Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.11

Heinz-Günther Nesselrath (ed.), Plutarch, On the Daimonion of Socrates: Human Liberation, Divine Guidance, and Philosophy. Scripta Antiquitatis Posterioris ad Ethicam Religionemque pertinentia (SAPERE) 16.   Tübingen:  Mohr Siebeck, 2010.  Pp. x, 225.  ISBN 9783161501388.  €49.00.  ISBN 9873161501371.  €29.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Robert Lamberton (

Table of Contents

The format of the SAPERE series is by now familiar to those concerned with the literature of die spätere Antike (which, unlike Late Antiquity, is well under way in the first century CE [v]). A remarkable seventeen volumes in ten years have appeared under this imprint, making available good (and often the best available) texts, reliable translations (into German, but recently increasingly into English), and explanatory or interpretive essays of marginal, neglected, or otherwise needy works in Greek, Latin, and most recently, Syriac. Viewed as a whole, the choice of works is dictated more by the concerns of Religious Studies than of Classics, but SAPERE (like the Society of Biblical Literature series Writings from the Greco-Roman World) has performed valuable service and harnessed the work of major classical scholars to make these works more accessible in highly credible bilingual editions.

Volume 16 of the series consists of an improved text and translation of Plutarch's most ambitious dialogue, περὶ τοῦ σωκράτους δαιμονίου (henceforth De genio) and six essays covering a variety of topics relating to the dialogue. The text and translation are the work of Donald Russell, as is the bulk of the notes, which include contributions by Robert Parker and the editor of the volume, Heinz-Günther Nesselrath.1 The volume closes with a short selection of "similar" texts (selected and translated by Russell) and valuable bibliography and indices.

The text is based on the 1929 Teubner edition of W. Sieveking, taking account of the 1980 Budé text of Jean Hani. Russell incorporates nearly a hundred "suggested variations" (12-15) from various sources, many of them his own conjectures, some from his "Notes on Plutarch's De genio Socratis" (CQ NS4, 1954, 61-63) and some more recent.2 These textual matters are discussed in the "Notes on the Translation" (82-98), which thus become a grab bag of information, ranging from the philological to the historical. There is little doubt that this text, resting on a lifetime of work on Plutarch, is the best to date. The translation is also far more readable, and to judge by a few soundings, more accurate, than that in the now dated Loeb of De Lacy and Einarson (1959), but their notes sometimes complement the sparser annotation of the present volume. The generous annotation of Hani's Budé goes far beyond that of either English bilingual edition.

The essays that occupy nearly half of the present volume might be said to take the place of a certain amount of annotation, and this is in fact the originality of the SAPERE series. In the application of this formula to Plutarch, and particularly to the dialogues, we see it at its best, as a selection of issues, large and small, all bearing on genuine problems in reading the text in question, is explored in a depth impossible in footnotes. The essays, however, vary a good deal in their contribution to an overall appreciation of the dialogue.

The initial observations of George Cawkwell ("Between Athens, Sparta, and Persia: the Historical Significance of the Liberation of Thebes in 379" [101-109]) are helpful. He establishes, first of all, that the "historical account is to be taken seriously" and notes that, among Plutarch's possible sources, Xenophon's version (principally Hellenica V,4,1-19) is prejudiced against Pelopidas and Epaminondas and that "Plutarch did not use [it]" (102). Beyond this, however, his essay opens more questions than it answers, regarding both historical realities (was Theban factionalism "the usual struggle of democrats against oligarchs"? [106]) and Plutarch's intentions ("perhaps Plutarch meant to proclaim through his dialogues that Thebes was a place of intellectual importance" [109]). When the goal is to throw light on as elusive an author as Plutarch, one wishes for fresh and compelling answers rather than new questions or conjectures.

Christopher Pelling's piece, "The Liberation of Thebes in Plutarch's De genio Socratis and Pelopidas" (111-127) is reprinted from Tasos Nikolaidis' impressive publication of the papers from the International Plutarch Society conference in Rethymno in 2005, which stressed the interrelatedness of Lives and Moralia.3 This explains the background of this comparison -- which is interesting in itself -- but not its inclusion here, where Pelling's narratological analysis seems a distraction from more pressing issues. One could read the essay as an inconclusive meditation on the portrait of the aloof Epaminondas and his explicit abstention from illegal violence (576f), a matter that surfaces on a rough count at least seven times in Pelling's essay; in fact, a straightforward treatment of this matter would have been a far more helpful contribution.

Robert Parker's "Agesilaus and the Bones of Alcmena" (129-137) is very much like a footnote expanded into an essay, and as such it is just what is called for here. De genio 577e-578b is our unique source for the anecdote of the Spartan demand for the bones of the mother of Heracles, and Parker's discussion and contextualization of that anecdote go far to clarify both its role in the dialogue and its relationship to other similar stories (which are all seen to involve at least some pretense of re-patriation, a justification lacking in the Spartans' high-handed requisition).

John Dillon's short piece on "Pythagoreanism in Plutarch" (139-144) likewise goes far to contextualize a specific motif of the dialogue, which opens with the visit of the Pythagorean Theanor who has come to ensure that Epaminondas' Pythagorean teacher, Lysis, has received proper burial. This opens the question whether central ideas of the dialogue, including the personal daimon (143-144), are Pythagorean in origin. A general treatment of Plutarch's orientation toward Pythagoreanism is thus a considerable hermeneutic aid for readers of the De genio.

Similar goals are set by both of the final (and by far the longest) essays in the collection, Stephan Schröder on "Plutarch on Oracles and Divine Inspiration" (145-168) and Werner Deuse on "Plutarch's Eschatological Myths" (169-197). Schröder searches the two essays that deal directly with oracles (De Pyth. or. and De def. or.) for background for understanding De genio. Perhaps not surprisingly, he concludes that we cannot claim "that Plutarch presented either a theory about the role of daimones in the process of inspiration of which he was convinced himself, or a system of doctrines on divination or inspiration in general." (168) Similarly, Deuse explores the myths of the De facie, De sera, and De genio in search of doctrinal coherence and does not find it. He concludes: "...the myths must not be taken as doctrinal treatises; they are a play of the philosophical and theological imagination, but at the same time a proclamation of the effort and seriousness of inquiry and research" (197).

These conclusions may be disappointingly negative to some, and to others they may appear obvious, but they are just what is needed in order to steer readers of this text toward a realistic assessment of Plutarch. The dialogues, once touted as "Theosophical Essays"4 are in fact nothing of the sort (though they still attract readers who want them to be). As Montaigne, perhaps the most sensitive and appreciative of Plutarch's readers, emphasized, the scholar of Chaeronea provides models of the "inquiring style," rather than the dogmatic.

This volume -- and the same could be said of virtually all of the SAPERE series -- should be in the library of every individual and institution concerned with the thought and literature of the Roman Empire. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Russell, to Heinz-Günther Nesselrath and his collaborators, and to the German Union of Academies, which funds the series.


1.   These volumes regularly present bibliographical anomalies. The volume under review is particularly problematic because, as Nesselrath makes clear in his Preface (vii), while he as Editor is to be credited with assembling the volume, the core of the scholarship (and the "editing") is Russell's. Nesselrath's account of the genesis of the volume (vii) is very much worth reading. There may be a difference in national standards here: the fact of Russell's name coming first in the list of contributors makes the book searchable under his name in the catalogue of the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek (see link at the head of this review) but not in the catalogue of the Library of Congress.
2.   It is puzzling that in the list on pp. 12-15 the corrections are located by page and line number in the Teubner edition, when it would have required little additional work to locate them by page and line in the text before the reader.
3.   Anastasios G. Nikolaidis, ed., The Unity of Plutarch's Work: "Moralia" Themes in the "Lives", Features of the "Lives" in the "Moralia". Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008. See the review by Jan P. Stronk, BMCR 2010.05.54.
4.   King, C. W., tr., Plutarch's Morals. Theosophical essays. Bohn's Classical Library. London: G. Bell and sons, 1882.

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