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The Life of Douglas MacArthur through the lens of Plutarch

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by Griffin PhelanEdit

As time progresses so do the works and writing styles found within popular literature. That is to say that the biographies written by ancient historiographers such as Plutarch vary greatly from biographies written about modern figures in the present day. Plutarch lived in ancient Greece and during his life he comprised biographical works on many prominent ancient figures ranging from Demosthenes to Alexander the Great that he compiled in collections of ‘lives.’ Every author of biography imparts their own emphasis on what they deem important to the understanding of the life of whom they are chronicling, and therefore no two accounts of the same person are exactly the same. Through careful examination one can determine the overall feel and goal of such works, and could theoretically translate such thematic elements to the biography of another. Such is the goal of the following, to encapsulate the message of an ancient life by Plutarch and translate that to a modern figure like Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur was one of five men to rise to the rank of General within the United States Army, played a prominent role in the Pacific during World War II, and was a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Much like the figure of Alexander the Great, Douglas MacArthur spent the majority of his life in military service and the pair shares many ideologies and drives. In order to tell the life story of Douglas MacArthur through the lens of the ancient biographer Plutarch, the natural disposition of MacArthur would have to be the focus and driving force behind all the events of his life; both in its influence on his psyche and on his decisions in life.

In order to translate the motivations of Plutarch towards the life of MacArthur the work of Plutarch must first be examined, such as his Life of Alexander. Plutarch has many different interests and aims that vary within the many different lives he has written, and by determining what these are it can be seen what techniques he uses to achieve these aims and additionally displays why he attempted to present each character in such a light.

For they must remember, that my intent is not to write histories, but only lives. For, the noblest deeds do not always show men’s virtues and vices, but often times a light occasion, a word, or some sport makes men’s natural dispositions and manner appear more plain, than the famous battles won, wherein are slain ten thousand men, or the great armies or cities won by siege or assault (Plutarch, Selected Lives, 385).
These lines come from the small preface that Plutarch includes at the beginning of the Life of Alexander, and state the overall purpose of the corresponding life. From the quote, it can be determined that Plutarch’s mission within the lives he has written, specifically the life of Alexander from whence this came, is to display the ‘virtues and vices’ of the ancients rather than their deeds. Plutarch does recount many of the events within each person’s life, but his overall aim is to include those in order to enrich the perception of their natural disposition and to relate how these inclinations affect their decisions. He both includes these events to show how some are influenced by personality and also how the complete causation of some is natural disposition. Plutarch establishes both the desirable and undesirable traits of the character from the beginning of each life so that later events can be better understood through the application of the characters natural inclinations and biases.

In Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, Plutarch reveals early on in the narrative the driving force behind almost all future decisions made by Alexander. Plutarch revolves the persona of Alexander around his constant thirst for honor gained on the field of battle that he has even as a child, “For he delighting neither in pleasure nor riches, but only in valiantness and honour, thought, that the greater conquests and realms his father should leave him, the less he should have to do for himself. And therefore, seeing that his father’s dominions and empire increased daily more and more, perceiving all occasion taken from him to do any great attempt, he desired no riches nor pleasure, but wars and battles, and aspired to a seigniory where he might win honour” (Plutarch 389). In this section, Plutarch presents to the reader a few very important facets of Alexander’s character and drives. Plutarch shows us that despite the vast amounts of wealth that Alexander later collects through his mass conquest that this is just an additional perk to him, his real goal throughout is to gain honor and prestige through his accomplishments as a military general and on the field of battle. Additionally, and actually more importantly, Plutarch also displays that Alexander saw each conquest by his father as one that he himself could no longer have; this is largely significant towards Alexander’s character in that it both establishes his desire for conquest, and also the desire that all of that conquest be his. Plutarch essentially sets up Alexander’s drive for and honor and his greed for such honor. These character traits are the basis of how Plutarch displays Alexander for the remainder of the life and show Plutarch’s commitment to his preface of examining the virtues and vices of the ancient he portrays.

The influence of Plutarch’s focus on natural disposition is evident in some of the stories that he relates later within the Life of Alexander. Much like in many of the other lives that Plutarch has written, the conversations that the subject has are included to compound his initial assessment of their character, “Now as he was ready to take his journey to go unto Babylon, Nearchus his admiral came again unto him from the great sea Oceanum, by the river of Euphrates, and told him, how certain Chaldean soothsayers came unto him, who did warn him that he should not go into Babylon. Howbeit Alexander made no reckoning of it, but went on” (Plutarch 461). This relates directly back to the above segment in which Plutarch establishes the drive and necessity of battle for Alexander. Throughout the life, Alexander is often mindful of the gods and has many soothsayers monitor the omens prior to his battles. If the omens are good then he attacks, or if they are unfavorable he waits until they become favorable. This case is separate from these others in that Alexander’s thirst for conquest overrides his sensibilities and he continues onward despite the signs he has been presented with. Furthermore, this instance also helps to show why Plutarch included the previous events in which Alexander waited upon the omens in that it is included in contrast to display that the natural inclinations of Alexander sometimes overcame reason. Not every event that Plutarch recounts is meant to exemplify his focus on the cognition of the subject, but the tales that stray from this are most often included in order to make the events detailing disposition stand out even more.

The focus on the personality of the character that Plutarch employs is not devoid of Plutarch’s influence within each life. Through the reading of the Life of Alexander, it becomes evident that Plutarch viewed such an influential figure in history in at least a moderately positive light. Despite including many events that may have framed Alexander harshly during times, the overall feeling derived from the life is that Plutarch valued Alexander’s accomplishments far more than his faults. This is apparent in the following, “Alexander went thither, and drank that came not (as some write) by drinking up Hercules’ cup all at a draught: neither for the sudden pain he felt between his shoulders, as if he had been thrust into the back with a spear. For all these were thought to be written by some, for lies and fables, because they would have made the end of this great tragedy lamentable and pitiful” (Plutarch 463). Plutarch does admit that like many of his other lives the story of Alexander is in the end a tragedy; however, he reveals that he, at least partially, does not want his retelling of the life to end sadly or pitifully. Plutarch would rather have Alexander’s life and story end with a recapitulation of his life’s extravagant achievements, than with his unadorned death.

The creation of a modern day biography through the lens of an ancient biographer is a task that is not easily done. However, in the case of adapting a biography of General Douglas MacArthur through the lens of Plutarch the burden is lessened due to the degree of similarity between Alexander the Great and MacArthur. Both men possessed similar drives to continually succeed, MacArthur states in his memoirs that he felt obligated by the history of his family to achieve greatness of the likes of his father and grandfather; both of whom were prominent military officers. In addition, MacArthur like Alexander participated in many armed conflicts during his life while serving in both World Wars. MacArthur’s drive and nearly fifty years of military service make him an ideal candidate to examine through the lens of Plutarch.

Plutarch clearly states in the Life of Alexander his focus, as in all the ‘lives’ he wrote, was to demonstrate the natural dispositions of the men he chronicled rather than just give an account of their deeds and various battles won and lost. Therefore, the events in each life that Plutarch does include are there to further the understanding of said dispositions and it can also be concluded that Plutarch believed each of these events was largely influenced by the inclinations of these men. The life of MacArthur would then congruently follow the life of Alexander in that it would show his personal disposition as a focal point for the biography and would be shown continually influencing his decisions. To set up the initial perception of MacArthur’s personality Plutarch would most likely follow the same format he employed with Alexander, possibly creating something along the lines of the following, “MacArthur despised his time spent as the Superintendant of West Point and wholly awaited an opportunity to arise in which he could further his rise through the ranks of the military, he had only accepted the position because it allowed for him to retain his rank of brigadier general despite it being peacetime.” This theoretically quotation mirrors the manner in which Plutarch originally described the motivations of Alexander the Great in that it alludes to the subject’s base emotional motivations that in turn influence their decision making processes. The example explains that one of the main goals and motivations behind everything that MacArthur did was his personal belief in the necessity to climb the ranks of the military. MacArthur was constantly driven to become an equal in terms of prestige with his father and this was a driving force behind many of his actions. Also, the possible quotation reveals that MacArthur is not satisfied, much like Alexander, by peacetime and the home front. MacArthur desired to continue to use his tactical knowledge in battle and also would not accept taking a step backwards in the ranks of the military. Plutarch may have written something along these lines because much like in the life he wrote for Alexander, this would establish the causes of internal struggle and their effects on later decisions in the General’s life. The ‘virtues and vices’ of MacArthur would be clearly illustrated through the quote which follows the sentiments of Plutarch found within the lives he has written.

In the development of a biography for Douglas MacArthur through the lens of Plutarch, it is important to remember that the creation of such would not be as if Plutarch had lived and written during the same time as MacArthur lived, but rather to create a narrative that captures the soul of Plutarch’s writing. The following possible instance is similar to how Plutarch represented Alexander’s disregard for advice but in a more modern way that MacArthur experienced, “Despite predictions by the Joint Chief of Staff that large scale amphibious assault would never happen again, MacArthur planned such an operation. Ignoring all tide reports and terrain, MacArthur continued anyway and landed at Inchon, North Korea shortly thereafter and was victorious.” This example is similar to when Alexander ignored the soothsayers and pressed forward into battle in that it also shows the vice that MacArthur had in which he perceived the need for battle and his tactics as paramount. Despite having superior forces and larger numbers MacArthur let his need for conquests control his actions. Plutarch may have created such a statement in his life of MacArthur because it would show both his virtues and his vices. The passage shows that MacArthur would often let his motivations to enter battle get the better of him, while also at the same time show that his tactical experience was able to achieve victory despite being impaired. Such an event described by Plutarch would directly relate to the first theoretically quote from a life of MacArthur by Plutarch in which he would establish his main focal points of the characters natural disposition. MacArthur’s dispositional traits would lead him to commit to landing at Inchon and would compound the point Plutarch maintains during his narratives.

The creation and development of a biography for the prominent General Douglas MacArthur through the eyes of the ancient historiographer Plutarch would focus largely on the personality of MacArthur and how that influenced his life rather than the many battles he fought during the multiple wars he participated in. MacArthur’s almost extreme drive for success mirrors that of Alexander the Great and therefore their biographies would mirror each other in terms of the feel and message of the texts. The biographer Plutarch sought to detail the cognition of each of his subjects and that is shown in his many different ‘lives.’ Plutarch attempted to show that the personalities of the men he wrote about were the driving force behind each and every event in their life; their cognition both caused and continued to influence every instance. Despite the many difficulties that such a task comes with, overall the result would be a work that would give greater insight into the thoughts and beliefs of a great historical warrior much like in the Life of Alexander.

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