“Plutarch had indeed taught Montaigne how to write. It is a common error to say that Montaigne invented the essay. Plutarch invented the essay, and wrote seventy-eight of them; Montaigne invented its name in French and English.”
The next decision was which essay to read. I picked “Timoleon,” because that was the title Melville gave the final book he published: Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse (1891). Timoleon (c. 411–337 B.C.) was a Greek statesman and general born in Corinth, the hero who defended Greece against Carthage and brought stability and some form of democracy to Sicily. Judging by Plutarch’s descriptions, conditions in Sicily resembled today’s Venezuela and even Syria. He writes of Syracuse:
“The city had passed through a period during which it repeatedly exchanged one tyrant for another, and as a result of all the misfortunes it had suffered, was in an almost derelict condition. As for the rest of Sicily, some districts had been ravaged and their cities in the hands of barbarians of various races and of disbanded soldiers, who because they had no regular pay were ready to accept any change of ruler.”
Plutarch certainly idealizes Timoleon, who acquiesced in the murder of his brother. Reading him, we’re reminded that there is no moral progress and human nature remains unchanged after millennia. Our capacity for plain old wickedness is bottomless. Even good men slaughter their enemies and sometimes their friends. One of Plutarch’s defining tics as a writer is periodically interrupting the action – the raw biographical and historical information -- to digress, often morally. For example:
“So true is it that men’s judgements are unstable and may easily be swayed and carried away by casual pride or blame and forced from their own rational thoughts, unless they acquire strength and steadiness of purpose from philosophy and reason. It is not enough, it seems, that our actions should be noble and just: the conviction from which they spring must be permanent and unchangeable, if we are to approve our own conduct. Otherwise we may find ourselves becoming prey to despondency, or to sheer weakness, when the vision of the ideal which inspired us fades away, just as a glutton who devours cloying delicacies with too keen a pleasure soon loses his appetite and becomes disgusted with them. Remorse may cast a sense of shame over even the noblest of actions, but the determination which is founded upon reason and understanding is not shaken even if the outcome is unsuccessful.”
Melville concludes his title poem, “Timoleon”:
“Men’s moods, as frames, must yield to years,
And turns the world in fickle ways;
Corinth recalls Timoleon—ay,
And plumes him forth, but yet with schooling phrase.
On Sicily’s fields, through arduous wars,
A peace he won whose rainbow spanned
The isle redeemed; and he was hailed
Deliverer of that fair colonial land.
And Corinth clapt: Absolved, and more!
Justice in long arrears is thine:
Not slayer of thy brother, no,
But savior of the state, Jove's soldier, man divine.
Eager for thee thy City waits:
Return! with bays we dress your door.
But he, the Isle's loved guest, reposed,
And never for Corinth left the adopted shore.”