BMCR 2005.07.09

The Statesman in Plutarch’s Works. Volume I: Plutarch’s Statesman and His Aftermath: Political, Philosophical, and Literary Aspects. Mnemosyne Suppl. 250

, The statesman in Plutarch's works : proceedings of the sixth international conference of the International Plutarch Society. Mnemosyne, bibliotheca classica Batava. Supplementum ; 250. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2004. volumes 1 ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9004137955 €95.00/$125.00.

This book presents the first part of the contributions presented at the sixth international conference of the International Plutarch Society, held in 2002, with the theme “The Statesman in Plutarch’s Works”. The contributions are written in English (the vast majority), Spanish (3), French (1), and German (1), centered around four subthemes, sc. Plutarch, his life and his political activities; Plutarch’s presentation of statesmen; the statesman in Plutarch’s works: political, philosophical, and literary aspects; and Plutarch’s statesman: his influence and aftermath.

Both in his Moralia and in the Lives (the subject of the second volume of these proceedings) Plutarch underlines the role of politics as an essential human activity. As De Blois rightly remarks in the introduction (p. 1), Plutarch considered politics as a manifestation of someone’s ethical position, his aretê, but also and even primarily as the proper application of philosophy. Philosophy and ethics were strongly interrelated: in Plutarch’s views an ethically correct attitude was probably the most important result of philosophy as well as part of it. As for Plutarch ethics and politics were closely interconnected, so also for both Plato and Aristotle: this is the subject of a highly interesting contribution by Hershbell in part 3 of this volume.

Plutarch’s prime goal was to guide himself and others to virtue, ἀρετή, and the happiness, εὐδαιμονία, which rests thereon.1 In this view virtue is the control of reason over passions, in the sense of the peripatetic μετριοπάθεια, restraint, by fighting against πάθη (emotion, instinct) and by keeping λόγος (probably best translated as reason) in control. Plutarch frequently used history as an arsenal of examples for his ethical discussions, thereby outlining his views on the proper philosophical (and therefore also political or statesmanlike) attitude.

The influence of Plutarch on later generations can hardly be overrated, as is shown in the various contributions in the fourth part of this book. This influence probably started as early as Apuleius, as argued by Hunink and Keulen in their separate contributions, but really took off after the first publication in print of the Lives in 1517, discussed by Dana, especially with respect to the proper order of the three volumes that constitute the Lives. Thanks to the printed texts the study of and on Plutarch, especially of the Lives and to a lesser extent the Moralia, quickly spread, first to France and the German-speaking regions. The situation in those regions is discussed by Van Gemert. Especially in eighteenth-century England Plutarch was frequently studied, largely thanks to Sir Thomas North’s translation (of the French Amyot-translation) of the Lives. Its influence is the subject of Gippert’s contribution. However, in expressive arts too Plutarch emerged as a source of inspiration, notably of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1655). Two of his paintings are discussed by Geiger.

It is easier to detect Plutarch’s influence on later generations than to detect how Plutarch himself emerged as a politician. All we have thereon are his own writings. Plutarch’s direct political activities appear to have been, more or less, restricted to those obligations that a citizen from a family of such distinction, as his was, was expected to fulfill. Nevertheless one might say that his political importance increased with his friendship with Sosius Senecio, friend and confidant of the Emperor Trajan. Among his public functions was that of priest and administrator ( epimelétés) at Delphi, a position one held, once elected, for life. In the first contribution of part I Plutarch’s role in and for Delphi is discussed by Stadter. Delphi was a rich temple in Plutarch’s day and, as McInerney writes (p. 43), “Plutarch knew every stone, every inscription and every dedication as well as the back of his hand”. McInerney analyzes in his article the role of Delphi for Plutarch’s philosophy.

In their turn De los Ángeles Durán López in the second contribution of this volume and De Blois in the fourth concentrate on another feature, the Roman occupation of Greece. De los Ángeles Durán López treats everyday Greece in its dealings with Roman rule, while De Blois points out that Plutarch clearly preferred the security (for his own class?) the Romans offered above the risks of complete polis autonomy, though he was not necessarily happy with the way some officials may have executed their power.

In part two, Ingenkamp wonders how Plutarch constructed his writings and used his sources. Consequently he demonstrates how we can distinguish between Plutarch and another author writing a bios using the same sources. Next, Pelling discusses the practical result of the philosophical theory and concludes that there is quite a discrepancy between the two. Beck’s contribution almost naturally follows from this line of argument, dealing with the statesman’s independence of action. Beck scrutinizes especially the techniques used by politicians to have their own way. Poetry, notably Homer, appears to have been an important educational instrument for Plutarch’s views. Nevertheless, one might describe his attitude to the arts, notably poetry and music, as ambiguous if not hostile. This is the subject of Bowie’s paper (and returns in Bons’ contribution as well, especially pp. 238-241).

In part 3, finally, we find ten contributions on various aspects of Plutarch’s representation of politicians and their craft and the origins of this representation. Both Pérez Jiménez and Van der Stockt focus on the subject of Plutarch and justice. Nevertheless the perspective of the contributions drastically differs. Whereas Pérez Jiménez focuses on the choices for politicians between justice and utility, Van der Stockt discusses, roughly speaking, the necessary internal drive of a politician, and especially a person invested with state power, to act as he should and — in the case of a ruler — become ‘divine’ in the sense of ‘godlike’ ( ὁμοίωσις : p. 149). The next paper, that by Hershbell, has been mentioned already; it, too, touches upon the theory of a ruler as the image, and agent, of god.

In the previous articles the topic of Plutarch’s intellectual debts to Aristotle are frequently discussed or alluded to. The paper by Calero Secall is entirely devoted to the presence of Aristotle’s political ideas in Plutarch’s works. As she shows, some conceptions we encounter in Plutarch were taken directly from Aristotle; others we must assume were basically derived from Plato’s heritage. Many of Plutarch’s views on management of the state reflect Aristotelian origins. Aristotelian views also return in Bos’ contribution, centered on the final part of Plutarch’s De facie in orbe lunae. Bos’ aim is “to investigate the view of world-government which Plutarch has set before us here and what his background is” (p. 175). Kronos and Zeus are opposed to each other in a way that appears to be inspired by Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s theory of the soul (of the world).

Trapp confronts the philosophical reality of Plutarch’s prescription with everyday political reality and concludes that the two rarely, if ever, meet. Cook discusses how five examples taken from Greek history serve as prescriptions for aspiring statesmen to maintain local harmony. Boulogne sets out to search the metaphysical nucleus of Plutarch’s political thought within the framework of the Roman Empire. According to Boulogne it is Plutarch’s belief that spreading culture (thus philosophy) on earth is the greatest contribution a man can make to the cosmic order: hence his statement that Alexander the Great was, in a sense, the foremost of all philosophers. In spite of what this statement might implicate, barbarians were not really an issue in Plutarch’s thought, as Schmidt points out. He looks upon them as lawless, savage, backward, and, more or less, past redemption. The absolute monarch of the Persians has to be reminded every day of the fact that he is subordinate to god, but the more educated ruler is by nature conscious of this fact. That more educated ruler, a Greek or a Roman imbued with Greek values, is the model of the “good” king.

Finally, Bons argues that Plutarch presents a reliable reproduction of a fragment of the rhetor Gorgias (sc. Frg. 23 DK). As already hinted, the fragment forms part of an argument regarding the way one should encounter poetry. Only as long as the spectacle lasts should the audience hold the illusion (or deceit, apatê) created as a kind of truth; afterwards it should be what it is, an illusion (cf. p. 243).

Much to my joy De Blois and co-editors have chosen not to furnish every contribution with its own bibliography, but to present a comprehensive list of all literature used at the end of the volume: it adds, in my opinion, to a restful and pleasant lay-out. This helps mitigate the fact that the book is, as it happens, not easy to read because of the enormous amount of information presented. Certainly for those for whom Plutarch is not really everyday reading, the impressions might be overwhelming. One should, however, not be deterred: the various articles offer so much, and not exclusively for Plutarch, that going through it may be quite rewarding. Though I have not (yet) seen the second volume of the series, I sincerely believe that, at least for every Plutarch-addict, this should be compulsory reading. A concise but sufficient general index concludes this volume, which (as might be expected both from Brill’s reputation and from the volume’s price-tag) has been excellently edited and produced.


1. K. Ziegler, Plutarchos von Chaironeia, Stuttgart 1964, 305.