If one were to set out upon the Plutarchian venture of a modern Parallel Lives, who might be among one’s subjects? William Gladstone and Woodrow Wilson, perhaps, or Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt? The two murderous tyrants, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, clearly qualify. Might those generals turned politicians, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight David Eisenhower? Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are fairly obvious choices. An earnest progressive would surely wish to include Benito Mussolini and Donald J. Trump. Finding a parallel for Abraham Lincoln could prove a problem.

The idea of canvassing parallel lives—one Greek, one Roman, each presented singly in a biographical essay, then the two compared—was first put to impressive effect by Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus (circa A.D. 46-120). A citizen of Chaeronea, a town in Boeotia near Delphi, Plutarch was the son of a prosperous father and studied under, among others, the philosopher Ammonius in Athens, seat of all learning in the ancient world. As Bernadotte Perrin wrote in his study Plutarch’s Themistocles and Aristides (1901):

After Athenian education, generous travel, mild diplomacy, modest literary celebrity, and considerable residence at Rome, Plutarch seems to have retired to his little country town with his books, notes, lectures, essays, and gentle philosophy,

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