Professor Emily Greenwood’s brother lives 10,000 miles from her in Jakarta, Indonesia. Through the popular social networking site Facebook, she’s able to stay in touch with him. Greenwood is able to receive regular updates from her brother, such as an anecdote from Plutarch that he posted one day: when Alexander the Great asked the philosopher Diogenes if he could help him in any way, Diogenes responded: “stand a little out of my sun.”
This chance link between Plutarch and Facebook provided the impetus for Greenwood’s talk on Tuesday, Oct. 25, titled “Facebook According to Plutarch.” Plutarch, an authoritative biographer of eminent ancients such as Julius Caesar, Cicero and Pericles ultimately functioned in a similar role to Facebook. Both the biographer and the networking behemoth transform a life into a written account for posterity. Although Greenwood acknowledged the differences between the two, she stressed that “Facebook has the same trajectory as Plutarch—both are cultural archives.”
The biographies of Plutarch were widely disseminated and read, both in the ancient world and in more contemporary society. His readers, including Alexander Hamilton and other U.S. founders, used Plutarch’s biographies as a “mirror” with which to compare their own achievements. Julius Caesar, upon finishing Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great, is said to have wept because he had not yet accomplished what Alexander had at the same age. Greenwood stressed that this comparative aspect was integral to Plutarch’s approach, stating that “readers measure up their own lives through the readings of others.” Plutarch attempted to ensure that the reader and subject were never on the same level. “The [reader] must ask,” she said, “‘what would Caesar do?’”
Perhaps the most salient point most readers took away from Plutarch’s biographies was that “the life of virtue is a matter of correct editing.” Much like Facebook users who adjust their privacy settings to conceal certain details of their lives, many of Plutarch’s subjects and readers engaged in a process that Greenwood calls “self-editing,” deliberately crafting an image to present to posterity.
Greenwood contends that great figures became increasingly obsessed with crafting their image, which Plutarch saw as an “unpleasant practice.” Julius Caesar continually burnished his reputation while alive. He even employed scribes to take dictation from him as he rode on horseback. Cicero was constantly praising his own achievements and accomplishments, a fact with Plutarch ironically picks up on as disingenuous.
In Plutarch’s time, self-editing typically consisted of disseminating works of self-praise, such as Cicero’s poetry or Caesar’s campaign records, but Greenwood also discussed that more modern self-editing, Facebook users included, focuses on omission rather than addition. Greenwood illustrated her point with the example of English Archbishop Henry Edward Manning, who would burn correspondence and newspaper articles that cast him in a negative light, consciously self-editing his record.
The central difference between Plutarch and Facebook is that Plutarch could afford to be more selective. “Every human being possesses a life,” Greenwood said, “yet biography thrives on the lives of the popular and famous.” Plutarch focused solely on interesting figures who loomed large in the historical record. For a successful biography, Greenwood maintained that “exemplarity” must be combined with “an interesting narrative and readability.” Facebook, by nature, does not focus on the lives of important people, making the site’s goal different from that of the traditional biographer. It allows everyone to be simultaneously biographer and subject.
Nonetheless, Greenwood believes that the similarities between Plutarch and Facebook are more compelling than the differences. She plans to explore the relationship between the two further in future writing that delves into Plutarch’s impact on the modern development of the biographical genre. She is dedicated, it seems, to proving the observation of British critic Lytton Strechey that “it is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as it is to live one.”