BMCR 1998.01.15

98.1.15, Plutarch and his Intellectual World

, , , Plutarch and his intellectual world : essays on Plutarch. Intellectual world of Plutarch.. London: Duckworth in association with the Classical Press of Wales, 1997. xii, 249 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780715627785 £40.

Mossman’s introduction begins with a defense of the title, and reading it only heightened my skeptical expectations. I had no doubt but that the title was a catch-all that would allow the editor to include sundry conference papers in one volume (“The Intellectual World of Plutarch”, a conference of the International Plutarch Society, held in Dublin in September 1994). However, the essays in this volume do fulfill the promise of the title and form a coherent whole, especially the first eight pieces which focus on the Moralia. In these essays Plutarch often makes but a cameo appearance, as his works are used to elucidate an aspect of the intellectual climate of his age.

This is particularly the case in the first contribution, Ewen Bowie’s “Hadrian, Favorinus, and Plutarch”, which advances some interesting conjectures about Favorinus’ life and his relations with Hadrian, Polemo, and last and least, with Plutarch. He questions the common assumption that Favorinus’ speech On Exile demonstrates that Favorinus himself was exiled. Favorinus merely adopted the persona of an exile for that speech. The occasion of [Dio] Oration 37 shows that Favorinus did weather some serious charges, but Bowie argues persuasively that it would be unwise to link these charges with the dubious anecdotes in Dio and in the HA about Hadrian’s jealous conflicts with intellectuals like Favorinus and Apollodorus.

Favorinus is also featured in Jan Opsomer’s “Favorinus versus Epictetus on the philosophical heritage of Plutarch.” O[psomer] uses the polemic controversies between Favorinus, Epictetus, and Galen to elucidate Plutarch. In the first section he provides a solid basis for understanding Favorinus and Plutarch as using sceptic methods such as suspension of judgment in order to advance positive doctrine. He also presents a more finely nuanced understanding of Favorinus’ approach to to katalepton. Where others (including Bowie above) interpret Galen’s account of Favorinus’ self-contradiction as an evolution in Favorinus’ thought, O. reads it as Galen’s polemic misunderstanding of Favorinus’ refined suspension of judgment. Then he brings up some interesting passages in Epictetus to show that the Stoic philosopher directed attacks specifically against the epistemology of Plutarch and his circle. Two passages are particularly telling. In one ( Diss. 2.20.27) Epictetus vehemently attacks the Academics for marrying, begetting children, being good citizens and priests, and consulting the Pythia, all of which apply particularly well, if not exclusively, to Plutarch. The second passage is Diss. 2.20.29-31, where Epictetus humorously imagines how he could infuriate an Academic if he were his slave. Epictetus here exploits the comic potential of denying sensory perceptions. O. convincingly argues that this passage inspired Favorinus to stage his Against Epictetus in the form of a debate between Epictetus and one of Plutarch’s slaves. It is likely that there is a connection between this passage and the Against Epictetus, but Favorinus’ choice of Plutarch as the representative of the New Academy need not imply that he was also Epictetus’ main target.

Plutarch’s relation to scepticism also figures prominently in George Boys-Stone’s analysis of the De Stoicorum Repugnantiis, “Thyrsus-bearer of the Academy or enthusiast for Plato?” Traditionally this essay has been considered damning to Plutarch on two counts: (1) The extreme scepticism found here does not represent Plutarch but is only used for the narrow polemics of this essay and (2) Plutarch’s arguments are petty and silly. Boys-Stones shows that the method of adducing self-contradictions in an opponent’s argument is not restricted to Sceptics, but was used by Plutarch in good faith in a long Platonic and Peripatetic tradition. Taking each of the arguments in its philosophical context shows that Plutarch’s petty polemics were not so silly, but actually in the philosophical mainstream of his day. Part of this philosophical context was “the growing importance of the appeal to authority” (p. 54) and here, as well as at Opsomer’s “a struggle about claims to philosophical authority” (p. 29) a citation of David Sedley’s article on the topic might be appropriate. 1

Next Francesca Albini tackles the weighty problem of “Family and the formation of character in Plutarch.” Her paper is more intriguing than exhaustive, and she expressly states that it “aims to call attention to some elements worthy of further research.” A[lbini] structures her work on the trilogy of phusis, logos, and ethos, taken from the spurious De liberis educandis. She uses this division to analyze the protagonists in the Lives, drawing connections between characters’ family upbringings and their later personalities. A. does not make it clear whether this connection results from the characters’ psychology or from Plutarch’s artful interpretation of same. She discusses several figures and their relations with parents and siblings. Occasionally she stretches the evidence. A. argues, for example, that Alcibiades is forced to express his femininity, because he was raised without a mother, writing “Here again what is missing is that balanced atmosphere of the natural father and mother, and the son, in his need to compensate, ends up expressing within himself the elements that are missing around him.” A. constructs Alcibiades’ ‘femininity’ from the anecdote about his biting like a woman and his vanity, as shown in his refusal to learn flute-blowing. A bit more caution in identifying traits as feminine or masculine is needed here, as well as some indications as to whether A. is speaking for herself or whether she is articulating Plutarch’s own thought process.

One of the most useful pieces in this collection is “From Olympias to Aretaphila: women in politics in Plutarch” by Karin Blomqvist. B[lomqvist] focuses specifically on 5 women: Aspasia, Cleopatra, Olympias, Octavia, and Aretaphila, but her title is apt, for she offers a useful collection of statements about women throughout Plutarch’s corpus. B. uses quotes from the Moralia to show Plutarch’s biases, and argues that these biases inform his portrayal of powerful women in the Lives. However, these biases are not unique to Plutarch and B. does not attempt to show that Plutarch’s presentations of these women differ from those found in other sources. I have a particular quarrel with her interpretation of Plutarch’s Cleopatra as a corrupting source of “Oriental habits” (p. 79). Plutarch is much more circumspect about Antony’s degeneration and its putative connections with cultural Otherness than most commentators acknowledge. B. concludes by speculating that Plutarch’s bias against powerful women in politics was based upon his own negative experience with Pompeia Plotina. The biases against powerful women in Plutarch’s text, be they reflections of his sources or his personal agenda, can be understood without resorting to creative reconstruction of the careers of both Plotina and Plutarch.

Veering from larger issues to the nuts and bolts of a text, Donald Russell, offers a rhetorical analysis of “Plutarch, Amatorius 13-18″. This is a learned collection of quotes and footnotes which proves “sometimes by simple paraphrase- that this speech has a very clear structure, with prologue and epilogue, and an ordered development of theme.” Flacelière’s edition has a similar and clearer summary of the speech’s main points, but Russell provides a useful case study in how Plutarch uses transitions, quotes, and tropes to advance an argument.

Six pages later we find Judith Mossman’s “Plutarch’s Dinner of the Seven Wise Men and its place in symposion literature.” As her title indicates, most of Mossman’s article relates Plutarch’s dialogue to recent work on the symposium as an institution and as a literary genre. She artfully addresses a melange of issues, but her main contribution is to show how the theme of heterosexual love—rather than the homosexual love typical to the genre—is woven throughout the dialogue.

John Moles’ “Plutarch, Brutus and Brutus’ Greek and Latin letters” is subtle and enjoyable. He makes a good case that Brutus’ Greek letters, as quoted in Plutarch’s Brutus, are spurious. However he is perhaps too subtle when he argues that Plutarch himself artfully plays with questions of the authenticity of the Greek letters with the word παράσημος in Brutus 2.5-8. The centerpiece of Moles’ article is a sound defense of the authenticity of two of Brutus’ Latin letters (Cicero ad Brutum 1.16 and 1.17). 2 Plutarch only enters this argument tangentially, as a witness to the different traditions of Porcia’s death. Moles maintains that all accounts of Porcia’s dramatic suicide by ingesting coals set it clearly after Brutus’ death at Philippi. To reach this conclusion Moles misreads Plutarch’s summary of one of Brutus’ letters in the final chapter of the Brutus. Plutarch cites this letter in order to correct Nicolaus explicitly on the date of Porcia’s suicide, but does not state any discrepancy in the manner of death. We have no reason to infer, with Moles, that the letter implies “that Porcia simply abandoned her fight against the disease.” It implies that she committed suicide, and apparently in the manner Nicolaus relates.

Tim Duff’s “Moral ambiguity in Plutarch’s Lysander-Sulla” tries to turn the Parallel Lives into the Poststructural Lives, arguing that Plutarch continually foils the attempts of himself and his readers to come to a moral judgment on Lysander and Sulla. Plutarch is not however trying to get the reader into a state of aporia or epoche (withholding judgment). As Boys-Stone shows in this volume (p. 44-5) Plutarch often withholds judgment, not because it is the desired goal, but because it is preferable when there is not enough evidence. This caution is seen throughout the Lives. Plutarch is often biased and often has an agenda, but he admits contradictory evidence and does not strive for tendentious one-dimensionality. D[uff] begins by bringing the reader’s attention to the 3 statues that appear in these Lives, and argues that the statues “convey ambiguity and inconsistency.” His remarks here are interesting but do not compel credence.

When a moral judgment is offered against Lysander’s cavalier attitude towards oaths, D. claims that Plutarch distances himself from it by attributing the censure to his source Androcleides: it is “unclear whether the judgment represents the views of Androcleides alone, or whether it is shared by narrator”. Plutarch cites his sources because that is his method. When he chooses to distance himself from them, he does so by expressly distancing himself and disagreeing with them. It is progress of a sort that D. does not, as many critics past and present would, simply take it for granted that Plutarch, as a good proto-Christian, would automatically condemn oath-breaking. But in the spirit of inquiry one could look for evidence. Leaving aside the possibly spurious Mor. 330, where the ἀθεότης of the very same act is criticized, Plutarch expresses himself towards oath-breaking at Moralia 275D, 808B, 819E, Crassus 33.8, and the Synkrisis of Antony and Demetrius 5.

Repeatedly D. draws attention to the artful way Plutarch’s text revels in dissonance and problematization, arguing that Plutarch seems “consistently to work against easy moral conclusions” (p. 182). But interests of good history and good literature here coincide. P. engages the reader by forcing her to think. Although the focus of most Plutarch scholarship is deservedly on his significant omissions, conflations, and expansions, recent work has shown that he has a fundamental obligation to his sources and only sparingly forces his source material into preconceived patterns. 3 The lack of obvious manipulation in the Lysander and Sulla should not therefore be considered to be Plutarch’s anomalous leap into dissonance, but representative of his careful working methods.

An equally provocative piece is Rhiannon Ash’s “Severed heads: individual portraits and irrational forces in Plutarch’s Galba and Otho” According to A[sh], Plutarch does not use the Galba and Otho to explore their characters, but instead explores the politics of uncontrolled soldiers. She backs her thesis with good observations (p. 194 Sempronius Densus dies with τὸ κλῆμα [Galba 26.8-10, but in Tacitus 1.43.1 stricto pugione). A. makes a lot of the fact that Plutarch centers on and names minor individuals in these two Lives, slightly more so than our other two sources. Her arguments here and elsewhere are somewhat undermined because A. does not address the question of the common source (which she mentions in passing in footnote 9), which in all likelihood had the details and names. The relationship between P., Tacitus, Suetonius, and their common source should at least be addressed. The main value of the piece for me lies in A.’s solid collection of interesting tidbits about head and beheading imagery throughout the ages.

Christopher Pelling’s “Plutarch on Caesar’s fall” is a perceptive reading of the last sections of the Caesar. P[elling] argues that that work subtly portrays C. as falling victim to the forces that brought him success: troops, friends, ambition, the demos. Seneca and others present Caesar’s ruin as self-destruction, based on his own excess. P. arguably does the same with Alexander. But P. shows that Plutarch’s Caesar is trapped by forces external to him, and indeed, the same forces which raised him to prominence. In so doing P. downplays depictions of Caesar’s own actions leading to his ruin, such as his triumph over Pompey’s son (56.7-8). P. somehow quotes this passage to show that “those forces which bore Caesar to success—troops, friends, popular enthusiasm—are beginning to turn on him.” Here surely Plutarch portrays Caesar himself going too far, and not the action of external forces. Despite this small quibble, I find P.’s piece an inspirational reading of Plutarch as a literary artist.

The book closes with a brief essay by John Dillon, “Plutarch and the end of history”, which takes Fukuyama’s notorious book as a point of departure, but does not add much to the understanding of Plutarch found in R. H. Barrow’s 1969 study. 4

Plutarch and His Intellectual World confirms the vitality of the ongoing renaissance in Plutarch studies: intelligent people are asking provocative questions about both the author and the world around him. Overall the book is designed to be accessible to the non-specialist. Quotations in Greek, Latin, and German are translated, the rare bit of French is not (e.g., p. 122). The index of passages is lacunose: no references to Polemo Physiognomia 1.160, Philostratus VS 1.8, or [Dio] Oration 37, discussed in Bowie’s article alone. The general index is welcome, but does not include references to the end notes, which contain substantive discussions.

1. David Sedley “Philosophical Allegiance in the Greco-Roman World” in M. Griffith and J. Barnes, eds., Philosophia Togata (Oxford 1989): 97-119.

2. D. R. Shackleton-Bailey rejected these letters as spurious in Cicero: Epistulae ad Quintum Fratrem et M. Brutum (Cambridge 1980), and in Gnomon 65 (1993) 547.

3. See the salutary “General Principles for Reading Plutarch” in Philip Stadter A Commentary on Plutarch’s Pericles (Chapel Hill 1989) p. li-lii and Helene Homeyer “Zu den hellenistischen Quellen der Plutarch-Viten”Klio 41 (1963) 145-157, esp. p. 156-7.

4. F. Fukuyama The End of History and the Last Man (New York 1992). R. H. Barrow Plutarch and His Times (Bloomington and London 1969) p. 146-9.