Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.28

Frederick E. Brenk, Relighting the Souls: Studies in Plutarch, in Greek Literature, Religion, and Philosophy, and in the New Testament Background.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998.  Pp. 420.  ISBN 3-515-07158.  DM 148.  

Reviewed by Alan C. Mitchell, Department of Theology, Georgetown University (
Word count: 2202 words

Judging from the comprehensive sub-title of Fr. Brenk's latest collection of essays, one might wonder what unifies the diverse studies contained therein. The title itself is the clue, as many of the studies deal with the notion of the soul in Plutarch, as well as in Greek literature, religion, and philosophy. As with an earlier collection, the title is taken from Plutarch himself. It is a "loose" translation of "the souls lighting up again" from Plutarch's On Socrates' Divine Sign. Most of the essays, reviews, and biographical tributes have already been published. One, "Jerusalem-Hieropolis: The Revolt under Antiochus IV Epiphanes in Light of Evidence for Hieropolis of Phrygia, Babylon, and other Cities," appears in print for the first time. Another, "Genuine Greek Demons, "In Mist Appareled"? Hesiod and Plutarch," makes its debut in English translation. The works are arranged thematically rather than chronologically.

In "Plutarch's Erotikos: The Drag Down Pulled Up" B. maintains that the originality of the essay should be located in the introduction of reciprocal egalitarian love of marriage into the Platonic ideal. Plutarch accomplishes this by transforming the Platonic ascent towards the Form of the Beautiful from a passive intellectual object into the reciprocal love of the soul and its telos.

"The Origin and the Return of the Soul in Plutarch" shows how Plutarch's Middle Platonism deviates from Plato himself on the soul's origin, insofar as Plutarch suggests that the soul enters the world with no previous vision of the Forms. Plutarch's thought on the soul's return differs from the master's to the extent that he believes some souls will make a linear return to their destiny in God, identified with the Form of the Good and the Beautiful. In B.'s view such re-interpretation was one way Plutarch enlivened Platonic thought in his own day, something which has also had an impact on the history of Platonism.

"The Boiotia of Plutarch's EROTIKOS Beyond the Shadow of Athens" demonstrates how the Erotikos expresses Plutarch's Boiotian patriotism. The result is an "outplatonizing" of Plato by introducing a national and international perspective not focused on Athens. The transformation is achieved on four levels of geography: physical, psychological, philosophical and theological. By placing the power of Eros in a new setting, married love is liberated and exalted as the vehicle for reaching one's intellectual and spiritual destiny.

In "Time as Structure in Plutarch's The Daimonion of Socrates" B. examines the little noticed multivalent notion of time in this dialogue on Socrates and the Theban revolt. Although it is little interested in time and eternity, the work is structured and unified by time as it speculates on the possibility of daimonic influence and daimonic time on human life.

"From Rex to Rana: Plutarch's Treatment of Nero" explores the relationship of "seeming tolerance and inner feelings" in Plutarch's attitude towards the Flavians. B. concludes that Plutarch maintained "exoteric forgiveness and esoteric contempt" for Nero. This ambivalence may reflect the attitude of the anti-Neronian group in Rome with which Plutarch associated himself.

"The Dreams of Plutarch's Lives" looks at a phenomenon little studied by classical scholars: the use of dreams in ancient literature. Such a rich source as Plutarch affords B. the opportunity to show the essential function of dreams in Plutarch's writing, especially in his Lives. B. concludes that Plutarch was influenced by Homer in his use of dreams, but that he had also refined the function of dreams in the way he employed them to expose the psyche of his characters. B. interestingly observes that this use of dreams may have compensated for a lack of intimate details in the sources he used to write about individual characters.

"Cassius' Epicurean Explanation of Brutus' Vision in Plutarch's Broutos" maintains that the Broutos is an exception among the Lives because of its spiritual purpose. Curiously, Cassius's explanation of Epicurean sensation theory seems at odds with Plutarch's own explanation of it in other works. B. ingeniously comes up with the solution. Cassius was not explaining "our doctrine" but "yours". Changing hemeteros into hymeteros accounts for the discrepancy. In that way Cassius is using Antiochian Platonism for his explanation, Broutos's own philosophy.

B. astutely claims in "Antony-Osiris, Cleopatra-Isis" that Plutarch's Life of Antony is not only an unforgettable masterpiece of Greek literature but also a masterpiece of striking ambiguity in character portrayal. The roles Plutarch assigns to Antony and Cleopatra render them as anti-heroes, an anti-Osiris and an anti-Isis. In an essay like this B. is at his best, marshalling the historical sources and mastering the literary genres to produce a compelling interpretation of this magnificently complex work. The central historical question of whether Antony and Cleopatra had actually assimilated themselves to Osiris and Isis focuses B.'s analysis of Plutarch's Life of Antony. Whereas the historical sources are more explicit about the assimilation of Cleopatra to Isis, Antony's assimilation to Osiris is largely inferred from his role as consort to the queen. Still, B. uncovers the historical and literary portraits of Antony as Osiris, especially in Plutarch, where Antony is clearly assimilated to Dionysus, the Greek form of Osiris. In the end B. presents a convincing argument for appreciating this fascinating feature of Plutarch's Life of Antony.

The themes of heroic anti-heroes and divine assimilation are revisited in "Heroic Anti-Heroes. Ruler Cult and Divine Assimilations in Plutarch's Lives of Demetrios and Antonius." Here B. effectively argues that in constructing heroic anti-heroes, Plutarch illuminates the moral successes and disasters of his protagonists. In this case Demetrios and [Marcus] Antonius assimilate themselves to Herakles and Dionysus. By means of the divine assimilation Plutarch shows the human frailty of the protagonists, exposing them for who they actually are. The technique is an effective one "for the conception and execution of two magnificent and unforgettable Lives."

"Genuine Greek Demons, 'In Mist Apparelled'? Hesiod and Plutarch" studies the roles of daimones in Hesiod and Plutarch. B. concludes that, by means of Middle Platonic sublimation, Plutarch extended the 7th Century BCE daimonological tradition into the 1st and 2nd Centuries CE. This extension is seen in the function of daimones as the mid-stage between humans and gods in Plutarch's view of the ascent of the soul. B. mines a wealth of ancient sources in his comparison of the respective daimonologies of Hesiod and Plutarch to offer a clear and compelling interpretation of Plutarch's indebtedness to and adaptation of Hesiod.

In "The Herakles Myth and the Literary Texts Relating to the Myth of Ninurta" the breadth of B.'s erudition comes into full view, as he explores the relationship of the Labors of Herakles to the Babylonian Myth of Ninurta. Convincingly B. shows that the Labors of Herakles are a part of the Trophies genre that derived in part from the Myth of Ninurta. He concludes that there is solid evidence for the Near Eastern origin of the Hydra motif but not so for the remaining labors. Nonetheless, "an ancient and extremely diffused Near Eastern genre inspired the composition of the Labors." An impressive bibliography accompanies this essay.

"Aphrodite's Girdle: No Way to Treat a Lady (Iliad 14.214-223)" unravels the mystery surrounding Aphrodite's kestos himas by showing how what originally may have been a "saltire" was later thought of as an embroidered chest necklace. The note is brief but demonstrates yet another aspect of B.'s knowledge of the ancient world.

"Dear Child: The Speech of Phoinix and the Tragedy of Achilleus in the Ninth Book of the Iliad" examines the relationship of the speech of Phoinix to the demise of Achilleus. Despite all that has been written on the embassy to Achilleus and the speech of Phoinix, B. finds something fresh to write and elucidates some of the complexities the reader faces in this part of the Iliad. B. judges the speech to be unsuccessful, yet able to communicate to the audience an important message: "just as Meleagros returned to battle because his friends were being lost, so Achilleus will return to battle when a friend is lost." In the end, the speech exposes the human tragedy of young lives wasted by war.

Among the least successful of the pieces in this collection is the note on "Hesiod: How to Make a Male Chauvinist?" A humorous attempt to redeem Hesiod from his chauvinism, the essay comes across as "tongue in cheek" and as a somewhat disingenuous reclamation of the poet from himself. Few women will be heartened by B.'s claim that Hesiod does not condemn women universally, only lazy and luxurious women.

"Phaidra's Risky Horsemanship: Euripides' Hippolytos 232-238" shows how a vexing metaphor, "pulling up on the reins of a horse," is used brilliantly by Euripides to foreshadow the death of Hippolytus by Aphrodite.

In "Heteros tis eimi: On the Language of Menander's Young Lovers" B.'s ability as literary critic shines forth to show the full extent of Menander's classicism. Menander achieves individuation in his characters by mixing types and developing greater realism and faithfulness to life. Consequently, his characters are not merely personae, but are "sympathetic persons who fill center stage." In his own way B. confirms the judgment of Menander found in Plutarch (Comp. Arist. et Men. 854A-B).

"Interesting Bedfellows at the End of the Apology" calls attention to the cast of characters Socrates himself might like to converse with. Drawn from judges, poets, heroes, and mythological figures, the reasons for their inclusion are complex. The most puzzling is the addition of Sisyphus. B. explains them all. Some are figures with whom Socrates feel a spiritual affinity, particularly those who are treated unjustly. The inclusion of Sisyphus seems playful, since in his impishness Sisyphus seems capable of overcoming death itself. He symbolizes the attitude towards death that Socrates may have wished for his followers.

"Darkly Beyond the Glass: Middle Platonism and the Vision of the Soul" surveys a sample of Middle Platonic philosophers to explain the notion of a "beatific vision". Interestingly, none of the philosophers surveyed, apart from Justin Martyr, speaks explicitly and unambiguously of the soul's destiny in a vision of God. Some, on the other hand, speak of the vision of the Good. Two reasons explain this phenomenon: 1) the gap between the First and Second God and 2) the necessity to distinguish two separate concepts, God and the Good.

"A Gleaming Ray: Blessed Afterlife in the Mysteries" challenges the idea that the "mysteries" lack an eschatological interest. B. uncovers in iconography, architecture, statuary, and sacro-idyllic painting evidence for a contrary assertion that the "mysteries" do indeed seem to be preoccupied with a "blessed afterlife."

"Old Wineskins Recycled: AUTARKEIA in 1 Timothy 6.5-10" explores the philosophical background of the of the teaching in 1 Timothy 6.5-10 on whether religion should be a source of monetary gain. B. rightly identifies the issue as one shared by the philosophers, i.e., whether they should profit from their teaching. In this context B. examines the value of autarkeia in the philosophical literature, in order to show what appeal the notion may have had for the deutero-Pauline author. He concludes that in 1 Timothy the letter's author (incorrectly identified as Paul) substituted some of his own language for the terms of the philosophical debate, but nonetheless concerned himself with issue of self-sufficiency and monetary gain.

"Greek Epiphanies and Paul on the Road to Damaskos" suggests that New Testament descriptions of Paul's conversion experience seem to present the event as a "lightning epiphany", that confirms Paul's mission to the Gentiles. The conversion accounts share essential features of this well known Greek literary form, which confirm that the event should be understood as the manifestation of a god to protect his followers. Paul's story of conversion should be viewed, then, as part of Christianity's foundational myth.

"Jerusalem - Hieropolis: The Revolt under Antiochos IV Epiphanes In Light of Evidence for Hieropolis of Phrygia, Babylon, and Other Cities" maintains that ancient Jewish literature misrepresented the religious dimensions of the Jewish revolt in the second century BCE as an attempt to force Hellenism upon Judea. This was not Antiochus' intention and Hellenism was already in place in Judea. The misinterpretation may have been promoted by the priestly class in order to gain political advantage. As a result, violent opposition to Antiochus most likely preserved Judaism as we know it.

Supplementing the essay in this volume are a selection of book reviews and personal tributes, such as a biography of Édouard des Places and a eulogy for Roderick A. F. Mackenzie, S.J.

This volume is a welcome addition to the library of any serious student of Plutarch, Middle Platonism, Greek religion, philosophy, literature, and culture. The breadth of topics covered in the essays is a testimony to Fr. Brenk's erudition and knowledge of the ancient world. The exposition of the text demonstrates B.'s originality and talent for lively interpretation. For those who do not have access to the journals or books where the articles and essays were originally published, the collection will be of special value. In each essay the state of the problem is clearly defined and B. musters relevant textual, philological, and historical sources to work towards a solution. B.'s sensitivity to text and context is especially worthwhile as it produces interesting and stimulating results. In the end one always knows more about the topic than when one began.

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