Doing away with superstitions

One of my favourite classical texts is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In writing about the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch said his intention was not so much to write history as to write edifying moral biographies.

He said, “For I do not write Histories, but Lives; nor do the most conspicuous acts of necessity exhibit a man’s virtue or his vice, but oftentimes some slight circumstance, a word, or a jest, shows a man’s character better than battles with the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of armies and sieges of cities. Now, as painters produce a likeness by a representation of the countenance and the expression of the eyes, without troubling themselves about the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to look rather into the signs of a man’s character, and thus give a portrait of his life, leaving others to describe great events and battles.”

In introducing the life of Lycurgus, Plutarch even admits, “Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman.”

Nevertheless, he has much to say about Lycurgus and his efforts “to make his people free-minded, self-sufficing, and moderate in all their ways.”

One section that I found particularly interesting is about burial. Here’s what Plutarch tells us:

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The Tombs of the Protagonists

Among my favourite sites to visit when travelling anywhere are the cemeteries. A couple years ago, I visited the Campo Verano cemetery in Rome to seek out a particular grave. One of the things I remember most is the pamphlet given to visitors to facilitate a self-guided walking tour of the cemetery. The pamphlet was in several languages and in Italian there was a heading that said, tombe delle protagoniste. Wow, I thought: tombs of the protagonists! Such a heading is probably simply rendered into English as “famous tombs”, but this idea of a cemetery having leading characters thrilled me. As I walked throughout the cemetery, I thought about the major and minor characters, the settings, the rising actions in world affairs corresponding to the dates inscribed upon tombstones. The Italian wording filled my imagination with a sense of drama and excitement.