Tim Duff, Plutarch’s Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice. Oxford University Press, 1999
On the very first page Duff himself reveals the intentions of his book: ‘This book is an attempt to explore two related aspects of the Parallel Lives: their moralizing purpose and the comparative structure through which Plutarch’s moralism is so often mediated. It will look at the ways in which the Parallel Lives explore issues of right and wrong, good and evil; the ways in which they cause us to question or to understand the world.’ (1)
This really entertaining and educating book, originated in Tim Duff’s dissertation from 1994, hence explores Plutarch’s Lives from the viewpoint of his moral agenda, and in the manner of an engaged reader, who is invited by Plutarch and his writings ‘to challenge and ponder’ (309) his own perspectives and moral headlines.
Putting aside the difficult question of reliability of Plutarch’s sources as well as of Plutarch as a source himself, Duff focuses on the moralistic approaches of Plutarch’s Lives, which he explores and tests in close reading of four pairs of the Lives, supporting his arguments with a huge amount of citations from Plutarch’s other works and also from other sources, like Plato or Aristotle. As far as it concerns me, Tim Duff succeeded in his attempt and gives a remarkable view on Plutarch’s ethical agenda.
The book, divided into three parts, starts with part I, called ‘The moralizing program’. Here Duff’s claim is to ‘consider Plutarch’s conception of the moralizing function of his biographies’ (13), and thus provide the theoretical framework for the reader to advance in the book.
Duff points at the rather nuanced and individual morale value, there is no universal and sole concept of morality (13). That fact also explains the absence of a formal preface to the Lives as a whole. However, during the pair-studies and observations of statements made in Plutarch’s Moralia it becomes evident that mimesis seemed to be the intention and lesson in all his Lives. Plutarch’s intention unfolds as to encourage the reader to understand a character and his deeds, and hence to imitate his virtue and avoid his vice (52). Duff argues that mimesis is a challenge for the reader to make his own decision and shape his own morale conceptions.\