Was Plutarch Wrong?

Front Range, CO

Ryan Woolf   |   November 03, 2022

In his seminal biographies of notable Greeks and Romans, Plutarch’s Lives, the Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch surmised that “there is a limited number of elements from which events are interwoven, the same things must happen many times, being brought to pass by the same agencies.” Plutarch went to great lengths to prove his hypothesis. He wrote at least 48 biographies pairing the biography of a notable Greek figure alongside that of a Roman figure who led a similar life. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, as it is often referred to, seems to be proof that there is a finite number of choices we can make, subsequent actions we can take, and outcomes that will in turn influence our future choices. Or, more simply stated, history repeats itself.

If Plutarch is right and we are victims of history’s vortex of patterns, why do we endeavor to chart our own course? If we are merely avatars stuck in an endless loop inside some unfathomable matrix, why do we seek freedom? If the Greeks’ form of democracy failed and the Roman Republic crumbled as soon as Caesar traversed the Rubicon, why would America’s founding fathers believe they could forge a new republic? The answer to these questions is, hope.

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated July 15, 1817, John Adams wrote,

“I cannot contemplate human affairs, without laughing or crying. I choose to laugh. When People talk of the Freedom of Writing Speaking or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists: but I hope it will exist, But it must be hundreds of years after you and I Shall write and Speak no more.”

John Adams knew that the freedoms he and Thomas Jefferson, along with the other founding fathers, espoused had never existed in human history. However, Adams hoped that they would. He hoped that the nation they founded would still be around hundreds of years after their deaths to ensure the freedoms they fought to achieve. John Adams had hope.

Nearly 100 years after Adams’ and Jefferson’s nearly simultaneous deaths on July 4, 1826, another US President who saw our nation through tumultuous times spoke of hope. In a speech about defending freedom in the Americas that was broadcast across the Western hemisphere, Franklin D. Roosevelt stated, “We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction, that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.” FDR, our nation’s longest serving president who brought our nation out of the Great Depression and guided us through the Second World War while himself in a fight for his own health and life, had hope.

It is not just US Presidents who speak of hope. General Douglas MacArthur, when speaking to the Corps of Cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point on May 12, 1962 famously stated,

“Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”

MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” quote is still memorized and recited by cadets at West Point to this day. MacArthur brings things full circle for us. He alludes to the importance of hope. He states that “Duty, Honor, Country” can bring us hope in difficult times. They are more than just words, they are representative of the American ethos. We hope to live up to the ideals of “Duty, Honor, Country” and in turn “Duty, Honor, Country” give us hope.

Was Plutarch right? Are we destined to walk the same path as our forebears? Will our democratic institutions inevitably deteriorate into despotism? Is it our fate to see the light of our republic fade into darkness like those of the Greeks and Romans? Not according to John Adams. Not according to Franklin D. Roosevelt. And not according to General Douglas MacArthur. Not if we have hope.