Archive for December, 2012

Fake Plutarch Quotes Are the Newest and Most Facile Ailment of All Arguments About Inequality

| Gabriel |

Apparently it’s a thing to quote Plutarch as having said “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” This phrasing does not appear anywhere in the Project Gutenberg edition of the canonical Clough version of Lives.

It is possible that “oldest and most fatal” is just an unusual translation from the original Greek and so doesn’t turn up in a ctrl-F search, but I am extremely skeptical. As somebody who has actually read Plutarch (and who quotes him accurately in my own syllabus), it doesn’t pass the smell test. Plutarch has a distinctly aristocratic perspective and is more likely to complain about demagogues pandering to the mob than to complain about the dispossession of the poor. For instance, in his lives of the Gracchi he describes the underlying grievances of the depopulation of small farms and the rise of the latifundia, but he also criticizes the Senate for going squishy by offering conciliatory redistributive measures (specifically, a grain dole and colonial land) to the mob, “by gratifying and obliging them with such unreasonable things as otherwise they would have felt it honorable for them to incur the greatest unpopularity in resisting.” Mind you, I think it is entirely fair to read Plutarch and come away with the opinion that the facts he describes provide evidence that inequality is indeed the oldest and most fatal ailment of republics, I just don’t think that’s Plutarch’s own opinion, let alone his language.

Here’s a Google Books search (91 hits), web search (36000 hits), and Google Scholar search (31 hits) for the exact phrase. I also found 8 hits in Lexis-Nexis, one in Proquest dissertations, and 3 hits in Proquest Newspapers but those are hard to link to.

The oldest version I could identify was from 1985,  The Longman History of the United States by Hugh Brogan which appears to be a textbook. In the early 1990s it starts making appearances in The Economist and a few books, including Boiling Point by Kevin Phillips. It has a second wave in the last decade, perhaps because Robert Frank used it in a much quoted and recirculated  op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In most of these cases the quote is used as an opening epigraph and in none of them is there any indication of where Plutarch is alleged to have written this, just general dates and descriptions for Plutarch himself (e.g., “1st c. AD historian”). Also note that in some versions the phrase is misattributed to Plato instead of being misattributed to Plutarch — I guess one somewhat recognizable but seldom read figure from antiquity starting with “P” is as good as another.

The best way to get a big picture is with Google ngrams. Unfortunately this only allows searches of 5 word strings so I chose “oldest and most fatal ailment” as the most distinctive part.


As you can see, this phrase goes back to 1966 (although I don’t know in which book as the oldest hit in Google Books is Longman History from 1985) which is older than anything I found but much more recent than all the major English-language versions of Plutarch. It skitters along with the occasional usage and then begins to take off in the 1990s and with a second and larger wave occurring right now. (Btw, here’s a Google Books search just for the shorter phrase, for some reason it gives more and earlier hits, but none older than Hugh Brogan’s Longman History of the United States of America in 1985.)

In contrast if you do Ngram searches for authentic five word strings from Plutarch, some of them don’t turn up at all but others show references dating to the 19th century. For instance, here are Ngrams for some memorable authentic phrases.

Ultimately I can’t identify where this “oldest and most fatal” canard comes from, but I’m pretty sure it ain’t Plutarch and most likely it was just made up in the 1960s. All I have to say is to quote Thomas Jefferson, “he who would falsely ascribe a passage would desecrate a mind.” Or maybe he didn’t say that and actually I just made it up because I think it’s kind of cool to be able to draw on the authority of a memorable historical thinker using archaic sounding language.

[Update, here’s America’s favorite superhero mayor using this canard.]

December 12, 2012 at 9:24 am 1 comment

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