For argument's sake, draw your own analogies

When the Athenian statesman Phocion gave a speech that the public applauded, Plutarch claims, he turned to some friends and asked, "Have I inadvertently said something foolish?" How many politicians would ever have such a reaction today? Yet how many should? I sure missed Plutarch during this election. For one thing, I treasure his anecdote of Cato the Elder who, told it was odd that there was no monument to him in Rome, said he would far rather have people ask why he didn't have a statue than why he did. What a useful standard by which to judge the personal qualities of politicians. When Bill Clinton claims in his memoirs that "in politics, if you don't toot your own horn, it usually stays untooted" you might reasonably conclude that, in Cato's situation, he would have put one up himself.

Some readers may be puzzled by my periodic tendency to enthuse about some author who wrote long before Jennifer Lopez's first marriage; if so I reply that it is not a boast to find nothing interesting in books. (Or quote American commentator Florence King that in high school "the girls who recited Mickey Rooney's wives in the cafeteria made fun of me for reciting Henry VIII's wives in history class ...")

All argument is in some sense argument by analogy: This thing is like that thing, it is not like that other thing, it is more like this thing than like that, and so on. But if we do not carry around with us a supply of material suitable for the drawing of analogies, what sort of reasoning is likely to result? That's why Plutarch wrote The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans.

A person without knowledge of the past is liable to react to a promise of free money the same way Homer Simpson reacts to the word "doughnut." Would it not be better instead to flinch as George Washington would have at any political program reminiscent of Rome's "bread and circuses" for the urban mob? Or recall another Plutarch story about Cato the Elder: "Being once desirous to dissuade the common people of Rome from their unseasonable and impetuous clamour for largesses and distributions of corn, he began thus to harangue them: 'It is a difficult task, O citizens, to make speeches to the belly, which has no ears.'" Paul Martin would have been well-advised a year ago to ponder Plutarch's report that Pompey the Great once had the chance "to lead Tigranes, King of Armenia, in triumph," but "chose rather to make him a confederate of the Romans, saying that a single day was worth less than all future time."

My admiration for Plutarch is not uncritical. He likes the Spartans too much, and unfairly casts Marc Antony as too besotted with Cleopatra to attend to affairs of the state. But it's interesting to see him praise Cleopatra's personality and intellect over her raw physical beauty, and slam Julius Caesar, who "looking upon all changes and commotions in the state as materials useful for his own purposes, desired rather to increase than extinguish them ..." Perhaps his correspondingly high opinion of Caesar's assassin Brutus is overdone. But it would be nice to have some sort of opinion on Brutus that doesn't also involve Popeye the sailor man.

Lest you smell dust here, I promise that Plutarch is also full of intrigue, illicit sex and gruesome violence. For instance, the orator Cicero, who backed Brutus, was assassinated and, on the orders of Marc Antony, his head and hands were severed, brought to Rome, and "fastened up over the rostra, where the orators spoke; a sight which the Roman people shuddered to behold, and they believed they saw there, not the face of Cicero, but the image of Antony's own soul." A useful anecdote to have handy whenever someone triumphantly waves an enemy's head in public.

Plutarch also records that Phocion once "answered King Antipater, who sought his approbation of some unworthy action, 'I cannot be your flatterer, and your friend.'" And he advises the politically ambitious likewise to "answer the people, 'I cannot govern and obey you.'" Of course anyone who did so might not win, but hey, most candidates lose anyway. (Besides, Cato the Younger once lost an election for consul, declined to run again because the people obviously didn't want him, and happily went on with his life.) And it would surely raise the level of debate to go about dismissing people as "another Lepidus" or hailing them as "a second Brutus" instead of wracking our brains trying to remember who was in Joe Clark's cabinet.

Speaking of people who should certainly have spent more time asking friends if they'd inadvertently said something foolish.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson