Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.05.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.35

Sophia Xenophontos, Ethical Education in Plutarch: Moralising Agents and Contexts. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 349.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. ix, 266.  ISBN 9783110350364.  $140.00.  ISBN 9783110350463.  eBook.  

Reviewed by James Uden, Boston University (

Table of Contents

Plutarch made the world into a classroom. Sophia Xenophontos demonstrates in this good new book that education was a primary preoccupation of the philosopher, and that it formed the conceptual basis for works beyond those directly concerned with the ethical teaching of the young. She regards the De liberis educandis as spurious, and its explicit instructions about childhood education play little role in her analysis. Rather, as she demonstrates, throughout his corpus Plutarch is constantly translating the social and cultural institutions around him into opportunities for ethical instruction. Marriage, politics, the symposium, and even the Roman military are viewed through a pedagogical lens, and expected roles and hierarchies are incessantly recast as variations of the teacher-student relationship. Honor is given to those who either instruct others benevolently or listen in silence as attentive pupils. Xenophontos’ book, which builds on a series of articles on similar themes, 1 examines both the Moralia and the Parallel Lives, staying sensitive to the ambiguous interconnections in Plutarch’s corpus and the generic differences between biography and philosophy. There are limitations in the book’s scope; the usual interlocutor for Plutarch in the argument is Plutarch, and so it is often hard to gauge from Xenophontos’ treatment how challenging or provocative his insistence on pedagogical order might have been in the ‘highly competitive world of the Roman Empire’ (p. 185). But this is a well-researched, clearly written, and convincing book, which certainly bears out its author’s claim for her philosopher as a serious and persistent ethical teacher.

Xenophontos’ first chapter sets the theoretical stage by examining the effect of ethical education on the soul in the Moralia and the Lives. Plutarch follows Aristotle in presenting the rational part of the soul gaining mastery over the irrational part through a process of habituation. Nature alone cannot guarantee virtuous behavior. The soul, which is further subdivided into dunamis (‘capacity’), pathos (‘passion’) and hexis (‘acquired state’) (p. 26, citing De virt. mor. 443D), must be the object of rigorous and sustained attention in order to direct the individual’s natural propensities towards virtue. Xenophontos refers to Christopher Gill’s work in articulating the generic difference in ancient views on natural character: in moral philosophy, a person’s character is presented as more pliable and susceptible to education and change, whereas in biography it is more fixed (‘nature dresses up and then unmasks, but it does not change’, p. 33).2 Nonetheless, Xenophontos demonstrates that Plutarch consistently ranks the importance of nurture above that of nature. In the Lives, the mental condition and behavior of certain characters—if not their essential nature—does undergo ‘change’ ( metabolē, typically for the worse) and ‘correction’ (epanorthōsis). The latter term is present in Aristotle but of greatly expanded importance in Plutarch, who seems inspired by Hellenistic literary criticism (souls are corrected just like the text of Homer, p. 89: a bold idea). One never gets the sense that Xenophontos is forcing concepts into artificial categories. The survey is careful, well documented, and frank in pointing out areas of uncertainty or contradiction.

The argument really gets underway in Chapters Two and Three, in which the author explores the ethical education of sons and daughters by parents and teachers. In the Moralia and the Lives, she argues, Plutarch is less interested in the realities of childhood instruction than in deriving ethical lessons for adults from depictions of children. The unguarded frankness of children who express dislike for the politician Timesias of Clazomenae on the street, for example, represents a sort of parrhēsia that is tempting, ‘strangely admirable’ and yet ‘unsuitable’ to contemporary conditions (pp. 52-3, Praec. ger. reip. 812A-B). As for parents, their influence is uneven. Although mothers can be depicted as virtuous in the Moralia, Plutarch seems to think that ‘giving the child an intellectual and moral grounding’ is the proper task of the father, not the mother (p. 59). While women like Volumnia and Cornelia in the Lives of Coriolanus and the Gracchi offer high-profile examples of maternal virtue, they are far from typical cases. The most powerful mothers in Plutarch are ‘either widows or financially better off than their husbands’, and therefore become ‘surrogates of the paternal model’ (p. 70). Xenophontos then convincingly demonstrates strategic continuities between two of Plutarch’s more explicit pedagogical treatises, De audiendis poetis and the somewhat neglected De audiendo (On Listening to Lectures). The ideas of these works can also be detected in the De profectibus in virtute (On Progress in Virtue), which helps to demonstrate one of Xenophontos’ major arguments in the book, that ethical training is expected not only to apply to children, but to persist into and permeate adult life.

These chapters regularly refer to the ‘Greco-Roman’ context of Plutarch’s work, the ‘fusion’ of cultures ‘endemic to his milieu’, which allows him to blend Greek virtues with Roman historical characters without much strain (‘Plutarch does not usually find it problematic to transpose the peculiarities of Roman reality to the Greek domain’, says Xenophontos at p. 58). There was certainly a proliferation of works about pedagogy in the late first and early second centuries, although judgments about what should be taught—and by whom—differ sharply among Roman and Greek writers. Yet aside from some reference to Roman historians in the analysis of the Lives (the epitomist Justin becomes Justine at pp. 77 and 262), this book’s examination of the Roman half of the Greco-Roman context is sparse. Tacitus’ Dialogus is cited in footnotes but not discussed. Also cited but not discussed is Pliny’s encomium of the 13-year-old daughter of Fundanus, a useful comparandum for Plutarch’s account of his daughter Philoxena in the Consolatio ad uxorem (p. 48; the letter is Ep. 5.16, not 5.15). The writer most missed is Quintilian, whose monumental Institutio oratoria is described in trivial terms as ‘a handbook devoted to school questions’ (p. 90). The comparison with Quintilian suggests that there is likely more tension in Plutarch’s projection of Greek educational models on to Imperial-era reality than Xenophontos allows. She may be right to argue that the resolute endurance of suffering by mothers in the Moralia reflects a Roman ideal (p. 58), for example, but Plutarch’s approving picture of silent women ‘restricted to the physical supervision’ of their children (p. 61) does not strike me as particularly Roman; Quintilian envisages a very active role for Roman mothers in shaping the eloquence of their children (1.1.6-7). Without some sense of competing models of pedagogy in the period, the cultural stakes involved in Plutarch’s didactic models and ethical judgments remain mostly unexplored.

The fourth chapter examines Plutarch’s vision of the marriage chamber as a space for education. While the opening of the Coniugalia praecepta inclines readers to expect ‘a sort of parity’ between married couples, in fact Plutarch consistently applies pedagogical paradigms to present the husband as a teacher and the wife as a student listening ‘in obedient silence’ (pp. 109, 111). This silence can have its own power, as Xenophontos argues, offering moral lessons to male readers in the Consolatio ad uxorem and the Mulierum virtutes (pp. 114-18). The Parallel Lives also include a number of wives (Porcia, Chilonis, Agiatis) who break type and become teachers to their husbands in speech as well as action, although this role reversal is not necessarily an example to be imitated, since it is enabled in moments of male crisis or weakness. Xenophontos’ balanced vision of the possibility for women to be moral teachers in Plutarch’s thought contrasts—at one point explicitly (p. 110)—with the reading of Victoria Wohl, for whom Plutarch’s message of marital harmony is a mere subterfuge for the husband’s hegemony.3 Xenophontos typically sees the best in her author. She always emphasizes his philanthropia and his optimistic attitude to his students’ ethical capabilities. Still, her opening claim in this chapter that he was ‘always respectful to women’ (p. 108) rings somewhat false when, as she shows, his texts so often teach them not to speak.

Chapters Five and Six demonstrate the pervasive influence of pedagogical ideas in Plutarch’s descriptions of political and military life. Echoes of the De audiendis in the Praecepta gerendae reipublicae show that the philosopher’s ideal political leader must also embody the characteristics of the good student, becoming familiar with and adaptable to the nature of the people he governs. Then he must in turn become a teacher, directing the character of his citizens towards virtue (pp. 132-5). Even the Roman army is reconfigured so that it is no longer ‘a setting for displaying physical or political strength . . . but another moralizing space in which his heroes and then his audience can reflect on their own virtue and character’ (p. 152). Aemilius Paulus in his Life is extolled for educating his soldiers and displaying imitable self-control, and Sertorius in his Life is seen instructing foreigners in Greek virtue. Xenophontos is more explicit in these chapters about the potential clash between these idealized ethical models and the realities of Roman power. She helpfully contrasts Plutarch with Tacitus’ cynical vision in the Agricola of imperial expansion as civilizing pedagogy (p. 166), and observes that the limits of Greek political autonomy shape the values that he can recommend to contemporary leaders (pp. 147-9). But in the argument of this book, Plutarch’s ethical vision simply exists on a different plane from the un-philosophical morass of (mostly Roman) politics. Plutarch’s ethics ‘transcend any political restrictions’, she says (p. 148). He adheres to ‘a different code of public distinction’ (p. 169).

Xenophontos’ final chapter examines the institution of the symposium in the Quaestiones conviviales (Table Talk) and Plutarch’s self-depiction as an educator in the sympotic context. Again, aspects of the ideal didactic experience make themselves felt in the dining room. The character of Plutarch in that work is alternately tactful and aggressive, controlling and moderating moments of competition, and the dinner guests also at times reflect the attentive silence of conscientious students. Here the book distinguishes itself from the recent study of Lieve Van Hoof,4 which puts more emphasis on the jostling for cultural authority and political prestige in Plutarch’s adoption of the philosopher’s mantle. Xenophontos maintains that Plutarch is not crassly promoting himself as the sophists did: he is interested above all in the education of his audience, and therefore undue cynicism ‘does not do justice’ to his ‘moralising endeavour’ (p. 202; also at pp. 185-6). Surely it is not a case of one motivation or the other. The implication of making the world into a classroom is not simply that people should be taught but that Plutarch is their teacher, and his texts thereby become a means of conjuring authority for their writer. Nonetheless, this final chapter offers a sensitive reading of the pedagogical dynamics of the Table Talk, and also includes a short but instructive comparison to Galen, who is more brazen in his competitive self-definition (pp. 185-6).

In the opening of Ethical Education in Plutarch, Xenophontos distinguishes her study from two previous approaches. Scholars such as Schmitz and Whitmarsh sought to examine Plutarch’s work within the social and cultural pressures of the Imperial period, while Plutarchan specialists like Babut and Becchi traced the lineage in his thought from the long tradition of Classical and Hellenistic philosophy. Xenophontos pursues a third path, a focus on Plutarch’s depictions of pedagogy as a theme ‘in its own right’ (p. 12; the same phrase at p. 195). Education in Plutarch becomes its own world of cross-references, aims, and ideas. While that strikes me more as a narrowing of the scholarly conversation than as a real advance, in other ways the book impresses by its breadth. Its analysis is not limited to any one part of Plutarch’s daunting corpus. It ranges widely and thoughtfully over treatises both familiar and comparatively unfamiliar, is attuned to the focalization of ideas through different characters, and displays a sure command of the bibliography in the field. Xenophontos ends with the conviction that Plutarch can —and should—work some of his pedagogical influence over readers today. Opinions will differ on that point. But she has certainly spent a productive time in the Plutarchan classroom, and Ethical Education in Plutarch is a clear and interesting account of a lifelong teacher’s consuming didactic passions.


1.   See especially S. Xenophontos, ‘Imagery and Education in Plutarch’, Classical Philology 108 (2013), 126-38; ‘Plutarch’ in M. Bloomer (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Education (Chichester, 2015), 335-46.
2.   C. Gill, ‘The Question of Character-Development: Plutarch and Tacitus’, Classical Quarterly 33 (1983), 469-87.
3.   V. Wohl, ‘Scenes from a Marriage: Love and Logos in Plutarch’s Coniugalia praecepta, Helios 24 (1997), 170-92.
4.   L. Van Hoof, Plutarch’s Practical Ethics: The Social Dynamics of Philosophy (Oxford, 2010).

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