Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.15

Geert Roskam, Plutarch's Maxime cum principibus philosopho esse disserendum: An Interpretation with Commentary.   Leuven:  Leuven University Press, 2009.  Pp. 250.  ISBN 9789058677365.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Eran Almagor, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (


Plutarch's treatise Maxime cum principibus philosopho esse disserendum, encouraging philosophers to act as counsellors to politicians and men of state, is a very short work within his corpus. Its beginning may be missing, its end appears to be have been lost as well, and the text is corrupt and uncertain at many points, making its line of argument not entirely clear or coherent. These flaws would be certain to ensure it low status among Plutarch's works, if not to relegate it to the rank of the spurious works, were it not for Geert Roskam's commentary. Unwearyingly addressing all of the text's faults, and commenting on all of its main aspects, Roskam succeeds in showing the essay’s philosophical significance in Plutarch’s oeuvre, and pointing out its importance as one of the extant treatises which display his political thought (pp. 66-69).

The volume consists of two parts, a lengthy introduction (pp. 15-144) and the commentary (pp. 147-192). While the Greek text is not included, the commentary is exceptionally thorough and the lemmata encompass almost the entire text. Both the updated and comprehensive bibliography and the Index locorum are extremely useful aids, and the structure of the present volume (like Roskam's commentary on Plutarch's De latenter vivendo, Leuven: 2007) should provide a paradigm for future interpretations of Plutarch's Moralia. Roskam displays an impressive command of the literature on this short essay, as well as the political precepts of the philosophical schools and Plutarch's own moral and theoretical ideas.

The introduction begins with a treatment of the author, in which Roskam first concisely explores Plutarch's own political career (pp. 17-19) and then draws a brief survey of the theoretical background for Plutarch's understanding of public service as prominent in the field of ethics (pp. 19-22). He next deals with the issues of text, genre and date of composition (pp. 22-30), offering articulate and resolute answers to all of these questions. His chief claims are, first, that the work is authentic; second, that it betrays a polished style, with some of its defects (such as its repetitions) being apparent rather than real; and third, that the genre of the work is that of the 'discourse' (διάλεξις). He argues that the work referred to in the opening of the treatise De unius in re publica dominatione 826ab (which he accepts as authentic) is none other than the Maxime cum principibus, and hence must be addressed to Plutarch's philosophical students (cf. p. 92). While the argument is compelling, one would perhaps hesitate to accept an unproblematic attribution of De unius to Plutarch. In addition, Roskam maintains (with "caution") that the Maxime cum principibuswas written in the first years after the accession of Trajan (96 A.D.). His argument is that only during the reign of a benevolent emperor would it make any sense to encourage philosophers to associate themselves with power (cf. pp. 82-85, 136). On this point, however, the case may be inconclusive (infra).

Two further topics which Roskam addresses are Plutarch's relation to his predecessors in political theory and the importance of consistency (pp. 31-69). The first study is introduced by Roskam as his new approach to the question of Plutarch's sources and tradition of political philosophy. With great virtuosity which at once reveals his acquaintance with Plutarch's corpus and a familiarity with the notions of Greek thinkers and the relevant modern literature, Roskam is able to present both the beliefs of the earlier philosophers and Plutarch's attitude to them. Throughout the treatment of the Presocratics, Socrates, the Academy and the Peripatetics, Plutarch is shown to mention and praise the involvement of philosophers in politics and to promote the notion of harmony between vita contemplativa and vita activa. Roskam traces Plutarch's two formulations of this ideal in its rigid (Ad principem ineruditum) and moderate (Maxime) varieties to Plato's dialogues, the Republic's philosopher-king model and the Laws' more mild form of a cooperation between thinkers and statesmen (the latter is also found in Aristotle's later works). It is only in the Academic-Peripatetic tradition that Plutarch finds the correct basis for participation in political life (p. 63) and it is there that his sources reside. Roskam dubs the philosopher's consistency between words and deeds as "the second basic pillar" on which the work rests (p. 65), displaying Plutarch's view that an ethical perspective should dominate political life from the beginning.

With meticulous attention and admirable skill, Roskam outlines Plutarch's argument in the work (pp. 71-138). Following his analysis he also supplies a diagram and a schematic structure (p. 139-144). The basic tenet that the philosopher should contribute to the benefit of the whole community by guiding the ruler to moral virtue is presented elaborately. The treatise is divided into four chapters. The first introduces the main themes. Through his association with the ruler, in the form of friendship, the philosopher maximises his usefulness and his concern for the community. Purely utilitarian behaviour and aspects of humane conduct (φιλανθρωπία) are both included in φιλοκαλία or love of honourable things. Plutarch differentiates between the public-spirited philosopher (πολιτικὸς φιλόσοφος) and the one who withdraws from public life (ἀπράγμων φιλόσοφος). Contrary to the latter, who converses with one private citizen and benefits him only, the public philosopher who associates with a ruler bestows benefits upon many through one. Actually, according to the characterization of philosophy as a vita activa, he should in the first place consort with the rulers. A philosopher who shies away from politics is thus virtually inconceivable. This is just one argument which Plutarch uses effectively to reduce the gap between the two opinions regarding participation in public life skilfully presented by Roskam.

The argument introduced in the second chapter claims that friendship is the final end of the two kinds of human λόγος, namely, the thought residing in the mind and the thought uttered in a spoken language. Plutarch underlines the trivial character of the distinction between the two types by showing that the first brings a friendship with oneself and the second advances friendship towards the other. The sophisticated argument Plutarch employs further narrows the difference between the political philosopher and the quietist. On the one hand, Plutarch gives the inner thought a superior position and emphasizes the primacy of individual social ethics. On the other, he describes virtue in terms of friendship. The end of participation in political life is thus not external advantages like wealth, fame or power but rather friendship. The upshot is that the philosopher who withdraws from public life does not avoid consorting with rulers (if by examining their inner character he perceives that they are good), while the public-spirited philosopher consorts with the rulers in the first place (aiming at their moral improvement). In the same vein, the third chapter of Roskam's book effects a smooth transition between the two positions by connecting a utilitarian-altruistic perspective (activity of the philosopher on behalf of the community) and a utilitarian-egoistic perspective (the personal pleasure the philosopher derives). Here Epicurus, the prototype of the apolitical life, is brought in, with his position slightly modified, to say that it is more pleasant and honourable to confer benefits than to receive them. Since the public sphere provides more opportunities to bestow benefits, Plutarch's opinion is vindicated through a clever use of the opposite view. The fourth chapter lists several examples in support of the principle espoused.

Roskam's exposition is not only philosophically attractive but is also particularly helpful in exploring Plutarch's eristic strategies and rhetorical devices. Among the examples which are conveniently pointed out are the technique of turning the opponent's argument against himself (pp. 83-84), the reductio ad absurdum (pp. 85, 96), a fortiori arguments (pp. 85, 122-123), employment of popular etymologies (p. 123) and the use of parallelisms (pp. 90- 93, 116, 123, 129-132). Roskam carefully presents some of the points where Plutarch appears to have reversed the original intent of the examples and arguments. One such case is Ariston of Chios' retort to his opponent (censuring him for conversing with everyone) that he wished even wild animals could understand words that lead to virtue. The original context, Roskam explains, was to serve as an argument in favour of the philosophical instruction of the lower classes. Since Plutarch turns it around in an argument supporting the consorting of philosophers with rulers it is indeed "quite a remarkable inversion" (p. 86).

Roskam's book is a concise and well executed volume. It is complete as it stands and admirable in explaining Plutarch's thought in his own terms and with his own vocabulary. One additional layer may be suggested. Let us hypothesize for a moment that the work was not composed during the period of Trajan but rather in that of his immediate predecessors (or at least with a vivid memory of their rule). In this case, many of the examples and arguments used by Plutarch or altered from their original context would strike the reader as tongue-in-cheek rhetoric. For instance, Ariston's aphorism in its new setting would seem to be a rhetorical question asking whether the philosopher should avoid associating with rulers as if they were wild animals. While this appears as an argumentum ex absurdo, the very comparison of rulers to animals ironically alludes to the beastly character involved in political violence. In fact, this imagery continues in another example portraying the ruler as an animal (a goat, taking the plant eryngium: 776f). The same may be said about the inversion of perspective from the philosopher to the politician, when Cato Minor is mentioned sending for Athenodorus and Scipio for Panaetius. The latter's rhetorical question that ostensibly exposes the absurdity of not conversing with Scipio just because he happens to be the son of Aemilius Paulus and the grandson of Scipio Africanus (777b) also hints at the uneven relations between the Roman statesman and the Greek philosopher (cf. Cat. Min. 10.2: Athenodorus as a prize of Cato). Indeed, Roskam is right in claiming that "Plutarch veils the harsh reality of... brute power" (p. 136), but only on the explicit level. Plutarch's implied scepticism with relation to the success of the association between ruler and philosopher is expressed in the example placed at the very end of the work, namely, Plato's disastrous Sicilian involvement, which Roskam admits gives Plutarch's argument "a certain ambivalence" (p. 131). This should not surprise us. Is not Plutarch in the Lives often critical or ironic about the cooperation of politicians and philosophers? More often than not, Plutach does not present a clear-cut formulation of his views but rather invites his reader to think about his words. The text may thus convey several meanings at once, and it is up to the reader to interpret it.

This interpretation is not foreign to the spirit of Roskam's commentary. The possibility of the text being understood differently from its literal meaning is suggested by pointing to the difference between the "letter of Plutarch’s interpretation" and what he "really wishes to say" with relation to the example of Minos as the ὀαριστής of Zeus (p. 92). Plutarch is known not to say everything; his decision to avoid explicit references to the emperor may reveal "diplomatic caution" (p. 137). Roskam is aware of Plutarch's readerly orientation and also admits that the end of the treatise may be taken as a final invitation to the reader to reflect (p. 24 & n. 47). In his conclusion, Roskam claims that the philosopher expected to pursue the suggested course of action is "not a beginner" (p. 138). One would have to surmise that the work was not intended for a naive reader or audience.

Roskam describes Maxime cum principibus as "a committed and passionate plea in favour of participation in political affairs" (p. 132). This can be also said of the commentary itself, which directs our attention to the fact that politics is far too important to be left to the politicians, and that the philosopher should not neglect it, even though the dangers and risks of such an involvement are implicitly present in the text as well. By lucidly explaining Plutarch's position, Roskam in his commentary has certainly succeeded in bestowing 'benefits upon many through one'.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 08:40:36, Friday, 06 May 2011