Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.17

Eleni Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes: a Lesson in History of Philosophy. Oxford classical monographs.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. xvi, 359.  ISBN 9780199597239.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by Tobias Thum, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, München (


The main aim of this monograph on Plutarch’s Adversus Colotem, as described in the introduction, is “to contribute to the ongoing reappraisal of Plutarch as a philosopher”, and in doing this Kechagia concentrates on Plutarch as a historian of philosophy: in her opinion, “the most important aspect of his philosophical side”. Kechagia is right in stressing that most scholarship on Adversus Colotem, including Westman’s monograph from 1955, either takes Plutarch’s text as a source for the doctrines of the philosophers discussed, or focuses on particular questions but not the work as a whole, and so her attempt to show how Plutarch himself understood and discussed the theories of earlier philosophy, and to treat Adversus Colotem as a serious piece of history of philosophy is very welcome. There really is, as she rightly emphasizes, no reason to think that a polemic text, which Adversus Colotem surely is, should not contain intelligent and well-founded philosophical interpretation.

In her preface, Kechagia says that her initial plan in examining Plutarch’s Adversus Colotem was to defend Colotes against Plutarch’s polemic and to vindicate Epicureanism, but that soon she had to recognize that Plutarch’s arguments against Colotes’ book could not easily be dismissed; on the contrary, Plutarch turned out to present himself as a serious teacher and historian of philosophy. It may be due to this change of attitude towards Plutarch’s Adversus Colotem that Kechagia’s book falls into two quite different and independent parts: Part one (“Plutarch’s target”, 19–132) is mostly (except chapter one, see below) a reconstruction of the life and works of Colotes, whereas part two (“Method and argument in the Adversus Colotem”, 135–294) contains an interpretation of the Adversus Colotem itself, focusing on the structure of the work, Plutarch’s argumentative strategy and, among other things, Plutarch’s defense of Democritus, Platonic ontology, and the Cyrenaics. There are three appendices, the first of which containing a useful list of all “reports”, “quotations”, and “echoes” of Colotes’ work as far as they can be retrieved from Plutarch’s text, the second discussing the question of whether Colotes’ book had an anti-skeptical tendency, the third presenting Plutarch’s reading of the Democritean οὐ μᾶλλον-thesis in the context of other interpretations of it.

In the first chapter, before turning to a reconstruction of Colotes’ life and works, Kechagia sets out to answer the question of why Plutarch wrote against Colotes’ book, a piece of Epicurean polemical literature from the third century B.C., at all. After a careful reading of the prooemium of Plutarch’s text, she concludes that Adversus Colotem is meant as an example of “a good exercise in philosophical criticism and the history of philosophy viewed from the perspective of a Platonist teacher”, i.e. of Plutarch himself. Since Adversus Colotem presents itself as a point-by-point reply by Plutarch to the charges that Colotes had made in his book against a long list of eminent philosophers, Plato and Socrates included, Kechagia next attempts to reconstruct his book and the style of his works (which are only preserved in fragments) to draw a picture of Colotes’ place in the Epicurean school. Kechagia’s discussions are characterized by careful methodological reflections throughout, and the resulting reconstruction of the main characteristics of Plutarch’s reply and the tendency of its argument are completely convincing.

The second part of the study is wholly devoted to a careful analysis of Adversus Colotem itself. Kechagia first looks at the structure of Plutarch’s refutation of Colotes’ accusations and convincingly shows that Plutarch in his reply changed the original order of Colotes’ accusations and rearranged them in accordance with the three branches of philosophy (physics, dialectic, ethics) in order to combine his defense of the individual philosophers against Colotes with a universal attack on Epicurean philosophy itself. Secondly, Kechagia throws a light on Plutarch’s argumentative strategy and singles out two main types of arguments used: vindication (Plutarch shows that Colotes’ charges are wrong and/or are based on malicious distortions of the attacked doctrines) and refutation (Plutarch exposes the charges Colotes made against his rivals as inconsistencies in Epicurean doctrine itself). In combining these two argumentative strategies, Plutarch, as Kechagia shows in the remaining three chapters, succeeds at the same time in defending the philosophers under attack, and in attacking Colotes’ philosophy, Epicureanism, in a systematic way. Her case studies, dealing with Plutarch’s defense of Democritus, Platonic ontology and the Cyrenaics, prove that Plutarch, even in polemic mode, always remains a reliable historian of philosophy in the sense that he is likewise well-informed about the teachings of the ancients and the inconsistencies of Epicurean doctrine.

The book, then, proves impressively Kechagia’s initial thesis that Plutarch’s Adversus Colotem is far more than a crude polemic pamphlet against Colotes as a random Epicurean target: it is a highly intelligent critique of an Epicurean pamphlet from the viewpoint of a serious historian of philosophy. My only criticism concerns some aspects of the presentation of her results. The book is exemplary in its clarity, methodological reflection and reader- friendliness, but I fear that Kechagia has not really considered who might be the addressee of her work. On the one hand, it is worthy of praise that she has written a book that does not require special knowledge, either about Plutarch or about the philosophies discussed, and so is highly accessible for everybody interested in the matter; on the other hand, I think, only specialists in Plutarch or ancient philosophy in general will actually read through its 321 pages. So the undeniable strength of Kechagia’s meticulous efforts to make clear for everybody what Plutarch actually does in Adversus Colotem may irritate the likely readership. All too often the book explains over and over again something that anyone who is acquainted with the text already knows from a first reading; frequently there is a kind of artificial suspense in the book created by rhetorical questions (“does Plutarch really think . . . ?”) followed by long digressions – even though Plutarch himself makes it sufficiently clear what he means in the next line. It would be a pity if this dramatizing style limits the success of this book among specialists, a success that it truly deserves.1


1.   I did not look systematically after misprints, but at 220, last line read “Phaed. 74d–75b” instead of “Phdr. 74d–75b”; in the bibliography, some entries caught my eye. Also, read: Berner, U., Feldmeier, R., Heininger, B., and Hirsch-Luipold, R. (2000), Plutarch: Ist ‘Lebe im Verborgenen’ eine gute Lebensregel? (Darmstadt); Boulogne, J. (2003), Plutarque dans le miroir d'Épicure: Analyse d'une critique systématique de l'épicurisme; De Witt, N. W. (1936a), ‘Epicurean contubernium’; Frede, M. (1979), ‘Des Skeptikers Meinungen’;“Graeser, K. (1970), ‘Demokrit und die skeptische Formel‘; Naddaf, G. (2005), The Greek Concept of Nature; Van der Stockt, L. (2004), Plutarch in Plutarch: The problem of the hypomnemata; Volkmann, R. (1869), Leben, Schriften und Philosophie des Plutarch von Chaeronea.

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