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Plutarch in Budé, Erasmus and Seyssel

Rebecca Kingston

University of Toronto

In this paper (the basis for a chapter in a larger monograph) I trace and compare the reception of Plutarch through a number of political thinkers who were also translators of Plutarch in Renaissance Europe. Budé, Erasmus and Seyssel all engaged in translation of various aspects of Plutarch’s work and their work in translation also had an impact on the development of their own political theory. In particular, I focus on the competing understandings of the theme of the la chose publique that animates these various thinkers.

In his Institution du Prince, Budé (who translated several moral essays of Plutarch into Latin) is drawn to a conception of the heroic virtues as important for a monarch, citing such exemplars as Alexander. This conception ties into his vision of public life in which the monarch remains unbounded by the laws of the regime.

In contrast, Erasmus (who also translated a number of Plutarch’s moral essays along with his Apophthegmata) develops a more sophisticated understanding of the public sphere as one where the ruler is often confronted with more tragic choices and where the demands of public life do not always coincide with the requirements of conventional ethical frameworks. In his Education of a Christian Prince he shies explicitly away from suggesting that the young prince expose themselves to heroic tales, including those taken from Plutarch advocating instead the presumably the more wholesome lessons from Plutarch’s moral essays. Still, the recognition that the public realm is fraught with its own particular demands and challenges from the point of view of a leader also leads Erasmus, through his comments on Plutarch’s collection of sayings from the ancients, to acknowledge that this classical view of public life provides lessons concerning exceptional ethics in public life.

Seyssel, who included translations from Plutarch’s Life of Antony as well as Demetrius as additions to his translations of Justin and Diodorus Siculus provides us with a different use of Plutarch in highlighting some of the ambiguity in which virtues can become vices in public life. His most developed statement of political theory in his Monarchie de France, like Erasmus, shies away from a heroic vision of leadership, but seeks to ground the monarch more deeply in a broad framework of institutional and religious norms, as well as highlighting popular expectations of leadership.

These contemporaries draw from Plutarch to develop competing understandings of political life and leadership in the context of Renaissance monarchy, yet all three, in their own way, use Plutarch to demonstrate what they see as the unique attributes of the public realm and how someone in a position of power must navigate those challenges within a broader commitment to public ethics of one kind or another.

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Imagining the Future through the Past: Classical and Early Modern Political Thought

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