How to be a leader with Plutarch

Part III of the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series

Philosophy as a Way of Life

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[Based on How to Be a Leader: An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership, by Plutarch, translated by Jeffrey Beneker. Full book series here.]

Most human societies are hierarchically structured. At least, all non-nomadic, agriculture based, literate societies characterized by division of labor. If there is a hierarchy, then we need leaders. Good leaders, preferably. While these days the word “leader” is more likely to bring to mind the CEO of a multinational company, my concern here is with sound political leadership which — perhaps the gentle reader might agree — has been sorely lacking of late, both nationally and internationally.

Indeed, I am so concerned with the issue of what makes for a good political leader that I wrote a book about it, The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders. In it, I reach two conclusions about what we should do as a society: (i) get rid of most current leaders who, after all, were elected by us; and (ii) focus our attention on raising a more ethically oriented next generation, by teaching kids about practical moral philosophy (see an example here).

But of course I’m not the first one write about leadership (nor, certainly, will I be the last one). One of my most illustrious predecessors was Plutarch (46–119 CE). He hailed from Chaeronea, in Boeotia (Central Greece), travelled extensively throughout his life, made many friends in Rome (eventually obtaining the Roman citizenship), and was ordained priest at the ancient sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. His influence spans two millennia, and extends to both Shakespeare and the founding fathers of the American Republic.

Plutarch is famous for having written the Parallel Lives and the Moralia, or moral essays. The three essays collected in Princeton University Press’s How to Be a Leader, translated by Jeffrey Beneker, are from the Moralia: To an Uneducated Leader, How to Be a Good Leader, and Should an Old Man Engage in Politics?

Plutarch’s general approach is based on making his moral points on the basis of good and bad biographical examples from Greek and Roman history. His Parallel Lives are explicitly (he tells us…

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Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/