Monday, January 10, 2011


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Lieve Van Hoof, Plutarch's Practical Ethics: The Social Dynamics of Philosophy. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 328. ISBN 9780199583263. $110.00.

Reviewed by John Dillon, Trinity College Dublin (

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This is a work of considerable sophistication, on a subject of much interest, namely Plutarch's involvement in the business of the moral and philosophical edification of the non-philosophical Greco-Roman elite. There is, as we know, a fairly large body of Plutarch's surviving works—fully 22, by Van Hoof's count – which are rather dismissively classified, originally by Konrad Ziegler in his PW article of 1951, as 'popular philosophy'. It is this category to which Van Hoof in this work is seeking to give a proper evaluation.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first (pp. 1-80), consisting of three chapters ('Philosophy and Society'; 'Strategies for Promoting Philosophy'; 'Plutarch as a Philosopher in Society') is of a more theoretical nature; while the second, longer one (pp. 82-254) takes a selection of five of these works (On Feeling Good—Van Hoof's rendering of peri euthymias, On Exile, On Talkativenessperi adoleskhias), On Curiosityperi periergias, and lastly Precepts of Health Care), and subjects them to detailed examination. The book is rounded off with a brief conclusion, followed by fully 36 pages of bibliography, the latter a testimony to Van Hoof's impressively extensive reading, not only in the field of Plutarch studies, but widely in the areas of social studies, both ancient and modern, thus bestowing on her work a most impressive breadth of perspective.

In the first part, what Van Hoof is concerned to emphasise is the role of the philosopher in society – a topic of increasing interest these days, and one on which I have made some interventions myself. It must be recognised that to a certain extent the philosopher in elite circles in the ancient world fulfilled the role of a clergyman or spiritual adviser. If one invited a philosopher to dinner, one tended to behave rather more soberly and intellectually than might otherwise be the case; and philosophers were expected to provide diagnostic and protreptic advice on a wide variety of problems of everyday life. In Plutarch's case, as she notes, this does not involve trying to convert people to philosophy as such, or to Platonism in particular, but simply demonstrating that the application of philosophical precepts can be useful in going about one's everyday tasks and negotiating the duties attendant upon being a member of elite society. If one is asked to dinner by the Governor, for example, it is simply bad form to frown on the imbibing of costly wines, or indulging in exotic dishes; one must rather practise beforehand, so as not to be overwhelmed by the richness of the fare provided, and join in the good cheer provided, while of course observing discreet moderation.

The case is similar on such questions as talking too much and too freely, and prying excessively into other people's business and gossiping about it, as well as with providing consolation in face of such a misfortune as exile. Plutarch is not concerned to introduce here any technical terms or concepts of Platonism—though he will provide exempla from the philosophical tradition—but rather to preach sound common sense; and to that extent we have to do with 'popular philosophy', though a coherent Platonist position lurks behind it.

Another point that Van Hoof seeks to establish, particularly in chapter 2, is that Plutarch is concerned in these essays to promote his own position in society, and that of philosophy in general. As she argues (p. 46), such an agenda bears a certain resemblance to that lying behind the Lives, except that the focus there is on a set of historical figures, while in the essays of practical ethics the issues are brought home more immediately to the reader, or to the putative addressee -- as in the case of Paccius in On Feeling Good, or Nicander in On Listening (not included in this selection) – and the exhortation to rectify one's life-style is that much more direct.

Plutarch, of course, is himself a provincial grandee of some substance, and not in need of patronage to the extent characteristic of most other philosophers, but he is still concerned to stake out his position as counsellor to the elite. Van Hoof may seem to be too cynical here in dwelling on this point (Plutarch himself would, I think, have indignantly repudiated any such suggestion!), but she can argue—making use of modern theories of authorship and reader response—that this is objectively what this is all about, and I think that I would grant that.

In the second part of the book, Van Hoof takes us in some detail through her selected essays, quoting copiously and pertinently, and engaging in most useful close readings of a number of key passages. She shows at various points how Plutarch engages the attention of the reader, without causing offence (as in the cases of busybody-ness and talkativeness), while maintaining a stance of the desirability of engaging with society, even to the extent of political participation, rather than of any sort of philosophical or ascetic withdrawal. In his consolation for exile, on the other hand, he is concerned to stress the advantages of being withdrawn for a while from the strains of public life!

His treatise on health care, and in particular dietetics (or, as Van Hoof wittily terms it, 'diet-ethics'), is interestingly provocative, inasmuch as he is consciously encroaching on the home ground of medicine – as he recognises himself in the introductory dialogue, where the doctor Glaukos indignantly challenges the philosophers' right to discuss these topics. Van Hoof's analysis of this passage, and of various other key points of the work, is most enlightening.

All in all, Van Hoof has produced here a most useful addition to Plutarch studies, one that should both provoke debate and direct more sympathetic attention to this area of Plutarch's work. As she notes in her conclusion (pp. 263-5), on the basis of such works as these, Plutarch can well be viewed, not only as a philosopher, but as a fully-fledged member of the Second Sophistic, able to cross swords successfully with such figures as Favorinus and Dio Chrysostom.

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