BMCR 2004.06.30

Studien zu den literarischen Beziehungen zwischen Plutarch und Lukian

Philipp Wälchli, Studien zu den literarischen Beziehungen zwischen Plutarch und Lukian : ausgehend von Plutarch, De genio Socratis und Lukian, Philopseudeis. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde ; Bd. 203. München/Lepizig: K.G. Saur, 2003. 245 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3598778155 €82.00.

1 Responses

Philipp Wälchli’s 2002 Bern dissertation on Lucian’s use of Plutarch — and more specifically, on “Socrates’ Sign” [here GS] as a model for Lucian’s “Lovers of Lies” [here PP] — seems to have its origins in the work his Doktorvater Heinz-Günther Nesselrath was doing on the latter dialogue, published the year before Wälchli defended.1 Wälchli’s project was to assess the (possible) dependence of Lucian’s dialogue on Plutarch’s, as well as their shared debt to Plato’s Phaedo. It is striking that the useful edition, translation, and discussion of the dialogue that Nesselrath and his collaborators produced remains silent on the issue of Plutarch as a model for Lucian, though Lucian’s evocations of the Phaedo in PP are duly acknowledged (Ebner, et al., 57-59). One might infer that, for Nesselrath, the case remains open and undecided, but his student Wälchli nevertheless concludes — if with considerable hesitation and qualification — that significant parallels of structure and content speak for Lucian’s literary dependence on Plutarch here (224), and that Plutarch’s dialogue seems to have provided the impulse or idea (Anregung) for Lucian’s, and served as a model, both formally and substantially (222).

I must confess, in fairness to Wälchli, that I came to his dissertation with unrealistic expectations, hoping to find an elucidation of a concrete instance of the influence of Plutarch on an author close to his own time. The evidence is considerable for Plutarch’s impact on writers born within a decade or two of his own death. Aulus Gellius — in all likelihood a very close contemporary of Lucian — has many citations of Plutarch, larded with laudatory epithets that are rather surprising applied to one so recently dead: vir doctissimus ac prudentissimus (1, 26, 4), homo in disciplinis gravi auctoritate (4, 11, 11) and so forth. But just how did that prestige express itself in the form of the proverbial “highest praise,” namely imitation? This is precisely the issue Wälchli addresses, though clearly formulating the project as a problem in the interpretation of Lucian rather than one on the Nachwirkung of Plutarch. The result is a study built on comparisons — on balancing similarities against dissimilarities, in the absence of any substantial evidence to clinch the matter. If Lucian is imitating Plutarch in the dialogues discussed here, one must conclude that it is an imitation (unlike his evocations of the Phaedo) that chooses to disguise, rather than advertise, itself. Esthetically, this is of course something utterly different, and Lucian himself — especially in the “True Story” [here VH] — is antiquity’s great master of the full gamut of literary evocation and parody, from explicit confrontation with Homer and Herodotus to the much disputed, perhaps insoluble, puzzles of his interactions with authors closer to his own time. But are we to imagine that the Plutarchan models lurking in Lucian’s dialogues were meant to be picked up by his readers? That the plesure of reading the Philopseudeis was in part that of watching Lucian rewrite Plutarch rewriting Plato? If so, Wälchli does not make that case. He gives the impression, rather, that he is elucidating a process of composition (Lucian’s) consisting largely of adopting a single text as model, stripping it down and rhetorically embellishing it with new clothes — a replacement, more than a creative and appreciative assimilation, of the source text. The Quellenforschung of earlier generations promoted such a model for Plutarch himself as writer, but this notion of Plutarch has long since fallen out of fashion. The reader of Wälchli’s dissertation is left wondering whether that model still lurks somewhere in the Academy, ready to spawn a new brood of comparative studies.

The dissertation is a model of organization, so much so that the interested researcher would do well to proceed directly to the conclusion (“4. Ergebnisse und Folgerungen,” 217-229), where the questions posed and the answers proposed are presented with considerble efficiency. The bulk of the book, with its paraphrases of parallel texts followed by lists of similarities and dissimilarities, will be of use primarily to those specifically concerned with the “Lovers of Lies” (or with the sources of Lucian’s moon lore, of which more below).

The Introduction (9-26) surveys the literature on Plutarch as source for Lucian (10-13) — minimal, of course, since Lucian never mentions Plutarch or gives unambiguous evidence of having read him. Wälchli nevertheless focuses fruitfully on the consistency with which studies of Lucian evoke Plutarch as essential intellectual background, without exploring the specifics of the relationship between the two authors. That will be Wälchli’s goal, first in the Hauptteil of the dissertation, Ch. 2 on the dependence of PP on GS (27-158), and secondarily in Ch. 3, on the relationship between Plutarch, and especially “The Face in the Moon,” and the moon lore in Lucian’s VH and “Icaromenippus” (159-216). The methodology of comparison is displayed and neatly categorized (18-21) with appropriate cautions regarding the elusiveness of hard proof of connections (Beziehungen) or dependence (Abhängigkeit) and the unequal proof-value of various sorts of resemblance.

The central chapter analyses the dialogues in question with regard first to form and then to content, starting with the frames (27-33) and proceeding to the situations and structures — especially entrances and exits (38-61) — , zeroing in on the centrality to each dialogue of the entry of a doubter (Ungläubiger) whose provocation triggers the core discussion of the dialogue (61-67). The parallelism of Galaxidoros (GS) and Tychiades (PP) is striking, and well developed, including parallel explication of their respective “standpoints” (68-106). For all the differences, this structural and substantial parallel is Wälchli’s strongest point, and well worth making. I am left bewildered, however, that he then dismisses the notion that there might be a common parallel in the Phaedo (66, cf. 145-146). Surely it must be clear that Simmias himself — that same Simmias, the Theban Pythagorean, who appears both in the Phaedo and in Plutarch’s GS — is the “doubter” of the Phaedo. He is the one who silences Socrates with his materialistic account of the soul as a “harmony” that not only does not survive the body, but ceases to exist at death, while the body itself endures somewhat longer (Phd. 85e3-86d4). That devastating suggestion, both rational and consistent with observation, clearly stands in a relationship to the arguments in support of a soul separable from and longer lived than the body closely analogous the relationship of the rationalist doubters’ interventions in the later dialogues to the “supernatural” phenomena they debunk. Simmias may be more polite than Tychiades, but his impact on the conversation is, if anything, the greater for that.

What follows in the remainder of Ch. 2 is first, a rather mechanical and inconclusive comparison of the tales of the supernatural in GS and PP (107-145), followed by an excursus on the role of medicine in PP and elsewhere in Lucian — the latter interesting in itself, but again unconvincing in its conclusion that this theme could not come to Lucian from Plato and is more likely to stem from Plutarch.

The third chapter (“Die Geheimnisse des Mondes bei Lukian und Plutarch,” 159-216) argues (against Peter von Möllendorff2) that no sure connection can be established between Lucian’s moon-travel fantasies and related moon lore and the most evident possible surviving source for that lore in Plutarch’s “Face in the Moon”. He is willing to give more credence to Lucian’s dependence in VH 1, 26 (the mirror in Endymion’s palace) on Plutarch GS 589c-d (188-198). I fear, however, that few readers will find his identification of a minimal verbal echo, or his reasoning, compelling.

It would be easy to take issue with numerous points of interpretation, and in a study where everything is in the details, this might be justified. What is important about this book, however, is that it musters what evidence and argumentation it can for the dependence of Lucian on Plutarch in a selection of likely contexts. If all Wälchli can accomplish is to support the likelihood that the works in question demonstrate that influence, the deficiency may lie in the evidence rather than in his treatment of it. Near the end of the book, he seems to change course, introducing a new and highly credible model of interaction, and one consistent with the evidence presented. The moon material suggests that we may detect in a given work of Lucian echoes of more than one work of Plutarch (227), a notion of literary dependence removed from the narrower adaptation/imitation model that informs the core of the project. Finally, at the end of a final excursus on Lucian’s Gallus and Plutarch’s Gryllus (230-237), Wälchli concludes that Lucian may have had a broad knowledge of Plutarch’s works and made a similarly broad (and free) use of them. The evidence he has mustered in this useful dissertation certainly increases the credibility of that general assertion.

[[For a response to this review by Heinz-Guenther Nessealrath please see BMCR 2004.06.32.]]


1. Martin Ebner, Holger Gzella, Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, and Ernst Ribbat, Lukian: Die Lügenfreunde oder: Der Ungläubige, SAPERE 3, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2001.

2. Peter von Möllendorff, Auf der Suche nach der verlogenen Wahrheit, Lukians Wahre Geschichten, Tübingen: Narr, 2000.