The “Lives” of Plutarch are thus in a sense the product of many ages and of many minds. But, like mediæval cathedrals, they have unity of design and style. This is not wholly the result of their origin in a community of philosophic biographers. It is in large part the result of Plutarch’s own architectonic powers. He was far from being a colorless and characterless compiler. His “Lives” seldom seem “lumpy.” They reveal, throughout, the quaint personality of the author. His philosophic standpoint is betrayed in almost every line of criticism they contain. His mastery of literary technique is never wanting. The quiet humor, unobtrusive and delicate, is unmistakably his. Piquancy is a Greek trait, and Plutarch was a Greek. He is never indecent, as his contemporaries understood that term, but he never forgot the natural human interest in the intimate relations of men and women. His dramatic sense needs no more than mention: Shakespeare’s debt to Plutarch in his “Julius Cæsar,” “Coriolanus,” and “Antony and Cleopatra” speaks volumes on this point.

Yet, when everything has been said in praise of his fine qualities, it is still true that his mind, like that of the philosophic biographers who preceded him, was an unfortunate medium for the great men of affairs of antiquity to have to pass through on their way to us. They were all sicklied over by the pale cast of ethical interpretation. Men of flesh and blood, actuated by all the reasons and passions of which human beings of diverse but distinguished endowments were capable, tend to appear as puppets exemplifying laudable virtues and deterrent vices. Man whose natures are truly revealed only in the work which they accomplished are isolated from their societies, and characterized by what they did or said at insignificant moments. Trivialities serve Plutarch’s purpose of ethical portraiture as well as or better than the historic triumphs and failures of his heroes. Trite ethical considerations are made decisive for the formation of policies and the reaching of decisions instead of the realities of each historical situation. Hence one of the chief duties of modern historians and modern historical biographers has been to murder “Plutarch’s men,” and put in their stead the real statesmen and generals of ancient times. The latter part of their task, however, they could not even attempt without the materials Plutarch furnishes to them. As for the difficulty of the former, it is well disclosed by the story Mahaffy tells of the illiterate Irish peasant who said of a certain fortunate neighbor that “he had as many lives as Plutarch.”

All Directories