POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Thursdays with Plutarch, Part Two

by David Trumbull

March 10, 2006

Some weeks ago the play Tuesday's with Morrie had a brief run here in Boston. It's based on the 1997 book by Detroit Free Press sports writer Mitch Albom. The theme --the lessons of a life fully lived as taught by the old and dying Morrie-- fit perfectly with the quest for the imparted wisdom of the elders that a few of us had been exploring through a Plutarch discussion group.

The play was a disappointment. The great lessons Mitch heard from Morrie? Make space in your life for love. And don't be a money-grubber. True enough, but not enough. Two hours on stage for a distillation of decades of Morrie's experiences ought to have yielded more. Much more.

Do we Americans suffer, as Morrie contends, from lack of personal connectedness and mindless consumerism? Yes of course. But why? And what could Morrie teach us? Obviously the story of a retired Brandeis sociology professor reflecting on the meaning of life is going to be rather "cerebral." So when I saw the advertisement for the show I was intrigued by the lyrical drawing of Morrie dancing. Here's a man of thoughts and words as well as physical movement! Now that juxtaposition promises a tale going beyond trite self-help pop psychology.

Our culture is seriously disordered in its view of the body and of the material world. We worship youth and physical beauty but insist it's all a sham and that it's what's inside that counts. The ancient heresy of dualism thrives today in our false divorce of body from mind and soul. I wanted to hear Morrie explain that mind and body are not separate and that a man who doesn't dance cannot be trusted to have sound opinions. Dancing is the creative ordering of the space one occupies through movement of feet, hands and body. A man who lacks confidence to move gracefully in the limited space of the dance floor and who cannot take his partner in arm respectfully and make her look good can hardly be expected to succeed in the larger tasks of ordering his life, let alone manage his family, his business, or be a leader in his community. When we see that many young men today do not dance we should not be surprised to find much of youth culture full of mindless violence and misogyny. Neglect the higher aspirations of the body and its lower drives will assert themselves.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch was a pagan, but he anticipated much of Christian moral teaching when he wrote in his essay On Brotherly Love, "the body is very closely related to the soul, yet if it is neglected and overlooked by the soul, it becomes unwilling to co-operate and even harms and abandons the soul's activities." Now that's what I wanted to hear from Morrie!

For those interested in hearing more about Plutarch's ideas on how to build character both in men and in our republic, starting later this month I'll be teaching a course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education on Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. We'll examine some of the greatest men in history and ask of each.

  • What were the influences on his life?
  • How did he develop his passion for distinction and genius for greatness?
  • What was his education?
  • Who were his models?
  • How did he inspire others?
  • How did sound character and practice of virtue contribute to his greatness?
  • Did he die nobly with the entire course of his life adding up to be one that changed the world for the better?

Join me for Thursdays with Plutarch!