BMCR 2002.06.39

Plutarch, Ist ‘Lebe im Verborgenen’ eine gute Lebensregel?

Plutarch., Ulrich Berner, Ei kalos eirētai to lathe biosas : ist "lebe im Verborgenen" eine gute Lebensregel?. SAPERE : Scripta Antiquitatis Posterioris ad Ethicam REligionemque pertinentia ; Bd. 1 = Schriften der späteren Antike zu ethischen und religiösen Fragen ; Bd. 1. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2000. 176 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 3534149440 EUR 25.90.

This book is part of a German series initiated in 1999 with the title SAPERE (Scripta Antiquitatis Posterioris ad Ethicam Religionemque pertinentia), Texte und Darstellungen zu Religion, Ethik und Philosophie der römischen Kaiserzeit, and featuring some lesser known Greek and Latin works from the first to the third centuries AD. Several volumes have now appeared, each intended to provide an accurate original text — with no apparatus, but with some critical observations appearing in the commentary — a facing German translation, a commentary keyed to the translation emphasizing content rather than linguistic matters, and a series of interpretative essays.1 The volume under review presents Plutarch’s short essay, De latenter vivendo ( Mor. 1228B-1130E) and offers various contributions ultimately deriving from an Oberseminar conducted jointly by the faculties of Protestant and Catholic Theology and Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Bayreuth.

This is an attractive publication both in its design and in its admirable goal of bringing together interdisciplinary scholarship on a single text from this period. It is also a great service to all readers, specialist and non-specialist alike, that the text under discussion appears in the original and in translation for direct consultation. The choice of this particular essay, which is the shortest of Plutarch’s three vigorous polemics against Epicurus, is never really justified. However, few will deny the inherent interest of Plutarch’s Auseinandersetzung with Epicurus. Another special significance of this particular essay is its brief but powerful depiction of Plutarch’s alternative to “living obscurely,” embodying an eloquent plea for the pursuit of excellence presented in the author’s extraordinary Middle-Platonist imagery of light and darkness.

A competent and well-documented introduction provides orientation for the general reader regarding the life of Plutarch, his writings, his public career, and his philosophy. Some emphasis is placed on Plutarch’s own role in politics and public service as one aspect of his biography particularly relevant to the text in question. The Greek text is essentially that of Pohlenz.2 The authors suggest that the more recent reexamination of the manuscripts by Einarson and De Lacy for the Loeb edition brought few new insights.3 Although one or two text-critical observations are made in the commentary, it is clear the interest is not primarily in textual questions.

The German translation of the text is direct and eloquent; however, through no fault on the part of the translators, one particularly philosophical passage (1129F-1130A) sounds a bit like proto-Heidegger:

Der Mensch ist nämlich unsichtbar und unerkennbar, solange er im Himmelsraum in kleinen Teilchen zerstreut umhertreibt. Wenn er aber in den Prozess des Werdens eintritt, dann setzt er sich zusammen, gewinnt an Grösse und tritt in Erscheinung; zuvor unsichtbar ist er nun sichtbar, zuvor verborgen nun offenbar. Das Werden ist nicht der Weg zum Sein, wie manche sagen, sondern der Weg des Seins zum Erkennen. Denn das Werden erschafft nicht alles, das wird, sondern macht es nur sichtbar, wie auch das Vergehen keine Aufhebung des Seins ins Nichtsein ist, sondern eher ein Wegführen des Aufgelösten in die Unsichtbarkeit.

Of course, in the context of the essay’s argument and of Plutarch’s Platonism, the passage is perfectly clear. The commentary, which is tied to this translation by footnotes, is sparse. Most of the notes provide background for non-classicists — for example, identifying Camillus and other individuals cited as exempla of the glories of preeminence in the State or explaining the etymology of the name “Hades.” In fact, except for a couple of interesting lexical, stylistic and historical comments, not much more is offered that one finds in the very brief footnotes of the Loeb edition.

For many readers the heart of this book will be the series of four interpretative essays. In the first Reinhard Feldmeier offers a fine analysis of the tension between the Epicurean “atomistic” view of ethics and the classical conviction, which Plutarch champions, that the polis is still fundamentally prior to the interests of the individual (citing Arist. Pol. I 2, 1253a 19f.). Since the Epicurean viewpoint is actually closer to the modern perspective, it is well known that Plutarch — along with Plato and Aristotle — has a notoriously hard sell in persuading us that the truest happiness — Feldmeier notes that Plutarch’s adopting of Epicurean categories in his argument — is only to be realized in service to the State. Viewing this text as a serious treatise and not merely as a rhetorical polemic, Feldmeier then offers a detailed analysis of the argumentation under this aspect. Since, on Plutarch’s view, living obscurely contributes nothing to the development of public or private virtue, the appendix on New Testament parallels to Plutarch’s views is a natural addition and is particularly welcome.

A second essay, by Rainer Hirsch-Luipold, examines Plutarch’s use of metaphor and imagery in the piece. The most dominant image is, of course, that of light and darkness, which is so easily suggested by the proverb itself. Also of interest is Plutarch’s use of metaphors of sickness, decadence and death, along with the more specific image of burial, which Plutarch employs to cap his argument that the life described by Epicurus is no life at all. In the third essay Ulrich Berner traces the roots of Plutarch’s antipathy and the wider phenomenon of anti-Epicurean polemic in ancient thinking, both Christian and pagan. He demonstrates that De latenter vivendo represents but one variation on this widespread hostility. Finally, in the fourth essay Bernhard Heininger considers in detail striking parallels between Plutarch’s essay and Early Christian eschatology. His essay makes a detailed case for the operation of syncretic forces in the religious thinking of late antiquity.

The University of Bayreuth and the Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft of Darmstadt have inaugurated a promising series of texts with this volume, which is highly recommended to all readers who can make use of it.



1. For a listing of titles in the series visit the site of the Forschungsprojekt SAPERE:

2. M. Pohlenz, R. Westman, Plutarch’s Moralia, Vol. VI/2 (Libri contra Stoicos scripti; Libri contra Epicureos scripti), Leipzig 1959.

3. B. Einarson, P.H. De Lacy, Plutarch’s Moralia, Vol. XIV (Loeb Classical Library #428), London/Cambridge, Mass., 1967.