Thu, 13 July 2023
The first century Roman essayist and philosopher Plutarch is perhaps most famous today for his stylized, paired biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen. In Plutarch’s parallel lives, Alexander, who conquered the Mediterranean world, is compared to Julius Caesar, who did the same a few hundred years later. Alcibiades and Coriolanus are paired together to show how spiritedness and martial virtue, when not tempered by political judgment, can wreak havoc.
Plutarch’s lives are moral portraits; their task is the moral formation of the reader, civic education, and the inculcation of virtue. They inspired Shakespeare’s portraits of Coriolanus, Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, and Casca. The Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau likewise drew inspiration from them in, for example, his treatise Emile. And the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once called Plutarch’s parallel lives “a bible for heroes.”
But what about the Bible, and the Jewish tradition it inaugurates? Meir Soloveichik, the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, and host of the podcasts Bible365 and Jerusalem365, believes that Jewish history offers its own examples of Jewish leadership. He's just published a new book, Providence and Power: Ten Portraits in Jewish Statesmanship, that attempts to do for the Jews what Plutarch did for the ancient Greeks and Romans. He joins Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver here to talk about that new book.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.