The Lives Of Great Men As Moral Instruction

There is no better school of instruction for our own lives than in learning about the lives and trials of great men.  By following their experiences, struggles, and adversities, we can in some way calibrate our own responses to life’s inevitable whirlwinds.  The reward is made even greater when the narrator of such biographies is an urbane, classically-trained rhetorician whose primary focus is on the moral development of his readers.  Just such a teacher is Plutarch.

Plutarch (c. A.D. 45- c. 120) was a Greek writer who received the best education possible in his day; he served in several official posts, and received official recognition from the Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian for his extensive writings.  Plutarch is primarily famous for his Parallel Lives, which is a compendium of comparative biographies of famous Greek and Roman statesmen.  His other major work, the  Moralia, is a collection of essays, dialogues, and observations on various moral and philosophical subjects.  Both of these works make for wonderful reading, but I want to focus on the Parallel Lives here, as it is more likely to be of interest to the average reader.


There is no other work quite like Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.  He must have had to collate and synthesize dozens of original sources, much of it in a language that was not native to him.  Some of what we know about major figures of antiquity appears in no other work than in his.  Plutarch’s main motivation was to examine what factors made great men great, and how the average man could employ those virtues.  He pairs an eminent Greek with an eminent Roman (choosing figures with lives that roughly had some things in common, such as Theseus and Romulus, Lycurgus and Numa Pompilia, Solon and Publicola, etc.), and outlines the life of each figure.  Then, in a conclusory essay, he compares both figures and tells us the key virtues of each, and why he believes one was better than the other.  This comparative technique suits his purposes admirably:  it brings into sharp focus the qualities, decisions, and actions that made each great man great.

Another virtue of the Parallel Lives is the quality of the writing.  There is here no turgid prose, no boring digressions:  every sentence counts, every paragraph sparkles with anecdotes, explanations, and an epigram that drives home the author’s point.  This is history presented as a moral exercise.  We can judge the quality of the Parallel Lives by their unbroken popularity down the centuries.  They were cherished by Renaissance humanists, plundered for plots by Shakespeare, pored over hungrily by Montaigne, and beloved by Napoleon.  Scarcely has any one book so instructed statesmen over such a long period.

The most important quality of the Lives—what gives it its charm–is that Plutarch is writing as a teacher of young men.  He is concerned with our development and sincerely wants to be our guide.  In his day, the education of young men was concerned as much with the development of character and morals as with the imparting of knowledge.  (This focus, of course, is sorely missed today).  Modern biographies do not normally provide this sort of thing:  they are more concerned with cluttering their narratives with footnotes and scholarly apparatus than with helping us become better men.

There are many versions of the Lives in print, and choosing which one can present something of a problem and a compromise.  Plutarch’s original plan was to have the reader work through each pairing together, and then read his comparison essay at the end.  Unfortunately, the Lives stretch through several thick volumes, and many readers will not want to wade through them all.  Buying the entire set is not practical for most (although recommended).  Some readers will only want to read about Greeks, some only about Romans.  Editors over the years have often chopped up the Lives in various ways, which does violence to Plutarch’s literary plan and pedagogical purposes.  From examining several editions of the Lives, my opinion is that retaining some of Plutarch’s comparative pairing scheme is vital.  I like the Penguin editions the best:  the editors group the biographies into periods of time and by nation, but still keep the best comparative essays.


Some Final Comments

I want to close this article by saying a few related words.  My desire to recommend Plutarch’s Lives to our readership grew out of some recent events in the news that all readers will by now be familiar with.  It occurred to me that now, more than ever, young men are in critical need for instruction, guidance, and self-improvement.  Never before have so many been so lost, and so in need of guidance.  The quest to enrich, ennoble, and improve our young men has become, to use the words of H.G. Wells, “a race between education and catastrophe.”

Frequent readers will note that I have long emphasized historical and philosophical topics as ways to make larger points.  There is a deliberate reason for this.  By invoking the past, I have tried to remind readers of the glories of leadership, character, and masculine virtue that can change their lives.  By bringing up the past, a time before masculine virtues were shamed and punished, we remind readers of the glories that will be theirs in the future if they follow the right paths.  We want to inspire, uplift, and ennoble you.  “The mind is not a vessel to be filled,” says Plutarch, “but a fire to be kindled.”

We at Return of Kings have been unapologetic and relentless in our quest to improve our readers’ lives with actionable, specific advice and wisdom.  Sadly, there are forces which do not want to see our young men improve themselves:  these forces seek to emasculate our young men, to turn them into compliant hewers of wood and drawers of water for their ideologically driven overlords.  One can even imagine a future where classical knowledge will be driven underground, purged from schools, or bowdlerized, as not being in tune with modern political correctness.  The degradation of humanistic learning has come as a direct result of the feminization of society.  We cannot permit this to happen.  The commissars of modern culture don’t want you to know too much about history, about how things were like in previous eras.  This would invite uncomfortable questions, and uncomfortable comparisons with the sorry state of masculinity today.

Of our detractors, not one commenter—not one—has ever mentioned our focus on improving the minds and bodies of our readers.  But we go about our work regardless.  We know our readers better than they.  We have lived their same struggles, hungers, and secret aspirations, and always viewed the inner longings of our brothers with patience and understanding.  We know that many of our readers, in this era, are being allowed to flounder helplessly in a wilderness not of their own choosing, with their masculine potential denigrated or scorned by a media elite that values only you-go girlist frivolities and feminist dialectic.  This tide will be reversed.  And we will forever remain passionately dedicated to restoring the lost glory that once was ours.

Read More:  The Humiliation Of A Great Empire

57 thoughts on “The Lives Of Great Men As Moral Instruction”

  1. This is a complex problem.
    Caesar was quite old when he finally got going.
    Alexander was a youngster.
    Horatio Nelson was a young man who outshone all his superiors.
    Chard and Bromhead were men in their 30s.
    I’d make one caveat. Aim for greatness yourself but do not expect to experience adulation or gratitude. Expect failure but when it comes seek to master it.
    The Duke of Wellington was nearly derailed in his career after a failed attack he conducted while serving in India. His response was to plan better and master his craft. He ended up in coalition defeating Napoleon and Napoleon’s top marshals. He then went on to be Prime Minister.
    Accept a certain amount of subordination to your craft. Make sure you cultivate good friends and loyal followers. If there is someone better than you around make sure you don’t consume your talents in spite for more successful characters.

    1. Wellington’s predecessor and idol, the Duke of Marlborough, was locked in the Tower of London and accused of treason in the 1690’s. He still kept his head in the game however and would a decade later smash and humiliate the arms of France, the most powerful of the time.
      Failure precedes success. It’s all about mindset.

  2. Great reminder about Plutarch who as a matter of fact believed in manly women … with lots of stories to prove it in his De Mulierum Virtutibus (Women’s virtues). He asserts that the manly women actually possess virtues such as bravery and wisdom.
    Ancient women might have exhibited such virtues because they were prepared to stand by their men but nowaday this is not of any use for modern women. We live in different times and our laws are designed to break the mold between a man and a woman and disencourage women’s virtues.
    It is useful to read De Mulierum Virtutibus as to realise that women like all human creatures are molded by the culture. Today’s culture encourages the behaviour which is completely the opposite to the one depicted in Women’s Virtues.

    1. Very good point. That essay is a famous one, and was imitated in the Renaissance by Petrarch, who published a similarly themed book.
      Wish I could pronounce your name, but I can’t read Cyrillic!

  3. Couldn’t have said it better myself, Quintus. The past and masculine role models have been locked away from most men. This is why it’s so important to inform the readership of this. I suppose my connection to that was what kept me ahead in the overall scheme of things. I was honestly in a bad state before finding the Manosphere but it could have been much worse.
    As for my own contributions in this area, I’ve finally finished reading Louis XIV’s memoirs (it was a long book), and have applied to submit an article regarding the Sun King’s lessons. They are important ones.

    1. Quintius publishes the best articles on this site. Sad that my generation refuses to use great men as models, and instead models Justin Bieber or the Kardashians.

  4. Quintus, never stop what you are doing. And consolidate all your articles into a book so I can buy a copy for my friends and family.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree. Quintus, while each of your articles is its own piece of art, your summation here gave me chills.
      This site’s mandate is to make men better in body and soul. I’m eternally grateful for discovering it.

  5. I can understand the appeal of the idea that a revival of the classical tradition could provide ammunition to fight the destructive trends in modernity. However, the philosophers and intellectuals who provided the ideology for modernity in the Enlightenment had classical educations, for the most part; but that didn’t stop them from arguing for sexual freedom, secularism, feminism, egalitarianism, cosmopolitanism, democracy, socialism and other ideas that have become increasingly problematic in their implementation. The classical tradition no doubt offers us extremely valuable resources that we should exploit fully. But we need other things as well for living successfully in our dysfunctional society and culture.

    1. This is a good point. Too much philosophy is bad – it causes paralysis.

    2. Classical knowledge is a tool, not a destination. You do with it what you will or can, and unfortunately some in the Enlightenment used it to blaze paths that we all see should have been left untrodden. That being said, they did so in innocence, there was no malice in their thinking, they simply didn’t know where it would end up. We can reverse this order, but we’re going to need to be at least as well versed, well read and capable of thinking as they were to do so.

  6. The philosophical study that opposes feminism is the study of Virtue. “Virtus” is the Latin word for Virtue and it Literally means Manliness. It carries connotations of Valor, Courage, Excellence, Character, and Worth! These are Our Masculine Strengths. ESTO VIR!!!!

  7. I really enjoy articles such as these, which provide a sound theoretical basis for self improvement, built on the study of history and philosophy.
    Without this frame of reference, it´s easy to give too much importance to seduction and finances and neglect other disciplines, an attitude which will lead to imbalance and nihilism.
    This theoretical basis helps us put each of the areas of self improvement in their proper places.

  8. Great post and book recommendation. Thank you for this.
    In modern education, Plutarch has been replaced with politically correct dogma. Out with Seneca, and in with Sylvia Plath and Sandra Cisneros. Subsequently, young boys lack the literature to help shape them into great men.
    ROK continues to offer valuable tips for self-improvement.

    1. Honestly, I’d like to see a masculine academy of sorts, with a masculine curriculum, complete with different courses but all tending toward the same end of a man with a well-balanced life.
      Such things are desperately needed.

      1. How long would such a place exist before it got shut down due to misogyny complaints? The American media would attack like piranhas on bloody chum.

      2. These academies do exist, in fact I believe they are trending right now. See examples like Chesterton Academy. They are typically, but not always, founded by independent groups within several different religious groups: Romans Catholics in particular and Society of St. Pius X especially. My son was raised almost exclusively in a classical setting, in two small academies in the PNW. Home schoolers are big on Classical Education as well. There are small colleges–Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA for example–which continue the classics in higher education. This is seriously counter-cultural stuff.

        1. In the “dark ages” monasteries became a last refuge for western civilization and the knowledge passed on from the Greeks and Romans, not just philosophy but things like farming, carpentry, etc. I think we’ve entered a new dark age where classical knowledge is shunned in favor of loosely defined “progress”. Schools like those listed above, communities and websites are the vessels that will carry this knowledge forward while the dominant culture continues its descent into decadence. I spoke to the assistant of one of the top political writers in America (both of them classicist historians) and he told me about the struggle he went through trying to defend the Western Civ. program at a well-known California state university. Gender studies covering the lifestyle of 19th century prostitutes was considered as important if not more so to Plutarch and others.

      3. Very few (if any) websites are doing what we do here, i.e., trying to turn on young guys to historical, philosophical, and spiritual subjects in an accessible, readable way.

    2. I totally agree! In a professional development, we were encouraged to use a text called “Priscilla and the Wimps”. This was a perfect example of how our public education system was used to feminize men and demonize masculinity. I’ve also seen how this text was widely used in many other public school systems.

      1. The American education system, and it’s ancillary offshoots, use literature as one of their most powerful weapons. By controlling the chosen text, they control the talking points of the discussion. This is why simply being an Alpha thug is not enough to defeat them. You have to strip their points down intellectually, one by one, until their self-serving agenda of hate is exposed.
        In the example you used, you almost have to challenge why the text itself was selected. Also, why a cleverly articulated counterpoint is not offered to foster proper critical thought. You will find that such teachers don’t have an answer. They are yes men/women of the cultural Marxists that they answer to.

        1. I agree 100%. I’ll never forget that afternoon. The person who headed that “PD” was a good person as is many of the folks at that school. And as she was reading the text, I got the feeling that this text was written by a person who was full of issues regarding his own sexuality (the story was written by a male High School English teacher). It was very entertaining and the faculty got a kick out of it. I left that afternoon knowing what exactly what was wrong with that text and felt that I was the only one who knew this. They are filling our schools with this to the exclusion of “other texts” or counternarratives. It is certainly part of a larger plan to make people into the tools of a collectivist state and not individuals pursuing their own happiness. If you happen to find yourself driving down the Major Deegan Pkway in the Bronx (I-87) you will a high school named “the Academy for Social Justice”. Where I currently teach is a “green school” where environmental concerns are made a large part of the curriculum. The public schools are able to do this because they do not teach thinking skills in spite of what they may say about teaching “critical thinking”. In short, people unfamiliar with teaching thinking skills are teaching those skills, which are a severely edited version of logic, in a very limited format. There are no classes dedicated to teaching thinking. They are marginalized in favor of teaching memorization in order to pass a multiple choice exam (and the kids have piss poor reading skills). I could go on and on about this but I would end up writing a lengthy tome about how the public school system is being used to turn people into tools of a state that has been commandeered by an “Activist Industrial Complex” that wants to use the coercive force of law to deprive people of their individual rights (ie. property rights) and to create a government managed economy (see climate change mandates).

        2. thank you for the response. I have dabbled in academia, so I am aware of the hurdles you mentioned. New York is a hotbed for “progressive” teaching ideas that, when all is said and done, stifle democratic thought.
          I have also been involved in similar scenarios in academia. The leading evidence is usually anecdotal appeal to emotion. Somewhere, someplace, a person’s feelings were hurt by the patriarchy. This alone should be sufficient enough reason to overhaul the literary canon.
          If you disagree? This is not a civil public debate where we can agree to disagree. You either march to the beat of their drum or you can find work elsewhere.

        3. You’ve probably already seen this stuff, but have you read any of John Taylor Gatto’s books or essays? He was a New York City/State teacher of the year who wrote about the deliberate dumbing down of schoolchildren, its causes and effects. Definitely worth a look.

  9. Based on your recommendation, just bought the Kindle edition of the complete works for less than $3. Must be huge as it took some time to download.
    I’ve long agreed that reading biography is one of the best paths to wisdom. Be careful about autobiographies though – check that the author is being honest with himself. If he’s not honest with himself, he can’t and won’t be honest with you. I thought the autobiographies of both Keith Richards and George W. Bush suffered from this failing to various degrees.

    1. I’m very glad you did this. I really think that getting the complete, originally-formatted version of the Lives is the best way to go. You really need to read the paired Greek and Roman lives side by side, with the comparison essay at the end.
      Plutarch’s focus was as a teacher. That point really needs to be emphasized.
      The comparative format was something he specifically used to get his points and lessons across.

  10. Your are correct about an education rooted in the study of classicism. For me, such an education is the study of classical civilization built around the study of classical languages. Unfortunately, many of us were “retarded” by the public school monopoly which used us as guinea pigs for its penchant to pursue the latest instructional fads and trends (ie. new math, whole language, cooperative language, Common Core, etc.,) so now we probably find ourselves in our twenties, thirties, and older with enough responsibilities that make he pursuit thereof next to impossible. The good thing about ROK is that it often publishes articles on the “how” of self improvement (See Roosh’s “Unit of Man”) along with the “what” (as in the case of this article). With that said, I’d like to toss in my two cents.
    Classical language study – I started the self study of Latin and penmanship by using an old school Latin textbook with both a companion Latin grammar reference and an answer key. The penmanship part was merely completing each and every exercise in cursive, with a pencil (pencil sharpener and eraser always by my side), on graph paper. What Roosh said about dedicating one hour each day to a pursuit is true. Each day, at the crack of dawn (before I went to work) I spent one hour doing my exercises. I completed the equivalent of one year’s worth of study. Saw HUGE improvements in my reading skills and my command of the language (my penmanship was vastly improved).
    Classical literature – I have summer’s off so I used two summers to read the classics. Studying Latin gave me the confidence to tackle, first, the Iliad, then The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Odyssey and Metamorphoses took me into the Fall, Winter, and Spring so I did my reading either on the “throne” and before I went to bed). In those texts I came to see the value in the characterizations. They served as models virtue, definitions of evil, definitions usury, and so many other things too numerous to mention. But take my word for it, you’ll there to be a value in reading the classics that extends beyond merely knowing what they are in a rote context. Additionally, I went on to read some Shakespeare and Dante which borrows heavily from those Greek texts.
    Logic – In the morning, I divided my time but awakened about 15 minutes earlier. I gave 45 minutes to Latin but, after picking up a text book on logic with exercises at the end of each chapter, devoted 30 minutes to the study of logic. I’ve made it one third of the way through the text. It changed the way I thought about and discussed information. It disciplined my mind. I am a school teacher and there was a vast improvement in my questioning of students in order to promote learning. I’m still working through this text so I’ll have more to say as more is digesting my mind.
    Classical History (Greco/ Roman/ Hellenistic/ Western Europe) – I took a while for me to get beyond the mere knowledge of facts. Over time, as a fluency in history develops, you begin to see patterns that allow you to see their repetition in today’s times. Not much more to say about this except that I’ve picked up a copy of the writings of the Anti-Federalists as a result of both improving my reading skills due to the study of Latin and improving my understanding of history as some of the Anti-Federalists sometimes reference the Romans.
    Just adding my two cents and hoping that some might find use in that paltry amount. Pardon my typos as I was in a rush.

  11. Good article, I’ll have to brush up on my classics…. oh and BTW Rosh and ROK have been quoted in an Irish national newspaper in relation to the on going debate on Elliot Rogers and his despicable actions…..

    1. Letters and arms ; the cornerstone of Greek education. Every young man should be schooled thoroughly in these two arts.

  12. Plutarch’s Lives has always been the Bible of heroes, and inspired countless distinguished men as diversed as Rousseau and Vo Nguyen Giáp. This book is simply pivotal in our quest to rebuild and redevelop true masculinity.

  13. Im reading meditations from marcus aurelius right now, its been an amazing book so far, however, there is always something in a book you’ll don’t agree hehe.
    Nice job Quintus, i totally understand your point, but i think moral codes should be used in the best way to do not limitate ourselves. I got some books to read in my list, ill include some plutarch on it.

  14. America’s fatal mistake was allowing history, culture, and virtue such as those described in these classical works to flounder on the sidelines, only to be discovered by those fortunate few who were curious enough to look. Awesome job, Quintus, I believe your threads to be the most valuable bedrock of anyone making their educational climb at this site.

  15. Those Romans really needed to ‘man up’, and start opening doors for their women. What a bunch of barbaric human beings.

  16. They dont want men to be great because we’re a major threat to the elite. I myself been studying a lot lately. I grew up with a father and mother, they’ve been together for 40-41 years. Married for 38. Wisdom is the principal thing. I’m getting more into archaic wisdom. History repeats itself. The great kings of the past. Bruce Wayne. Jesus, etc…

  17. Thanks for the recommendation Quintus. And what an eloquent way of putting the need to education of young men today. Bravo

  18. Quintus, you’re one of the few authors I ensure that I read, you never disappoint. This article is particularly timely, it gives me something to guide my son on during our impending vacation.
    Well done sir.

  19. anyone else notice that Quintus’ first paragraph is a little meta? “an urbane, classically-trained rhetorician whose primary focus is on the moral development of his readers.” no, just such a teacher is QC.

  20. Good points.
    Sadly, this has already come true: “One can even imagine a future where classical knowledge will be driven underground, purged from schools, or bowdlerized, as not being in tune with modern political correctness.”

  21. By understanding history we can shape our future…. Never have so many men been so lost and confused as in this day and age…. Look to the lives of great men in the past to shape your own destiny…. Truly one of the better articles on this site…

  22. Quintus is the main writer I come to this site for. His articles may not get the most attention, but that is a symptom of the age in which we find ourselves. The soul has been reduced to a trickle, a flicker, in this culture. It is our responsibility to be the keepers of the flame, gentlemen. Each man’s life is his oath. Let us not pledge ourselves to hollowness.

  23. The wisdom of the ancients as compiled in the various collective texts discussed and brought forth on ROK is a gift to mankind that ought be made required reading in all educational spheres in the spirit of the “classical education” once bestowed on the youth of yore. The very act of intentionally withholding these treasures with the myopic goal of creating a subdued and docile populace is tantamount to a crime against humanity, insofar as any society degenerate enough to engage in such behavior only manages to proverbially “shoot itself in the foot” by effectively destroying the moral fiber ultimately required for its successful upkeep and long-term perpetuation.

  24. Bravo! It’s of paramount importance for all men to educate themselves and take actions of higher purpose. The fact is is that no one is going to do it for us.
    Steer clear of the pissing contests that will distract you from living your purpose and become the men you were meant to become.
    The new age of information is packed with disinformation to keep you in the dark and distract you. The internet can be your best friend or your worst enemy so choose what you decide to spend your time on wisely. I would suggest ceasing reading and commenting on feminist blogs altogether and stay close to men of high caliber and websites such as ROK and spread the message.

  25. Thanks for the recomendation, I’m Brazilian (forgive my poor english) and the most important man for my country, José Bonifácio – the founding father of Brazil, recommended Plutarch too, and I am happy to see you recommending him, because José Bonifácio was really a great man, his life was epic, it’s very good to know that José Bonifácio learned how to be a great man reading Plutarch, I’ll read Plutarch’s literature for sure!

Comments are closed.