"The Life of Richard Nixon written by Plutarch
By Nolan Flike
The majority of biographies written by Plutarch have a tragic or ironic ending, in order to do this he typically starts at the childhood of the person and talks about significant events or shortcomings the person had. Throughout the story he uses these shortcomings to explain the person’s personality and why they act the way they do. Next Plutarch builds the person up and tells of their great successes and victories, this building up is just a method to make their fall all the more tragic or ironic. To make the ending ironic or tragic, Plutarch makes it so the person is betrayed by former friends or is sabotaged by their own faulty personality traits that are present throughout the entire story. Because Plutarch uses this style of building the person up to have them fall hard, I believe Plutarch’s style of writing biographies would fit perfectly with telling the story of Richard Nixon’s life.
==Early Life and Upbringing==
One of Plutarch’s main methods of creating meaning in the person’s life is placing large significance on their upbringing. He is very good at finding an event early in the person’s life that seems to drive them to want to have great success and fame; “they mocked him for his manner of speech that was so strange, because he used so many long confused periods, and his matter he spoke of was so intricate with arguments one upon another, that they were tedious, and made men weary to hear him. And furthermore, he had a very soft voice, an impediment in his tongue, and had also a short breath, the which made that men could not well understand what he meant, for his long periods in his oration were oftentimes interrupted, before he was at the end of his sentence” (Plutarch p.538). This quote is referring to Demosthenes in his early schooling and attempts at oration. By writing about Demosthenes early embarrassment, Plutarch is showing the reason behind Demosthenes’ drive to work as hard as he could to become the best orator. He is also making Demosthenes come alive by showing the readers his early weaknesses that will come into play later in his life.
In the “Life of Marcus Tullius Cicero” Plutarch again tells a story of an early life experience that drives Cicero; “That Cicero had a thing upon the tip of his nose, as it had been a little wart, much like to a rich pease, whereupon they surnamed him Cicero… that he would endeavour himself to make the name of the Ciceros more noble and famous, than the Scauri, or Catuli” (Plutarch p. 563). By telling this story of the meaning behind Cicero’s name Plutarch is showing how through no fault of his own he was born with a name that already had negative meaning. This negative meaning is a driving force in Cicero’s quest to be the best, wanting to make his name have a positive meaning. If Plutarch was writing the story of Richard Nixon he would put a great focus on his early life and the drive it gave him, I believe it would look like this; Richard Nixon was born into a lower middle class family that stressed the importance of hard work and making it on your own. His father quit school after 6th grade so he could work to save money, allowing his children to have a better life and get an education. Along with not having a lot of money growing up Nixon was never regarded as good looking, athletic, or extremely smart. By stressing the fact that Nixon’s family did not believe in free rides and preached success through hard work Plutarch would be showing where Nixon’s drive and work ethic stems from. Also by telling us that he was not good looking, athletic, or smart it stresses the fact that he had to work extremely hard for everything he gained in his life and has certain doubts about himself, which will have a great impact later in his life.
Another technique that Plutarch often uses in his writings is to build up the person by showing them working hard to overcome some sort of shortcomings in their early life. By doing this he is adding to the suspense of their eventual fall in the end. A great example of this is how Demosthenes works to improve his voice that caused him to be the subject of ridicule; “Thereupon he built a cellar under the ground, the which was whole even in my time, and he would daily go down into it, to fashion his gesture and pronunciation, and also to exercise his voice, and that with such earnest affection, that oftentimes he would be there two or three months” (Plutarch p. 539). I believe the purpose of telling this story is to build up Demosthenes in the readers’ minds to make him seem as though he is improving and becoming better in the art of speech.
After he shows how his subjects have worked hard to improve themselves Plutarch then will tell of early successes they had in an effort to continue to glorify and build up the person; “he so highly praised and extolled Cicero’s consulship unto them, and the things he did in his office, that gave him the greatest honours that ever were decreed or granted unto any man living. For by decree of the people he was called, Father of the Country” (Plutarch p. 585). This story of Cicero’s early success in office shows how Cicero is on the upswing and makes it seem as though he is on his way to truly making the Cicero name “more noble and famous, than the Scauri, or Catuli” (Plutarch p. 563). When applying this method of building up his subject and showing early success to Richard Nixon I believe it would look like this; With very little outside help Nixon was able to overcome his lack of money, natural intelligence, and good looks by working harder than the rest of his opponents. Through this hard work he was able to gain a law degree and eventually enter politics, a profession controlled almost exclusively by men that were from very wealthy and prominent families. Despite a modest up bringing Nixon was elected Vice President of the United States in 1952. In his early years as a politician Nixon became famous for being very tough on Communism the number one enemy of the United States at that time, making him a national hero and propelling him to the Republican nomination in the 1960 election. By starting this passage out stressing Nixon’s early shortcomings Plutarch would be reinforcing the fact that these early set backs were a big part of Nixon’s life and constantly influenced his decisions. However by telling of his success and attention as a national hero Plutarch would be building him up to the reader.
After Plutarch builds up his subject he seems to tell of a major failure that occured during their rise. By doing this he is showing that even though the person has worked hard and gained success they still do have the flaws that were present in their early life; “Demosthenes showed himself always an honest man: but when it came to battle, he fled like a coward, and did no valiant act anything answerable to the orations whereby he had persuaded the people” (Plutarch p. 550). This early failure in Demosthenes life did not signal the end of his career, quite the contrary he amazingly becomes more famous from it, that is why I believe Plutarch writes this to build up suspense and make the reader think that this was the biggest failure Demosthenes’ life and from here on out he is on his way up.
This early failure is also present in the story of Cicero’s life; “When it was known in Rome that he was fled, Clodius did presently banish him by decree of the people” (Plutarch p. 594). I believe Plutarch wrote about this because it makes it appear as though Cicero has gone through the worse and will be able to make it. Overcoming this banishment will only make the tragic ending that much more bitter for Cicero. When applying this method to Nixon I believe Plutarch would have this to say; In the election of 1960 Richard Nixon faced John F. Kennedy who was the exact opposite of him. He was a Democrat, from one of the most prominent families in the country, he was very good looking and smooth, he had a lot of help along the way, and therefore was not a self-made man as Nixon was. One of the crucial events in this election was a debate between Nixon and Kennedy in which political analysts that listened to it on the radio believed Nixon had outperformed Kennedy by a small margin. However those that watched it on television gave Kennedy a victory mainly because Nixon was very sick and did not look good, to the contrary Kennedy, already a good-looking person seemed to have the look and confidence of a movie star. Nixon went on to lose this election by one of the smallest margins in the history of the United States. To this day that election is known as very controversial and many believe that the Kennedy family used their power to unfairly win the election. The story of this defeat would be crucial in Plutarch’s telling of Richard Nixon’s life because many believe that Richard Nixon only lost because he was not born with the good looks or money of Kennedy. These insecurities of Nixon would be constant in a biography written about him by Plutarch and would prove to be vital in his life’s tragic and ironic ending.
After the early failures of these men Plutarch always makes it a point to show how they overcame early disappointments and in some cases came back even stronger and more popular. A good example of this is when Demosthenes returns from the battle he ran from; “Now, the Grecians being thus overthrown by battle, the other orators, adversaries unto Demosthenes in the commonwealth, began to set upon him, and to prepare to accuse him. But the people did not only clear him of all accusations objected against him, but did continue to honour him more than before, and to call to assemblies, as one that loved the honour and benefit of his country” (Plutarch p.551). Through the telling of his survival of this embarrassing and cowardly moment Plutarch is beginning to give the impression that Demosthenes is now invincible and has the worst behind him. However like in most of Plutarch’s biographies he is only building Demosthenes up for his eventual tragic fall.
Cicero suffered a very painful and embarrassing defeat being forced to live in banishment for sixteen months until pressure from the people and senate eventually lead to his return, in which he was welcomed with open arms; “So Cicero returned the Sixteenth month after his banishment, and the towns and cities he came by, showed themselves so joyful of his return, that all manner of men went to meet and honour him, with so great love and affection” (Plutarch p. 596). Cicero suffered for sixteen months in banishment and came back a national hero; it makes the reader believe his suffering is over and will now continue to be loved by the people. However this early suffering and victory is just another tool used by Plutarch to make the ending of Cicero’s life all the more tragic.
This step of building his subject back up above where he had been before would be crucial in Plutarch’s telling of Richard Nixon’s life. I believe it would look like this; After his heartbreaking defeat to Kennedy, Nixon vowed to stay out of the ruthless field of politics and instead focused on his previous career as a lawyer. He soon was able to find success as a Wall Street lawyer, making a fortune and becoming well respected in law and on Wall Street. This success as a lawyer allowed Nixon to regain his image as a winner in which he had lost in his defeat during the 1960 election. With this return to success Nixon was again nominated to run for the Presidency and this time he was victorious. As President he became one of the most successful leaders in American history excelling in foreign relations. He was very important in the United States’ Cold War with the USSR and China and had great success in negotiations with the two countries, greatly strengthening diplomatic ties and as a result easing the tensions of the Cold War. With all his success in his first term Nixon easily won reelection in 1972.
The main theme in the writings of Plutarch are the tragic endings in which the person loses everything because of a flaw that has been present his entire life, or he is betrayed by a friend that helped him gain his success, or lastly his life or career ends in a strange and ironic way. Cicero’s life is tragic in the end because Caesar who was originally his friend and ally betrayed him. As tragic as that was it is even worse that Caesar did not want to do this but was persuaded by Antonius and Lepidus to betray him; “But the greatest difficulty and difference that fell out between them, was about the outlawing of Cicero. For Antonius would hearken to no peace between them, unless Cicero were slain first of all: Lepidus was also in the same mind with Antonius: but Caesar was against them both” (Plutarch p. 608). I believe Plutarch puts this in the story because it makes it more tragic that Caesar whom Cicero believed to be his friend did not decide to organize Cicero’s murder by his own thoughts but was persuaded by his other two allies to betray Cicero.
The ending of Richard Nixon’s political career was truly tragic and ironic and if written by Plutarch would have looked something like this; As Nixon was enjoying his large victory in his second election and his high approval ratings a scandal began to surface over the 1972 election. Sources were beginning to give evidence that Nixon was corrupt and had used unfair methods to intimidate and destroy political rivals. The biggest scandal that occurred was the Watergate scandal in which people working for Nixon planted listening devises into the Democrat headquarters at the Watergate complex. This attempt to listen in on the rival Democrats was planned by Nixon so he could gain information on the Democrats and plan for the 1972 election. Nixon won this election by a very large margin and was never in any danger of losing, however with his past defeats and insecurities Nixon wanted to take no chances. I believe this ending to be truly tragic and ironic because Nixon was done in by his own paranoia. This paranoia seems to have stemmed from his very modest upbringing and his past defeats. To add to this tragic ending is the fact that Nixon won that election by a landslide and did not need to do anything illegal to get a leg up on his opponents and if he had not committed these illegal acts at Watergate Nixon would have been Known as on of the greatest Presidents in the history of the United States. Richard Nixon truly is a tragic story working his way up from very modest roots, overcoming early defeat, becoming known as one of the best politicians of the 20th century, and then losing it all by the scandal at the Watergate complex.
Plutarch is great at writing tragic and ironic biographies. He is able to show how the person’s early upbringing and early experiences shape their character and decisions. He is then able to build up the person and make it seem as though they are invincible, giving them a major setback that they not only overcome but become better because of it. Lastly he shows the person’s demise was either tragic, ironic, or both by having the person either be betrayed by an ally or having the person destroy themselves through a faulty personality trait that had been present throughout the entire story. Because of this approach of Plutarch to show early weakness in his subjects, then build them up to seem like a hero, and then having them fall from grace in an ironic and tragic manner, I believe that Richard Nixon would be a perfect topic for him.
Plutarch. “Life of Demosthenes.” Selected Lives, Trans. Thomas North. Comp. Judith Mossman. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998. 533-562. Print.
Plutarch. “Life of Cicero.” Selected Lives, Trans. Thomas North. Comp. Judith Mossman. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998. 563-611. Print.
Garry Wills. “Nixon Agonistes.” A Mariner Book Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002