BMCR 2023.04.20


, Plutarch. New surveys in the classics, 47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. vi, 211. ISBN 9781009108225

Geert Roskam’s goal for this book is explicitly, and whimsically, established in the Acknowledgements: “To give the reader an idea of the dynamics of Plutarch’s thinking and indeed arouse a passion for this interesting author. Briefly put, my goal will be reached when my reader enthusiastically throws this book away (or, perhaps better, carefully places it on a shelf), and runs to the library, and begins reading Plutarch for themself.”

The book is organized into seven chapters (pp. 1-166), each of them focused on a different aspect of Plutarch’s persona. Chapter 1, “Plutarch’s Life,” provides the cultural, political, and historical context for his life, much of which we can infer from his own work. Chapters 2 and 3, “Looking for the Truth: Plutarch as an Open-Minded Platonist” and “Learning in Abundance: The Ramifications of Plutarch’s Erudition,” delve into his philosophical views. Chapter 4, “The Complicated Path to Virtue: Plutarch’s Ethical Thinking,” as the title indicates, exposes Plutarch’s deep concern with ethics and their relation with man’s salvation. Chapters 5, “History as Matter for Philosophy: The Parallel Lives,” and 6, “A Close Encounter with the Parallel Lives: Two Case Studies,” explore Plutarch’s biographical project as well as its connection to his views on history. The last chapter (7), “Reason as a Mystagogue: Plutarch’s View of God,” examines Plutarch’s religious views and the relation between the divine and mankind. These chapters are followed by a list of Plutarch’s works, accompanied by their traditional abbreviation; an extensive and updated Bibliography;[1] and an Index of Passages (pp. 167-211).

Writing an introductory manual (εἰσαγωγή, as our ancient Greek colleagues would call it) is not an easy task; each scholar tackles it in very different ways, even going in opposite directions. Geert Roskam, a renowned specialist in Middle-Platonic philosophy and Epicureanism, naturally places the focus on those elements in his approach to Plutarch’s oeuvre, but he also provides data on a wide variety of topics and properly explains and exemplifies all of them. All sources of quotes and sayings are duly indicated, which proves the intention to appeal both to the wider public and to specialists. The book is written with wit and in a straightforward, clear manner. (The introduction to chapter 4 had me laughing out loud on the train: “Moralists are boring. Plutarch is a moralist. Thus Plutarch is boring.”) It presents an interesting and useful illustration of the Imperial period and its daily life through the person of Plutarch. And what is a great accomplishment is that most facts and anecdotes are drawn from Plutarch’s own words, which makes him available for and closer to the modern reader.

The contents and the style are in line with the didactic nature of the book. Notwithstanding this, I found it so packed with detailed knowledge that, as a specialist on Plutarch, I often found myself wandering in my own thoughts and considering new ideas and lines of research. Thus the book provides a noteworthy combination of general information and detailed analysis of Plutarch’s thought.

I would like to discuss more in detail what seems to be the author’s hermeneutic key to understanding Plutarch: the “zetetic” approach. According to Roskam, “For Plutarch, philosophizing was essentially looking for the truth: philosophy is zetesis, that is, a seeking or searching, and a philosophical approach is tantamount to a ‘zetetic’ approach.  A good philosopher raises an interesting question and then comes up with different answers” (p. 22). In the early chapters of the book, this approach is applied to Plutarch’s type of research for truth (e.g. in the Quaestiones Convivales), building up through several explanations, none of which are discarded but which all contribute to this search in their own way. In the chapters devoted to the Lives, however, the author seems to resort to zetesis for everything in between.

To name a couple of examples:

1) When discussing the collections of sayings (110), the author concludes that they represent an “aim to zetetic moralism in its light version,” because Plutarch has already omitted “much material that stimulates genuine and nuanced zetesis.” Here, then, the zetetic approach already acquires a slightly different meaning than in his first definition: it does not consist in resorting to various explanations and looking for truth or a truth in each, but rather in a pre-made selection of what Plutarch understands as most relevant to the matter, without allowing readers to gather, build, and reflect for themselves.

2) Roskam provides a detailed analysis of two pairs of Lives: Themistocles-Camillus and Sertorius-Eumenes. It is in the second pair that I feel the concept of zetesis risks of becoming a catch-all. The author duly discusses the problematic of Eumenes’ questionable loyalty and his perception as a foreigner of non-Macedonian descent in most of the Life; tilting from πανοῦργος (“ready to do anything”) to πιστός (“reliable”) in Plutarch’s description. The exploration of plausible reasons for Eumenes’ motivations does look like the zetetic approach as Roskam first described it; but then he suggests that Plutarch invented a fact in the Life (Eumenes’ rejection to Antigonus’ proposal) and affirms that “Plutarch therefore replaces the historical panourgos with an honorable and principled pistos” (p. 139), which is an attitude that does not agree with that honest “search for truth” that the author understands as zetetic moralism. Furthermore, although he first claims that Eumenes is increasingly portrayed as loyal (yet still somewhat concerned with his own interests, as is often the case in the Lives), he concludes that, in the synkrisis, Plutarch returns to Eumenes the panourgos, “this is how he is introduced at the very outset of his Life and this is how he appears at the very end” (p. 142). Again, this seems to contradict the very zetetic process, where we should find a build up towards truth, and towards the readers’ own construction of understanding. Here, instead, Plutarch starts with one view and, disregarding any development of character through the Life, comes back to his starting judgment. Despite these two questionable elements in Plutarch’s portrayal, the last line of the chapter reads “And, thus, the pair Sertorius-Eumenes exemplifies zetetic moralism at its best” (p. 144).

There is, or so it seems, too much room for malleability in the definition and unclearness in what it is that the zetetic approach actually covers. In addition, so much repetition of the concept – with no less than 12 occurrences in a couple of pages – also makes one wonder if one is being force-fed so as to be convinced that it is a good theory (much like hit songs that play on and on on the radio until you like them). Not that I don’t find the zetetic approach compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed its application to the treatises of Moralia in the early chapters. My point, rather, is that the overuse of a good concept in the attempt to make it THE answer to all of Plutarch entails the risk of failure. Plutarch is a complex, multifaceted author who cannot be reduced to one interpretation.

Scholarship’s inclination to find the one interpretive key for an author or a topic often results in an oversimplification of the matter, leaving out its richness and complexity and smoothing the edges to make sure everything fits in. The zetetic approach undertaken by Geert Roskam is very interesting and does apply to many individual aspects of Plutarch’s oeuvre, but, by overusing it and stretching its limitations, he might actually be less persuasive to his readers.

Beyond the need for this hermeneutic reading to find its proper place, Roskam’s book is an excellent and well written study on our beloved Plutarch. And as often happens with this author’s work, the book leaves the reader with much food for thought.



[1] Regarding the Bibliography, one misses some important contributions by outstanding scholars. To mention a couple of instances, when discussing the assimilation to God (ὁμοίωσις θεῷ), reference to L. Roig Lanzillotta is missing; regarding the three eschatological myths in Plutarch, full attention is given to De fato (with five mentions to literature on the topic), but zero to De genio and De facie.