The Lawgivers: A Review of a New Plutarch Translation

Of all Charlotte Mason’s recommendations, I found her advice to read Plutarch with children one of the least appealing. I enjoy old books and love learning, but somehow, it seemed especially daunting to fit in Plutarch along with everything else. After all, I hadn’t encountered him anywhere in my own (admittedly inadequate) education, and wasn’t certain why his writings should be part of our learning journey. It wasn’t until after my boys graduated that I finally began to understand why Plutarch has been a staple of classical education for hundreds of years. As usual, Charlotte Mason and all those classical educators were right!

I’ve been reading The Lawgivers: The Parallel Lives of Numa Pompilius and Lycurgus of Sparta. This new edition was published by Circe Institute and translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks — that’s David Hicks of Norms and Nobility fame, along with his brother Scot.

A forward by Karen Glass briefly introduces Plutarch and sketches his place in education history, and a translator’s note that explains the Hicks’ purpose and approach to this translation. The most helpful feature of the front matter is the “Introduction for Students New to Plutarch.” This not-to-be-skipped section includes

  • Plutarch’s Lens;
  • A Brief History of the Law;
  • Law-givers Versus Law-makers;
  • The Historical Uses of Legend;
  • Judging the Past Versus Making Judgements about the Past.

The first thing that struck me about The Lawgivers was how absolutely approachable it seemed. Unlike most other editions I’ve encountered, this volume features only two of Plutarch’s parallel life stories — Lycurgus and Numa. Plutarch tells Lycurgus’ story first, then Numa’s; then draws significant comparisons between the two (his commentary on why Numa’s reforms did not last after his death should be especially interesting for homeschoolers). Plutarch’s focus is not on telling an exact history, but on the ways that character shaped the lives and destinies of men, so there aren’t a lot of dates or micro-specifics, but helpful details are filled out in the notes provded by the translators.

Formatted as a largish softcover, it has ample margins for note-taking, easily readable text on creme-colored paper, and excellent notes. In fact, the book is arranged so that the text and accompanying notes appear on facing pages — text on the left; notes and occasional illustrations on the right. I love that there’s no flipping to the end of the chapter or book or squinting at tiny footnotes. The size is perfect for personal reading or reading aloud.

Translation Examples

I haven’t studied Greek, so I can’t directly compare this translation to the original text. However, I have the Loeb Classical Edition that contains a well-reputed translation by Bernadotte Perrin along with the original Greek text. I’ve also read a bit of the 1579 translation by Sir Thomas North online. Here is a look at how the same short passage sounds in each of these three translations. I suggest reading each one aloud in order to hear the similarities and differences in phrasing.

The Lawgivers Translation, 2019

By making friends through acts of kindness with the Cretan most highly regarded for his learning and political wisdom, Lycurgus persuaded him to go to Sparta. This man, Thales by name, built his reputation as a lyric poet. This skill he used to embellish and advance his brilliant ideas as a lawgiver. The soothing music and gentle cadence of his odes, telling tales celebrating obedience and concord, imperceptibly softened the behavior of his listeners and led to them to put aside the private feuding and mutual hostilities that were then common and to live together in pursuit of the common good. It is fair to say that in this way he had laid the groundwork for the reforms Lycurgus would later introduce to Sparta. p.40

1914 Translation by Bernadotte Perrin, Loeb Classical Edition

One of the men regarded there as wise statesmen was Thales, whom Lycurgus persuaded, out of favour and friendship, to go on a mission to Sparta. Now Thales passed as a lyric poet, and screened himself behind this art, but in reality he did the work of one of the mightiest lawgivers. For his odes were so many exhortations to obedience and harmony, and their measured rhythms were permeated with ordered tranquillity, so that those who listened to them were insensibly softened in their dispositions, insomuch that they renounced the mutual hatreds which were so rife at that time, and dwelt together in a common pursuit of what was high and noble. Thales, therefore, after a fashion, was a forerunner in Sparta of Lycurgus and his discipline. p. 215

1579 Translation by Sir Thomas North

Now there was one man that above the rest was reputed wise and skilful in matters of state and government, who was called Thales : with whom Lycurgus did so much by entreaty, and for familiar friend-ship that he persuaded him to go with him unto Sparta. This Thales was called the poet harper, whereupon be had that title and name: but in effect he sang all that the best and sufficientest governors of the world could devise. For all his songs were goodly ditties, wherein he did exhort and persuade the people to live under obedience of the law, in peace and con­cord one with the other. His words were set out with such tunes, countenance and accents, that were so full of sweetness, harmony, and piercing: that inwardly it melted men’s beans, and drew the hearers of a love to like the most honest things, and to leave all hatred, enmity, sedition, and division, which at that time reigned sore among them. So as it may be said, he it was that prepared the way fur Lycurgus, whereby he afterwards reformed and brought the Lacaedaemonians unto reason.

Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, Englished by Sir Thomas North in Ten Volumes (London: J.M. Dent, 1910). Vol. 1, p. 163. 9/19/2019. <> [N.B. I am not the person who chose the word “Englished.” JC]

Why read Plutarch?

Plutarch, as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493.

Plutarch, as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493.

If you’re not convinced by the chorus of recommendations in the Charlotte Mason and classical education worlds, perhaps it would help to know that Shakespeare was a fan. Not only did he paraphrase parts of Thomas North’s translation of selected Lives in his plays, he even quoted some of them verbatim. According to BardWeb, “Plutarch’s Parallel Lives provides the biographies of Greek and Roman rulers that Shakespeare used in creating Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens.”

In his 1579 translation of the Parallel Lives, Sir Thomas North In his “Preface to the Reader” offered one of the most convincing arguments I’ve read for reading the Lives.

[T]here is no profane study better than Plutarch. All other learning is private, fitter for universities than cities, fuller of contemplation than experience, more commendable in students themselves, than profitable unto others.
Whereas stories are fit for every place, reach to all persons, serve for all times, teach the living, revive the dead, so far excelling all other books, as it is better to see learning in noble men’s lives, than to read it in philosophers’ writings.

That’s the short version. For more on who Plutarch is and why you should read him, don’t miss the excellent article by Dr. George Grant (the 2017 Paideia Prize winner) on AmblesideOnline. He states that “If we are to comprehend the political discussions of the American founders — much less the vital discourses of the Protestant reformers, the social teachings of the Medieval scholastics, and the cultural innovations of the Enlightenment pioneers — it is essential that we reincorporate Plutarch’s important work into our educational canon.”

In discussing the teaching of citizenship, Charlotte Mason wrote that “Plutarch is like the Bible in this, that he does not label the actions of his people as good or bad but leaves the conscience and judgment of his readers to make that classification. What to avoid and how to avoid it, is knowledge as important to the citizen whether of the City of God or of his own immediate city, as to know what is good and how to perform the same” (Volume 6, p. 186). That is far from all she wrote about Plutarch, but it might be helpful in understanding his role in a moral education.

The American Conservative offers another interesting look at why we should read Plutarch, along with a critical look at several previous translations. In critiquing an edition that separated the parallel lives, he reminds the reader that “the pairings aren’t rote things; the halves come together to make wholes. An anecdote chosen to highlight the arrogance of the subject of the first life is counterbalanced by an anecdote about the humility of the subject of the adjoining life; points are set up in one half in order to be paid off in the other.” Thus it is important to read the Parallel Lives as Plutarch designed them to be read, and as The Lawgivers is structured.

I’m sorry it took me so long to appreciate Plutarch’s influential work, but I’m slowly catching up. I think that these new translations (I’m sure Circe can be relied on to continue with the series) will make the process a delight.

FTC Disclosure: I received an Advance Reading Copy (ARC) of The Lawgivers from Circe Institute at no cost; my evaluation and review are entirely my own.
As always, my goal is to build a quality home library so I review only relevant books that I would be happy to purchase myself or recommend to my friends.

Who is Plutarch?

Plutarch (c. AD 46 – c. 120) was a Greek biographer and essayist. He studied mathematics and philosophy at the Academy of Athens under Ammonius from 66 to 67, and is known as Platonic philosopher. He is known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia.but he did a lot of other things as well. He wasn’t an ivory-tower intellectual nor a crabby moralist. Instead, every biography I’ve  encountered seems to mention his pleasant disposition or generosity of spirit, which seems to show through in his writing as well.

More information about The Lawgivers

Foreword by Karen Glass
Introduction for Students New to Plutarch
A Note about the Translation
The Life of Lycurgus of Sparta
The Life of Numa Pompilius
Comparison of the Lawgivers Lycurgus & Numa

Format: 7.75 x 9.25″ Softcover, 168 pages.

Here’s a peek at a very old edition of Plutarch.

Shakespeare: Metamorphosis – Plutarch’s “Lives” (1579) from Senate House Library on Vimeo.

1 Response

  1. September 29, 2020

    […] are stories of real people doing, against all odds, important, real things. Charlotte Mason used Plutarch’s Lives in her schools with good results.  You’ll find out more about Mason’s […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.