Saturday, November 26, 2011


Richard Hunter, Donald Russell (ed.), Plutarch: How to Study Poetry (De audiendis poetis). Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 222. ISBN 9781107002043. $99.00.

Reviewed by David Sansone, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (

Version at BMCR home site


This is a splendid addition to the chartreuse series of Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics and the only volume devoted to a work of Plutarch's apart from Christopher Pelling's fine Life of Antony (1988). The editors have a long and distinguished history of engagement with Plutarch's essay. Over half a century ago Russell reviewed a volume containing a Spanish translation of the work (CR 9 [1959] 288) and he himself translated the first half of it (through 28d) for his and Winterbottom's Ancient Literary Criticism: The Principal Texts in New Translations (Oxford 1972). More recently, Hunter devoted an illuminating chapter to a study of the essay in his Critical Moments in Classical Literature (Cambridge 2009). According to the Preface to the current volume (vii), "For several years Donald Russell had intended to produce an edition and had prepared a draft commentary, but felt unable to complete the task. Richard Hunter has taken over and expanded the whole."

The Introduction is largely the work of Hunter. He hesitatingly dates the treatise to "the early 80s" (2), but appropriately refers to the doubts over so early a dating expressed by Alexei Zadorojnyi in his contribution to P. A. Stadter and L. van der Stockt (edd.), Sage and Emperor (Leuven 2002). According to Hunter, Plutarch's essay incorporates three vital traditions in the criticism of poetic texts: that initiated by Plato, especially in the Republic, the Homerkritik as reflected in the scholia to the Homeric poems and the work of the Stoics. The connections to all three traditions are copiously documented in Russell and Hunter's valuable commentary and show clearly that Plutarch's essay "stands firmly within the mainstream of the Hellenistic discussion of poetry" (2). The commentary itself is very well designed for the needs of students approaching this work for the first time, although students who are not familiar with Plutarch's language and style might hope for more attention to be paid to those areas. (Half of the section in the Introduction concerned with "Language and Style" (21–25) is given over to prose rhythm and clausulae, topics that are ignored in the commentary.) Scholars who are experienced in the study of Plutarch will find little to criticize and much to learn. The text, which is based on the reports of manuscript readings published by previous editors, has been improved in a number of instances by sensible choices among variants and conjectures and by the occasional intervention of the editors. Notable are Russell's τινος <ἀληθινῆς> μούσης at 15e, comparing Pl. Rep. 548b ("in the context of education"), <ὡς> ἐν ἤθει καὶ μετὰ παιδιᾶς λεγόμενα δεχομένους at 20e (Bernardakis had earlier proposed replacing the manuscripts' λεγομένοις with δεχομένους), μάταιον <ὄν> at 28b, and Hunter's χαλεπαίνοντα (for χαλεπὸν ὄντα) at 31c (for other instances of "the connection between anger and μισοπονηρία" see mor. 59e, 453d, 462e–f).

The English title given to the essay by the editors reflects their conviction that, when Plutarch speaks of "hearing" poetry, he is generally referring to the solitary reader listening to his own voice (cf. Hunter, Critical Moments 182–83), and they refer at 14f (ἐν ταῖς ἀκροάσεσιν καὶ ἀναγνώσεσιν) to D. Schenkeveld, "Prose Usages of Ἀκούειν 'To Read'," CQ 42 (1992) 129–41. But ἀκροᾶσθαι is not the same as ἀκούειν, and Schenkeveld's references (135 n. 38) for the former as meaning "to read" are unsatisfactory and his etceteras do not inspire confidence. On the contrary, ἀκρόασις and related words are used to refer to the unwritten doctrines of Plato and Aristotle; see Arist. frag. 662 Rose, M. Isnardi Parente, "La akroasis di Platone," Mus. Helv. 46 (1989) 146–62. Near the end of his essay Plutarch refers to "what is spoken from the stage, what is sung to the lyre and what is studied at school (μελετωμένοις ἐν διδασκαλείῳ, 35f)," which suggests that Plutarch is concerned not only with what the pupil hears coming from his own or his teacher's mouth.

In what follows I note the few places where I question the editors' treatment or feel able to supplement their excellent discussion:

14d: The unfortunate dedicatee of Plutarch's treatise, Marcus Sedatius, suffers the indignity of having both his praenomen and nomen incorrectly accented in the opening sentence of the text. In the case of the latter it is merely one of the few typos that occur in this well-printed volume; in the case of the praenomen, however, Hunter and Russell are following the lead of earlier editors, who print Μάρκε. The alpha is long and should receive a circumflex: IG VII 2225.15 (ΜΑΑΡΚΟΣ), CIL I2 1202 (MAARCO), F. Sommer, Handbuch der Lateinischen Laut- und Formenlehre, 2nd ed. (Heidelberg 1914) 122.

14d "οἷς . . . ὑπάρχειν of most MSS could be right, but the text adopted here reflects the version of the Life of the Elder Cato" (where the same anecdote is found): It is not clear why the editors make this observation but fail to explain their justification for the choice (presumably based on Plutarch's preference for clausulae of the type edite regibus).

15b: The editors ought to have noted that ἔνι ("shortened form of ἔνεστι") is not used by Plutarch except in the idiom ὡς ἔνι + superlative.

15d "deception is central to the very idea of what poetry is" (referring to the quotation from Gorgias, 23 D–K): But the quotation, which appears also at 348c, is explicitly concerned with tragedy, not with poetry in general.

15d "σκληρῷ . . . ἀτέγκτῳ: the adjectives are here used of the wax, but suggest the kind of educator and/or education that would ban all exposure to poetry": More likely the wording is intended to recall the image of the wax tablet at Theaetetus 191c–d, said to be the gift of "Mnemosyne, mother of the Muses," which receives indistinct imprints if it is dry (194e).

15d: For ἀκάτειον, which the editors print and convincingly defend, see L. Casson, "The Emergency Rig of Ancient Warships," TAPA 98 (1967) 43–48.

16b: For color as "stimulating" (κινητικόν), see in the first instance Arist. De anima 418a31.

16c: The expression ἀληθείας ἀγωνιστής seems to occur for the first time here, becoming frequent later, especially in Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.

16c: For τὸν ἅπαντα βίον with perfect tense, cf. Cato min. 64.8, mor. 201d.

16c: There is no comment on the hiatus (λόγοι εἰσί), which is easily removed by adopting Bernardakis' transposition. In the Introduction (24), Hunter had claimed that "the only obvious exceptions in this treatise" to Plutarch's strict avoidance of hiatus are in the quotations from Philoxenus and Simonides at 14d and 15c.

17d: For the difficulty of "tracking down" the truth, see Per. 13.16.

18a: For the epigrams on Timomachus' Medea, see S. A. Gurd, "Meaning and Material Presence: Four Epigrams on Timomachus' Unfinished Medea," TAPA 137 (2007) 305–31.

18d: The anecdote concerning the cripple Damonidas is also found attached to "Eumonidas" at Gnom. Vat. 284 and to Simonides in a collection of apophthegmata in Baroc. gr. 51 (J. F. Kindstrand, "A Collection of Apophthegmata in an Oxford Manuscript," in S.-V. Teodorsson [ed.], Greek and Latin Studies in Memory of Cajus Fabricius [Gothenburg 1990] 141–53, at p. 147). What is the connection with the anecdote told about the otherwise unknown Spartan king Damonidas (mor. 191f, 219e; cf. 149a) and about the lame Agesilaus (mor. 208d) who, when the dancing master assigned him the last place in the chorus-line, presumably because of his impairment, said that this was an excellent way of conferring honor on an otherwise undistinguished position?

19a "προδιαβάλλειν . . . does not occur in the scholia": It occurs once in the exegetical scholia to Homer (Od. 2.85, where it is used of Antinoos), once in the scholia vetera to Hesiod (Op. 349–51 Pertusi, from Plutarch?) and several times in the scholia to Aeschines and Demosthenes.

19f: The editors note Hercher's attractive τινά in the apparatus but print the manuscript reading (τινός), without explaining what it can possibly mean in agreement with ἀέρος.

20a "It is a pity that P. does not make clear how he understood κόσμον" at Od. 8.492: The more important point (not mentioned by Hunter and Russell) is that the caparisoning of the Trojan horse is intended to contrast with the seductive dressing-up of Hera (cf. Il. 14.187 περὶ χροῒ θήκατο κόσμον) that Plutarch had just mentioned and to which he will immediately return.

20c: Another possible identification for Melanthius is the fourth-century Atthidographer, who used a similarly colorful metaphor when he described an earthquake by saying, "the land developed wrinkles" (FGrHist 326 F 1).

23f: Plutarch's use of θεόσδοτον ("occurs only here in P., and is a poetical word") immediately after quoting Hes. Op. 717–18 is surely prompted by the word's only occurrence in Hesiod, at Op. 320 (cf. also Luc. Juppiter confutatus. 5). Plutarch wrote a commentary on the Works and Days (frags. 25–112 Sandbach) and he quotes Op. 313 below, at 24e.

26b: Plutarch's point about the absurdity of imitating Plato's slouch and Aristotle's lisp is paralleled at Per. 2.1, where Plutarch says that "no well-bred young man (οὐδεὶς εὐφυὴς νέος), after seeing the Zeus at Olympia or the Hera at Argos, desires to become Pheidias or Polycleitus."

32d: The reference to Od. 8.499 in connection with ἀφ᾿ ὧν . . . ὁρμηθείς is unconvincing; cf. the common use of ἀφορμή to refer to "das wovon man ausgeht" (Wilamowitz on Eur. HF 236).

32d "The image in διασοβεῖσθαι is of scattering birds, cf. Pompey 29.4": While the reference to the Life of Pompey provides a good parallel to the use of the verb here, it does not illustrate the underlying image, for which see J. Taillardat, Les images d'Aristophane (Paris 1965) §221, who gives evidence that the verb denotes "chasser un oiseau ou un insecte" (note μυιοσόβη, "fly-whisk"); cf. also L. Robert, "Les colombes d'Anastase et autres volatiles," JS (1971) 94–95. The semantic progression seems to be from "be caused to take wing" to "be borne aloft by a sense of self-importance"; compare ἐπαίρεσθαι, with which Plutarch combines the word here, and μετέωρος.

33f: The quotation from Philo (Prob. 21) does not support the claim that "συγγενές may be a further pointer to a Stoic source." Cf. rather Plant. 159, which illustrates both the ideal that Plutarch is here discussing, namely "a close linkage between moral character and what is said," and the uncommon expression ἀρετῆς ὄργανον (accepting Wendland's nearly certain correction).

34e: For the general's cloak, cf. the story that Plutarch repeats about Pericles at mor. 186c, 620c and 813d– e.

36b: The editors print δυσκαρτέρητος, with no indication in the apparatus of the variant δυσεγκαρτ-, while the note reads, "δυσεγκαρτέρητος, 'difficult to endure,' occurs elsewhere only at Sext. Emp. Math. 9.152." The latter is printed by all recent editors at mor. 547d, where again the two forms are manuscript variants, and is also found (spelled δυσεκκαρτ-) at Phld. Piet. 2361 Obbink and D. 1.12.6. Presumably the editors intended to adopt it, as Paton before them had done; being the rarer form it deserves consideration as the lectio difficilior.

36d: The editors do not indicate how they take the dative with προανοίγει καὶ προκινεῖ. Is Plutarch saying that his method prepares the mind of the young man to be opened up and turned on "to" or "by" philosophical discourse? Babbitt's translation adopts the latter view, Philippon's the former. The context seems to favor "to," although the dative with ἀνοίγνυμι usually refers to a person (e.g. Alc. 10.2, Arat. 50.9, Dion 45.1, mor. 143f, 360a). Here, however, "philosophical discourse" (τοῖς ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ λόγοις) may be felt to be equivalent to "philosophers and their arguments."

36e: For the "bastard light" (νόθῳ φωτί), cf. Philo, Mut. 5 and Virt. 12.

The paucity of the foregoing comments and the trivial nature of many of them are an indication of the care and erudition with which the editors have prepared this volume, which stands as a welcome contribution to the understanding of the way in which Plutarch and his contemporaries read (and heard) poetic texts.

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