President Barack Obama through the Eyes of Plutarch
Analysis of Plutach’s Writing Techniques
Through the time line of the ancient world there have many notable people that have accomplished remarkable achievements during their life time. While not all of the achievements have survived throughout history; some of the notable achievements performed by various figures have been written down. The most common form of writing about another person is in the form of a biography. An ancient master of biographies was Plutarch. Plutarch is known for his biographies of several notable people such as Alexander the Great, Cicero, and Julius Caesar. Since Plutarch lived almost 2000 years ago he does not have the chance to write about notable people of today. It would be very interested to see what a biography about the current President of the United States, Barack Obama, would look like if it was to be written in the biographical style of Plutarch. There are several themes that are concurrent throughout the biographical works of Plutarch. One of the most obvious aspects of Plutarch writing style is who he decides to write about. Often the person who Plutarch selects has a very distinct relationship with the common people. Another aspect of Plutarch is his analysis of the selected character in terms of their internal motivations. Plutarch also has a focus on lives that end tragically. Plutarch’s themes helps the reader analyze exactly the biography and determine what exactly Plutarch’s goal is when tells the life of a certain person.
All of the people Plutarch has written about were extremely influential during their life time. Of course it makes a better biography to write about someone who has done something extraordinary during their life time than someone who hasn’t accomplished much. This famous person, however, can fall under many categories. They could be a soldier, an orator, or even philosopher. Plutarch takes special interest in people who become leaders of people and leaders of nations. There are several examples of Plutarch writing about leaders in the book titled Plutarch Selected Lives. One example is that of Cicero who was elected as Consul in Rome. “The People accepted him, and rejected Caitline. Antonius and Cicero thereupon were created consuls…” (Plutarch, 573). In ancient Rome two consuls were elected to rule the empire. Another example of Plutarch writing biographies about leaders is his account of Alexander the Great who was named King of Macedonia after his father, Philip was killed. “So he [Alexander] came to be king of Macedon at twenty years of age…” (Plutarch, 394). A third person that Plutarch wrote about was Julius Caesar. It is common knowledge that Caesar became Emperor of the Roman republic which previously was a democratic state. Because of Plutarch’s focus on leaders it is fitting that President Obama should be a subject of a biographical piece of a modern person’s life through the eyes of Plutarch. Currently Obama is the President of the United States of America. The U.S. in recent history was the most powerful country in the world therefore someone as notable and influential as President Obama would have definitely caught Plutarch’s biographical eye.
A major Plutarchian theme is his focus on the relationship between the ruler or leader and the common people. Plutarch likes to show how the people view their leader and what the leader does in response to the favor of the people. In biography of Cicero there are many interactions between the people and Cicero. In such interaction the power Cicero has over the people is clear.
“For before, the knights of Rome did sit mingled one with another amongst the common people, and took their place as they came. The first that made the difference between them, was Marcus Otho, at that time praetor: who made a law, by the which he appointed several seats for the knights, where they might from thenceforth see the pastimes. The people took this grievously, as a thing done to discountenance them: insomuch that Otho coming afterwards in the threatre, all the common people fell a-whistling louder than before, and the knights in like manner to clapping of their hands, and so grew to words with another, that all the threatre was straight in uproar with it. Cicero understanding it, went thither himself, and calling the people to the temple of the goddess Bellona, he there so sharply reproved them, and therewith so persuaded them, that returning presently to the threatre, they did then welcome and receive Otho with clapping of their hands, and contented with the knights which of them should do him greatest honour” (Plutarch, 574-475).
The people felt as though they had been wronged by Otho giving the knights of Rome special seats to the Roman games. They got so upset that Cicero decided to call them to a temple to address the problem. He criticizes the people for reacting the way they did to the new law. In the end Cicero ends up making the people welcome Marcus Otho, the person who, created the law for the knights, as well as welcome the knights with the greatest honor. Cicero’s command over the common people was immense. They favored and respected his opinion. If they had not they would have made it known to Cicero as they did with their anger towards Marcus Otho’s new law.
The biography of Coriolanus also shows the relationship of Coriolanus to the people. Even though Coriolanus was never a leader in Roman history his story still has merit because of his failed election to consulship. His failure to be elected as consul can be directly related to the people of Rome.
“…When the day of election was come, and that Martius came to the market place with great pomp, accompanied with all the senate, and the whole nobility of the city about him, who sought to make him consul, with the greatest instance and entreaty they could, or ever attempted for any man or matter, then the love and goodwill of the common people turned straight to an hate and envy toward him, fearing to put this office of sovereign authority into his hands, being a man somewhat partial toward nobility, and of great credit and authority amongst the patricians, and as one they might doubt would take away altogether the liberty from the people. Whereupon for these considerations, they refused Martius in the end, and made two other that were suitors, consuls” (Plutarch, 151).
Coriolanus did not have the favor of the people and in turn had no power over them. If he did he would have been elected consul regardless of his great show of arrogance before it was time to vote. He lost the faith of the people because they believed that he would sell them out for the nobility of Rome. Plutarch uses the people as a device to determine the quality of a person. The favor of the people determines if the leader is good or is bad. Cicero has a lot popularity with the people of Rome throughout his career. There are times when he loses that popularity but he also gains it back many times. Therefore it is right that he was elected to consul. Coriolanus on the other hand changes his alliance towards Rome many times. The people of Rome rarely had a constant opinion of Coriolanus. Often Coriolanus did not have the favor of the people. As a result Coriolanus did not stay in power within Rome and was not elected to consulship.
Plutarch analyzes the subjects of his biographies in many ways. One such way is that Plutarch has internal theories to as why a person might act a certain way. He knows the person’s motivations for becoming an orator, or a soldier, or a consul of Rome. It is as if Plutarch interviewed each person and found out their inner most goals and motivations. Plutarch performs a psychoanalysis of each character in his biographies. For example in the life Demosthenes Plutarch states that after Demosthenes heard an orator speak, Demosthenes fell in love with the honor the orator received after his oration. Once Demosthenes heard the oration he dropped all other studies and took up the profession of orating.
“Thereupon, when Demosthenes had heard the case pleaded, he was greatly in love with honour which the orator had got, when he saw how he was waited upon home with such a train of people after him: but yet he wondered more at the force of his great eloquence, that could so turn and convey all things at his pleasure. Thereupon he left the study of all other sciences, and all other excercises of wit and body which other children are brought up in, and began to labour continually, and to frame himself to make orations, with intent one day to be an orator among the rest” (Plutarch, 536).
Plutarch knew the internal motivations for Demosthenes choosing to become an orator. Demosthenes wanted the honor and glory that orator attained from the people. To quote Plutarch again Demosthenes was “greatly in love with honour which the orator had got.” It was because of this honor that the orator had received that Demosthenes became an orator. Plutarch uses the internal motivations of his subjects to give the reader a greater understanding of what the person was really like, of what their personality was, and to give the reader insight to why that person made the decisions they did.
In all or most of Plutarch’s biographies there is often a tragic sense to the ending of the biography. Plutarch biographies are tragic in the sense that the main character of biography often experiences real hardships before the conclusion of their life. These hardships take many forms such as banishment from Rome or Greece, dramatic loss of power, or even the death of the main character. The biographies always start at a middle point. After the middle point there comes the section where the person is in a high point in their life; such as being elected to consul, a major victory in battle, or some type of life achievement but tragedy always occurs to complete the cycle. In the life Cicero he was murdered in his attempt to return to Rome because the current consul Antonius wanted Cicero dead.
“Cicero hearing him coming, commanded his men to set down his litter, and taking his beard in his left hand, as his manner was, he stoutly looked the murderers in the faces, his head and beard being all white, and his face lean and wrinkled, for the extreme sorrows he had taken: divers of them that were by, held their hands before their eyes, whilst Herennius did cruelly murder him. So Cicero being three score and four years of age, thrust his neck out of the litter, and had his head cut off by Antonius’ commandment, and his hands also, which wrote the orations (called the Philippians) against him” (Plutarch, 610).
It is tragic because Cicero, a great man, was killed because his orations called the Philippians were directed against Antonius. Once Antonius was elected to consulship he gave the order to kill Cicero. This is after Cicero was banished and had to constantly travel to avoid danger. In the end Cicero faces his murderers and has his head cut off and his hands.
Another example of a tragic ending to a biography is that of Demosthenes. His life followed the same cycle as starting off in a middle point of fame with Demosthenes’ fame steadily rising during his life. Then Demosthenes persuades his city to rebel against the Kingdom of Macedonia which utterly fails and the rebellion is crushed which signifies Demosthenes fall from fame. After Alexander died his successor, Antipater, orders for Demosthenes to be killed so that he does not create another rebellion. Demosthenes rather than be arrested killed himself to avoid capture.
“…and [Demosthenes] did put the end of the quill in his mouth which he wrote withal, and bit it as his manner was when he did use to write anything, and held the end of the quill in his mouth a pretty while together: then he cast his gown over his head, and laid him down. Archias’s soldiers seeing that, being at the door of the temple, laughing him to scorn (thinking he had done so for that he was afraid to die) called him coward, and beast. Archias also coming to him, prayed him to rise, and began to use the former persuasions to him, promising him the he would make Antipater his friend. Then Demosthenes feeling the poison work, cast open his gown, and boldly looking Archias in the face, said unto him: ‘Now when thou wilt, play Creon’s part, and throw my body to the dogs, without futher grave or burial” (Plutarch, 560).
In the last moments of Demosthenes life Plutarch makes the scene very tragic. Demosthenes poisons himself with a quill which is the instrument that made him famous. The irony is also very striking. While he is dying Archias’s soldiers are laughing at him and calling him a coward. In what way can a death be more tragic?
The Life of President Barack Obama as told by Plutarch
It is reported that Barack Obama lived a life very similar to that of the common person. He was not extremely wealthy nor was he born from a family of importance. He was raised solely by his mother and with the help of various family members. At a young age Obama showed potential to be an outstanding student, however he has trouble fitting in. Obama, thinking, that if he were to act tough and try different drugs he would fit in with the other students. Still, he felt left out. After graduating from Columbia University, he felt as though he needed to give back to the community and solve various issues of injustice. He became very successful as a community organizer. Soon after he gained praise for his eloquence in speech and his demeanor in public settings. Seeing the injustice in the world Obama believed that he could fix the most pertinent issues facing the country. He is soon elected to the Illinois state senate. Shortly after his success Obama had ambitions to be and do something more in the world and was elected to the US Senate with the backing of the common people.
The Presidential Election
After the previous President’s two dismal terms in office the common people are disgusted with the current path of the government. Barack Obama seeing this as his chance to change the United States decided to run for President. By having such eloquence and being naturally gifted in the skills of oration Barack was able to win the hearts of the common people. Obama gave the common person hope and in his orations promised that real change will come to America. The citizens of the United States, who are tired of war and a poor economy, believe that Barack will solve their problems. On the day of election the people United States show their love for Barack and he was elected to be the 44th President of the United States. Obama’s skill as an orator allowed the common people to over look his race. In fact, Barack knowing that his race, African American, will be major aspect of his campaign is able to use it his advantage. By being the first African American President Obama has shown that he is capable of bringing change and has the full support of the common people who hope for a new future. It was an unprecedented moment in the history of the United States and Obama received much fame and praise for his unlikely accomplishment.
The Economy and Loss of Public Favor
Now in his third year of his first term Obama had fallen out of favor with the people. While being elected because of the support of the common people it is now the common people who no longer support Obama. Barack was motivated to quickly solve the financial crisis in the United States for he was fearful of becoming another failed President such as President Bush. Thinking that he would receive much praise from the people if he solved the economy with quick and simple ideas; he proposed a number of ideas in which to solve the economy. At this point in time the main money lenders had run out of money. Obama thought that if he were to give the money lenders more money that it would help the economy and most of that money would see its way into the common person’s pocket. However, Obama was overly boastful in his knowledge of the economy and his plan failed. The people of the United States were fearful that Obama was favoring the rich and powerful over the poor and needy which comprised the majority of the United States. With high unemployment and a stagnate economy the people started to believe that Obama had brought false claims of hope and change to the White House. Obama realizing that he no longer had full support of the people came up with plan to get the common people back to work and fix the economy. Obama not realizing that he had lost the faith of the people and the senate was not able to get his jobs package passed through the Senate. He was especially criticized by republicans for his ideas and was told that all he was doing was giving more money away when the government was at place where is needed to save all the money it could. Obama then turned to blaming the senate saying that the republicans were denying his bill because he was a democrat. However, this was seen as a lack of leadership on Obama’s part and the favor the people continued to fall. The support for republicans in the United States was on the rise.
Tragic Downfall of Obama
As elections for President were drawing near Obama, knowing that he would lose reelection if the economy did not improve and if he did not regain the support of the people was able to use his skills as an eloquent speaker and orator to get parts of his jobs bill passed in the senate. Being able to convince the republicans that he knew best and sharply criticizing them for their inaction in congress Obama was able to get his measures passed late in his third year in office. Because of his recent successes over the republicans in the senate he had grown very boastful. He was often heard saying that his jobs bill was the only way to fix the country and that any other ideas did not compare to his bill. However, the people were still wary because his first attempt at a stimulus for the economy had failed. Sensing the fears of the people Obama became even more boastful and in an attempt to reassure the people went on tour throughout the country to give orations in support of his plan. The people were once again convinced because of his slick tongue and gave their support to Obama. President Barack Obama was elected to a second term in office by the popular support of the people. However, his jobs package had no effect on the economy except for the United States losing even more money and unemployment increasing. The people now realizing they had been deceived by the President orations asked the senate to impeach President Obama. Not knowing what to do Obama gave one last oration in which he blamed congress again for the economy hoping that the people would believe him. This angered congress to such a degree that they voted him out of office. So ashamed was Obama that he took his own life because he could not face being impeached.
Plutarch has other literary techniques that he used in his work. The most important ones to creating a biography were outlined above in the analysis. Plutarch’s focus on leaders and people of influence is the reason Barack Obama was selected to have a modern biography told by an ancient biographer. Often Plutarch describes the relationship of the leader to the people because it helps the reader grasp the quality of the person being written about. The relationship between the people and their leader allows Plutarch to bring outside commentary on the person without affecting the reader view of that person. It is Plutarch’s way of staying objective to the person being studied while having the common people provide the necessary judgment of the character. One of the best aspects of the Plutarch biographies is his ability to get inside the mind of who he is writing about and using the mind and personality to explain why that person lead their life in a certain way or made that particular decision. Plutarch’s focus on biographies that have tragic endings is his attempt to show that what goes up must come down in some way or another. Plutarch understands that people he writes about are influential and that they often have meteoric rises to the top but because these people are human and have faults; their fame cannot last forever and there is going to come a point where that person will fall out favor and their fame will start to decline. It isn’t that Plutarch is obsessed with tragic ends but that he understands that failure is inevitable and fame will never last forever during life. At some point that person’s fame will decline and it is what that person does when they fail that makes them who they are.
Plutarch, and Thomas North. Plutarch Selected Lives. Great Britain: Wordsworth Classics, 1998. Print.