Flogging Plutarch

Much how I felt reading Plutarch.

Back, back, back, way back, in my high school freshman honors English Lit class, our teacher (who’d just arrived from pre-Summer of Love San Francisco) swathed our 15 year-old brains with classical music from then underground FM radio as a backdrop to the classical titles we were expected to read in class. These included Homer’s Odyssey, a small selection of the Poems of Ovid, Volume I of Plutarch’s Lives, and a poet of our own choosing. I chose the decidedly unclassical Jack Kerouac. It was 1965, after all, and I’d been drawn to the Beat authors, painters, and musicians since I was about 12.

Plutarch was difficult for me, but I got through it with Mrs. Ware’s accompanying mini-history lessons to explain who these people were. I think it was her class that sparked my interest in history, and I chose to read Plutarch’s second volume over the following summer vacation. Imagine that. Mod little me sunbathing in our back yard in my Hawaiian two-piece bathing suit and my perfect Pattie Boyd flip, listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys on KRLA while reading Plutarch. Or trying to. Fortunately, my mother had raised me not to give up on a book however difficult, but to keep a notebook and a dictionary at hand, and to boldly annotate the margins. Predictably, I never checked Volume III out of our library, and soon, 1967 happened and I turned my attention to reading the popular books of the era: Brave New World, Siddhartha, and literally everything by Richard  Brautigan.

pattie boyd flip
The Pattie Boyd flip.

It has been 51 years since Mrs. Ware prised my eyes, ears, and mind open so I recently decided to give Plutarch another go. A free eBook is a free eBook, after all, and I decided, with both anticipation and trepidation, to flog through Volume III. I have to say Plutarch was much easier reading for me than he was in 1965. The vocabulary wasn’t an issue and the names were much easier to pronounce. Still, sitting down to read it felt like a chore compared to my accompanying reads, The Letters of Pliny the Younger and Stephen Fry’s Moab is My Washpot. Unexpectedly, I found the lessons in each of these books to be basically the same. Biographies, memoirs, and letters are interesting enough, but these books explore the moral and ethical characters of the authors and the people around them. What helped me most was my love of ancient and classical history. When I was younger I couldn’t put faces to Plutarch’s strange names. They weren’t people. Now, after a lifetime of autodidactic education, assigning humanity to these names was automatic.

This is where formal history education goes wrong, I think. Young people are given a string of dates and events (usually wars), and are expected to learn memorize what they’ll need to pass the standardized tests. A good teacher will go beyond wars and the events that led up to wars while an excellent teacher will help the students to see these events—and other events having nothing at all to do with war—as made up of not just the powers that be—the warlords and the generals—but the innocent populace as well. Pompeii is attractive to young minds, not because of the politics or customs at the time of the eruption, but because of the casts of the victims. History comes home to them. “This could happen to me.” Let’s face it. While we’re between the ages of birth and 30, everything is about “me”. If young people aren’t introduced to people like themselves, their families and their friends, if they can’t make an emotional connection between people of the past and themselves, history becomes a hollow recitation of dates and events that are quickly forgotten once the test is over. Worse, they’re uninspired to ever again open a book about the past. “I haven’t cracked a book since school!” is probably the saddest statement I’ve ever heard, especially when it’s nearly always said with a pride that baffles me.

I finished Volume III last night and am wondering what to read next from the ancient world. I like having several books going at any given time and there’s a vacancy that needs to be filled. I’m thinking of delving into Ovid again.

So thank you, Mrs. Ware, for giving me the time machine that continues to take me places where I meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise ever known existed. Would that there were more teachers like you!

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How Big Is The Sky?


On certain kinds of days, usually those when I’m not feeling well, my mind starts asking questions. I’m usually able to answer these question, perhaps not correctly, but well enough. If I can’t find the answers within myself, I’ll look it up on the internet and will almost always get more answers than are helpful. These usually come from semi-literate people who post answers based on their lack of proper grammar, their inability to spell even the simplest of words, and their overall lack of critical thinking skills. Sometimes they answer in rude or abusive ways that consist of four-letter words. But, mostly, I can answer my questions myself using my imagination, of which I can boast no little measure. Today might be one of those days.

For instance, this morning I woke up wondering what was Julius Caesar’s main thought that moment when 60 senators stepped forward to assassinate him. We know his reaction (according to Plutarch) to the first stab, delivered by Tillius Cimber: “This is violence!” His next utterance was to Publius Casca, who delivered the second blow: “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” And what about those famous last words, “Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”) Roman historian Suetonius reported that Caesar’s last words were, “You too, child?” while good old reliable Plutarch maintained that Caesar said nothing, but pulled his toga over his head when he saw Brutus approaching. If true, I interpret that as a sign of devastating emotional hurt and betrayal, something so terrible the man couldn’t bear to face it. He’d known Brutus since Brutus was a boy, after all. No, the famous last words were penned by William Shakespeare and have no basis in historical fact. But my question isn’t about the man’s last words. I wonder about what went through his mind when he saw all those drawn daggers coming toward him. Thanks to Lynette’s education in trauma’s effects on the brain, I believe he went into classic trauma response. This is a complicated science, one that I can’t get into here. Besides, I’m not trained in the subject like she is. But here’s the thing. I believe Caesar’s first two statements, “This is violence!” and “…what are you doing?” have to be factual because they conform perfectly to how the brain reacts when faced with trauma, something Plutarch, even with his vast range of knowledge, couldn’t have known. And the toga gesture? As Lynette says, “Hormonally-induced emotional denial. That’s oxytosin.” I’m hoping she’ll explain things a little in a comment (hint, hint).

Another far less weighty question is, who was the first guy to peel and eat a banana? More, how did he decide to to try it? It might’ve been poisonous. And did he actually peel it, or did he try biting through the thick, bitter peel first? I think I have the answer to this one, actually. I think humans followed the lead of other animals where most food-producing plants were concerned. If a monkey didn’t die after peeling and eating a banana, it must be safe. I imagine they then killed and ate the monkey.

My most recent question pertains to our cat, Mozie. I understand why cats “make bread”. As nursing kittens, this is how they express the milk from their mothers. I even think I understand the purring while they make bread: expressing the milk releases endorphins that create feelings of pleasure and comfort. All well and good, but why does Mozie make bread on my face at four in the morning, purring like a chain saw? What can he possible be getting out of it that makes him so happy? But cats do all sorts of things meant to puzzle humans, so I don’t linger on this question for very long.

And lastly, I still don’t understand how transmitting and receiving works. In anything. How can my voice, spoken into a phone, go halfway across the world and come out at the other end sounding uniquely like me? How does music go out across the land on radio waves and come through my speakers sounding like what it’s supposed to sound like? And how does something get imprinted on a strip of film simply by opening the shutter? Actually, this isn’t such a stumper as the answer lies in the mirror inside a camera, but digital cameras? I really have no idea how that works. I’ll probably die never know the answers to these questions because, although they’ve been explained to me many times, I still don’t get the HOW.

My mother used to tell me that when I was a very small child I had two questions I used to ask her: “What are elephants made of?” and “How big is the sky?” I know the answer to one of those, but the other I’m still trying to find out.

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