is Volumnia, and the mother replies yes, but I groaned for him. And so she shows up in front of him, and he bows himself before her, and he calls off the assault. And he goes back to Corioles, and then of course, he’s killed.

HH: I have to tell people in Plutarch, she says to him you shall not be able to reach your country unless you trample first upon the corpse of her that brought you into life.

LA: Yeah.

HH: No wonder he gives up.

LA: And see, and by the way, as Plutarch points out, she was there in the city. What was going to happen if he sacked the city?

HH: Yeah.

LA: He just couldn’t see that far ahead because of his rage.

HH: We may have to come back and spend a bit more time on him next week, Dr. Larry Arnn. We spent a lot of time on current events this week. We may have to come back to Coriolanus and to the comparison with Alcibiades, as well as the next pair. Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, always a pleasure,, America.

End of interview.


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