Plutarch and the Philosophical Dialogue


Anne I. McDonald

B.A., University of Kansas, 2007

M.A., University of Bristol, 2008

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements

for the degree of Doctor of in the Department of Classics at Brown University


MAY 2015

© Copyright 2015 by Anne I. McDonald

This dissertation by Anne I. McDonald is accepted in its present form by the Department of Classics as satisfying the dissertation requirement for the degree of Doctor of


Date ______Stratis Papaioannou, Chair

Recommended to the Graduate Council

Date ______Mary Louise Gill, Reader

Date ______David Konstan, Reader

Date ______Frederick Brenk, Reader

Approved by the Graduate Council

Date ______Peter M. Weber, Dean of the Graduate School



Anne McDonald was born in Manhattan, Kansas in 1984 and spent her childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. As a National Merit Scholar at the University of Kansas, she wrote an honors thesis on St. Augustine’s reception of Virgil and won awards for nonfiction writing and translation from Latin and Greek. She earned B.A. degrees in Classical

Languages and English with highest distinction in 2007. Anne continued her studies at the University of Bristol in Bristol, England, where she earned her M.A. in Classics and

Ancient History with distinction in 2008, writing a dissertation entitled, “Augustine against the Clock: Time, Language, and the Economics of Salvation.” She began the

Ph.D. program in Classics at Brown University in 2008. While at Brown, she won the

Captain William McGinn scholarship for participation in the Classical Summer School of the American Academy in Rome, taught and assisted in numerous language and courses, and delivered papers on Augustine, and . After completing her

Ph.D., Anne will teach as a Visiting Lecturer at Brown in the spring of 2015.



This dissertation would not have been begun or finished without the guidance and assistance of many teachers, advisors, and mentors. I owe first thanks to Anne Shaw and

Stanley Lombardo, who provided a firm foundation and inspiration for future study of the classics. At Brown, I was fortunate to benefit from the guidance of David Konstan from my first years in the graduate program. Many enjoyable and challenging classes and conversations on Plato with Mary Louise Gill were formative for my research and remain one of the best parts of my experience at Brown. Stratis Papaioannou has been a wonderfully supportive advisor throughout the dissertation process, and I am deeply grateful for his guidance and encouragement. The careful reading and criticism of

Frederick Brenk, who graciously served as an outside reader, have greatly improved the final form of this dissertation.

It has been a privilege to work within the Classics Department at Brown, an extraordinarily collegial scholarly community. I am indebted to its faculty and to my fellow graduate students for careful consideration of many works in progress and countless lively conversations over the years. Susan Furtado deserves thanks for her cheerful and expert assistance with many details attending the completion of this project.

The constant support of friends and family members has sustained me through many years of study and the final stages of the dissertation process. I am grateful first of all to my father, Bruce McEnroe, my first and most faithful reader, and to my mother,

Michelle Tamburini. Emily and Scot Lange, the McDonald Family, Gail McEnroe, Anne and Kyle Rabe, and Rebecca and Keith Fairbank have provided assistance in many forms, very often unasked. I am humbled and inspired by their generosity.


I dedicate this dissertation to my husband, Joe McDonald, whose unfailing love, patience and good sense made its completion possible, and to Johnny, who has made the past year of work the best of my life.



Introduction 1

Chapter One Philosophical Discourse in Plutarch 22

Chapter Two Seeing and Believing: Dramatic Detail in 68 Amatorius, De genio Socratis, and De defectu oraculorum

Chapter Three Wondering from the Path: Sightseeing in 121 De sera numinis vindicta, De genio Socratis, and De Pythiae oraculis

Chapter Four Plutarch’s Personae and the Construction 164 of Identity

Conclusion 208

Bibliography 211



Plutarch is well known as a biographer and essayist, but he is rarely remembered as a dialogist. Despite the fact that more of his dialogues remain to us than of any other classical author after Plato, his position in the history of the form has largely been ignored or incompletely considered, even amid a recent efflorescence of interest in the ancient dialogue.1 The relative paucity of scholarship on Plutarch as a dialogist is likely in part an unfortunate consequence of the inclusion of his dialogues within the catchall category of the , which includes a great deal more variety than the title suggests.

The variety within the subset of Plutarch’s dialogues has likely further discouraged consideration of Plutarch as a practitioner of the form. Sixteen texts within the Moralia nominally qualify as dialogues in the minimal sense that they represent a discourse among multiple interlocutors.2 A number of these texts, however, are no more dialogical than this basic criterion requires. In several, a brief initial exchange between interlocutors gives way to a monologue by a single character who goes on to dominate the remainder of the text. These texts, not genuinely dialogical in form, often display a

1 Goldhill (2008) and Cameron (2014) are representative. Hösle (2012) is both an incitement and guide to the study of the entire tradition of the philosophical dialogue. Lamberton (2001), 146 has observed the neglect of Plutarch’s dialogues in modern times.

2 These are (in the order in which they appear in the Lamprias catalogue): De tuenda sanitate praecepta, Septem sapientium convivium, De E apud Delphos, De Pythiae oraculis, De defectu oraculorum, De cohibenda ira, De sera numinis vindicta, De genio Socratis, Quaestiones convivales, Amatorius, De sollertia animalium, De facie in orbe lunae, Gryllus, De communibus notitiis adversus Stoicos, Non posse suaviter vivi secundum Epicurum, and Adversus Colotem.

1 polemical spirit, aiming to refute the views of a particular philosophical school rather than cultivate a discursive exchange of ideas that works towards the discovery of truth. 3

Apart from these works, the nine books of Plutarch’s Quaestiones convivales constitute a sizeable subgenre of his dialogues. Though highly discursive in spirit, representing lively discussions in which contributions by all participants are politely welcomed, these dialogues are not well described as philosophical; the “atmosphere of social decorum and kind politeness”4 that dominates these texts does not lend itself to serious, focused philosophical investigation.5 In addition to all-but monological and sympotic works, the corpus of Plutarch’s dialogues also includes a number of texts that are both genuinely dialogical in form and spirit and represent serious investigation of a philosophical problem.

Given the variety of Plutarch’s dialogues, it is perhaps unsurprising that the most ambitious studies of Plutarch’s dialogues, those of Hirzel and Kahle, have undertaken to impose some order on the entire group, describing and comparing them with particular attention to their themes, influences, and formal characteristics.6 Recently, the nine books of the sympotic Quaestiones convivales, a subset of the dialogues explicitly described by Plutarch as a unified group, has gained a good deal of overdue attention, particularly with respect to their social, cultural and historical dimensions.7 The

3 E.g. Non posse suaviter vivi secundum Epicurum and Adversus Colotem.

4 Van der Stockt (2000), 94.

5 Hösle (2012), 42-45 distinguishes between “serious discussion dialogues” and “chat dialogues”; he places the majority of ancient symposion and deipnon literature in the latter category.

6 Hirzel (1985, repr. 1963), Kahle (1912).

7 See especially Klotz and Oikonomopoulou (2011) and König (2012), Saints and Symposiasts: The Literature of Food and the in Greco-Roman and Early Christian Culture.

2 philosophical dialogues, however, have been neglected or, at times, deemed unworthy of consideration as such.8 Indeed, scholars have drawn vastly different conclusions regarding the philosophical and literary importance of these dialogues within the tradition of the form. Is Plutarch “the most important of philosophical dialogues in later

Antiquity”9, or do the conversations reported in these texts amount to no more than chat?10

This dissertation proposes, to begin with, that Plutarch does indeed have an important place within the history of the dialogue, and in particular of the philosophical dialogue. Drawing on the work of recent scholars attempting to improve upon previous taxonomies of Plutarch’s dialogues, I identify seven of Plutarch’s dialogues that are both genuinely dialogical and committed to serious philosophical inquiry: De defectu oraculorum, De E apud Delphos, De Pythiae Oraculis, De sera numinis vindicta,

Amatorius, De genio Socratis, and De facie in orbe lunae. I undertake to examine these texts from the same angles from which scholars have recently and productively approached the dialogues of other authors from Plato to Lucian, philosophical and

8 Goldhill (2008), e.g., includes a chapter on the Quaest. conviv. but gives no attention to the philosophical dialogues. A number of monographs on individual dialogues have appeared in recent years, but comparative approaches to the dialogues have been rare, limited mainly to the three so-called Pythian dialogues (as in Babut (1992) and the case studies in Honeywell (1993)), which though they do not appear together in the manuscript tradition, have nonetheless been taken as a cohesive group on the basis of Plutarch’s remark in the dedication of De E apud Delphos (384e). Massaro (2000), 124 cautions against reading the three dialogues ordinarily recognized as the Pythians as a closed set. She points out that a title attested in the Lamprias catalogue, Περὶ τοῦ γνῶθι σαυτὸν καὶ εἰ ἀθάνατος ἡ ψυχή (On the Saying ‘Know Thyself’ and the Problem of Immortality), is apparently conceived as complementary to De E; she also argues that De sera numinis vindicta is too rarely considered alongside the Pythian dialogues. Rescigno (1995), 8 notes that De def. or. has much in common with De facie and De Iside et Osiride.

9 Opsomer (2007), 287.

10 As Hösle (2012), 94 concludes. Hösle determines that most of Plutarch’s dialogues, with the possible exception of Amatorius, should be classified as “chat dialogues,” “because they lack both complex philosophical arguments and an existentially intensive quest.” Accordingly, Plutarch’s dialogues are all but excluded from his study of the poetics and hermeneutics of the philosophical dialogue.

3 otherwise, and I aim thereby to illuminate Plutarch’s unique practice.

Interrogating the relationship between dialogic form and philosophical content, I investigate the ways in which Plutarch takes advantage of the formal possibilities available to him to direct the approach of his audience to particular philosophical problems and the practice of inquiry in general. Concomitantly, I attend to the social, historical and cultural aspects of Plutarch’s dialogic practice: how does his use of the form reflect his commitments as a teacher and his own in and philosophy? How does it perform and create his identity within the elite society in which he moved? And, considering all of these factors, how should we characterize his position within the history of the dialogue, with respect to practitioners from Plato to Lucian?

Previous Scholarship

Studies of the entire corpus of Plutarch’s dialogues have largely been concerned with classifying them according to their formal properties. Already in antiquity taxonomies were developed for classifying Plato’s dialogues. Diogenes Laertius distinguishes “guiding” from “investigative” dialogues and further subdivides these two general categories.11 He recognizes that there are other ways of classifying the dialogues, such as distinguishing among the dramatic, narrative and mixed types; but he considers this manner of classification more appropriate to drama. 12 Hirzel and Kahle employ this

11 Diogenes Laertius 3.49: ὅ τε ὑφηγητικὸς καὶ ὁ ζητητικός. The “guiding” category is divided into the “theoretical” and “practical”, then subdivided again – the theoretical into the physical and logical, and the practical into the ethical and political. The “investigative” category is divided into those dialogues aiming to train the and those aiming at victory in debate. To the initial two categories in this system, the author of the Prolegomena to Plato adds a third category, the mixed (Hösle (2012), 163).

12 Diogenes Laertius 3.50. As Hösle (2012), 164 notes, this division seems to go back to Plato and the theory of poetry put forth in the (392c6 ff.).

4 latter taxonomic system in their studies of Plutarch’s dialogues, and scholars classifying the dialogues more recently, unsatisfied with these categories, have attempted to develop new and more nuanced ways of describing similarities and differences among these texts.

Honeywell, aiming to account for commonalities in both form and content, distinguishes between “Platonic” and “Non-Platonic” dialogues. The seven dialogues with which this study is concerned constitute the “Platonic” group, and Honeywell describes these texts as similarly “discursive and interactive, deliberately drawing attention to the process of inquiry.”13 Van der Stockt, in an article discussing aspects of the poetics of Plutarch’s dialogues, has also pressed for a more nuanced taxonomy. Arguing that we should consider the tone of Plutarch’s works as an important formal property, he plots the dialogues on a grid that places the traditional formal categories (the monological, including the subgroups dramatic, diegetic, and mixed; and the dialogical, with the same subgroups) on one axis and categories distinguishing their tone (, didactic, polemic) on the other. 14 According to Van der Stockt’s system, all of the seven dialogues with which my study is concerned are classified as “dialogical,” while their tonal categories vary.15 Introducing this definite classification system only with reservation, Van der Stockt notes that it is based only on formal considerations and emphasizes the importance of looking at the relationship of parts of a dialogue to the whole and giving attention to the theme of each text.16 Van der Stockt’s schema is a significant improvement on preceding efforts, and it is especially admirable for its

13 Honeywell (1993), 29.

14 Van der Stockt (2000), 108, 111.

15 Van der Stockt (2000), 116.

16 Ibid., 111.

5 sensitivity to the aims of individual dialogues (via his three tonal categories) by which it adds subtlety to the drawing of formal distinctions.

In selecting the seven texts with which my study is concerned, I draw on the taxonomies of both Honeywell and Van der Stockt. I concur with Honeywell’s recognition of a basic form and spirit shared among these works, though the title

“Platonic” she attaches to this group is somewhat problematic; while Plutarch certainly positions these texts within the Platonic dialogue tradition, they display certain features – frequent self-representation by the author himself, and lengthy speeches, for example – that are more aptly described as Aristotelian or Ciceronian.17 Van der Stockt, in addition to recognizing formal and tonal similarities among Plutarch’s dialogues, observes that

Plutarch seems to have reserved the dialogue for treating themes that “more or less directly relate to matters of the highest importance.” I suggest that, focusing on the seven dialogues with which I am concerned here, we can make this observation somewhat more precise: these dialogues all share a common interest in the relationship between humans and gods. The aspect or aspects of this relationship addressed in these texts, and its consequences for human beings, varies from one to another. At times, the fundamental ontological difference between humans and gods is stressed, as in the major speech by

Ammonius, Plutarch’s teacher, in De E; at times the particular details of the way in which communication between gods and men is mediated comes to the fore, whether in debates over the nature of daimones and the human soul, as in De def. or. and De genio, or

17 In adapting Dillon’s classification system based on the content of Plutarch’s dialogues, Honeywell is, I believe, right to include Amatorius within her “Platonic” group, though Dillon (1996), 187 omits it from the group of dialogues he considers “serious philosophical treatises,” placing it instead among those works that are “merely literary,” even if Plutarch may have considered them philosophical. For purposes of examining the relationship between form and content in Plutarch’s dialogues, we must operate on Plutarch’s understanding of what constitutes philosophy rather than our own.

6 through discussion of the potential and limitations of human language, as in De Pyth.; frequently, is a major topic as interlocutors consider what types of evidence

– empirical observation on earth, or a priori knowledge of higher truths – are admissible in philosophical investigation. Given that Plutarch seems to have used the dialogue form for themes he deemed particularly important, in investigating Plutarch’s use of the form, I will attend to how the use of its particular narrative devices may work to illuminate the relationship between humans and gods.

Approaching Form and Content in the Dialogues

I do not assume a deterministic relationship between form and content in

Plutarch’s dialogues; that is, I do not suggest that Plutarch that philosophical issues pertaining to the human-divine relationship could only be effectively treated in the dialogue form, or that Plutarch thought the form ill-suited to treating any other theme.

Such an assumption would be untenable for several reasons. First, Plutarch treats theological themes in other modes, from less dialogical dialogues to treatises, elsewhere in his corpus. Moreover, the deterministic assumption requires disbelieving that the conversations represented in Plutarch’s dialogues have any basis in reality. While I concur with the scholarly consensus that the statements of occasion for his dialogues, which explain the circumstances for the retelling of the philosophical conversations within, are fictional, I see no reason necessarily to discount that the substantive conversations themselves, at least in some cases, have some basis in reality.18 Finally, the seven dialogues on which I focus vary widely not only in the aspects of the human-

18 Russell (1993), 428.

7 divine relationship they treat, as I have recognized above, but also in the relative prominence that this theme has in the text.19 I do assume a meaningful relationship between form and content in the dialogues central to this study, but not a necessary relationship between particular form and particular content.

My approach to the form-content relationship is directed first of all by Plutarch’s own theory of literature and philosophical discourse. Developing an understanding of

Plutarch’s thought on these topics through analysis of remarks made throughout his corpus is the project of my first chapter. In order to clarify my approach to analyzing

Plutarch’s dialogues, I will briefly anticipate some of my conclusions here. First of all, I find that Plutarch displays a consistent concern with the ethical function of literature.

Accordingly, in cases where there is a conflict, he prioritizes content over form and moral utility over pleasure. In this respect, his views overlap with those expressed by in his critique of poetry in Plato’s Republic. But Plutarch’s advice on reading poetry and listening to philosophical lectures, and his remarks on his own approach to composing his

Lives, focuses rather on the complementarity of form and content. Plutarch is keenly attuned to the affective power of particular literary and rhetorical devices and the pedagogical advantages of utilizing such devices in order to convey a philosophical message effectively. In analyzing Plutarch’s use of the dialogue form, then, it will be appropriate to consider how Plutarch may utilize the affective potential of its formal features.

19 In De genio Socratis, for example, a dramatization of the plot leading to the liberation of Thebes from Sparta in 379 B.C.E. occupies the majority of the text; the debate regarding the nature of Socrates’ daimonion takes place over the course of two lulls in the action. Although, as will become clear in Ch. 2, I understand a fundamental unity to exist between the two apparently disjointed parts of the dialogue, it nonetheless remains true that the topic of mediated communication between humans and gods is not as prominent in De genio as, for instance, the issue of the nature of Apollo in De E apud Delphos.


Plutarch’s close attention to the value of poetic and rhetorical devices for promoting philosophical understanding and moral improvement reflect his thorough training in both rhetoric and Platonic philosophy, two aspects of his biography that we must bear in mind in assessing his use of the dialogue form. Plutarch received the training and rhetoric proper for the son of a wealthy family, and after going on to study

Platonic philosophy under Ammonius at Athens, he came to consider himself as a philosopher first and foremost.20 Though his corpus contains declamatory pieces that display a rather embellished style, he came to hold a rather low and suspicious view of rhetoric, associating rhetorical logos with sophistry and characterizing enthusiasm for declamation as an excess of youth.21 But Plutarch does not seem to have found the study of rhetoric per se without merit, nor did he distance himself from the study of rhetoric entirely: he seems to have taught rhetoric, and perhaps philosophy as well, in a school of his own.22 Though we lack evidence regarding the precise nature of Plutarch’s teaching activity, a clear and consistent concern with education, and especially with the ethico- pedagogical potential of various literary modes, pervades Plutarch’s corpus. I demonstrate this concern in detail in Chapter One, concluding that Plutarch is consistently highly attuned to ways in which particular narrative devices and strategies further learning, especially through affective engagement of a reading or listening audience. We must bring to any interpretation of Plutarch’s dialogues an understanding

20 On Plutarch’s education and upbringing, see Jones (1971), 9-11 and Donini (1986). On Ammonius, see again Donini (1986), Jones (1967), and Dillon (1996), 189-92.

21 Quaestiones Platonicae 1000d; I discuss this passage further in Ch. 1, p. 33. Plutarch’s speech interpreting the Delphic epsilon in De E displays a youthful excess that has yet to be corrected by further philosophical study, in the assessment of his older persona; I discuss this in greater detail in Ch. 4.

22 For evidence, see Ch. 4, p. 175, n. 30.

9 of Plutarch’s seriousness as a philosopher and his commitment to .

Additionally, we must bear in mind Plutarch’s sincere religiosity, which is inseparable from his philosophical commitments.23 Plutarch held a permanent priesthood at Delphi, which serves as the setting for four of the seven dialogues on which I focus. Where religious topics are discussed in his dialogues, we must consider that Plutarch the author has a serious and personal interest in the issues at stake.

As in my discussion of Plutarch’s literary theory, rhetoric and pedagogy have frequently come to the fore in scholars’ attempts to explain Plato’s use of the dialogue form. Considering some common approaches to the question “why dialogue” with respect to Plato, whom Plutarch upheld as the master philosopher and master of the dialogue form, will therefore be helpful for informing and clarifying our approach to

Plutarch’s use of the dialogue. The form-content relationship in Plato’s dialogues has not always been taken seriously, but in recent decades scholars have taken up in earnest the question of why Plato chose to write dialogue, and proposed various reasons why he found the form particularly well suited to his philosophical goals.24 Some have seen an essential connection between the enterprise of philosophy and the dialectical manner of inquiry the dialogue dramatizes; on this strong view, philosophical views cannot adequately be conveyed in assertive form; therefore a philosophical treatise, for example, is incapable of conveying philosophical content in the way a dialogue can, delivering a

23 For broad treatment of Plutarch and various aspects of religion, see especially Brenk (1977) and (1987); also the collections edited by Gallo (1996) and Hirsch-Luipold (2005). Brenk (1977), 80 describes the evolution of Plutarch’s religious thought as “a movement from religious belief in the reincarnation of the soul and related matters, to a mysticism grounded more in Middle Platonism with a strong religious bent.”

24 Gonzalez (1995), 5 notes that Schleiermacher was breaking new ground in positing a meaningful relationship between form and content in his 1804 introduction to his translations of Plato’s dialogues.

10 message through the very experience of philosophy it provides.25 Other scholars have posited a less essential connection between form and content but pointed to powerful pedagogical advantages the dialogue has over other possible forms; it can, for instance, guide a reader in the process that leads to philosophical discovery through his own effort

(and may allow Plato to escape the necessity of committing himself or pointing his reader towards a particular view26). Additionally, the dialogue form may lead readers to commit themselves to the practice of philosophy after the conclusion of the dialogue, what we may call a protreptic advantage.27 In proposing various answers to the question “why dialogue?” with respect to Plato, scholars have frequently called attention to the ways in which the dramatic elements of dialogue have the potential to engage an audience emotionally and imaginatively – for instance, through representation of a various cast of interlocutors in action.28

In analyzing Plutarch’s use of the dialogue form, especially because his concern with pedagogy and promoting philosophical inquiry is explicit elsewhere in his corpus, it will be worth considering whether it seems calculated to perform such pedagogical and protreptic functions as scholars have recognized in Plato’s dialogues. Like studies of

Plato’s dialogues, we must attend, too, to his use of particular dramatic elements that

25 Blondell (2002), 41, with bibliography, and Press (1995), 148. Many have also recognized that, in representing the back-and-forth of conversation, dialogue approximates live conversation to the extent possible, and thus is the literary form best capable of circumventing Socrates’ criticism of the written word in – though Plato may have held that no written text could be entirely adequate to the process of philosophy (e.g. Hershbell (1995) 38-39, Blondell (2002), 44).

26 Frede (1992).

27 E.g. Waugh (1995), 73: the dialogues represent speech in order to teach Plato’s audience to speak and think philosophically. On the distinction between the “teaching” and “converting” functions of dialogue, see Long (2008), 48ff.

28 E.g. Blondell (2002) and Cotton (2014).

11 belong to the dialogue form, and to what this use may owe to the culture in which he moved. In order to lay the foundation for this work, let us consider in brief the historical roots of the dialogue form and then, from a more theoretical angle, its essential formal elements.

The Dialogue: Origins and Possibilities

The followers of Socrates composed the first dialogues just as the efflorescence of drama was beginning to wane and during a period of great preoccupation with conversation and debate.29 Scholars have long recognized such modes as tragedy, comedy, mime and Sophistic debate – along with the elenctic mode of debate practiced by Socrates – as stimuli of and formative influences upon the dialogues of Plato and his contemporaries.30 Ancient tradition has it that Plato himself wrote dramas before turning to dialogue, and his dialogues engage constantly both with drama and various rhetorical genres, whether by criticizing or borrowing tactics from each medium.31 Ancient

29 Diogenes Laertius (3.48) reports a tradition according to which Zeno of Elea was the first to write dialogue, as well as Aristotle’s testimony in his dialogue On Poets that Alexamenus of Styra or Teos was the first to do so. For his part, Diogenes asserts that Plato, who perfected the form, ought to be considered its inventor. Modern scholars recognize the students of Socrates as the first dialogists; see especially Ford (2008), 29 for a careful analysis of ancient testimony concerning the origins of the dialogue form; also Hirzel (1969), I.69, who stresses that Socrates taught his followers the importance of dialogue and considers his personality to be the decisive stimulus for the creation of the literary form.

30 For a meticulous survey of modes that exerted a formative influence on the development of dialogue, see Hirzel (1969), I.2-67, and especially 49-50 (tragedy and comedy); 22-26 (Sophron); 53-54 (Sophists).

31 Plato as a dramatist: Hirzel (1969), I.205. On the dramatic and rhetorical aspects of Plato’s dialogues, see again Hirzel (1969), I.174-271 for a foundational study; for a more recent assessment of the debt of Plato’s dialogues to tragedy, comedy and rhetoric (among other genres), see Andrea Nightingale (1995), Genres in Dialogue. Nightingale discerns a full range of ways in which Plato’s dialogues engage with the traditions of drama and rhetoric: for example, borrowing comic elements, the practice of social criticism, and a multi-generic form from comedy; and reacting against the assertion of self-knowledge, self-praise (as in encomium) and bewitchingly persuasive speech (as in epitaphios). Ford (2008), as Nightingale does of Plato’s dialogues, shows how Sokratikoi logoi broadly distinguished themselves from the variety of rhetorical prose genres flourishing in the fourth century; he points to the importance of ethopoiia, arguing that “a fiction but half-real, Socrates’ persona helped Socratics produce speech texts without being taken as

12 definitions of dialogue, too, reflect the inextricable connection among the three modes.32

In discussing the formal possibilities of the dialogue, drawing on Hösle’s study of the poetics of the philosophical dialogue, I wish to call attention to three essential features, each of which likewise is or may be an essential feature of drama or rhetorically sophisticated speech.

Dialogue is, first of all, intersubjective: it dramatizes an exchange between a minimum of two interlocutors. This intersubjectivity may be developed in a range of ways – minimized or maximized, amplified or downplayed – with great impact upon the experience of the dialogue’s audience. For instance, as the most recent scholars concerned with classifying Plutarch’s dialogues have recognized, in those texts most aptly described as “dialogic”, this intersubjectivity is developed to a significant degree: beyond featuring a minimum of two interlocutors, these dialogues display a discursive and interactive spirit; the interchange of ideas between interlocutors makes a difference to the treatment of the issue under discussion, although a single character may, and often does, play a dominant role in the conversation. This discursive spirit is but one possible manifestation of the intersubjective character essential to the dialogue form, and one which itself may exist to a greater or lesser degree.

Intersubjectivity requires characterization, which, like the interaction among interlocutors, may be maximal or minimal. Characterization of individual interlocutors

rhetoricians” (44). See also Goldhill (2002), 93, describing how Plato “adapts and adopts the ethopoiea of the orators, the analytic and dramatic flair of a Thucydides, the explanatory and revelatory dialogue of tragedy, and the cut and thrust of a sophistic exchange.”

32 Diog. Laert. 3.48: ἔστι δὲ διάλογος <λόγος> ἐξ ἐρωτήσεως καὶ ἀποκρίσεως συγκείμενος περί τινος τῶν φιλοσοφουμένων καὶ πολιτικῶν μετὰ τῆς πρεπούσης ἠθοποιίας τῶν παραλαμβανομένων προσώπων καὶ τῆς κατὰ τὴν λέξιν κατασκευῆς. Ford (2008), 35, speaking of a similar component in Albinus’ definition of dialogue, stresses the importance of this early emphasis on ethopoiia as setting Socratic dialogues apart from other dialogic texts.

13 may be limited if an author either restricts their speech or confines the content of their speech rather narrowly to the philosophical issue at hand, giving a minimal sense of their individual personality. The individual identities of the interlocutors may be more fully developed if they are allowed to express themselves more extensively and if their speeches (or those of others speaking of or responding to them) reveal their personal qualities – temperament, likes and dislikes, relationships with others – as well as their philosophical positions. Individual interlocutors may be much more amply characterized if the dialogue is narrative rather than dramatic in form. If a conversation is recounted by an outside narrator, this narrator may report details such as personal appearance and nonverbal forms of communication such as facial expressions (what Hösle calls extralinguistic conversational behaviors and paralinguistic elements) that go far towards fleshing out the portrait of an individual.33 I consider the effect of some of these narrated details, and characterization more generally, in Chapter Two.

An author of dialogue may also include himself among the subjects represented, or he may exclude himself entirely (or, at least, limit his presence to that of the implied author). Like any other character, the author may appear on one or more narrative levels of the dialogue: as narrator and/or participant within an internal conversation. Plato famously chose not to represent himself as an interlocutor in any of his dialogues

(although his name is mentioned in two dialogues – and – where other characters note his absence).34 Later dialogists, including Aristotle, , and Plutarch,

33 Hösle (2012), 171.

34 Apol. 34a1-2, Phd. 59b9.

14 broke with his precedent; I will discuss the issue of authorial self-representation in much more detail in Chapter Four.

Because dialogue features multiple subjects interacting, it also necessarily possesses the elements of time and space. Like the characters that occupy them, the settings of dialogue may be described amply or not at all. While dialogue cannot abstract from the duration of conversation, it very well may obscure the time when the represented conversation takes place – day, year, even century.35 Alternatively, the precise time when the conversation occurs may be a focal point of the dialogue, essential to the interpretation of its philosophical content; Plutarch’s De genio Socratis, which has seemed to some more of a historical novel than a dialogue, is a prime example of this extreme development of the element of time. Elaboration of the space in which a dialogue takes place may go along with specification of the time when it occurrs, as is the case in De genio. The settings of Plato’s , , , and Phaedo are particularly memorable given their proximity, both in place and time, to the death of

Socrates; the entirely different, lushly elaborated setting of Phaedrus, has proved equally memorable, as we shall see in Chapter Two, though it is not so closely connected with a particular historical moment; as Plutarch makes clear in the opening of Amatorius, the rich description of Phaedrus’ and Socrates’ leisurely stroll by the banks of the Ilissus inspired droves of imitators (an effect which has persisted long after Plutarch’s day).36

By contrast, the setting of is among Plato’s least elaborated: we hear in the opening exchange about a conversation that took place on the day before, but no further

35 Hösle (2012), 237-38.

36 See Ch. 2, esp. p. 72, n. 4 on the influence of the opening of the Phaedrus, especially in educational circles.

15 detail about time or place is given, and as soon as Timaeus’ speech, which occupies nearly the entire dialogue, begins, no further attention is drawn to the setting in which he delivers it.

Just as dialogues may feature characters situated on multiple levels of the text – for example, an external narrator may report a conversation among internal interlocutors

– they may also possess multiple settings. Such is the case, for example, in Theaetetus, whose internal conversation, which took place just before Socrates went to meet his indictment at the Royal Stoa, is reported many years later, on the eve of Theaetetus’ untimely death. Plato’s Symposium is yet more complex: the drinking party at

Agathon’s house is reported at three removes, with a different setting corresponding to each level of narration (however minimally developed).37 Within a dialogue, an interlocutor may evoke a radically different setting through a relatively extensive, detailed description of a different time and place. Plato’s eschatological myths operate thus: the , for example, with which the Republic concludes, imaginatively transports Socrates’ (and Plato’s) audience to the hereafter, creating an immersive sightseeing tour in which we become witnesses, along with Er, of the fate of souls after death. I will discuss this device, and Plutarch’s own eschatological myths, in Chapter


Dialogue shares with drama all of the essential elements I have described above, and it may share each of them with oratory. In assessing how Plutarch makes use of the dramatic and rhetorical potential of the dialogue, it will be important to consider that

37 In the outermost frame of the dialogue, Apollodorus reports to a nameless friend the account of the symposium he recently gave to Glaucon, after having it recounted to himself earlier by Aristodemus, who was present at the event.


Plutarch was himself steeped in a culture of performance in which the lines between philosophy, drama and rhetoric were continually blurred. In Plutarch’s day, Plato’s dialogues became a form of drama when performed for entertainment, as we hear in the

Quaestiones convivales: a reports that slaves were taught to memorize the most lively of Plato’s dramatic dialogues and perform them from memory, “using a type of presentation appropriate to the personalities of the characters in the text, with modulation of voice and gestures and delivery suited to the meaning.”38 Students listening to lectures had to be careful not to receive philosophical lectures as sophistical performance, as

Plutarch cautions in De recta ratione audiendi.39 The culture in which Plutarch wrote put a premium on spectacle and performance, from large-scale public declamations to dinner- time shows. 40 Though Plutarch lived a couple of decades before the height of the Second

Sophistic, and though he professed to prefer quiet discussion to flashy sophistic performance, he possessed the rhetorical training to succeed in the culture he criticized, and his very criticism marks him out as a member of the educated elite.41 In the following chapters, therefore, I will attend to how Plutarch’s use of dramatic and rhetorical strategies may reflect his own social and cultural position and values.

38 Quaest. conviv. 711b-c; trans. Minar. This sophist reports that such recitation of dialogues as a form of entertainment had recently been introduced at dinner parties in Rome, but had not yet become popular.

39 De aud. 41b-d: Plutarch warns that young students of philosophy should examine the content of a lecture without attention to the reputation of the speaker, being careful not to let the style of a speech blind them to its subject matter. For further testimony of philosophical discourses being performed at Rome, see Whitmarsh (2001), 256.

40 On the performance culture of the Second Sophistic, see e.g. Whitmarsh (2005), esp. 23 ff.; Bowersock (2002), on philosophical oratory; and Gleason (1995).

41 On Plutarch’s criticism of sophistic performance and the social function of this criticism, see Schmitz (2014).


Structure and Overview of Dissertation

As I have discussed above, I begin my study with a chapter that lays the groundwork for assessing Plutarch’s dialogic method by first investigating what

Plutarch’s theoretical statements throughout his corpus can tell us about how he conceives of the dialogue form and of philosophical discourse in general. Then, in a series of three chapters, I give close readings of the dialogues themselves, exploring how

Plutarch uses particular devices available within the dialogue tradition to effectively engage his reader’s affective and critical faculties and to promote right understanding of the issues at hand. Each of these chapters focuses on the ways in which one or more formal elements of dialogue – characterization, setting, the possibility of self- representation – directs the attention and understanding of Plutarch’s reader within a small number of texts. The selection of the several texts treated in each chapter is driven by the observation of a striking feature – formal, thematic, or both – shared among them that prompts the analytical questions that the chapter sets out to answer. By placing a small number of texts in dialogue, so to speak, in each of these chapters, and by focusing on Plutarch’s use of a particular element of dialogue in each, I aim to create a balanced and well-rounded portrait of Plutarch’s use of the philosophical dialogue. Nonetheless, because I have prioritized making a meaningful and manageable comparison of texts with strong commonalities over achieving absolute comprehensiveness, the thoroughness of each chapter and my study as a whole has certain limits. I have sometimes confined to brief mentions or footnotes relevant observations regarding texts outside of the primary three or four under discussion in a given chapter. I have treated one of the seven philosophical dialogues I have recognized, De facie in orbe lunae, entirely in this

18 manner.42 Like its individual chapters, my study as a whole does not aim to be exhaustive; beyond the aspects of the dialogues I examine in my chapters, others remain to be explored.

In Chapter One, I lay the foundations for assessing Plutarch’s method in his dialogues by attempting to determine his conception of philosophical discourse – how, when and by whom it ought to be carried out, the difficulties inherent to it, and through what strategies these difficulties may be surmounted. I begin by investigating Plutarch’s theoretical conception of the philosophical dialogue itself, and due to a relative paucity of evidence on this topic, I broaden my inquiry to consider his understanding of philosophical discourse more broadly. Drawing on previous scholarship, I first examine

Plutarch’s theoretical views on literature in general with the goal of determining his conception of the essential qualities of and boundaries between various literary modes and learning how he conceives of the interaction between readers and texts. I then examine Plutarch’s remarks on philosophical discourse in a variety of texts and with respect to a variety of contexts, from his comments on philosophical investigation at symposia; to his prescriptions for the reading of poetry as a preparation for the study of philosophy; to his guidelines for students beginning their formal training in philosophy; to his remarks on his own method as the author of biographies aiming to effect positive ethical change in his readers by means of his Lives.

42 I have treated De facie in this way for several reasons: first of all for the practical purpose of maintaining manageable limits in each chapter, and also because of two features that set De facie somewhat apart from the other six philosophical dialogues. The fact that the beginning of the text is missing – we do not know how much – creates certain problems for drawing conclusions about Plutarch’s use of the dialogue form. Further, in De facie attention to the human-divine relationship is more marginal than in the other dialogues, and the astronomical and cosmological questions it treats more prominently, though Plutarch certainly would have understood them as philosophical, seem less so to us.


In my second, third and fourth chapters, drawing on the understanding of

Plutarch’s conception of philosophical discourse developed in Chapter One, I focus on how Plutarch makes use of one or more features uniquely available within the dialogue form to engage his readers affectively, urge us towards independent inquiry, and promote right understanding of the philosophical issue at hand in the dialogues I have identified as genuinely dialogical and concerned with the relationship of humans and gods. In Chapter

Two, observing a prominent interest in the function and value of the particular shared among Amatorius, De genio Socratis and De defectu oraculorum, I investigate how

Plutarch’s approach to setting and characterization in each dialogue might serve to direct and develop our understanding of this theme. I consider how the dramatic elements of each dialogue serve to engage Plutarch’s audience in the practice of critical inquiry, thereby guiding our interpretation of the philosophical questions at hand, and how implicit pressure to prove our cultural credentials may provide extra incentive to do so.

In Chapter Three I investigate how Plutarch’s creation of elaborate sight-seeing tours, or periēgesēis, in three dialogues enhances his reader’s comprehension of the ontological and epistemological gulf between humans and gods. Drawing heavily on

Platonic precedent, Plutarch creates immersive, highly visual sightseeing tours of the hereafter in De sera numinis vindicta and De genio Socratis; in De Pythiae oraculis, he represents a more mundane tour of the Sacred Way at Delphi. I consider how the constant contrast between light and darkness, clarity and obscurity in the accounts of these sight-seeing tours engages our attention and alerts us to the gulf between divine and human perception towards which the dialectical portion of each dialogue directs our

20 understanding, and how this contrast may promote a procedure of philosophical inquiry appropriate for humans given their compromised perceptive abilities.

In Chapter Four, I consider how Plutarch makes use of a device available in a unique way to of dialogue: that of self-characterization. I first lay the groundwork for my analysis of Plutarch’s self-characterization by offering an overview of how Plutarch’s predecessors chose, or declined, to portray themselves in their dialogues. After briefly discussing the personae later dialogists created for themselves, I turn to examine in detail Plutarch’s various self-representations in four dialogues: De E apud Delphos, Amatorius, De sera numinis vindicta and De defectu oraculorum. I consider the qualities attributed to the different Plutarchan personae as well as the philosophical and theological commitments they demonstrate. I further assess how the

Plutarchan personae operate within each dialogue as a whole, highlighting how Plutarch employs these self-representations to engage his readers both affectively and intellectually. Throughout my analysis, I consider how Plutarch’s approach to self- representation owes to and departs from the approaches of his predecessors and of

Lucian, a near-contemporary who presents himself quite differently, and I assess how his particular literary method may reflect the cultural atmosphere in which he wrote.




Before making any judgments about Plutarch’s methods and aims in composing his philosophical dialogues, it is necessary to determine, as far as possible, how Plutarch conceived of the philosophical dialogue as a literary form. At the most basic level, what is the dialogue? What are its formal possibilities? What is it supposed to accomplish, and how do the formal strategies historically employed by practitioners of the dialogue contribute to achieving its ends?

Plutarch’s Comments on Dialogue

Plutarch uses two different terms to refer to the literary form of the philosophical dialogue. Logos is the most standard. At the beginning of De E apud Delphos, where he dedicates his so-called Pythian Dialogues to Sarapion, Plutarch uses the term logoi.1 But

Plutarch also uses the term dialogos to refer to the dialogues of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Pasiphon.2 In examining Plutarch’s references to dialogue throughout his corpus, whatever term he uses, it quickly becomes clear that Plutarch does not theorize the

1 De E 384e. See fuller discussion on pp. 25-26.

2 Plato: Cicero 24.5.3; Aristotle: Dion 22.5.3; Cicero: Cicero 40.2.2, Cato Minor 17.5.3; Pasiphon (another disciple of Socrates to whom some dialogues are attributed): 4.2.1. Of course, the term logos has a wide range of valences in the Greek language and in Plutarch’s corpus, and uses referring to literary philosophical dialogues are not particularly common. Dialogos likewise has a range of meanings: although dialogos does refer to literary dialogue most of the time in Plutarch, it can also refer to, for example, simple verbal exchanges or disputes (e.g. Demetrius 15.3.3).


literary dialogue to a significant extent in any of his extant writings. In particular, he shows little interest in doing so in the dialogues themselves; the term dialogos is not used in any of the seven dialogues I identify as Plutarch’s most serious efforts to engage with the tradition of the philosophical dialogue. On the rare occasions when he talks about dialogue at all, Plutarch is concerned with the effect of its contents on its audience rather than identifying characteristic features that set it apart from other literary forms.3

Plutarch’s most substantive theoretical comment on the literary dialogue occurs in his introduction to the sixth book of the Quaestiones convivales. Here Plutarch describes the correspondence between a live philosophical dialogue – a philosophical debate conducted viva voce among a group of interlocutors – and its written transcription. He gives an optimistic view of the potential of the written form to capture the essence of the live conversation, asserting that

…προβλημάτων δὲ καὶ λόγων φιλοσόφων ὑποθέσεις αὐτούς τε τοὺς μεμνημένους εὐφραίνουσιν, ἀεὶ πρόσφατοι παροῦσαι, καὶ τοὺς ἀπολειφθέντας οὐχ ἧττον ἑστιᾶν παρέχουσι τοῖς αὐτοῖς, ἀκούοντας καὶ μεταλαμβάνοντας· ὅπου καὶ νῦν τῶν Σωκρατικῶν συμποσίων μετουσία καὶ ἀπόλαυσίς ἐστι τοῖς φιλολόγοις, ὥσπερ αὐτοῖς ἐκείνοις τοῖς τότε δειπνοῦσι. (Quaest. conviv. 686c)

…topics of philosophical inquiry and discussion not only delight those who recall them, remaining ever-fresh in their , but they also provide no less sumptuous a feast for those who, although they were absent from the original event, are able to take part by hearing about them: see how even today those who are fond of learned conversation participate in and derive enjoyment from the Socratic symposia, just as those did who were actually present at the original banquets.4

3 Contrast the practice of Lucian, also writing dialogue in the second century C.E., who draws explicit attention to his own innovation upon the dialogue form, as in The Double Indictment, where he dramatizes a trial in which he stands accused of bringing the personified Dialogue down to the level of the common herd, making her comic and satirical; he even claims to have rescued Dialogue from the Academy.

4 Translations are mine unless otherwise noted.


Plutarch goes on to assert that the effect of making the refined reader feel present at the original event is accomplished not by the dialogue-writer recording every detail of the sympotic scene – what was for dinner, for instance – but by preserving its intellectual content, the φιλοσοφηθέντα, and lightening serious subject matter with a little playfulness

(τὰ δὲ φιλοσοφηθέντα μετὰ παιδιᾶς σπουδάζοντες εἰς γραφὴν ἀπετίθεντο (686d)). He vaunts the value of intellectual food over actual, physical food: secondhand spectators of dialogue delight in a feast undiminished from the original occasion, despite remaining ignorant of nonessential details such as what the original interlocutors ate and drank.

In this passage, Plutarch is talking exclusively of sympotic dialogue, thinking in particular of both Plato’s and ’s Symposium and making it clear that he has drawn upon the methods of these authors in recording his own sympotic dialogues in the book that follows (“So they have left examples not only of coming together in conversation over drink but also of recording what was said … I send to you, then, this the sixth book of my Symposiacs” (686e)). Nonetheless, it seems to me that we can extrapolate this characterization of sympotic dialogue to understand something of

Plutarch’s conception of the literary dialogue in general. It seems likely that the quality of fun may belong particularly, though not exclusively, to the sympotic dialogue; with wine and a festive occasion absent in Plato’s other dialogues, the proceedings are rather more serious than in his Symposium.5 But what about Plutarch’s assertion that the literary manifestation of philosophical dialogues is capable of giving an audience that was not originally present an equally fresh and gratifying experience of the conversation?

5 Although there is certainly comedy to be found, e.g. in and . On Plato’s complex relationship with the genre of comedy, see Chapter 5, “Philosophy and Comedy,” in Nightingale (1995), 172-92.


Although we cannot be sure, I see no reason why Plutarch should reserve this capacity for sympotic dialogue alone. In turning to examine Plutarch’s (non-sympotic) philosophical dialogues, then, it will be worth asking whether and by what means Plutarch endeavors to render the conversations he reports fresh and vivid, making his reader feel as if he were present at an original event (whether or not these conversations actually took place, something we may doubt). Here in the preface to Quaestiones convivales 6, we find one bare hint at a literary strategy one might employ to achieve this effect: Plutarch mentions that Plato and Xenophon achieved fresh and enjoyable accounts of philosophical discussions in part by omitting details extraneous to the philosophical issue at hand (as well as by lightening serious subject matter with playfulness – a strategy that, as discussed above, may belong more particularly to sympotic dialogue). In examining

Plutarch’s non-sympotic dialogues, we will need to consider whether and how selection of detail is important to the success of a literary dialogue.6

From Plutarch’s brief remarks on the philosophical dialogue at the outset of

Quaestiones convivales 6, then, we have gleaned at least two qualities Plutarch attributes to a successfully written dialogue: it has the capacity to make the reader feel actually present; and it excludes detail irrelevant to the philosophical issues at hand (and, implicitly, includes those details that are relevant). Plutarch does not reflect further on the dialogue form in his non-sympotic philosophical dialogues. In fact, the only explicit reference we find to his composition of written dialogues is in the dedication of De E apud Delphos to Sarapion, a poet friend at Athens. Here Plutarch offers his friend “some

6 The openings of two of these works, Amatorius and De genio Socratis, in fact strongly indicate that careful selection of detail is in fact a serious concern for Plutarch in composing his dialogues. These passages will be discussed in detail in Ch. 2.


of our Pythian logoi (τῶν Πυθικῶν λόγων ἐνίους)” and requests that Sarapion send some of his own in return – better ones, in fact, “since you have not only all the advantages of a great city, but also more abundant leisure to spend among books and in all sorts of discussions (ἅτε δὴ καὶ πόλει χρωμένων μεγάλῃ καὶ σχολῆς μᾶλλον ἐν βιβλίοις πολλοῖς

καὶ παντοδαπαῖς διατριβαῖς εὐπορούντων (384e)).”7 But Plutarch’s use of λόγος here does not lay particular stress on the written aspect of the conversations he is sharing with

Sarapion. We need not read Plutarch’s reference to τῶν Πυθικῶν λόγων ἐνίους as vaunting their status as reified written works. On the contrary, by pointing out his friend’s greater access to intellectual conversations, he calls attention to the origin in live discussion of such logoi as he is sending to him. Whether or not the dialogues in question record actual conversations in which he and his companions engaged at Delphi,

Plutarch creates the impression that they do; at any rate, he makes no pointed distinction between the written medium of the dialogues and their content. This solitary reference of

Plutarch’s to his own philosophical dialogues tells us very little about how he conceives of the literary form.

What are we to make of the fact that Plutarch has so little to say about his own dialogic practice and the dialogue as a literary form in general? Perhaps it should not be surprising. After all, despite the undeniable ways in which Plutarch innovates on the dialogue form, he is keenly aware that he is writing within an established tradition. To

Plutarch, the dialogue clearly means, first and foremost, the Platonic dialogue. This is clear from the extent to which Plutarch alludes to, borrows from, and even models his own dialogues after those of the master. To be sure, he also draws on other approaches to

7 Trans. Babbitt, adapted.


the literary dialogue – particularly that of Aristotle, who seems to have inspired the lengthier speeches that characterize his philosophical dialogues, and Heraclides Ponticus, who, in addition to Plato, supplies inspiration for his use of myth – but it is clearly Plato who provides the touchstone for the form.8 Plutarch’s sophisticated reading audience would have shared his intimate familiarity with Plato’s dialogues, and likely the tradition more broadly; accordingly, Plutarch may have seen little reason to theorize a form that he largely adopted from others.9 He may have found more relevance in attending to the effect of the dialogue on the reading audience, as he does briefly in the preface to Quaest. conviv. 6, than in remarking in a more general way on the characteristics of the form.

Plutarch’s Theory of Literature

Given that Plutarch has so little to say about the philosophical dialogue as a literary form, it seems prudent to alter the course of the present inquiry, pursuing two broader paths in approaching his philosophical dialogues. First of all, it will be useful to examine how Plutarch theorizes literature broadly.10 By looking through this wider lens, we may be able to discover Plutarchan ideas about the modes and capacities of literature

8 Aristotelian influence likely came also through Cicero, who followed Aristotle in his tendency towards monologue. Heraclides Ponticus: Lamberton (2001), 151-52.

9 On Plutarch’s reading audience – which would have varied by text and literary mode, but in general seems to have been male, elite, and highly educated, see e.g. Klotz and Oikonomopoulou (2011), 28-29 (on the Quaest. conviv. and in general), Thum (2013), 27-28 (on the dialogues in general).

10 Using the term ‘literature’ is admittedly problematic: though the word litteratura existed in Latin (meaning the use or system of letters, or the basic elements of education), ‘literature’ has connoted exclusivity and leisure since its coinage in the late eighteenth century; literature in our modern conception is of a certain quality and to be read privately, for personal enjoyment (Whitmarsh (2001), 3-5). Our culture of private leisure-reading would have been foreign to the ancient mind (despite the prestige, especially in Imperial Greek culture, attached to the possession of books). In the ancient world, texts were generally read aloud and often experienced publicly rather than privately, and distinctions between what we call genres were of much less import. As we will see, Plutarch shares this lack of concern with genre boundaries; Van der Stockt stresses that Plutarch was little concerned with neatly separating genres, taking a greater interest in the practical functions that literature in general should fulfill (169).


in general that also apply to the more particular form of the philosophical dialogue. The work of examining Plutarch’s theoretical views on literature has largely been accomplished by Van der Stockt in his 1992 dissertation; I will therefore first give a brief synopsis of his conclusions and their relevance for my study of Plutarch’s literary method in the philosophical dialogues. Secondly, given one of Van der Stockt’s primary conclusions, that Plutarch “pays very little if any attention to the theoretical issue of the classification of literature on the basis of essential and distinctive features of the various types and genres”11, it will be useful to take a synoptic look at philosophical discourse throughout Plutarch’s corpus, irrespective of genre boundaries. Instead of seeking out a technical, theoretical understanding of what the philosophical dialogue as a literary form is and does, I will inquire into the properties, functions and capacities of philosophical discourse in general. On these topics, as we will see, Plutarch has much more to say.

Van der Stockt frames his study as “an inquiry into the theoretical reflections on literature in Plutarch’s works,” a project justified in his view by Plutarch’s demonstrable interest in discussing literature both in a descriptive and prescriptive way. Beyond

Plutarch’s extant works, the titles of several of his lost works give further evidence of his theoretical interest in literature: for example, his Περί ῥητορικῆς and Περί ποιητικῆς, about whose contents we unfortunately can only speculate.12 Van der Stockt is careful to preface his study with the important caution that we must not attempt to impose any systematic theory of literature on Plutarch; after all, less than half of his literary output remains to us, and moreover, Plutarch’s remarks on literature are not always consistent,

11 Van der Stockt (1992), 169.

12 Van der Stockt (1992), 12.


displaying (perhaps) the evolution of his views over time or differences that may be attributable to the varying contexts of his comments, which we should not neglect.13

Over the course of his study, which considers Plutarch’s views on the methods, aims and effects of literature as well as his conception of literary genre, Van der Stockt comes to a few conclusions that are particularly important for our inquiry.14 First and foremost, he stresses that Plutarch displays an overriding practical interest in the functions that literature should fulfill, and that the ethical function is chief among these.

In the diversity of Plutarch’s remarks on literature, Van der Stockt locates a unifying thread: all literature, regardless of genre, is capable of conveying ethically important truth, and Plutarch encourages readers to approach literary texts as guidebooks to direct their steps on the road to virtue.15 Plutarch does not deny the possibility of reading literature purely for pleasure, but he recommends an approach that, prioritizing content over form, attends primarily to the morally instructive aspect of literature rather than those aspects that simply give enjoyment.16 This view has implications for Plutarch’s understanding of poetry, and in particular for the relationship between form and content: for example, in Plutarch’s view, formal features such as meter, metaphor, and style are of less importance than mythical content, which may convey moral instruction.

13 Ibid., 12-13.

14 Van der Stockt deals primarily, though by no means exclusively, with poetry in his study. He gives close attention to Plutarch’s literary method in his Lives, examining in particular the role Plutarch finds for mimēsis therein. While he purposely avoids treating the theme of rhetoric in Plutarch in depth given a previous treatment of the subject by R. Jeuckens (Plutarch von Chaeronea und die Rhetorik, Strassburg diss., 1907), rhetorical discourse enters frequently into Van der Stockt’s study, especially because Plutarch does not always distinguish between poetry and “belletristic rhetoric (Ibid., 84).”

15 Ibid., 172.

16 Ibid., 72.


Despite Plutarch’s attention to formal features that belong mainly to poetry, his general valuation of content over form nonetheless holds for prose as well as poetry.17

Proceeding to examine Plutarch’s views on the functions of literature broadly, Van der

Stockt delves further into the relationship between form and content, highlighting

Plutarch’s view that the two components cooperate to produce an affective impact. In one piece of advice offered in his Praecepta conjugalia, Plutarch approvingly describes the efforts of both poets and orators to move and stir their audiences through their art:

“But we find both poets and public speakers – those who strive to avoid vulgarity, narrowness, and affectation in their diction – employing all artistry to move and stir the hearer by means of their subject matter, their handling of it, and their portrayal of characters.”18 The context of this statement, as well as its strong contrast of the means employed by the poets and orators with the types of language they reject, makes clear that

Plutarch approves of literature making an appeal to the emotions of its audience. Form and content have different means of appealing to the emotions of their audience, and these means will vary to some degree by literary mode (to avoid using the term “genre”)

– prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, for instance. Ultimately, the emotive function of literature – basically, its ability to please – is subordinated to its more important ethical function. Given the observations about Plutarch’s on literature outlined above,

Van der Stockt’s final major conclusion is not surprising: he finds that Plutarch is little concerned with the theoretical classification of literature according to genre; his primary

17 On reading strictly for pleasure: ibid. 87, 129. On prose and poetry: 72.

18 Praec. con. 142a-b, quoted in Van der Stockt (124). Trans. Babbitt, adapted.


interest in the practical functions of all literature tends to minimize attention to features that may set genres apart.19

Several of the major features of Plutarch’s thought on literature outlined by Van der Stockt will be important for our inquiry into Plutarch’s literary method in his philosophical dialogues. First of all, we must keep in mind Plutarch’s overriding concern with the ethical function of literature and examine how this function operates within the dialogues. We must further consider how the subordinate emotive function of literature operates in the dialogues: how do aspects of form and content “move and stir” the reader, alluring him through a pleasurable reading experience to attend to more important matters in a text? Finally, it will be important to observe ways in which philosophical discourse operates similarly to other types of discourse, including poetry and rhetoric.

Plutarch’s Understanding of philosophos logos

Thus far, we have investigated Plutarch’s theoretical understanding of the philosophical dialogue via two routes: first by examining Plutarch’s relatively few explicit statements about the literary dialogue, and then by endeavoring to understand, through Van der Stockt’s study, Plutarch’s theoretical views on literature and their applicability to our more specific field. In the remainder of this chapter, I wish to pursue one final route by which we may be able to understand more about Plutarch’s approach to the literary dialogue: an inquiry into Plutarch’s views on philosophical discourse generally, within and outside of literary contexts. How should philosophical discourse be conducted in order to achieve the best result? What are the roles and responsibilities of

19 Van der Stockt (1992), 169.


the participants in philosophical discourse? In order to get a full picture of Plutarch’s views on these topics, I will begin with a look at some standard terms that commonly arise in the discussion of philosophical discourse.

The first term to consider is logos. As we have seen, logos is Plutarch’s standard term for the philosophical dialogue. Of course, logos also has an enormous range of other and more common valences, both technical and general, and as we might expect of a writer with a prolific and varied output, Plutarch employs a great many of these meanings across his corpus. Accordingly, I restrict my investigation of his use of logos to such relevant contexts as discourse, argumentation, philosophy and education. I also consider how Plutarch talks about philosophy in conjunction with or separately from the term logos, because it is clear that for Plutarch, there can be no philosophy without logoi.

Focusing on Plutarch’s use of words and terms such as logos, philosophos logos, philosophia, and philosophein will go some distance towards revealing what Plutarch thinks philosophical discourse in general is, and having established this foundation and studied the nuances of Plutarch’s thought, we will be able to judge more about what the literary philosophical dialogue is and the range of ways in which it can operate.

To begin, let us consider how Plutarch describes the enterprise of philosophy.

First, a survey of the ways in which Plutarch talks about philosophical discourse across his corpus reveals that its qualities, modes and strategies are often articulated through comparison with other types of logos: rhetoric and oratory, on the one hand, and poetry on the other. Philosophos logos has distinctive aims that set it apart from and elevate it above other types of discourse, but it may take many forms, borrowing effective


strategies from other genres in order to accomplish these aims. 20 Ultimately, whatever the formal strategies it employs, one trait of philosophical discourse emerges particularly clearly: it operates by moving its audience both affectively and cognitively, and through this function, it is particularly capable of educating and promoting moral improvement.

Quaestiones convivales

For Plutarch, philosophos logos is the noblest type of discourse. This becomes clear when he compares philosophical discourse to oratory and rhetoric. Although

Plutarch’s youthful works show enthusiasm for the art of rhetoric in which he was extensively trained, Plutarch increasingly took a rather dim and suspicious view of rhetoric, subject as it was to sophistical abuses that muddled rather than advanced the search for truth.21 In his Quaestiones Platonicae, for example, Plutarch associates rhetorical logos with sophistry and recalls how Socrates, under the guidance of his daimonion, rejected it entirely in his search for wisdom.22 Plutarch presents philosophos logos as having an inherent universality and flexibility that sets it apart from oratory, although the two modes certainly share a number of common features. In comparing rhetorikos logos with philosophos logos in the first question of the Quaestiones

20 Throughout this chapter, I use the term philosophos logos as a sort of shorthand to refer to philosophical discourse understood broadly, whatever the terms Plutarch uses to describe it; I do not reserve it exclusively for instances where Plutarch uses the precise phrase philosophos logos.

21 E.g. De fortuna Romanorum, De Alexandri magni fortuna aut virtute, Bellone an pace clariores fuerint Athenienses. Jones (1971), 14 however notes that criticism of sophists is also found in these works (e.g. Bellone an pace 351a); Plutarch also displays elsewhere within the Moralia and the Lives the “traditional mistrust of the Academy for rhetoric.” Though Jones speaks of a “rhetorical period” ending in 67, the year in which Plutarch appears in De E as a student of Academic philosophy, we should be careful about drawing such neat boundaries; as I show in my subsequent chapters, Plutarch continually employs strategies learned in his rhetorical training to promote his philosophical and pedagogical aims.

22 Quaest. Plat. 1000d. Plutarch also includes poetry and mathematics among those things which the daimonion prevented Socrates from begetting and which were of no serious concern.


convivales, Plutarch first asserts that there is no context from which the latter can rightfully be excluded. The issue under discussion is whether philosophy is an appropriate topic of conversation at a symposium. Plutarch reports that some find it appropriate to exclude philosophy from sympotic occasions because it does not make the most convivial of subjects. But Crato23 takes issue with this reasoning:

“οὐχ ὅμοιον δ’ οἶμαι ῥητορικὸν ἐξαιρεῖν συμποσίου λόγον καὶ φιλόσοφον, ἀλλ’ ἕτερόν ἐστι τὸ φιλοσοφίας, ἣν τέχνην περὶ βίον οὖσαν οὔτε τινὸς παιδιᾶς οὔτε τινὸς ἡδονῆς διαγωγὴν ἐχούσης ἀποστατεῖν εἰκὸς ἀλλὰ πᾶσι παρεῖναι τὸ μέτρον καὶ τὸν καιρὸν ἐπιφέρουσαν…”

“But I don’t think that removing oratorical speech from a symposium is the same thing as removing philosophical discourse. The nature of philosophy is something different, and since it is the art of life, it is unreasonable to exclude it from any entertainment or pleasant pastime; it has a place in all affairs, since it brings the qualities of due measure and fitness along with it.” (Quaest. conviv. 613b)

Far from being inappropriate to the sympotic context, as “the art of life” – τέχνην περὶ

βίον – philosophy has the distinction of being the most important subject of all, and hence should be welcome everywhere.24 The assertion, reported by Plutarch, that philosophy is characteristically serious does nothing to alter Crato’s insistence on its universal suitability: if philosophy were to be excluded from symposia for being too serious, temperance and justice would have to be excluded on the same grounds!

Investigating the best form of life is relevant to all men, and hence appropriate to every

23 Crato is a relative of Plutarch (Clement and Hoffleit (1969), 13). His contribution to the debate comes near its beginning, and the other interlocutors do not subsequently challenge his position that philosophy is always an appropriate topic of conversation. Plutarch does nuance it, however, by admitting that depending upon the character of the guests present at a symposium, holding a serious philosophical discussion may be more or less challenging, and circumstances may require a host who is committed to promoting this type of discourse to use subtle tactics, such as concealing his philosophizing behind a guise of jesting, to reach his less philosophically inclined guests (see below).

24 Philosophy in Plutarch is very broad, and in the Quaest. conviv. is frequently concerned with natural science. Kechagia (2011), assessing how seriously philosophy is conducted in the Quaest. conviv., demonstrates that Plutarch urges his more philosophically-versed readers towards a Platonist approach to natural science.


situation and every type of discourse. Philosophy possesses something universal and valuable that rhetorikos logos simply does not.

Later in this discussion, philosophy is again set in contrast with oratory, and here we see that philosophy need not appear to be totally serious after all, despite its essential gravity owing to its status as the art of life. Like Crato, Plutarch contrasts the universality of philosophy with the limited nature of oratory, but he stresses the multiplicity of ways in which philosophy can be conducted. He states that a philosopher knows that

“…ῥητορεύουσι μὲν ἄνθρωποι διὰ λόγου, φιλοσοφοῦσι δὲ καὶ σιωπῶντες καὶ παίζοντες καὶ νὴ Δία σκωπτόμενοι καὶ σκώπτοντες…ἀλλὰ καὶ συνέσεως ἄκρας φιλοσοφοῦντα μὴ δοκεῖν φιλοσοφεῖν καὶ παίζοντα διαπράττεσθαι τὰ τῶν σπουδαζόντων…οὕτω τῶν ἀληθινῶν φιλοσόφων καὶ τὰ σκώμματα καὶ οἱ γέλωτες τοὺς μὴ παντελῶς ἀτρώτους κινοῦσιν ἁμωσγέπως καὶ συνεπιστρέφουσιν.” (Quaest. conviv. 613f-614a)

“…men make speeches with words, but they do philosophy while silent and while joking and even, by God, while poking fun at others and laughing at themselves. … but it is the mark of the greatest sagacity to do philosophy without seeming to, and to accomplish through joking what other men do while being serious. … Thus true philosophers who jest manage by some means to move and to turn the heads of men who are not totally invulnerable.”

We learn a couple of things about philosophos logos here. Firstly, Plutarch points out that philosophy is actually quite a flexible means of discourse. Unlike oratory, it can be conducted in silence; by extension, it does not necessarily require an audience or the spoken word at all. In these respects, it is more flexible than oratory. In another respect, it matches the flexibility of oratory: we find that no less than in that medium, a variety of rhetorical strategies are available to a philosopher who wishes to conduct a philosophical discussion at a drinking party but finds his companions unwilling to tolerate serious talk.

A philosopher may persuade through jokes and laughter just as well as through more serious discourse. This second point about the flexibility of philosophos logos reveals


another important Plutarchan conviction about its conduct: in order to be successful, philosophical discourse must be adapted to suit the disposition, character and capabilities of the participants.25 Plutarch implies that in order to meet this requirement, philosophos logos may borrow from the playbook of oratory. Savvy hosts interested in cultivating philosophical conversations at their parties should not be heavy-handed in forcing philosophy on their guests; “even when philosophizing in a straightforward manner, they guide the conversation through the persuasiveness rather than the force of their arguments

(κἂν ἀπ’ εὐθείας φιλοσοφῶσιν, τηνικαῦτα διὰ τοῦ πιθανοῦ μᾶλλον ἢ βιαστικοῦ τῶν

ἀποδείξεων ἄγουσι τὸν λόγον (614c)).” An example from Plato’s Symposium illustrates the point and provides a touchstone: Plato, “when he talks about the final goal and the primary good – in short, when he is dealing with the divine – neither strains his argument nor dusts himself for a fight, securing a firm and inescapable grip in his usual manner; instead he brings men along with easy premises, examples and storytelling (περὶ

τέλους διαλεγόμενος καὶ τοῦ πρώτου ἀγαθοῦ καὶ ὅλως θεολογῶν οὐκ ἐντείνει τὴν

ἀπόδειξιν οὐδ’ ὑποκονίεται, τὴν λαβὴν ὥσπερ εἴωθεν εὔτονον ποιῶν καὶ ἄφυκτον, ἀλλ’

ὑγροτέροις λήμμασι καὶ παραδείγμασι καὶ μυθολογίαις προσάγεται τοὺς ἄνδρας (614c- d)).”26 Plutarch here presents divine matters as the most important that philosophy can

25 Kechagia (2011) argues that Plutarch in fact demonstrates this principle in his composition of the Quaestiones convivales, putting into practice a “two-tier sympotic philosophy” for two different kinds of readers, the ‘beginners’ and the ‘philosophically initiated’ (91); in providing instruction for the beginners, Kechagia demonstrates, Plutarch takes care not to “transgress the limits of acceptable philosophizing over wine” (95). König (2007), too, reads the Quaestiones convivales as a teaching tool, demonstrating that their miscellaneous quality encourages the reader to engage actively with the text and formulate his own response to the questions under discussion.

26 In order best to understand how Plutarch sees these devices operating in Plato, we ought to consider what specific elements in the Symposium he may have in mind in citing simple premises, examples and mythical legends. It is perhaps most difficult to identify components of arguments that might be described as ὑγροτέροις λήμμασι; see n. 28 below. It is easier to locate paradeigmata in the Symposium: we might cite Diotima’s use of the examples of Alcestis and Achilles to illustrate the lengths to which people will go to preserve their memory (208d), or of poetry and poets to explain the behavior of Love and lovers (205b-c);


treat. Not even the loftiest subject, however, must be expounded through aggressive logical argument; a gentler approach to persuasion is possible and may indeed be desirable.27

We begin to see in the above passage that the aims and methods of philosophical discourse can in fact overlap rather seamlessly with those of rhetoric, despite Plutarch’s valorization of the former as the most noble type of discourse. Plutarch makes clear that persuasion, the goal of rhetoric, is also the proper goal of one who believes he has located philosophical truth. It is also striking that of the persuasive methods Plutarch attributes to

Plato in the Symposium – easy premises, examples, and storytelling – the latter two are among those specifically recommended by Aristotle in his Rhetoric for the persuasion of general audiences such as popular assemblies.28 Aristotle identifies two main forms of

we might also cite ’ remark on Socrates’ method: “He talks about pack-asses and smiths and cobblers and tanners…”; his arguments, made with seemingly simple examples, open up to reveal deeper meaning (221e). As for mythical legends, Diotima’s story of Eros’ descent from Poros and Penia stands out as an example (203b-d); we might also consider Aristophanes’ myth to fit the description; arguably, it validates the argument in Socrates’ subsequent speech that Eros is lacking.

27 It is difficult to tell why Plutarch thinks that Plato employed a gentler approach to argument in the Symposium. It is interesting, too, that he refers to Plato rather than Socrates. Given the context of this passage, we must assume that Plutarch judges that the dispositions or capacities of audience members are being accommodated. But which audience does he have in mind? The internal audience – Socrates’ interlocutors – or us, Plato’s readers? τοὺς ἄνδρας would seem most naturally to refer to the internal audience, but, in that case, it still seems odd that Plutarch does not speak of Socrates as the one doing the arguing. If τοὺς ἄνδρας are indeed Socrates’ interlocutors, what about them made a softer approach to argument most appropriate? All the interlocutors seem ready enough to engage in praising Eros. Socrates’ speech does differ from the rest, however, in grounding praise of Eros within a quite demanding metaphysical exposition. Perhaps Socrates’ use of myth and vivid illustrative example accommodates, in Plutarch’s view, the company’s expectation of rather lighter treatments (given those that have come before) as well as the festive atmosphere of the occasion.

28 As for the first, the easy premises (ὑγροτέροις λήμμασι): although these do not figure in Aristotle’s discussion of inductive reasoning, in his Rhetoric, Aristotle stresses that an orator should keep (explicitly stated) premises to a minimum in constructing enthymemes, which operate through deductive reasoning. Aristotle makes this prescription in consideration of the limitations of the orator’s audience: he assumes an audience that is not intellectually sophisticated (ἁπλοῦς; Rhet. 1357a11-12), which the orator must be careful not to overwhelm with too many premises or unproven premises. Thus, an orator must equally attend to the character and capacities of his audience whether he is engaged in inductive or deductive reasoning. See Rhet. 1357a. Just as we may locate instances of example and storytelling being used in Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, so too can we observe Socrates employing easy premises at the beginning of his speech – for example, in leading Agathon to concede that Eros is not beautiful as he


oratorical arguments, or pisteis, common to all kinds of oratory: the example and the enthymeme (παράδειγμα, ἐνθύμημα).29 The example is characterized by its inductive nature: beginning from a particular case, it leads to a general proposition.30 Aristotle is clear that the inductive method has much greater appeal to the common man than deductive argument through enthymemes. He notes that argument by example is highly suitable for political oratory (while enthymemes are better suited to forensic); further, fables (λόγοι), a subspecies of the example, are suitable for addresses to popular assemblies (δημηγορικοί). Plutarch, in prescribing persuasion rather than compulsion for the introduction of philosophical concepts in the Quaestiones convivales, shows agreement with Aristotle in distinguishing between two possible modes of argument – one operating through a tight, efficient chain of rational arguments and the other through more user-friendly demonstration by narrative illustration. The sympotic setting for which Plutarch recommends persuasion through devices including examples and myth

(παραδείγμασι καὶ μυθολογίαις, closely corresponding to Aristotle’s παράδειγμα and

λόγοι) – a situation in which the guests present may not be immediately inclined to join previously thought. In leading him towards this conclusion, Socrates proceeds slowly through a short chain of premises (employing as he goes examples to facilitate their acceptance), beginning quite simply with the proposition that love is the love of something, and recapitulating already accepted premises as he guides Agathon to the desired conclusion (Symp. 199 e ff).

As for Plutarch’s relationship with Aristotle, although it is impossible to determine precisely the nature of his knowledge of and engagement with particular texts, it is clear that Plutarch was profoundly influenced by Aristotelian ideas. Plutarch mentions Aristotle by name over 200 times, and “the passages that he seems to evoke indicate a broad knowledge of the corpus (Lamberton (2001), 16-17).” Lamberton cautions, however, that “it would be misleading to suggest that Plutarch gives evidence of a deep knowledge of Aristotle, but there is correspondingly ample evidence of breadth.” Becchi (2014), 74 notes that Plutarch “demonstrates a developed knowledge of the writings of Aristotle” and his successors.

29 Rhetoric 1393a23-25.

30 There are two varieties of examples: the mention of actual facts, and the invention of facts by the speaker. Of the latter variety, there in turn exist two types: the illustrative parallel (parabole) and the fable (logos), such as those of Aesop (Rhet. 1393a28-31). The enthymeme, the second type of pistis, operates in the opposite manner. An enthymeme, taking the form of a syllogismos, functions as a deductive argument, beginning from a premise and working towards a conclusion.


in a philosophical discussion – has much in common with the settings for which Aristotle also prescribes the use of example: gatherings of the masses rather than more specialized arenas, such as the law court, in which the audience would be duty-bound if not naturally inclined to consider logically reasoned arguments.

One further aspect of Aristotle’s discussion of inductive reasoning deserves our attention. In the Topics, we hear more about the appropriateness of inductive reasoning for general audiences: Aristotle asserts that “induction is more persuasive and clear, more intelligible by use of the senses and applicable to the general run of men (ἔστι δ’ ἡ μὲν

ἐπαγωγὴ πιθανώτερον καὶ σαφέστερον καὶ κατὰ τὴν αἴσθησιν γνωριμώτερον καὶ τοῖς

πολλοῖς κοινόν (105a)).” How, exactly, does induction teach by use of the senses (κατὰ

τὴν αἴσθησιν)? By moving from particulars to universals (as Aristotle states just prior to the above quotation), this method prompts an audience, capable of easily imagining specific persons or concrete things, to picture individuals – such as a skilled pilot or charioteer – vividly in their minds. With an image of this sort established in the mind’s eye, the audience is then more readily able to achieve, by abstraction, a more general principle. Although in our quotation from Quaestiones convivales, Plutarch does not elaborate his understanding of Plato’s rationale in using myths and examples to persuade his interlocutors, let us keep this idea of the power of vivid specificity in mind as we proceed: it will become clear in Plutarch’s discussion of his approach to depicting virtue and vice in the Lives that he finds vivid, specific examples especially powerful in their ability to provoke critical reflection and, subsequently, positive moral action in an audience.


De audiendis poetis

In Quaestiones convivales, we have seen Plutarch concerned with philosophical inquiry conducted through oral debate (whether in his own day or recounted in the work of Plato). But this is just one forum for philosophical inquiry which Plutarch recognizes.

In his essay De audiendis poetis, Plutarch emphasizes, much as he does in Quaestiones convivales, the persuasive power of myth, but here he discusses it not as a device used within overt philosophical discourse but rather as a medium in its own right through which philosophical ideas may profitably be communicated. Here Plutarch is concerned with the education of young men who have not yet formally studied philosophy, and he describes how myth acts as a more immediately appealing means of demonstrating a point than stark, neat argument. Poetry, despite its potential to mislead and corrupt, may also convey profitable messages; poetic language can serve as an allurement to as well as a distraction from such messages. If a young man has proper guidance in reading poetic texts and develops a sense of discernment, the benefits of reading poetry will outweigh the potential detriments. Used properly, poetry containing improving content will serve as an introductory exercise in philosophy for those students not yet accustomed to, or inclined to, engaging with philosophical discourse in the raw. Of philosophical discourses, Plutarch says

…ὅτι δὲ τῶν ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ λεγομένων οἱ σφόδρα νέοι τοῖς μὴ δοκοῦσι φιλοσόφως μηδ’ ἀπὸ σπουδῆς λέγεσθαι χαίρουσι μᾶλλον καὶ παρέχουσιν ὑπηκόους ἑαυτοὺς καὶ χειροήθεις, δῆλόν ἐστιν ἡμῖν. οὐ γὰρ μόνον τὰ Αἰσώπεια μυθάρια καὶ τὰς ποιητικὰς ὑποθέσεις ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸν Ἄβαριν τὸν Ἡρακλείδου καὶ τὸν Λύκωνα τὸν Ἀρίστωνος διερχόμενοι καὶ τὰ περὶ τῶν ψυχῶν δόγματα μεμιγμένα μυθολογίᾳ μεθ’ ἡδονῆς ἐνθουσιῶσι. (De aud. poet. 14e-f)31

31 Trans. Babbitt. The dialogues of Heraclides Ponticus, the fourth-century Academic philosopher to whom Plutarch refers here, were known for their elaborate proems and the “seductive quality” of their anecdotes and myths (OCD3, s.v. “Heraclides Ponticus”). Abaris, a Hyperborean shaman, was the subject of a range of fabulous tales, and the two fragments of the dialogue Abaris that survive support Plutarch’s description


…It is clear to us that the very young take more pleasure in philosophical discussions that do not seem to be presented seriously or in a philosophical manner, and they offer themselves as willing and ready audiences. For in reading not only Aesop’s fables and stories of poets, but also the Abaris of Heraclides, the Lycon of Ariston, and teachings on the soul blended with mythical tales, they are inspired and delighted.

Just as he does in Quaestiones convivales 6, Plutarch highlights the attractiveness of philosophical discourse that is seemingly not serious. Here, however, lack of apparent seriousness is tied to a mode of expression more specific and dignified than jokes poking fun at an interlocutor: here, it is the fictional story in which philosophical lessons are embedded that entices young audiences. The myths of Aesop, Heraclides and Ariston approach conveying a philosophical point in the way that Aristotle recommends employing for the general populace.32

Through his description of the attractiveness of poetry in De audiendis poetis,

Plutarch enables us to discern, although not without difficulty, the elements that make it attractive and that, by extension, make it effective at conveying a philosophical message.

First of all, Plutarch subordinates various types of poetic language to the overall achievement of creating a complete narrative, asserting that “not meter nor figure of speech nor loftiness of diction nor aptness of metaphor nor harmonious word- arrangement has so much allure and charm as well interwoven organization of mythical narrative (οὔτε γὰρ μέτρον οὔτε τρόπος οὔτε λέξεως ὄγκος οὔτ’ εὐκαιρία μεταφορᾶς οὔθ’

of its mythic content. One fragment of the Abaris features snakes rushing at a corpse and being held off by dogs; the other has a who has been transformed into a young man addressing a character who is perhaps Abaris (Lamberton (2001), 152). Nothing survives of the Lycon of the third-century Academic philosopher Ariston, but judging from its grouping with the works Aesop and Heraclides, we may deduce that this text also possessed some amount of mythic content.

32 Plutarch is talking exclusively of fiction here, where Aristotle saw the same potential for mass appeal in both true and fictional narratives (e.g., illustrative comparisons as well as myths and legends).


ἁρμονία καὶ σύνθεσις ἔχει τοσοῦτον αἱμυλίας καὶ χάριτος ὅσον εὖ πεπλεγμένη διάθεσις

μυθολογίας (16b)).33 He then goes on to describe the content of poetry further, singling out πιθανότης as a further necessary component of a fictional narrative: “in poetry falsehood combined with plausibility is more striking, and gives more satisfaction, than the work which is elaborate in meter and diction, but devoid of myth and fiction (ἐν

ποιήμασι μεμιγμένον πιθανότητι ψεῦδος ἐκπλήττει καὶ ἀγαπᾶται μᾶλλον τῆς ἀμύθου καὶ

ἀπλάστου περὶ μέτρον καὶ λέξιν κατασκευῆς (16b-c)).34 In the first statement, Plutarch seems firmly to be separating formal aspects not connected with content from the organization of mythic material, giving priority to the latter: διάθεσις μυθολογίας pertains to content in a way that devices such as meter and metaphor do not.35 In the second statement, Plutarch seems primarily concerned with fictional content as the essential defining feature of myth, although the falsehoods poetry represents must be mixed with plausibility. But what exactly does Plutarch mean by πιθανότης here? In the opinion of

Van der Stockt, πιθανότης here “seems to imply ‘truthfulness’ rather than ‘the internal of the intrigue’” – that is, Plutarch is highlighting the content of myth rather than its formal arrangement, and in particular stressing that poetry is most pleasurable if its fictional content contains an isolable grain of truth. 36 Readers are attracted to and derive pleasure from the false content of poetry, and in order to benefit from poetic texts, they have the responsibility of disentangling the element of truth it contains from the fictional

33 Trans. Babbitt, with modifications incorporated from Hunter and Russell (2011).

34 Trans. Babbitt.

35 Hunter and Russell (2011), 85.

36 Van der Stockt (1992), 94. For Plutarch, he observes, myth is “the notion with which he distinguishes between poetry on the one hand, and truth and reality on the other”; here we find a distinction between myth and mimēsis.


trappings. Van der Stockt’s interpretation οf πιθανότης gains credence from Plutarch’s comparison later in the essay of the nuggets of truth hidden in poetry to pieces of fruit obscured by the leaves on a tree.37 Good readers, then, are savvy harvesters of this fruit, assiduously pushing aside the foliage of fiction to pluck out the valuable produce hidden beneath. In sum, just as he does with respect to oral philosophical discourse, Plutarch highlights myth as a tool available within the medium of poetry for predisposing readers to important philosophical concepts couched within.

It is clear in this essay – more so than in Quaestiones convivales – that specific qualities of myth make it effective in promoting philosophical discourse: over and above formal devices, coherence of content and the presence of a truthful element make it compelling. Still, we have not yet seen how these qualities produce the effect of stimulating a young reader to philosophical inquiry, to plucking the fruit of truth from among the leaves of fiction. Let us delve deeper into Plutarch’s remarks in De audiendis poetis to understand precisely how Plutarch imagines myth affecting a young reader.

First of all, myth performs the emotive function that Van der Stockt highlights in his study. As we have seen, poetry gives pleasure (something that pure philosophy cannot be counted upon to do). This pleasure is an affective response, arising from sensation and perception; it has no cognitive or rational component. The affective nature of pleasure is highlighted by Plutarch’s repeated references to the pleasure deriving from taste in the opening of De audiendis poetis. The pleasure offered by poetry is compared to the pleasure provided by food and drink (14f); a young man’s taste for both kinds of pleasure

37 De aud. poet. 28d1-e.


must be moderated by consideration of what is healthful.38 Plutarch offers a further reason for viewing the affective power of poetry with suspicion in noting its power not just to please, but also to elicit other irrational responses such as fear, disturbance, suffering and enchantment (16d-e).39

So a reader’s first response to poetic myth is affective, whether it takes the form of pleasure or some less enjoyable emotion. But where and how does rational judgment of mythical content enter in? This second stage of profitable reading, which in fact renders the reading of poetry safe, may not follow naturally for an immature reader.

Plutarch stresses that it is through training that students learn to bring this type of critical thought to bear on their affective responses.40 Offering his own recommendations as to how to exercise this critical faculty, Plutarch suggests employing certain hermeneutic practices in order to derive an ethically acceptable message from a text: for example, comparing a morally objectionable sentiment expressed in one poetic text with a range of contradictory passages elsewhere and ultimately nullifying the apparent meaning of the first passage, judging that the poet could not have been serious or was only aiming to

38 Cf. Plutarch’s comparison of the pleasure audiences derive from recorded dialogues to a feast (οὐχ ἧττον ἑστιᾶν) in the prologue to Quaest. conviv. 6 (see above, p. 2).

39 Plutarch cites various other responses as inherent in or concomitant with the feeling of pleasure that poetry evokes, and these responses are likewise affective rather than cognitive. First, as we have seen, when poetry is tied to philosophical content, it is inspiring as well as pleasurable (μεθ’ἡδονῆς ἐνθουσιῶσι (De aud. poet. 14e-f)). Enthusiasm appears again in Plutarch’s description of the response of a properly trained student to the good: he will feel elation and a sympathetic enthusiasm (ἐπαιρομένου καὶ συνενθουσιῶντος (26a)). The word ἐνθουσιασμός often denotes not just enthusiasm in its more generic sense, as here, but inspiration or possession brought on by a divinity. A person in a state of inspiration by definition cannot be in possession of his rational powers; rational analysis of things seen in a state of inspiration must come afterward (see Plato, Timaeus 71e). While Plutarch uses ἐνθουσιασμός rather generically here as a response to art, it becomes important in the philosophical dialogues in the latter, more technical sense. Admiration is also a frequent companion to pleasure, and Plutarch warns that responses of admiration should be carefully considered to make sure that their objects are not unworthy. For example, we take pleasure in and admire likenesses represented in painting (De aud. poet. 18a).

40 Heath (2013) stresses the importance of guidance by a teacher in Plutarch’s advice on reading poetry, noting that his educational program “fosters autonomy only within a highly directive framework” (106).


arouse astonishment (De aud. poet. 20c-f).41 But he also suggests a comparative manner of reading in which a prospective student of philosophy, having read and derived pleasure from a poetic text that contains a kernel of philosophical truth, will then move from an affective to a thoughtful mode of response by again reading this text alongside another that presents the same doctrine in a straightforward – that is, non-poetic – manner. The practice of comparing the two and locating consistency between the implicit messages found in poetry and the explicit teachings of philosophers “opens and stimulates in advance the mind of the youth by the sayings in philosophy (ἔτι δὲ προανοίγει καὶ

προκινεῖ τὴν τοῦ νέου ψυχὴν τοῖς ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ λόγοις (De aud. poet. 36d)).”42 The two types of philosophos logos operate differently, but the function of each is indispensable.

The poetic text, as we have seen, attracts the amateur student through its affective appeal; after the student has been drawn in through its deployment of fictional (yet plausible) myth, he will, if he has been properly trained, take the next step of considering the philosophical value of the poetic content, and he will recognize by comparing the poetic text with a more straightforward one that literary form is only ancillary to content.

De recta ratione audiendi

A student who has completed his preparatory training for the study of philosophy will be capable of profitably approaching philosophical discourse that is more direct than

41 Although, as Hunter and Russell (2011) note, the text is uncertain here; it may be that Plutarch does not mean that we should understand morally objectionable statements as meant in jest and contrary to the poet’s own beliefs. Indeed, “it must be admitted that there is little παιδία on show” in the examples of such statements that Plutarch goes on to give (116). In any case, Plutarch advises accepting the more morally correct of two (or more) contradictory statements. As Konstan (2006), 10 notes, in Plutarch’s model of reading, readers ought to “talk back to the text, to interrogate it, to expose its inconsistencies and fallacies.”

42 Trans. Babbitt.


poetic texts that conceal salutary truth within attractive mythical trappings. In the essay

De recta ratione audiendi, similar to De audiendis poetis in its paraenetic aim, we see how Plutarch theorizes a type of discourse that is openly and vigorously philosophical.

In this essay, Plutarch is concerned with the education of careful and competent listeners from the age at which they first begin to encounter philosophoi logoi in school.

Addressing Nicandros, a young man in just this position, Plutarch offers advice about how students should respond to these lectures on philosophical topics. In describing the behavior of the ideal listener, Plutarch prescribes the disposition with which he must approach a lecture and specific critical practices he must employ during the lecture; he also outlines further work that the listener must do after the conclusion of the lecture in order to derive maximum benefit from its content. As Plutarch describes the various challenges facing the audience of philosophical lectures, it becomes clear that even this scholarly medium of discourse can have a powerful affective impact on its hearers. As in the reading of poetic texts, it is essential that a reader follow up this affective impact with reasoned, critical inquiry. The initial affective impact of a philosophical lecture may prove either beneficial or detrimental to a hearer’s moral and intellectual development, depending on his commitment to performing this critical examination.

Before examining in detail the advice Plutarch offers in De recta ratione audiendi, it will be helpful to understand more precisely the position within the broader scheme of Imperial Greek education of the philosophical lectures under consideration in the essay, as well as what we can know about the mode and aims of this type of lecture.

Such an understanding is difficult to attain: these lectures defy easy assignment to one neatly compartmentalized stage of ancient education. This is not surprising, given the


tendency of theoretical divisions between the successive stages in the educational curriculum to blur considerably in practice.43 The education of an elite young Greek student, from the Hellenistic period onward, began with primary studies under a grammarian; afterwards, the student would advance to intensive study of classical literature under a grammatikos.44 Upon completion of his secondary education, a young man would proceed to study and practice declamation under a rhetor. Subsequently, or alternatively, he might also pursue the study of philosophy, the other, less dominant form of higher education.45 The choice to study philosophy constituted a radical commitment to a new way of life and taking a path totally divergent from his previous literary studies.46 Nonetheless, considerable overlap between rhetoric and philosophy tended to diminish the distinction between these two disciplines. The treatment of fundamental moral themes naturally entered into the study and practice of declamation; philosophers, for their part, were not above rhetoric, and their own declamations displayed their use of

43 Such blurring is apparent in our evidence regarding the stage in the educational process at which the progymnasmata, or preparatory exercises for declamation, were taught. Some testimony suggests that they were taught jointly by grammarians and rhetors, but it may have been the case that by Plutarch’s maturity, all of these preparatory exercises for declamation would have been carried out under a grammarian. See Webb (2001), 296.

44 Cribiore (2001) notes that in practice, this consisted almost exclusively of the study of poetry (192), and the range of authors studied was limited (194).

45 Marrou (1956),194. Trapp (1997), xlv notes that the time in which philosophical and rhetorical training were mutually exclusive alternatives passed fairly quickly; they were soon established as successive stages of a complete education that had to be properly balanced.

46 Ibid., 206: “Philosophy was a minority culture for an intellectual elite prepared to make the necessary effort. It meant breaking with the usual culture, whose general tone, as we have seen, was literary, rhetorical and aesthetic.”


rhetorical techniques.47 Given the status of rhetorical education as the highest form of cultural capital, standards of eloquence obtained even in philosophy.48

Plutarch himself completed a thorough rhetorical education and subsequently pursued philosophical studies. He seems later to have operated his own school, although details about his teaching activity are frustratingly scarce. We have a few brief references to his school scattered throughout his corpus. An offhand remark at the opening of De E is unrevealing, simply informing us that the question of the meaning of the E had come up in the school (ἐν τῇ σχολῇ) in the past.49 A tantalizing reference in the anti-Epicurean treatise Non posse suaviter vivi secundum Epicurum50 tells us slightly more: we find Plutarch and his students considering an issue that Plutarch had been treating in his school, which has just let out (τῆς σχολῆς διαλυθείσης (1086d)). In each of these references, scholē may simply mean a lecture to a group of students; we need not understand it in the institutional sense of a philosophical school that endured for generations, such as Plato’s Academy, or of a modern-day school. One final text may give us a clue regarding Plutarch’s teaching activity: in De sollertia animalium, we have a debate between two students on the topic of whether land or sea animals are cleverer, judged by Plutarch’s father, Autobulus, and Soclarus, a friend of the family. Although we have no indication that the young debaters are students of Plutarch, it may be the case that this text represents an exercise composed in Plutarch’s school.51 These few

47 Ibid., 211-212.

48 Ibid., 195.

49 De E 385a.

50 This text may be considered a dialogue only nominally.

51 Cherniss and Helmbold (1957), 312.


references are of little help in determining what type of school Plutarch ran. Lamberton judges rightly that there is little evidence that Plutarch ran a rhetorical school. If he did, it seems at least likely that he mixed rhetoric and philosophy in his teaching; students might have been sent to him at Chaeronea to “perfect their rhetorical skills and become initiated into philosophy.”52 Given the long established tendency of the two disciplines to overlap, this would be unsurprising.

With this background on ancient education and Plutarch’s own academic life in mind, we can perhaps better contextualize the philosophoi logoi of which Plutarch speaks in De recta ratione audiendi. Plutarch’s advice in this essay is greatly concerned with locating the proper place for techniques and attitudes belonging to the realm of rhetorical discourse in this new (to the addressee, Nicandros) arena of philosophical studies. Some of this concern is due to the fact that Nicandros, after a good many years spent under the tutelage of a rhetor, has become used to responding to declamations in a manner that may no longer be suitable for this new type of study: for example, as we will see hinted presently, he may be accustomed to paying particular attention to a speaker’s self- presentation, or to hastily lavishing praise on an especially flashy speech. With this acculturation in mind, Plutarch is careful to set philosophos logos apart from sophistical declamations. Nonetheless, Plutarch also makes clear that philosophical lectures are successful partly due to their provocation of strong emotions, just as poetry and non- philosophical rhetoric are. Ultimately, according to Plutarch’s advice, the feature that most sets philosophos logos of this sort apart from sophistical rhetoric is that it not only

52 Lamberton (2001), 46.


displays a commitment to inquiry, but also demands the same of its audience.53 In other words, audience members are required to become active participants in the philosophical enterprise at hand. Considering the advice Plutarch offers to audiences of philosophoi logoi in this essay may illuminate the type of response Plutarch aims to elicit from the readers of his philosophical dialogues.

Let us turn to Plutarch’s advice in detail. Plutarch first emphasizes that in order to get the most out of the philosophical content of a lecture, a listener must enter the lecture hall with the right disposition: he must cultivate an attitude that is both studiously disinterested and self-aware. Ever cognizant of the highly competitive and self-conscious nature of the display rhetoric that was so prominent in the elite culture of his day,

Plutarch takes pains to set serious philosophoi logoi firmly apart from sophistical rhetoric and to warn against approaching philosophical lectures with the critical attitudes that belonged to that context.54 A student, Plutarch says, should do his best to disregard considerations of the speaker’s persona and reputation and to keep his own desires and impulses from intruding on his assessment of the subject matter at hand: good listening is spoiled, he warns, if a hearer is full of envy of the lecturer, wishing him ill in his success and becoming irritated at any praise he receives. He must examine philosophical arguments in isolation, setting aside the reputation of the speaker (τοὺς δ’ ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ

λόγους ἀφαιροῦντα χρὴ τὴν τοῦ λέγοντος δόξαν αὐτοὺς ἐφ’ ἑαυτῶν ἐξετάζειν (De aud.

53 As Konstan (2006), 13 points out, this expectation of readers had a long heritage by Plutarch’s time: Theophrastus, for example, recognized that a speech was more effective if it left some work for the reader, omitting some things that he had to fill in (citing Demetrius On Interpretation 222 = Theophrastus fragment 696 Fortenbaugh).

54 On the performance culture of Second Sophistic, see e.g. Gleason (2008), Whitmarsh (2005), Bowersock (2002).


41b)).55 To put Plutarch’s advice in terms of Aristotelian rhetoric, he seems to warn against being swayed by persuasion through ethos or pathos; instead, he should only make himself vulnerable to persuasion through reasoned argument, or logos.56 But despite the necessity of setting aside his passions, a student must nonetheless allow himself to be affected by the content of a philosophical lecture – that is, to recognize outwardly when a speaker does well, allowing his countenance to express approval and pleasure. To be more precise, he should seek a middle ground between stubbornly refusing to be moved by what he hears – for this would amount to succumbing to envy – and offering ostentatiously excessive commendation that only serves to make himself conspicuous (De aud. 44b).

Plutarch describes several ways in which the morally improving potential of a philosophos logos depends not only on a student’s allowing himself to be emotionally affected by a philosophical lecture, but also on his engaging as an active participant – not a passive hearer – in the philosophical inquiry at hand. He prescribes several tasks left for a hearer once the lecture has concluded. First, he must consciously stop to reflect on whether the lecture seems to have had a corrective effect on his emotions. Moral utility is, after all, the object of philosophical lectures (which Plutarch explicitly sets apart from theatrical or musical performances (De aud. 42a)). If a young man discovers that he has been cleansed from some moral impurities by the lecture he has heard, pleasure will

55 Bowersock (2002), 167 highlights this statement as documenting the world of the concert philosophers of the Second Sophistic.

56 We can surmise, however, that Plutarch also believes that logos can affect a hearer emotionally; after all, Aristotle considers myth and example to be subspecies of logos, and we have seen Plutarch witness to the effectiveness of these same devices (whose affective capacity becomes particularly clear in De aud. poet.) in Quaest. conviv. To Plutarch as well as to Aristotle, persuasion through logos is not purely a cognitive affair.


follow as a happy consequence. Attaining pleasure should never be the primary goal of listening to lectures but should always be subordinated to that of moral improvement (De aud. 42c). Throughout the essay, the type of internal reflection and questioning operative in this emotional self-examination is valued over engaging in outward dialogue with the lecturer. For example, Plutarch generally discourages Nicandros from posing questions to a lecturer; too often this practice serves to indulge a student’s desire for self- aggrandizement rather than clarify intellectual questions. He stresses that a student should not show off by posing petty or frivolous problems; these questions are not evidence of a student’s interest in the philosophical issues at hand, but rather of his own high self-opinion.57 The response to philosophoi logoi that Plutarch presents as most essential and productive is the scrutiny of their content that takes place internally, beyond the view of one’s fellow students and the lecturer. Unlike lazy listeners, who ask tedious questions of the lecturer to avoid exerting any intellectual effort of their own, and unlike the self-promoting hearer who asks questions only with a view to improving his own reputation, the ideal hearer will turn inward to ask questions of himself. He understands that a philosophical lecture is properly treated as stimulus for inquiry, not as fully satisfying information that begs no further consideration from its audience. Plutarch makes this point cogently through a blend of metaphors: ideal hearers, after grasping a speaker’s main points,

…αὐτοὺς δι’ αὑτῶν τὰ λοιπὰ συντιθέναι, καὶ τῇ μνήμῃ χειραγωγεῖν τὴν εὕρεσιν, καὶ τὸν ἀλλότριον λόγον οἷον ἀρχὴν καὶ σπέρμα λαβόντας ἐκτρέφειν καὶ αὔξειν.

57 Plutarch does not prohibit students from posing questions outright; he offers guidelines for avoiding the pitfalls of self-aggrandizement. The ideal listener will focus on the speaker, formulating questions that are well suited to his particular capacity and area of expertise – “to those matters ‘in which he is at his best’ (De aud. 43b-c).” He will also hold back from posing too many questions, which again would betray a desire to show off. He will be just as happy to listen quietly while another student poses questions in which he is also interested (De aud. 43d).


οὐ γὰρ ὡς ἀγγεῖον ὁ νοῦς ἀποπληρώσεως ἀλλ’ ὑπεκκαύματος μόνον ὥσπερ ὕλη δεῖται, ὁρμὴν ἐμποιοῦντος εὑρετικὴν καὶ ὄρεξιν ἐπὶ τὴν ἀλήθειαν. (De aud. 48b- c)

…piece together what remains on their own, using their own mental resources, and use their memory to direct their investigation; taking the discourse of another merely as a starting-point and a seed, they must cultivate and develop it. For the mind is not a vessel meant for filling, but rather, like wood, it simply requires kindling to provide an impulse to inquiry and desire for the truth.

These hearers will not parasitically warm themselves by the fire of another’s inquiry; they will use the fodder provided by a philosophos logos to kindle their own illumination through critical thought. We see here the relationship between affective and rational responses to philosophical lectures: impulse and desire (ὁρμήν, ὄρεξιν) arise seemingly spontaneously, as if upon the striking of a match; in themselves, they have no intellectual content. But they provide an ardor that jump-starts an intellectual process of inquiry directed at determining the truth (εὑρετικὴν, ἐπὶ τὴν ἀλήθειαν). Inquiry is spurred by and follows directly upon affect. The type of listening Plutarch advocates here is clearly something entirely different from what a young man like Nicandros emerging from a rhetor’s school might be used to. Plutarch alludes to the disparity between the two educational settings in his final piece of advice in the essay:

Εἰ δεῖ τινος οὖν πρὸς ἀκρόασιν ἑτέρου παραγγέλματος, δεῖ καὶ τοῦ νῦν εἰρημένου μνημονεύοντας ἀσκεῖν ἅμα τῇ μαθήσει τὴν εὕρεσιν, ἵνα μὴ σοφιστικὴν ἕξιν μηδ’ ἱστορικὴν ἀλλ’ ἐνδιάθετον καὶ φιλόσοφον λαμβάνωμεν, ἀρχὴν τοῦ καλῶς βιῶναι τὸ καλῶς ἀκοῦσαι νομίζοντες. (De aud. 48d)

If there is need of some further instruction to those listening to lectures, we must, recalling what has just been said, practice independent inquiry along with formal learning, so that we might cultivate a habit of mind that is not sophistical and bent on acquiring mere facts, but rather deep-seated and philosophical, recognizing that listening well is the beginning of living well.


Setting sophistry and philosophy in direct opposition, Plutarch again stresses that the work of attending to a philosophos logos does not end with the conclusion of a lecture; instead, it fuels and inspires a lifelong project of moral improvement. Describing the mental disposition a student such as Nicandros should cultivate, he draws a strong contrast between superficiality (σοφιστικήν, ἱστορικήν) and depth (ἐνδιάθετον,

φιλόσοφον). Our interpretation of these terms must be guided by the preceding clause:

Plutarch describes εὕρεσις as an activity that must be conducted in addition to μάθησις.

The idea is that imbibing ideas passively through lectures is insufficient without the supplement of an active, personal intellectual component. In the following statement, the adjectives σοφιστικήν and ἱστορικήν correspond to the idea of learning that does not delve beneath surface-level meaning. For comparison, we may turn to an analogous contrast of σοφιστικός with φιλόσοφος in De virtute morali: criticizing his opponents who persist in using superficial, euphemistic terms in place of ones that accurately represent deep ethical content – using ‘modesty’ for ‘shame’, for example – Plutarch indicts the practice thus: “they seem to be devising casuistic, not philosophic, evasions and escapes from reality through the medium of names (σοφιστικὰς δοκοῦσιν οὐ

φιλοσόφους διακρούσεις καὶ ἀποδράσεις ἐκ τῶν πραγμάτων μηχανᾶσθαι διὰ τῶν

ὀνομάτων (449a-b-)).”58 Clearly, in Plutarch’s formulation in De recta ratione audiendi,

ἱστορικήν has a meaning similar to σοφιστικήν, connoting superficiality rather than true inquisitiveness; it seems to describe a disposition that seeks basic facts and concepts of

58Trans. Helmbold, adapted.


the type that a lecture would deliver but that has no inclination to examine these facts and concepts independently, as a philosophical disposition would.59

In De recta ratione audiendi, we have seen Plutarch providing advice to students who are listening to and engaging with philosophical discourse in a formal, institutional setting. Given that philosophy existed in competitive tension not only with the study of rhetoric but also with a culture that elevated gifted orators to celebrity status, it is not surprising that Plutarch warned against allowing a speaker’s persona to influence unduly one’s judgment of the content of his lectures.60 However, when we look at a further form of oral philosophical discourse, this one conducted beyond the context of the lecture hall, we find that Plutarch recognizes the persona of a philosophical speaker, manifested in the way he lives his life and the example he sets thereby, as a beneficial as well as powerful tool for persuasion.

Plutarch’s remarks on the case of Alcibiades’ reaction to Socrates well demonstrate the morally improving power of ethos. In considering the dramatic emotional impact of Socrates on Alcibiades in Quomodo quis suos in virtute sentiat profectus, Plutarch makes it clear that this effect owes a great deal to the qualities of

Socrates himself. Here Plutarch echoes Alcibiades’ testimony in Plato’s Symposium:

οὐ γὰρ ὑπὸ τῶν λόγων δεῖ τοῦ φιλοσοφοῦντος μόνον ὥσπερ Ἀλκιβιάδης ἔλεγε τὴν καρδίαν στρέφεσθαι καὶ δάκρυα ἐκπίπτειν, ἀλλ’ ὅ γε προκόπτων ἀληθῶς, μᾶλλον ἔργοις καὶ πράξεσιν ἀνδρὸς ἀγαθοῦ καὶ τελείου παραβάλλων ἑαυτόν, ἅμα

59 This interpretation is worth clarifying because, as we shall see presently, the substantive ἱστορία is a term Plutarch favors elsewhere for describing the essence of philosophical inquiry and which he in fact contrasts with less critical responses to literature and history. Therefore, it is important to recognize that ἱστορικήν bears a negative and opposite connotation here. Nonetheless, Plutarch’s concern remains consistent throughout his corpus: authentic learning and authentic philosophical inquiry require independent, critical analysis.

60 Philosophy did not exist apart from the realm of oratorical performance in the Second Sophistic; philosophical lectures were a popular form of entertainment, and the lines separating philosophers from sophists were often far from distinct, as the case of Favorinus shows; see Bowersock (2002).


τῷ συνειδότι τοῦ ἐνδεοῦς δακνόμενος καὶ δι’ ἐλπίδα καὶ πόθον χαίρων καὶ μεστὸς ὢν ὁρμῆς οὐκ ἠρεμούσης οἷός ἐστι κατὰ Σιμωνίδην

ἄθηλος ἵππῳ πῶλος ὣς ἅμα τρέχειν,

τῷ ἀγαθῷ μονονουχὶ συμφῦναι γλιχόμενος. (Prof. in virt. 84d-e)

For not only, as Alcibiades said, must the heart be turned about by the words of the philosopher and tears fall down, but even more, the one truly making progress, stung by his own deficiency when he compares himself to the deeds and behavior of a good and perfect man, yet rejoicing on account of hope and longing and swelling with a fervent impulse to action, is ready, like the one in Simonides, To run like a just-weaned colt beside a full-grown horse, striving as he does to all but fuse his identity with that of the great man.

At this point in the essay, Plutarch is concerned with emphasizing the power of a lived example of virtue to produce emulation and positive change in those who admire him. In his formulation here, the virtuous philosopher’s logoi are potent in provoking an emotional response in their audience, but not as potent as the philosopher’s virtuous deeds and conduct. It is less Socrates’ words, and more the life that backs them up, that is responsible for the irresistible and relentless impulse Alcibiades feels to reform his life

– even to merge his identity with Socrates’. And the impact of philosophoi logoi thus supported is extreme: as in a passage from Alcibiades, Plutarch uses the violent, physical metaphor of biting to describe how philosophoi logoi affect their audience.61 The

61 In his account of Alcibiades’ conversion to philosophy – or at least to Socrates – in his Alcibiades, Plutarch does not make clear that the effect of Socrates’ words on Alcibiades owes anything to the example set by his own life. But the passage shares with the Prof. in virt. account that Socrates succeeds in making an affective impact so strong, here through his incisive directness, that it is compared to physical piercing. Discussing Socrates’ attention to Alcibiades and the powerful effect his words had on the notorious playboy, Plutarch states that “…οὐδένα γὰρ ἡ τύχη περιέσχεν ἔξωθεν οὐδὲ περιέφραξε τοῖς λεγομένοις ἀγαθοῖς τοσοῦτον ὥστ’ ἄτρωτον ὑπὸ φιλοσοφίας γενέσθαι καὶ λόγοις ἀπρόσιτον παρρησίαν καὶ δηγμὸν ἔχουσιν (…there is no man whom fortune so envelops and compasses about with the so-called good things of life that he cannot be reached by the bold and caustic reasonings of philosophy, and pierced to the heart (Alc. 4.2.1-3, trans. Perrin)).” We may also compare the Prof. in virt. account of the effectiveness of Socrates’ ethos to the story in Diogenes Laertius (4.16) of Polemon being converted by Xenocrates: Polemon burst into a lecture hall after an orgy, still drunk and wearing a garland, and Xenocrates, who was discussing temperance, “went on speaking so persuasively and so affectingly that Polemon renounced his life of debauchery, fell in love with philosophy and later succeeded his master as director of the Academy.” (Quotation from Marrou (1956), 206.)


experience of encountering the uncomfortable truth of one’s own deficiency, not only through words, but by looking in the face of someone who is better, is painful but improving. This painful encounter stands in contrast to the sweet experience of discovering philosophical truths cloaked in the pleasant words and images of poetry, as advocated in De audiendis poetis as a preparatory strategy for the young. By examining how philosophoi logoi may operate in different settings, Plutarch shows that both pain and pleasure can provide stimulus to philosophical inquiry and moral reform.

Plutarch’s Lives

We have to this point considered several different manifestations of philosophos logos, examining Plutarch’s scanty commentary on the function of the philosophical dialogue as well as his fuller discussions of the presentation of philosophical principles in the media of poetry and formal lectures. There remains one important type of philosophical discourse to consider – in fact, the type most dominant in Plutarch’s corpus: the teaching of ethical principles through his Lives. Plutarch is explicit about the fact that, by portraying the moral character of his subjects, demonstrating their virtues and vices through their actions, he intends his Lives to perform the function of shaping his readers’ characters for the better.62 Because of this ethical aim, it is worth examining in what way Plutarch imagines that his literary presentation of the virtues and vices of historical figures will lead his readers to amend their own lives. We may then consider how the literary methods Plutarch uses to promote virtue and discourage vice in the Lives

62 This is the premise of Duff (1999), Plutarch’s Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice. Duff supports his claim that Plutarch’s primary aim in the Lives is ethical-pedagogical with evidence from several of Plutarch’s programmatic statements in his first chapter (13-51).


compare to the methods he considers effective in other types of philosophoi logoi, and whether studying these methods can contribute to illuminating his literary strategy in the philosophical dialogues.

It is difficult to determine precisely how Plutarch imagines his Lives will improve the character of his readers. Careful study of Plutarch’s comments on historiographical method – his own and the methods of his predecessors – reveals, however, that he believes that readers must respond to his representations of his subjects’ characters in several discrete ways, and that these responses must follow, one upon another, in the proper succession.63 Further, Plutarch as biographer is responsible for facilitating these responses; he must employ different narrative strategies in order to engage different parts of his reader’s psyche. The first-order response to historical representation must consist of simple perception of a representation; it is a purely affective response, free from rational intervention. This becomes clear in Plutarch’s characterization of the ideal historian in the essay Bellone an pace clariores fuerint Athenienses: “the most effective historian is he who, by eidolopoieia of emotions and characters, makes his narration like a painting (τῶν ἱστορικῶν κράτιστος ὁ τὴν διήγησιν ὥσπερ γραφὴν πάθεσι καὶ

προσώποις εἰδωλοποιήσας (Bellone an pace 347a-)).64 The sense of εἰδωλοποιήσας, meaning here not just “by forming an image” but “by forming a vivid image” becomes clearer in the following sentence, in which Plutarch turns to test his characterization against the method of Thucydides, historian par excellence:

63 This careful study of Plutarch’s comments on his own method in the Lives is performed most exhaustively by Duff (1999); Van der Stockt (1992), in his discussion of Plutarch’s conception of mimēsis, also closely analyzes Plutarch’s programmatic statements in the Perikles.

64 Trans. Babbitt, adapted.


ὁ γοῦν Θουκυδίδης ἀεὶ τῷ λόγῳ πρὸς ταύτην ἁμιλλᾶται τὴν ἐνάργειαν, οἷον θεατὴν ποιῆσαι τὸν ἀκροατὴν καὶ τὰ γινόμενα περὶ τοὺς ὁρῶντας ἐκπληκτικὰ καὶ ταρακτικὰ πάθη τοῖς ἀναγινώσκουσιν ἐνεργάσασθαι λιχνευόμενος. 65 (Bellone an pace 347a)

Certainly Thucydides is always striving for this vividness in his writing, since he desires eagerly to make the reader a spectator, as it were, and to produce vividly in the minds of those who read his narrative the emotions of amazement and agitation which those who witnessed them experienced.

Plutarch here identifies enargeia, vividness so powerful as to actually render one’s reader a witness to the events being described, as the primary criterion for the success of a historical narrative.66 As Van der Stockt interprets this passage, Plutarch dictates that the historian must, by making the past come alive, appeal to the opsis of the reader.67

Plutarch stresses in the preface to his Alexander that his project in the Lives is writing βίοι, not ἱστορίαι. Nonetheless, the standard he applies to historians seems to hold for himself as biographer also: the experience of a reader of the Lives must begin from clear, vivid perception – and then proceed to more analytical stages of engagement that lead to moral improvement. Plutarch’s commitment to enargeia is made clear in his preface to the Aemilius-, which Duff discusses as descriptive of the role of

Plutarch’s literary activity in shaping his readers’ characters.68 Plutarch here describes the effect that his literary project has had on his own character:

Ἐμοὶ [μὲν] τῆς τῶν βίων ἅψασθαι μὲν γραφῆς συνέβη δι’ ἑτέρους, ἐπιμένειν δὲ καὶ φιλοχωρεῖν ἤδη καὶ δι’ ἐμαυτόν, ὥσπερ ἐν ἐσόπτρῳ τῇ ἱστορίᾳ πειρώμενον

65 Trans. Babbitt, adapted.

66 Several lines later, Plutarch clarifies that a historian achieves enargeia through arrangement as well as through description (τῇ διαθέσει καὶ τῇ διατυπώσει (Bellone an pace 347c)).

67 Van der Stockt (1992), 29. On enargeia as the defining feature of ekphrasis, which aims at bringing subject matter clearly before the eyes of an audience, see Webb (2009). I discuss Plutarch’s use of enargeia further in Ch. 3.

68 Duff (1999), 30-34.


ἁμῶς γέ πως κοσμεῖν καὶ ἀφομοιοῦν πρὸς τὰς ἐκείνων ἀρετὰς τὸν βίον. (Aemilius 1.1)

It happened that I undertook the writing of lives for the sake of others, but I grew fond of the place, so to speak, and stayed on for my own benefit, attempting in some manner to set my life in order by looking in the mirror of narrative and to conform it to the virtues of those men.

By comparing his experience of composing biographical narratives to looking in a mirror,

Plutarch seems to imply that in experiencing his own literary βίοι, first of all, he sees vividly – as though without any literary filter at all – the lives on which he then attempts to model his own.69 This statement does not in itself indicate how perception, as though through opsis, results in positive ethical change, though as Tim Whitmarsh points out, the metaphor of the mirror cleverly calls attention to the critical role of the reader: in addition to passively reflecting ‘reality’, it “actively confronts the viewer with an image of her- or himself, providing a stimulus for self-correction.”70 But Plutarch goes on to elucidate more clearly at least the initial step in this process, adding that when he spends time with a subject of his narrative as though he were a guest, “I examine carefully ‘how great he was and what sort of man,’ taking from his deeds the most important and beautiful things to know (ἀναθεωρῶμεν ‘ὅσσος ἔην οἷός τε’, τὰ κυριώτατα καὶ κάλλιστα

πρὸς γνῶσιν ἀπὸ τῶν πράξεων λαμβάνοντες (Aemilius 1.2-3)).71 After vivid perception of a life, then, comes critical qualitative assessment: the reader moves beyond his initial

69 Duff (1999), 33 notes an ambiguity in the use of Plutarch’s use of the mirror analogy here. He may be referring to his perception of noble lives in some general way, and/or through his own literary work. It seems to me that there is actually little ambiguity here; Plutarch certainly intends us to understand the second sense (and probably not the first), thereby stressing that he cultivates the quality of enargeia in his Lives.

70 Whitmarsh (2001), 56. This function may, as Whitmarsh argues, cooperate with the process which I describe below of recognizing the biographical subject’s noble qualities and thereupon choosing to alter one’s own life accordingly.

71 The internal quotation is from Homer, Il. 24. 630.


sensory-emotional response and engages his rational powers to identify that life’s most estimable traits. The role of enargeia in the Aemilius prologue is similar to the role we have seen Aristotle set out in the Topics for the inductive method: induction is persuasive and clear, and it operates through perception, moving from individuals to universals. Plutarch frequently recommends the introduction of philosophy through inductive strategies such as jesting (Quaest. conviv. 6) and myth (De aud. poet.), and in doing so he seems to recognize the power of enargeia for provoking reflective thought across a variety of types of discourse.72

So far, we have seen Plutarch recognize two discrete, successive steps in a reader’s engagement with a literary life. But we have not yet seen where the decision to emulate a noble life and the action that follows upon that decision come in. It remains uncertain how the Lives achieve the moral improvement of their audience. In my view, we get a fuller picture of the entire multi-step process that begins with perception and culminates in positive moral action in a much-discussed and problematic passage in the prologue to the . The interpretation of the final sentence of this passage in particular has generated a great deal of scholarly debate. Having stated that objects deserving our intellectual consideration (dianoia) “are present in deeds accomplished out of virtue, which implant in those who examine them a sort of zeal and eagerness that induces them to imitation (ταῦτα δ’ ἔστιν ἐν τοῖς ἀπ’ ἀρετῆς ἔργοις, ἃ καὶ ζῆλόν τινα καὶ

προθυμίαν ἀγωγὸν εἰς μίμησιν ἐμποιεῖ τοῖς ἱστορήσασιν (Pericles 1.4))”, Plutarch describes the cause, effect and nature of this impulse further in a phrase fraught with

72 Recall also that Plutarch, in his most explicit comment on literary dialogue, remarks that philosophical discussions give pleasure by remaining present and fresh not only to those who were present at the original event, but those who read about them in literary accounts after the fact. Skillful composition of a literary dialogue seems to require vivid description of the sort Plutarch describes in the Aemilius thus to close the gap between past and present.


difficulty: τὸ γὰρ καλὸν ἐφ’ αὑτὸ πρακτικῶς κινεῖ καὶ πρακτικὴν εὐθὺς ὁρμὴν ἐντίθησιν,

ἠθοποιοῦν οὐ τῇ μιμήσει τὸν θεατήν, ἀλλὰ τῇ ἱστορίᾳ τοῦ ἔργου τὴν προαίρεσιν

παρεχόμενον (2.4).73 Our interpretation of this statement depends primarily upon how we resolve two questions. Firstly, who is supposed to be performing the mimēsis and historia – Plutarch the author, Plutarch’s reader, or a more general spectator of virtuous deeds, seen in life rather than literature? Secondly, we must arrive at an understanding of the meaning of mimēsis and historia and how Plutarch is contrasting the two. Does mimēsis connote artistic, and perhaps particularly literary, representation, or rather imitation through (non-artistic) deeds? Are we to understand historia as the activity of critical inquiry, or rather a narrative representation such as Plutarch composed in his

Lives? Scholars have resolved these questions in various ways.74 As we begin our interpretation, it is important to note that up to this point in the Pericles prologue,

Plutarch has been speaking of virtuous deeds in general terms, without raising the issue of their representation in visual or literary art. Therefore, in interpreting τὸ καλόν, the subject governing our problematic sentence, we should at least begin by considering the term in its most basic, nonspecific sense – simply “the good.”

In considering Plutarch’s use of mimēsis here, we ought also to consider the context of our sentence and look back to the use of the same term at Pericles 1.4, cited above. There, mimēsis is an activity prompted by the observation of virtuous deeds

73 I propose the following translation (which I refrain from giving in the body of my text until after my analysis of the difficulties in the sentence): “The good arouses active movement towards itself and immediately implants an impulse to action, shaping character not only through imitation, but also producing moral choice through critical investigation of a deed.”

74 For a survey of the range of scholarly interpretations of the last sentence of this passage, see Van der Stockt (1992), 32. Throughout his interpretation of the passage, Duff stresses (as Van der Stockt does) the contrast he sees between sense and passion (represented by mimēsis) and reason and intellect (represented by historia); the latter are clearly better for shaping one’s character.


through an unspecified medium: Plutarch has not yet mentioned specific media such as literature or painting, much less his own authorial productions. This is not to suggest that

Plutarch does not intend for his reader to see the application of this statement to the literary project in which he is engaged; I only wish to point out that, for example, Duff’s interpretation of mimēsis in this sentence as referring to an activity that a reader is inspired to undertake overdetermines Plutarch’s use of the term, which in fact could apply equally well to authors, readers, and other types of spectators.75 In our problematic sentence, we ought to attend to the very general nature of the subject, τὸ καλόν; we need not understand mimēsis here, as Van der Stockt does, as “a mode of the kalon,” referring to Plutarch’s written account of virtuous deeds in the present Life.76 Nor must we understand mimēsis and historia as mutually exclusive activities, the former discredited and the latter preferred.77 I propose that we understand mimēsis as ‘imitation’ just as it has been used to this point in the Pericles prologue, and that we read historia as the activity of critical investigation that ought to precede, but not replace, imitation of virtuous deeds – after all, it would be surprising if Plutarch were to deny mimēsis a proper place in reaction to the good, considering that he has highlighted it as an essential

75 Van der Stockt (1992), 34: At Perikles 1.4, mimēsis “means ‘imitation’ as a positively appreciated act of the spectator.”

76 Van der Stockt (1992), 34 reads τὸ καλόν as recalling in a particular way Plutarch’s mention just above of types of works such as sculpture that, although they may delight the senses, do not incite imitation.

77 On this point I agree with Duff (1999), 38, who argues that “Plutarch must, it seems, be arguing that the reader of the Lives will be improved not just by imitation (mimēsis) of the virtuous actions which he reads about, but also by ‘investigating the deed.’” I differ from Duff, however, in resisting the immediate application of Plutarch’s statement here to the particular situation of Plutarch’s own readers; as I have mentioned above, Plutarch employs very general terms here to make clear that all manifestations of the good, whether observed in literature or elsewhere, require the type of response he outlines in order to yield the most beneficial ethical effect.


reaction to virtuous deeds at 1.4.78 On the reading I suggest, the person who is moved to practical action and whose character is shaped by investigation and subsequent imitation of virtue may equally plausibly be a number of parties, including Plutarch, the author of the Lives; Plutarch’s reader; or simply any person who witnesses a virtuous deed, whether in person or secondhand.79 This multivalence is, in my view, a deliberate move on

Plutarch’s part, and a device that in fact proves effective in engaging us in historia.80

Having considered the many hermeneutic difficulties attending the problematic

Pericles sentence, I propose the following translation: “The good arouses active movement towards itself and immediately implants an impulse to action, shaping character not only through imitation, but also producing moral choice through critical investigation of a deed.” As we can see after some careful interpretive work, the Pericles passage demonstrates the same commitment of Plutarch to promoting critical investigation into discourse containing valuable philosophical, and particularly ethical, content that we have observed in De audiendis poetis and De recta ratione audiendi.

Further, the passage, despite its difficulties, allows us to understand with some precision where historia fits into the chain of events through which Plutarch’s Lives shape the

78 Here I agree with Van der Stockt’s reading of historia as “critical contemplation, investigation with the mind”, but I differ from his understanding of mimēsis in this sentence as “representation as in the mimetic arts” rather than “imitation”, as Plutarch has used the term previously in the prologue (35). Duff (1999), 38 points out that such a divergent use of mimēsis here would be surprising.

79 Duff (1999) also argues for the multivalence of a number of terms in this sentence, although he identifies a primary meaning and one that operates as a subtext. For example, he argues that mimēsis is in the first place an activity of Plutarch’s readers that also bears the double meaning of authorial activity. I argue, on the contrary, that no one figure is foregrounded as the primary object of ethopoiia under discussion here.

80 Duff (1999), 40 finds a more limited multivalence here, arguing that while mimēsis refers primarily to the activity of imitation by Plutarch’s reader, it also exploits existing concepts of literary mimēsis as representation in which an artist engages. Van der Stockt is (1992), 35 inflexible in his interpretation of mimēsis, insisting that this is artistic representation performed by an artist not a spectator, but admits of multivalence in interpreting historia; critical investigation is a task that belongs to the artist as well as to a viewer of artistic representations.


moral character of their readers. We have seen in the Aemilius passage that critical examination of Plutarch’s subjects follows upon pure, non-rational perception of their vividly described lives. In the Pericles passage, we see that it is this critical examination

– here called historia – that produces a moral choice (τὴν προαίρεσιν81), which in turn produces an impulse to action (πρακτικὴν … ὁρμὴν82). Regardless of whom we take to be engaging in mimēsis in the final statement in this passage, it is clear that the act of emulation on the reader’s part must be preceded by a series of steps that transform imitation into a deliberate, reflective encounter with a noble life. Further, I side with those scholars who consider mimēsis, in Plutarch’s view, to be an insufficient tool, though not necessarily a problematic one per se, available to the ethically concerned author for provoking a thoughtful response to a subject he mimetically represents.83


In this chapter, I have aimed to lay the groundwork for analysis of Plutarch’s method in his philosophical dialogues by examining his understanding of the strategies and goals specific to that form. In order to overcome a paucity of explicit comment on

81 Plutarch’s conception of προαίρεσις as the basis of action agrees with that of Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, as Van der Stockt (1992), 35 notes: “πράξεως μὲν οὖν ἀρχὴ προαίρεσις” (NE 1139a31). Further, Aristotle also makes clear that moral choice comes about through reasoning and desire: “διὸ οὔτ’ ἄνευ νοῦ καὶ διανοίας οὔτ’ ἄνευ ἠθικῆς ἐστὶν ἕξεως ἡ προαίρεσις” (NE 1139a33-34).

82 The term ὁρμήν here recalls other instances in which Plutarch describes an impulse as part of the process leading to morally improving action: at De aud. 48b-c, we saw that an ideal student’s consideration of the philosophical content of a lecture he hears will produce the impulse and desire (ὁρμήν, ὄρεξιν) to conduct further internal investigation into the topic. These impulses seem to act at a slightly different stage in the sequence leading from passive perception to positive moral change (before rather than after historia). In general, I think we must regard impulse, by whatever name, as marking the transition from one critical stage to the next (and not as a stage in itself). In De E apud Delphos, to be discussed in more detail in Ch. 4, Plutarch remarks that Apollo provides an impulse (ὄρεξιν) to seek the truth in those philosophically inclined; here impulse seems to be placed in the same position in which it appears in De aud.

83 Both Van der Stockt and Duff hold this view.


these topics, I have sought to assess Plutarch’s views on literature and philosophical discourse broadly defined. This assessment has yielded a number of insights that will guide my analysis of Plutarch’s dialogues in subsequent chapters. First of all, Plutarch is persistently concerned with the ethical function of literature, regardless of the genre. As a consequence of this overriding view, he prioritizes content over form and moral utility over pleasure. Nonetheless, our survey of Plutarch’s views on philosophical discourse – ranging across contexts from oral discourse to poetry to lectures to biography – has shown that Plutarch is keenly aware of the way in which formal devices operate on the faculties of a reader or listener, and he is ever eager to exploit the capacities of these devices to further his ethical-pedagogical ends.

Plutarch understands, as Aristotle does, the importance of packaging one’s message to suit one’s audience, and he further recognizes that appeal to the emotions is the most effective way to engage the attention of those who are not yet fully fledged philosophers, be they symposiasts, students, or armchair readers of history. Affective impact can be achieved in a variety of ways, from cloaking philosophical precepts in myth to presenting an admirable persona to describing a scene so vividly that one actually feels that one is there. No matter how an author or speaker manages to achieve sensory or emotional impact, however, it is essential that his hold upon his audience not end here: moral improvement depends upon an audience progressing from admiration to inquiry and from inquiry to morally improving action. Plutarch displays intimate understanding of this process both from the perspective of a student who has pursued it and from the vantage of an author who aims to induce it. As I examine Plutarch’s method in composing his philosophical dialogues in my subsequent chapters, his outlook on the


function and goals of literature and philosophy as discovered here will continually guide my analysis.




We have seen in Chapter One that Plutarch is keenly attuned to the power of particular detail for engaging the attention of an audience and providing guidance towards philosophical understanding. In this chapter, I focus on three dialogues in which attention to detail is both thematically central and an important hermeneutic task to which

Plutarch challenges his readers. These dialogues – Amatorius, De genio Socratis, and De defectu oraculorum – develop in various ways the question of the function and value of the particular, and they pointedly invite careful consideration of dramatic details pertaining to the setting and characters of the philosophical discussion that each text narrates in retrospect. A strong preoccupation with the function and value of the particular is articulated at the beginning of each of these texts. The type of particulars with which they are concerned varies, as does the relationship between particulars and larger concepts or realities that each text asserts. Examining these dialogues in turn, I will investigate what each teaches about the role of particulars in the pursuit of knowledge, whether of the meaning of a literary account or of metaphysical truths, and I will explore how each makes use of dramatic detail inherent in the dialogue form to engage and guide readers in an examination of this central problem.


Both Amatorius and De genio Socratis open with an interlocutor calling attention to the role of particular detail in the composition of a narrative account. In each case, the topic arises before the dialogue central to the text even begins, and the character who brings up the subject is concerned with the manner in which the central dialogue will be recalled – what will be included and what will be left out. In Amatorius, Flavianus, who requests that Plutarch’s son Autobulus give an account of the debate on Eros in which his father participated many years earlier, specifies that Autobulus should dispense with the peripheral details of the dialogue’s setting “‘and all other such commonplaces as writers seize upon in striving to claim for themselves the endorsement of Plato’s Ilissus with more zeal than success, the famous chaste-tree and gently rising grassy slope (749a).’”1

Autobulus readily obliges, replying that his account needs no prelude (προοίμιον). All he needs is a ready audience and the opportunity to speak, elements that he likens to the chorus and stage in a dramatic performance.

At the outset of De genio Socratis, Archedamus, who opens the dialogue by asking that Caphisias give an account of the liberation of Thebes, displays a different sort of concern with attention to detail. He prefaces his request with a reflection on the importance of attention to detail for productive aesthetic viewing. He describes two different types of audiences. First, there is the uncritical sort of audience, which is happy enough to perceive the broad strokes of an artwork or an account of a historical event, and whose careless viewing results in an inaccurate impression of the whole. On the other hand, there is a more admirable sort of audience made up of those who come away

1 “καὶ ὅσ’ ἄλλα τοιούτων τόπων ἐπιλαβόμενοι γλίχονται τὸν Πλάτωνος Ἰλισσὸν καὶ τὸν ἄγνον ἐκεῖνον καὶ τὴν ἠρέμα προσάντη πόαν πεφυκυῖαν προθυμότερον ἢ κάλλιον ἐπιγράφεσθαι.” Translations are my own unless otherwise noted.


with an accurate impression of the artwork because they pay attention to its details (“τοὺς

δὲ τῇ κρίσει κατὰ μέρος τὸ ἔργον διαλαμβάνοντας οὐδὲν ἀθέατον οὐδ’ ἀπροσφώνητον

ἐκφεύγει τῶν καλῶς ἢ τοὐναντίον γεγονότων (De genio 575b)).” Although Archedamus begins by quoting an artist contrasting uncritical with critical appreciation of visual artworks, his real point has to do with critical and uncritical approaches to assessing accounts of historical events. The detail-oriented spectator is not primarily concerned with the outcome of an event – who won the battle, for instance – but rather, being eager to emulate noble behavior, he is concerned with discerning evidence of virtue displayed through particular actions: “in the actions themselves, and in their causes he observes the details of the struggles of virtue against fortune, and the sober acts of daring in peril that come of reason blended with the stress and passion of the moment (τὸν δ’ ἐν ταῖς αἰτίαις

καὶ τοῖς <ἐπὶ> μέρους ἀγῶνας ἀρετῆς πρὸς τὰ συντυγχάνοντα καὶ τόλμας ἔμφρονας παρὰ

τὰ δεινὰ καθορῶντα καιρῷ καὶ πάθει μεμιγμένου λογισμοῦ (575c-d)).”2 He asks

Caphisias to “please regard us as viewers of this sort, tell us the story of the whole action from the beginning, and share with us the discussions which we hear took place then in your presence (575d)).”3

The requests of Flavianus and Archedamus, though different in focus, both prompt us to consider several questions regarding the effective composition and reception of an account, whether that account be an oral retelling of an event or a literary dialogue.

First, what type of detail is relevant and necessary for promoting or attaining an accurate and nuanced understanding of the key issues at stake? What role does detail play in

2 Trans. De Lacy and Einarson.

3 τούτου δὴ τοῦ γένους τῶν θεατῶν καὶ ἡμᾶς ὑπολαμβάνων εἶναι δίελθέ τε τὴν πρᾶξιν ἡμῖν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς ὡς ἐπράχθη καὶ τοῦ λόγου <μετάδος ὃν ἀκούομεν> γενέσθαι <τότε σοῦ> παρόντος. I adopt here the text and translation of Russell in Nesselrath, ed. (2010).


conveying and clarifying the moral dimension of an account? Further, what opportunities does the literary form of the philosophical dialogue provide for particular illustration of concepts, and how does Plutarch exploit the possibilities of this medium to pursue his ethico-pedagogical goals? In considering the place of particularity in both Amatorius and

De genio, I will attempt to answer these questions.

Amatorius: Particularity and Purposefulness

Flavianus, in making his request of Autobulus, notes an irritating trend among contemporary imitators of Plato: they include a great deal of tedious detail pertaining to the physical landscape, attempting in vain to match the effect of Plato’s description of

Socrates and Phaedrus’ surroundings in the Phaedrus. As a first step towards understanding how detail is theorized and deployed in Amatorius, we must inquire into the precise nature of Flavianus’ criticism of these second-rate writers. Flavianus does not criticize the inclusion of details of setting per se; unsurprisingly, the presence of such detail in the Phaedrus appears beyond reproach. Where, then, have his imitators gone wrong? Is the mistake one of quantity – that is, have they simply gone overboard in describing the settings of their dialogues, to the point that they are out of proper proportion with the philosophical content of the works? Or have they gone wrong in the type of details they have chosen to include, perhaps by calling attention to features of the setting that bear no significance for the content being conveyed?

The problem is not precisely that these writers are simply transplanting setting details from Plato’s Phaedrus into their own works. We hear that they seize such details as “the meadows and shady nooks of the poets” in striving to ascribe to themselves the


glory of particular details enumerated in the Phaedrus. However, the words σμῖλαξ,

διάδρομος, and κιττός, which Flavianus uses, never appear in the Phaedrus, so it would seem that their method consists of including details they view as similar in kind rather than identical to those employed by Plato. The method Flavianus describes is not surprising, given the esteem in which the Phaedrus, and in particular its opening scene, was held by teachers and students of grammar and rhetoric in Plutarch’s day.4 Although it is difficult to make firm judgments about the writers of whom Flavianus speaks based on his brief remarks, it seems that they attempted to create an ennobling Platonic quality in their works not, or not only, by recalling precise details of the Ilissus scene, but by borrowing pretty-sounding descriptive detail from the poets. The problem with this practice may be twofold. First, and most obviously, their stylistic works may quickly have become overwrought and precious. But secondly, and I think more importantly for understanding the import of Flavianus’ statement for Plutarch’s work, these authors may have erred in failing to endow the detail they officiously included with any deeper significance for the overall themes of their work. The details of setting in the Phaedrus, by contrast, do bear this deeper significance and aid Plato’s readers in coming to terms with the dialogue’s central concerns.5 Autobulus’ reply to Flavianus’ request indicates

4 By the second century A.D., the opening of the Phaedrus had long since won renown in educational circles for its “particular charm and for its felicity as an example of Plato’s skill in the plain style (Dem. 5, cited by Trapp (1990), 145)).” Dionysius of Halicarnassus praised Plato’s style as διαυγής, ὥσπερ τὰ διαφανέστατα τῶν ναμάτων, his language itself alluding to the setting by the Ilissus. Alluding directly to this scene was a common trope, practiced by authors from Cicero to Dio of Prusa and indeed, here in Amatorius, by Plutarch himself. Imitation of the Phaedrus was not confined to philosophical works: as Trapp (155) shows, Phaedran allusions also appear in the Greek novel, among other literary modes. On Plato’s influence generally in Plutarch’s time and beyond, see also Branham (1989), 67-68.

5 As I will show, I believe it is clear from Plutarch’s own use of setting detail, quite different from the method of his contemporaries as described by Flavianus, that Plutarch finds the value of such detail in the Phaedrus to lie precisely in its significance to the philosophical project of the dialogue. While not helpful for illuminating Plutarch’s own views of Plato’s method, modern scholarship assessing the function of setting detail in the Phaedrus is helpful at least in making a case to present-day readers of its philosophical


that contemporary Platonic imitators have failed in this second respect. He responds,

“What need does my account have of such preliminaries? The situation from which the debate arose simply requires a chorus for the emotion and a stage; it lacks none of the other trappings of drama (Τί δὲ δεῖται τοιούτων, ὦ ἄριστε Φλαουιανέ, προοιμίων ἡ

διήγησις; εὐθὺς ἡ πρόφασις, ἐξ ἧς ὡρμήθησαν οἱ λόγοι, χορὸν αἰτεῖ τῷ πάθει καὶ σκηνῆς

δεῖται, τά τ’ ἄλλα δράματος οὐδὲν ἐλλείπει (749a)).” The criterion Autobulus applies here when considering the merits of imitating Phaedran scene-setting is fitness with respect to the story he will relate. In prioritizing this criterion, which is indeed a major theme of the Phaedrus, Autobulus shows his method to be more Platonic than that of the unnamed writers Flavianus criticizes. Autobulus’ rejection of derivative pastoral embellishment as unnecessary προοίμιον makes clear that the works of Flavianus’ contemporaries have failed insofar as they have imitated the form but not the function of

Plato’s scene-setting in the Phaedrus.6 Flavianus’ request and Autobulus’ response also

value. G.R.F. Ferrari makes this case in his 1991 study, Listening to the Cicadas: A study of Plato’s Phaedrus. Ferrari observes that the Phaedrus is “rich in references to its own setting (1)”, and that its attention to detail begs our attention: “topography becomes the topic of conversation in a highly intrusive manner (3).” In assessing the function of the Phaedrus’ unusual self-awareness of its own setting within the larger project of the work, Ferrari observes that Phaedrus’ criterion for selecting the location, which both he and Socrates describe in lush detail, for his dialogue with Socrates is fitness. Fitness, of course, proves to be an important theme in the Phaedrus, developed in relation to dialectic in the second major part of dialogue, where Socrates asserts that a speech must resemble a body in having all the necessary parts, from the head to the feet to the extremities, arranged in right relation to each other and to the whole (Phdr. 264c).

6 Calling our attention to the deep significance of setting details in Amatorius, to be sure, may be only one function of the explicit reference to the Phaedrus at the outset of the dialogue. Hunter (2012), 204, argues that Flavianus’ discouragement of using Phaedrus-style setting detail highlights Plutarch’s intention to surpass mere imitators of Plato by responding to the Phaedrus in ways more sophisticated than simple imitation: “What Plutarch will offer us is a properly creative mimesis, not a slavish imitation which simply ticks boxes from the model. The explicit dismissal of the Platonic locus may be seen as one way of both acknowledging the generic impulse of the work which is to follow and of producing a (? novel) variation upon a very hackneyed literary motif.” Indeed, Plutarch clearly does not reject engagement with the Phaedrus altogether; its influence is strongly felt in the structure and content of Amatorius (on this, see Trapp (1990), 158). Hunter (2012), 203 further recognizes in Flavianus’ request an echo of the opening of Plato’s Theaetetus, in which Eucleides describes how he has compiled the account of Socrates’ conversation with Theaetetus that he is about to report. In Hunter’s interpretation, Plutarch simultaneously recognizes and rejects for his own work the type of “elaborate fiction” with which Theaetetus begins.


issue an implicit challenge to Plutarch’s readers: we must prove ourselves more discerning than those who show off their learning without attention to the appropriateness of detail in composition. If we can discern the value of the details Autobulus does include for his account as a whole, we will show ourselves worthy of a select sub-group of the educated elite.

A further aspect of Autobulus’ reply to Flavianus helps to direct our attention as we enter into the dialogue. By characterizing his account as a drama, Autobulus draws our attention to the utility of dramatic elements for guiding our interpretation of the philosophical conversation at the heart of a dialogue. In rejecting the proem which

Flavianus asks him to forego, Autobulus sets these unnecessary preliminaries in opposition to the preface that he does deem necessary to the retelling of the debate on

Eros in which his father participated. His opposition of these two terms invites us to pay special attention to the introductory portion of the dialogue and, even more, to consider its fitness as an introduction to the conversation on Eros. How does it pertain to the themes developed therein, and how does it direct the interpretation of the conversation by

Autobulus’ audience (including Plutarch’s readers, the external audience)? Given that

Autobulus demonstrates an active sensitivity to the concept of appropriateness and an awareness of the requisite components of drama, we are led to expect that he will spare us detail that does not bear directly on the λόγοι at the heart of his account. Indeed, when he begins his account, we find that the details of setting and circumstance he includes are proportional in quantity and purposeful both in quality and placement with respect to the philosophical aims of the dialogue. The fitness of the type of detail Autobulus includes


also serves to demonstrate the affinity between drama and the dialogue and to highlight the tools they jointly possess for engaging an audience’s attention.7

As I will show presently, the details that constitute Autobulus’ preface display a close relevance to the debate about Eros particularly in that they highlight the longstanding stability of Plutarch’s own marriage and family life. They thereby support

Plutarch’s claim in the subsequent debate that heterosexual relations, and specifically marriage, do not lack the qualities that ennoble pederastic eros in the Platonic conception and in the argument of Plutarch’s opponents, and further, that marriage offers a stability, beneficial both to the spouses and to society, that homosexual relations cannot.

Autobulus’ characterization of his account as drama provides a framework for recognizing the relationship between its two major elements, the philosophical conversation and the surrounding historical action, which might at first seem disjointed.8

I propose that the details that constitute the preface to the philosophical discussion, to which Autobulus has called our attention as a keenly relevant sort of prologue without need of extraneous embellishment, provide guidance for our interpretation of Plutarch’s

7 Although we find in Plutarch’s extant writings no explicit theoretical discussion of the matter, Autobulus’ statement here, coupled with Caphisias’ comparison of his account in De genio to drama (at 596d-e, to be discussed presently), shows a keen attunement to the affinity between drama and dialogue. Here in Amatorius, Autobulus’ approach to composing the drama of his father’s debate about Eros shows consistency with Aristotle’s evaluation of plot (mythos) as the most essential aspect of tragedy (Poet. 1450a5-15), and also with Plutarch’s understanding of “the well interwoven organization of mythical narrative” as the most affecting part of poetry (De aud. poet. 16b; see Ch. 1, p. 41-42.) The details of setting Autobulus includes are essential to the action of the dramatic plot surrounding the central conversation.

8 The dramatic aspect of Amatorius has been discussed before, such as by Barigazzi (1994), 199, who notes that the installments of dramatic action positioned between phases of the philosophical dialogue mimic the alternation between episodes and choral odes in a drama; he finds that a particular theme about love developed in the discussion corresponds to each phase of events. On the influence of drama on Amatorius, see also Frazier (2005), Zanetto (2000), Bracero (1994).


contribution to the conversation and his authority as a speaker from the very beginning of the dialogue and as the dialogue progresses.

Autobulus’ preface gives us our historical bearings and the context of his father’s participation in the debate about Eros:

Ὁ γὰρ πατήρ, ἐπεὶ πάλαι, πρὶν ἡμᾶς γενέσθαι, τὴν μητέρα νεωστὶ κεκομισμένος ἐκ τῆς γενομένης τοῖς γονεῦσιν αὐτῶν διαφορᾶς καὶ στάσεως ἀφίκετο τῷ Ἔρωτι θύσων, ἐπὶ τὴν ἑορτὴν ἦγε τὴν μητέρα· καὶ γὰρ ἦν ἐκείνης ἡ εὐχὴ καὶ ἡ θυσία.’ (Amatorius 749b)

“A long time ago, before I was born, when my father had only recently married my mother, he rescued her from a dispute that had broken out between their parents and was so hotly contested that my father came here to sacrifice to Eros and brought my mother to the festival; in fact, she herself was to make the prayer and the sacrifice.”

Several aspects of this initial scene-setting are interesting. First of all, it is telling that

Autobulus – or, rather, Plutarch in his initial retelling to Autobulus9 – frames the event historically in this particular manner. Rather than offering a year or, say, a contemporary political event to orient us, personal milestones pertaining to the topic at hand – love, marriage, and procreation – are chosen. As readers, we are put in mind of the fact that

Plutarch, the main interlocutor and apologist for heterosexual marriage in the dialogue, was indeed married, but had only been married a very short time when he delivered his arguments. This must make some difference for the way we receive Plutarch’s arguments, or at least for how we understand their motivation. As Rist suggests, we may judge that it is particularly due to his position as a young husband (as well as a man of religious conviction) that Plutarch feels himself obliged to argue against the “anti-

9 In general, it seems reasonable to attribute details of Autobulus’ account to the one Plutarch gave to him, on the grounds that, as Flacelière (1980), 12, observes, beyond his initial exchange with Flavianus, Autobulus’ role is limited to that of a faithful narrator. He refrains from interpolating any commentary of his own into the account, and we have no reason to suggest that he has deviated from Plutarch’s retelling.


marriage tirades” of Pisias and Protogenes.10 Indeed, it is the claims of these two specifically against marriage (not just heterosexual relations) that finally draws Plutarch into the debate.11 It is also worth considering what effect the detail that Plutarch is only newly married may have on the relative authority of his arguments in favor of marriage.

Might we be tempted to attribute to him, as a youthful and unseasoned husband, a certain naïveté that may undermine his position? This response seems entirely reasonable, but it is countered by the circumstantial detail offered in the preface. This evidence of his own personal commitment to the institution serves as support for Plutarch’s arguments in favor of marriage when we proceed into the dialogue.

The further temporal detail that Autobulus provides, that the dialogue took place a long time ago and before his birth, highlights the stability of Plutarch’s marriage in a couple of ways. First of all, we are reminded that his marriage, still recent at the time of the dialogue, has endured for a good many years by the time of Autobulus’ retelling: perhaps twenty years or so at a minimum, considering that Autobulus is of an age to participate in, or at least to take an interest in, philosophical discourse.12 Beyond its long endurance, the fruitfulness of the marriage in producing Autobulus himself serves as clear evidence of stability.13 First, it supports Plutarch’s assertion in his defense of

10 Rist (2001), 561.

11 Pisias and Protogenes argue that marriage has nothing to do with either friendship or philosophy (Amatorius 751a-b); Rist (2001), 563, 565.

12 Görgemanns (2006), 6, likewise notices that references to Plutarch as a father in Amatorius maintain awareness of two different times in our mind: the time of the original debate on Eros, and the time of Autobulus’ narration. Flacelière (1980), 7, observes that Autobulus must be of age at the time of narrating the dialogue; otherwise, Plutarch would not have entrusted the role of narrator to him. Görgemanns (2006), 6, concurs that Autobulus is apparently an adult and therefore judges that a gap of approximately 20 years stands between the original date and his report of it.

13 Plutarch’s marriage in fact produced several other children who are not mentioned in the text. The number of Plutarch’s children is uncertain, but we hear in his consolation to his wife on the death of their


marriage that women, far from being the lusty, passion-driven creatures that his opponents make them out to be, participate in virtue and friendship, the ennobling qualities of love: “They are, in fact, fond of their children and their husbands; their affections are like a rich soil ready to receive the germ of friendship; and beneath it all is a layer of seductive grace (καὶ γὰρ φιλότεκνοι καὶ φίλανδροι, καὶ τὸ στερκτικὸν ὅλως ἐν

αὐταῖς, ὥσπερ εὐφυὴς χώρα καὶ δεκτικὴ φιλίας, οὔτε πειθοῦς οὔτε χαρίτων ἄμοιρον

ὑπόκειται (769c)).”14 The fruitfulness of Plutarch’s marriage testifies, through his wife, that women are not disposed to short-lived erotic encounters, but rather to the long-term nurture of their families. Further, we should be reminded by Autobulus’ reference to his own birth that Plutarch’s marriage has provided for philosophical as well as familial stability, ensuring that the legacy of Plutarch’s debate about Eros could be continued by his son, who proves capable of delivering a meticulous account of the conversation recounted to him by his father. In its way, we are provoked to realize, marriage actually surpasses homosexual Eros in its ability to advance philosophy.15

Further details of setting included in Autobulus’ account highlight the stability of

Plutarch’s own marriage and family life (and thus the potential of marriage to participate both in friendship and philosophy) through contrast with a number of characters shown in conflict. We have seen the first conflict already: Autobulus tells us that a dispute between Plutarch’s and his wife’s parents prompted their journey to Thespiae for the two-year-old daughter, Timoxena, that four sons had been born before her (Consolatio ad uxorem 508c). Besides Autobulus, we know the names of two others: Plutarch (to whom, along with Autobulus, De animae procreatione in Timaeo is dedicated (1012a)) and Soclarus (De aud. poet. 15a).

14 Trans. Helmbold.

15 For a compelling argument that Plutarch innovates upon Plato by giving heterosexual love a role in the ascent to the Form of the Beautiful, see Brenk (1988), “Plutarch’s Erotikos: The Drag Down Pulled Up” (reprinted in Relighting the Souls: Studies in Plutarch, in Greek Literature, Religion, and Philosophy, and in the New Testament Background (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998, pp. 13-27).


Erotidia festival. Mention of another altercation follows closely upon that of the first: no sooner have Plutarch and his wife arrived in Thespiae, it seems, than a heated feud

(ἀργαλέον ἀγῶνα) between factions of harp players at the festival causes Plutarch and his friends, at least (we are not told whether his wife accompanies him) to flee to the more peaceful precinct of Helicon to pursue their philosophical conversations.16 Finally, at dawn on the following day, a third conflict is introduced which will continue to be fought out until the end of the dialogue. Ismenodora, a wealthy and proper widow of Thespiae, has become enamored of a young man named Bacchon, the son of a friend, and has proposed marriage. Bacchon, unsure how to respond to her offer, leaves his decision in the hands of his friends. These friends, among the company on Helicon, begin to conduct a fierce debate, into which Plutarch is only drawn when the opponents of Bacchon’s proposed marriage begin to impugn the institution in general.17 Plutarch, then, has been placed in proximity to three different altercations within the first few pages of Amatorius, and because he is distanced from all of them by Autobulus’ account, he appears as a model of peace and stability amid the tumult around him.

This characterization becomes particularly compelling when, later in the dialogue, we reach Plutarch’s observations about the progression of marriage from a somewhat volatile beginning to a stable and peaceful continuation. Overall, Plutarch takes great pains to stress the friendly harmony that exists between spouses, but he also admits that this harmony takes some time to develop. In arguing that Ismenodora and Bacchon seem well matched in terms of their ages, he observes of young married couples:

16 Amatorius 749c.

17 Rist (2001), 561.


‘δύσμικτα γὰρ τὰ νέα καὶ δυσκέραστα καὶ μόλις ἐν χρόνῳ πολλῷ τὸ φρύαγμα καὶ τὴν ὕβριν ἀφίησιν, ἐν ἀρχῇ δὲ κυμαίνει καὶ ζυγομαχεῖ, καὶ μᾶλλον ἂν Ἔρως ἐγγένηται [καὶ] καθάπερ πνεῦμα κυβερνήτου μὴ παρόντος ἐτάραξε καὶ συνέχεε τὸν γάμον οὔτ’ἄρχειν δυναμένων οὔτ’ ἄρχεσθαι βουλομένων.’ (Amatorius 754c- d)

“Young people have difficulty mixing and blending, and only with difficulty and after considerable time do they cast off their intractability and willfulness. In the beginning, they swell like the sea and defy their yoke-mate – even more so if Eros enters in. Eros troubles the young lovers as a wind disturbs a ship without a helmsman, and he brews trouble in the union of two who are each incapable of imposing their own rule upon the other and unwilling to obey their partner.”

If the above comparison of young spouses to unruly ships on a choppy sea does not paint the rosiest picture of married life, Plutarch uses another pair of metaphors later in the dialogue which makes clear that he finds the dying-down of the initial friction in marriage as inevitable as the friction itself:

‘Τὸ δ’ ἐμπαθὲς ἐν ἀρχῇ καὶ δάκνον, ὦ μακάριε Ζεύξιππε, μὴ φοβηθῇς ὡς ἕλκος ἢ ὀδαξησμόν· καίτοι καὶ μεθ’ ἕλκους ἴσως οὐδὲν [ἢ] δεινὸν ὥσπερ τὰ δένδρα συμφυῆ γενέσθαι πρὸς γυναῖκα χρηστήν. … ταράττει δὲ καὶ μαθήματα παῖδας ἀρχομένους καὶ φιλοσοφία νέους· ἀλλ’ οὔτε τούτοις ἀεὶ παραμένει τὸ δηκτικὸν οὔτε τοῖς ἐρῶσιν, ἀλλ’ ὥσπερ ὑγρῶν πρὸς ἄλληλα συμπεσόντων ποιεῖν τινα δοκεῖ ζέσιν ἐν ἀρχῇ καὶ τάραξιν ὁ Ἔρως, εἶτα χρόνῳ καταστὰς καὶ καθαρθεὶς τὴν βεβαιοτάτην διάθεσιν παρέσχεν. αὕτη γάρ ἐστιν ὡς ἀληθῶς ἡ δι’ ὅλων λεγομένη κρᾶσις, ἡ τῶν ἐρώντων… (Amatorius 769e-f)

“Do not, my dear Zeuxippus, be afraid of the sharp pain which comes at the beginning of marriage – don’t fear it as though it were a wound or a bite. And even if there were a wound, there is nothing very alarming in that when the union is with a good woman: it is like grafting a tree. … Studies are disturbing to boys at the very beginning and philosophy upsets young men; yet this stinging smart does not remain the same for them forever. The same is true of lovers; just as with the mixing of two liquids, love seems at first to cause some effervescence and agitation, but as time goes on it settles down and is cleared up and produces the best sort of stability. For this is truly what is called ‘integral mixture,’ that of a married couple who love each other…”18

In both of these passages, Plutarch takes the long view of marriage because he sees it as a fundamentally long-term institution. Its value lies largely in its stability – τὴν

18 Trans. Helmbold, adapted.


βεβαιοτάτην διάθεσιν – and this feature is emphasized and valorized through the contrast of Plutarch’s own marriage, and marriage and general, with the various types of tumult and upheaval highlighted in the dialogue: those pointed up by details of setting, which I have mentioned, as well as the instability, of which we become aware through the philosophical debate itself, endemic to those relationships, both homosexual and heterosexual, aimed purely at procuring pleasure and not the friendship that springs up along with respect, goodwill, affection, and loyalty.19

Considering that Plutarch is a newlywed at the time of the dialogue, it is somewhat curious to find him twice describing the initial “friction” and “effervescence” that typically characterize the beginning of marriage.20 As I have shown, we see plenty of friction in the scene-setting at the beginning of the dialogue, but Plutarch and his wife are distanced from all of it. It is their parents not they themselves who are arguing at the beginning of the dialogue. If Plutarch and his wife experienced, or were at the time experiencing, any period of friction, we do not see evidence of it here. Of course, it would be unproductive for our literary inquiry to speculate about the actual state of

Plutarch’s love life; I only wish to observe that Plutarch seems to make every effort through the account of the debate on Eros he recounted to Autobulus to create an impression of long-enduring stability in his marital and family life throughout this

19 Amatorius 769a-b.

20 As others have recognized, and as I will discuss in Ch. 4, conspicuous anachronisms at the end of Amatorius make the Plutarch represented within the inner dialogue seem more like a 50-year-old than a 30- year-old; his knowing talk about the friction inevitable in the beginning of a marriage, and especially of its abatement over time, may be a more subtle instance of this phenomenon.


dialogue, and that this impression contributes to the authority of his arguments, despite his being a young man and a newlywed at the time he made them.21

We have seen that Autobulus’ preface has close relevance to the themes of the debate on Eros that it introduces.22 Beyond this relevance, the dramatic quality of the details we have examined in the preface deserves attention. As we have already observed, the dialogue mimetically represents particular characters and places them in a particular setting.23 But character-development and scene-setting can be accomplished in a variety of ways and to a variety of degrees, depending upon the aims of the poet or dialogist. The details Autobulus gives are carefully chosen and purposeful, locating the debate on Eros within a vivid and dynamic scene, and including references to past events that help his audience to contextualize the dialogue’s immediate setting. Autobulus’ preface also takes purposeful advantage of the possibility of character-development within dialogue, fleshing out especially the character of Plutarch, the protagonist, by informing us of his marital status and allowing us to witness his commitment to a stable and harmonious personal life through his withdrawal from several disputes among other characters. As we will continue to see in considering how the theme of particularity is developed in De genio Socratis and De defectu oraculorum, Plutarch also exploits the

21 Plutarch’s expressions of love for his wife and family in other works, perhaps most memorably in the consolation written to his wife (Consolatio ad uxorem) on the death of their two-year-old daughter, reinforce this impression.

22 His method accords with Plutarch’s principle, expressed at Quaest. conviv. 6, that dialogues should reproduce the philosophical content of the conversations they represent, lightening serious subject matter with a little playfulness, but leaving out nonessential details. See Ch. 1, p. 2.

23 I argue that this is true even in dialogues such as Amatorius which, because they feature a narrator in whose voice the central discussion is recounted, we must technically classify as diegematic rather than dramatic. In Amatorius, for example, Autobulus’ narrative interference is so minimal that one might easily forget that the inner dialogue is mediated by his report. On the correspondence of Amatorius to particular types of drama, see Görgemanns (2006), 18, who observes a particular resemblance to Menandrian comedy, especially in its happy ending in a wedding.


features of setting and characterization in these dialogues, engaging his reader actively in exploring the value of the particular even as he considers it theoretically.

I have shown that the request by Flavianus with which Amatorius opens, and

Autobulus’ response to it, prompt us to attend to the information provided in the preface leading up to the debate on love and to consider carefully the relevance of these details to our interpretation of that debate. Consistent with his presentation of his account as drama and his sensitivity to the requirements of his medium, Autobulus’ preface sets the scene for us and provides details explaining how Plutarch came to be involved in the debate on

Eros that took place on Helicon. These details, unlike gratuitous details aping an exemplary work such as Plato’s Phaedrus, guide our interpretation of the debate on Eros in a way that serves to support the arguments presented by Plutarch, who is clearly the protagonist. By representing him, especially through contrast with his surroundings, as a committed husband and father in a stable marriage, Autobulus’ preface leads us to interpret Plutarch not as a naïve young newlywed speaking beyond the limits of his knowledge, but rather as a sensible and precocious contributor to the discussion.24

Plutarch’s method here accomplishes one of the goals of philosophical discourse we have seen theorized in Chapter One: it encourages his reader to conduct independent historia

– in this case, by provoking us to attend to the details included in Autobulus’ preface and thereafter to recognize their relevance to the central dialogue on Eros that sets them apart from purposeless embellishment with ivy and smilax. While this historia guides our interpretation of the philosophical content of the dialogue, it also has a distinct social

24 This portrait of Plutarch differs significantly from the young Plutarch represented in De E apud Delphos; I compare these two personae in detail in my discussion of Plutarch’s self-representations in Ch. 4.


valence, as would any performance of knowledge in Plutarch’s cultural milieu.25 If demonstrating acquaintance with Plato’s Phaedrus marked one out as belonging to the educated elite in Second Sophistic, being able to perceptively interpret the details of its scene-setting, and to apply more widely the criterion of appropriateness, is of membership in a more select subgroup of the pepaideumenoi – at least, this is the message implicit in Flavianus’ critique of those who imitate the opening of the Phaedrus in an amateurish manner. As we examine the theme of attention to detail in De genio

Socratis, we will continue to find that perceptive reading demonstrates social status even as it works towards philosophical understanding.

De genio Socratis: The Power and Limits of Perceptiveness

Archedamus’ speech at the outset of De genio Socratis, like the exchange between Flavianus and Autobulus at the opening of Amatorius, foregrounds the importance of detail in an account. Archedamus takes up the issue from the perspective of the audience rather than the composer of the account. In particular, his focus on attention to detail introduces a concern with the relationship among signifier, signified, and interpreter that is developed in various ways throughout the work. Scholars have previously read Archedamus’ remarks on the value of detail as programmatic for our understanding of the inner dialogue in De genio, proposing different ways in which his praise of detail-oriented viewing might guide our evaluation of individual interlocutors or our understanding of the proper interpretation of the various types of signs discussed.26

25 On the competitive performance of knowledge as a feature of Second Sophistic culture, see e.g. Whitmarsh (2005) and (2001), Goldhill (2001), Gleason (1998).

26 See especially Aloni (1980), Babut (1984), Hardie (1996), Pelling (2010).


Like Babut, I find Plutarch’s characterization of his dramatis personae critical for arriving at an understanding of what detail-oriented viewing – as well as less keen perception – looks like in practice; in agreement with Hardie (and Pelling in turn) I find that this type of viewing has application to the proper manner of interpreting a full range of signs, including but not limited to divination. Plutarch’s development of the theme of attention to detail prompts his readers to sharpen their powers of perception, realizing as they do the moral refinement that this requires and becoming cognizant of the limits of perception inevitably imposed by their human nature.27

Archedamus gives a much more extensive and explicit account of the proper use of detail than Flavianus does in his request of Autobulus. In contrasting good audiences with deficient ones, Archedamus characterizes the former in terms of their artistic and ethical commitments. They are compared to viewers of paintings who possess artistic sensibilities (κομψούς) and an enthusiasm for fine art (φιλοτέχνους); these qualities are manifested in their attention to individual aspects of a painting. The same qualities of knowledgeable refinement and enthusiasm for the deep value of the viewed object are emphasized in Archedamus’ subsequent description of skillful audiences of a historico- philosophical account such as the one Caphisias will provide. A viewer, so to speak, of such an account demonstrates his enthusiasm for noble and admirable behavior by examining the operation of virtue in the individual actions that make up a larger event:

‘…τὸν δὲ φιλότιμον καὶ φιλόκαλον τῶν ὑπ’ ἀρετῆς ὥσπερ τέχνης μεγάλης ἀπειργασμένων θεατὴν τὰ καθ’ ἕκαστα μᾶλλον εὐφραίνειν, <ὡς> τοῦ μὲν τέλους πολλὰ κοινὰ πρὸς τὴν τύχην ἔχοντος, τοὺς δ’ ἐν ταῖς αἰτίαις καὶ τοῖς <ἔργοις αὐτοῖς προσήχοντος> μέρους ἀγῶνας ἀρετῆς πρὸς τὰ συντυγχάνοντα καὶ τόλμας

27 Plutarch frequently calls attention to the limits of human perception in his philosophical dialogues; I will discuss these limits at greater length in Ch. 3, which focuses on the theme of clarity and obscurity as developed in De genio, De Pyth. and De sera.


ἔμφρονας παρὰ τὰ δεινὰ καθορῶντα καιρῷ καὶ πάθει μεμιγμένου λογισμοῦ.’ (De genio 575c-d)

“…but the devotee of honor and beauty, who views the achievement of the great Art (as it were) of Virtue, takes pleasure rather in the particular, because – since the outcome has much in common with Fortune, while the part of the matter motives and involves conflicts between virtue and circumstance – he can there observe instances of intelligent daring in the face of danger, where rational calculation is mixed with moments of crisis and emotion.”28

Archedamus concludes his discourse on the merits of attention to detail, and especially ethical detail, by exhorting Caphisias to “take us to be readers of this sort.” Implicit in this exhortation is a directive issued by Plutarch to us, his readers: we must fashion ourselves into readers of this sort in our reception of the dialogue to follow.29 It will not be enough to look at final outcomes, such as the ultimate triumph of the conspirators over the Spartans; we must attend to morally relevant detail in Caphisias’ count, assessing the operation of virtue within the component actions that succeed in producing the success of the conspiracy.30 Further, we must apply the same careful reading to Caphisias’ account of the philosophical conversation conducted by the conspirators even as their plot came

28 I adopt the text and translation (slightly adapted) of Russell in Nesselrath, ed. (2010).

29 Barigazzi (1988) notes this implicit imperative to Plutarch’s readers: he observes that we have to take more than a superficial look at events, “to understand the causes of events and how in their variety and mutability virtue can be inserted (194).”

30 In considering Archedamus’ emphasis on attention to morally relevant detail, we must inevitably recall Plutarch’s programmatic statement regarding his practice as biographer at the beginning of his Life of Alexander. Plutarch stresses his commitment to clarifying the presence of virtue and vice in his subjects, and he asserts that “often a trifling event or some saying or jest produces a better reflection of one’s character (πρᾶγμα βραχὺ πολλάκις καὶ ῥῆμα καὶ παιδιά τις ἔμφασιν ἤθους ἐποίησε μᾶλλον (Alex. 1.2))” than bigger events such as battles and the destruction of cities. His valorization of relatively small signs over greater events as indicators of individual character bears a clear resemblance to Archedamus’ assertion that a philotimos and philokalos spectator of historical events delights in their particulars, finding that individual actions and their causes contain the detail most telling of virtue and bravery. These two passages differ somewhat from Plutarch’s theoretical statements regarding the work of the biographer and historian in Ch. 1; these passages place value not precisely on enargeia, which we saw so strongly stressed earlier, but rather on attention to morally revealing particulars as means of gaining a deep understanding of a historical event or character. Plutarch’s primary interest in the ethical aspect of history clearly remains constant.


to fruition. That we must do so is made clear by Archedamus’ specific request for an account of the conversation at the conclusion of his speech; he does not, however, speculate on the relevance of this conversation to liberation of Thebes, nor provide any guidance as to how we might apply the type of careful reading he has advocated to the conversation. The function of the discussion of Socrates’ daimonion within the historical account in De genio has been the subject of much scholarly debate, and Plutarch, from the very beginning of the dialogue, seems to provoke us to apply our sensitive analytic powers to consider its place within the work.31 Beyond inviting attention to the design of

Plutarch’s text, Archedamus’ praise of perceptive viewing puts the social status of his reader at stake: as Hardie has noted, his remarks stand as a challenge to Plutarch’s audience to prove themselves worthy members of an elite, highly educated class by performing a sophisticated interpretation that looks beyond the surface level of the text.32

As we enter Caphisias’ account of the events of 379 B.C., forewarned to look out for causes and actions that display virtue, one character, Charon, begins to stand out as particularly praiseworthy. He first distinguishes himself when he hears that the Theban exiles are arriving and need a place to hide, and he sets himself apart from the rest in his willingness to offer aid: as Caphisias reports, “‘while we were hesitating and thinking it over, Charon agreed to provide his own house (576d)).’” If this statement is not enough to alert us to Charon’s impressive virtue, we then hear how the soothsayer Theocritus took Caphisias aside to highlight the nobility of his behavior: “‘This man, Caphisias,’ he

31 Gallo (2003), 414, finds attempts to defend the thematic unity of the work to have been unsuccessful, including the most recent attempts, by Barigazzi (1988) and Aloni (1980), 201. Other attempts to explain the relationship between the seemingly disconnected parts of De genio include Riley (1977), Stoike (1975), Corlu (1970) and Kahle (1912).

32 Hardie (1996), 135.


said, ‘is no philosopher, nor has he had the distinguished and extensive education that your brother Epaminondas has; but see how, with his nature drawn to what is noble by the , he undertakes the utmost danger willingly on behalf of his country (576d- e).’”33 The mention of Charon’s inclination toward what is noble (τὸ καλόν), recalling

Archedamus’ characterization of ‘good’ viewers as philokalos, invites us to recognize in

Charon’s deed precisely the type of morally relevant action we are supposed to be watching for.

Charon further distinguishes himself as the conspiracy is about to get underway.

In fact, his conduct at what appears to be a moment of disastrous reversal for the conspirators exemplifies another part of Archedamus’ description of the morally relevant actions which a savvy viewer will notice. Caphisias reports that when messengers arrived summoning Charon to Archias and Philippus, two of the conspiracy’s primary targets, the conspirators feared that their plan had been discovered. Charon, though he himself seemed to be in the most immediate danger, showed no sign of distress. Instead, before departing for Archias’ house, he committed his son, one of the most admired young men in Thebes, to the guardianship of the conspirators and instructed him to fight unto his death if necessary. The bravery and integrity of this action greatly affected the conspirators, and these qualities are impressed upon us in turn by Caphisias’ account of the conspirators’ reaction: “‘As Charon said this, we were filled with admiration for his high heart and noble mind (ταῦτα τοῦ Χάρωνος λέγοντος τὸ μὲν φρόνημα καὶ τὴν

33 ‘οὗτος,’ εἶπεν ‘ὦ Καφισία, φιλόσοφος οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδὲ μετείληφε παιδείας διαφόρου καὶ περιττῆς ὥσπερ Ἐπαμεινώνδας ὁ σὸς ἀδελφός· ἀλλ’ ὁρᾷς, ὅτι φύσει πρὸς τὸ καλὸν ὑπὸ τῶν νόμων ἀγόμενος τὸν μέγιστον ὑποδύεται κίνδυνον ἑκουσίως ὑπὲρ τῆς πατρίδος.’


καλοκἀγαθίαν ἐθαυμάζομεν (595c)).’”34 Again, Charon’s behavior and its characterization clearly fit Archedamus’ description of morally noteworthy deeds:

Caphisias’ reference to his φρόνημα, as well as the tense circumstances of his actions, may recall τόλμας ἔμφρονας παρὰ τὰ δεινὰ καθορῶντα καιρῷ καὶ πάθει μεμιγμένου

λογισμοῦ (575c-d). There could hardly be a situation that more fits this description of a perilous and stressful environment for action.

Charon is a clear-cut case of a heroically virtuous actor whose deeds in private moments leading up to the enactment of the conspiracy plot play a crucial role in the success of that event. Caphisias’ account is in fact rather heavy-handed in making clear that Charon’s deeds are precisely the sort of component details of the larger historical event that we should admire for their virtue. But, rather oddly, Charon seems to stand in a class by himself as a virtuous agent of the conspiracy.35 Caphisias’ narration singles out none of the other conspirators in a similar way as heroically virtuous actors.

However, Caphisias’ account calls our attention, through some of the same devices used to distinguish Charon, to another class of virtuous characters. These characters are not, however, virtuous agents in the manner of Charon; we might call these characters instead

“heroic perceivers.”36 Like Charon, these figures stand out in large part because we,

34 Trans. De Lacy and Einarson.

35 Here I differ somewhat from Babut (1984), who sees Charon as a representative but not the sole member of the group of “men of action”; these are one of three distinct kinds of men Babut distinguishes within the dramatis personae of De genio (which three kinds he understands to correspond to the three types of soul in the Myth of Timarchus). Babut does however note that “attention is immediately concentrated on the personality of Charon” and that he is “presented with insistence as the dominant figure in the conspiracy and its morally eminent representative (55).” Aloni (1980) recognizes Charon as one of two heroes of De genio; he sees Charon’s competencies, displayed in the plotting of the conspiracy against the Spartans and its execution, as complementary to those of Epaminondas (89-91).

36 My emphasis on the perceptive habits of these characters is slightly different from that of Babut (1984), 55, who classifies Epaminondas, Theanor and Socrates as “philosophical temperaments,” who are morally superior to the other two groups of characters he distinguishes.


Plutarch’s readers, have been conditioned by Archedamus’ speech at the outset of De genio Socratis to be keenly aware of the issue of attention to significant detail as we read the remainder of the dialogue.

Charon stands out, as we have seen, because his deeds, further highlighted by the praise of Caphisias and Theocritus, correspond to the stated object of “good” perception as described by Archedamus. The heroic perceivers, on the other hand, stand out not for heroic deeds, but for their skill in perceiving. Archedamus has set to Plutarch’s readers the challenge of becoming good perceivers, and going forward with Archedamus’ conception of good perceiving at the forefront of our minds, it is striking to encounter this class of perceivers who are highlighted as heroic by praise-language similar to that showered on Charon, whose manner and objects of perception differ from those described by Archedamus. These perceivers are concerned with attaining ethical knowledge through communication, not sensory perception. As we become aware of this alternative type of perception, we recognize it as offering a higher and more secure knowledge than that to be had through even skilled and careful aesthetic viewing.37 Nonetheless, especially because we become aware of the second mode of perception by means of the first, we recognize that both are necessary and valuable, despite the inevitable limitations of aesthetic perception.

Let us consider the class of heroic perceivers in some detail to see how our awareness and evaluation of these modes of perception develops. This class is comprised of three main figures: two who are present at the unfolding of the conspiracy plot – the

Pythagorean visitor Theanor, and Epaminondas – and Socrates, who of course is not

37 By ‘aesthetic viewing’ (and, later, ‘aesthetic perception’), I mean perception and interpretation of a linguistic account – whether oral or literary – or a piece of visual art such as a painting.


actually present, but who nonetheless stands as a powerful presence thanks to the philosophical discussion of his daimonion that occupies a substantial portion of the dialogue. These perceivers all share several characteristics: they are not men of action38; they are dedicated to philosophy, including the discipline of their own souls; and they do not rely on language, particularly for attaining information. The praise and attention lavished upon Theanor and Epaminondas singles out these characters within the historical plot as noble figures, despite their inactivity in the conspiracy, and contributes to detailing the characteristics that make them so. However, their shared quality of keen perceptiveness, grounded in a commitment to philosophy, is even more powerfully signaled as laudable through the clear parallels that exist between each and Socrates, the third of our “heroic perceivers.”39

The nature of Socrates’ daimonion occupies a central position in the portion of De genio prior to the execution of the conspiracy plot in which Theanor and Epaminondas feature. Socrates, as he appears in the account of Simmias, is distinguished by his keen perceptiveness, but this perceptiveness is of an entirely different sort from the careful attention to morally telling details of historical accounts which Archedamus promotes at the beginning of De genio Socratis. Socrates is finely attuned to non-linguistic divine

38 At least as depicted in this work. Epaminondas was generally renowned in antiquity for his achievements as a soldier, as the hero of Leuctra and Mantinea. While Xenophon notably slighted Epaminondas, not even mentioning his name in connection with the campaign at Leuctra, he shows him in action at Mantinea (Hellenica 7.5). Other authors attested to his glory as a soldier, including Diodorus (15.87). See Cawkwell (1972), “Epaminondas and Thebes.” Plutarch himself may have presented him as a more active figure in his own Life of Epaminondas (paired with that of Scipio Africanus), unfortunately lost to us.

39 A number of scholars have observed a close association between Epaminondas and Socrates, including Babut (1984), Barigazzi (1988), Hardie (1996), Georgiadou (1996), and Pelling (2010). Not all have recognized a similarly close association between Theanor and Socrates; I concur with Babut’s assessment that Theanor, like Epaminondas, is presented as having “moral mastery”; this aligns him, too, with Socrates (69). As such, he is more than a foil to the moral greatness of Epaminondas (as Barigazzi (1988), 417 argues).


communications, and his ability to receive such communications is linked, in Simmias’ account, to qualities that we find also in both Theanor and Epaminondas: avoiding undue involvement in worldly affairs, Socrates could hardly be called a man of action40; he was committed to philosophy, including the discipline of his soul; and he relied upon means other than language for attaining information.

Within the debate regarding Socrates’ daimonion, Simmias’ contribution is by agreement of the other interlocutors the most authoritative, given his personal relationship with Socrates. Simmias argues, in part on the strength of a conversation he had with Socrates himself on the issue, that Socrates’ daimonion did not manifest itself in visible signs but rather through the speechless, voiceless impact of daimonic messages upon a receptive soul. The human soul is not normally sufficiently receptive to perceive such messages during waking hours due to the distraction caused by the tumult of its passions and desires. Socrates, however, rendered his soul receptive by eradicating worldly attachments and setting his passions in order, as Simmias attests: “But because

Socrates had a pure mind untroubled by the passions, and, because it mixed little with the body and only for the sake of necessities, it was delicate and sensitive, swiftly changing course on account of something coming upon him (Σωκράτει δ’ ὁ νοῦς καθαρὸς ὢν καὶ

ἀπαθής, τῷ σώματι μικρὰ τῶν ἀναγκαίων χάριν καταμιγνὺς αὑτόν, εὐαφὴς ἦν καὶ λεπτὸς

ὑπὸ τοῦ προσπεσόντος ὀξέως μεταβαλεῖν (588d9-e2)).” Simmias further stresses how radically communications received by Socrates and similarly receptive souls differ both in form and efficacy from messages encoded in language:

40 Notwithstanding his military service (including at Potidaea and Delium: Symposium 219e-221b), and service in the boule (Apology 32b). In the view Plato gives, he was much more civically engaged than the type of philosopher caricatured at of Theaetetus 174a-175e.


‘τῷ γὰρ ὄντι τὰς μὲν ἀλλήλων νοήσεις οἷον ὑπὸ σκότῳ διὰ φωνῆς ψηλαφῶντες γνωρίζομεν· αἱ δὲ τῶν δαιμόνων φέγγος ἔχουσαι τοῖς δεχομένοις ἐλλάμπουσιν, οὐ δεόμεναι ῥημάτων οὐδ’ ὀνομάτων, οἷς χρώμενοι πρὸς ἀλλήλους οἱ ἄνθρωποι συμβόλοις εἴδωλα τῶν νοουμένων καὶ εἰκόνας ὁρῶσιν, αὐτὰ δ’ οὐ γιγνώσκουσι πλὴν οἷς ἔπεστιν ἴδιόν τι καὶ δαιμόνιον ὥσπερ εἴρηται φέγγος. καίτοι τὸ περὶ τὴν φωνὴν γιγνόμενον ἔστιν ᾗ παραμυθεῖται τοὺς ἀπιστοῦντας· ὁ γὰρ ἀὴρ φθόγγοις ἐνάρθροις τυπωθεὶς καὶ γενόμενος δι’ ὅλου λόγος καὶ φωνὴ πρὸς τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ ἀκροωμένου περαίνει τὴν νόησιν. (De genio 589b-c)41

“For in truth, while we understand the thoughts of others by groping for them in the dark, as it were, by the spoken word, the thoughts of daimones, by contrast, have brilliance and shine on those who can receive them, with no need of verbs or nouns which humans use as symbols among themselves to discern images and pictures of their thoughts, the thoughts themselves remaining unrecognized except by these on whom, as I said, there shines some special, daemonic brilliance. The phenomenon of speech in some ways offers the unbeliever some reassurance. Air molded by articulate sound and wholly converted into word and speech conveys the thought to the hearer’s mind.”

I will return to consider the importance of Simmias’ valorization of this non-linguistic mode of communication with respect to the overall theme of “good” perception in De genio Socratis as a whole. First, however, let us assess how Simmias’ description of daimonic communication and the conditions for its reception vindicates the perceptive practices of the two heroic perceivers in the dialogue’s historical plot: the Pythagorean visitor Theanor and Epaminondas. Simmias in fact offers testimony regarding the operation of Socrates’ daimonion as a defense of Theanor’s commitment to receiving signs through supernatural means, which Galaxidorus has criticized as displaying affectation and superstition. Simmias’ testimony regarding the operation of Socrates’ daimonion not only validates Theanor’s manner of perception by arguing that divine communication has a non-linguistic and non-visible character, but it also provokes our awareness that, as Babut has noticed, both Theanor and Epaminondas share certain essential characteristics in common with Socrates. This association raises the stock of

41 I adopt the text and translation of Russell in Nesselrath, ed. (2010).


both characters and, calling our attention to a class of heroic perceivers, stands as yet another exhortation to us as readers to become keen perceivers – but of a different sort than described by Archedamus.

Theanor is the first of the heroic perceivers within the historical plot to draw our attention. Just as Charon does, he attracts a good deal of praise – but it begins even before he actually makes an entrance in the dialogue. As Caphisias relates, Simmias, informing those gathered at his house of Theanor’s behavior since arriving in Boeotia, described him as an impressive and intriguing figure: observed camping out at the tomb of , a friend and fellow Pythagorean, he cut an impressive figure and was accompanied by a large retinue (578d). After hearing Simmias’ account of Theanor’s behavior, Caphisias, and Pheidolaus subsequently, affirm Simmias’ assessment:

Caphisias comments that Theanor does indeed seem to be someone important, not just a private citizen (578e), and Pheidolaus agrees. Slightly later in Caphisias’ retelling,

Theanor gets a second introduction of sorts just before we see him enter the scene with

Epaminondas: Polymnis, the father of Caphisias and Epaminondas, informs the company that Epaminondas wishes to introduce this stranger, whom he describes as “a noble person, who has come with a noble and honorable purpose (ἄνδρα γενναῖον μὲν αὐτὸν

<ὄντα> μετὰ <δὲ> γενναίας καὶ καλῆς ἀφιγμένον τῆς προαιρέσεως (579d)).”42 Simmias is excited by the prospect of meeting such a man, and he enthusiastically pronounces him

“an admirable man, and worthy of philosophy (θαυμαστόν…ἄνδρα καὶ φιλοσοφίας ἄξιον

(579e)).”43 Theanor finally enters after all this anticipatory praise, and he creates as

42 I adopt the text and translation of Russell in Nesselrath, ed. (2010).

43 Trans. De Lacy and Einarson.


favorable an impression as we have been led to expect, again distinguishing himself through his fine personal appearance.44 Further, he appears “showing gentleness and kindness in his demeanor”, as Caphisias remarks. After introducing Theanor,

Epaminondas attests that he is in fact worthy of philosophy, as pronounced earlier: he is

“confirming the noble teachings (of the Pythagoreans) with noble deeds (ἔργοις καλοῖς

καλὰ δόγματα βεβαιῶν (582e)).”

When we consider the character of the works that Theanor has come to Thebes to perform and, in particular, his manner of performing them, we find that he is much like

Socrates, perceiver par excellence, as Simmias describes him. Most importantly,

Theanor is guided by careful perception of signs, especially supernatural signs, in everything he does. He has arrived in Boeotia after learning of Lysis’ death by a token in a dream; having arrived at Lysis’ tomb, he made sacrifices and awaited a further sign to direct his subsequent actions. Further, he is attentive to signs indicating the receptiveness of others to daimonic communication: on hearing how competently Epaminondas had cared for Lysis’ body, he recognizes that Lysis had instructed him well in Pythagorean doctrine and was guided by the same daimon, “if I am competent to judge a pilot by the course he charts (εἰ μὴ κακὸς ἐγὼ τεκμήρασθαι τῷ πλῷ τὸν κυβερνήτην (586a)).”

Finally, keen perceptiveness is such an engrained habit with Theanor that he does not cease observing a person after obtaining a first impression. On concluding his speech, he appears to reassess Epaminondas, looking at him “as though renewing afresh his

44 Admittedly, the praise of Theanor is not unanimous: Galaxidorus offers a sole dissenting voice, responding to Polymnis’ description of Theanor’s reliance upon divine signs with the exasperated observation that it is no easy task to find a man free from affectation and superstition nowadays (579f). Galaxidorus’ opinion remains the minority view, however, and his judgment is in general rather discredited by Simmias’ authoritative refutation of his hypothesis regarding the form of Socrates’ sign, which we have already examined.


contemplation of the man’s character and appearance (οἷον ἐξ ὑπαρχῆς ἀναθεώμενος

αὐτοῦ τὴν φύσιν <καὶ> τὸ εἶδος (586a)).” In a speech much later on daimonic assistance of men, we hear Theanor profess his understanding of the conditions of daimonic assistance, and we can see that this understanding clearly shaped his own conduct. He asserts that those who are bogged down in worldly affairs are left to struggle on their own, but those whose souls have persevered through great trials – that is, who have not been overwhelmed by earthly concerns – are given daimonic aid. Theanor’s description of these souls recalls Simmias’ earlier description of the quality that made Socrates so receptive to daimonic communication: he possessed ὁ νοῦς καθαρὸς ὢν καὶ ἀπαθής, τῷ

σώματι μικρὰ τῶν ἀναγκαίων χάριν καταμιγνὺς αὑτόν. We must notice that Theanor, too, possesses this quality: despite his impressive retinue and fine clothing, these worldly accoutrements do not seem to detract from his attention to supernatural messages.45 All in all, the view we gain of Theanor through the viewpoints of various interlocutors cumulatively shows him to be, like Socrates, a keen perceiver, but not of mundane sights: with vision unclouded by any attachment to worldly things, he is keenly attuned to divine messages and perceptive of others’ non-visible qualities.

One additional link between Theanor and Socrates seems to me worthy of our attention, although unlike the other parallels I have mentioned, it does not depend on the presentation of Socrates in Simmias’ speech. Rather, an allusion to the Socrates of

Plato’s Phaedrus serves to establish a connection between Theanor and Socrates subtly

45 It is indeed somewhat puzzling that Theanor’s impressive appearance is remarked upon on a couple of occasions. It may be worth noticing that Caphisias is the only character to call attention specifically to his fine clothing (582d). We hear shortly afterwards that Caphisias, by contrast with his brother Epaminondas, is particularly fond of wearing fine clothing to impress his numerous admirers (583d); therefore, his observation of Theanor’s fine dress may reflect his own preoccupation with such goods rather than any particular attachment to them on Theanor’s part.


and immediately upon the mention of Theanor in De genio. As we have seen, before

Theanor makes his entrance, Simmias gives a report of his arrival and activities in

Boeotia. He has been observed camping with an impressive retinue at the tomb of Lysis, having slept on a bed of brush; and further, beds of chaste-tree and tamarisk were found, along with remnants of burnt offerings and libations of milk (φαίνεσθαι γὰρ ἄγνου καὶ

μυρίκης χαμεύνας ἔτι δ’ ἐμπύρων λείψανα καὶ χοὰς γάλακτος (578e2-4)). The appearance of the chaste tree (ἄγνου) here, out of all possible trees, may reasonably be expected to trigger a recollection of a passage in Plato’s Phaedrus – precisely in the lush description of the scenery that we have discussed with respect to the theme of attention to detail in Amatorius. It is in Socrates’ effusive praise of Phaedrus’ selection of a setting for their conversation that we find the ἄγνος: “By Hera, it is indeed a beautiful place to rest. The plane tree is so wide-spreading and tall, and the height and thick shade of the chaste-tree are very beautiful (Νὴ τὴν Ἥραν, καλή γε ἡ καταγωγή. ἥ τε γὰρ πλάτανος

αὕτη μάλ’ ἀμφιλαφής τε καὶ ὑψηλή, τοῦ τε ἄγνου τὸ ὕψος καὶ τὸ σύσκιον πάγκαλον

(Phdr. 230b2-4)).” The appearance of the ἄγνος in each of these passages is particularly compelling due to the rarity of the term in Greek literature. Its appearance in the

Phaedrus and its two uses by Plutarch that we have already seen (here and in Amatorius) are departures from the normal use of the term in technical and scientific literature. The

Phaedrus passage which Plutarch’s use of ἄγνου in De genio recalls is, as we have seen, well known by the educated elite of Plutarch’s day, and it seems plausible that this single word – perhaps aided by its situation in a rustic setting in which sacrificial offerings are present (Socrates, in the same Phaedrus passage, notices votive offerings to the nymphs


nearby (ἀγαλμάτων, Phdr. 230b8)), would easily recall – for a finely perceiving reader – the famous scene and establish a connection between Theanor and Socrates.

Epaminondas, the second of the “heroic perceivers” conspicuous in the historical plot of De genio Socratis, also displays Socrates-like keen perceptiveness, undergirded by a firm commitment to philosophy that entails austere self-discipline.46 Like Theanor, he is marked out by a good deal of praise from his peers, despite drawing criticism for his conscientious objection to participation in the conspiracy plot.47 This praise, like that of

Theanor, also centers on his status as a philosopher. Simmias praises him after he has refused a gift of money from Theanor, saying “μέγας … μέγας ἀνήρ ἐστιν

Ἐπαμεινώνδας,” and noting that he was schooled in philosophy by his father (584d).

Indeed, in firmly refusing Theanor’s gift, Epaminondas is explicit about the commitment to disciplining his passions that requires him to do so. Recognizing that men are tempted by many desires, he asserts that

‘ἔθει δὲ καὶ μελέτῃ πολὺ μέν τις ἤδη καὶ τῶν ἐμφύτων ἀπαρύσαι παθῶν τῷ λόγῳ παρέσχε· τὸ δὲ πᾶν τῆς ἀσκήσεως κράτος, ὦ φίλε, ταῖς ἐπεισοδίοις καὶ περιτταῖς προσάγοντας ἐπιθυμίαις ἐκπονεῖν χρὴ καὶ ἀποκόπτειν αὐτὰς ἀνείρξεσι καὶ κατοχαῖς ὑπὸ τοῦ λόγου κολαζομένας.’ (De genio 584e-f)

“habit and practice, however, have been known to allow reason to abate even the innate passions a good deal; and one must apply the full force of a strict training

46 Aloni (1980) highlights a clear connection between Epaminondas and Socrates, pointing to the praise of each as poor and holding fast to philosophy (64), as well as to their shared reticence (70), their rejection of the antinomy between politics and philosophy (98), and their common description as daimonic (98).

47 Theocritus voices the harshest criticism of Epaminondas’ refusal to participate in the conspiracy plot, calling attention to his distinguished schooling and speculating rather contemptuously that this schooling has made him feel superior in virtue to all the other Boeotians and uneager to join their cause (576e-f). Nonetheless, general admiration for Epaminondas and his philosophical commitments seem to prevent the conspirators from bearing him any serious ill will for his abstention. Later, when they urge him to reconsider, Epaminondas explains his rationale, and his answer is received without dispute as perfectly acceptable; Caphisias recalls simply that “ἐδόκει ταῦθ’ ἡμῖν (594c4).” Barigazzi (1988), 420, offers a further reason to read Epaminondas’ conscientious objection in a positive light (and to note a correspondence between Epaminondas and Socrates) in his argument that Epaminondas’ decision parallels Socrates’ refusal under the Thirty to bring Leon back to Athens to be put to death.


regimen, my friend, to the intrusive and superfluous desires and wear them down and cut them off by letting reason chasten them with repeated repression and restraint.”48

Epaminondas describes in detail the arduous askesis necessary for attaining a mind untroubled by the passions, which Simmias has attested that Socrates possessed. His rejection of worldly pleasures is further reinforced through the contrast he draws between himself and Caphisias, to whose characteristic fondness for fine dress and hearty eating he has called disapproving attention a little earlier. After Epaminondas’ long justification for refusing Theanor’s gift, we discover that his commitment to philosophy also manifests itself in his inclination to gain insight through observation rather than by asserting his own opinions. His father, Polymnis, bears witness to this quality of his son when Epaminondas declines to offer his own view on the nature of Socrates’ daimonion:

“‘such is his manner, sir: silent and sparing with words, but insatiable when it comes to listening and learning,’ he said (‘τοιοῦτον’ ἔφη ‘τὸ ἦθος, ὦ ξένε, τὸ τούτου, σιωπηλὸν

καὶ πρὸς τοὺς λόγους εὐλαβές, ἄπληστον δὲ τοῦ μανθάνειν καὶ ἀκροᾶσθαι’ (592f)).”

Further, he recalls another associate of Epaminondas habitually saying of him that “‘he had encountered no one among his acquaintance possessing more knowledge or expending fewer words (μηδενί πη τῶν καθ’ ἑαυτὸν ἀνθρώπων ἐντετυχηκέναι μήτε

πλείονα γιγνώσκοντι μήτ’ ἐλάσσονα φθεγγομένῳ (592f-593a)).’”49 This attested

48 Trans. DeLacy and Einarson, adapted.

49 Admittedly, this characterization may strike us as somewhat ironic, considering the length and tediousness of Epaminondas’ remarks in refusing Theanor’s gift. Still, we need not read Polymnis’ assessment as an example of blind fatherly admiration; Epaminondas’ radical discipline of his soul, although described at length, seems compatible with his reluctance to engage in outward debate of philosophical problems. It is, however, puzzling, as Pelling (2010), 125 notes, that Epaminondas has “so little voice in the dialogue”; his lengthy speech on the virtues of poverty stands in somewhat perplexing contrast with his refusal to speak on Socrates’ daimonion, and is similar to his reticence regarding his quietism. Georgiadou (1996), 117 also notes Epaminondas’ silence, and that his defense is conducted “obliquely and unobtrusively.” Georgiadou argues that Plutarch’s purpose in returning to the topic of the


cautiousness of Epaminondas regarding the use of language – even if only for presenting his own ideas – cannot but recall Simmias’ criticism, in his description of the mode of

Socrates’ daimonion, of language as a deficient human tool, fundamentally inferior to speechless daimonic communication. Epaminondas, whom Theanor has perceived to be in communication with the same daimon as Lysis had been, therefore appears Socratic in valuing quiet perception over encoding his ideas in words.50

As the above discussion of Theanor and Epaminondas and their relationship to

Socrates has shown, while Archedamus’ mode of aesthetic viewing has directed our attention to the heroic role of Charon in the success of the liberation of Thebes, it has also made us aware of another group of noble figures who are distinguished not by their contributions to the overthrow of the Spartans, but by their fine perceptiveness, which is clearly a product of their disciplined commitment to philosophy. This discovery creates a rather jarring effect for Plutarch’s readers: we find that our efforts at one mode of perception directly cause our awareness of another, different mode, one that seems even more highly valorized.51 What conclusions are we to draw from this strange situation?

First of all, we can see that the mode of perception practiced by the “heroic perceivers” is superior to the aesthetic mode advocated by Archedamus. This is so because perception through supernatural signs offers access to knowledge that is less mediated, more important, and more reliable than perception through oral or written

Theban liberation here (in addition to the Lives of and Epaminondas) is to repair his damaged reputation.

50 Socrates, however, had no problem with engaging in philosophical discussion. Though they appear quite similar in their beliefs, then, Socrates and Epaminondas are somewhat dissimilar in their conduct.

51 In judging that the mode of the “heroic perceivers” is presented as superior to that of Charon, I concur with Babut (1984), whose “men of action” are morally inferior to the “demonic” men; Babut considers the latter to have mastered their passions (69).


accounts (or artistic representations, for that matter) is capable of providing. This becomes particularly clear in Simmias’ critique of language cited above (589b-c).52

Simmias contrasts the natural deficiency of human language with the non-linguistic directness of daimonic communication. He stresses that the symbols of which language consists do not allow humans to come to know the essences of things; at best, they convey images and approximations. Simmias’ critique of language must make us self- conscious about our own efforts to read Plutarch’s text sensitively, with an aim to grasping the virtuous component actions that contributed to the liberation of Thebes in

379 and assessing the conversation on Socrates’ daimonion in a manner similarly attentive to particular contributions. According to Simmias’ analysis, our attempts to interpret Plutarch’s literary account (like Archedamus’ efforts at interpreting Caphisias’ oral account), can never reveal to us the real essence of the historical events; we can only hope to render ourselves as perceptive as possible as spectators of imperfect images.

Nonetheless, we must also realize that it is only through language – Caphisias’ (or

Plutarch’s) account of Simmias’ speech and the habits of the “heroic perceivers” – that we have become cognizant of the limitations of language and the superiority of non- linguistic communication. Therefore, we come to find that both modes of perception have their place, and that human beings engaged with the world cannot afford to do without either. Just as we must restrain our passions and cultivate pure souls in order to render them capable of learning truths that language cannot teach, we must also cultivate the type of attention to detail Archedamus advocates in order to gain as much information

52 Here I follow the approach of Hardie (1996), who argues that signs are more widely thematized in De genio than Babut accounts for, and that the issue of interpretation of signs extends “even to the matter of composition and reading of the alphabetical signs that constitute the De genio (124).”


(especially that which is morally relevant) as possible when we engage in linguistic modes of communication – which, unless we are so blessed as to receive supernatural messages, are indeed our primary and even exclusive means of sending and receiving information. We can see this message, that we ought to aim to become skillful perceivers in both modes, reinforced by an example within the historical plot that demonstrates the here-and-now danger of failing to cultivate the type of discipline that facilitates supernatural perception.

At perhaps the most tense moment in the account of the conspiracy, Charon is summoned to the house of Archias, and the whole company of conspirators fears that the

Spartans have discovered their plot. However, as Charon later reports, upon arriving, he found Archias and his companions “already weighed down with drunkenness, with their souls as enfeebled as their bodies (ἤδη βαρεῖς ὑπὸ τῆς μέθης ὄντες καὶ συνεκλελυμένοι

τοῖς σώμασι τὰς ψυχάς (596a)).” Charon returns home unscathed, and Caphisias narrates what happened next at Archias’ house: a letter arrived for Archias from a friend at

Thebes who has discovered the conspiracy. The letter revealed all, but Archias never saw its contents: we hear that he, in addition to being overcome by drunkenness, was overcome by his anticipation for the arrival of a number of women at the house (καὶ τῇ

προσδοκίᾳ τῶν γυναικῶν ἀνεπτοημένος (596f)). In his condition, he had no interest in reading his mail, which he was told concerned serious matters; he shoved the letter under his cushion, putting off τὰ σπουδαῖα until tomorrow. His last acts before the arrival of the conspirators were ordering his cup refilled and repeatedly sending his servant to see if the women were arriving yet. Thus deprived of his rational faculties and knowledge of


the conspiracy by drunkenness and lust, he made an easy target for the blows of the conspirators (some of whom were dressed as women).

Archias’ demise due to his passion-clouded perception serves to amplify the virtue of those characters in the dialogue who take extreme care to discipline their passions – our class of heroic perceivers, Theanor, Epaminondas and Socrates.53 When it comes to evaluating the mode of perception that the former two characters exemplify, their situation within the particular historical context of the liberation allows us to see how their conditioning for perception of supernatural messages also has distinct benefits in mundane situations, beyond the rarefied context of philosophy. If, for example,

Epaminondas’ staunch refusal of Theanor’s gift strikes us as rather fastidious considered on its own, when considered with knowledge of the disastrous outcome of Archias’ opposite approach to managing his passions, Epaminondas’ ascetic program seems less fussy and more widely useful than we might otherwise have realized. I argue that, as this example serves to show, Plutarch guides our understanding of how fully his readers ought to aim to emulate the “heroic perceivers” through the context in which they are situated.

Events such as Archias’ passion-clouded downfall help us to see that such spiritual training reliably yields worldly benefits and thus is highly worth our while, even if we are never to gain a daimonic companion as Socrates did. Further, it is worth noting that

Archias’ mismanagement of his passions led him to disregard a message which, though composed in the relatively inferior medium of language, might have saved his life. The dramatization of the importance of attention to the written word moderates against

Simmias’ earlier critique of language, and allows us to see through a real-life scenario

53 Archias, totally enslaved to his passions, belongs among the third and lowest level of men, with respect to their relations to divinity, that Babut (1984) distinguishes in De genio (69).


that failure to pursue the higher form of perception may inhibit one’s capability to exercise the more basic one.

My analysis of the theme of attention to detail in De genio Socratis, which attracts our notice at the beginning of the dialogue via Archedamus’ speech, has focused on the cases of individuals who, through their example, make us aware of the highest form of perception (in the case of Socrates, Theanor and Epaminondas), or demonstrate the peril that lies in giving one’s soul over to perception-clouding passions. In order to develop his central theme, Plutarch exploits, as in Amatorius, a particular feature that dialogue shares with drama: there, he drew attention to the feature of setting in the preface to

Autobulus’ account; here, he invites scrutiny of his characterization of individual interlocutors.54 As I have shown, Plutarch’s portrayal of his individual characters, which encourages inquiry into and evaluation of their approaches to perception, guides his readers’ moral and philosophical development in this dialogue.

By employing the feature of characterization to this end, Plutarch demonstrates a method consistent with the spirit of his theoretical statements regarding the means by which well composed history and biography impacts its readers. As I discussed in the previous chapter, Plutarch finds that mimetic representation of individuals, especially through quite particular words and deeds, has the special capacity to provoke an affective response in viewers that may in turn invite reflection and, subsequently, the drawing of

54 Just as Autobulus alerts us to the affinity between drama and dialogue at the beginning of Amatorius, in De genio, too, Caphisias explicitly characterizes the unfolding of the conspiracy against the Spartans as a drama when he describes the climactic moment when the conspirators learned that a letter revealing their plot had been dispatched to Archias: “Our worse fortune, Archedamus, which would have made all the indolence and blindness of the enemy a match for all our daring and preparation, and which had from the outset been enlivening the course of our enterprise, like the action of a play, with perilous episodes, now joined issue with us in the very moment of execution, involving us in a sudden and terrible ordeal that threatened unlooked-for reversal of our hopes (De gen. Socr. 596d-e, trans. Helmbold).”


general conclusions through induction and/or positive moral change.55 In De genio

Socratis, Plutarch develops his theme of good perception by mimetically representing the words and deeds of a number of characters whose perceptive strategies are highlighted.

The presentation of these characters is affectively impactful, inviting awe and admiration through their unusual behavior and the praise they receive from other interlocutors. We are thus provoked to consider the relative merits of the type of perception that they pursue, and in doing so, we prove ourselves to be among the elite group of admirable, detail-oriented spectators Archedamus has praised in the preface to the dialogue.

Ultimately, we are led to notice that particular praiseworthy qualities are shared in common among the several “heroic perceivers”, and this observation in turn leads to the general conclusion that the supernatural mode of perception practiced by all of these figures is superior to the more mundane mode. Nonetheless, the less lofty mode – which we, Plutarch’s readers, are practicing in interpreting his text – is nonetheless essential in the day-to-day intercourse of mere mortals. Plutarch thus stimulates his reader’s participation in his inquiry into the operation and difficulties with signs and signification

– the major theme of De genio Socratis – by exploiting the dialogue’s unique formal capacity to explore abstract philosophical questions through use of the particular and concrete.

De defectu oraculorum: Preserving First Principles

55 See Ch. 1, p. 59 ff. In her analysis of Plutarch’s works of practical ethics (some of them dialogical in form, if not in spirit), Van Hoof (2010) reads similarly the characters given dramatic roles, arguing that they are intended to direct the reader’s attention and provide positive examples of ethical behavior (43).


As we have seen, the role of the particular in coming to know serves as a programmatic theme in both De genio Socratis and Amatorius, highlighted from the beginning of each dialogue by interlocutors positioned in the outer dramatic frame. In our analysis of this theme in both of these dialogues, we have seen how the importance of attention to particulars is not just asserted by one of the interlocutors – such as Flavianus or Archedamus – but also reinforced by our own readerly experience as we accept the implicit challenge to attend to significance of detail in each text. In De genio Socratis, the development of the theme of attention to detail is more complex, inviting us to moderate our understanding of its value for aesthetic perception by considering alternate means of attaining higher knowledge. Attention to the behavior and personal qualities of individual charcaters in Plutarch’s literary account leads us to realize the superior value of another approach to perception: studiously purifying one’s soul in order to become receptive of supernatural communications that reveal higher knowledge. In De defectu oraculorum, one of the so-called Pythian Dialogues, we find the value of the particular for attaining knowledge further problematized. Unlike Amatorius and De genio Socratis,

De defectu oraculorum does not deal with the role of attention to detail in interpreting an aesthetic account; instead, we find the method of learning about metaphysical truths purely through appeal to observable reality called into question and challenged by a competing method, one underpinned by the acceptance of certain facts as true a priori and foundational for discussion of matters pertaining to the divine. While in De genio

Socratis we saw that only a select few humans achieved sufficient spiritual purity to perceive supernatural communication, here we find emphasized that all humans have access to a basic body of knowledge about divinity, and that referring one’s hypotheses


about the observable world to these truths is essential to the sound and productive practice of philosophy. As in De genio Socratis, however, attention to the character traits of individual interlocutors – and, interestingly here, to their nonverbal behavior – provides direction for our understanding of the philosophical problems at issue.

At the beginning of De defectu oraculorum, we hear an account of a strange phenomenon that Cleombrotus, a Spartan who had travelled widely, related to his interlocutors. The characterization of Cleombrotus is crucial for understanding his approach to attaining knowledge and the potential flaws in this approach. Lamprias, who narrates the dialogue, describes him as “a man fond of seeing sights and acquiring knowledge (ἀνὴρ φιλοθεάμων καὶ φιλομαθής (410a)),” and relates his aim in traveling the world: “he was drawing up a history as the material for philosophy which had , as he called it, as its ultimate goal (συνῆγεν ἱστορίαν οἷον ὕλην φιλοσοφίας

θεολογίαν ὥσπερ αὐτὸς ἐκάλει τέλος ἐχούσης (410b)).” These initial details about

Cleombrotus are intriguing, and some have read them with suspicion: have his wide travels made him susceptible to believing far-fetched lore?56 It is too soon to tell; at this point, these details simply pique our interest. For the moment, we can only judge that

Cleombrotus seems clearly committed to the pursuit of knowledge57, and his method of attaining knowledge of divinity apparently consists of collating a great number of observable realities from around the world and then inducing from them larger and more abstract truths. Cleombrotus tells his interlocutors at Delphi of a strange phenomenon of which he had heard during a recent trip to Egypt. The priests at the shrine of Ammon

56 As Schröder (2010), 158 suggests.

57 Over and above the pursuit of money, of which he has plenty and sees no purpose in pursuing more (410a-b). In his moderate attitude toward material possessions, he somewhat resembles the “heroic perceivers” of De genio (although Epaminondas is rather immoderate in his abhorrence of wealth).


there attested to him that the ever-burning lamp at the shrine had been consuming increasingly less oil every year. The priests explained the curiosity by concluding that the years had been decreasing progressively in duration, giving the lamp ever less time to consume fuel. Cleombrotus, in his account to the company at Delphi, does not himself explicitly endorse the priests’ explanation, but the whole company of interlocutors present is astonished, and Demetrius, a native of Tarsus who has stopped at Delphi on his way home from Britain, jumps in to critique the priests’ reasoning:

‘Θαυμασάντων δὲ τῶν παρόντων, τοῦ δὲ Δημητρίου καὶ γελοῖον φήσαντος εἶναι ἀπὸ μικρῶν πραγμάτων οὕτω μεγάλα θηρᾶν, οὐ κατ’ Ἀλκαῖον ‘ἐξ ὄνυχος τὸν λέοντα’58 γράφοντας, ἀλλὰ θρυαλλίδι καὶ λύχνῳ τὸν οὐρανὸν ὁμοῦ καὶ τὰ σύμπαντα μεθιστάντας καὶ τὴν μαθηματικὴν ἄρδην ἀναιροῦντας…’ (De def. or. 410c)

“The company was surprised on hearing this, and Demetrius said that the priests were ridiculous to so eagerly seek out great things in small ones, not ‘painting an entire lion from a claw,’ as Alcaeus wrote, but rather positing a change in the heavens and the universe on the basis of a wick and a lamp and utterly destroying mathematics…”

Demetrius’ criticism is not of the strategy of attempting to learn about great matters from small, observable realities. As made clear by his use of the Alcaeus quotation as an analogy, Demetrius takes issue with the insupportable logical leap the priests have taken.

They seem to have fabricated their explanation out of thin air, disregarding what science, such as existing theories of astronomy, might contribute. By taking an imaginative rather than intellectually rigorous approach to solving their question, they have made inappropriate use of the concrete data before them. Cleombrotus undertakes a vigorous rebuttal of Demetrius’ criticism, and in doing so he implicitly endorses the method by which they arrived at their hypothesis. He unfairly takes Demetrius to have condemned

58 Alcaeus fr. 113.


wholesale the utility of observable particulars for attaining knowledge, and he counters this perceived position, arguing that “furthermore, Demetrius, not to concede that small things are indicators of great ones will pose a great hindrance to many arts, since it will result in depriving us of the demonstration of many facts and the prediction of many more (τὸ δὲ μικρὰ μὴ διδόναι σημεῖα γίγνεσθαι μεγάλων, ὦ Δημήτριε, πολλαῖς ἔσται

τέχναις ἐμποδών, ἐπεὶ καὶ πολλῶν μὲν ἀποδείξεις παραιρεῖσθαι συμβήσεται πολλῶν δὲ

προαγορεύσεις (De def. or. 410d)).” But Ammonius steps in to clarify the error in the

Egyptian priests’ reasoning, which has to do with the use to which they put their observations rather than their according importance to such observations per se. He illustrates the validity of Demetrius’ criticism that the priests’ theory had “utterly destroyed mathematics” by showing that their theory failed to consider accepted principles of science and to account for the ways in which it would contravene them.59

Ammonius agrees with Cleombrotus that the sign observed by the Egyptian priest was significant, but he further undermines the method of the priests by pointing out that they failed to seek out other indications that the sun was accelerating; moreover, he suggests that they have not considered other, and less radical, possible solutions to their problem.

As the dialogue progresses, we will come to see more clearly just how the Egyptian priests and Cleombrotus have gone astray in their method of pursuing knowledge.

Cleombrotus is disgruntled by Ammonius’ critique: when, at the conclusion of

Ammonius’ remarks, Lamprias invites him to tell the company more about the shrine in

Egypt, he remains silent, staring at the ground (σιωπῶντος καὶ κάτω βλέποντος (411e)).

This is a good example of what Hösle terms “paralinguistic elements” in dialogue: those

59 For example: they failed to explain how it could be that the sun, but not other celestial bodies, was accelerating (411b).


details about the behavior of a character apart from speech itself – such as gestures or facial expressions – made possible within narrative dialogue.60 Lamprias’ recollection of

Cleombrotus’ silence and downcast eyes, easy to envision and betraying an emotional reaction –anger, or perhaps embarassment– has an affective impact upon Plutarch’s reader, even as we process intellectually the content of Ammonius’ criticism. It is, therefore, rather jarring when Demetrius tactfully steers the conversation away from the shrine and towards a more general topic, the decline of oracles right where they are, in

Boeotia. Although the dialogue moves seamlessly forward, Cleombrotus’ incensed reaction to his peers’ critique, and the lack of definite resolution to the debate over the use of particulars, naturally arrests our attention and establishes the topic as demanding further consideration on our part as the dialogue continues. Plutarch further provokes us to engage in historia through the immediate emergence at this turning point in the dialogue of a type of reasoning quite different from that which the Egyptian priests employed. Instead of beginning from on-the-ground observations of physical phenomena, the major players in the conversation take certain qualities of divinity, understood as a priori truths, as first principles in their arguments, building hypotheses that harmonize with their preexisting understanding of what God is like. As the dialogue proceeds, we see more clearly through the use of this top-down reasoning precisely how the Egyptian priests and Cleombrotus have gone astray in their method of pursuing knowledge.

Lamprias begins the trend, asserting against the Cynic Planetiades that because

Apollo is good-tempered, mild and gentle, it is unlikely that he would shut down the

60 Hösle (2012), 171-73.


channels of prophecy at Delphi entirely on account of human unworthiness. He encourages Planetiades instead to consider the matter of the abandonment of oracles from a different angle: “‘look with us for some other cause of the so-called abandonment of the oracles, but take care not to disturb the god’s mildness and provoke his anger (ἑτέραν

τινὰ μεθ’ ἡμῶν αἰτίαν ζήτει τῆς λεγομένης ἐκλείψεως τῶν χρηστηρίων, τὸν δὲ θεὸν

εὐμενῆ φύλαττε καὶ ἀμήνιτον (413d)).’” We can read Lamprias’ exhortation to preserve two pre-existing qualities of the god, his mildness and his lack of anger, in two senses.

He urges Planetiades not to provoke alteration of these qualities, angering Apollo through impious assumptions about his management of the oracles; but he also urges a shift towards taking essential qualities of the god into account before formulating any hypothesis about his behavior. Strikingly, Planetiades’ response to Lamprias’ chastisement is similar to Cleombrotus’ reaction to Ammonius’ criticism shortly before:

Lamprias remarks with some satisfaction that “what I had said was so far effective that

Planetiades went out through the door without another word (ἐγὼ μὲν οὖν ταῦτ’ εἰπὼν

τοσοῦτο διεπραξάμην, ὅσον ἀπελθεῖν διὰ θυρῶν σιωπῇ τὸν Πλανητιάδην (413d)).” This paralinguistic detail, like Cleombrotus’ disgruntled silence, is conspicuous and puzzling.

It is difficult to interpret exactly what impact Lamprias’ criticism has had on Planetiades: is he ashamed, having been made to see the error of his ways, or simply incensed? It is difficult to tell, but Lamprias certainly interprets this response as a victory for his point of view, and the validity of the methodology he proposes is further supported by

Ammonius’ reliance on first principles pertaining to divinity in his speech immediately following this spat.


After a brief silence occasioned by Planetiades’ abrupt departure, Ammonius proposes the first substantive hypothesis regarding the abandonment of oracles in

Boeotia. He bases his argument on a priori acceptance of several more qualities of divinity. Criticizing Planetiades directly for proposing inconsistent behavior on the part of Apollo, he gives a list of essential properties that characterize not just the deeds of

Apollo, but those of divine agents in general: moderation, adequacy, freedom from excess, and total self-sufficiency (413f).61 After calling attention to these qualities,

Ammonius presents a hypothesis that would seem to demonstrate their manifestation in the matter of the oracles: due to the sharp decline of population in Greece, the god has seen fit to reduce proportionally the activity of the oracles as well. In doing so, he has avoided excess and immoderation, which are antithetical to his nature. Ammonius presents his hypothesis as highly intuitive and almost obvious, given what is known about the god’s nature: “we would have to wonder if the god allowed his prophecy uselessly to flow away like water, or to resound like the rocks with the voices of shepherds and flocks in the wilderness (ἔδει θαυμάζειν τὸν θεόν, εἰ περιεώρα τὴν μαντικὴν ἀχρήστως δίκην

ὕδατος ἀπορρέουσαν ἢ καθάπερ αἱ πέτραι ποιμένων ἐν ἐρημίᾳ καὶ βοσκημάτων φωναῖς

ἀντηχοῦσαν (414c)).”

Ammonius’ methodology seems to set the standard for the subsequent contributions of other interlocutors. Lamprias rejects the idea that Apollo enters into the bodies of prophets in order to convey their messages, observing that such a practice would cross the unbreachable dividing line between divinity and humanity and therefore violate the god’s essential excellence: “‘If he becomes mixed up in human needs, he

61 τοῦ δὲ μετρίου καὶ ἱκανοῦ καὶ μηδαμῆ περιττοῦ πανταχῆ δ’ αὐτάρκους μάλιστα τοῖς θείοις πρέποντος ἔργοις.


does not take consideration for his own dignity, nor does he pay heed to his high rank and the magnitude of his excellence (καταμιγνὺς ἀνθρωπίναις χρείαις οὐ φείδεται τῆς

σεμνότητος οὐδὲ τηρεῖ τὸ ἀξίωμα καὶ τὸ μέγεθος αὐτῷ τῆς ἀρετῆς (414f)).’” Responding to Ammonius, Cleombrotus, rejoining the conversation for the first time since the harsh critique of the Egyptian priests’ method, takes up a strategy entirely different from the perilously shortsighted use of visible evidence he defended earlier. Here, he proposes the concept of daimones as mediators between gods and humans and managers of the oracles; this proposal seems especially successful to him in that it protects the

(uncontroversially true) divine qualities of moderation and propriety (τοῦ μετρίου καὶ

πρέποντος (414f)).62 At the conclusion of Cleombrotus’ proposal, the young man

Heracleon pipes up to challenge not the idea of demons as mediators, but the attribution to such spirits of unseemly crimes, sins and ultimately death such as humans suffer.

Cleombrotus responds by endorsing the practice of beginning from important principles, and his speech, although rather difficult to interpret, seems telling: “‘It doesn’t escape us,

Heracleon, that we have gotten ourselves into strange arguments; but we can’t make progress formulating conjectures as to what is probable in important matters if we don’t make use of correspondingly important principles (οὐδ’ ἡμᾶς αὐτούς’ ἔφη ‘λανθάνομεν,

ὦ Ἡρακλέων, ἐν λόγοις ἀτόποις γεγονότες· ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἔστι περὶ πραγμάτων μεγάλων μὴ

μεγάλαις προσχρησάμενον ἀρχαῖς ἐπὶ τὸ εἰκὸς τῇ δόξῃ προελθεῖν (418f)).’” It is unclear to what exactly Cleombrotus is referring when he stresses the importance of employing

62 Later in his defense of the concept of daimones, Cleombrotus specifies the opposite pitfalls that the mediation of details serves to obviate: at the one extreme, too great a distancing between gods and humans, and at the other, “a disorderly confusion of all things, in which we bring the god into men’s emotions and activities, drawing him down to our needs (πάντα φύρειν ἅμα καὶ ταράττειν ἀναγκάζουσιν ἡμᾶς τοῖς ἀνθρωπίνοις πάθεσι καὶ πράγμασι τὸν θεὸν ἐμβιβάζοντας καὶ κατασπῶντας ἐπὶ τὰς χρείας (416f)).” Trans. Babbitt.


μεγάλαις… ἀρχαῖς, but it is tempting to interpret the phrase as the essential characteristics of divinity that Ammonius and others have been utilizing to check the possible validity of their arguments. If this is so, Cleombrotus has made great progress thus far in the dialogue: he has backed away from endorsing the practice of drawing conclusions based on a scanty amount of visible evidence and begun explicitly to endorse the quite different methodology of Ammonius, which begins from firm convictions about things unseen.63 His progress is particularly striking because his previous error was so conspicuously marked by paralinguistic detail – his silence and downcast glance at the end of Ammonius’ critique. This detail, having engaged us affectively even as the ongoing debate engaged us intellectually, prompts us to take special notice of

Cleombrotus’ contribution when he re-enters the discussion.

As the dialogue proceeds, we begin to get a clearer picture of the proper function of observable particulars in philosophical reasoning. Despite the priority of the essential truths about divinity that require no proof, such particulars are still useful in furthering one’s pursuit of higher knowledge. However, one must proceed with caution. Looking back at the critique of the Egyptian priests’ hypothesis in the first episode of De defectu, we can understand more completely why drawing conclusions from a single data point –

63 Scholars have differed, with respect to De def. or. and the Pythian dialogues generally, about whether the successive contributions of the interlocutors cooperate to build a complete picture of the issue at hand, or whether superior solutions succeed inferior ones. Babut (1992), 223-24 takes the former position, arguing that Cleombrotus, Ammonius and Lamprias cooperatively answer the question of how oracles operate – to the extent that it receives a satisfactory argument in De def. or. Babut describes a division of roles among the three interlocutors, noting that Cleombrotus and Ammonius contribute a recognition of the role of divinity in the operation of the oracles, while Lamprias draws attention to the material and physical causes of the oracles, which serve as instruments of the divine. Brenk (1977), on the other hand, sees little value in Cleombrotus’ contribution, noting that “even if Cleombrotus is not a bungling idiot in the piece, he at least is no intellectual genius, and the rest of the company delight in manifesting his incompetency in handling philosophical and religious problems (111).” My interpretation, focusing on the conspicuous criticism of Cleombrotus, aligns with this latter perspective, though it does seem that Cleombrotus manages to redeem himself over the course of the dialogue.


in that case, the behavior of a lamp at a single location – will not do. Especially when well established and stable principles are at stake, such as the astronomical principles governing the behavior of the universe which stood to be disturbed by the priests’ assertion that the years were growing shorter, a purely inductive method that gives no special weight to these principles will be insufficient. Principles of mathematics and science may not be as fundamental and unshakable as the naturally evident characteristics of divinity, but nonetheless, we find in the critique of the priests’ conclusion that they nonetheless impose a relatively high burden of proof upon one who would upset them on the basis of visible evidence. Ammonius’ assertion, and Cleombrotus’ eventual endorsement, of the priority of μεγάλαις… ἀρχαῖς also clarifies the problem with the method ascribed to Cleombrotus at the beginning of the dialogue. Recall that Lamprias, our narrator, informs us that “he was drawing up a history as the material for philosophy which had theology, as he called it, as its ultimate goal (410b).” As the debate over the decline of the oracles has developed, we have seen that this linear method, moving from visible observations to truths about divinity, cannot be sound if it fails to respect properties of God known to humans a priori; Cleombrotus’ method ought also to proceed in the opposite direction, utilizing firm theological truths to check understanding of lesser matters.

Further, we have seen through the method introduced by Ammonius that judging responsibly from observable particulars is only one valid way of formulating hypotheses about what is, and accordingly, it is sounder practice for one to propose a hypothesis, even when based upon visible evidence, as one among many that are possible. As the interlocutors’ consideration of the nature of daimones and the total number of existing


worlds progresses (an extremely lengthy digression treats the latter question), a plurality of proposed solutions are judged plausible, and no great effort is made to isolate one definitely correct answer to either problem. This is the result of a generous methodology upon which Ammonius first insists: proposals cannot be rejected on the grounds that they cannot be proven; unless they directly contravene observable reality or a priori truths, they must be entertained as plausible. The gods do not look kindly on those who violate the basic humility of this principle: As Demetrius remarks, they cause humans to trip up “whenever we dare to give our opinion on such matters as if we understand them

(ὅταν ὡς ἐπιστάμενοι τολμῶμεν ἀποφαίνεσθαι περὶ τηλικούτων (431a)).” Philosophers can responsibly favor certain hypotheses as more, or most, reasonable or likely, but they must avoid taking the further, overweening step of asserting that one possibility is definitively true.

Lamprias’ final speech, with which the dialogue concludes, explicitly articulates the pious and proper way of pursuing philosophical investigation of observable phenomena and contrasts this method with a common error in reasoning which works in an opposite manner. Lamprias is called upon to address Ammonius’ concern that the theory of demons controlling the oracles has been rejected in favor of the theory that prophetic currents in the form of exhalations from the earth inspire the prophets at the oracles. This, to Ammonius, seems to wrest the oracles from the control of divine powers and impiously to assign them to the power of mere earthly forces. Lamprias is disturbed by this charge and takes care to emphasize that, contrary to Ammonius’ apparent impression, he is committed to respecting the essential properties of divinity in his philosophizing:


‘ἐμὲ δ’’ εἶπον ‘οὐ κεκίνηκεν, ὦ Φίλιππε, μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ συγκέχυκεν, εἰ ἐν τοσούτοις καὶ τηλικούτοις οὖσιν ὑμῖν δοκῶ παρ’ ἡλικίαν τῷ πιθανῷ τοῦ λόγου καλλωπιζόμενος ἀναιρεῖν τι καὶ κινεῖν τῶν ἀληθῶς καὶ ὁσίως περὶ τοῦ θείου νενομισμένων.’ (De def. or. 435e-f)

“Not only have Ammonius’ words moved me, but they have also caused me to wonder if, speaking among such men as you all, I seem to contradict my age by taking pride in the persuasiveness of my argument and thereby to destroy or disturb any of those beliefs about God which have been conceived in a truthful and pious manner.”

Lamprias’ description of commonly held beliefs about Apollo as having been conceived in truth (ἀληθῶς) constitutes the most straightforward assertion in De defectu oraculorum that the qualities of divinity undergirding the reasoning of the interlocutors are understood as absolutely true – not just probably or popularly accepted as true.

Continuing in his self-defense (explicitly framed as such: he invokes Plato as his witness and advocate), Lamprias outlines the correct and pious manner of doing philosophy in contrast with a common flawed method. Anaxagoras exemplifies the latter: he was

(rightly) criticized for being overly concerned with physical causes (φυσικαῖς ἄγαν

ἐνδεδεμένος αἰτίαις); in his careful attention to the law of necessity, worked out from the behavior of bodies, he failed to account for the role of purpose and agent in the phenomena he observed. On the other hand, Plato laudably made purpose and agent his guiding considerations: he understood that God was the origin of all those things in keeping with reason, and he understood that the perceptible universe had its origin not in matter alone, but in matter in conjunction with reason. Lamprias thus clearly identifies both the material and final causes of things, and he insists that although the final cause is superior, philosophers must attend to both.64

64 He faults the early theological poets and writers for attending only to the final cause, and the younger generation of physicists and natural philosophers for making the opposite mistake in ascribing everything to physical bodies and their behavior (De def. or. 436d-e).


Looking at De defectu oraculorum as a whole, we find that a concern with the proper analysis of physical phenomena in building philosophical hypotheses pervades the dialogue. The focus of the concern with the role of observable particulars in this text is somewhat different from those we have seen in Amatorius and De genio Socratis, and it is raised on a different narrative level. In Amatorius, Flavianus, addressing Autobulus in a conversation framing the inner debate on Eros, draws attention to the role of detail in constructing a narrative that rightly directs the audience towards what is most important; the utility of particular detail is addressed from the perspective of audiences of aesthetic accounts. In De genio Socratis, similarly, Archedamus voices his concern with audience perception in the outer frame of the dialogue, focusing on his own activity as the recipient of Caphisias’ oral account and implicitly inviting us, Plutarch’s readers, to join in paying close attention to morally revealing detail as we interpret the literary account of the conversation. In De defectu oraculorum, the question of the proper the role of observable particulars in attaining knowledge arises within the inner frame of the dialogue, and the interlocutors are not primarily concerned with the perception of narrative accounts or works or art, but rather a whole range of visible phenomena that might lead to understanding about higher realities.

Nonetheless, in all three dialogues, Plutarch directs his audience to take notice of a particular dramatic feature of the dialogue through which he allows us, through careful attention and inquiry, to arrive at some insight regarding a major theme in the text. In

Amatorius, scrutiny of the relevance of the setting detail that Autobulus selectively includes in the preface to his account of the years-earlier dialogue on Eros points towards an understanding of Plutarch as a stable, successful husband and father, and this


impression supports his youthful arguments regarding Eros which his son goes on to recount. In De genio Socratis, Archedamus’ description of a sophisticated viewer spurs us to attend to the details through which the interlocutors in Caphisias’ account are characterized, and to consider their moral relevance; ultimately, this morally focused manner of viewing allows us to discern a class of individuals who demonstrate an ideal manner of perception, one that is attuned to higher, non-visible sources of truth.

Attention to characterization likewise proves illuminating of a major theme in De defectu oraculorum: if we attend to the personal attributes of the interlocutors and their responses to one another, including some rather striking nonverbal expressions attested by Lamprias, the narrator, we find some guidance as to the proper manner of utilizing observable particulars in the quest for truth.

It is important that Plutarch powerfully attracts our attention to dramatic features of these dialogues from their very beginnings. In Amatorius and De genio, the brief theoretical exchanges regarding the composition and perception of narrative accounts are not only clearly relevant for the accounts that are about to get underway, but they engage the reader on a personal level by putting our cultural credentials in question. Are we like the second-rate imitators of the opening of Plato’s Phaedrus, or are we among the more select group of those who appreciate the deeper significance of setting detail in context?

Do we belong to the common herd of uncultured spectators Archedamus disparagingly describes, or are we careful to scrutinize individual details in historical accounts, taking notice of their moral value? To Plutarch’s contemporary audience – highly educated, elite males whose status depended on displaying their cultural capital – the opening lines of Amatorius and De genio Socratis may well have posed a compelling challenge to


perform a finely perceptive reading of the text before them. The opening of De defectu oraculorum, though it does not challenge our position within a cultural hierarchy, makes equally compelling demands on our attention by introducing a character, Cleombrotus, with an impressive-sounding background and placing him in immediate conflict with his interlocutors; the intersubjective dynamic here promises a debate that will be affectively as well as intellectually engaging.

In each case, Plutarch provokes his audience to inquiry – which, as we have seen in Chapter One, he upholds consistently as an essential step towards ethical and philosophical advancement – that will focus on a particular dramatic feature of the dialogue. This inquiry is rewarded in various ways: by the satisfaction of proving one’s cultural credentials through a discerning interpretation of dramatic details, and the pleasure of witnessing the lively and contentious debate among interlocutors; but also by the development of a deeper appreciation of the value of particulars, both visible and invisible, in the pursuit of knowledge.




In several of Plutarch’s dialogues, sightseeing is an integral part of his characters’ philosophical investigations. Their sightseeing tours, which we might well describe as periēgēseis1, can be physical or imaginative: for the interlocutors in De Pythiae oraculis, a walking tour of their physical surroundings prefaces and gives rise to discussion of the primary problem of the dialogue; in the eschatological myths of De sera numinis vindicta and De genio Socratis, on the other hand, the report of another character’s exploration of extraterrestrial space leads the interlocutors on an imaginative journey that directs their understanding of the philosophical problem at hand. Each of these narrative means of exploring space is uniquely possible within the dialogue form, in which the essential feature of setting may be fully or minimally developed, and Plato famously set the precedent for the use of eschatological myths such as we find in De sera and De genio.

In this chapter, I will examine Plutarch’s use of both of these means of exploring space. I will attend to some ways in which Plutarch elaborates real or imagined setting in the three dialogues I have mentioned and consider how his manner of description may owe to or depart from Platonic precedent and his own rhetorical training. In doing so, I will demonstrate how Plutarch engages his reading audience in sightseeing alongside his

1 LSJ, περιήγησις: a “leading round and explaining, as is done by guides and cicerones.”


interlocutors, creating powerful and contrasting experiences of clarity and obscurity, sight and blindness. Through his multi-layered periēgēseis, I will argue, Plutarch powerfully promotes understanding of the limited type of vision available to human beings, a major theme in all three texts, and points us towards the correct manner of attempting to attain metaphysical knowledge despite inevitable human deficiencies.

Periēgēsis and ekphrasis

As part of his rhetorical training, Plutarch would have gained extensive experience creating a vivid, immersive sight-seeing experience for his audience through the practice of ekphrasis, one of the most advanced of the progymnasmata. In his definition of ekphrasis, the first-century C.E. rhetorician Aelius Theon focuses on its potential effect upon on an audience: “Ekphrasis is descriptive language, bringing what is portrayed clearly before the sight (Ἔκφρασις ἐστὶ λόγος περιηγηματικὸς ἐναργῶς ὑπ’

ὄψιν ἄγων τὸ δηλούμενον).”2 The adjective περιηγηματικός is noteworthy: as Ruth

Webb points out, it “casts the speaker as a guide showing the listener around the sight to be described.”3 While analogy is frequently drawn “between a speech and a journey on which the speaker leads the audience through space” in descriptions of discourse more generally, περιηγηματικός points to “a more elaborate form of telling”, in which the

2 Theon, Progymnasmata 118 (trans. Kennedy (2003), 45). Webb (2009), 51 notes Theon’s focus on the effect of ekphrasis upon an audience. I draw on the progymnasmata of Theon in particular because he is a contemporary of Plutarch; it therefore seems likely that Plutarch would have learned and taught principles akin to those Theon describes – though, of course, we cannot know for sure.

3 Webb (2009), 54.


guide goes further than showing sights to his audience; he actually directs his audience’s attention in a more focused way.4

The primary virtues of ekphrasis, according to Theon, are clarity (saphēneia) and vivid description (enargeia) that can all but place before the eyes the object being described.5 Judicious selection of detail and colorful word choice are also essential virtues. Theon does not elaborate on how to create enargeia, but we may perhaps make some deductions from the examples of successful ekphrasis he cites. He points to particular ekphraseis in Homer, Thucydides and Herodotus. These ekphraseis have some specific qualities that make them effective at bringing their subjects before the eyes of the reader. The ekphrasis of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad is noteworthy for the motion, sound and color it includes, in part because such aspects of the scenes described would have been impossible to represent in metal relief. We hear, for example, about people marching, whirling, gathering, and rushing; flutes and harps sound forth, a man declaims, and heralds cry out; sheep-flocks are silver-gray, spears are bronze-tipped, and a cloak is stained red with blood. In the ekphraseis of sacred Egyptian animals in the second book of Herodotus’ Histories, the unfamiliar is consistently described in terms of the familiar in order to produce vivid mental images: crocodiles have pig-like eyes, and their eggs are hardly bigger than a goose’s; hippos have a horse-like mane and tail; and ibises have legs like a crane’s. In Thucydides’ description of a siege engine being prepared in his fourth book, perhaps the most noteworthy qualities of the ekphrasis are its systematic nature and

4 Ibid.

5 Theon, Progymnasmata 119.


completeness: we hear about the construction of the weapon from start to finish, from the splitting and hollowing-out of a wooden beam to its transport to its final station.

Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria, because it contains an explicit discussion of the oratorical purpose of enargeia and particular ways in which an orator may achieve it, is a useful supplement to Theon on the topic.6 Enargeia is not an optional oratorical device, according to Quintilian; oratory fails in its work of persuasion if it does not place the facts it enumerates “in their living truth before the eyes of the mind.”7 In Quintilian’s conception, the work of enargeia is always affective: it fires the imagination of an audience and moves it emotionally8. He singles out a few essential devices through which an orator might achieve this effect. An orator can first of all bring a scene to life in the audience’s imagination by creating a word-picture, and Quintilian points to Cicero as the master of this device.9 He further points out that in painting such word pictures, an orator may use rich detail to achieve the desired effect, or he may make use of similes, provided that the subject chosen for comparison is itself clearer than the thing it is intended to illustrate.10

As we will see, descriptions rich with language of motion, sound and color, and comparison of foreign sights to familiar ones are common in the periēgēseis of Plutarch; but at times, too, Plutarch seems to avoid creating the vividness essential to ekphrasis. In

6 As Webb (2009), 48 notes.

7 Institutio oratoria 8.3.62, trans. Butler.

8 E.g. Inst. 8.3.67: in adfectus…penetrat.

9 Offering an example from the Verrines, he asks whether Cicero’s vivid language does not cause his audience to see not only the “actors in the scene, the place itself and their very dress, but even to imagine to himself other details that the orator does not describe (sed quaedam etiam ex iis, quae dicta non sunt, sibi ipse adstruat). Inst. 8.3.64, trans. Butler.

10 Inst. 8.3.72-73.


assessing the function of the sight-seeing tours in Plutarch’s dialogues, we must consider where and to what effect Plutarch places vivid images before the eyes of his readers or conspicuously avoids doing so.

Otherworldly periēgēsis: Plutarch’s Eschatological Myths

Following the famous precedent of Plato, Plutarch includes in two of his dialogues eschatological myths that describe in vivid detail the journey in the hereafter of an individual temporarily suspended between life and death. In De sera numinis vindicta,

Plutarch relates the experience of Thespesius, who, after falling on his neck and losing consciousness, witnessed the fate of souls after death. In De genio Socratis, Simmias gives an account of the experience of Timarchus, who, having descended into a crypt, seemed to be separated from his body and travel to the hereafter. De facie in orbe lunae also contains an eschatological myth, but because it functions quite differently than the other two in important respects, I will discuss it only peripherally in this chapter.11 The presence of these myths in Plutarch’s dialogues prompts us to ask several questions.

Why did he take over this device from Platonic dialogue? What function do Plutarch’s myths serve in his dialogues, and how do they operate similarly to or differently from the

Platonic myths? How does the mode and content of Plutarch’s myths cooperate with the dialectical portions of his texts to promote his philosophical and/or pedagogical ends?

11 The major difference is one of perspective: whereas the myths in De sera and De facie owe to the experiences of individual characters and are therefore limited by the scope of their perspective, the account of the hereafter given in ’s myth is not likewise confined by the perspective of a single person. As a result, while clarity and obscurity are to some extent contrasted, the myth lacks the vividness of the other two eschatological myths, and it does not engage the reader in an affective experience of the tension between clarity and obscurity in the same way, nor does it convey so powerfully the gulf in knowledge separating humans from gods. As Vernière (1977), 297 notes, Sulla’s didactic presentation of the myth’s content somewhat smothers its picturesque element.


Because any study of Plutarch’s myths must consider their relationship with those of Plato, a brief overview of Plato’s eschatological myths and some scholarly views as to their characteristics and function is in order. Plato’s four eschatological myths – in the

Phaedo, , Phaedrus and Republic – each deal in some way with the nature of the soul and its existence before and after being joined to the physical form of a human being on earth.12 The Platonic eschatological myths, although varied in content and emphasis, share some basic characteristics besides dealing with the afterlife. Firstly, the authority of these myths derives not from the personal experience of the speaker reporting them, but rather from tradition.13 For example, in the Myth of Er with which the Republic concludes, Socrates simply says that he will tell the tale of Er, the son of Armenias – not indicating any particular person or source from whom he has heard it.14 Secondly,

Plato’s myths are monological, delivered through narration rather than dialogue. As for the position of the myths within Plato’s dialogues, three of the four come at the end of their respective texts. In Phaedo, Socrates’ account of the fate of the soul after death ends the discussion of the immortality of the soul with which the dialogue has been occupied, at which point we face again the circumstance of Socrates’ impending death and witness him drinking the hemlock; in Gorgias, only some brief summary remarks by

Socrates follow his tale; and the Myth of Er concludes the Republic absolutely, with no reply by Socrates’ interlocutors following it. Only in the Phaedrus does the myth fall

12 Phaedo 107c-114c; Gorgias 523a-527a; Phaedrus 246a-257a; Republic 613e-621d. These eschatological myths are a subset of the larger group of fourteen Platonic myths, according to Most (2012), who singles them out using a proposed set of criteria for distinguishing myths in Plato.

13 This is the fifth of Most’s criteria for distinguishing Platonic myths; see also Mattéi (1988), 69.

14 Likewise in Phaedo, Socrates begins his account of the fate of the soul after death impersonally: λέγεται δὲ οὕτως… (107d5-6); in Phaedrus, he does not give even an impersonal source, but simply begins the myth describing the nature of the soul as though drawing on an accepted tradition; nor does Socrates allude to any source at all in Gorgias.


midway through the text, but even this myth has a concluding position of sorts, coming as it does at the end of the first of two major sections of the dialogue.

A good deal of recent scholarship has considered the function of these myths.

The question of their function is especially important considering that Socrates condemns the use of myth in the Republic.15 This condemnation makes the presence of the Myth of

Er at the end of the Republic provocative and perplexing, and it challenges us to consider what this myth and Plato’s other eschatological myths contribute to the philosophical projects of their respective texts. It falls beyond the scope of this chapter to give thoroughgoing consideration to the contribution made by each of these myths individually, but citing some recent scholarly conjectures about the role of myth generally in Plato will be useful for our analysis of Plutarch’s use of myth. A number of scholars have observed that the mythical mode allows Plato to provide a type of vision that reasoned discourse – the normal mode of Platonic dialogue – cannot. Although the myths may cooperate with the dialectical portion of his texts to achieve particular goals, the mythic mode advances these goals through its use of images, which affect Plato’s readers emotionally before, or as a means to, engaging the mind. The eschatological myths in particular “appear to transcend reasoned discourse in providing a synoptic view of an inaccessible reality.”16 The power of the images that make up the Platonic myths resides in their vividness. The vivid descriptions of which the myths are built provide

Plato’s readers with a sensory and emotional experience that analytic reasoning cannot, and these experiences give the myths a uniquely powerful persuasiveness.17 The function

15 See Most (2012), 13-14 for an articulation of the problem and bibliography.

16 Collobert (2012), 2.

17 Collobert (2012), 107, Mattéi (1988), 59.


of Platonic myths is not to be understood in isolation from their dialectical context, however; the myths cooperate with the argumentative portions of their respective texts, which achieve persuasion through appeal to the intellect, in order to achieve a shared didactic goal.18 Of course, each of Plato’s myths has its own unique characteristics and function within its particular text, and the above remarks only attempt to offer the most general description of the myths’ common characteristics.

These observations about the characteristics and functions of Plato’s eschatological myths will be useful for guiding our analysis of Plutarch’s mythical periēgēseis. Turning to these periēgēseis, I will attempt to answer the following questions: from what perspective do we view the hereafter in Plutarch’s myths, and how does this perspective affect the function of each myth? How do Plutarch’s mythical modes cooperate with the dialectical portions of his dialogues, through use of vivid imagery or otherwise? How and to what effect do Plutarch’s myths engage the emotions of his audience? What might Plutarch’s borrowings from, and departures from, Plato’s myths tell us about the purpose of his myths?

II. a. De sera numinis vindicta: The Myth of Thespesius

With these observations about Platonic myth in mind, let us now turn to

Plutarch’s myths. In De sera numinis vindicta, an eschatological myth is told by Plutarch

(who is represented as an interlocutor) as part of the defense of divine providence that constitutes the main goal of the dialogue. The dialogue opens just after the departure of a certain Epicurus who has deeply disturbed Plutarch’s companions by denying the

18 Collobert (2012), 107.


existence of divine providence, citing the god’s19 delay in punishing wrongdoers (548a- d). After making a number of arguments in order to convince them that this apparent tardiness need not undermine their faith in providence, Plutarch proposes, in support of his belief in the immortality of the soul, to relate an account (logos) he has recently heard; it will show, he says, that the punishment of facing in the afterlife one’s descendants who have suffered for one’s sins is the worst punishment of all, and that no incentive could induce one to become unjust again after suffering such a terrible retribution (561b). Plutarch’s companions encourage him to give the account despite his fear that it will be taken for a myth (mythos)20, and at their urging he ultimately begins to recall the strange experience of a certain man of Soli, the kinsman of a mutual friend.

This man had lived a dissipated life, squandering his estate and turning to crime after running short of money. After falling from a height and striking his neck, this man actually died, but then revived on the very day of his funeral. Immediately upon regaining consciousness, he amended his life completely, becoming honest, pious, and loyal.

19 Referred to in the singular throughout this dialogue. Though Plutarch recognizes various individual members of the traditional Greek pantheon, his theology in general shows “a clear move toward the unity and personality of the divine” (Hirsch-Luipold (2014), 168) and he tends to portray individual gods, including Apollo, as representative of the divine essence (Hirsch-Luipold (2014), 165).

20 In De genio, too, the status of the myth is complicated; though Simmias introduces it as a mythos, Theanor later calls it a logos (593a). Cf. similar expressions of reservation at De facie 945D, Gorgias 527a, Phaedo 114D (as noted by Corlu (1970), 60). As Hardie (1996) details, throughout his corpus, Plutarch expresses various ideas about the relationship of myth to truth and how one should respond to myth. At times, Plutarch identifies mythos with fiction, showing the influence of Plato, but departing from Plato, he also takes a positive view of its potential to make truth more attractive, as in De audiendis poetis (see discussion in Ch. 1, p. 40-45, and Van der Stockt (1992), 92). In De Iside et Osiride, Plutarch promotes (to Clea, the Delphic priestess to whom he addresses the work) an allegorical rather than literal reading of the myth of Isis and Osiris. The relationship between myth and truth is also thematically important to De Pythiae oraculis; here, ultimately, myth as a mode of transmitting oracles is presented negatively by contrast with prose, a more straightforward medium of expression. Deuse (2010), 169-71 observes the difficulty of distinguishing the meanings of mythos and logos in De sera and De genio; logos seems to possess a certain dignity due to its closeness to truth, although in De genio, Theocritus notes that mythos, too, touches on truth (589f).


This radical alteration in his behavior was brought about by an experience he had while unconscious. His intelligence was driven from his body, he reported, and traveling up and away, he traversed the realm inhabited by souls after death, witnessing in amazement their appearances and movements. Among these souls, one, whom he recognized as a kinsman, and who addressed him as Thespesius – though his name on earth had been Aridaeus – became his guide, leading him on a true periēgēsis of the realm to which souls rise once released from their bodies, explaining the sights before him and leading him on to witness the system of punishment of souls according to their deserts. The climax of Thespesius’ tour came when, suddenly abandoned by his guide among souls enduring terrible agonies, he witnessed the suffering of souls who, having escaped punishment on earth, now faced the angry attack of their descendants. These descendants, having suffered during life on their wicked ancestors’ behalf, now swarmed and berated them. Just at the point when Thespesius was seized by an imposing female figure ready to prod him with a red-hot poker, Thespesius’ soul was thrust back into his body and he awoke in his grave. De sera concludes abruptly with the end of the myth, leaving Plutarch’s reader to ponder its affective impact and whether it has successfully proven the point it set out to demonstrate.21

21 Plutarch’s myth ends the dialogue even more abruptly than the Myth of Er ends the Republic; in the Republic, although Socrates’ interlocutors do not respond to the myth, Socrates follows it with some summary remarks of his own, drawing the conclusion that the soul is immortal and humans must therefore practice justice in order to maintain friendship with the gods (Rep. 621c-d). The Myth of Thespesius thus has greater affective impact upon its audience, leaving us entirely on our own to draw conclusions about its meaning.

In this chapter, I do not take up the question of whether Plutarch’s myths represent his own eschatological beliefs. On this question, and on Plutarch’s religious views in general, see especially Brenk (1977), who doubts that Plutarch believed in eternal punishment of the physical sort dramatized in his myths (27) and points out that Plutarch in fact describes infernal punishments in these myths in exactly the phrases that he satirizes in De superstitione (166f-167b), where he ridicules the fear of punishment after death (22). On Plutarch’s daimonology, see especially Ch. 7, pp. 113-44.


Much of the scholarly attention given to De sera has focused on this remarkable myth, examining especially its interaction with Plato’s Myth of Er, on which it is clearly modeled, and the ways in which the myth complements the dialectical portion of the dialogue and serves a philosophical, religious, and/or pedagogical purpose.22 Scholars have noted especially the great vividness and physicality of the images contained in the myth, as well as the abundance of color, sound and motion in the description of the hereafter.23 Sensory vividness is certainly a striking aspect of the myth, bringing sights before the eyes of Plutarch’s audience and powerfully engaging our attention.24 But even as he creates enargeia using precisely the techniques highlighted by the rhetoricians I have discussed above, Plutarch also balances this vividness with a good deal of obscurity and imprecision with which it stands in a purposeful tension. Though others have noticed the coexistence of clarity and obscurity, vividness and blurriness in this myth, much remains to be said about precisely how and to what purpose Plutarch creates this interplay.25 I wish to examine this dynamic in detail, highlighting how the experience of

Thespesius’ vivid and disorienting periēgēsis contributes to developing a major theme of

De sera as a whole and reinforces Plutarch’s conception of the proper manner of

22 On other influences, see Klaerr and Vernière (1974), 110-12.

23 Deuse (2010), 188 notes that “De sera presents the ‘materiality’ of the soul in particularly drastic images”; Klaerr and Vernière (1974), 123 notice a very concrete sense of the light, colors, sounds, smells, and very subtle movements; Taufer (2010), 32 observes that the myth of Thespesius differs notably from the Myth of Er in the pronounced physicality of its characters, and in the wide range of emotions that the souls experience.

24 Boulet (2010), apparently focusing on the images of punishment at the end of the myth, argues that the myth aims at “instilling fear in the hearts of men” by creating a “horrifying” experience; this experience would encourage moral improvement (61).

25 Vernière (1977), 305 notes that in Plutarch’s myths, “Il s’agit finalement d’un habile dosage de clarté et d’obscuritè, d’intellect et d’irrationnel”; Vernière (1977), 299-300 also notices instances of blurriness throughout Plutarch’s myths, including descriptions of spectacles that are rather difficult to imagine or interpret, such as the crater of the three demons in De sera (566b).


beginning and pursuing philosophy as articulated and demonstrated throughout his dialogues.

In Plutarch’s account, the beginning of Thespesius’ experience in the hereafter was nothing short of dazzling. Immediately after the separation of his soul from his body, Thespesius’ powers of perception seem to have been broadened and heightened: he began to see as if with his whole being rather than his two eyes: his intelligence having risen above his body, “…his next impression was that he had risen somewhat and was breathing with his whole being and seeing on all sides, his soul having opened wide as if it were a single eye (εἶτα μικρὸν ἐξαρθεὶς ἔδοξεν ἀναπνεῖν ὅλος καὶ περιορᾶν

πανταχόθεν, ὥσπερ ἑνὸς ὄμματος ἀνοιχθείσης τῆς ψυχῆς (563e-f)).”26 As his soul glided onward, he saw the souls of others rising from below appearing as flame-like bubbles

(πομφόλυγα φλογοειδῆ (564a)); on bursting forth from their bubbles, these souls, now appearing human in form, darted lightly about in a dizzying variety of motions, shooting straight up, spiraling around, and swinging downward (564a). The superabundance of light, color, sound and motion imagery with which the myth begins makes it seem as if

Thespesius, having left his body behind, began to see more clearly than he ever had before. But on a closer look, we find that this is not really the case. Throughout the description of Thespesius’ experience, plenty of darkness and obscurity exist alongside light and clarity, compromising the vision they afford.

First of all, a mechanical obstacle keeps Thespesius from seeing as clearly and completely as the souls he encounters in the extraterrestrial realm: his soul is anchored to his body by a tether. This is not stated explicitly at the beginning of Plutarch’s account

26 Trans. De Lacy and Einarson. On the intelligence as the eye of the soul, cf. Plato, Rep. 519b (De Lacy and Einarson (1959), 273).


but is revealed gradually. After Thespesius encounters the kinsman who will serve as his guide, the kinsman describes Thespesius’ status in metaphorical terms: he is present among the souls of the dead in his intelligence, but the rest of his soul has stayed behind in his body like an anchor.27 It is unclear from the kinsman’s description how this status is reflected in Thespesius’ physical appearance. We get a first shadowy hint, quite literally, when we hear that, looking around, Thespesius notices a shadowy line floating alongside him (συναιωρουμένην ἀμυδράν τινα καὶ σκιώδη γραμμήν (564d)). The souls around him, by contrast, unfettered from their bodies, cast no shadow28, as Thespesius’ kinsman points out; they float freely, “enveloped all around with light and translucent, although not all to the same degree (περιλαμπομένους κύκλῳ καὶ διαφανεῖς ὄντας, οὐ μὴν

ὁμοίως ἅπαντας (564d)).”29 Ultimately, the kinsman describes this shadowy line more concretely as a cable as he explains to Thespesius why he will not be able to see Apollo’s oracle, a vantage of which they are approaching: “‘As for Apollo’s oracle,’ he said, ‘You cannot catch sight of it now, nor will you be able to; for the cable of your soul gives no further upward play and does not grow slack, but holds taut, being made fast to the body

(566d).’”30 Despite the light and color that surround him, Thespesius himself is held back both in and by a shadowy darkness resulting from his unbroken connection to his physical body. So long as Thespesius is restrained by his corporeal existence, his power

27 De sera 564c-d: “ἀλλὰ μοίρᾳ τινὶ θεῶν ἥκεις δεῦρο τῷ φρονοῦντι, τὴν δ’ ἄλλην ψυχὴν ὥσπερ ἀγκύριον ἐν τῷ σώματι καταλέλοιπας.”

28 Nor do they blink their eyes. Torraca (1989), 113 points out that these details recall Pythagorean beliefs.

29 Trans. DeLacy and Einarson, adapted.

30 “τὸ δ’ Ἀπόλλωνος οὐ κατεῖδες” εἶπεν “οὐδὲ κατιδεῖν ἔσῃ δυνατός· ἀνωτέρω γὰρ οὐκ ἐπιδίδωσιν οὐδὲ χαλᾷ τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς ἐπίγειον ἀλλὰ κατατείνει τῷ σώματι προσηρτημένον.” Trans. DeLacy and Einarson, adapted. Plutarch describes the soul being attached to and controlled by ties of different sorts elsewhere in the Moralia (cited by Brenk (1987), 283, n. 86): De virt. mor. 445c (a rein); De virt. mor. 445a-c, Anim an. corp. 501d, De amor pro. 493e, De tranq. an. 465b (a cable, such as tethers a ship).


to attain knowledge of higher realities is decidedly limited. This becomes abundantly clear when we hear that Thespesius’ kinsman attempted to bring him at least near enough to see the light from the tripod in at Apollo’s oracle, but that, in a striking paradox,

Thespesius was blinded by the light itself: “At the same time he endeavored to draw

Thespesius near and show him the light that came (he said) from the tripod, and passing through the bosom of Themis, rested on Parnassus, but it was so bright that Thespesius, for all his eagerness, did not see it (566d2-6).”31

Comparison of Thespesius’ periēgēsis with the experience of Er in Plato’s

Republic further reveals how Plutarch creates a strong tension between clarity and obscurity, knowledge and ignorance in his myth. Although it is clear from the beginning of Plato’s myth that Er will return to life on earth, he is not restrained by any physical tie to his mortal body. Far from having his view of the extraterrestrial realm limited on account of his intermediate state between life and death, when Er approaches the judges of souls, he is encouraged to see and hear everything in order to give a full report to human beings on his return to life: they tell him “that he was to be a messenger to human beings about the things that were there, and that he was to listen and look at everything in the place (614d).”32 And indeed, Er was able to move throughout the realm of souls with apparently unlimited freedom. He seems to have kept company with the souls awaiting

31 “ἅμα δ’ ἐπειρᾶτο προσάγων ἐπιδεικνύειν αὐτῷ τὸ φῶς ἐκ τοῦ τρίποδος, ὡς ἔλεγε, διὰ τῶν κόλπων τῆς Θέμιδος ἀπερειδόμενον εἰς τὸν Παρνασόν. καὶ προθυμούμενος ἰδεῖν οὐκ εἶδεν ὑπὸ λαμπρότητος”; Trans. DeLacy and Einarson, adapted.

32 “ὅτι δέοι αὐτὸν ἄγγελον ἀνθρώποις γενέσθαι τῶν ἐκεῖ καὶ διακελεύοιντό οἱ ἀκούειν τε καὶ θεᾶσθαι πάντα τὰ ἐν τῷ τόπῳ”; Trans. G.M.A. Grube, rev. C.D.C. Reeve.


re-embodiment from the point when they convened in a meadow33, joining them on the journey to Lachesis, over the course of which they passed a number of marvelous sights.

Only after he witnessed firsthand the process of the souls selecting their new lives – a sight worth seeing, he reported – was Er set apart from them; he was not allowed to drink from the River of Unheeding along with the souls preparing for reincarnation, and he suddenly found himself back in his body. All in all, though the account of Er’s experience lacks the moments of extreme vividness we find in Plutarch’s myth, Er seems to have had a more privileged, complete view than Thespesius of the sights in the realm of souls.

Thespesius’ experience also differs markedly from Er’s in that, although he is able to perceive aesthetically the bright, colorful, noisy spectacle of souls he first encounters upon rising into the extraterrestrial realm – and evidently was able to describe the scene in fittingly vivid language once he returned to his body – he is not able to understand what he is looking at. In some matters, Thespesius has the assistance of his kinsman, who describes the workings of divine justice and offers explanations of some of the sights Thespesius encounters. But Er does not require a formal mediator between himself and the scene he observes; in his experience of the hereafter, the disembodied souls apparently nonetheless express themselves in human language, and apart from his aesthetic perceptions, he is able to learn about his surroundings from the speeches of souls he overhears as well as those addressed directly to him. The souls Thespesius encounters, with the exception of the kinsman who serves as his guide, are not so

33 After having spent time either below the earth or in heaven, according to their deserts; this is the only part of the souls’ journey that Er does not himself experience, though we do not hear of him actually being denied access to either realm; he simply convenes with the souls after this part of their journey.


articulate: though he encounters other relatives, including his own father, who bewail their fate to him and, compelled by their daemonic tormentors, are even forced to confess their sins, Thespesius hears their confessions against the background of inarticulate wailing, and their attempts at communication are as alarming as they are clarifying.34

When left to his own devices, Thespesius can only make observations from the perspective of one whose ties to the world have not yet been severed – and the fact that he describes strange sights in terms of familiar earthly sights underscores his inevitably worldly manner of perceiving. His description, as reported by Plutarch, of the outward appearances of the souls he encounters are heavily metaphorical:

‘ἀλλὰ τοὺς μέν, ὥσπερ ἡ καθαρωτάτη πανσέληνος, ἓν χρῶμα λεῖον καὶ συνεχὲς ὁμαλῶς ἱέντας, ἑτέρων δὲ φολίδας τινὰς διατρεχούσας ἢ μώλωπας ἀραιούς, ἄλλους δὲ κομιδῇ ποικίλους καὶ ἀτόπους τὴν ὄψιν, ὥσπερ οἱ ἔχεις μελάσμασι κατεστιγμένους, ἄλλους δέ τινας ἀμβλείας ἀμυχὰς ἔχοντας.’ (De sera 564d-e)

“Some were like the full moon at her clearest, shining evenly with a single smooth and unbroken hue; others were shot through with scales, as it were, or faint bruises; others were quite mottled and odd in appearance, covered with black tattoo-marks, like speckled vipers; and still others bore the faded traces of what looked like scratches.” Commentators on the Myth of Thespesius, most notably Vernière, have highlighted

Plutarch’s predilection for metaphor in his myths and studied their function.35

Comparisons, when they draw from daily reality, may make unusual spectacles seem lifelike by inserting them into a familiar world; as such they can be powerfully evocative, affecting a reader emotionally rather than intellectually.36 This effect is conspicuous in the above passage: Thespesius’ descriptions of the appearances of souls in terms appropriate to familiar skin conditions of human and animals are undeniably vivid,

34 De sera 566e-f.

35 See especially Vernière (1977).

36 Vernière (1977), 300.


creating in our minds a clear picture of sights that are common enough within our experience.37 Much like the ekphraseis of Herodotus cited by Theon, which compare strange Egyptian animals to animals that would have been well known to his audience,

Thespesius’ metaphors succeed in achieving the bringing-before-the-eyes essential to ekphrasis as Plutarch would have studied it. Comparison with the manner in which Er’s extraterrestrial experience is described, however, might suggest that the use of metaphor in the Myth of Thespesius has a somewhat different valence.

In the Myth of Er, only in the lengthy description of the Spindle of Necessity38 do we find a few comparisons – to a rainbow (616b), the cables attached to a trireme (616c), and the arrangement of nested boxes (616d) – that help to clarify its complicated structure. All in all, what is most impressive about Er’s description of the Spindle, as reported by Socrates, is its exacting detail: the precise description of the entire structure of the Spindle, and each of its eight whorls in particular, convey that Er had a clear, complete and unobstructed view of it. No Spindle of Necessity appears in the Myth of

Thespesius, but we do find the image of a spindle, which, considering that Plutarch clearly modeled his myth on the Myth of Er, must recall and invite comparison with the spindle Er describes. Thespesius, observing souls of the dead rising up from the world and bursting forth from the bubbles that contained them, described thus the erratic, dizzying motions of some: “others, like spindles, revolved upon themselves and at the same time swung now downward, now upward, moving in a complex and disordered spiral that barely grew steady after a very long time (τὰς δ’ ὥσπερ οἱ

37 Vocaturo (1929), 16 observes that these comparisons are particularly striking given their relative infrequency: while similes come fast and close together in other of Plutarch’s moral writings, here they appear separately and at intervals; therefore they provoke interest and admiration.

38 Repub. 616c-617b.


ἄτρακτοι περιστρεφομένας ἅμα κύκλῳ, καὶ τοτὲ μὲν κάτω τοτὲ δ’ ἄνω ῥεπούσας μικτήν

τινα <φορὰν> φέρεσθαι καὶ τεταραγμένην καὶ πολλῷ πάνυ χρόνῳ καὶ μόλις

ἀποκαθισταμένην (564a)).”39 There are no actual spindles here, of course; the image of the spindle enables Thespesius to convey, to some imperfect degree, an approximation of a sight that is not only strange, but moves so quickly and frenetically that it evades clear perception. When we compare the blurry, spindle-like phenomenon here to the detailed, clear Spindle of the Myth of Er, the relative dimness of Thespesius’ perception becomes even more pronounced.

The account of Thespesius’ experience, in which strange and wonderful sights are both vividly revealed and tantalizingly hidden from view due to Thespesius’ lingering ties to his human body, accomplishes more than Plutarch (the interlocutor) suggests when stating his purpose for recounting it. Ostensibly, the account of Thespesius’ tour of the hereafter will prove that the torment of confronting the descendants who have suffered for one’s own wrongdoing is so terrible that one would never willingly commit crimes that would merit it (561a-b). While the myth, which culminates with Thespesius witnessing flocks of enraged descendants attacking their criminal ancestors, seems to achieve this aim, it succeeds in vindicating divine providence – the goal of the interlocutors in De sera – more generally by dramatizing the epistemological limitations of human beings. Plutarch has stressed variously in the main part of the dialogue that certain aspects of human nature make it impossible to see how divine justice operates.

Our experience of time is entirely different from God’s, leading us to think that divine retribution has been terribly delayed after a period of time that, while it seems long to us,

39 Trans. DeLacy and Einarson.


is insignificant to God (554d); divine retribution may also be operating before our very eyes, but out of our view, if a wrongdoer is internally tormented by guilt for his crime

(554e-f). The experience of Thespesius in the hereafter on the one hand supports these points by immersing us imaginatively in a realm rich with color and sound, affording us a privileged experience of phenomena that lie beyond ordinary human powers of perception. On the other hand, however, it affirms Plutarch’s emphasis on the feebleness of human perception by showing how Thespesius is constantly limited by his loosened, but not severed, ties to his human existence. His tether limits his movements and hence his vision; his perceptions still depend on reference to mundane phenomena; and he requires the assistance of a disembodied spirit to bridge the gap between aesthetic perception and understanding.

As the account of Thespesius’ tour of the hereafter proceeds, reporting how the phenomena he encountered in that realm appeared from his limited, individual perspective, the language used to describe Thespesius’ response to these sights reinforces a conception of the proper conduct of philosophy that Plutarch promotes throughout his philosophical dialogues. Throughout the account of Thespesius’ extraterrestrial experience, we find that his reaction is one of wonder: of attentively observing the strange sights before him, and feeling awe, surprise and occasionally fear in response to his perceptions. Multiple instances of forms of the verb thaumazein and related words highlight the nature of his response: Plutarch recalls Thespesius’ report that, at the beginning of his experience, he found the stars giving off a marvelously colored light

(αὐγήν τε τῇ χρόᾳ θαυμαστὴν ἀφιέντα (563f)); he subsequently found some souls leaping forward with an amazing lightness (ἐλαφρότητι θαυμαστῇ (564a)); just before he returns


to his body, the woman who is about to prod Thespesius with a hot poker is amazing in her appearance and stature (θαυμαστὴν τὸ εἶδος καὶ τὸ μέγεθος (568a)). He also responds with surprise when his kinsman addresses him as Thespesius rather than

Aridaeus, the name he has gone by on Earth (θαυμάσαντος (564c)). Considering the marvelous nature of the sights Thespesius sees during his out-of-body experience, amazement seems an appropriate and, indeed, an unsurprising reaction. However, within the broader context of the dialogue and also within the group of Plutarch’s philosophical dialogues, the repeated references to Thespesius’ wonder and amazement take on a special significance.

Earlier in De sera, in the course of his defense of divine providence, Plutarch cites

Plato as describing how humans should go about discovering god’s attributes and thereupon endeavoring to model them in their own lives: Plato says that

‘καὶ τὴν ὄψιν αὐτὸς οὗτος ἁνὴρ ἀνάψαι φησὶ τὴν φύσιν ἐν ἡμῖν, ὅπως ὑπὸ θέας τῶν ἐν οὐρανῷ φερομένων καὶ θαύματος ἀσπάζεσθαι καὶ ἀγαπᾶν ἐθιζομένη τὸ εὔσχημον ἡ ψυχὴ καὶ τεταγμένον ἀπεχθάνηται τοῖς ἀναρμόστοις καὶ πλανητοῖς πάθεσι καὶ φεύγῃ τὸ εἰκῆ καὶ ὡς ἔτυχεν, ὡς κακίας καὶ πλημμελείας ἁπάσης γένεσιν. οὐ γὰρ ἔστιν ὅ τι μεῖζον ἄνθρωπος ἀπολαύειν θεοῦ πέφυκεν ἢ τὸ μιμήσει καὶ διώξει τῶν ἐν ἐκείνῳ καλῶν καὶ ἀγαθῶν εἰς ἀρετὴν καθίστασθαι.’ (De sera 550d-e)

“nature kindled vision in us so that the soul, beholding the heavenly motions and wondering at the sight, should grow to accept and cherish all that moves in stateliness and order, and thus come to hate discordant and errant passions and to shun the aimless and haphazard as source of all vice and jarring error; for man is fitted to derive from God no greater blessing than to become settled in virtue through copying and aspiring to the beauty and the goodness that are his.”40

40 Trans. DeLacy and Einarson. Plutarch here recalls Timaeus 47a-c, where Timaeus describes the utility of sight as a source of great benefit to humans, allowing observation of the heavenly bodies and hence opening a path to inquiry into the nature of the universe, which in turn yields philosophy. Plutarch’s articulation of the goal of becoming like god recalls Theaetetus 176b; Plutarch held the goal of godlikeness – homoiosis theoi – to be the telos of philosophy, as did all other Middle Platonic philosophers after Eudorus (Dillon 1996), 187.


Wondering – here presented as an response of awe and amazement to the sight of extraterrestrial phenomena – appears in this passage as a starting point that leads to intellectual recognition of godlike qualities and hence onward to positive ethical change.

This process is affirmed throughout Plutarch’s dialogues as the correct way to approach philosophy. It is articulated most clearly and authoritatively in a speech of Ammonius recalled by Plutarch near the beginning of De E apud Delphos: since wonder and aporia belong to inquiry, Ammonius says, and inquiry is the beginning of the philosophy, it is fitting that the god should conceal the greater part of what concerns himself in ainigmata.41

By articulating a connection between wonder and philosophy, Ammonius (and

Plutarch, who presents his teacher as the authoritative figure in De E) situates himself within a tradition beginning with Plato – and in fact, he echoes almost verbatim the formulation of this connection given by Socrates in Plato’s Theaetetus.42 Aristotle, too, attributes to wonder a critical role in instigating philosophy, asserting in his that “it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize (982b).”43 In both of these formulations, wonder appears as a state of

41 De E 385c: ‘ἐπεὶ δὲ τοῦ φιλοσοφεῖν’ ἔφη ‘τὸ ζητεῖν τὸ θαυμάζειν καὶ ἀπορεῖν, εἰκότως τὰ πολλὰ τῶν περὶ τὸν θεὸν ἔοικεν αἰνίγμασι κατακεκρύφθαι [καὶ] λόγον τινὰ ποθοῦντα διὰ τί καὶ διδασκαλίαν τῆς αἰτίας…’

42 Tht.155d: ‘μάλα γὰρ φιλοσόφου τοῦτο τὸ πάθος, τὸ θαυμάζειν· οὐ γὰρ ἄλλη ἀρχὴ φιλοσοφίας ἢ αὕτη…’

43 ‘διὰ γὰρ τὸ θαυμάζειν οἱ ἄνθρωποι καὶ νῦν καὶ τὸ πρῶτον ἤρξαντο φιλοσοφεῖν’; trans. W.D. Ross. Nightingale (2001) notes that neither Plato nor Aristotle presents an entirely consistent view of the function of wonder. In Aristotle, wonder generally appears as an aesthetic response to phenomena occurring at the beginning rather than the end of philosophy. In Plato, in contexts where theoria is under discussion, wonder appears as an affective response of awe and veneration that accompanies the vision of the divine – the achievement of theoria – that marks the end rather than the beginning of the philosophical process – as in Diotima’s speech in Symposium, where wonder accompanies the vision of the Form of the beautiful (Symp. 210e; Nightingale (2001), 47). At least in his dialogues, Plutarch seems to call attention to the role of wonder in prompting philosophical inquiry, as I will argue with respect to De genio and De Pyth. in the latter sections of this chapter.


puzzlement closely connected with aporia; it seems to consist primarily in awareness of one’s own ignorance. But in the context of the Theaetetus, it is clear that keen awareness of one’s own ignorance is not simply a cognitive state; it also has an affective component.

Socrates’ assertion that wondering is a first step towards philosophy is prompted by the young Theaetetus’ confession that puzzles such as Socrates has presented to him cause him to wonder exceedingly, sometimes to the extent that he feels truly dizzy (‘καὶ νὴ τοὺς

θεούς γε, ὦ Σώκρατες, ὑπερφυῶς ὡς θαυμάζω τί ποτ’ ἐστὶ ταῦτα, καὶ ἐνίοτε ὡς ἀληθῶς

βλέπων εἰς αὐτὰ σκοτοδινιῶ (155c)’). For Theaetetus, wonder is a state of perplexity that is so overwhelming that it produces an intense feeling – one so strong that it is described as a physical condition – as well as an intellectual understanding of his own ignorance.44

Across Plutarch’s philosophical dialogues, wonder has the same double affective and cognitive valence I have observed in the Theaetetus passage, and Plutarch clearly links wonder to subsequent philosophical progress. In De sera, Thespesius’ experience of thauma reinforces Plutarch’s statement in the dialectical portion of the dialogue which

I have quoted above. As in Plutarch’s description of wonder, Thespesius’ thauma certainly has an affective component resembling awe: clearly amazed, he marvels at the sights he sees. But, if we interrogate the link between Thespesius’ sight-seeing in the hereafter and his ethical transformation afterwards, we must notice that the one leads to the other in the manner Plutarch cites Plato as describing. The brilliant clarity and frustrating obscurity at which Thespesius wonders seems to have led him, through

44 The affective valence of wonder apparent here aligns with emotionally-charged uses of thauma found as far back as Homer and the earliest Greek literature, as Nightingale (2001), 44 notices: in the archaic period, wonder was never “confined to merely cognitive experiences: archaic wonder is both cognitive and affective, intellectual and emotional, ranging from the feelings of reverence and awe to admiration and amazement.”


scrutiny of his previous behavior, to set his errant passions in order after his earlier life of dissipation, refashioning Thespesius, an inveterate criminal, into a model citizen.

Through the vivid sensory imagery he employs to describe the spectacles

Thespesius witnesses, Plutarch creates for his reader a parallel affective experience of wonder that serves as a powerful pedagogical tool for motivating subsequent inquiry. As we can see from the positive ethical change that results from Thespesius’ periēgēsis, he follows up his experience of awe and perplexity at the sights in the beyond with reflective consideration resulting in a judgment that he must amend his life. While our readerly experience of thauma need not lead to the same conclusions as those Thespesius draws, I suggest that, especially when we consider the resonance of the language of thauma in the myth with the larger tradition that gives wonder an essential role in the process of philosophy, it must spur us to critical thought about the limitations of human seeing and knowing. Looking back to my conclusions in Chapter One, the function of thauma in De sera reflects the practical understanding displayed elsewhere in Plutarch’s corpus of aesthetic perception – and especially powerful engagement of the senses through visual and concrete images – as a spark for critical inquiry.

In De sera, Plutarch takes over from Plato the use of eschatological myth in dialogue – the Myth of Er in particular – and adapts it to suit his own purposes.

Exceeding Plato in his use of vivid imagery, and much in the manner of the rhetorical practice of ekphrasis, Plutarch pointedly sets darkness and obscurity against light and clarity, sustaining in his myth a major tension of De sera as a whole. In doing so, he reinforces through affective means the dialogue’s emphasis on the limits of human


knowledge. Further, Plutarch manages to engage his audience in an experience of wonder similar to that of Thespesius, thereby urging his reader to engage in philosophical reflection and positive ethical action that thauma, as he stresses here and elsewhere, must motivate. Let us turn now to examine Plutarch’s second major eschatological myth and to consider how he exploits the possibilities of myth to promote his philosophical and pedagogical aims in De genio Socratis.

II. b. De genio Socratis

Unlike the Myth of Thespesius, which concludes De sera numinis vindicta, the eschatological myth in De genio Socratis falls in the middle of the dialogue. During the debate over the nature of Socrates’ daimonion in which a number of the Theban conspirators participate, Simmias mentions that he has heard a story about it from a certain Timarchus, but he doubts whether he should recount it, given that it more resembles myth or fiction than an argument.45 Encouraged, however, by the diviner

Theocritus to tell the tale nonetheless – myths have a way of reaching the truth, too, he asserts – Simmias reports Timarchus’ out-of-body experience.

Timarchus, like Thespesius, experienced a vision of the hereafter while hovering in between life and death. Having descended into the crypt of Trophonius in order to learn from the oracle about the nature of Socrates’ daimonion, he remained there for two nights and a day, causing his family and friends to despair of him. After performing the customary rites in the crypt, he lay down and, after he heard a crash and seemed to be

45 De gen. 589f: ‘ἃ δὲ Τιμάρχου τοῦ Χαιρωνέως ἠκούσαμεν ὑπὲρ τούτων διεξιόντος, οὐκ οἶδα μὴ μύθοις <ὁμοιότερ’ ἢ> λόγοις ὄντα σιωπᾶν ἄμεινον.’ Like Plutarch’s account of Thespesius’ experience, the status of Timarchus’ experience – mythos or logos? – is complicated; see above, p.129, n. 20.


struck on the head, the sutures of his head parted and released his soul. His periēgēsis of sorts in the hereafter then began. After an initial look at the stunning sights visible by glancing both up and down, Timarchus was addressed by a disembodied voice that offered to explain whatever he would like.46 Upon Timarchus’ reply that he would like it all explained, the voice agreed to answer his questions about everything to which he had access47, and proceeded to give an account of that realm, which included a detailed description of the sights Timarchus has just glimpsed. When the voice ceased speaking,

Timarchus’ soul was recompressed into his head, and he awoke back in the crypt of


Whereas the Myth of Thespesius is modeled on Plato’s Myth of Er in the

Republic, the Myth of Timarchus is indebted – as is De genio as a whole – to the

Phaedo.48 At the outset, we must note one major way in which Plutarch deviates from his Platonic model. The Phaedo myth is not told from the perspective of an individual human being. Rather, Socrates’ account of the hereafter seems to derive from some sort of unspecified tradition: he begins simply, “it is said (λέγεται (110b))” and never attributes the account, much less a vision of the extraterrestrial phenomena he describes, to an individual person. Plutarch, by contrast, makes the experience of an individual person the source for his myth in De genio, as he does in De sera.49 This deviation, and

46 The voice belongs to a daimon on the moon (Nesselrath (2010), 95 n. 215).

47 The voice informed him that he must limit his account to the portion of Persephone – that is, the moon – managed by “ourselves” (the daimones residing there); the higher regions, which belonged exclusively to the gods, were off limits (591a).

48 The myth also clearly borrows elements from Timaeus; see esp. Dillon (1996), 214-16 and Corlu (1970), 63-74. As for the character of Timarchus himself, scholars have speculated that Plutarch adapted the figure of Timarchus from Plato’s , refashioning him as a Chaeronean. See e.g. Russell (2010), 9 and Corlu (1970), 61-62.

49 Brenk (1977), 139 notes this difference.


several related aspects of the report that it makes possible, allow Plutarch to engage the affective faculties of his reader as he describes the firsthand experience of Timarchus and, as I will show, it facilitates Plutarch’s use of the myth to affirm the limitations of human perception emphasized (as we have seen in Chapter Two) in the dialectical portion of De genio.

As recounted by Simmias, Timarchus’ out-of-body experience, like that of

Thespesius, was marked by a strong tension between vividness and clarity, darkness and obscurity. As Corlu has noted, the beginning of Timarchus’ vision abounds in contrasts, including between darkness and light, confinement and expansion.50 Immediately upon the release of his soul from his body, Timarchus seems to have experienced an extraordinary clarity. Whereas he spent a long time in a state of confusion while lying in the darkness of the crypt, not understanding clearly whether he was awake or dreaming

(590b), when his soul retreated from his body, it mingled in translucent and pure air, and after being so long confined, it was able to spread out like a sail. As soon as Timarchus lifts his eyes, he is overwhelmed with light, color, motion and pleasant sounds. He first observes a countless number of islands, “illuminated by one another with a soft fire, taking on now one color, now another, like a dye, as the light kept varying with their mutations (590c)51; their movement produces a clear whirring sound, the result of all of their separate sounds coming together.52 The color of the body of water surrounding these islands is various and multidimensional, appearing now darker, now lighter, now

50 Corlu (1970), 64.

51 ‘λαμπομένας μαλακῷ πυρὶ κατ’ ἀλλήλων ἐξαμειβούσας ἄλλην ἄλλοτε χρόαν ὥσπερ βαφὴν ἅμα τῷ φωτὶ ποικιλλομένῳ κατὰ τὰς μεταβολάς;’ trans. De Lacy and Einarson.

52 As Timarchus later learned from the Voice, this realm was the world of stars. These islands are the heavenly bodies, and the sea stands for the entire celestial sphere. Deuse (2010), 177; Russell (2010), 10.


uniform, now mixed. The islands themselves are in constant motion, advancing and retreating and never returning to the same place. This first part of Timarchus’ view of the hereafter, as recounted by Simmias, is strikingly similar to the description of the world as viewed from above at the beginning of the Phaedo myth, which is likewise rich with bright, clear light and color: Socrates compares the appearance of the earth to a ball made of twelve stitched-together pieces of leather, whose various colors are “much brighter and purer” than those used by painters. His description of these marvelous colors abounds with light and brilliance (“one part is sea-green and of marvelous beauty, another is golden, another is white, whiter than chalk or snow; the earth is composed also of other colors…(Phd. 110c)).”53 But in the Phaedo myth, we are not made to feel that this description of the world derives from a privileged or even a real experience:

Socrates has either taken this account from an unspecified tradition, or he may have made it up entirely: he concedes at the end of the myth, “No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to risk the belief – for the risk is a noble one – that this, or something like this, is true about our souls and their dwelling places (Phd.114d).”54 Because the account is not confined to the vantage of a single viewer, are there no apparent limitations to its scope, nor is there any disjunction between perception of the sights described and accurate understanding of what they are. The view of the hereafter as seen through Timarchus’ eyes, on the other hand, has definite limits.

53 Trans. G.M.A. Grube.

54 Trans. G.M.A. Grube.


Timarchus’ experience of pleasant, seemingly unlimited clarity is short-lived.

After beholding with enjoyment all the phenomena he saw when he looked up, he looked down and saw a new realm of sights that provoked a different reaction: he saw a great abyss, frightfully deep and dark – and this darkness seems to have been the more unsettling because it was unsettled itself: it was not at rest, but constantly seething and roiling.55 In contrast with the harmonious sounds he heard above, Timarchus heard from below a din of roaring, groaning and wailing from people whom he could not see. Clarity gave way to darkness and confusion, and with it, Timarchus’ reaction changed from enjoyment to intense alarm (οὐ μετρίως αὐτὸς ἐκπεπλῆχθαι (591a)).56 In Simmias’ account, the entrance of the Voice, offering to explain the sights to Timarchus, follows immediately upon this response of astonishment. Timarchus responds that he wants everything explained, because it is all wondrous: ‘πάντα, τί γὰρ οὐ θαυμάσιον (591a);’

As the explanation of the Voice proceeds, the focalization of the experience of the hereafter through the eyes of Timarchus continues to impose distinct and keenly felt limits on the vision and understanding of several parties: Timarchus, Simmias, the internal audience, and Plutarch’s external reading audience. First of all, we find that

Timarchus’ vision was even more limited than that of Thespesius: although we do not hear that he was bound by a tether to his body, he seems to lack freedom of movement.

He does not follow the Voice on a literal periēgēsis as Thespesius does; rather, his

55 This dark abyss is Hades (Russell (2010), 10).

56 It seems significant that we only hear that Timarchus has responded with enjoyment – not wonder – at the pleasant sights and sounds of the upper realm he first experienced. Initially, he – and perhaps we readers, hearing the account of his perception – may have mistaken aesthetic clarity for intellectual clarity: there is no language of doubt in the description of the islands and the sea on which they float at the beginning of the myth. Russell (2010), 10 notes that in the beginning of the myth, Timarchus “sees, but as yet does not understand”; I would add that he does not clearly understand that he does not understand until he is shocked into this recognition by the dark, murky, frightening abyss below.


periēgēsis is figurative, depending on the changes in perspective offered by the Voice’s account rather than movement from one place to another.57 The explanation of the Voice goes some way towards helping Timarchus to achieve understanding of the hereafter, but his ignorance cannot be totally remedied by the Voice’s description of the celestial realm before his eyes. Its explanation of the four principles of all things and the realm of the moon initially does little to clarify Timarchus’ understanding of the sights in front of him: after the Voice has described how foul souls are not allowed near the moon, but tumble down to another birth, “as you see (ὡς ὁρᾷς)”, Timarchus responds that he doesn’t: “But

I don’t see anything (ἀλλ’ οὐδὲν ὁρῶ),” he says, “except a lot of stars moving up and down around the gulf, others plunging into it, and others darting up and down again

(591d).”58 The Voice then explains that these apparent stars are the daimones themselves

– Timarchus just can’t recognize them (‘ἀγνοεῖς (591d)’), and as his exposition of the constitution of the soul proceeds, he continues to identify the realities underlying the appearances Timarchus perceives.

The Myth continues in this manner: reports of the way Timarchus perceived the sights in the hereafter alternate with the Voice’s explanation of the realities to which these appearances correspond. The descriptions of phenomena Timarchus witnessed, frequently relying on metaphorical comparison to common terrestrial sights, are often quite vivid: the (apparent) stars bobbed up and down like corks marking nets on the sea, and again, as in De sera, we find the image of a spindle invoked to describe the motion of stars he saw spinning erratically.59 But our experience of these images, as vividly as they

57 Deuse (2010), 177.

58 De genio 591d, trans. Russell et al. in Nesselrath (2010), p. 61.

59 De genio 592a.


are placed before our eyes, is inseparable from the realization that they represent realities that we are powerless to discover independently, just as Timarchus required the assistance of the Voice to provide explanations of the phenomena he observed. At the end of the myth, we find further acknowledgement of the limited nature of Timarchus’ perception during his out-of-body experience: just before disappearing, the Voice concludes his explanation by announcing that Timarchus will know these things better two months from now, and Simmias reports that he in fact died two months after emerging from the crypt of Trophonius. Timarchus’ experience demonstrates, then, that complete understanding of higher realities is unattainable for embodied human beings; only after death can they hope to attain real knowledge of things that lie beyond the earth.

Despite the vividness of Timarchus’ experience and our secondhand experience through the evocative description we have read, what we primarily learn from the account is how little and how incompletely we can know as embodied beings.

We find this message even further emphasized if we contrast, as the text invites us to, the manner in which Timarchus received the Voice’s explanation with the way in which those to whom he reported this explanation, including ourselves, receive it. Just before he recounts the experience of Timarchus, Simmias reports that Socrates received daimonic communications not through language – and in fact, not even through a voice producing sound – but rather through wordless, soundless daimonic thoughts which his soul was sensitive enough to perceive. This direct form of communication, described in terms of light and splendor – daimonic thoughts possess brilliance (φέγγος ἔχουσαι), and shine on those receiving them (ἐλλάμπουσιν) – differs markedly from human language, which Simmias describes as a deficient tool which humans – those without such finely


perceptive souls as Socrates’ – use to communicate as best they can, as if groping in the dark (οἷον ὑπὸ σκότῳ διὰ φωνῆς ψηλαφῶντες (589c)). This articulation of the inadequacy of voices and language must affect our reading of the Myth of Timarchus. A daimonic voice explains to Timarchus the sights he perceives, but if we take Socrates’ account of divine communication as true, we must understand that this voice communicated with Timarchus non-linguistically. However, Timarchus, having returned from his extraterrestrial sojourn, was bound to describe his experience to his friends using language, as is Simmias in conveying the account to his interlocutors, and Plutarch in conveying the account to us. Thus, though we may find Simmias’ report of Timarchus’ experience highly engaging, placing colorful, dynamic images before our eyes, we must consider that we are receiving a compromised thirdhand account in a medium less clear and direct than the one through which the Voice communicated with Timarchus.

Paradoxically, though we may be exhilarated by the brilliant sights Timarchus has reported, the medium of language in which he has described them has necessarily obscured the realities they are intended to convey.

Beyond emphasizing through contrast of clarity and obscurity the inevitable limits of human vision and understanding, the Myth of Timarchus also offers guidance as to how to approach learning about higher realities within these limits. Here, as in De sera, we find that a reaction of wonder is a promising starting point for combating ignorance.

As I have mentioned above, upon witnessing the frightening and obscure sights and sounds of Tartarus, Timarchus is greatly alarmed, and immediately thereafter responds to the Voice that he wants everything explained, because it is all wondrous: ‘πάντα, τί γὰρ

οὐ θαυμάσιον (591a);’ As we have seen above, for Plutarch, as in the Platonic tradition


broadly, thauma is an essential component of the proper conduct of philosophy: it consists in self-aware ignorance that serves as the basis for inquiry, which then leads to productive philosophizing. In his request for an explanation by the Voice, we can see that Timarchus has taken the first steps in this process by recognizing his own ignorance and asking questions in response. Further, references to wondering responses at either end of the myth reinforce the message that thauma and the inquiry it prompts are the appropriate response to ignorance. At the beginning of Simmias’ account, we hear that upon emerging from the crypt of Trophonius, Timarchus told his friends of the many wonders (θαυμάσια πολλά (590b5)) that he had seen and heard. At the end of his account, Simmias reports that after hearing Timarchus’ story, they marveled at it

(θαυμάζοντες (592f)) and reported his experience to Socrates. Socrates, in turn, apparently also wondering at the story, desired to take the appropriate subsequent step towards philosophy, asking questions of Timarchus about his experience (αὐτοῦ γὰρ ἂν

ἡδέως ἐκείνου πυθέσθαι καὶ προσανακρῖναι σαφέστερον (592f)). He was unable to do so, however, because Timarchus had already died; therefore he chastised Simmias and

Cebes for waiting so long to tell him of Timarchus’ vision. Socrates’ response to

Timarchus’ account, about which he judged that he lacked sufficient knowledge, affirms that this is indeed the proper next step after recognizing one’s own ignorance. By weaving a thread of wonder into his mythical narrative in De genio, Plutarch implicitly reinforces for his audience the necessary progression from wonder to inquiry to philosophy.

In the Myth of Timarchus, Plutarch crafts an intensely vivid description of the hereafter, skillfully cultivating enargeia in Timarchus’ account of his perception of the


celestial realm, rich with color, motion, texture and sound. By departing from the precedent of the Phaedo and attributing the most vivid part of this description to perspective of a single character who is still bound to his mortal body and limited in what he can see and the extent to which he can comprehend the sights he perceives, Plutarch manages to create for his reader, who receives the myth’s account of the hereafter through the eyes of Timarchus, an intense experience of tension between clarity and obscurity that is both affectively engaging and significant for our understanding of a major theme of De genio. The Myth of Timarchus prompts us to recognize the limits of our own vision – both as human beings and as readers of a literary text – and to engage in philosophy in order to remedy our ignorance as far as possible. This function of the myth complements the function of characterizing detail we have observed in Chapter Two: attention to the perceptive habits of the dramatis personae of De genio, like the immersive experience of Timarchus’ out-of-body expereince, leads us to recognize the limits of human perception.

Delphic periēgēsis: De Pythiae oraculis

To this point, I have discussed how Plutarch creates a purposeful tension between clarity and obscurity through vivid otherworldly periēgēseis in the myths of De sera and

De genio (though, as we have seen, Timarchus does not physically travel from site to site as Thespesius does). In De Pythiae oraculis, we find a more mundane periēgēsis.

Philinus, the dialogue’s narrator, recounts the sight-seeing tour of the Sacred Way at

Delphi on which he and his companions, under the direction of two professional guides, conducted a young foreign visitor. Whereas in De sera and De genio Plutarch takes over


from Plato the device of eschatological myth to create an immersive sight-seeing tour for his reader, here Plutarch amplifies the feature of setting inherent in the dialogue form in order to engage his audience in a real-world sightseeing tour, the experience of which conditions our reading of the philosophical conversation that is developed in earnest after the tour has concluded. As in the myths of Thespesius and Timarchus, Plutarch utilizes the periēgēsis with which De Pyth. begins to affectively incite his reader to critical inquiry about the proper function and limitations of aesthetic perception, on which humans must rely in receiving messages from the gods through the oracles.60

In his recent study of images in Plutarch, Rainer-Hirsch Luipold has offered an insightful analysis of the Delphic periēgēsis in De Pyth. and its role in promoting the subordination of aesthetic perception to philosophical inquiry advocated more explicitly in the discussion of the operation of the oracles in the latter portion of the dialogue. In this section, I wish to augment Hirsch-Luipold’s argument by suggesting that Plutarch’s urging of philosophically purposeful viewing becomes more clear when we recognize that, as in De sera and De genio, here too Plutarch highlights the importance of wonder in philosophical investigation, presenting it as an appropriate response to aesthetic phenomena and a preliminary step to inquiry, focusing the way we attend to the setting of the dialogue and challenging us to look beyond external appearances to discover higher truths.

60 In Ch. 2, I examined how Plutarch promotes attention to particular detail, including setting detail, in order to engage his reader in differentiating proper from improper approaches to perception. The development of setting detail to which I call attention in this section is different from the selection of detail I observed in the opening of Amatorius: as I will show, Plutarch creates a much more developed and immersive experience of setting in De Pyth., whereas in Amatorius he includes a few telling details at the opening of the dialogue that direct our attention to particular aspects of the character of the Plutarchan persona.


From the beginning of De Pyth., which opens with an exchange between Philinus and Basilocles, the friend who requests an account of the sight-seeing tour from which

Philinus has just returned, we hear that the foreign visitor is quite an exceptional character.61 Basilocles notes that he is an extremely eager listener and observer

(φιλοθεάμων τις ἡμῖν καὶ περιττῶς φιλήκοός (394f))62, and Philinus adds that, even more, he is a great scholar and student (φιλόλογος δὲ καὶ φιλομαθὴς ἔτι μᾶλλον (394f)). But that is not all: “However, it is not this that most deserves our admiration, but a winning gentleness, and his willingness to argue and to raise questions, which comes from his intelligence, and shows no dissatisfaction nor contrariety with the answers (394f-

395a).”63 Even before Philinus’ account of the periēgēsis begins, then, we are given a cue to pay particular attention to the response of the foreign visitor to the sights he encounters. Moreover, the admiring remarks of Basilocles and Philinus suggest that he is well along the path towards knowledge, beginning with wonder and culminating in philosophy, described explicitly by Ammonius in De E and affirmed more subtly elsewhere: he is eager to see sights, but he is no mere aesthete; he is intellectually eager as well. We cannot yet tell from this initial characterization how closely aesthetic perception and inquiry are linked in his approach to sight-seeing, but the effusive praise

61 Flacelière (1974), 42 notes that the foreign visitor, Diogenianus, is particularly remarkable considering his youth; though he is young, he nonetheless serves as “le père du dialogue” (as Hirzel (1969), II.206 noted earlier), raising its central question and redirecting his companions’ attention to the issue after they have digressed.

62 Basilocles’ use of the adverb περιττῶς in his description of the foreign visitor appears particularly significant given that, as Babut (1984), 57 has noticed, both Socrates and Epaminondas are marked out as exceptional using the same term in De genio Socratis. In De genio, as Babut (1984), 57-59 argues, the term highlights Epaminondas’ likeness to Socrates; the resonance of the language here in De Pyth. with that in De genio adds weight to Basilocles’ assessment of Diogenianus as an exceptional perceiver, perhaps possessing some likeness to Socrates himself.

63 Trans. Babbitt.


of Basilocles and Philinus in the outer frame of the dialogue signals that we ought to pay particular attention to his response to the Delphic treasures.

When we enter the main frame of the dialogue, consisting of Philinus’ report of the sight-seeing tour, we find that the visitor’s manner of engaging with the Delphic sites shows that he, even at his young age, uses aesthetic perception in service of philosophy precisely according to the Platonic formulation Ammonius reiterates in De E. Repeatedly as the tour group stops to view sights along the Sacred Way, the visitor explicitly proceeds from wonder to inquiry. The admirable nature of his reaction is particularly conspicuous because it is repeatedly juxtaposed with the quite opposite response of the tour guides conducting the company around the monuments. Although these guides are professionals, it becomes clear that they have a good deal to learn about the relationship of external appearances to higher truths from the young visitor.

Repeatedly as the tour group proceeds along the Sacred Way, we find

Diogenianus’ response to the sights along the path strongly contrasted with the stale, uncritical responses of the guides. From the beginning of Philinus’ account, he conveys the impression that the tour guides’ preformulated descriptions of the Delphic treasures are lengthy and tedious. Already by the first stop on the tour, the sight-seers are begging the tour guides to cut their speeches short: Philinus reports, “The guides were going through their prearranged program, paying no heed to us who begged that they would cut short their harangues and their expounding of most of the inscriptions (ἐπέραινον οἱ

περιηγηταὶ τὰ συντεταγμένα, μηδὲν ἡμῶν φροντίσαντες δεηθέντων ἐπιτεμεῖν τὰς ῥήσεις

καὶ τὰ πολλὰ τῶν ἐπιγραμμάτων (395a)).”64 There is clearly nothing fresh or

64 Trans. Babbitt.


spontaneous about the guides’ συντεταγμένα and ῥήσεις; they seem to be scripted, well rehearsed remarks, likely delivered to many tour groups before. The guides’ expounding the majority of the inscriptions likewise shows a lack of critical engagement: instead of calling attention to a select few that might be of special significance or particular interest to the present tour group, they opt for the more exhaustive but less critical method of going over a large number of them. Diogenianus, on the other hand, is much more selective: Philinus reports that not every aspect of the sights on the tour attracted his attention. However, when he does fixate on a particular aspect, he shows that his interest is not just superficial.

Diogenianus is amazed (ἐθαύμαζε) at the blue tinge of the patina on the bronze statues of the Spartan naval captains, the first stop on the tour, and his wonder quickly gives rise to a question as to the process by which the artisans achieved this effect (395b); the possible answers to this question occupy the company for several pages. Hirsch-

Luipold has insightfully noted that beginning with these sea captains, and again at every stop along the Sacred Way, the periēgēsis in De Pyth. resists fulfilling the criteria of ekphrasis by avoiding vivid description.65 Though we hear about a number of specific monuments along the path that the company stops to observe, we hear very little about the sights themselves; in each case, a certain aspect of each artwork is emphasized, which then gives rise to philosophical speculation. To this observation I would add that because Plutarch and the learned members of his audience likely would have learned to create rhetorical ekphraseis as if guiding one’s hearers on a tour from one vividly

65 Hirsch-Luipold (2002), esp. 88-92, 99. Hirsch-Luipold well observes, for example, that we get no description of the statues of the Spartan sea-captains themselves, though Diogenianus instigates an extensive discussion of the bluish appearance of their bronze patina (88); the situation is the same, for example, with the bronze palm tree in the Corinthians, of which Plutarch makes no attempt to create a visual impression (90).


described sight to another, the distinct absence of enargeia in Philinus’ account of the

Delphic periēgēsis may well have struck his contemporary readers as quite odd: in failing to describe the spectacles on a literal sight-seeing tour, Plutarch may have seemed to forego an ideal opportunity to display his skill in creating ekphrasis. But Diogenianus’ focused approach to sight-seeing, which has been presented as praiseworthy from the beginning of the dialogue, stands both as an explanation for this lack of enargeia and a warning against prioritizing aesthetic pleasure over the search for truth. This becomes increasingly clear as the tour continues and Diogenianus’ approach, which consistently proceeds from wonder to inquiry, is repeatedly contrasted with that of the guides.

At the conclusion of the discussion prompted by Diogenianus’ question regarding the patina on the statues of the sea captains, the guides again resume their canned speeches: ‘πάλιν οἱ περιηγηταὶ προεχειρίζοντο τὰς ῥήσεις (396c).’ As Schröder notes,

ῥήσεις hardly connotes more respect for the tour guides than the first instance of the term.66 And again, as after the first instance, the reference to the guides’ speeches is followed by a reference to Diogenianus’ wondering response to an aesthetic phenomenon and, immediately thereafter, a resulting inquiry: Diogenianus responds to the guides’ recital of a verse by remarking that he has often wondered (θαυμάσαι) at the plainness and shabbiness of the lines in which oracular responses are delivered. Here again,

Diogenianus’ critical engagement with a particular aspect of the object under consideration stands in strong contrast with the mechanical, generic response of the guides.

66 Schröder (1990), 134.


A little later on, Diogenianus’ impatience with sightseeing for its own sake becomes clear in contrast not only with the attitude of the guides, but even with that of the most prominent of his interlocutors. After a joking comment of one of his companions, Diogenianus insists that the company persist in seeking to understand why the oracle no longer issues responses in verse, since this is an aporia of universal interest

(397d). Here he is performing the proper order of operations leading from self-aware ignorance to philosophy. But Diogenianus’ pursuit of an answer to his question is thwarted by Theon’s response: prioritizing politeness over philosophy, he interrupts to point out that the group, in discussing the problem of the oracles, has been rather rudely keeping the tour guides from their proper business (τὸ οἰκεῖον ἔργον); they must, then, allow them to complete their tour, and afterwards Diogenianus will have the opportunity to ask questions about anything he likes (397d-e). The problem of universal interest, it would appear, is of no interest to the tour guides; nor, apparently, is inquiring into the problems related to the oracles part of their “proper business,” though they recite oracles as part of their tour.

Diogenianus, though his inquiry has been derailed for the sake of the guides’ canned tour, accepts the situation politely – and, moreover, does not allow a frustrating situation to prevent him from examining with interest the sights the guides point out; he responds with amazement (ἐθαύμασε) to the story of Hiero’s bronze pillar falling down on the day of Hiero’s death at Syracuse (397e), and he reacts likewise to the sight of the frogs and water snakes he observes at the bottom of the bronze palm tree erected in the

Corinthian treasury, not because the representation of these creatures is remarkable per


se, but because it seems unlikely in context (399f).67 The appreciation of this incongruity demonstrates that Diogenianus’ manner of perceiving the sight goes beyond seeking aesthetic pleasure; he is interested in the deeper meaning beyond the sights he encounters.

Interestingly, Philinus notes that the rest of the sight-seeing party wondered at this unlikely sight as well, indicating that perhaps by this point in the tour Diogenianus’ companions had begun to imitate his admirable manner of responding to the monuments they encounter.

As for the tour guides, they do not seem to learn anything from Diogenianus’ responses; their understanding of the Delphic sights seems so calcified that it does not occur to them to engage critically with phenomena along the well worn path. Their uncritical manner of viewing becomes most clear when the poet Sarapion, a member of the tour group, puts to them a simple question: why is the Corinthian treasury not named after the donor who financed it? Philinus reports that the guides responded with silence, stuck, as it seemed to him, in aporia (400e).68 Considering that aporia is literally a state of being without a path69, this is quite a striking assertion to make of tour guides: these men ought to be able not only to navigate the physical path leading from site to site, but also to display some knowledge of the monuments they show to their tour groups.

Indeed, as Schröder has noted, a palpable contempt underlies Philinus’ words; this contempt is consistent with and in fact, especially because it sharply undermines the

67 Because palm trees do not grow in water, nor do frogs have any known relation to Corinth or the Corinthians.

68 I have highlighted above that, as articulated in Ammonius’ statement in De E, the state of being at a loss, along with wondering, is a starting point for the philosophical process. But the aporia of the tour guides shows no such promise: although the Corinthian treasury is on their well-rehearsed tour, they have apparently never thought to consider the question Sarapion puts to them; nor do we get any indication that they intend to find an answer after he poses his question.

69 As Nightingale (2001), 43 notes.


professional credibility of the tour guides, more severe than the negative connotations we have noticed in his several previous mentions of their irritatingly drawn-out and rehearsed speeches.70 Not long after this rather embarrassing moment, Diogenianus politely puts an end to the tour of the Delphic precinct. He remarks that while the tour has been pleasant to listen to so far, he would prefer to postpone the remainder of the sightseeing for another occasion in order to return to the question about the form of the oracular responses he had posed earlier. At his suggestion, the company sits down on the steps of Apollo’s temple to continue their discussion, presumably relieving the guides of their duties for the remainder of the day (402b).

In the debate that ensues at this point, Theon’s argument regarding the relationship between the external form of oracular responses and the god whose message they represent emerges as authoritative. The literary form of the responses – poetry or prose – ought not to be attributed to the god himself, Theon argues, but rather to the priestess who serves as a medium. The external form of the oracles will vary over time depending on a variety of factors, but this is of little consequence; one must look beyond the aesthetic presentation of an oracular message and focus instead on its content.

Aesthetics are not an end in themselves; they are necessary only because of our human reliance on images to perceive, in a compromised manner, realities that are not directly accessible to us.

The aspects of the Delphic periēgēsis I have highlighted above are particularly effective at leading Plutarch’s reader to an understanding of proper aesthetic perception

70 Schröder (1990), 286. Philinus recounts that he responded to the guides’ silence with laughter, teasingly chiding Sarapion for having left them dumbfounded by his lofty speech. This jest, however, does little to mitigate the impression that the guides have been rather embarrassed by their inability to provide any sort of response to Sarapion’s question.


consonant with that for which Theon argues. By holding our attention on the physical setting of De Pyth. throughout the extended periēgēsis around the Delpic precinct, and through constant opposition of the vastly different approaches of Diogenianus and the professional tour guides, Plutarch provokes inquiry into the proper manner of aesthetic viewing, ultimately leading us to arrive through our own efforts at the same conclusion argued for explicitly in the latter portion of the dialogue. Rather paradoxically, Plutarch perhaps disappoints his audience’s expectation of, or even desire for, vivid description of the Delphic treasures that Diogenianus and his companions examine, though an account of a sight-seeing tour may seem the perfect opportunity for Plutarch to give free rein to his rhetorical training in ekphrasis. As Diogenianus’ consistent preference for attaining knowledge over aesthetic pleasure becomes increasingly clear, the lack of enargeia we may notice becomes a challenge to us to focus on aspects of our aesthetic perceptions that may lead us to insights lying beyond objects themselves.


The three periēgēseis I have discussed in this chapter all show that for human beings, ideal seeing – that is, intellectual understanding – depends upon separating oneself as far as possible from the physical body, including its dependence on the senses and its proclivity towards the passions. In the eschatological myths of De sera and De genio, the vision of Thespesius and Timarchus is vastly improved by their rising above their physical bodies, but because they are still tethered to their physical forms, they fall short of attaining completely knowing vision of the sights in the hereafter, and they depend on their guides for much of what they do learn. As for the interlocutors in De


Pyth., paradoxically, their exhaustive exposure to the physical sights at Delphi turns out to be excessive and unproductive for really attaining knowledge. For that, a much more focused perception of intriguing details is all that is required to spur inquiry that may lead to much greater insight than the eyes alone can provide.

In each of these literary periēgēseis, too, Plutarch powerfully guides his audience towards understanding of the limitations of human perception by engaging our affective faculties. In his eschatological myths, we find light and darkness, clarity and obscurity starkly contrasted as Thespesius and Timarchus explore, whether visually or through physical movement, the strange and wonderful realm of the hereafter. The enargeia that characterizes these myths places the sights described vividly before our eyes – but it also conveys a strong sense of blindness when Thespesius and Timarchus encounter limitations owing to their lingering attachment to their physical bodies. In De Pyth., a perhaps playful defiance of an expectation for enargeia in the Delphic periēgēsis, frustrating any desire we might have to see the sights along the Sacred Way as the interlocutors themselves did, attracts our attention in an unforeseen manner to the question of the appropriate way to respond to external appearances. Throughout all of these dialogues, recurring emphasis on concept of wonder – how it is provoked, and how it may prompt productive inquiry – affirms in a creative and compelling manner the process leading to philosophical inquiry articulated by Ammonius in De E and deeply rooted in the Platonic tradition.




My study has already recognized the affinity of dialogue with drama and, focusing on several particular dialogues, highlighted how Plutarch takes advantage of the possibility – in fact, the necessity – of characterization in his chosen form to advance his philosophical goals. In this chapter, I will again turn to the function of characterization – this time, of self-characterization – in Plutarch’s dialogues. Unlike Plato, whom he imitates in so many ways, Plutarch chose to represent himself in three of the dialogues with which I am concerned (in addition to representing himself variously throughout his

Quaestiones convivales). Intriguingly, he represents himself at different ages and stages of intellectual development, not only across these three dialogues, but even within individual texts (De E apud Delphos and Amatorius). Why did Plutarch choose to break with Platonic precedent and include himself – indeed, multiple versions of himself – in his dialogues? How do his self-representations function in their respective contexts? In his approach to self-representation, how does Plutarch fit into the tradition of ancient dialogists who choose to portray themselves in their texts?

In order to answer these questions, I will begin by laying the foundation for an analysis of Plutarch’s self-characterization, first by briefly considering the effect of and possible motivations for Plato’s anonymity, and then by examining the use of self- characterization by dialogists who preceded Plutarch in departing from Plato’s practice of


self-concealment. After laying this groundwork, I will look carefully at Plutarch’s own self-characterization in De E apud Delphos, Amatorius, De sera numinis vindicta, and De defectu oraculorum. My analysis will investigate how Plutarch represents himself in each of these dialogues, looking especially at the personal characteristics and philosophico-theological commitments he attributes to his various personae and the narrative devices he employs in their creation. I will further assess how his various methods of self-representation may function to engage and/or educate Plutarch’s reader, and how his particular method of self-representation in each dialogue may contribute to the development of its main theme and aid in answering the question at issue. As I proceed, I will consider, too, what Plutarch’s self-representations may owe to his rhetorical training and to the overall cultural environment in which he wrote, and what we might be able to learn about Plutarch’s dialogic method through comparison with that of Lucian, a rough contemporary who engaged quite differently with the tradition of the philosophical dialogue.

I. Plutarch’s Predecessors

1. Platonic anonymity

Plato is famously absent from his own dialogues. He never casts himself as an interlocutor or even as a narrator, and he refers to himself only twice: once in Apology, and once in Phaedo.1 As a result of this literary self-concealment, generations of readers have been left to puzzle over Plato’s reasons for excluding himself from the dramatis personae of his dialogues and whether certain interlocutors in his dialogues may or may

1 Apology 34a1-2, Phaedo 59b9.


not represent his views.2 Some scholars have suspected that Plato took advantage of the anonymity offered by the dialogue form for political reasons, perhaps in order to avoid a fate similar to Socrates, should the ideas he put forth have proven offensive to the authorities at Athens.3 Others have posited philosophical and pedagogical motives.

According to one prominent view, Plato removed himself from his dialogues in accordance with his belief that philosophy seeks an objective reality, one that does not depend on the personalities of those seeking it or their subjective views.4 While Plato acknowledges by employing the dialogue form that philosophy is necessarily carried out by particular human beings in concrete situations rather than impersonally, his preference for anonymity may be intended to counterbalance the personal and subjective element of his texts, reminding his readers that this element must be subordinated to reason.5

Relatedly, some have argued that Plato’s anonymity enhances the ability of the dialogues to incite their readers to engage in philosophy themselves; Plato does not himself provide definitive answers to the difficult philosophical questions raised by his texts, whether because he possessed knowledge and preferred to communicate it otherwise, such as orally, or because he did not think that he possessed knowledge at all.6 Absent a character by the name of Plato putting forth his views, readers are encouraged to seek

2 Although, had Plato included himself either as a character or an interlocutor in his dialogues, we could be no more sure about what Plato “really thought”; we cannot assume identity between an author and a literary persona bearing his name. On the relationship between historical author and authorial voice, see Kosman (1992), 80-81.

3 E.g. Hyland (1968), 40-41.

4 Edelstein (1962) introduces this view, which Plass corroborates and develops.

5 Edelstein (1962), 20-21; Plass (1964), 277.

6 Plato’s Seventh Letter, though not certainly authentic (on this, see Cooper (1997), 1634-35), figures in the formulation of this hypothesis: there Plato states that there is no writing of his about philosophy, nor will there ever be – taken to mean that he has not represented his own ideas in his writings (341c-d).


truth for themselves rather than to identify and accept any settled doctrine communicated by Plato himself.7

Historically, scholars who have thought that Plato had a philosophical message to communicate (that is, that he was not a skeptic) have tended to assume that Plato employs one or more of his characters as a mouthpiece for his own views.8 As Harold Tarrant observes, Plutarch generally seems frequently to have made this assumption. 9 In his

Quaestiones Platonicae and De animae procreatione, Plutarch seems to understand the dominant characters in a number of Plato’s dialogues as spokesmen for his own views.

He treats Socrates as a Platonic mouthpiece in the Phaedrus, Symposium, and Republic, three dialogues on which we find him drawing heavily in the texts with which this study is concerned. For example, he takes Socrates as representing Plato’s views when he presents the famous allegory of the soul in the Phaedrus: “Plato, too, when he likened the structure of the soul to a composite of team and charioteer, represented, as is clear to everyone, the rational part as charioteer (καὶ Πλάτων αὐτὸς εἰκάσας συμφύτῳ ζεύγει καὶ

ἡνιόχῳ τὸ τῆς ψυχῆς εἶδος, ἡνίοχον μέν, ὡς παντὶ δῆλον, ἀπέφηνε τὸ λογιστικόν)…”10

However, Plutarch does not assume that Plato employs a spokesman for his own views in all of his dialogues; he seems perhaps to except from this judgment those dialogues

7 Press (2000), 5, speaking of the interpretations of Platonic anonymity proposed by contributors to the volume Who Speaks for Plato? Studies in Platonic Anonymity. See also Press (1995), 149 and Merlan (1947), who argues that through employing anonymity, Plato aims “not to infuse his reader with additional knowledge,” but rather to convince his reader “that his former kind of knowledge has been insufficient (427).”

8 On ancient opinions as to whether Plato “dogmatized”, see Tarrant (2000), 68; the question seems to have been debated at the time Diogenes Laertius’ source was writing. Non-doctrinal interpreters prefer to see Plato’s decision not to represent himself as appropriate to his skepticism; on this view, the possibility of distancing himself from the views put forth by his dramatis personae may explain Plato’s choice of the dialogue form over other literary modes (Gonzalez (1995), 11).

9 Tarrant (2000), 71-72.

10 Quaest. Plat. 1008c. Trans. Cherniss.


considered “inquisitive” in antiquity, finding identity between Plato’s views and those of one of his characters only in the class of dialogues in which Plato was thought to be teaching something to his audience.11 This readerly practice of Plutarch will be important to keep in mind as we consider Plutarch’s self-characterization in his own dialogues; if he admits the possibility of reading characters in dialogue as mouthpieces for their author, it seems reasonable that he might expect his own readers to interpret his own texts according to the same assumption.

The purposes scholars have hypothesized for Platonic anonymity raise important questions about why and to what effect Plutarch, diverging from his master, may have chosen to represent himself in his texts. If Plato’s self-concealment is taken as a sign of philosophical humility, does Plutarch then lack that humility? If Plato is understood to enhance the propaedeutic capacity of his dialogues by removing his voice from his texts, are Plutarch’s dialogues then less effective at prompting his readers to inquiry of their own?

2. Self-representation in Aristotle and Cicero

Long before Plutarch, Aristotle broke with the precedent set by his teacher and became the first dialogist to speak in the first person in his dialogues.12 It is unclear from the scanty surviving fragments how often he gave to himself the primary position in his

11 Tarrant (2000), 71-72: In Quaest. Plat. 1, Plutarch carefully avoids assuming that Plato uses a spokesman in the Theaetetus, referring to the words he attributes to Socrates in that dialogue and denying that Socrates taught anything; as Tarrant notices, “a ‘Socrates’ who never taught anything cannot be the mouthpiece for doctrine.” Tarrant makes the reasonable proposal that Plutarch only looked for Platonic spokesmen in the “expository” not the “inquisitive” class of dialogues; these ancient groupings of Plato’s works are attested in Albinus and Diogenes Laertius.

12 Hirzel (1895), 292; Gorgemanns (2006), 19; Hösle (2012), 83.


dialogues, but from Cicero’s testimony, which refers to the Aristotelian principatus, it seems that his character more or less dominated his dialogues.13 We can say much more about the self-representation of Cicero, who conceives of himself as following Aristotle in opting to cast himself as an interlocutor in his dialogues.

Cicero wrote fourteen dialogues, beginning with the De oratore, the first known

Latin dialogue, and ending with the Laelius.14 Cicero always represented himself in his works, although not always in the same way. At first, he confined his first-person presence to his prefaces, which were not always tailor-made to suit the dialogues with which they were ultimately matched.15 Later, at the urging of a friend, Cicero abandoned his practice of casting historical Republican heroes as his interlocutors and began including himself as a character among contemporary personages.16

Cicero’s voice, characteristically, is anything but understated in his dialogues, whether he speaks exclusively in his prefaces or also in the body of his texts. Even when he confines his explicit presence to a preface, he manages through his remarks to assert control over the entire dialogue. De republica provides an interesting example. On the advice of his friend Gnaeus Sallustius, Cicero reconsidered his original plan to employ historical figures as interlocutors in this text and redrafted it as a conversation between

13 Ad Att. 13.19.3-5; see Hirzel (1895), 293; Schofield (2008), 75; Russell (1992), 401. On the concept of the principatus: Plutarch knew this term (in Greek, ἡγεμονία); he explicitly waives the principatus at Non posse 1087c (‘τὴν δ’ ἡγεμονίαν ὑμῖν παραδίδωμι’; cited by Gorgemanns (2006), 19).

14 Stroup (2013), 130-31.

15 See Schofield (2008), 76-77: Cicero admits to Atticus (Ad Att. 16.6.4) discovering that he had chosen from a volume of pre-written prefaces one that he had already used for the Academica; on realizing his mistake, he quickly dashed off a new one that he dispatched to be pasted into its place.

16 Ad Quint. frat. 3.5.1-2; see Schofield (2008), 75.


himself and his brother Quintus.17 Later, however, he reverted to his original plan; nonetheless, in the preface to De republica, he asserts himself as a worthy peer of the dialogue’s interlocutors by reminding the reader of his own practical accomplishments as well as his theoretical expertise in the realm of statecraft – a rare combination, as he does not hesitate to point out.18 All in all, Cicero’s method in his prefaces seems calculated to ensure that his reader keeps his personality in mind throughout his dialogues.

In considering Cicero’s motivation for and aims in foregrounding his own voice in his dialogues, modern critics have called attention to his increasing voicelessness as an orator at Rome. The form of the dialogue seems to have appealed to Cicero as an ideal alternative to addressing audiences viva voce in the forum, as Stroup argues: “It is almost certainly the near-silencing of Cicero’s forensic voice that made the creation of a dialogic one especially attractive.”19 Indeed, a desire to regain a venue for his personal voice seems a more credible motivation for taking up the dialogue, and opting for self- representation therein, than Cicero’s professed desire to promote philosophy as an impersonal enterprise in which his own view is out of place.20 While Cicero’s choice to represent himself in his dialogues is noteworthy as a type of engagement and self- exposure unique in the history of the form, we must, I think, take care when judging that

Cicero took a personal risk in opting to foreground his own personality.21 Putting oneself

17 Schofield (2008), 76.

18 De republica 1.8.13.

19 Stroup (2013), 136.

20 Schofield (2008), 80, citing 7, De natura deorum 1.10, Tusculanae disputationes 5.11. Schofield reasonably concludes regarding Cicero’s professed desire to suppress his personality in the name of philosophy, “There’s something not quite convincing about this.”

21 As Schofield (2008), 64, does.


on display can perhaps be described as risk-taking in a general way, but Cicero, ever self- aggrandizing, hardly makes himself more vulnerable than this basic act requires. In this regard he differs markedly from Plutarch, who, as I will show, takes the more genuine personal risk of offering a portrait of himself that is unflattering, at least prima facie.

II. Self-Representation in Plutarch

Plutarch’s self-representation in his dialogues has received relatively little scholarly attention compared to that of his forerunners in the genre.22 However, as part of a new efflorescence of interest in the Quaestiones convivales, Jason König and Frieda

Klotz have paid special attention to the personae of Plutarch in these sympotic dialogues, and because they highlight several important aspects of Plutarch’s self-representation, their studies are helpful for focusing the present study of Plutarchan personae in his non- sympotic, philosophical dialogues – especially for helping us to see in what ways

Plutarch’s self-representation is consistent throughout his dialogues of various types, and in what ways Plutarch’s manner of casting himself in his dialogues owes to the specific type in which he is working.

Klotz and König focus on different aspects of the Plutarchan personae in

Quaestiones convivales, but both stress that Plutarch’s self-presentation is calculated to serve a teaching function in his text. Plutarch gives himself a constant presence in his

Quaestiones convivales, both as narrator and interlocutor, and as in the dialogues with which this study is concerned, he represents himself at various ages, from a young

22 Russell (1993) is the only treatment, as far as I am aware, of Plutarch’s self-presentation in the Moralia generally, and while Russell makes the important point that “self-disclosures in the Moralia are also generally intended to lend authority to a didactic point (428),” the article, which compares Plutarch’s self- presentation with that of Horace, does not provide an in-depth analysis of any particular text or group of texts.


student to a middle-aged father. Klotz assesses the importance of the interesting fact that his personae do not age with the progress of the dialogue: for example, we find Plutarch interacting with men younger than himself in Book Three, but he appears in the company of his teacher, Ammonius, in Book Nine.23 Klotz argues that although we see Plutarch represented both in youth and older age, his personae consistently serve as models for his readers – who themselves may be young or old, and more or less philosophically advanced.24 Even as a student, in behaving deferentially towards his teacher, Plutarch sets a positive example. Klotz further argues that the achronological view of his maturation with which Plutarch presents us in the Quaestiones convivales helps to encourage the reader to ponder for himself the questions set forth in the text.25

König, on the other hand, looks at Plutarch’s self representation in the

Quaestiones convivales within the long tradition of sympotic literature. He notes how the conventions of this tradition seem to shape the behavior of his personae throughout the work: for instance, Plutarch’s high estimation of the ability to improvise and relative lack of concern for getting the right answer to a question owe to the tradition of the sympotic dialogue as a space for performing knowledge26; further, the self-effacing quality of Plutarch as narrator owes, in König’s analysis, to his desire to subordinate his own personality to the achievement of his predecessors, wrapping up his own authority in the language of community – community being an essential feature of sympotic

23 See Klotz (2011), 165-67.

24 Ibid., 178.

25 Ibid., 178: “Such retrospective sense-making helps to enact the text’s protreptic programme, further encouraging readers to ponder Plutarch’s questions.”

26 König (2008), 88-89.


literature.27 Even when Plutarch casts himself in the authoritative role within the discussion of a particular question, König argues, Plutarch goes “out of his way to avoid the impression of grandstanding” and positions his own contributions as part of the joint effort of the sympotic community.28

As we will see, Plutarch’s self-representations in the non-sympotic dialogues with which my study is concerned share some of the features that Klotz and König have highlighted in the Quaestiones convivales – though these features may have a different effect – but they also differ from Plutarch’s sympotic personae in significant ways.

1. De E apud Delphos

Let us now turn to consider Plutarch’s self-representation in his non-sympotic dialogues, beginning with one of the so-called Pythian dialogues: De E apud Delphos.

Plutarch represents two starkly different versions of himself in this dialogue. A mature

Plutarch, old enough to be the father of adolescent sons, serves as narrator.29 At the beginning of the work, he recalls to the dialogue’s dedicatee a discussion in which he recently took part. Plutarch’s sons happened upon him while they were conversing with some visitors to Delphi, and they managed to engage him in a discussion of the epsilon inscribed there. Plutarch notes that he had gently avoided this topic when it had come up

27 König (2011), e.g. 180, 193.

28 König (2011), 195.

29 Curiously, however, his name is never given, although there is no question that we are to recognize him as Plutarch (the narrator’s introduction of Lamprias as his brother (385d9) secures his identity). Lamberton (2001), 5, notices this strange fact, remarking that Plutarch “remains a very elusive presence” throughout his corpus in general. Though Plutarch is equally recognizable through family associations in De sera and Amatorius, neither is he named explicitly in either of these dialogues.


frequently “in the school” (presumably, but not certainly, a school Plutarch ran30), but on this occasion, because the visitors were about to depart from Delphi and were so eager to hear a treatment of the question, he could not gracefully have declined to discuss the meaning of the E:

πολλάκις οὖν ἄλλοτε τὸν λόγον ἐν τῇ σχολῇ προβαλλόμενον ἐκκλίνας ἀτρέμα καὶ παρελθὼν ἔναγχος ὑπὸ τῶν υἱῶν ἐλήφθην ξένοις τισὶ συμφιλοτιμουμένων31, οὓς εὐθὺς ἐκ Δελφῶν ἀπαίρειν μέλλοντας οὐκ ἦν εὐπρεπὲς παράγειν οὐδὲ παραιτεῖσθαι πάντως ἀκοῦσαί τι προθυμουμένους. (De E 385a)

Often before having gently steered around and avoided the topic when it had come up in the school, I was recently encountered by my sons, who were engaged in a lively conversation with some visitors to Delphi. These visitors being soon to depart and extremely eager to hear a treatment of the question, it would not have been proper to put them off or excuse myself.

Therefore, he began to lead the assembled company in discussion.32 But our access to this inquiry is quickly curtailed. Plutarch says that the Delphic location and the topic prompted him to recall the ideas that he had heard his teacher, Ammonius, and others discussing on the same question years earlier in the same place. From this point, we hear no more about the collaborative inquiry with his sons and the visitors. Instead, Plutarch begins an extended narration of the earlier debate on the E, including the treatment of the

30 A tantalizing reference in the anti-Epicurean treatise Non posse suaviter vivi secundum Epicurum tells us slightly more: we find Plutarch and his students considering an issue that Plutarch had been treating in his school, at which he has just concluded a lecture (1086d). Finally, in De sollertia animalium, we have a debate between two students on the topic of whether land or sea animals are cleverer, judged by Plutarch’s father Autobulus and Soclarus, a friend of the family. Although we have no indication that the young debaters are students of Plutarch, it may be the case that this text represents an exercise composed in Plutarch’s school. Lamberton (2001), 46, judges rightly that there is little evidence that Plutarch ran a rhetorical school, and that it seems at least likely that he mixed rhetoric and philosophy in his teaching; students might have been sent to him at Chaeronea to “perfect their rhetorical skills and become initiated into philosophy.”

31 I follow Obsieger (2013) in rejecting the reading συμφιλοτιμουμένος, which would have Plutarch discussing the E with the Delphic visitors before his sons came upon him, rather than taking up the topic when he sits down, as described in the following lines (105).

32 Obsieger (2013), 18, emphasizes that Plutarch himself joins in seeking an answer.


question he himself offered as a young student of philosophy. This narration occupies the remainder of our text and gives us extended exposure to his younger self.

This younger Plutarchan persona is represented as an overzealous and rather unfocused contributor to this discussion of years ago – hardly the “star pupil” or “modest student” the young Plutarch appears to be in the Quaestiones convivales33 – and he does not fare well in comparison with the moderate, restrained Older Plutarch. This is somewhat startling for the reader: why does Plutarch create such an unflattering portrait of his younger self, towards which he diverts our attention from his more mature older self? With respect to the earlier tradition of self-representation in dialogue, this narrative decision is quite unique – certainly a far cry from Cicero’s consistent self- aggrandizement through the personae he creates for himself.34 I propose that Plutarch’s critical dramatization of his own youthful excesses demonstrates skillful, and even playful, use of the rhetorical theory of ethopoiia in which he was well versed and serves to promote his philosophical and pedagogical ends in De E. Let us look closely at

Plutarch’s representation of his younger self in order to see how this is so.

After several interlocutors have proposed interpretations of the E, Young Plutarch

(as I will call him from now on) finds his opportunity to weigh in. At this point Older

Plutarch, our narrator, gives us our first insight into the character of his younger self: he informs us that “At the time I was devoting myself passionately to mathematics, although soon indeed, after becoming a member of the Academy, I would come to revere in all things the maxim ‘nothing in excess’ (τηνικαῦτα προσεκείμην τοῖς μαθήμασιν ἐμπαθῶς,

33 König (2007), 52; Klotz (2011), 174.

34 Among Plutarch’s contemporaries, Lucian does something comparable in that he represents himself negatively, but he then comes to his own defense. See below, pp. 17-18.


τάχα δὴ μέλλων35 εἰς πάντα τιμήσειν τό ‘μηδὲν ἄγαν’ ἐν Ἀκαδημείᾳ γενόμενος (387f)).”

Through this remark, Older Plutarch warns us to expect an immoderate contribution by

Young Plutarch, and indeed, this is exactly what we find.36 Plutarch’s treatment of the

Delphic E is based upon the correspondence of the letter with the number five, epsilon being the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet. His speech is much longer than any of those preceding, and it strikes one as a rather haphazard compilation of the number’s excellent qualities. Plutarch even recognizes midway through that he has run to excess on a tangential point, admitting, “‘But these remarks have somewhat exceeded an appropriate length (Ἀλλὰ ταῦτα μὲν ἱκανοῦ καιροῦ μᾶλλον ἀπομεμήκυνται (389c)).’”37 He is clearly aware of the difference between due measure and excess, but he has trouble reining in his enthusiasm to display his recently acquired mathematical knowledge.

When Young Plutarch finally concludes his lengthy speech, Older Plutarch makes clear that it has been unsatisfactory in some important ways. First of all, he marks the end of the speech with this comment: “thus ended my account of arithmetical and mathematical encomia of the E, as I recall (τοιοῦτο μὲν καὶ ὁ τῶν ἀριθμητικῶν καὶ ὁ τῶν

μαθηματικῶν ἐγκωμίων τοῦ εἶ λόγος, ὡς ἐγὼ μέμνημαι, πέρας ἔσχεν (391e)).” His characterization of Young Plutarch’s contribution as encomium – a form of discourse that

Plato finds diametrically opposed to that of the philosopher, as Nightingale notes – is a

35 Again I follow Obsieger (2013).

36 Specifically, Plutarch’s treatment of the E is excessive in the enthusiasm for Pythagorean-style numerology it displays, as Dillon (2010), 139 notes; although a growing interest in Pythagoreanism is evident among the Middle Platonists active in the decades before Plutarch – including in the ‘Pythagorean’ elements of Plato’s dialogues (Opsomer (2007), 284-85) – Plutarch apparently looked back on his youthful enthusiasm for Pythagoreanism as excessive for a philosopher belonging to the mainstream Academic tradition. Cf. Diogenianus in De Pyth., who, though young and gifted, is nonetheless “plein de l’ardeur et de la fougue naturelles des νεανίσκοι” and has to be reined in by Theon (397d) (Flaceliere (1974), 42).

37 Laurenti (1994), 62, notes the tension between Older Plutarch’s earlier mention of the maxim γνῶθι σαυτόν and this admission of running to excess.


subtle criticism.38 Older Plutarch then recalls the reaction of his teacher, Ammonius, to the speech: he notes that Ammonius was pleased with his remarks, but his account of

Ammonius’ actual words conveys a somewhat more critical, although kindly, reaction: he pointed out that one could praise any number in the way Plutarch praised the number five.39 Ammonius refrained, however, from more thoroughgoing criticism due to

Plutarch’s youth.40

Instead of explicitly dwelling on Young Plutarch’s contribution, Ammonius proceeds to offer his own interpretation of the E. Several aspects of his speech illuminate the flaws in his student’s approach as well as the progress Older Plutarch has made from his youthful immaturity. Ammonius interprets the E as asserting the truth of God’s essence, and his approach displays a basic humility grounded in his recognition of its essential difference from that of humans. He argues that the E should be read as the second-person singular of εἰμί and treated as an address to the god that inspires thoughts of the god’s power in the person who utters it. Undergirding this reading of the E is

Ammonius’ understanding of God’s eternity and unity, which he contrasts with the temporality and instability of human nature. In describing this difference between gods and men, he attends to another of the Delphic prescriptions, γνῶθι σαυτόν, which he interprets as a call to recognize the gulf between the imperfect human condition and the perfect divine essence of which the E should put us in mind.41

38 Nightingale (1995), 93.

39 De E 391e. Moreschini (1997), 33, reads Ammonius’ remark about the value of mathematics to philosophy as more than just polite approval of this aspect of Plutarch’s interpretation of the E; he argues, against other scholars, that we need not read Ammonius’ speech as totally invalidating Plutarch’s, and that Plutarch found some validity in his early approach to the problem.

40 De E 391e.

41 De E 394c.


Returning to the outer frame of the dialogue, we can observe that Older Plutarch’s approach to philosophical inquiry differs vastly from that of his younger self, and further, that his understanding of the relationship of humanity to divinity corresponds closely to that of Ammonius.42 His remarks on the Delphic inscriptions at the beginning of the dialogue, before he begins his account of the earlier debate, align with those that he soon thereafter recalls Ammonius making on that occasion. For example, Plutarch remarks in the dialogue’s dedication that through the Delphic inscriptions, Apollo introduces and propounds problems concerning human reason to those who are naturally inclined to philosophy.43 After having read this statement, it resonates in our memory when we reach, at the end of the dialogue, Ammonius’ statement that the Delphic γνῶθι σαυτόν seems both to oppose and to accord with the E and serves to remind mortal man “‘of his own nature and the weakness that accompanies it (394c).’” Older Plutarch’s theological statements in the preface of the dialogue show that his understanding of the Delphic precepts has matured dramatically since his youth, when, confident in his newly gained mathematical knowledge, he attempted to interpret the E without regard for the epistemological limitations that beset all humans.44

Even more, however, the older persona’s self-effacing narrative act of displaying the folly of his younger self demonstrates his commitment to living out the Delphic prescription to know oneself. The narrative structure of De E, as well as the cues given by Older Plutarch, prompts Plutarch’s audience to chart his progress from youthful

42 As Babut notes (1992), 200.

43 De E 384f.

44 Ferrari (2010), 48 reads Plutarch’s dual self-representation as a means of portraying Plutarch’s philosophical development.


overconfidence to mature circumspection by critically comparing his younger and older personae. In doing so, we come to realize that human nature, quite unlike divine nature, is fundamentally unstable and prone to change. By guiding us towards this realization through the interplay of his different self-representations, Plutarch enhances his reader’s understanding of the relationship between humans and gods by making clear that humans have no share in the divine immutability Ammonius stresses in his authoritative interpretation of the E, a message that recurs throughout his non-sympotic dialogues.

In addition to promoting a deep understanding of the essential difference between humans and gods, Plutarch’s dual self-representation also serves to demonstrate the transformative power of philosophical education and to assert Plutarch’s own identity as a member of Plato’s Academy.45 I noted above that in the outer frame of the dialogue,

Older Plutarch admits that he has repeatedly avoided discussing with his students the meaning of the Delphic E in his school, and that he diverts in the dialogue quite suddenly from recounting the discussion on the topic in which he reluctantly engaged with his sons and the Delphic visitors. Plutarch’s reticence on all of these occasions is puzzling, and we, Plutarch’s readers, necessarily wonder about the reason for it as we proceed into the dialogue. The view he provides of his younger self within the inset frame, however, aids us in answering this question.

When we compare the circumspect Older Plutarch with the overzealous younger one, we are able to see clearly not only the inevitability of change in an individual over time, but also the role that education, particularly in philosophy, can play in effecting change for the better in students. Plutarch makes clear elsewhere that the change

45 In the non-institutional form in which it existed in Plutarch’s day (Dillon (2010), 139).


wrought by paideia is no minor alteration but rather a total recasting of identity. As

Whitmarsh notes, in De recta ratione audiendi, Plutarch likens paideia to cultural relocation, comparing young men initiated into philosophical studies to newly naturalized citizens.46 In De E, the disparity between the two Plutarchan personae indeed dramatizes how the study of philosophy has brought about a radical change in the figure of our author. The narrative structure of De E allows us to observe the end result of Plutarch’s intellectual maturation and then to revisit the immature state from which it developed; the

Older Plutarch of the outer frame is a fully trained Academic philosopher, a status that we see Young Plutarch on his way to attaining.

We witness near the end of the dialogue that Young Plutarch fell short in his evaluation of the E because his knowledge of mathematics had not yet been rounded out by other areas of philosophy. Taking Young Plutarch’s development into account as we consider Older Plutarch’s interaction with his students, perhaps we should understand that the mature persona has not shut down, but rather postponed, his students’ discussion of the E until they are sufficiently equipped to conduct it – until they have undergone the same transformative process of paideia that he has. In De E, it seems that Plutarch’s intellectual maturation has manifested itself not only in the development of his theology, to which an understanding of the limitations of human beings is central; we also find his mature wariness of overconfident philosophizing displayed more subtly when Older

Plutarch diverts from recalling his recent conversation with his sons and the Delphic

46 Whitmarsh (2001), 128; De aud. 37e-f. In making this comparison, Plutarch notes that those young men who have gained some acquaintance with philosophy in their earlier upbringing will feel quite comfortable when they undertake philosophical studies in earnest, unlike those to whom the discipline is totally foreign. To Whitmarsh, this comparison implies that “the Hellenization enacted by paideia, even in the case of ‘ethnic’ Greeks, is never simply a consolidation of an anterior identity but the creation of a new, ‘foreign’ one.”


visitors and instead recounts at length the debate of his youth.47 By making such a diversion, he again denies his sons the opportunity to present their hypotheses on the meaning of the E – in this case, to an external audience composed of Plutarch’s readers.

Older Plutarch never tells us how the conversation with his sons and the visitors proceeded past the point at which his narrative turns to the older debate. I would suggest that, in any case, the presence of Plutarch’s sons in De E, although they never say anything, is not idle: they represent analogues to Plutarch’s younger self whom Plutarch has the opportunity to steer aright through his treatment of the E.

As I have noted above, Plutarch’s negative portrayal of his younger self is innovative within the history of the dialogue; I would further point out that Plutarch’s representation of his own development demonstrates calculated use of ethopoiia – the characterization of a person speaking – which, according to ancient definitions of the dialogue, was essential to the form, and in which Plutarch would have been highly trained as a rhetorician.48 In particular, I suggest that Plutarch creates a clear similarity between his younger self and the young Socrates as depicted in Plato’s , an association that is ultimately flattering to Plutarch. In the discussion with Zeno and Parmenides, recounted in Parmenides at several removes, Socrates displays an eagerness that outstrips his philosophical development. His interlocutors respond to his enthusiasm with both praise and criticism. Zeno, observing that Socrates has not quite grasped the truth about

47 Plutarch’s attitude here is consistent with his emphasis in De aud. on the importance of listening attentively and conducting inquiry quietly within oneself rather than vaunting one’s knowledge in public. See Ch. 1, pp. 41-50.

48 The anonymous author of the Prolegomena to Plato, writing sometime after Proclus, defines dialogue as “a piece of writing in prose consisting of questions and answers by various persons, each properly characterized (λόγος ἄνευ μέτρου ἐξ ἐρωτήσεως καὶ ἀποκρίσεως ποικίλων προσώπων συγκείμενος μετὰ τῆς προσηκούσης αὐτοῖς ἠθοποιΐας)” (4.14;Westerink (1962), 26).


his book, which has just been recited, compares his eagerness to that of a Spartan pup tracking a scent (ὥσπερ γε αἱ Λάκαιναι σκύλακες εὖ μεταθεῖς τε καὶ ἰχνεύεις τὰ λεχθέντα

(128c)); later, Parmenides cautions that Socrates is trying to make judgments too soon, before he has gained the training to do so properly:

Πρῲ γάρ, εἰπεῖν, πρὶν γυμνασθῆναι, ὦ Σώκρατες, ὁρίζεσθαι ἐπιχειρεῖς καλόν τέ τι καὶ δίκαιον καὶ ἀγαθὸν καὶ ἓν ἕκαστον τῶν εἰδῶν. ἐνενόησα γὰρ καὶ πρῴην σου ἀκούων διαλεγομένου ἐνθάδε Ἀριστοτέλει τῷδε. καλὴ μὲν οὖν καὶ θεία, εὖ ἴσθι, ἡ ὁρμὴ ἣν ὁρμᾷς ἐπὶ τοὺς λόγους: ἕλκυσον δὲ σαυτὸν καὶ γύμνασαι μᾶλλον διὰ τῆς δοκούσης ἀχρήστου εἶναι καὶ καλουμένης ὑπὸ τῶν πολλῶν ἀδολεσχίας, ἕως ἔτι νέος εἶ· εἰ δὲ μή, σὲ διαφεύξεται ἡ ἀλήθεια. (Parm. 135c-d)

“Socrates, that’s because you are trying to mark off something beautiful, and just, and good, and each one of the forms, too soon,” he said, “before you have been properly trained. I noticed that the other day too, as I listened to you conversing with Aristotle here. The impulse you bring to argument is noble and divine, make no mistake about it. But while you are still young, apply yourself and get more training through something people think useless – what the crowd call idle talk. Otherwise, truth will escape you.”49

The combination of praise and criticism with which Parmenides responds to young

Socrates is strikingly similar to that with which Ammonius responds to Young Plutarch, both in substance and effect. In both responses, the precocity and extraordinary potential of the young student being critiqued stands out above the deficiency of his contribution to the present philosophical discussion. Of course, in the case of Socrates, Plato’s reader meets Parmenides’ observation of Socrates’ raw potential with the knowledge that

Socrates did indeed apply himself and fulfill the promise that his mentors recognized in him. Plutarch, rather than relying on his reader to import outside knowledge of his philosophical development to our interpretation of Ammonius’ response to his young persona, supplies this knowledge through the older persona who reports the internal dialogue: we see clearly, even before arriving at Young Plutarch’s speech, that he

49 Trans. Gill and Ryan (adapted).


subsequently advanced in self-knowledge and moderation through his training in

Academic philosophy. Thus it is through juxtaposition of two carefully crafted personae in De E, each evocative of Socrates at a different stage in his development, that Plutarch clearly conveys a quite flattering impression of himself not only as a member of the

Academic tradition, but as an heir to Socrates himself.

While we need not doubt, I think, that Plutarch actually participated in a discussion of the E such as his dialogue represents early in his philosophical education, and that he may have displayed a certain naivete in contributing to the conversation, it does nonetheless seem likely that Plutarch may have drawn on his rhetorical training in ethopoiia in order to create a persona that is clearly evocative of Plato’s young Socrates.

Ethopoiia, the creation of a speech in character, was one of the more advanced of the progymnasmata, or exercises in composition practiced by students of rhetoric and which allowed them to develop “a store of techniques of presentation and argumentation” on which they could draw in composing not only speeches, but also various types of other literature.50 Aelius Theon, writing a handbook for teachers of rhetoric sometime in the first century, singles out ethopoiia51 as particularly useful training for writing dialogues; indeed, Webb observes, ethopoiia is the exercise with the closest affinity to creative literature in general.52 Practice in ethopoiia required students to imaginatively enter into a particular character and situation and “to find the appropriate words to express that

50 Webb (2001), 290.

51 Theon in fact uses the term prosopopoiia; he does not differentiate between the two terms. Elsewhere, as in ps-Hermogenes, prosopoiia is used of attributions of speech to inanimate objects (Webb (2001), 294 n. 22).

52 Webb (2001), 306; Theon, Progymnasmata 60. Theon in fact gives Plato’s dialogues as examples of prosopopoiia (Progymnasmata 68, translated in Kennedy (2003), 13).


combination.”53 This training seems likely to have come into play in De E, where in representing his older and younger selves, Plutarch appears to balance appropriateness to two character types: first, to his “real” self – his memory of himself as a beginning philosophy student, and his self-conception as an older, more seasoned philosopher – and second, to the type of the precocious, eager young student represented in Plato and the type of the elder philosopher responding to such a young person.54 The speeches of his personae are thus both believable as statements Plutarch did make or would have made, and simultaneously evocative of the way young students, and Socrates in particular, speak in Plato, and of their older interlocutors’ responses to them.

Comparison of Plutarch’s manner of self-representation with that of his younger contemporary, Lucian, further helps to situate Plutarch’s practice of ethopoiia within both the tradition of dialogue and his own cultural milieu. In his dialogues, Lucian engages in a good deal of self-disparagement – but only while employing the “apologetic technique” and simultaneously defending himself; his negative self-representation, then, actually amounts to an indirect method of self-advertisement.55 How are we to understand the self-criticism of Plutarch, who falls between two highly self-aggrandizing dialogists – one glaringly (Cicero) and the other less overtly (Lucian) so? I suggest that Plutarch, in

53 Webb (2001), 304.

54 The young Socrates of Parmenides is not the only young student who is prone to overzealousness and unrestrained philosophizing in Plato’s dialogues. Socrates playfully observes that both and Theaetetus have given excessive answers to his questions “what is virtue?” and “what is knowledge?”(Tht. 146d, Meno 72b); at the end of the Theaetetus, too, Socrates suggests that the young Theaetetus, being overly assertive in professing knowledge, has become tiresome to his companions (210c).

55 Branham (1989), 29. The Double Indictment provides a prime example: in this dialogue, which Branham classes among the “Old Comic” rather than “naturalistic” type (67), Lucian puts himself (in the character of the Syrian – as in most of his dialogues, he does not give his own name to the persona who seems quite clearly to represent him; on Lucian’s veiling of his name see Goldhill (2002b), 61ff.) on trial for maltreating Dialogue, robbing her of her dignity by bringing her down to the level of the common herd, and replacing her tragic mask with a comic one (Double Indictment 33). However, he allows himself a rebuttal of these charges, and he is ultimately acquitted.


representing basic facts of his biography – that he studied philosophy under Ammonius, that he developed an early enthusiasm for Pythagorean number-theory56 – through a persona bearing his name, employs to a certain extent a realism like Cicero’s and appears rather sincere in his self-criticism. Still, as we have seen, the youthful overenthusiasm to which he draws attention redounds to his credit thanks to its evocation of the young

Socrates, and in this aspect his practice seems rather Lucianic.

In Plutarch’s self-fashioning as a new Socrates, we may observe multiple functions operating. First of all, just as Lucian asserts, though with less realism, that he has become Hellenized through elite education, Plutarch likewise utilizes his personae in

De E to firmly establish57 his identity as a member of an elite group, the illustrious line of

Academic philosophers: he shows himself at the beginning, and foreshadows the end, of the paideutic process that will ultimately transform him into a bona fide Platonist. His close supervision by Ammonius secures for him a branch on the Academic family tree, and the similarity between Plutarch’s intellectual development and that of Socrates, from overenthusiasm in his youth to careful circumspection in his old age, reinforce his credentials as an heir of Plato. By putting on the mask of the young Socrates, so to speak

– though it does not fully conceal his “historical” self – Plutarch also displays a hint of playfulness, itself an essential feature of Plato’s dialogues, though Plutarch’s playfulness is certainly more subtle and less beguiling than Lucian’s endless masquerading.58

56 Dillon (1996), 186; Ferrari (2010), 48. This in itself was not un-Platonic: Pythagoreanizing tendencies were gaining importance within Platonism in Plutarch’s day (Opsomer (2007a), 284).

57 On identity being constituted by rather than expressed through social discourse in literature, see Whitmarsh (2001), 31.

58 On playfulness in Plato’s dialogues, see e.g. Desjardins (1988), Press (2007).


But even as his self-representation secures his membership within an elite lineage, something Lucian is also at pains to do, it also does something particularly Plutarchan in reinforcing a philosophical message and serving a pedagogical function.59 By prefacing

Ammonius’ authoritative interpretation on the E with his own unsatisfying youthful take on the problem, and by calling our attention to the radical change in his approach to philosophy over time through the contrast of his older and younger personae, Plutarch underscores the fact of human temporality in contrast with divine eternity, a major theme of this and others of his philosophical dialogues.60 The interplay of his two personae further serves to promote philosophical education and the humility that must both attend and result from the paideutic process, and it suggests that membership in the Academic tradition, long-lived and renowned as it is, may combat to some limited degree the inevitable temporality of all human beings. As we examine Plutarch’s self-representation in other dialogues, we will find that Plutarch consistently employs his various personae to serve both of the functions I have highlighted: establishing himself as a member of the

Academic tradition and reinforcing a major philosophical point central to the dialogue.

2. Amatorius

As I have described in Chapter Two, a newlywed Plutarch holds the principatus dialogi in Amatorius. I have already called attention to Plutarch’s interesting self- representation in this dialogue, focusing on the interaction of the explicitly represented

59 On Lucian’s self-creation as a pepaideumenos in his works, and his presentation of a composite persona – a Syrian Hellenized through paideia – see Whitmarsh (2001), 91-92.

60 Brenk (1996) notes that Ammonius’ description of time in De E is the first expression of non-durational eternity in classical literature (33). Brenk highlights the distinction between human and daimonic time as a structuring concept in De genio, though eternity is not an important concept in this dialogue.


Plutarchan persona – the newlywed – of whom his son, Autobulus makes us aware through his role as narrator of the debate on Eros that took place before his birth. By alerting us to the existence of an older Plutarch who has established a stable family life and secured his own philosophical legacy through his son, Plutarch validates the arguments of the younger persona represented in Autobulus’ report, helping to overcome any skepticism that his youth might create in the mind of the reader. But the gap in age between the two Plutarchan personae in Amatorius is not as neat or easily definable as it appears at the beginning of the dialogue. In attempting to establish the dramatic date for the debate on Eros and determine the age of the newlywed Plutarch, scholars have noticed some chronological oddities that have frustrated their efforts.

Throughout the events leading up to the debate on Eros and most of the debate itself, the newlywed Plutarch appears to be rather young, perhaps in the range of 30 to 35 years old.61 However, two datable references that appear rather late in the dialogue would seem to require that we understand Plutarch to be considerably older. At the end of the dialogue, Plutarch tells the story of a certain Empona and her loyalty to her husband, Sabinus. Based on historical details in the story, her two sons must have been born between 70 and 79 C.E. 62 Plutarch mentions that one of these sons died in Egypt, and that the other has been to visit him at Delphi lately. It is reasonable to assume that the son who visited Plutarch was of age at the time of his visit, which would seem to require that we push the dramatic date of the dialogue to at least the late ’80s.63 At the

61 Flacelière (1980), 13.

62 Amatorius 770c ff.

63 An even later date is possible. Flacelière (1980), 9 assumes that Plutarch must already have been installed a priest at Delphi if this son visited him there, and although we have no way of knowing precisely at what date Plutarch took up this office, Flacelière judges a date of between 85 and 95 to be reasonable.


conclusion of the story of Empona, Plutarch also refers to the end of the Flavian dynasty.

If we take the death of Domitian in 96 as a terminus post quem, then, it seems that we have to assume that the newlywed Plutarch is in fact closer to 50 than 30 – a situation which Flacelière judges “absolutement invraisemblable,” considering that the historical

Plutarch would go on to have five or six children.64

What are we to make, then, of the perplexing late datable references that we find at the end of the dialogue? Has Plutarch simply made a couple of sloppy mistakes, as

Görgemanns suggests, concluding that this shows chronological carelessness similar to what we find in the Lives?65 Or should we give Plutarch credit for doing something more purposeful here, as Flacelière does, arguing that through his allusions to events that occurred long after the apparent dramatic date of the dialogue, Plutarch affords his friends, his first readers, the pleasure of recognizing the traits of his personality that might escape a broader public, giving the impression “d’une de ces signatures secrètes, presque invisibles, qu’un peintre dissimule dans un coin de son tableau et que seuls, les connaisseurs peuvent apercevoir et déchiffrer.”66 Despite the allusions to historical events of Plutarch’s maturity, these references do indeed seem incongruous with the apparent age of the newlywed Plutarch in the dialogue, and I concur with Flacelière and

Görgemanns that we need not adjust the dramatic date to account for them. However, I think there is no need to conclude with Görgemanns that this chronological inconsistency

64 Flacelière (1980), 10. Cichorius proposes an even later terminus post quem, arguing that the phrase used of the death of one of Empona’s sons, πεσὼν ἐτελεύτησεν, actually means “fell in war” rather than simply “died.” Looking ahead to the next known conflict in Egypt, a Jewish revolt put down in 116/17, he takes this as the date after which the debate on Eros must be set. However, Ziegler counters that the son of Empona may have died in a conflict unknown to us and therefore rejects this date, as Jones (1966) does. See Görgemanns (2006), 187.

65 Görgemanns (2006), 7.

66 Flacelière (1980), 11.


is due to a mistake on Plutarch’s part; and while, as Flacelière suggests, Plutarch’s friends may have taken pleasure in recognizing a likeness of Plutarch as they knew him, I think we can attribute to Plutarch a more philosophically purposeful motive for including late datable references near the end of Amatorius.

Throughout the argument for the divinity of Eros and the superiority of marriage to homosexual love, we find emphasized, explicitly and implicitly, the inevitable temporality and mutability of human nature, which stands in contrast to divine eternity.67

Daphnaeus, whose side in the argument the newlywed Plutarch steps in to support, points out that humans are essentially prone to extinction, and that it is through conjugal love that humans may win immortality, extending their being into new generations.68 Love allows humans to recollect eternal realities of which they were aware before taking on a mortal form. Eros, Plutarch argues, particularly resembles the sun, which is uniquely associated purely with immortality (unlike the moon and the earth) and which turns the attention of humans to the timeless truths found in its realm.69 By causing us to realize and ponder his own temporality through perplexing allusions to late historical events,

Plutarch reinforces at the narrative level a major philosophical point made within his text.

By provoking us to think about his age at the time of the deaths of Empona and Domitian,

Plutarch interrupts Autobulus’ recollection of the debate on Eros, into which he intrudes so infrequently that it is easy to focus for long stretches of the debate on the newlywed

Plutarch and to all but forget about the more mature Plutarch who has recounted the

67 On Plutarch’s conception of Eros as developed in Amatorius, and its innovation on Plato, see Brenk (1988, repr. 1998), Opsomer (2007), Frazier (2005/2006).

68 Amatorius 751c.

69 Amatorius 764d-e.


debate to his son. The references near the end of the dialogue to events of the later ’90s

CE, which look like accidental anachronisms, make a powerful existential point: that it is difficult, and indeed likely impossible, to recover in retrospect a portrait of oneself at an earlier stage in life that is fully accurate and uncontaminated by awareness of later developments.

From the beginning to the end of Amatorius, we witness an erosion of the portrait of newlywed Plutarch as he was at the time of the Erotidia festival. At the beginning of the dialogue, it seems that we will be presented with a remarkably vivid and accurate portrait of this young Plutarch. Our text encourages us to notice and appreciate

Autobulus’ meticulous efforts to preserve his father’s intellectual labor, as an interesting

Platonic resonance in the text shows. At the beginning of the dialogue, Autobulus’ friend

Flavianus observes that Autobulus either made a record of the debate on Eros or “got it by heart from frequent questioning of your father (καταμνημονεύσας τῷ πολλάκις

ἐπανερέσθαι τὸν πατέρα ἐπανερέσθαι (748e)).” Autobulus’ work to learn the content of the debate, as Flavianus characterizes it, has a prestigious parallel in Plato. In the

Theaetetus, Euclides has made a record of Socrates’ conversation with Theaetetus by asking Socrates repeatedly about the event – ἐπανηρώτων (143a) – and correcting his manuscript according to Socrates’ account. Euclides’ work, which Plato presents as preserving one of the last philosophical conversations of Socrates before he met Meletus’ indictment, is surely invaluable. By analogy, Autobulus’ preservation of Plutarch’s debate on Eros is presented as work that is highly important, and highly important to do


with great accuracy.70 But when we reach the story of Sabinus and Empona at the end of

Amatorius, this impression begins to break down.

The anachronisms we encounter interrupt our absorption in the historical drama and draw our attention to the process of its recreation. If we are playing along and reading as though the debate on Mt. Helicon actually took place, we must attribute these anachronisms to flaws either in Plutarch’s memory of the debate or in Autobulus’ recollection of his father’s account.71 Given that Autobulus seems committed to and remarkably capable of reporting the debate on Helicon just as it occurred – through direct quotation and without interpolating any commentary of his own – the fault seems more likely to lie with his father. In either case, the anachronisms at the end of the dialogue undermine the impression, cultivated to this point, that a portrait of Plutarch’s newlywed self can accurately be reconstructed. References to events beyond the experience of this youthful persona make us aware of the gulf in age and experience separating Plutarch – both the mature persona and our author – from his former self. I have argued in Chapter

Two that careful selection of detail especially in the scene-setting of the inner dialogue lead us to recognize a strong continuity between two Plutarchan personae, the newlywed represented in the inner debate on Eros and the implicit older Plutarch, husband and

70 We might again find a parallel in Parmenides, too: Adeimantus reports to Cephalus, who is interested in hearing an account of the conversation among Socrates, Zeno and Parmenides, that Antiphon, his half- brother, had studied the conversation with great care when he was a young man (μειράκιον γὰρ ὢν αὐτοὺς εὖ μάλα διεμελέτησεν (Parm. 126c)). The pains taken by Antiphon to memorize an account of the conversation, and Cephalus’ care to memorialize his account in turn, lends to the conversation a sense of importance and a legendary quality (as in Symposium, whose inner conversation is likewise recounted at several removes).

71 And the dialogue asks us to play along: as Scarcella (1991), 349 notes, the voice of Plutarch does not intrude at the end of the dialogue, although Autobulus does seem marginalized by a notably more authoritative voice. I agree with the general scholarly consensus that the occasions of his dialogues Plutarch describes did not actually take place; see e.g. Russell (1993), 428, and, with respect to Amatorius Flacelière (1980), 13.


father, from whom Autobulus heard an account of that debate. When we come upon the anachronisms at the end of the dialogue, all distinction between these two personae begins to blur. We begin to realize that we can only gain a view of the newlywed

Plutarch through the eyes of his older self; there is neither an objective nor even an accurate view of the younger persona to be had. Exposing a new facet of the continuity between the two Plutarchan personae we have observed, the younger and the older, the end of the dialogue conveys the impression that the older Plutarch’s memory of his younger self has degraded; he seems to have mistakenly imported knowledge from his later life into his recollection of his youthful experience, with the result that the young thirty-something Plutarch with whom we have become familiar throughout Amatorius suddenly morphs into a fifty-year-old Plutarch at the end of the dialogue.

This realization affords Plutarch’s reader firsthand experience of one of the essential differences between humanity and divinity that Plutarch has highlighted earlier in his defense of Eros. In a passage that draws heavily on Plato’s Phaedrus, Plutarch describes how humans, once they become embodied, forget about the eternal realities which their souls have witnessed before taking on mortal forms. Immutability and eternity are concepts totally foreign to the existence of humans on earth, and mortal men can only achieve vague and approximate comprehension of these qualities through an experience of Eros that necessarily entails their bodies:

‘ὡς δὲ γεωμέτραι παισὶν οὔπω δυναμένοις ἐφ’ ἑαυτῶν τὰ νοητὰ μυηθῆναι τῆς ἀσωμάτου καὶ ἀπαθοῦς οὐσίας εἴδη πλάττοντες ἁπτὰ καὶ ὁρατὰ μιμήματα σφαιρῶν καὶ κύβων καὶ δωδεκαέδρων προτείνουσιν, οὕτως ἡμῖν ὁ οὐράνιος Ἔρως ἔσοπτρα καλῶν καλά, θνητὰ μέντοι θείων <καὶ ἀπαθῶν> παθητὰ καὶ νοητῶν αἰσθητὰ μηχανώμενος ἔν τε σχήμασι καὶ χρώμασι καὶ εἴδεσι νέων ὥρᾳ στίλβοντα δείκνυσι καὶ κινεῖ τὴν μνήμην ἀτρέμα διὰ τούτων ἀναφλεγομένην τὸ πρῶτον.’ (Amat. 765a-b)


“Teachers of geometry, when their pupils are not yet capable of intiation into purely intellectual conceptions of incorporeal and unchanging substance, offer them tangible and visible copies of spheres and cubes and dodecahedrons; in the same way heavenly Love contrives for us, as in a glass, beautiful reflections of beautiful realities. These are, however, merely mortal reflections of the divine, corruptible of the incorruptible, sensible of the intelligible. By showing us these in the form and hue and aspect of young men radiant in the prime of their beauty, Love gently excites our memory, which is first kindled by this means.”72

By creating for his reader an affective experience of the change in his own persona over time, and especially of the difficulty of reclaiming an earlier version of himself, Plutarch reinforces the idea presented here that change is an inevitable part of human existence and one that sets humans apart from gods. Once embodied, not only are humans forgetful of the true realities their souls once witnessed – realities of which Eros, in

Plutarch’s Platonic conception, can prompt recollection – they also struggle with the day- to-day forgetfulness that goes along with temporal existence in a mortal body; day to day and moment to moment, present versions of oneself vanish into the past, a realm which memory can access only imperfectly.73 Plutarch demonstrates that preservation of an individual person’s identity and philosophical legacy can be achieved in some measure through inscription in literature, but he also reminds us through the convergence of his older and younger selves in Amatorius that self-representation is always achieved by, and therefore ultimately reflects, the latest version of oneself.

3. De sera numinis vindicta

Plutarch describes the inevitable change of individual human beings over time quite explicitly in De sera numinis vindicta. As in De E apud Delphos and Amatorius,

72 Trans. Helmbold.

73 Amatorius 764e9.


Plutarch displays in this dialogue a keen preoccupation with the instability of personal identity and with possible means for preserving one’s personality and intellectual accomplishments. He represents himself in this dialogue as a mature teacher figure, perhaps similar in age to the newlywed persona in Amatorius but more clearly holding the principatus dialogi.74 His position has all the hallmarks of authority in a Plutarchan dialogue: we have to wait through speeches of less importance to arrive at his entrance into the debate, and his speech not only comes last but also occupies a great deal of the total text – a full five-sixths, in fact.75

Plutarch begins his lengthy treatment of the problem central to De sera – the seeming tardiness of divine vengeance – by articulating in several ways the instability of human identity in contrast with the stability and orderliness of divine nature.76 God is stable in his excellence and beauty, and human virtue consists in assimilating oneself as closely as possible to God. In pursuit of godlikeness, humans do well to take the heavens as their model, observing how the celestial bodies move in a regular and orderly fashion and altering their behavior accordingly, avoiding erratic, passionate and haphazard action.77 Because, unlike gods, humans change over time, it is quite reasonable, Plutarch

74 Klaerr and Vernière (1974), 99, note his clear authority: “L’auteur se taille la part du lion. Comme les vedettes il fait attendre son entrée. C’est le doyen du groupe, prêtre, membre du conseil amphictyonique, épiméletè; il jouit d’un grand prestige, on l’écoute.”

75 Klaerr and Vernière (1974), 99.

76 Plutarch proposes several possible reasons for the gods’ failure to punish wrongdoing immediately, among them that vice is essentially its own punishment. Brenk (1977), 258, points out that Plutarch seems to have had trouble making up his mind as to whether vice was indeed sufficient punishment in itself; in three places, including in De sera, Plutarch argues that vice is sufficient, and that divine punishment is only symbolic. Lucian also treats, in a satirical mode, the problem of delayed divine vengeance in The Double Indictment; in the long monologue with which the dialogue opens, Zeus laments the ceaseless demands on his time and the backlog of cases he has to hear; he cites human complaints about his tardiness in judgment and sarcastically refutes the popular idea that he and the fellow Olympians live in leisurely bliss (The Double Indictment 1-3.)

77 De sera 550d.


argues, for the gods to delay their punishment of wrongdoers in order to see whether those who have acted badly out of ignorance rather than desire to do wrong might reform themselves without divine intervention. After all, beyond alternating from moment to moment in their passions, humans have been known to change their characters radically over the course of their lives: “Consider,” Plutarch says, “how many changes have occurred in the characters and lives of men; this explains why the changeable part of a man’s life was termed his ‘bent’ and again his ēthos, since habit sinks very deep, and taking firm hold, wields power that is very great (σκόπει δ’ ὅσαι μεταβολαὶ γεγόνασιν εἰς

ἦθος ἀνδρῶν καὶ βίον· ᾗ καὶ τρόπος ὠνομάσθη τὸ μεταβάλλον αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἦθος, ὡς

πλεῖστον ἐνδύεται τὸ ἔθος καὶ κρατεῖ μάλιστα καθαπτόμενον (De sera 551e-f)).”78 He goes on to provide several historical examples of prominent persons who underwent radical changes in character, abandoning their savage and tyrannical ways and becoming noble and beneficent.79

As his treatment of the central question continues, Plutarch has more to say about human nature, and he suggests further ways in which it can be made relatively stable.

Although he recognizes the fundamental mutability and temporality of human nature,

Plutarch also asserts the persistence of individual identity over a lifetime as well as the endurance of identity beyond a person’s lifespan. In answer to Timon’s objection that the gods seem to act unjustly in punishing descendants for the crimes of their ancestors,

Plutarch argues that not only does a human being maintain an essential integrity of

78 Trans. DeLacy and Einarson.

79 Plutarch cites the examples of the Siceliots Gelon and Hieron, Peisistratus, Lydiadas of Megalopolis, Miltiades, and (552a-b).


identity throughout his life (though his character may change), but even families – like cities – remain continuous entities over time:

‘τὸ δὲ πολλὰς πόλεις διαιροῦντα τῷ χρόνῳ ποιεῖν μᾶλλον δ’ ἀπείρους, ὅμοιόν ἐστι τῷ πολλοὺς τὸν ἕνα ποιεῖν ἄνθρωπον, ὅτι νῦν πρεσβύτερός ἐστι πρότερον δὲ νεώτερος ἀνωτέρω δὲ μειράκιον ἦν. …‘Εἰ δ’ ἐστὶ πόλις ἓν πρᾶγμα καὶ συνεχές, ἔστι δήπου καὶ γένος, ἐξηρτημένον ἀρχῆς μιᾶς καὶ δύναμίν τινα καὶ κοινωνίαν διαπεφυκυῖαν ἀναφερούσης, καὶ τὸ γεννηθὲν οὐχ ὥς τι δημιούργημα πεποιημένον ἀπήλλακται τοῦ γεννήσαντος· ἐξ αὐτοῦ γὰρ οὐχ ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ γέγονεν, ὥστ’ ἔχει τι καὶ φέρεται τῶν ἐκείνου μέρος ἐν ἑαυτῷ καὶ κολαζόμενον προσηκόντως καὶ τιμώμενον.’ (De sera 559a-d)

“To create a multiplicity, or rather an infinity, of cities by chronological distinctions is like creating many men out of one because the man is now old, but was in his prime before, and yet earlier was a lad. … If a city is a single and continuous whole, surely a family is so too, attached as it is to a single origin which reproduces in the members a certain force and common quality pervading them all; and what has been begotten is not severed from the begetter, as if it were some product of his art; it has been created out of him, not by him, and thus not only contains within itself a portion of what is his, but receives a portion of his due when rightly punished or honored.”80

Plutarch’s construction of his own persona in De sera seems to respond to the conception of individual identity as both mutable and persistent over time that we find in this speech, and in doing so it reinforces the message the dialogue as a whole conveys about the relationship between humanity and divinity. From the beginning of his major speech, Plutarch takes care to secure some measure of permanence for his own identity by positioning himself within the family of Academic philosophers. He begins his lengthy treatment of the topic of divine vengeance with this disclaimer: “First, then, beginning as from our ancestral hearth with the scrupulous reverence of the philosophers of the Academy for the Deity, we shall disavow any pretension to speak about these matters from knowledge (πρῶτον οὖν ὥσπερ ἀφ’ ἑστίας ἀρχόμενοι πατρῴας τῆς πρὸς τὸ

θεῖον εὐλαβείας τῶν ἐν Ἀκαδημείᾳ φιλοσόφων τὸ μὲν ὡς εἰδότες τι περὶ τούτων λέγειν

80 Trans. DeLacy and Einarson.


ἀφοσιωσόμεθα (De sera 549e-f)).” In light of his point, made later in this speech, about the persistence of a family’s identity from one generation to the next – the persistence of familial identity indeed being even greater than that of civic identity – Plutarch’s beginning ὥσπερ ἀφ’ ἑστίας seems highly significant: he is establishing himself as a member of a noble philosophical line that boasts Plato as its progenitor. This is a similar move to those we have seen Plutarch make in De E and Amatorius: in De E, he displays himself as an Academic-in-training within the dialogue’s frame, and he asserts his full membership in the family of Academics through his mature outlook as narrator and the similarity of his younger persona to the young Socrates of Plato’s Parmenides; in

Amatorius, the newlywed Plutarch’s conspicuous allusions to Plato’s dialogues, especially Phaedrus and Symposium, convince us of his membership in the Academy from a relatively young age.81 In both De E and Amatorius, Plutarch further shows how he has guaranteed some continuance of his personal identity as well as his philosophical legacy by demonstrating how he has taken care to pass on the fruits of his own philosophical inquiry to his sons. In De sera, however, Plutarch makes no reference to his literal family line – his ancestors before him or his sons after him – but instead metaphorically casts the line of Academic philosophers as his family.82

Plutarch calls attention to his family resemblance to Plato and his other Academic relatives in several ways. Beyond referring to the ancestral hearth of Academic

81 Plutarch’s engagement with these two dialogues goes beyond allusion: see especially Brenk (1988) for a compelling argument that Plutarch in fact makes a place for reciprocal egalitarian love in the Platonic goal of the vision of the Beautiful.

82 Nonetheless, Plutarch’s contention that the gods’ practice of dealing harshly with the descendants of wrongdoers before they have themselves done anything wrong amounts to a sensible sort of preventive care calls to mind Plutarch’s own treatment of his sons in De E: by discouraging them from holding forth on the question of the meaning of the Delphic E, Plutarch seems deliberately to prevent them from falling into his own youthful error of dealing overzealously with philosophical problems before having learned to practice moderation.


philosophy, he also recognizes assimilation to God – homoiōsis theōi – as the telos of human life early in his first major speech. Even further, the disavowal of knowledge, quoted above, with which he begins his treatment of the central question in De sera, shows that Plutarch does not just position himself as one more member of the Academy among a great crowd stretching back more than half a millennium; rather, as in De E, he represents himself as another Socrates.83 Paradoxically, because Plutarch’s readers would immediately have recognized in his disavowal of knowledge a display of Socratic , what might otherwise look like a statement undermining his own authority in fact serves to solidify his authority, and this authority is reinforced midway through his speech when he reiterates the inability of humans to know anything securely.84 Of course

Socrates, as represented by Plato, does not always refrain from arguing for positive philosophical points despite his disavowals of knowledge, and in this respect Plutarch’s position within De sera recalls that of Socrates in Plato’s so-called “middle” dialogues.85

In De sera, then, Plutarch manages to shore up his own identity even while making his audience aware of the essential mutability and temporality of human life and character. The basic fact of human mortality is inevitable and sets man firmly apart from the gods; nonetheless, as Plutarch recognizes, humans can extend the longevity of their memory and intellectual legacy beyond the length of their lives by deliberately attaching

83 Klaerr and Vernière (1974), 99, observing the Socratic aspect of Plutarch’s persona in De sera, dub him the “Delphic Socrates.”

84 De sera 558d.

85 By giving himself the dominant position in De sera, Plutarch also adopts the practice of Aristotle, who, according to Cicero (Ad Att. 13.19, Ad Q. fr. 3.5) gave himself the principatus; Cicero himself wrote in the Aristotelian tradition. On Socrates’ position in the “middle” dialogues as compared to his position in the “Socratic” and “late” dialogues, see Cooper (1997), xiii.


their own identity to that of a larger, continuous institution – such as a city, a family, or perhaps best of all, a philosophical line, as Plutarch does here.

4. De defectu oraculorum

In each of the dialogues I have discussed so far, the figure of Plutarch appears clearly as such – even if he is not identified by name86 – and in each, Plutarch positions a version of himself as authoritative. In others of Plutarch’s philosophical dialogues, however, the figure of Plutarch is elusive or turns out only to be a product of our imagination.87 By giving himself a shadowy, suggestive presence rather than a concrete one in these dialogues, Plutarch playfully provokes us to think carefully about the grounds on which we invest a character with authority and engages us in a hunt for his own views that, although necessarily inconclusive, allows us greater insight into the philosophico-theological question under debate.

De defectu oraculorum presents a particularly intriguing case of this dynamic.

From its beginning, De def. or. cultivates the impression that the narrator of the dialogue is a Plutarchan persona.88 But then, eight chapters into the dialogue, the first-person voice presenting the dialogue is identified as Lamprias, Plutarch’s brother. As Flacelière

86 See n. 29 above.

87 Apart from De def. or., which I discuss here, in De Pyth., Theon has been understood by some as a mask for Plutarch himself (e.g. R. Schmertosch (1889), 25, as cited by Flacelière (1974), 42), Babut (1992), 203, and Lamberton (2001), 5); Lamberton points out that Plutarch associates the name Theon “with an identity of convenience” at Quaestiones Romanae 271e and De communibus notitiis adversus Stoicos 1061c and 1076a. Scholars have seen the nameless leader of the internal conversation in De facie, too, as a mask for Plutarch; this narrator is referred to simply as “our comrade (ἑταῖρος)” (Cherniss (1984), 15)). The loss of the beginning of the dialogue, however, prevents us from judging whether Plutarch is playing “hide-and- seek” as in De def. or. (Lamberton (2001), 173). But there is another possibility, too: Brenk (2009), 57 judges that “Plutarch’s friends would have immediately recognized him behind the mask of Lamprias.”

88 Some have wondered whether Timarchus of Chaeroneia might in fact be a disguise for Plutarch of Chaeronea (Hardie (1996), 131).


has noted, because the opening of the dialogue, addressed to Terentius Priscus, resembles an author’s dedication, the reader is led to believe up until this point that the first-person voice belongs to the figure of Plutarch.89 Scholars have recognized that the identification of the narrator as Lamprias has a jarring effect on the reader and have even understood the creation of this effect as a deliberate act of playful obfuscation on Plutarch’s part.90

Considering that Plutarch was professionally trained in the practice of ethopoiia, I think there can be no doubt that his self-obfuscation is indeed more than accidental. The outcome of the surprise occasioned by Plutarch’s clever narrative prank deserves more consideration than it has attracted, as does the question of Plutarch’s purpose for employing such a device.91

When the narrator, still unidentified, finishes his first lengthy speech in the eighth chapter of De defectu, his confident conclusion gives the impression that his argument is unasssailable, or at least sufficiently commanding to silence the interlocutor whom he has aimed to refute: he remarks, “What I had said was so far effective (τοσοῦτο

διεπραξάμην) that Planetiades went out through the door without another word.”92 In the

89 Flacelière (1974), 86-87.

90 Lamberton (2001), 156.

91 Lamberton (2001), 156, offers perhaps the most careful analysis of Plutarch’s reasons for obscuring his own identity in De defectu. He acknowledges that this narrative decision bears some relationship to the philosophical project at hand, although he judges this relationship to be of secondary importance: “the blurring is for purely esthetic reasons, even though these impinge on the issue of knowledge and consequently on much more besides.” Plutarch, Lamberton proposes, deliberately avoids creating a definite and stable persona because the activities in which the interlocutors of the Delphic dialogues are engaged – explaining, interpreting and unfolding the Delphic mysteries – are inconsistent with the mission of the Delphic priesthood, to which Plutarch belonged. As a priest, Plutarch could not speak in his own voice or represent himself as reaching a conclusion that was closed to further interrogation. I am not sure that this is a “purely esthetic” reason for Plutarch’s self-obfuscation, but in any case, more attention is due to the consequences of Plutarch’s self-representation for his reader’s conduct of philosophy and understanding of personal identity.

92 ἐγὼ μὲν οὖν ταῦτ’ εἰπὼν τοσοῦτο διεπραξάμην, ὅσον ἀπελθεῖν διὰ θυρῶν σιωπῇ τὸν Πλανητιάδην (De def. or. 413d). Trans. Babbitt.


very next moment, however, Ammonius both identifies the narrator as Lamprias and challenges his approach to the problem at hand. “There was quiet for a moment, and then

Ammonius, addressing himself to me, said, ‘See what it is that we are doing, Lamprias, and concentrate your thoughts on our subject so that we shall not relieve the god of responsibility.’”93 This statement gives Plutarch’s readers a jolt, one that is best characterized by spelling out the questions it immediately raises. We are first prompted to ask: if Lamprias has seemed to hold the authoritative, and indeed authorial, position to this point, does Plutarch intend his character to serve as spokesman for his own views in

De def. or.? And next we must ask, if Lamprias does not hold an authoritative position in the dialogue – as seems at least highly probable from his being challenged by Ammonius,

Lamprias’ senior and Plutarch’s esteemed teacher – with whom does authority lie?

The question of who holds the principatus in De def. or. has been well addressed by generations of scholars, who have generally found Lamprias to occupy that role.94 I am less concerned with that question here, however, than with the consequences of the reader’s attempt to locate Plutarch’s mouthpiece for his or her engagement with and understanding of the philosophical questions at issue in the dialogue. Suddenly, on

93 De def. or. 413d. Trans. Babbitt.

94 Scholars from Kahle to Babut have argued that Lamprias holds the principatus in De def. or. and represents, at least for the most part, Plutarch’s own view. Kahle (1912), 107 admits of no doubt on this point, asserting that “Lamprias sine dubio principatum habet; etsi iuvenis inter viros aetate provectos loquitur, omnes eius auctoritatem comprobant .” Brenk, too, (1977) finds that Lamprias represents Plutarch’s own views, judging from the fact that Lamprias has the last word in the dialogue and that his views on the nature of daimones are consistent with Plutarch’s writing elsewhere (85, 143). While Babut (1992), 223-24, highlights how other speakers – namely Cleombrotus and Ammonius – contribute to the understanding of the operation of the oracles towards which the dialogue moves, he too identifies Lamprias as Plutarch’s direct spokesperson. He identifies a subtle division of roles between Cleombrotus and Ammonius on the one hand, who bring to light the role of divinity in the functioning of the oracles, and Lamprias on the other hand, who must both draw attention to the physical or material causes of divinatory processes and “rappeler, dans la synthèse finale, que celles-ci ne se suffisent pas à elles mêmes, mais servent en quelque sorte d’instruments à la divinite.”


learning that the narrator of De def. or. is not in fact a Plutarchan persona, the reader is thrust into a position very like that of the interlocutors in the dialogue. We realize that an indeterminate distance exists between us and the author’s views, one which the surprising identification of Lamprias as narrator spurs us to investigate and narrow to the extent possible. Within the dialogue, Lamprias, Ammonius and their companions are engaged in a similar project, especially as they attempt to determine the precise nature of the daimones mediating between gods and men as operators of the oracles and the invisible powers that control them as mediators between themselves and the gods.95 Ultimately, the conception of daimones as disembodied human souls, promoted by both Ammonius and Lamprias, seems to hold sway, but no definite consensus on this point is ever reached, and the dialogue ends rather uncomfortably with Lamprias recommending that his companions and he himself consider the ideas he has presented further on their own; he explicitly recognizes that “they contain much to which objections might be made, and many suggestions looking to a contrary conclusion, all of which the present occasion does not allow us to follow out (ὡς ἔχοντα πολλὰς ἀντιλήψεις καὶ ὑπονοίας πρὸς

τοὐναντίον, ἃς ὁ καιρὸς οὐ παρέχει πάσας ἐπεξελθεῖν (438d-e)).”96 By the conclusion of the dialogue, thanks to Plutarch’s provocative avoidance of overt self-representation to which he has called attention, we as readers have gained a deep understanding of the difficulty of determining and narrowing the distance between an authoritative figure and

95 Trans. Babbitt. Cleombrotus introduces the idea of “a race of demigods midway between gods and men (415a),” citing a variety of possible sources for the doctrine and identifying Hesiod as the first to identify separate races of gods, demigods, heroes and men (415b).

96 Ammonius asks, “Do you really think that the demigods are anything other than souls that make their rounds ‘in mist apparelled,’ as Hesiod says? (431b; trans. Babbitt)”, and Lamprias’ long speech that follows seems to support this understanding of daimonic nature. Brenk argues that this view seems to win the day in De def. or., pointing out that the understanding of daimones as disembodied human souls fits Plutarch’s apparent understanding elsewhere (1977), 111.


the disadvantaged would-be recipients of this figure’s message. In our search for

Plutarch’s own view on the philosophical problem at hand, and perhaps for a single figure who represents his view, we have encountered some clues that may lead us to conclude with some confidence that Lamprias serves as Plutarch’s mouthpiece in the dialogue – his “dramatic superiority,” for instance, and his robust Platonism.97 However, we cannot determine this securely any more than Lamprias and his companions can come to a decisive conclusion about the nature of daimones. By affectively engaging us from early in the dialogue in the hunt for his own views, a hunt whose quarry always remains elusive, Plutarch gives us a unique depth of understanding of the major theological truth that underlies the issues debated in De def. or.: that although mediated communication between humans and gods is possible, and that with discipline and effort humans can become better receptive to messages originating with the gods, a fundamentally insurmountable gap exists between human and divine natures.

Comparison with Lucian’s dialogic method may further illuminate Plutarch’s use of a shadowy persona in De def. or. Lucian’s name appears only six times in his entire corpus, yet he frequently includes in his dialogues figures who are pretty clearly thinly veiled self-representations.98 These figures go by a variety of names, some “tantalizingly suggestive” of Lucian’s own (e.g. “Lycinus”, “The Syrian”), although Lucian always ultimately frustrates identification of his satiric personae with himself.99 Insofar as

97 Brenk (1977), 114. According to Brenk, Lamprias’ possession of the “principal and almost sole role in the dialogue” from the end of Cleombrotus’ tale of a certain non-Greek mystic to the conclusion of the dialogue gives him this superiority. On Lamprias’ Platonism, see also Babut (1992), 227.

98 Goldhill (2002), 61; Whitmarsh (2001), 253.

99 Whitmarsh (2001), 253, citing P. Ehrenpreis (1963), “Personae,” in C. Camden, ed., Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature: Studies in honor of H.D. McKillop. Chicago. 108-36.


Plutarch provokes his reader to inquire into his own views and to consider how far

Lamprias may represent them in De def. or., we may judge that he, as Lucian does regularly, demonstrates the “ludic and elusive temper of self-representation” characteristic of the period in which both authors wrote.100 Yet the outcome of Plutarch’s seemingly playful self-obfuscation in De def. or. seems quite different from the persistent self-foregrounding that results from Lucian’s ostentatious donning of masks throughout his dialogues. By postponing the identification of Lamprias as narrator, Plutarch calls attention to the difficulty – indeed, the impossibility – of overcoming the epistemological limits that belong to one’s station (whether as a human being or a reader of a text) to gain real and reliable insight into the thoughts of an authoritative figure (whether that figure is

Plutarch the author or the god whose mediated messages are delivered through his oracles). Lucian’s relentless, playful self-obfuscation constantly engages his reader in the futile endeavor of attempting to locate a stable authorial identity, but it does not encourage us to extrapolate from this experience a broader truth about man’s relation to divinity. Whereas Lucian again and again draws our attention back to the question of his own identity, Plutarch ultimately directs our attention away from himself and towards a greater understanding of our own human limitations.101


Plutarch employs a variety of narrative techniques, and a number of distinct personae, to represent himself – or to obscure himself – in his philosophical dialogues.

100 Whitmarsh (2001), 33.

101 Indeed, Whitmarsh (2001), 252, observes of Lucian: “the proliferation and infinite regress of personae is precisely the abiding preoccupation of his writing.”


Within this variety, however, we can observe that Plutarch’s self-representations have a few consistent functions and effects. First of all, the conduct of Plutarch’s personae, whether itself worthy of emulation or not, consistently points towards a right understanding of the philosophical problems at issue in each dialogue and furthers the education of his readers in the proper conduct of philosophy. In De E, Plutarch dramatically highlights the necessity of approaching philosophical investigation of divine matters with a self-knowing humility by representing the folly of a younger version of himself through the critical filter of an older, fully educated self. In Amatorius and De sera numinis vindicta, too, the Plutarchan personae, holding the authoritative position in their respective debates, demonstrate the necessity of recognizing the temporality, and hence the epistemological limitations, inevitable for human beings. Throughout the dialogues I have examined in this chapter, Plutarch teaches us, as we engage with his personae, the importance of an Academic education and of the practice of constant independent critical thought – a practice encouraged by Plato and Plato’s Socrates from the very beginning of the Academic tradition. For example, by suddenly subverting our understanding of the narrator as a Plutarchan persona in De def. or., Plutarch prompts us to question our assumptions and read more critically as we proceed in the dialogue.

While Plutarch’s personae frequently serve to amplify the theme of human temporality that recurs throughout his philosophical dialogues, his self-representations also serve as a powerful means for Plutarch to combat this temporality, allowing him to assert and construct his own enduring identity both as a member of his own genealogical family and as a member of the Academic family with Plato at its head. We have seen how Plutarch dramatizes in De E and Amatorius the fact that he has taken pains over his


sons’ philosophical education, thereby guaranteeing the longevity of his own philosophical labors; he further shows himself as an intellectual son of Ammonius on the family tree of Academics, representing himself as a beginning philosophy student in De E and displaying the Academic credentials of his mature personae in the outer frame of De

E as well as in Amatorius and De sera. What is more, he solidifies his Academic identity by creating clear similarities between himself and Socrates in several dialogues: Young

Plutarch in De E looks recognizably like Young Socrates of the Parmenides, while allusion to the Theaetetus and Plutarch’s disavowal of knowledge connect him to

Socrates in Amatorius and De sera respectively.

In his various self-representations in the dialogues I have examined, Plutarch displays rhetorical facility in directing the attention and engaging the critical faculties of his readers through his creation and manipulation of personae. While the personae to which he gives his name appear to be plausible representations of his “real” self, rather than imitating the straightforward realism of Cicero’s self-representations, Plutarch prefers to create elusive, multiple, or multi-layered personae that constantly provoke his reader to inquiry. The strategies Plutarch employs to promote philosophical understanding and assert his own social identity show that he is innovative and in step with his times, but also somewhat traditional and conservative as a practitioner of the dialogue form. While he follows the lead of Cicero and Aristotle in breaking with Plato’s policy of never representing himself in his dialogues, Plutarch uses his personae to quite different effect than Cicero before him and Lucian after him.102 While Cicero relentlessly aggrandizes himself through his explicit self-representations, and while Lucian’s

102 I avoid generalizing about the aims and effects of Aristotle’s representations, about which we know too little to draw conclusions.


tantalizing self-obfuscation constantly engages us in a game of hide-and-seek with

Lucian himself as its object, Plutarch’s self-representations work towards philosophical and pedagogical ends even as they assert and affirm Plutarch’s own identity as a member of noble and persistent genealogical and intellectual families. Plutarch’s self- representations, in various ways, teach us something about ourselves: that we are ephemeral beings, far different from the gods, with limited means of accessing eternal truth – but that we can maximize our ability to know by accepting our limitations with humility and a commitment to critical, independent pursuit of truth. Though Plato never employed his own persona to reinforce these messages, they are messages that his dialogues constantly convey. While Plutarch’s choice to represent himself – and his various and at times perplexing means of doing so – display a keen concern with identity and its endurance that is typical of his cultural milieu, his exploration of personal identity complements rather than distracts from the investigation of the philosophical questions whose solution remains the primary goal of each dialogue.



In his social and intellectual life, Plutarch showed himself adept at moving between different spheres and managing a variety of commitments. Though content with small town life in Chaeronea, he cultivated relationships with elite figures at Rome; a devoted husband and father, he also fulfilled religious and civic duties. Likewise in his philosophical dialogues, Plutarch demonstrates a range of philosophical, pedagogical, and personal commitments and interests, simultaneously urging his audience towards critical inquiry and asserting his own identity within the philosophical tradition and his own contemporary society. While we can recognize certain major features of Plutarch's dialogic practice quite readily – his imitation of Platonic models, for instance – an in- depth and comparative reading of these texts, with particular attention to Plutarch's use of essential elements of dialogue, goes much further towards illuminating his use of the form and his place within the dialogic tradition.

Through his use of setting and characterization in his dialogues, Plutarch manages to powerfully engage and direct the attention of his audience, an essential goal of his literary practice. His portrayal of his characters and selection of setting detail, though displaying a sophisticated command of rhetorical techniques and at times surpassing

Platonic models in detail or vividness, is not just for show. In drawing attention to the behavior of individual characters in particular circumstances, Plutarch manifests a keen awareness of the power of particular detail for exploring ethical issues and ultimately


promoting positive moral change. This understanding, expressed in theoretical terms elsewhere in his corpus, finds particularly relevant application within Plutarch’s philosophical dialogues, concerned as they are with the fundamental capacities and limitations of human beings, especially in contrast with the nature of divine beings.

Although in his eschatological myths, for example, Plutarch performs his status as a member of the educated elite of his day by creating a highly vivid, immersive experience of the hereafter, the affective impact of these myths also functions in service of the philosophical and protreptic aims of their respective dialogues.

If Plutarch follows and at times outstrips Plato in his approach to setting and characterization, he parts company with Plato entirely in choosing to represent himself in his philosophical dialogues. Through this narrative decision Plutarch necessarily draws the attention of his audience to his own personae and provokes inquiry into their relationship to the author himself. These personae create a flattering impression of

Plutarch, yet it is not quite accurate to call his self-representations self-aggrandizing; such a description would elide very real differences between his self-portrayals and those of

Cicero and Lucian. Plutarch’s self-representations operate in service of the larger thematic concerns of his dialogues, drawing our attention to himself but also beyond himself and promoting enhanced understanding of factors pertaining to the identity of human beings in general – change in individuals over time, the possibility of prolonging existence through identification with genealogical or intellectual ancestors and progeny, and the stark difference between human temporality and divine eternity.

Like Cicero and Lucian, Plutarch displays in his dialogues a clear concern with carving out and asserting a social and intellectual identity. First and foremost, he takes


care to represent himself as a member of the Academic tradition, a philosopher in the line directly descended from Plato. He does this quite plainly – as in De E apud Delphos, where his older persona recalls a time when he was not yet a member of the Academy – but also more interestingly and more often through less overt means, such as representing his younger self at a rather embarrassing early moment in his philosophical development, yet building into this representation clear parallels with the young Socrates as represented by Plato. Likening himself to Socrates is a bold move, yet Plutarch makes this comparison in a rather understated, allusive way. And indeed, throughout the dialogues, we might read Plutarch’s concern to align himself with Plato, both as a literary artist and a philosopher, as a force that precludes the possibility of such overt self-advertisement as

Cicero practices and the wild, conspicuous games of hide and seek Lucian plays.

Plutarch indulges in a little ironic playfulness, but not to the extent that it undermines the philosophical project at hand. By foregrounding his own persona and working out his own identity on the stage of the dialogue, Plutarch displays, on the one hand, the spirit of his times; but by utilizing his self-representations, like other dialogic elements, in the service of philosophical and pedagogical goals, he simultaneously demonstrates a restraint that accords with the Delphic ‘μηδὲν ἄγαν’ that he came to revere.



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