BMCR 2005.02.34

Œuvres morales

Michel Casevitz, Daniel Babut, Plutarque, Oeuvres morales. Tome 15. Pt. 1, Traité 70 : sur les contradictions stoïciennes ; Traité 71 : synopsis de traité "Que les stoïciens tiennent des propos plus paradoxaux que les poètes. Collection des universités de France. Paris: Belles Lettres, 2004. Pp. 382. ISBN 9782251005225 €54.00.

This book offers a new edition, French translation, presentation and commentary of two philosophical essays by Plutarch: On Stoic Self-Contradictions, and Conspectus of the Essay “The Stoics Talk More Paradoxically than the Poets”. M. Casevitz (hereafter C.) edited the Greek text and critical apparatus, whereas D. Babut (hereafter B.) wrote the introduction, translation and commentary. This volume completes the edition and translation, in the Budé collection, of the three polemical works still extant of Plutarch against the Stoics. C. and B. published the other essay in: Plutarque. Oeuvres morales, Tome XV, 2e partie, Traité 72: sur les notions communes, contre les stoïciens (Collection Budé. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2002). The latter contains the bibliography and the various indices to both volumes. There is no doubt that these two volumes constitute the authoritative edition of the above-mentioned essays and should delight anyone interested in Stoic philosophy and Plutarch’s Moralia. The present review will however relate to the first book exclusively.

Each essay is preceded by a short presentation in which B. discusses the evidence concerning chronology and sources, while C. describes the manuscripts that have been collated. The Greek text is printed with the French translation opposite and with complete critical apparatus. The exceptionally long commentary to both essays comes at the end of the volume.

In his introduction to the essay On Stoic Self-Contradictions, B. focuses on two issues: the sources behind Plutarch’s polemic and the date at which it was composed.

Regarding the sources, B. discards the hypotheses propounded by H. von Arnim,1 by M. Pohlenz2 and by F. Sandbach.3 Von Arnim suggested that Plutarch had a compendium of arguments against the Stoics, deriving from the New Academy and more specifically from Clitomachus. This sounds less than plausible to B., since Plutarch’s attacks are unsystematic and do not bear the stamp of the rigorous confutations so typical of the New Academy. Later Pohlenz took over the idea that Plutarch had a compendium of arguments against the Stoics — probably not coming from Clitomachus — in which the refutations were thematically organized; to this frame Plutarch would have added other criticisms taken from one or many different secondary sources. In opposition to this opinion B. adduces H. Cherniss’ discussion, which shows that the so-called “systematic approach” in certain chapters of the On Stoic Self-Contradictions is nothing more than an illusion.4 The disorderliness of Plutarch’s refutations, argues B., does not necessarily imply that Plutarch based his essay on various sources. Finally Sandbach thought that Plutarch simply worked with a collection of quotations randomly extracted and compiled by someone who read specific Stoic books. Hostile to this last hypothesis, B. emphasizes that in this essay Plutarch rarely quotes the same treatise of Chrysippus twice in a row, frequently quotes the same excerpts and does not include quotations in every chapter. Moreover, Plutarch seems aware of the contexts from which many passages were extracted. Keeping all this in mind, B. surmises that the essay On Stoic Self-Contradictions has no other source than Plutarch’s personal knowledge of Stoicism. Along with Cherniss,5 B. recalls that Plutarch kept “notebooks” to which he had recourse to compose an essay on a particular subject. Such material, dating back to the time of his study in Athens, might have been at the core of Plutarch’s polemics against the Stoics.

Regarding the date at which the On Stoic Self-Contradictions was composed, B. admits that this issue is far from being settled. There is no chronological evidence available. Granted that this opuscule is highly polemical and scholarly, B. conjectures “avec un degré raisonnable de vraisemblance” that it should have been written at an early stage in Plutarch’s career, but, considering the tremendous amount of knowledge required, not at the very beginning. The On Stoic Self-Contradictions should precede, says B., the essay entitled The Pythian Oracles, in which Plutarch is more sympathetic to the Stoics. This would provide a terminus ante quem, but, again, we cannot date the essay on The Pythian Oracles with certainty. If the latter goes back to the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century, B. believes that the On Stoic Self-Contradictions should have been composed in 80 or soon after.

In his edition of the On Stoic Self-Contradictions, C. basically collated the same manuscripts as Cherniss, with the exception of two manuscripts which, in C.’s judgment, never provide the right reading by themselves and contain many errors. The apparatus criticus is extensive and, for the most part, keeps track of the numerous emendations made by various editors. C. is a conservative editor, who grants priority to the manuscripts, shows respect to the preceding editions and rarely intervenes in the text on his sole authority.

The French translation, completed by B. and checked over by C., is accurate and usually fluent. I compared a few pages directly with the Greek and I could not find anything worthy of blame. The style is pleasant, but slightly old-fashioned. This means that the reader who does not know French perfectly had better keep a dictionary at hand. For example, the following terms and idioms are not so usual these days: “vilipender”, “avoir le mordant”, “se pousser du col”, “se rengorger”, “polissonner”, “turpitude”, “commensaux”, “être en butte”. The sentences, although well constructed, are sometimes long and intricate: ten to fifteen lines in some cases.

The commentary is very extensive. Because it corresponds to the notes inserted in the translation, it cannot be read as a continuous text. For the On Stoic Self-Contradictions the commentary amounts to 265 pages in total. Were they not printed in very small characters, these notes could easily form a book by themselves. B. shows an impressive mastery of the secondary literature on Stoicism and explores every argument of Plutarch in detail. Many notes extend over several pages, explaining the Greek text, expounding the various interpretations, quoting modern scholars with praise or blame and accumulating references to studies on specific topics. B. intends to prove that Plutarch is not excessively unfair to the Stoics. Even though some refutations are shallow and betray the true spirit of Stoic philosophy, the On Stoic Self-Contradictions, says B., confines itself within the limits usually granted in antiquity to this kind of essay. Plutarch’s good faith should not, it seems, be put into question. Clearly B. tries to build his case against the modern critics, who generally deem that Plutarch is a malicious and pernicious judge of Stoic doctrines. On this point B. stays close to his own interpretation of Plutarch’s attitude towards the Stoics, as expounded in his book entitled Plutarque et le Stoïcisme6 and in his paper “Polémique et philosophie dans deux écrits antistoïciens de Plutarque”.7

I will now proceed to the Conspectus of the Essay “The Stoics Talk More Paradoxically than the Poets” (hereafter named Conspectus). This small synopsis — some 80 lines of Greek text — is divided into six chapters in which Plutarch draws a comparison between the Stoic sage and a few mythical figures. The verdict is that the poets are more logical in their descriptions of their characters than the Stoics are in their descriptions of the sage. B. focuses again on two main issues: the status of this conspectus and the date at which the lost work The Stoics Talk More Paradoxically than the Poets was composed.

Regarding the status of the Conspectus, B. believes that it is truly a summary (by Plutarch or someone else) of another essay entitled The Stoics Talk More Paradoxically than the Poets. Pohlenz suggested that this synopsis is in truth the “lost” essay, and that the term σύνοψις is an inappropriate addition.8 B. disagrees and cannot find any good reason why the manuscripts would admit of such an addition. He points out that both the On Stoic Self-Contradictions and the Conspectus of the Essay “The Stoics Talk More Paradoxically than the Poets” have their counterparts in the lost works On Epicurean Self-Contradictions and The Epicureans Talk More Paradoxically than the Poets. It is unlikely, says B., that the manuscripts erroneously added the term “Synopsis” to the essay.

Regarding the date at which this essay was composed, B. bases his analysis on the assumption that the Conspectus provides an accurate report of the content of the lost essay. He believes that Plutarch, in his Against the Stoics on Common Conceptions 1060 α refers tacitly to this essay.9 The latter would thus antedate the former. Surprisingly B. does not proceed to further inquiry on the basis of this terminus ante quem. In his presentation of the Against the Stoics on Common Conceptions, B. considers that this essay has the same terminus a quo as the On Stoic Self-Contradictions, that is to say that both works were composed in 80 or not long after.10 This would lead to the conclusion that the essay The Stoics Talk More Paradoxically than the Poets precedes the On Stoic Self-Contradictions and the Against the Stoics on Common Conceptions. It should then be dated before 80. Neglecting this line of argumentation, B. decides to compare the Conspectus with the essay On Ethical Virtue. This comparison proves, according to B., that the Conspectus is more rhetorical than philosophical. The Conspectus should then be quite prior to the other polemics against the Stoics. I point out that this would lead the reader, after some personal investigations, to the conclusion that the Conspectus and the lost work The Stoics Talk More Paradoxically than the Poets were composed several years before 80.

In his edition of the Conspectus, C. collated the same manuscripts as Cherniss. Although he does not mention it, C. put aside for the second time the Toletanus 51, 5 manuscript that Cherniss has partially taken into account. The apparatus is quite similar to the one provided by Cherniss, as C. underlines, and consequently differs noticeably from the apparatus printed in the Pohlenz-Westman’s edition.11

To conclude: this new edition and French translation of the On Stoic Self-Contradictions and of the Conspectus is a very commendable work. The commentary cannot but be praised. It is the fruit of many decades devoted by B. to the assessment of Stoic philosophy in light of Plutarch’s polemics. This book is a welcome addition to the already numerous works of Plutarch edited in the Budé collection.


1. Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, vol. I, Leipzig, 1903, p. xi-xiv.

2. “Plutarchs Schriften gegen die Stoiker”, Hermes, 74, 1939, p. 10 sq.

3. “Plutarch on the Stoics”, Classical Quarterly, 34, 1940, p. 22-3.

4. Plutarch’s Moralia, vol. XII, part II, Cambridge, 1976, p. 372-97.

5. Op. cit., p. 398-9.

6. Paris, 1969.

7. Revue des Etudes Grecques, 100, 1998, p. 11-42.

8. Op. cit. p. 2.

9. B. offered this opinion a long time ago in Plutarque et le Stoïcisme, p. 50, n. 3. Cherniss does not find the argument conclusive, op. cit., p. 608-9. B. mentions the disagreement of Cherniss, cf. Sur les notions communes, contre les stoïciens, p. 14.

10. Sur les notions communes, contre les stoïciens, p. 30.

11. Cf. Cherniss, op. cit., p. 609.