Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Geert Roskam, Luc Van der Stockt (ed.), Virtues for the People: Aspects of Plutarchan Ethics. Plutarchea hypomnemata. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2011. Pp. 384. ISBN 9789058678584. $80.00.

Reviewed by Steve Maiullo, Hope College (maiullo@hope.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Anyone in search of a true heir to the Socratic model of persistent questioning will eventually need to look to Plutarch, who examined nearly everything through the lens of philosophy: history, religion, literature, oratory, animals, and politics, to name a paltry few. But unlike Socrates, Plutarch wrote prolifically. This presents a major challenge for scholars who seek to understand this polymathic Platonist. That he is such a rich source about the ancient world means that his own literary accomplishments have been overlooked in favor of other research goals. On the other hand, those who are interested in Plutarch for his own sake need to make difficult decisions (and exclusions). This means, unfortunately, that many important topics will slip (and have slipped) through the cracks. But, fortunately, this volume marshals some of the world's finest scholars on Plutarch to fill one such void: the woefully understudied group of texts long known as the "popular philosophical and ethical writings."

Let me begin with a few overarching comments. Each of these papers was first presented at a conference in Delphi, but to the reader who is generally apprehensive about such conference proceedings, fear not: this collection has a clear, clean structure, and all the chapters, when taken together, contribute to a persuasive central argument. These sixteen essays, each of uniformly high quality, challenge the prevailing view of Plutarch merely as a bookish and learned intellectual (and as someone with whom, as a former teacher of mine once proclaimed, "I probably would not want to have a beer.") The Plutarch that emerges from these pages attempted to inspire his fellow citizens to a philosophical life by deploying his philosophical and literary heritage. Scholars have debated about whether Plutarch should be included in the list of authors (such as Dio, Lucian, and Aristeides) that populate that so-called Second Sophistic. Robert Lamberton, in his Plutarch, refers to him as "Janus-like," because he looks both forward to the literary developments of Imperial Greek literature and backward to the heyday of Greek cultural influence. This collection, as a whole, takes a firm stand on this thorny question, placing Plutarch's project, the popularization of philosophical ethics, squarely in line with the goals of the Second Sophistic.

The individual papers themselves are all informative, innovative, engaging, and worthy of further comment, but my treatment must be brief.

The introduction, co-authored by the volume's editors, Geert Roskam and Luc Van der Stockt, offers an explanation of how the chapters are organized: the first part studies how Plutarch understood popular philosophy; the second examines the relationship between theoretical questions and ethical praxis; the third turns to ethical praxis more systematically; and the fourth shows that Plutarch's popular philosophy also extended beyond moral edification.

Luc Van der Stockt's essay, " Semper duo, numquam tres? Plutarch's Popularphilosophie on Friendship and Virtue in On Having Many Friends, opens the volume with the suggestion that Zeigler's category Popularphilosophie was likely derived in the German Enlightenment when the term referred to an eclectic type of philosophy whose aim was to educate people practically for leading a happy and fulfilled life. He offers a sensitive reading of the rhetorical features of On having many friends that show that Plutarch sacrificed "philosophical nuance and doubt" (p.26), appealing more to common-sense and the emotions, in order to show his likely young audience that idealized friendship was attainable.

Chris Pelling, in "What is Popular about Plutarch's 'Popular Philosophy,'" argues that the rich and powerful in the Parallel Lives fall short of demotic values because, simply put, they do not face the same struggles as ordinary people. Far from suggesting that Plutarch idealizes simpler virtues, Plutarch thought that the demos does not know what is truly best for them. Popular philosophy is therefore unique in that it aims specifically at μετριότης, a moderate balance between the two types of wisdom. Pelling concludes that these texts are aimed, therefore, at two potential audiences: (1) the powerful man who should avoid the character flaws typical of the elite; and (2) the pepaideumenos who would be in the position to educate the demos .

The next essay, "Plutarch's Lives and the Critical Reader," follows upon Pelling's nicely. Tim Duff argues that Plutarch demands his audience in both the Lives and Moralia be "active, engaged and critical readers" (p.59). As always, Duff's arguments are acute: he shows how Plutarch's texts serve as open invitations to philosophy. He avoided authorial interventions and explicit statements about morality, which are left to the reader's own judgment, and used multiple focalizations, agonistic sets of speeches, and open questions to examine the same subject from a variety of angles. These features prevent critical readers from coming away with a single moral or lesson, and invite them instead to "abstract moral lessons for themselves" and to search for ways to apply them in their own lives (p. 81). Plutarch's writing, then, is primarily protreptic.

No volume on Plutarch would be complete without addressing the complicated question of, as Goldhill framed it, what it means to "be Greek under Rome."1 "Greek Poleis and the Roman Empire" by Paolo Desideri rises admirably to this challenge. Desideri argues that Plutarch reframes the job of the 'classical' Greek politician from foreign policy and independent governance to the promotion of loyalty to the Roman state in each polis and of a sense of community. Plutarch, like other authors of this period, walks a fine line between fostering pride in individual cities and accepting Roman rule.

Continuing with politics, Jolanda Capriglione announces at the beginning of her "Del Satiro che voleva baciare il fuoco," that Plutarch is the "final result" of a world that experienced too many wars and, as such, seeks to restore intellectual focus toward living the "buona vita" (p.99). However ideal it may be to live in a world without enemies, we learn from How to Profit from one's Enemies that their presence incites us toward virtue. Through her reading of this text, Capriglione shows that Plutarch called for an ethical program not based on abstract, theoretical, or even idealized rules about moral behavior, but rather one based on useful choices in the real world made in concert with παίδεια.

The practical implications of popular philosophy also include the ethical examination of lifestyle choices. Lieve Van Hoof's essay, "Plutarch's 'Diet-Ethics,'" provides an insightful reading, on the model of literary approaches to Plato's dialogues, of the Precepts of Heathcare that interrogates the connection between science and philosophy. This text, Van Hoof argues, employs a rhetorical strategy that simultaneously provides its readers "with a philosophical diet, [and] with possible models for approaching the text" (p.111). Plutarch, knowing well that not everyone is a philosopher, offers advice for the more practically-minded to live in accordance with philosophical principles.

Moving on to the second section, 'theoretical questions on ethical praxis,' Hubert Martin in "Plutarchan Morality" asks whether Plutarch's ethics should be described as consequentialist. Through a careful analysis of several passages including the Lives of Demosthenes and Pericles as well as several texts from the Moralia, Martin's conclusion is, not surprisingly, inconclusive: in some passages Plutarch judges the morality of actions on the basis of their consequences, but in others suggests that people should do what is right regardless of consequences. But there is significant meaning in the contradiction, Martin smartly argues, because it betrays Plutarch's humanness.

Jan Opsomer's essay, "Virtue, Fortune, and Happiness in Theory and Practice," offers a guided tour through eudaimonia according to each philosophical school. Opsomer studies Plutarch's biography of Dion (among others) in order to determine whether Plutarch allowed for chance. Whereas the Stoics denied that luck could exist in a world governed by divine providence, the Platonist Plutarch was both committed to the view that virtue is necessary for happiness and recognized a role for chance. Sometimes fortune played a positive role, for example in testing "the resilience of virtuous men" (p. 168), but sometimes it could destroy virtue.

Geert Roskam's "Plutarch against Epicurus on Affection for Offspring" offers a thorough reading of De amore prolis and recontextualizes it in terms of the philosophical tradition of φιλοστοργία. After working through both the textual problems associated with and the arguments that arise from this text, he concludes that this is fundamentally a polemical work against Epicurus because it argues, contra the Epicurean view that love for one's children could disturb ἀταραξία, that parental love is natural and not part of any hedonic calculus. Thus, the text fundamentally belongs to Plutarch's attacks on Epicureanism.

Anastasios Nikolaidis' "Plutarch's 'Minor' Ethics" begins the third part, "Virtues and Vices," by surveying Plutarch's take on three minor ethical foibles: flibbertigibbetness (ἀδολεσχία), busybodying (πολυπραγμοσύνη), and excessive shyness (δυσωπία). Nikolaidis demonstrates that Plutarch's texts on each flaw, despite a few variations, have similar structure (beginning with a definition, followed by examples, concluding with therapeutic solutions) and come to similar conclusions: minor foibles are worse than they seem because they can prevent men from leading the virtuous life, but can be remedied by simple exercises. As with many of the best arguments of this volume, Nikolaidis concludes that Plutarch appeals to common sense so often because he "is convinced that perfect and absolute virtue is unattainable" (p. 221).

Moving away from these 'psychotherapeutic' treatises, Heinz-Gerd Ingenkamp presents a savvy argument that defines De vitando aere alieno as a homily addressed to pepaideumenoi in "Plutarchs Schrift gegen das Borgen." On this reading, Ingenkamp shows that Plutarch preaches to his cultured (but also likely partially poor) audience the need for both self-sufficiency, leisure, and a willingness to accept what one already has. Although we may try to befriend the rich and famous, we should also be willing to earn a living as a craftsman or teacher in order to promote the mental attitude of σχολή.

In "Competition and its Costs," Philip Stadter, after a crucial discussion (and resolution) of the confusion between the roots φιλονικ- and φιλονεικ-, embarks on a journey through several texts from the Moralia and four pairs of Lives in order to show that, like Plato, Plutarch suggested that the desire to win was located in the spirited part of the tripartite soul and, properly controlled, could sometimes be a positive trait. In the cases of Aristides and Themistocles, for example, φιλονικία in both cases developed in positive directions, whereas it led to the ultimate defeats of Agesilaus and Pompey. Stadter concludes that while, ideally, Plutarch would have said that excessive competition disrupts social harmony, practically, he recognized its usefulness in service to the state.

Aurelio Pérez Jiménez kicks off the final section, 'Popular Philosophy in Context,' with a closer look at Plutarch's apparent fascination with astronomy and meteorology in "Astrometeorología y creencias sobre los Astros en Plutarco." Through a reading of passages from the Isis and Osiris as well as from the Lives, Pérez Jiménez shows that Plutarch considers not only the scientific and philosophical consensus about this material, but also what may be termed 'popular opinion,' which he attempts to bring in line with possible physical explanations.

In "Bitch is not a four-letter word" (which wins the award for catchiest title), Judith Mossman and Frances Titchener excavate the rhetorical strategies in Plutarch's major works on animals and bring out, with outstanding success, that Plutarch employs metaphor, anthropomorphism, character development, and humor in order to both blur the line between human and animal and to "make his points more palatable" to his audience (p.296).

The volume concludes brilliantly with Françoise Frazier's "Autour du miroir," which effectively surveys the simile of the mirror in Plutarch's texts. Her study shows, aptly, that the image functions to illuminate two main branches of philosophy: epistemology and ethics. In terms of the former, the mirror is used in relation to mathematics, the language with which philosophers may approach the intelligible realm. As for the latter, it reflects the importance of 'l'examen de soi' in accordance with great models of human behavior.


1.   S. Goldhill (ed.) (2001) Being Greek under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic, and the Development of Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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