Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Plutarch on Kindness

As I get older, I tend to admire brilliance less and kindness more. This may be just selfishness: I am less and less likely to be brilliant (if I ever was likely to be) and I probably find (or expect to find) myself more in need of kindness.

One person who shared a taste for kindness was Plutarch, the essayist and biographer, so beloved of Shakespeare for his unerring skill at identifying a good story. Plutarch wrote in the corrupt post-Augustan period of the Roman Empire. There’s a certain “twilight” quality much of his work work. It’s as if he can look back on a long life in an aging civilization, and identify so many things he might wish could have gone differently.

You see a remarkable instance of Plutarch’s instinct in his discussion of Cato the Elder. Cato was the archetypical “old republican”—hard-working, thrifty, honest and just. Plutarch thought Cato a good man in so many ways, but he does notice one odd or unexpected quirk. When Cato’s slaves “became too old to work,” Plutarch says, “he felt it his duty to sell them rather than feed so many useless mouths.” Plutarch sees fit to pause and reflect on the point:

For my own part I regard his conduct towards his slaves in treating them like beasts of burden, exploiting them to the limits of their strength, and then, when they were old, driving them off and selling them, as the mark of a thoroughly ungenerous nature, which cannot recognize any bond between man and man but that of necessity. And yet we see that kindness possesses a far wider sphere of action than justice, for it is in the nature of things that law and justice are confined to our dealings with our fellow men, whereas kindness and charity, which often flow from a gentle nature like water form an abundant spring, may be extended even to dumb animals. A kindly man will take good care of his horses even when they are worn out in his service, and will look after his dogs not only when they are puppies, but when they need special treatment.

For my part, I would not sell even my draught ox simply because of his age, far less turn out an old man from the home and the way of life to which he has grown accustomed for the sake of a few paltry coins, especially since he would be of no more use to the buyer than he was to the seller.

—Plutarch, “Cato the Elder” in Makers of Rome 119-151,
125-6 (Penguin Paperback ed. 1965)

I suppose it scarcely needs mention it seems never to occur to Plutarch to question slavery per se, and that he tops off his argument from principle with a fairly straightforward argument from practice (who would buy these guys anyway?). He concludes by saying that whether this attitude counts as “greatness or pettiness of spirit is a question which the reader must decide for himself.” Maybe, but I’d say it’s pretty clear that Plutarch has made his own decision.

Fn.: Spotted on the exercycle this morning: Karen Armstrong, speaking of Confucious, remarks on "his kindness and brilliance--an unusual combination." See Karen Armstrong, The Great Trnsformation 241 (Anchor Paperback ed. 2007).

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