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The best books on Leadership: Lessons from the Ancients

recommended by Jeffrey Beneker

How to Be a Leader: An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership by Jeffrey Beneker & Plutarch

How to Be a Leader: An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership
by Jeffrey Beneker & Plutarch


Whatever modern leadership books may say about what's required to be a good leader, for the ancients there was only one vital requirement: studying philosophy. Jeffrey Beneker, Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talks us through what ancient biographies reveal about how to be a leader.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

How to Be a Leader: An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership by Jeffrey Beneker & Plutarch

How to Be a Leader: An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership
by Jeffrey Beneker & Plutarch

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The books you’ve selected: are we talking about them because they’re ancient biographies or because they’re books about leadership? Or are those one and the same?

I think, in some ways, it can be one and the same thing, especially with the works by Plutarch. People have written about Plutarch’s Lives from the angle of leadership and with the assumption—which is sometimes overplayed—that Plutarch is mainly teaching leadership through his examination of these biographies of ancient military and political leaders.

But I think he’s doing more. It has to do with the reality of the world Plutarch lived in versus the world that those ancient leaders lived in, and just what opportunities there were, and at what level a reader of his could exercise leadership in the Roman Empire of his day versus the Greek city-states or the Roman Republic of the past that he’s writing about.

Why do you think people started writing these kinds of books?

If you leave out the philosophers and Diogenes Laertius, the latest political biographer that I’ve included in the list is Tacitus. He gives, in some ways, the clearest explanation at the beginning of Agricola: that it was a tradition that people would speak about their lives and careers, and the lives and careers of others, as a way of memorializing what they had done. Also, if they had done well, to collect those details into a written life so that their contemporaries and future generations could look back at the qualities that these people had. Then in the ancient world—this is true for Plutarch, Nepos and Tacitus—they would have made a direct connection between the individual qualities, what we would call the character of the individual, and their success in leadership. They would have linked their character and success to education, and to the way they applied that education to make themselves better and then, after making themselves better, making their societies better too. That’s Plutarch’s argument the whole way through: that if you’re thinking about how to be a leader, it’s the character of the individual that is most important.

Nowadays if you pick up a biography, it can be about anybody; there’s no need for the subject to have been a leader. These ancient biographies are really interesting, just because we’re really at the beginnings of biography as a genre.

One of the common type of biographies today is overcoming a personal tragedy. That could be a family tragedy or addiction or something like that. The personal strength and character that’s displayed in overcoming a particularly difficult challenge is something that seems interesting to a modern audience.

Where I think Plutarch—and Tacitus too—are coming from is the perspective of, ‘We live in a society. What’s the individual’s role in that society? What can the individual do for himself or herself to prepare themselves to play a meaningful role and to be effective—to be a good follower if you’re not in charge, and if you are in charge, to be a good leader?’

It made me laugh when in one of the books, somebody was telling off Alexander the Great for playing the harp. They were like, ‘You shouldn’t be playing the harp, you’re supposed to be practising to be a leader. When you’re a leader, other people play the harp for you.’

Yes, and it’s not just knowing how to ride a horse or throw a spear or about the skills that you need to be a good soldier or a good leader. What’s important is having the intellectual capacity and ability to control your own behaviour and to make good decisions.

There doesn’t seem to be much leadership training these days. I suppose if you go to business school you get some version of it and there is demand for leadership books, but it doesn’t seem to be part of the normal school curriculum.

One thing is that the model we’re inheriting through these books is the ‘great man’ theory. The idea was to study the lives of people by recreating them in literary form. So Plutarch, at one point, talks about living with these characters from the past and having them over as guests. It’s a conceit. They’re using the word bios in Greek or vita in Latin—which is the word for both a real life and a written life. It’s the life of a person in the past we’re recreating so we can interact with them and learn from them.

“It was a tradition that people would speak about their lives and careers, and the lives and careers of others, as a way of memorializing what they had done.”

That model seems old-fashioned now. We don’t tend to put up as many statues as we used to; we don’t like to valorize. Again, it’s this trend towards the individual. The individual overcoming great odds is more what we like now—as opposed to putting people up (either figuratively or literally) on a pedestal, and saying, ‘We should all try to be like that person.’ That’s where these authors are coming from, though, and that’s part of why it went out of fashion.

The other thing is that these leaders are all great in one way or another because they conquered other people. So, in Tacitus, Agricola is great because, ‘Look at all the Britons and Scottish people he was able to conquer!’ Expanding the boundaries of the empire was one way of quantifying it, another was lists of the numbers killed. If it’s a big list of your enemy and a small list on your side, that’s a sign of greatness.

Yes, and not one we appreciate as much today.

I think perhaps in the days of, say, the British Empire, schooling would have elevated figures like Julius Caesar because young men especially were being trained to go out and expand, if not the boundaries of direct control, then the commercial boundaries and control over other peoples in the way that the Romans were. These were good models for that sort of career. But we’ve backed off of that. We’ve decided it’s better to have mutually respectful interchange with other peoples in the world.

Still, in the introduction to your book, How to Be a Leader: An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership, you mention that the American Founding Fathers read Plutarch for insights into leadership: there is some advice in these books which is timeless, is that right?

I think so. The superficial view is, ‘I’m not going to be an Alexander or Julius Caesar, so I don’t need to read Plutarch.’ In fact, Plutarch’s audience had the same problem, because they were living under the Empire. There was an emperor at the top and the ability to rise up was limited. Even if you rose high in government, you were still going to be working under the umbrella and under the authority of an emperor.

Most likely, Plutarch’s readership would be trying to show good leadership in their own small town, or in their family, or among their group of friends. I think that’s why Plutarch focuses so much on the personal qualities that made, say, Alexander or Demosthenes or Cicero great leaders—not because you were going to become just like them in your career, but because you could take those qualities and apply them in much smaller, ordinary circumstances. It’s those qualities that are timeless.

One problem for every organization is that some individuals put their own interests ahead of the organization’s. That could be at the level of empire, it could be at the level of city, it could be at the level of household or just interaction with your friends. And one thing that you can train yourself against—if you follow Plutarch’s ideas of education and his view of the world—is asserting yourself to the detriment of others. Being a good servant is the first step to being a good leader.

For Plutarch, it’s always about putting “city before self”, as you mention in your book.

Yes, that would be one fundamental principle, and Plutarch is coming from the Ancient Greek rhetorical tradition. That means he’s going to come up with a point and make it 25 different ways; he’s going to beat you over the head with it. But ultimately what he’s saying is, ‘Get your own act together and then go out and be a good citizen.’ And for Plutarch, being a good citizen means working for the welfare of your community first and your own glory and your own benefit (whether that’s in terms of stature or wealth) second.

Let’s talk about these leadership books from the ancient world that you’ve chosen one by one. Obviously, we’ve talked quite a bit about Plutarch already. The specific book and edition you’ve chosen is The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. For someone interested in approaching this book, could you say a bit about how it’s structured, who it’s about and why it might be enjoyable to read?

This is a modern structure. Plutarch wrote Parallel Lives: so he went after a Greek and a Roman that he could put together in a single book. At a scholarly level, we get angry when people rip these books apart and put the lives into new collections, as in, ‘here are Greek lives of the Athenians and here are Roman lives from the Republic.’ That said, this Penguin collection does a really good job of grouping lives that are useful to read together.

So in The Rise and Fall of Athens, you get to see four stages in the development of Athens over time. In the early stages, Plutarch has to push back into legendary and mythological times, with the founders like Theseus and even Solon. Even there, we see resonances of the way we mythologize or turn the stories of our founding figures into legends. In the US, for example, we have George Washington, who cannot tell a lie. We have these little myths that we tell to demonstrate the character of our founding figures. That’s what Plutarch is dealing with in those early lives and he says it quite bluntly: ‘This is the quality of the material I’m working with. I’m trying to turn myth into history and write about these figures as if they were real.’

“If you’re thinking about how to be a leader, it’s the character of the individual that is most important.”

Then we get into the lives of the earliest real historical figures, such as Themistocles and Aristides. They were living at the time of the Persian Wars, when Greece was under attack by this large power and managed to fight it off. The Greeks that were living at this time realized that things were different before and after the invasion of the Persians. This stage resonates with people who have lived through the 20th and into the 21st century, because for Athens, it was like the big industrial push that happened as a result of World War Two. Athens was left with a huge navy—we would probably call it a military industrial complex—and they used it to knit together an empire in the Aegean Sea. Ostensibly, it was to keep the Persians from coming back, but in fact they asserted their own authority over large areas and did much more than simply protect against invasion. So this is the period of empire-building and commercial domination that follows the Persian invasion.

Then, in the age of Pericles, Nicias and Alcibiades—and even Lysander, who is the one Spartan included here—it’s about how the Greek cities got along and interacted in this new, globalized economy. The fact is they didn’t, and a 30-year chunk of the classical period of Greece is taken up by war. It’s waged by Athens and its empire or its allies on one side, and Sparta and its allies on the other. So these lives deal with leaders in that environment. That can be very instructive for the modern situation, seeing what Greeks were doing and how individuals responded. We see what sort of character worked in leadership in those days and what sort of character didn’t. Plutarch has examples of both.

Yes, give me an example of good and bad leadership from the book.

Plutarch really likes Pericles. It’s a hard lesson, perhaps, because the only way that Pericles is successful is by being something of a demagogue and a little bit too authoritarian. He realizes, for example, that the assembly at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War is going to make bad strategic decisions. So he refuses to call them to vote, to keep them from making a mistake. I was actually teaching a class on Greek civilization the very same week your prime minister, Boris Johnson, was refusing to call Parliament into session because he didn’t want them to make certain decisions about Brexit. To my mind, it was a very easy parallel. I could just grab newspaper headlines and put them on the screen for my students and say, ‘The stuff we’re reading about Pericles is not arcane; it’s happening right now again.’ So if you’re looking for examples of leadership, there’s an example of circumventing a democratic process because you’re wary of the outcome.

The flipside is someone who was related to Pericles, Alcibiades. Here’s someone who, in Plutarch’s telling of the story, can never really subordinate his own interests to the interests of the state. It’s always about him. And bad things happen to the Athenians, to the whole state, because of his desire to be this larger than life figure.

One point to mention here, maybe, is that Plutarch has strong views about how a leader conducts his personal life, doesn’t he? The traditional distinction, that it’s fine to behave badly in your private life—JFK, say, could be a terrible womanizer, but he was still regarded as a great leader—Plutarch isn’t having any of it. You have to be a good person in private and in public.

There is no distinction. In fact, Plutarch would argue that what you’re doing in your private life will predict what’s going to happen if we put you in charge of public life. If you can’t run the small economy of your household in a competent way, why would we put you in charge of the city’s economy? It’s that way of thinking.

In your book, How to Be a Leader, the Plutarch texts you’ve translated, are they from the Parallel Lives?

No, there’s another body of work that’s collectively called the Moralia, which are treatises on lots of different topics. Most of them are philosophical and some of them are political. As he’s writing the Parallel Lives, he’s also writing political essays that take the principles and use examples from the Lives in a briefer form, to reinforce or support the arguments he’s making about how to be successful in politics.

And you mention in the book that you translated the passages of Plutarch that you felt were most relevant to political life in a modern democracy. Do you want to give an example?

There are parts about mentoring, that the best way to start in politics is to attach yourself to someone who’s experienced and learn by example. On the flipside, if you’re an experienced politician, you need to devote some of your energy to bringing the next generation along. You also need to be ready to step out of the way and give them a chance.

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We’re having that struggle right now in our own presidential election, where we have three candidates who are 70 years old or older. They’ve had a long career: shouldn’t they be stepping aside and letting another generation come through and take over? Why does the younger generation have to beat down the older generation to have a chance? That’s an issue Plutarch addressed pretty directly.

And would Plutarch approve of these older politicians?

He wants older politicians to remain engaged, but in a more relaxed way. So he would not approve of a 70-year-old man on stage debating and arguing back and forth with a 40-year-old man. He would like the 70-year-old to step back and be summoned by the people, who recognize his experience and want his help if, say, the ship of state runs aground. To name names, maybe Joe Biden has an argument here. He’s saying, ‘Our state is running aground and I need to come back to help right it. I’m the one with experience who can fix things up.’

So Plutarch would be happy with Joe Biden campaigning?

He would be happy that he’s made himself available to lead, though he’d be a little bit nervous that it’s Biden who’s pushing himself forward. He’s become the frontrunner now, so perhaps the party is saying, ‘Joe, we need you, come back in!’ I think, though, that Plutarch might question whether Biden’s motives are pure or whether he just can’t resist trying to get access to that highest office that’s eluded him in his career.

For Plutarch—and for the other authors as well, though less explicitly—to be a good leader, you have to study philosophy, don’t you?

There’s no other way. Plutarch has an essay, ‘To an Uneducated Leader.’ It sounds like an insult, but it could have been entitled ‘How to Become an Educated Leader,’ and the answer is philosophy. It’s what allows you to realize that an enthusiastic crowd cheering you on is not a good thing in itself, or that gaining wealth or being put in charge of an army is not a good thing in itself: what’s valuable is the good that you can do as a result of wielding power or holding office. If you’re satisfied with doing good—as opposed to gaining glory and gaining wealth—then you can be a good leader. And the only way to develop that realization, to have that maturity of thought, is through philosophy. That’s where you learn what is really valuable, what is really good. That’s where you learn the self-control and the self-discipline and how not to be distracted by the cheering crowd or the ability to become rich. If you can develop that kind of maturity, then you can become a good leader.

I have to say, Plutarch sets the bar quite high. Not only do you have to be this virtuous, perfect person in private and public, but then you also have to be good at public speaking so that everybody can find out about you.

It’s a very elitist system. You have to be well-educated and it’s your family and your money that are going to allow you to learn to speak well and to have access to philosophizing. Our word ‘school’ comes from the Greek word schole, which means leisure time. If you’re able to be educated, it means you don’t have to work every day to live. So the only way you can reach that status is to come from a wealthy, aristocratic background.

I’m going to mention that to my kids, because they’re always complaining about school.

For Plutarch, school is a huge privilege, because the alternative is going out every day and scratching the field and hoping that your land returns you enough to live through this year so that you can repeat the process next year. It’s never-ending. Ancient Greek agricultural life is very dreary. It repeats every year and it never gets better. You never work your way up. So schole is a really big deal. It’s the same in Latin. Ludus is school, but it’s also the word for a game or an entertainment. If you have time for ludus and fooling around, you can become educated, but it’s the one per cent that have that opportunity.

Another reason you have to have your own wealth as a leader is because, even in your own city, you’re going to have to pay for a festival or build a new portico on the front of the theatre.

Let’s move on to the next of these leadership books, which is The Greek Alexander Romance. You’ve recommended a version translated and put together by Richard Stoneman. The Alexander Romance was the best-selling novel of the Middle Ages, wasn’t it?

Yes, all the way up to modern times. Alexander was a huge figure in Greece, mostly because of the Romance and the different forms it took. It’s a romance in the sense of a novel, we might call it ‘the Alexander Fiction.’

It’s a whole other take on leadership, in terms of a great leader from the past. Alexander himself seems to have realized that he was great from an early age. We talked earlier about the Athenian leaders when the Persians attacked Greece. Alexander inserted himself right into that history. Both Alexander and his father conceived of uniting the Greek cities under Macedonian leadership and going eastward and attacking the Persian Empire, ostensibly in revenge for their invasions of Greece. We know there were two Persian invasions, but the Persians were a constant presence. The Greeks themselves didn’t know that they weren’t going to come back, and the Persians kept gaining control over Greek cities in Asia Minor. So Alexander took off to conquer the Persian Empire and get rid of the Persian menace once and for all.

“What’s important is having the intellectual capacity and ability to control your own behaviour and to make good decisions.”

Alexander understands that this is a huge undertaking. It’s got major historical implications. So he brings Aristotle’s nephew, Callisthenes, along with him as a historian. He wants to put himself into that historical tradition, but also the tradition of Achilles and Homer. Achilles had Homer to write his story, and his story has become eternal. Alexander seems to have wanted the same sort of thing. So he wants a historian/biographer/romanticizer travelling along with him to write about his exploits.

Then what develops in the ancient tradition is that we have various histories that are histories as we would know them, but it’s these legendary stories that come to dominate Alexander’s reception. So he does all kinds of things in the fictional version—he flies on the back of a bird, he goes under the sea in a diving bell, he fights the Indian king Porus who is seven-and-a-half feet tall (Alexander defeats him in single combat). So he does all the things that a legendary/heroic/mythological figure might do.

But who wrote it and where did it come from, this Romance?

It’s sometimes described as an open text. People were adding things to it over time. There are different versions of the manuscript tradition. In this edition by Stoneman; he’s knit them together.

For a long time, it was attributed to Callisthenes, and it probably has a historical core that started with him. But it’s been rewritten and augmented so much. For example, when the Greek world becomes a Christian world, Alexander is swept right along with that. He’s modernized and updated as time moves on.

It was only this year that the question about the name of North Macedonia was settled, and Alexander was huge in that debate. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was using him as a symbol and the Greeks were using Alexander, too, to make their own claim. Just six months ago, they put a new statue of Alexander in downtown Athens, near the arch of Hadrian and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. So, right in the middle of those ancient monuments, there’s a new monument of Alexander on his horse. He’s been a symbol like that for 2,000 years.

Do you think Alexander became famous because of this fiction being written about him, or was it written about him because he was already famous, do you think?

It’s a little of both. It’s a way of communicating just how big Alexander is, by talking about him in a discourse that was used for talking about someone like Hercules or Theseus or these other legendary founders who did larger-than-life things. If we tell Alexander’s story in that same mode, it elevates him and it says something about who he is. It doesn’t mean everyone believes these stories.

The parallel I like to cite is in the dome of the Capitol in Washington DC. There’s a mosaic in the very top, which is the apotheosis of George Washington. He’s shown up in heaven surrounded by 13 young women who are the 13 original colonies and there are other figures that represent characteristics of the United States. No one believes that George Washington was deified when he died, but by putting him into this common scene of apotheosis, by making him divine in art, it allows us to say something about the stature of George Washington and the magnitude of his accomplishments and what we think of him in terms of the history of the United States. It’s a mode of discourse that has immediate resonance and lets everyone understand what the level of achievement of this person is.

And Alexander consciously cultivated this idea that he would be remembered historically?

I think he did. There’s also a famous Alexander mosaic on the floor of a house in Pompeii. It dates from about 100 BC, but it seems to be based on a painting that was done perhaps in Alexander’s own lifetime or just after. So he’s also got artists working to recreate what he’s doing. He’s got authors writing things up. His general Ptolemy, who became king of Egypt, wrote one of the first histories. They’re all very aware of the propaganda value of what they’re doing as a way of creating a legacy in the ancient world.

Let’s go on to the next book, which is Atticus by Cornelius Nepos. Atticus was a major figure of the late Republic and a friend of Cicero. Why do you think this book is worth reading? It’s quite short, actually.

Yes, that’s one of its virtues; it doesn’t try your patience at all. It’s maybe a little too brief: it’s written for an audience who knows the history of the time and the individuals involved, so it can be a little hard to read when things are just mentioned and alluded to.

The reason I think it’s interesting to read is because it’s written by a contemporary of Atticus. There’s a point in about chapter 19 where he writes, ‘I’d written up to this point while Atticus was alive. Now he’s dead and I’m going to put this little epilogue onto it.’ So it’s written by someone who was there to witness the events that were unfolding. In terms of people who study political history, this is one of the most interesting times in the history of Rome, because it’s right at the transition from Republic to Empire. It’s when the mechanism that allowed the Romans to run their government through a power-sharing system falls apart. It was an aristocratic elite, but they were sharing power among themselves.

Atticus is famous because he doesn’t choose sides. He’s incredibly wealthy and he could easily—and perhaps should—have picked a side and stuck with it. He’s an example of someone who’s able to navigate these difficult times. He doesn’t end up proscribed and in exile. He doesn’t end up dead, like Cicero, one of his best friends, did. He doesn’t choose the wrong side. We talk a lot about polarization now: either you’re on one side or the other, and there’s no room for compromise in the middle. Atticus is an example—and again, not to say things are exactly the same—of someone who was living in a similarly polarized time and who found a way to navigate that middle.

Cornelius Nepos writes, “He sought no offices though they lay open to him.” He was deliberately keeping a low profile, wasn’t he?

That’s right, and that could be a lesson as well, about how to get along in these times.

Another lesson is that some Romans had a hard time learning that you need to stop at some point. Going back to Joe Biden, is the last big thing he is going to do is get rejected by his party? Is that going to be the end of his career? Or should he have stepped back, and said, ‘I was vice president under one of the most popular presidents we’ve ever had’ and let that be enough.

Atticus is extreme in that he doesn’t want anything, or if he takes an office, he sets conditions on it such that it won’t involve him in politics in any larger way. A friend of his, Asinius Pollio, who has a family connection with Atticus and is mentioned in the book, seems to do a similar thing. He’s with Caesar during the first round of civil wars. He works his way up and goes on to become consul, which is the highest office in the state. He has a military triumph and then retires. I suspect that he looked around him and thought, ‘If I keep going, it can only end badly.’ Pompey, Caesar’s opponent, had three triumphs and he ended up beheaded in Egypt. So I think people who were savvy looked around and saw what happened to others.

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This is where we can make a connection back to Plutarch. Atticus is called Atticus because Attica is the region around Athens and he went to Athens to study. He has that philosophical background that allows him to see what’s really important. He avoids the stature, the glory and the wealth that he might have acquired by a political career and stays above and separate from it. Asinius Pollio sets a similar example. He goes to a certain point and stops. He becomes an intellectual figure. He writes a history. He creates the first public library in Rome. He is probably also someone who is educated and able to make an intellectual choice and not just be driven by the emotion and the excitement of politics.

In the introduction of the edition of Atticus you’ve recommended, which is translated by Nicholas Horsfall, it says that Atticus was an Epicurean, but that it’s not mentioned in the text. Is Atticus’s Epicureanism relevant?

It could be. I don’t know the background for that claim, but it could go either way, because one of the principles of Epicureans was to be politically uninvolved. Plutarch criticizes the Epicureans for this. So it may be that people assume Atticus was an Epicurean because he was politically uninvolved. Or maybe there’s more to it, but it’s not something that the biography stresses for sure.

So we’re now looking at a book about a leader by the great Roman historian Tacitus. He’s writing about his father-in-law, Agricola, who made his name in Britain. Again, it’s quite a short book, and quite fun to read if you’re based in the UK. He has lots of commentary about Britain, including about the foulness of the weather.

On the surface, Agricola is a tribute to his father-in-law and it’s really nice to have this family connection. A lot of ancient literature can oftentimes seem so distant and cold that it’s hard to see the human connection, but it’s strong in this book. In the introduction and especially in the conclusion, you can feel the real bond that Tacitus must have felt with this person.

It’s also a history of the times. So the dynasty that was established by Julius Caesar and Augustus died out in the year 69 with Nero. Then you have what’s typically called the Flavian dynasty, which ruled until 96. The third emperor in that dynasty was Domitian, who comes across in this biography as jealous of anyone who might be getting attention or might have a claim to power. Because he’s not part of the founding family and his dynasty has only just been established, he’s very protective. It’s therefore a difficult time to be involved in politics. Tacitus starts out with a discussion of how, in former days, if someone did something great, we would lift them up and we would tell their stories. But in Agricola’s day, we couldn’t do that because it would only cause danger, so that sort of thing was repressed. So, at the end of the biography, when Agricola comes back from Britain, he wants to keep a low profile. He doesn’t want anyone to talk about him. He doesn’t want anyone to thank him or raise him up. He wants to blend into the crowd because he’s worried that if he is seen as having done something too great or too important, he’ll be taken out. He manages to navigate that, and Domitian grudgingly gives him an honorary province at the end.

“Plutarch has an essay, ‘To an Uneducated Leader.’ It sounds like an insult, but it could have been entitled ‘How to Become an Educated Leader’ and the answer is philosophy”

By the time Tacitus is writing, Domitian is gone. There’s more openness; the leaders are more secure and not so jealous of other people. So Tacitus can write this story just like in the old days. He can lift up someone like Agricola, who had to be anonymous after all the great things he did in Britain. Tacitus is going to make sure Agricola gets his due for what he did and couldn’t talk about under Domitian.

Does it end badly for Agricola? Is he poisoned?

No, he dies of disease. But he’s young, in his 50s, so he doesn’t get a long life.

And again, as in all these leadership books, there’s a focus on education. Tacitus says Agricola was “trained in the liberal arts.” And then trained all the leading Brits in the liberal arts as well. That’s worth remembering in this day and age, when the liberal arts are often looked down on.

Yes, the theme that comes out of all of these books is that if you want to do great in business or in government, study philosophy and the liberal arts, because that’s your foundation. That’s what gives you the mindset, the self-control, the sense of values that are going to allow you to succeed.

The other thing that’s interesting in terms of leadership in this book is that when Agricola goes to Britain, he’s everywhere at all times. He’s working hard 24 hours a day. He’s putting the needs of his army and of his country ahead of his own comfort. The leaders before him were sitting back, saying, ‘I’m a general and I’m a big figure up here in Britain’ and then suffering losses and not doing well. Whereas Agricola puts his nose to the grindstone and gets it done, through hard work and self-sacrifice.

Also, he’s modest. Tacitus writes, “His very refusal to acknowledge his fame increased it.”

Tacitus is highly trained in rhetoric, another part of a liberal arts education.

I think we’re at the last book now, which is by Diogenes Laertius. This is a delightful book, translated by Pamela Mensch. It ties in with the others—which emphasize how philosophy is critical to leadership—in that it’s an account of The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. It says in the introduction, by James Miller, that this is a crucial source for much of what we know about the origins of philosophy in Greece, which I didn’t realize. Tell me more about it.

We don’t really know anything about Diogenes outside this book, but he’s living in the third century, when there was a tradition of collecting stuff. The Romans sometimes referred to the people who did this as antiquarians; they just liked to collect information and then organize it.

This is what Diogenes is doing. He’s got access to lots of sources and material that is lost to us. He had an eye on preserving those, but also on creating something that was useful for him for his own times. He sets it up chronologically, so he goes back and Book One contains the early, legendary philosophers. That is what allows us to observe the development of philosophy in a way that we couldn’t have otherwise.

He’s collected information on 82 philosophers, so it’s quite a lot of ground he’s covering.

One thing that is worth mentioning is that if your website were six books, I could have added hagiography to my list—either an individual or a collection of saints’ lives. Because this is also what happens with saints: their lives are collected and if you read through them all, you’ll notice there’s a familiar form. They all seem the same. You read about their childhood and then there’s something that happens that causes a conversion (if they’re living in the early days). Then they go on to do wonderful things and then they usually have either a good ending or a bad ending that further proves their saintliness.

“The theme that comes out of all of these books is that if you want to do great in business or in government, study philosophy and the liberal arts, because that’s your foundation.”

Life writing becomes very formulaic when we get to this stage of collecting and bringing lives together. The format is normally that the first part of each life is about the life itself, how the person lived. Then, at the end, there’s a collection of sayings or teachings that are the real legacy of the philosopher.

He says that the first person to use the term philosophy and call himself a philosopher was Pythagoras. I thought that was quite interesting, because I’d always presumed he was a mathematician. But Diogenes is very emphatic that philosophy started with the Greeks.

Philosophy for Diogenes—and for everyone before him—is a much broader term than it is for us. A better translation for it might be science, in the sense of scientific enquiry. We typically talk about the humanities and science as two separate things, but if you think about a systematic intellectual approach to a problem as scientific—whether it’s in a lab or it’s a mental or an ethical problem—that’s what these philosophers were doing. So, for example, the atomists (the first people to propose that everything is made up of atoms) are philosophers, not strictly scientists—because of the way that philosophy had this broad application.

The introduction points out that a type emerges of what philosophers are like. They’re adept at argument. They’re interested in the order of the world or how to live, or both. They’re often absentminded and indifferent to personal hygiene. They have body lice.

That gets at the type. Is that Diogenes’s mental image of a philosopher? It’s the other Diogenes, the Cynic, who is famous for living in a tub and ignoring personal hygiene. Does Diogenes Laertius take these 80+ philosophers and jam them into these same characteristics?

It’s actually not that different from the way we sometimes characterize an intellectual, philosophical type: not so concerned about personal appearance or social norms and things like that, but living in their heads.

And definitely absent-minded.


I was reading the entry about Aristotle, which describes his life and then, as you say, at the end there’s a collection of his sayings. Aristotle is asked how the educated differ from the uneducated and he replies that it’s “as much as the living from the dead.”

That’s the theme that’s run through our whole discussion, that education is the foundation of everything.

Another trope that emerges in this book is that philosophers always seem to be being asked questions and then coming up with one-line, pithy answers that are irrefutable. Again, I think they’re all being forced into a mould, that dialogic mode.

Did you read Diogenes in Greek before this translation came out?

Diogenes is one of those authors that you don’t—or I don’t—really read as much as, if you need to know something about Aristotle, or you need to know something about Pythagoras, you go into it and you read the section about that philosopher. I think that’s how he intended the work. It’s like an encyclopaedia or a reference work, more than a book with a beginning and an end.

He claims that Aristotle died by drinking Wolfsbane and he has four different versions of how Pythagoras died. How seriously should we take his accounts?

With a grain of salt. In the introduction it says, “modern scholars have generally dismissed Diogenes Laertius as a mediocre anthologist if not an ‘ignoramus.’” We probably shouldn’t trust anything that we can’t find in another source, but many of the things you read in here pop up everywhere when you read about these philosophers in modern accounts because, in the end, it’s all we have.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

March 7, 2020

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Jeffrey Beneker

Jeffrey Beneker

Jeffrey Beneker is Professor of Classics at University of Wisconsin-Madison.