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Larry Arnn On Plutarch’s Pairing Of Pericles And Fabius Maximus

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HH: Can I honestly tell you that in all of these Hillsdale Dialogues that I have been doing from the beginning of the year with Dr. Larry Arnn or one of his colleagues at Hillsdale College, and they are all available at, or, and there’s a big box linking it at, I have been looking forward to this and the weeks that follow, because I am a Plutarch nut. And Dr. Arnn has some prejudice against Plutarch, some deep-seated prejudice against Plutarch, which I hope to overcome in the days ahead. And Dr. Arnn, a happy summer to you, I hope you enjoyed your 4th of July celebrations.

LA: I did very much. I hope you did, too.

HH: I did. And are you in D.C? Or are you back in Michigan?

LA: I’m in Michigan. We’re the intellectual Cosmopolis of the Western world.

HH: Well, I want you to know that we have just picked up an affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

LA: Oh, good.

HH: I believe it’s 1260AM, so people who want to continue further in the conversations who are hearing this first one in Grand Rapids can simply drive over to the college and find you wandering around. But first of all, before I begin and do my set up, why don’t you like Plutarch as much as I do?

LA: Well, because your like of him is overweaning. You fear Aristotle and Plato, who are surely greater, and you’re attracted to Plutarch, because you had a great course on him with a great teacher, Harvey Mansfield. And so you love him, and probably you underestimate how profound he is. We’ll see about that.

HH: Well, I hope I don’t, but I want to place him in context. So for one minute, I want to just give our audience the most basic and broad sweep of history where he fits in, and I will allow Dr. Arnn to correct me in any of the particulars. But if you’re just tuning into the first one, you’ve got to know these things. Moses lives between 1500-1300BC. The oldest books of the Bible were set down around 1400BC. The Trojan War was between the 13th and the 12th Centuries BC, maybe the best data is around 1190BC. Homer, with whom Dr. Arnn and I began at the beginning of this year, wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey sometime in the 8th or 7th Century BC, so hundreds of years after the Trojan War, hundreds of years after Moses. The Greco-Persian wars, about which Dr. Arnn and I spoke in the History by Herodotus, happened between 499-449BC. Okay, so we’re moving through hundreds of years. Then the Greek civil war, the Peloponnesian war, about which Dr. Arnn and I spoke a few weeks back, 431-404BC, Plato, whom we talked about, died in 347BC. Aristotle died in 322BC. So you’re seeing, we’re still hundreds of years ago. Philip II of Macedon ruled Greece form 359BC -336BC. His son, Alexander the Great, lives until 323BC. And into all of this, you can see how we’re getting closer and closer to the birth of Christ, Rome had its legendary founding in 753BC. The Roman Republic begins around 500BC. Carthage became an independent power in 650BC, and there are these two superpowers, Carthage and Rome, that contend with each other through three big wars, which Larry Arnn will tell you about. And then began the golden age of the Roman Republic. And that ends with the assassination of Julius Caesar 44 years before Jesus was born, and thus begins the Roman empire, which goes for about 500 years to 476AD. The reason I tell you all that is Plutarch writes about men who are from all of those different years, Larry Arnn. What a task he set for himself.

LA: Very much, and he lives, that was a very good outline, and he lives at a turning point in history, because he is born about the time Julius Caesar is assassinated. And Julius Caesar’s career follows and forms the culmination of the Roman civil war that caused the death of the Roman Republic. And for several generations after that, the best Roman statesmen at least claim to be attempting to restore the republic. And so in Rome, it’s at its golden period, it’s stronger for the next 150 or 200 years than ever in its history. But the best of them pine for the system of self-rule, and civic virtue that was the Republic. And so Plutarch is born at the first time in history when you can see something of the decline of Rome, the decline of Greece having already happened. And so these parallel lives that he writes, he picks a Greek and then a Roman. He finds similarities in the two, they lived at different times, and he compares them. But one of the things, so there are two things going on. One is about human character and how you understand it as it shows itself in its most vivid setting in political rule, and the other is about political regimes or nations, and how they keep or restore their virtue. And those, in my opinion, are the two things going on in Plutarch.

HH: And very, very well stated. And Plutarch is alive from 46AD-120AD, and he’s looking back, and he writes 23 pairs of these comparisons, 23 pairs of short biographies. So I suppose a great course in Plutarch, and Dr. Arnn would never allow me to do this, would take 23 weeks, we would do the pairs. And I was given, because of Dr. Arnn’s indulgence, the right to pick the first pair that we would do today, and I picked Pericles and Fabius Maximus. What did you make of that choice, Larry Arnn?

LA: Very good, because they’re terribly important, both of them. They both come at turning points in the history of Greece and Rome, Pericles more than Fabius. But also because of the way he introduces…

HH: Yes.

LA: …two narratives and pairs, and he pair of them, he describes what he’s up to most clearly at the beginning of the one about Pericles.

HH: And that’s why I wanted to pick it. And for the brief overview, Pericles lived during the golden age of Greece, 495-429BC. He was a great orator and a general, and the war that we spent so much time talking about, the Peloponnesian war was just beginning. Fabius Maximus lived 250 years later. He died in 203BC, great Roman politician and general, part of the Republic, not the dictatorship. He was elected to the Roman Council, that’s the big guy, five different times, was twice dictator, saved the Roman Republic from Hannibal. So with that introduction, let’s dive into what does he tell us at the beginning of Pericles, Dr. Larry Arnn, about his project, Plutarch.

LA: Well, the first, this introduction is most apposite to this question of character. Why would you read about great men, he asks the question? He’s writing biography, he says, not history. And biography is different, he says. It’s very hard, he warns elsewhere in the book, to reconstruct the account of the past, he says, because the contemporary account, while the people are alive, is very touched with the partisanship of friends and enemies, and advancement and self-interest, and all that. And then a whole bunch of time passes, and you go back and you read those sources, and it’s very hard to correct them. But if you look at individual men, he says, you can tell by the stories about them, and the things they write, and the things they do. You sort of compare all those things, and you can get a picture of their character, and you can approach truth. And there’s a certain utility to doing that. And here, we have to digress just a minute, because here’s a really neat thing that people should think about. The reason you read about great people is because it has an effect on you. And this Plutarch is one of the greatest instances of this kind of thing.

HH: Yes.

LA: And I’m going to argue that Plutarch is a descendant of Aristotle, and one of Aristotle’s main students, a man named Theophrastus, who later headed the academy that Plato and then Aristotle, and then third, Theophrastus, ran. And then on his way to, Plutarch forms a kind of bridge between them and Jane Austen. And I’ll have to explain why that is. First of all, you should know that the novel is a modern phenomenon. It’s made possible, in part, by the ability to print, and the cheapness of paper, because plays don’t have nearly as much text, because it’s spoken aloud, and you can read on a piece of paper faster than you can read aloud. And so it became possible in modern times to write novels. But along the way, this guy, Theophrastus, and what he does, we talked about Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, which is better than Plutarch, and what he shows there is what a human character is like when it’s right and when it’s wrong. And a human character is a thing that operates in the world, and it is revealed by how it operates in the world. Human beings are needy, and also they have the eternal or immortal or Divine gift of reason. They can think and have a conscience, and make judgments apart from what they do. And Aristotle’s argument is the forming of the soul, so that the thoughts and the desires come together at a peak of excellence to produce good actions and good thoughts is the crucial human state, the one we all should long for. And, he says, that one key aspect of that is the ability to choose, and the greatest choosers are the greatest statesmen. So I’ll finish that thought if we’re going to run out of time.

HH: Yeah, we’ll be right back to how that gets us to Jane Austen when we return to the Hillsdale Dialogues with Dr. Larry Arnn here on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

— – –

HH: Dr. Arnn was telling us how it all connects up to Jane Austen.

LA: Yeah, there we go. So if your character is exhibited in what you do, Aristotle demonstrates, Theophrastus writes a book called Moral Characters. And they’re little character studies. And they have little tales in them, kind of like a modern novel. And then Plutarch comes along and he picks these 23 pairs, and then by the way, four others who are not paired, and he tells the story of these great and famous people, and it’s the story of the interplay between what they did and what they thought, and what others thought of them. And like they’re put in motion, right? It’s not just the virtue of courage is this, it’s Pericles, and here’s how he showed it, if he showed it. And each of them is treated that way. And so in a way, you get a kind of foretaste, both in Theophrastus and in Plutarch, of the novels, especially of Jane Austen, because what are they except episodes in lives that reveal people’s characters? And she’s very explicit about her interest in showing that. Who’s good? Who’s bad? How do people respond to tragedy and victory, to pressures of self-interest against pressures of moral claim? And so you see in Plutarch a way to study people, to see what they did, how their virtues were shown, how their vices could, all of them among all of these people, have their failings. And in fact, some of the most famous and most worthy caused some of the greatest disasters in history, including Pericles.

HH: And when we get into this, we will pursue what Pericles did. But you just made me think of the new book which, you probably haven’t read This Town, yet, by Mark Leibovich about Washington, D.C. It’s the hot bestseller in Washington, D.C., and he’ll be on the show next week. And it begins with the funeral of Tim Russert, and it’s full of essays of Washington, D.C. in 2008-2012. And it’s, when you’re preparing to do Plutarch, and you’re reading This Town at the same time, it’s very depressing, because the quality of the material has fallen so far.

LA: You know, I read a review of that book with great interest, and I, because of our Kirby Center, spend a fair amount of time in Washington now. And I had a member of the Senate say to me the other night that coming to the Kirby Center is like getting away from all of this world, because what we do there is read old books, because we don’t pretend to be able to tell them what to do. But we can tell them, just like Plutarch, what was done, what the situations are like, and how the principles play, and there’s not much talk of that in this city these days. It’s all immediate advantage and the latest poll. And so he just, and you know, there are some really great people in Washington, and I try to hang out with them as best I can. And he just looked at me, and you know, we’d had dinner, and there was like, I think there was one senator and three congressmen there, and he said, we’d spent like three and a half hours. And we were reading Lincoln and some stuff he did. And when he left, he just looked at me and said, you’ve just got no idea what a respite this is.

HH: Amen.

LA: And that’s…

HH: But that’s my argument as to why Plutarch may be more important, not as good as, but more important than Aristotle, because it’s aimed at people of ambition and who wish to be significant, and it intends to, maybe in a way Jane Austen didn’t intend, it intends to change the way that they live. And that’s what biography does. It actually impacts people who matter by changing the way they live. In fact, if you had had your senator at dinner, and you had told him from the Pericles life, King Philip to the same purpose told his son, Alexander the Great, who was once at a merry meeting playing a piece of music charmingly and skillfully. “Are you not ashamed, son, to play so well?”

LA: Yeah, that’s right. It wouldn’t be so great a piper, Pericles says, if you were a better man.

HH: Yeah, what a rebuke that is to a lot of D.C., about whom their skill sets of which they are so proud are so low.

LA: That’s exactly right, see. And let me add a word, though, because see, the reason Plutarch is great, in my opinion, Plutarch stands in a line, and about Pericles, Plutarch quotes twice this man, Theophrastus, I mentioned, Aristotle’s student. And what you need to do, by the way, first of all, every listener on this show should spend some time reading Plutarch. And you’re going to say that a thousand times. I’ll say it once. Also, you need to know what things mean. So when he says courage, the reason to read Aristotle is what is that virtue, exactly? How does it operate? And how does it relate to the others? So listen to the Hillsdale Dialogues about Aristotle, and read your Aristotle, and that will make you a much better reader of Plutarch, and of biography in general.

HH: That’s true. You know, that is in fact, I said it was probably the more important book, but the one from moving men of action towards good action, I think, more effectively, is Plutarch, because of, they want to be like these people, right?

LA: Yeah, and if they’re intelligent, they can pick up an awful lot, because you know, I mean, we’re going to read these people. And here, the contradictory things that Plutarch says about them, and it’s going to be very difficult to find that great play about Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons, that’s a very hard thing to find – a man who lives a life good in all of the circumstances he faces, especially if that’s a great and highly influential man, because most of these guys did fantastic things, things that make you weep, they’re so lovely, and wish you were doing things, which is one of his points. When you read stories like this, it makes you want to do things like this.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And the people who do these great things also do churlish and corrupt things.

HH: And stupid things.

LA: Stupid, yeah, stupid, and they are, I mean, and we’re going to read a passage in which it’s claimed that the greatest of all of the Greek statesmen, Pericles, if you just put a few facts together, he says that out of personal spite, Pericles is responsible for the destruction of Athens.

HH: We’ll come back to that after the break. I wanted to let people know at the end of each of these pairs, Plutarch does a little summary in comparison, which is really, it’s the payoff. It’s the great dividend. And there is a line in the end of the comparison of Fabius with Pericles. Pericles was a good prophet of bad success, and Fabius was a bad prophet of success that was good. And it summarizes, you can’t understand that unless you’ve read it all. But he’s also a magnificent writer, Larry Arnn.

LA: Oh, Plutarch, you mean?

HH: Yeah.

LA: Yeah. And sure, he is, and you know, these things are, because the Romans, see, here’s, Plutarch is Greek, and he’s a Roman now, because everybody is. And he is writing, it’s rather like Polybius, he is writing in an age where the Romans are seeking to measure themselves against the Greek. It is a sign of virtue if you read and write in Greek, and try to emulate the Greeks. And so this work of recovery that he’s trying to do is like the work of recovery of many of the statesmen he describes.

— – – –

HH: I find it wonderful that I’m talking about Pericles and Fabius Maximus via the pen of Plutarch with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, at the very moment that the Zimmerman jury is deliberating. I just, I relish that. And I’m not, that’s probably not a good thing for me, is it? That’s probably an admission of bad character.

LA: No, I think it’s good character. I mean, there’s so much ugly in that trial, and contradictory and corrupt, and so many bad signs for our republic in that trial, that you’re driven to think about great republics that are no more.

HH: Yeah, but I’m prideful in doing that, and that’s why it’s sinful. But anyway, Dr. Arnn and I are engaged in the Hillsdale Dialogues. They are all available at, or at, or there’s a box at I give you the floor to talk about Plutarch’s treatment of Pericles.

LA: Well, Pericles is, everything he said, Pericles is, first of all, you have to understand about Pericles he’s a very unusual man in this regard. He ruled for more than fifty years.

HH: Right.

LA: And he was simply brilliant. He was, he comes to power as a man of the people. And he seeks all his life to elevate the people and not just be a man of the mob. In fact, he modulates his career several times so that he’s one of the people, and then other times, he stands off from them more, because he doesn’t want passions to overcome Athens. And you know, to go through all of that with many rivals seeking his job for all of that time, and to survive so long, is a massive artfulness. And he does some really great things, like he’s humble. He has an enormous self-control. He doesn’t set himself up as haughty in any way. He cultivates dignity and reserve and distance, and the way he does that, Plutarch indicates a fault in him. But also, he is with the people, and he goes among them. And so, and he has this gift. He can really talk.

HH: Yeah.

LA: It’s Thucydides, a different one than the historian who’s an enemy of Pericles, says, he’s asked, do you ever beat Pericles in a wrestling match? And he says no, it cannot be done, because even if I beat him, then we have a conversation, and he persuades me that he has won. So physical force is nothing against him. He can even persuade the one who bests him in physical force.

HH: And deep into the life of Pericles, Plutarch says, “Like a skillful steersman, or pilot of a ship, who when a sudden squall comes on out at sea, makes all of his arrangements, sees all that is tightened fast, and then follows the dictates of his skill and minds the business of the ship, taking no notice of the tears and entreaties of the seasick and fearful passengers. So he having shut up the city gates and placed guards at all posts for security, followed his own reason and judgment, little regarding those who cried out against him, and who were angry at his mismanagement.” I love that passage, because it really does sum up a lot of what we know to be true about all statesmen that are great, Larry Arnn, even those of our day.

LA: Yeah, and if people think about that passage you just read, which was very well chosen, just be mindful. That is a description of the operation of a human soul. And think of the pressures involved. You’re in charge, you’re in wars, things go wrong, and all around you are a bunch of backbiters. And they’re always, they are liberated to say I could do it so much better, right, because they don’t have to. And it’s easy for them, right? It’s like the Saturday night philosopher, Jack Handy. He says you know, it’s easy wanting other people’s money. That’s what I like about it. And you know, to exercise authority, that is what happens. That is the way of it. And what he just described was a man so proof against that, that he’s not moved by it. and he is even generous to those who do it to him. To jump to Fabius for just a minute, it’s described, and no, this is a Pericles story. Fabius has similar stories about him. Pericles is being derided and taunted and ridiculed in public by a man who follows him around doing it. And then he follows him all the way home. And Pericles doesn’t say a word to him. He just goes to a servant and says take a torch, and see this man safely home.

HH: I love that story. It is a Pericles…

LA: Isn’t that great?

HH: Yes, it’s a terrific, and you could see Lincoln doing the same thing.

— – – –

HH: We are short-changing Pericles and Fabius Maximus, because we launched into the introduction to Plutarch first. But Fabius Maximus is not as well known. We’ve covered Pericles a bit in the past, and we did the Peloponnesian wars, Dr. Larry Arnn. Why is he, you know, to be matched with Pericles is itself a great compliment that Plutarch pays Fabius.

LA: That’s right, and it’s because Fabius is a very great man. And the story of him is simple enough to summarize. Well, I’ll even tell you the history of Rome real quick. I can do it in a few sentences. Rome is this city in the hills in Italy, and it has these really rough neighbors, and they’re always fighting with them, and they conquer them. And after they conquer them, they discover they have more neighbors. And pretty soon, they’ve conquered all of Italy, and they’re very pious and very virtuous, and militarily, very strong. And they have a gift for rule, early on. Well, they conquer all of Italy, and what do they run up against except the Carthaginians. And Carthage gives rise in the second Punic wars, they’re called, and you said there were three. And in the second ones, this man named Hannibal, a really great general, is born. And he invades Italy from Spain by crossing the Alps with an army of elephants. And during the course, and he was in Rome, in Italy for more than a decade, and during the course of his time there, he destroyed two Roman armies larger than 50,000 men. And when I say destroyed, he killed them, nearly all.

HH: Yeah.

LA: Twice. He was awesome. And so there were two main guys who wanted to go hard against Hannibal and match him with battle and military genius. And one was Minicius, and the other was Varro. And both of them came to complete destruction. And Fabius was the man who had this incredible moral character and reserve, and he figured out that Hannibal was a long way from home. And so it was hard for him to maintain himself. And so what Fabius would do was occupy the high ground with a large army, and follow Hannibal around and not fight him, and watch him waste away. And he just saw that that was happening, and that Hannibal had to fight and win large battles to maintain himself. And what we should do, what the Romans should do is deny him those battles. And Fabius was called a coward for doing that. And twice, he implemented the policy, and it was working, and then Minicius comes along and derides him, and gets control of the army, and gets himself destroyed, except that just at the moment of the complete destruction of Minicius’ army, Fabius brings his own army to his rescue. And then Minicius bows before him, calls him father, and says it’s the sign of a great man if he can learn. And I have learned that I am not fit to command other men. I am fit to obey.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And I am going to obey Fabius.

HH: Yeah.

LA: Varro, himself, is killed at the battle of Cannae, and that was a worse disaster. And so first, Minicius supplants Fabius, Fabius doesn’t say a word against him, Minicius is destroyed, except that Fabius saves him, and then Varro comes along and does the same thing. And once again, Fabius is derided and called a coward and spat upon, and supplanted, having known nothing but victory, by the way. Varro is destroyed, and then he comes and gets another chance. They put him back in there again, and he basically destroys Hannibal and drives him out of Italy.

HH: It’s an amazing, and he dispatches Scipio to Africa to defeat him. Here’s the passage I wanted to have you comment on, Larry Arnn, about Fabius. “He took pleasure,” Plutarch writes, “in serving as a lieutenant under his own son, when he went as counsel to his command. And when afterwards, his son,” Fabius’ son, “had a triumph bestowed upon him for his good service, the old man followed on horseback, his triumphant chariot, as one of his attendants, and made it his glory that while he really was, and was acknowledged to be the greatest man in Rome, and held a father’s full power over his son, he yet submitted himself to the laws and to the magistrate,” which is a wonderful, I’m reminded of when Washington laid down and rode away.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And they, of course, all of our framers read Plutarch quite a lot.

LA: People so misunderstand Winston Churchill. And you can’t really read Churchill without finding out that he loves the expression stoop to conquer.

HH: Well, in his Portrait of Rosebery, he would not stoop. He did not conquer, yeah.

LA: That’s it. And you know, he, Fabius says to his son, his son, Fabius is riding up to his son on a horse, and he has caused his son to be appointed consul of Rome, the senior executive position. So he’s elevated his son by his own virtue, and he’s riding a horse up to his son, and you’re not to do that to a consul. You have to dismount and walk up to him to show respect. And the aides to his son mention this, and Fabius leaps off his horse, walks to his son, and says to him, I congratulate you upon understanding the dignity of your station and obeying the laws of Rome, which I myself am glad to obey.

HH: Yeah, and Churchill, of course, upon winning the most glorious victory in the history of the British empire is turned out, and he’s gone that night, right?

LA: That’s right. I did not wish to remain responsible for the affairs of the people one moment longer than they wished to retain me.

HH: So these are but introductions to this, and the comparison of Pericles and Fabius, we may return to. But which pair do you want to do next, Larry Arnn? I had the first choice. You get the second.

LA: Well, I don’t know. Let me name right now we have to do Alexander and Cassar.

HH: Of course.

LA: That’s necessary. And which we do next? Since these guys are conquerors, we could maybe do somebody who got defeated. Why don’t we look for somebody like that, and we’ll announce it.

HH: And we’ll announce it. At least, and we will find, we will stay in Plutarch as long as Larry Arnn will let me. But we will end with Alexander and Caesar.

LA: Yeah, that’s good.

HH: So that’s the way we’ll finish it. Dr. Larry Arnn, thank you. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at, or via, or if you want the quick connection, you simply go to

End of interview.


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