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MLK Through Plutarch's LensEdit

By analyzing the structure and style of Plutarch Lives in comparison to that of the modern biography, it is apparent that Plutarch’s style is unique and distinct. Plutarch writes with a peculiar flow, in which he begins with a specific argument and continues to add other advice in order to enhance the eloquence of the story, and to better understand the decision they face. Plutarch does not simply tell a story in a historical style such that it does not go from one bullet point to the next. It often flows together long, wordy sentences that are a mouthful. Plutarch wrires, “We will consider and examine their nature, manners and conditions, by their act and deeds in the government of the commonwealth, not meaning otherwise to conger their works and writings of eloquence, neither to define which of them two was sharper or sweeter in his oration (535).” Plutarch elaborates his argument in this specific way for most of his points starting with what he believes then going into what backs up his specific argument. But he often is verbose, though his words flow with a certain uniqueness that is not commonly seen today. This specific quote defines what Plutarch is going to discuss in comparing noblemen lives, Demosthenes and Cicero.

He also brings up the counter point to his argument, for example in the following quote he writes, “Caecilius little understanding, being a man very rash in all his doings, hath unadvisedly written and set forth in print, a comparison of Demosthenes eloquence, with Cicero’s. But if it were an easy matter for every man to know himself, then the gods needed have given us no commandment, neither could have said that it came from heaven (534).” He is writing the biography second hand because he lived years after the events, which serves to exemplify how Plutarch brings in other people’s arguments to support his point. He then counter argues and bashes the other writer, using his most consistently chosen word ‘but,’ which he uses to state his argument. He is arguing that there is still just reason to write this biography, even though Caecilus has already “unadvisedly” written an identical paper; everything after the ‘but’ is support for what he said previously. For example, he states that Caecilus has little understanding of how to write such a biography that compares these two men, then backs up this statement with not the most persuasive point, but that the gods would have given us no commandment if it were easy, “For every man to know himself (534).” His argument style is what makes his argument well adjusted because he takes the time to establish the point, and then provides sufficient evidence to support and conclude his points in order so that the reader does not simply accept the argument as opinion, but rather convincing evidence of an argument.

In his early life, Demosthenes was made a “Mockery by other schoolboys (536),” but then Demosthenes was granted by his schoolmaster to go and hear an oration to defend the cause of Oropus before the judges. “When Demosthenes had heard the case pleaded, he was greatly in love with the honor which the orator had got, when he saw how he was waited upon home with such a train of people after him: but yet wondered more at the force of his great eloquence, that could so turn and convey all things at his pleasure (336).” Plutarch uses specific details in a person’s life to convey how it affected their life decisions. Plutarch tells us what happened, how it changed them, and why, in the case of Demosthenes, he took up oration as his main pursuit at this point in his life. He also uses the same type of argument for each of his ideas starting with what he believes, and then backing that statement up with evidence to prove what he is trying to get across. In the following quote he argues that seeing the honor and dignity orators received at that time caused Demosthenes to focus his studies in orations: “With the intent one day to be an orator among the rest (536).” Since Demosthenes was mocked at a young age and because “his manner of speech, which was very unpleasant to the ear,” he questioned the force of his eloquence. Therefore, in looking at Demosthenes’ childhood as unhappy and miserable due to the mockery he received, he sought glory and power which he saw in the oration in how the orator was “waited upon” and the “train of people after him (336).” In backing up his argument he argues Demosthenes saw that he could “convey all things at his pleasure” if he became an orator he would no longer be made a mockery (336). Plutarch states: “Thereupon he left the study of other sciences and all other exercises of wit and body which other children are brought up in, and began to labour continually, and to frame himself to make orations, with the intent of one day to be an orator among the rest (336).” This event affected his life so greatly that he focused all of his studies on becoming a successful and powerful orator. Through these specific quotes, Plutarch’s style and lens becomes apparent: he starts out with something about their life such as Demosthenes being made a mockery, relates that to an important event in their life seeing the orators, and then shows how that affects his future decision to devote himself to oration. Plutarch does not simply give a play- by- play, but rather he shows through his argument why and how Demosthenes was molded into who he was.

Plutarch argues in favor of Demosthenes’ oration skill, specifically, his willingness even at young age to argue for his inheritance when he was young, but still a persuasive and articulate orator. This further exemplifies Plutarch’s style. Demosthenes’ oration skill is demonstrated when, “He began to put his guardians in suit, and to write orations and pleas against them: who in contrary manner did ever use delays and excuses, to save themselves from giving” up what they had inherited from his parents (537). Plutarch continues to emphasize Demosthenes’ skills as an orator, discussing the obtaining of his inheritance “but not without great pains and danger: and yet with all that he could do, he could not recover all that his father left him by a good deal(537).” Plutarch expresses the detail in his life to show how it shaped his future decisions and in the end caused his life to go down a specific path. The use of ‘but’ to emphasis that he was unable to obtain his inheritance, and showing that he was willing to go to great lengths to accomplish his goal, showed Demosthenes’ perseverance.

In analyzing Plutarch in this way, it is easier to understand what he is trying to convey in his writing. For Plutarch has a fairly concrete way of getting the point across by stating a point, then discussing what other people’s perspective or his own, and finally how that ultimately affected the person’s life. Understanding this style brings to light particular arguments, and an understanding of what Plutarch is trying to get across when he discusses specific aspects of their lives. It also shows why Plutarch would use certain instances in order to create an ‘ebb and flow,’ which his writing follows. Once a person understands the manner in which Plutarch constructs a biography, he or she can better understand the attributes that Plutarch wishes to convey, and how they were developed throughout the events in their life. By understanding what Plutarch finds to be most significant and how the decisions and arguments he makes shapes the person, a more complete story of Demosthenes is apparent. For example, towards the end of Demosthenes life, King Philip desired to capture the land of Athenians. Demosthenes was the only orator to stand before the assembly, in an attempt to bring hope again as he did in bringing all the citizens together so that they would have greater force to defend against Philip. Also, it shows how through perseverance, was able to become a great orator which he had desired to be from a young age despite the fact that many found his oration to be confusing and long because, “He spoke of was intricate with arguments one upon another, that they were tedious, and made men weary to hear him(538).” This shows that Demosthenes was extremely articulate and his speech was compacted with a great deal of information that not all could understand. Additionally, Plutarch states how Demosthenes was often still mocked as an orator and yet he had a vast knowledge of oration but other people were heard “that did nothing but bid all day long and mariners that understood mothering were quietly heard (538),” bringing into question why others were heard over him even though he was well versed in the art of oration. Also, the way in which Demosthenes spoke “for his long periods in his orations were often times interrupted,” giving reasoning behind why he was never heard even though he was well versed. (358). In understanding this style which puts emphasis on details, one can see that he was a great orator, yet he continued to be interrupted and most of the people were unable to understand his complicated orations. This demonstrates what Plutarch is trying to prove in his biography: that even though Demosthenes was well educated and fully understood a skill that the public did not understand, he was unable to be accepted as a respectable orator.

One can apply the knowledge and understanding of Plutarch’s style of biography to a more modern figure thereby establishing a new type of ‘lens.’ For example, the life of Martin Luther King Jr. can be examined through Plutarch’s lens and writing style. In doing this, one must analyze certain aspects of King’s life that changed his way of thinking thus causing him to accomplish such great things during segregation by bringing to light the atrocities that occurred during this time in history. His father was a Baptist missionary and an early leader of the civil rights movement as head of the NAACP chapter in Atlanta. At a young age King was taught the traditions of Christianity, but was skeptical with his denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school at the age of thirteen. Implementing Plutarch’s style here helps to get the point across and helps to establish the direction in which Martin Luther King’s life will lead because his skepticism at a young age shows that he is willing to question authority. This initial doubt makes obvious this attribute which shows his tendency to question conventions which later leads him to question the convention of segregation. This is similar to the earlier point where Plutarch exemplifies Demosthenes’ desire to become a great orator because of the power that comes with it and proving useful later in his life just as how questioning authority was paramount early on in King’s life. When Martin Luther King Jr. heard the case pleaded against Rosa Parks, he was greatly in love with the honor which one person got for standing up peacefully for their rights, when he saw how she was wrongfully treated and arrested: but yet, he wondered more at the force of his great eloquence, that could convey the atrocities of segregation to the public. Again, in using Plutarch’s evidence based style of argument instead of simply saying what happened through bullet point after bullet point, he emphasis one event and how that event changed his way of thinking and shaped the future of his life. King took Rosa Parks’ stubbornness and belief in her right to have a seat just as much as any white person to heart and founded the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott as a response to her actions. By bringing up and focusing in on one detail in his life, we are able to see how his reaction to such a circumstance would become a pivotal moment in establishing the direction for the future of his life’s work. For it doesn’t just say Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the wrong part of the bus then they boycotted the Montgomery Buses. It states something that happened and then how Martin Luther King Jr. interpreted this and how he could use a peaceful way of getting his point across that they were no longer going to allow such atrocities to happen on the basis of skin color. Through the lens of Plutarch’s style, the story of Martin Luther King Jr. is told beginning with one important point and then showing his reaction to this event and how it lead to affect his life as a whole.

King began to put his rights in suit, and to write orations and pleas against them: who in contrary manner did ever use delays and excuses, to save themselves from giving up what they felt protected them and followed the law separate but equal. By writing Martin Luther King Jr.’s biography through the lens of Plutarch, we see how he began to put his oration skills to work towards a just cause that he believed: equal rights for all. When told in the style of Plutarch, it points out that Martin Luther King Jr. used the rights he did have and his skills as an orator to fight against what he knew to be unjust. But without great pains and danger: and yet with all that he could do, he could recover all that his father sought to fight for in the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. sought out to obtain equal rights for all through peaceful demonstrations and boycotts. In doing so, he was able to change the world into a better place. If Plutarch were to write a biography on Martin Luther King Jr., he would use the same style that he used in writing the Selected Lives and would use the same argument-based structure. He would focus on particular events in King’s life that occurred during his upbringing, Rosa Parks’ arrest, and his many speeches to exemplify how these events would eventually shape his life. Applying Plutarch’s lens to the life of Martin Luther King Jr. includes an argument based structure, supported with detailed evidence, and how these detailed events affected shaped the course of his life.

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