Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.23

Stefano Jedrkiewicz, Il convitato sullo sgabello: Plutarco, Esopo ed i Sette Savi. Filologia e Critica, 80.   Pisa/Rome:  Istituti editoriali e poligrafici internazionali, 1997.  Pp. 171.  ISBN 88-8147-102-7.  

Reviewed by Laura Gibbs, UC Berkeley (
Word count: 2466 words

Stefano Jedrkiewicz has published extensively on Aesop as a playful wisdom-hero, but in his latest monograph, Il convitato sullo sgabello: Plutarco, Esopo ed i Sette Savi (The Banquet-Guest on the Stool: Plutarch, Aesop, and the Seven Sages), J. shifts his focus to the unexpected inclusion of Aesop in Plutarch's symposium. Thus, J.'s book is potentially of interest to students of Plutarch and of ancient philosophy, as well as to those who are interested in Aesop and the "wit and wisdom" traditions of ancient Greece.

J. focuses his analysis on two inter-related questions: why is Aesop the only guest seated on a stool, and, as J. puts it, is there such a thing as "sapere ludico," a playful wisdom? J. spends comparatively little time addressing the first question, and much more time on the second question, which he answers absolutely in the affirmative. Not only does there exist a playful wisdom, J. insists that this playful wisdom involves much more than what is usually implied in the Greek spoudaiogeloion, or seriocomic literature: "The seriocomic is not here a mere stylistic trick which, adhering strictly to the 'didascalic' theories of the time, would unite the utile of the serio- with the dulce of the comic in order to facilitate the audience's apprehension of the author's message" [32]. This would actually seem to be a perfectly reasonable way in which to approach Plutarch's text, but J. insists that Plutarch's use of the seriocomic is not a stylistic or literary or didactic device; rather, it is intended as the inauguration of a new form of philosophy, in which the comic elements "become instruments to reaffirm the seriousness of what is at stake" [33]. J. proceeds on the assumption that Plutarch's text is a great and unprecedented experiment in philosophical literature, and that this experiment is in fact an unqualified success. This approach may prove disconcerting for readers who would not necessarily concede to Plutarch's text such a lofty position in the corpus of seriocomic literature. J., however, takes the admirable perfection of Plutarch's banquet as a self-evident certainty, and then proceeds to draw a series of conclusions based on this initial premise.

The Seven Sages

The first chapter, "The Banquet of the Seven Sages as Seriocomic Literature," constitutes a brief survey of the Seven Sages tradition in Greek literature prior to Plutarch, surveying the sophia exemplified by Thales, Bias, Pittacus, Solon, Chilon, Cleobulus and Anacharsis, the seven sages who appear at the banquet hosted by the tyrant Periander. Aesop is thus not one of the seven, and it remains unclear to what extent J.'s argument about "playful wisdom" depends upon Aesop's presence at this banquet, or whether J. would extend this concept to the general function of the Seven Sages as a cultural construct in ancient Greece. (In this regard, it is perhaps also worth noting that while J. refers to the sages as "performers" of wisdom (e.g., "il sapere lucido è una performance" [145, original italics]), there is no reference to Richard Martin's "The Seven Sages as Performers of Wisdom" in the bibliography.) J. shows that the topics discussed by the seven sages at Plutarch's banquet -- power and worldly rule, the order of the cosmos -- are meant to constitute a unified order of wisdom which is not all that far removed from the central concerns of Platonic philosophy. The difference is that Plutarch has taken a seriocomic approach to these questions by locating them in the context of a banquet. The banquet setting was already a commonplace of the philosophical tradition and is used elsewhere by Plutarch, as in his Quaestiones conviviales (which J. calls the "theoretical model for the Banquet of the Seven Sages" [30], although he does not discuss any of Plutarch's other symposiastic texts by way of comparison). J. argues that Plutarch uses the banquet scene of the sages to stage an interplay between a variety of modes of philosophical discourse. In particular, these modes of discourse include marginalized and archaic traditions such as iambic invective, gnomologia and eikonologia, and other styles of argumentation associated with pre-Socratic or sophistic philosophy (and hence marginalized by later writers such as Plato and Aristotle).

When J. turns to Aesop at the end of the first chapter, he does not characterize Aesop as someone set apart from the rest of the sages (even though Aesop is the only character seated on a stool at the banquet); rather, J. characterizes Aesop as the far end of the comic continuum which is embodied by the other sages as well: "The figure of Aesop would be the far extreme, and at the same time the emblematic embodiment, of a wisdom which could be called ludic" [34]. Thus, while Aesop would seem to represent a kind of comic extreme, J. insists that this is merely a difference of degree rather than kind. He rejects, for example, Bakhtin's construction of a disruptive comic wisdom, "that carnevalesque and popular anti-culture in perpetual opposition to official values and doctrines which the comic force of the anti-culture is able to subvert" [35]. J. has in mind nothing so radical, and in this he is probably being quite faithful to Plutarch's own conservative idea of comedy (Plutarch's utter distaste for Aristophanic comedy, for example, is very telling in this regard). In place of Bakhtin, J. advocates Huizinga's model of ludic wisdom, without, however, providing a detailed summary of Huizinga's work. A fuller discussion of both Bakhtin and Huizinga could have helped greatly to clarify the various playful elements which J. sees at work in Plutarch's philosophical project.

The Genres of Wisdom

J.'s second chapter, "Seriocomic Techniques of Wisdom," is divided into a series of subchapters in which he analyzes the "playful" techniques exemplified in the banquet's philosophical discourse: gnomic statements, riddles, eikonologia, Aesopic fables, mirabilia, irony, and laughter. With the exception of riddles [pp. 42-48] and mirabilia [pp. 52-58], J. treats these categories only very briefly (although he returns to the Aesopic fable again in chapter 5).

J.'s remarks about the riddle are the most interesting, and represent the book's most valuable contribution to the general subject of wit and wisdom literature. Riddles are a problematic element in Plutarch's text because they are directly associated with a character named Cleobulina (whom Plutarch designates as "Eumetis", saying that she is only called Cleobulina after her father). Cleobulina is an expert in riddles, and we first meet her before the banquet begins, as she is shown suggestively (and silently) parting Anacharsis's hair. Although Cleobulina is present for most of the banquet, she does not speak; instead, when Cleodorus makes dismissive comments about riddles as a genre, it is Aesop who defends Cleobulina and repeats one of the riddles which, he says, Cleobulina had posed for them before the banquet. The silent Cleobulina is accompanied at the banquet by the equally silent Melissa, Periander's wife, an interpreter of dreams who herself defined the occasion for the banquet (it was on the basis of her dreams that Periander was persuaded to renew his sacrifices to Aphrodite after a disastrous love affair with his own mother!). The subordinate status of these women would seem to constitute a true dilemma in the hierarchy of knowledge displayed at the banquet. While J. argues that Plutarch presents the sages, together with Aesop, as a perfectly integrated continuum of the serious and the comic, that continuum would already seem to be disrupted by Aesop being seated on a stool; even more importantly, these women are representatives of wisdom traditions who are even less involved in the banquet scene, and who do not participate in the banquet's spoken dialogue. Yet nevertheless J. maintains that Cleobulina's riddles should be recognized as one of the central techniques of "playful wisdom," and he considers both Cleobulina and Melissa to be exemplary exponents of "playful wisdom," despite their marginalization in Plutarch's text [65-66]. This tension within Plutarch's text would itself seem to constitute an excellent topic for discussion, but because J. predicates his discussion on the seamless perfection of the banquet's performance, he does not have much to say about this discrepancy.

Besides riddles, the genre which J. treats at greatest length is mirabilia, and again J. is reluctant to deal with the problematic status of this variety of "playful wisdom" in the dialogue of Plutarch's banquet. One of the focal points of Plutarch's banquet is the story of Arion rescued by the dolphins (4 pages out of the banquet's total 50 pages). After the lengthy account of Arion's adventure, Aesop bursts out laughing because, he says, his own stories about talking jackdaws and crows are ridiculed, while this story about dolphins is reverently believed. This clear strain between the serious and the comic would again seem to signal a disruptive break, almost a crisis of categories, in the supposedly seamless continuum of J.'s playful wisdom. J. attempts to obviate the problem by saying that Aesop's response allows Plutarch to "express and overcome the temptation to make fun of numinous wonder: the laughter is a stage on the way towards the serious" [57]. This may be a fair assessment of what Plutarch is indeed trying to accomplish at the banquet, but it is undeniably a stifling of Aesop, whose comic presence at the banquet appears to be more difficult to appreciate than J.'s analysis allows.

Aesop at the Banquet

In the remaining chapters of the book, J. discusses the other characters who appear at the banquet (chapter 3), followed by a discussion of Aesop's interaction with those characters (chapter 4), along with a very useful inventory of the Aesopic fables found elsewhere in Plutarch's writings (chapter 5). In the final chapter, J. concludes that the Aesop shown at Plutarch's banquet should in no way be considered a representative of popular culture or popular wisdom. According to J., the Aesop found here in Plutarch is not shown as a slave or an ex-slave, nor is he in any sense a hostile opponent of the wisdom embodied by the seven sages: "There is not even a trace of either ideological or class hostility between Aesop and the seven sages in Plutarch's Banquet" [82]. It is indeed the case that Plutarch's Aesop seems to represent the more dignified extreme of the wide-ranging Aesopic tradition in antiquity, as opposed to the scatological and wonderfully vulgar extreme represented by the Life of Aesop. In defining the qualities of Plutarch's Aesop, J. nevertheless makes some observations that are fully applicable to the Aesopic tradition at large: Aesop and his fables both embody a contextual wisdom which resists generalization and abstraction; it is an invective wisdom, which depends on the presence of an interlocutor/target [95-96]. Much the same can be said for the agonistic wisdom tradition of the Seven Sages, yet there is a distance between Aesop and Plutarch's sages, as J. himself admits: "In this rather egalitarian atmosphere, Aesop nevertheless occupies an exceptional place" [83]. This exceptional place certainly seems to be a rather subordinate and marginalized place, but J. insists that Plutarch's Aesop is not a lowly guest at the banquet, but an admirable philosopher in his own right, utterly unlike the scandalous hero of the Life of Aesop. That rabble-rousing, Bakhtinian Aesop would not be admitted to Plutarch's banquet, even seated on a stool: "For Plutarch, the seriocomic remains a method of reaching the truth, not for contesting its social or ideological presuppositions; it can indicate a temporary aporia of understanding and facilitate its resolution, but it does not result in a challenge to the hierarchy of knowledge as found in the Life of Aesop" [135]. According to J., the "oral wisdom" of the sages is absolutely opposed to this vulgar orality of the masses, "that confused and marginal orality, which is already a sign of illiteracy and lack of culture, where the riddle is merely a worn-out pastime, the gnome is nothing but a cliche, and laughter simply scoffs at what it cannot understand" [138]. J. apparently wants to attribute this dismissive assessment of popular culture to Plutarch, although it is hard to draw a line between what J. considers to be Plutarch's point of view and J.'s apparently enthusiastic endorsement of this perspective. In any case, J. seems to take this negative assessment of popular culture as a self-evident proposition, without providing any systematic evidence for its validity within Plutarch's outlook generally, much less its validity for ancient Greek culture as a whole.

Risus ineptus

Yet if Plutarch's banquet has nothing to do with popular wisdom, as J. himself concludes [140], what is Aesop doing there? And why is he the only character seated on a stool? In the end, J. does not provide a clear answer to this question. He insists that Plutarch has "integrated Aesop into the coterie of the seriocomic" [139], yet even J. recognizes that Aesop is not a full participant in the philosophical project, but only a helper. In the performance of playful wisdom, there is a need to risk appearing ridiculous, and Aesop runs that risk on behalf of everybody at the banquet. According to J., Aesop's mistaken outbursts of laughter (e.g., ridiculing the story of Arion) are not wrong, "not an error which precludes the truth but, on the contrary, an awareness that opens the way" to truth [148]. In J.'s construction of playful wisdom, it is thus wisdom which has claims to truth; wisdom is the end that justifies the means of play. "Realizing the possibility of the existence ... of a playful wisdom is the task of the helper of Wisdom" [148]. In the end, J. has much to say about Wisdom (with a capital W), and much less to say about play; the same is true of the participants at Plutarch's banquet. J. explains that he wants to defend Plutarch's banquet from the critical attacks made against it, especially Wilamowitz's pointed dismissal: risu inepto res ineptior nullast [28, note 39]. Yet Wilamowitz is not scandalized by the juxtaposition of jokes and riddles with serious philosophical disputation; rather, he is (understandably) disappointed by the jokes and riddles themselves. This banquet of the seven sages just isn't very funny, and Plutarch's own insight into the nature of the comic does not go very deep in this dialogue. Plutarch's distance from the comic tradition would thus seem to be undermine the creation of a truly "playful wisdom" of the sort that J. would like to find here, and which he has defended more successfully in his other work on Aesop, e.g. Sapere e paradosso nell'antichità: Esopo e la favola (1989).

Works Cited

Jedrkiewicz, Stefano. Sapere e paradosso nell'antichità: Esopo e la favola. Rome: Ateneo, 1989.

Martin, Richard P. "The Seven Sages as Performers of Wisdom" in Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke (eds.). Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece: Cult, Performance, Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1993: 108-128.

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