Friday, September 10, 2010


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Benoît Castelnérac (ed.), Philosophia and Philologia: Plutarch on Oral and Written Language. Hermathena No. 182 Summer 2007. Dublin: University of Dublin, 2007. ISBN 00180750. (pb).
Reviewed by Katerina Oikonomopoulou, University of St Andrews

The subject of this review is a special issue of Hermathena, comprising the proceedings of the conference Philosophical Tactics: Plutarch on Oral and Written Language, held in Trinity College Dublin in June 2005. Seven articles in total (written in English, Italian and French) make up the main body of the issue. They are preceded by a brief introduction (pp. 5-7) by the editor, explaining the publication's background and summarising the articles' contents.

I will now offer a summary of the articles' main arguments, in the order that they appear in the volume (for their full titles, see the Table of Contents at the end of this review):

Peter Van Nuffelen's article is a study of mystical silence in Plutarch's Moralia (taking into account a wide range of texts, including the Quaestiones Convivales and De Iside et Osiride). He contends that mystical silence functions as a rhetorical conceit in certain dialogic contexts, enabling speakers to make authoritative assertions about truth (by which profound philosophical truth is meant, as encoded in the practices of mystery cult ) without having to provide argumentative evidence for it. The analysis' weight falls mainly on the philosophical implications of this strategy; as a result, it falls short of a systematic exploration of its broader value as a discursive tool in Plutarch's work.

Jolanda Capriglione attempts to situate the treatise De Capienda ex Inimicis Utilitate within a wider backdrop of Plutarchan reflection on the passions, political life, and core moral concepts such as philanthropia.

Next, Mark Beck intelligently explores the rhetorical function and implications of the story of Damon in the Lives of Cimon and Lucullus. However, he misses the opportunity to pursue key questions pertaining to the function of the story as an orally transmitted narrative, or assess the role such narratives play in Plutarch's story-telling repertoire. The same holds for Maria do Céu Fialho's largely unfocussed discussion on the role myth and local stories play in Plutarch's portrait of Theseus (her article's title is misleading, as philanthropia and philautia feature only marginally in her discussion).

Carmen Soares offers an engaging discussion of Plutarch's Life of Artaxerxes as a case study for the close correspondence between Plutarch's theoretical pronouncements on what constitutes a successful historical narrative, and his writing praxis. Soares detects a rich gamut of discursive and stylistic effects (emotive language, use of direct speech, theatricality, dramatic suspense, vivid characterisation) thanks to which Plutarch's narrative of the early life of Artaxerxes (1-19) fulfils criteria for a good narrative description that he articulates later in the same Life (8.1).

Christophe Bréchet's article, by far the richest and most interesting in the volume, deals extensively with Plutarch's theory of poetic citation in the treatise De Audiendis Poetis. Bréchet successfully demonstrates that Plutarch's theory of citation clarifies the oral conditions under which he envisaged the memorisation, evocation, and transmission of poetic discourse. He also sensitively analyses the significance of this oral dynamic for the crucial propaideutic role poetry was assigned in Plutarch's vision of philosophical education.

With Benoît Castelnérac's contribution, which concludes the volume, the focus shifts to a key aspect of Plutarch's writing method, namely, excerpting from extraneous sources. The author terms this 'eclecticism', though he is fully conscious of the conceptual and terminological problems involved. Castelnérac's main concern is to assess the role of this technique in Seneca and Plutarch's educational philosophy and their broader reflection on literary method, given its wider centrality to the ancients' method of reading and writing. This could have been a truly promising line of enquiry, though the analysis fails to engage with the full spectrum of effects eclecticism spans in both authors, since it focuses for the most part rather narrowly on the use of the analogy of the bee.

As it is customary with volumes of proceedings involving only minimal editing, there is great unevenness in the format, length, quality and overall 'polish' of the individual contributions. Some of the articles come without bibliographies. The methods of bibliographical citation and footnoting differ across contributions. Grammatical and syntactical anomalies are visible in papers written in English by non-native speakers. There are, moreover, inconsistencies in the method of citing Greek (some contributors transliterate Greek, others do not), as well as in the spelling of Greek names; and typos, some of which involve mistakes in the cited Greek. A list of indicative examples is provided at the end of this review.

Much more frustrating are the volume's methodological shortcomings, however: no attempt is made to conceptualise the central question along clear theoretical lines, for example, by integrating it into a wider (and ongoing) scholarly discussion on 'literacy and orality' in the ancient world 1 (Bréchet's discussion comes perhaps closest to doing so). Nor do the papers (individually, or as a whole) offer anything by way of a systematic reconstruction of Plutarch's theoretical views on, or his philosophy of language (oral and written), as one might have expected, given the volume's stated objectives. Instead, 'oral and written language' are taken to encompass pretty much everything from Plutarch's use of specific rhetorical or discursive techniques (although it is not always clear when these fall under the label of 'oral' as opposed to 'written' language), to his narrative and broader literary aesthetic, and his representations of orality and oral discourse. The reader struggles to find coherence amidst such a diffusion of perspectives, and this is made worse by the fact that some of the papers appear only to have a tangential connection to the volume's main theme.

Equally disappointing is the absence of sustained reflection on the importance and ramifications of the interplay between written and oral discourse in Plutarch's work and thought as a whole. This could have been brought to the fore by pursuing comparisons between the Lives and Moralia, as well as through greater cross-fertilisation between the papers. There is also little in the way of reference to the broader imperial scene of knowledge exchange and transmission (Bréchet's article is the only one which attempts a cultural reading). The articles' restricted (and restrictive) scope largely results from their traditional, structuralist approach, which is evident in their predilection for tables, search for internal thematic correspondences, and focus on detailed linguistic analysis. I do not wish to discount this approach, only to point out the need for greater theoretical sophistication (in Soares' analysis, to give but one example, the use of narrative theory and engagement with aspects of self-reflexivity would have significantly enriched the discussion).

The topic of oral and written language in Plutarch is an important one, and deserving of systematic and nuanced study. The present volume leaves some of our main questions on the issue unanswered, but will certainly stimulate further enquiry on the topic.

'the his' (instead of 'his') p. 10; 'Thesmophoriae' (instead of 'Thesmophoria') p. 11; 'should not' ('not' to be deleted?) p. 12; 'itself [on] two levels,' p. 22); 'Aristoteles' (instead of 'Aristotle') p. 71; 'pegagogical' (instead of 'pedagogical') p. 77; 'Arsica's' (instead of 'Arsicas') p. 93; ἐπιείκα, instead of ἐπιείκεια (quote from Plut., Art. 4.4) p. 94; 'mean' (instead of 'means') p. 136; '…is nevertheless is clearly a different thing from which it came' (repetition of 'is'; problem with the syntax of the Senecan translation here) p. 146.

Table of Contents:

B. Castelnérac, 'Introduction' (pp. 5-7)

P. Van Nuffelen, 'Words of Truth: Mystical Silence as a Philosophical and Rhetorical Tool in Plutarch' (pp. 9-39)

J. Capriglione, 'Le virtù del pathos' (pp. 41-51)

M. Beck, 'The Story of Damon and the Ideology of Euergetism in the Lives of Cimon and Lucullus' (pp. 53-69)

M. do Céu Fialho, 'Philanthrôpia and Philautia in Plutarch's Theseus (pp. 71-83)

C. Soares, 'Rules for a good description: theory and practice in the Life of Artaxerxes (1-19) (pp. 85-100)

C. Bréchet, 'Vers une philosophie de la citation poétique: écrit, oral et mémoire chez Plutarque' (pp. 101-134).

B. Castelnérac, 'The Method of 'Eclecticism' in Plutarch and Seneca' (pp. 135-163).


1.   See the latest contributions to the topic, in W. A. Johnson and H. N. Parker (eds.) (2009), Ancient Literacies: the Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, Oxford.

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