Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Frieda Klotz, Katerina Oikonomopoulou (ed.), The Philosopher's Banquet: Plutarch's Table Talk in the Intellectual Culture of the Roman Empire. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xx, 279. ISBN 9780199588954. $99.00.

Reviewed by John Paulas, Loyola University Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site


Klotz and Oikonomopoulou have edited a volume intended to break ground for the systematic study of Table Talk and to spark interest in this under-analyzed text. The pieces in their collection fit well together and offer readings that place Plutarch's work into broader cultural and intellectual contexts without overlooking the details and complexities of the text.

The Introduction neatly summarizes the cultural, philosophical and literary background of Table Talk, for example, by positioning the work in light of three major traditions: sympotic texts, literature of "problems" (as problēmata is translated here), and miscellany (12-24). Two major themes of the collection emerge from this background. First, Table Talk, with its thorny sympotic questions that result in multiple answers, is seen as representing and teaching a type of philosophizing behavior. Next, on the cultural and literary side, Table Talk is viewed as a project in which constructions of a Plutarchan "self" play a central role in the text. Analyses consider the competing representations in the text of this Plutarchan self and the negotiation between individual and sympotic community, including the authors of the past.

The volume is organized into four sections. The first contextualizes and categorizes Table Talk within a disciplinary history of scholarship on the work and within a historical generic context. The second section considers the work's philosophical outlooks. Section three closely analyzes Plutarch's self-representation within the work. The final section reads the Table Talk in the light of the Lives and, briefly by way of conclusion, Gellius' Attic Nights.

Frances Titchener's survey of scholarship on the Table Talk, undertakes to summarize trends in the study of Plutarch's work. This is no mean task. The Table Talk has received a relatively small amount of scholarly attention, a fact that complicates the matter of tying together the scattered scholarship on it. Titchener's concluding paragraphs sum up nicely the overarching trends (48): For most of the twentieth century scholars were interested in a "descriptive approach" simply providing commentary or looking to the ways in which Table Talk imitated earlier sympotic works or how and whether it recorded historical events and persons. More recent scholarship offers a wider range of literary-theoretical "analytical approaches."

In the second essay of the collection, Teresa Morgan pulls off quite a coup, focusing on genre without simply revisiting the "descriptive approach," to use Titchener's language. She suggests that miscellaneity featured as the most prevalent generic element in the literature of the Roman period. She defends "miscellany" as a meaningful genre, defining it in its broadest sense as a collection of shorter works by one or any number of authors within a larger work, a definition she sees as understandable to ancients and moderns alike. Morgan suggests a close link between the cultural importance of enkyklios paideia (that diverse all-around education) in the period and the prominence of miscellany, "the heart and pinnacle of the literature of the Roman Empire" (54). Turning to Plutarch's work, Morgan considers the organization of its miscellanistic components, indentifying in the Table Talk several generic categories such as the "notebook" (hypomnēmata), philosophical dialogue and problēmata (72-3). She concludes by marveling (a reaction as at home in Plutarch's time as today) at Plutarch's "virtuosic" "genre-bending" that produced this miscellany that would influence future authors (72-3).

Eleni Kechagia's offering begins the second section of the collection, which provides an extended discussion of philosophy in Table Talk. Kechagia sets up a "two-tier" system of sympotic philosophy, viewing Plutarch's text as aimed at both beginners and experienced philosophers. In this view, Plutarch pitches philosophy as "an art of life" (in the words of his character Crato, 613b) and teaches a method of philosophical inquiry concerned both with "causes (aitiai) of [natural] phenomena" and with arguing for causality in terms of probability/likelihood (pithanon, eikos) (94). Kechagia outlines the principles of Plutarchan explanations: the four elements with their qualities (fire, hot) and physical processes (mixture, digestion). She cautiously refrains from declaring these principles Aristotelian/Peripatetic with full awareness they are prominent in the "problems" literature of that philosophical school. Kechagia emphasizes that experienced philosophical readers of Table Talk will have benefitted from the Platonic outlook of the work (99). In line with scholarly consensus, Kechagia ultimately views Plutarch as a "dedicated Platonist" who despite his skeptical epistemology concerning the natural world sees an unchanging truth in the metaphysical realm (101).

Katerina Oikonomopoulou turns to the Peripatos while conceding that Platonism takes first place in Plutarch's intellectualism. Oikonomopoulou specifically focuses on the text's "mode of engagement with Peripatetic knowledge" (106). She locates the importance of Peripateticism in the context of cultural capital "negotiations" of the period found in standard Bourdieuian reconstructions (107). As Kechagia does, Oikonomopoulou highlights the Peripatetic- ness of the answers given to natural questions. Oikonomopoulou analyzes the mechanisms for the expansion and encouragement of this scientific inquiry in a Peripatetic vein, giving particular importance to memory of Peripatetic material but also to forgetfulness as a spark for new inquiries. Of special interest is Oikonomopoulou's analysis of Plutarchan heurēsilogia ("the discovery of (new) things to say") (120-3). She considers how smart young men such as the characters Hagias and Aristaenetus are praised for not making expected arguments and views this activity as intellectual and social training for young people. Finally, Oikonomopoulou considers how, for the reader, the text, like the Peripatetic knowledge it contains, lends itself to being remembered while also furnishing starting points for new scientific investigations.

Maria Vamvouri Ruffy looks at the effects of the philosophical practices of the symposium in light of their healthfulness and harmfulness. Her essay accounts for the fact that a doctor, as Plutarch's text elsewhere implies Crato to be, announces the text's programmatic outlook, "philosophy as art of living" (613b). Vamvouri Ruffy considers Crato's use of the word kairos (right moment) in this passage and emphasizes its frequent appearance in the text. She sets up an analogy, developed from the text's use of words that she considers to have physiological nuances: "entertainment introduced at the right instant can have a similar effect on the symposium as medicine on the body" (135). Vamvouri Ruffy extends the importance of kairos to storytelling and speech, and treats the harmfulness of speech given at the wrong time. Thorubos (noisy uproar, "a symptom of spiritual illnesses," 137) is the unwanted consequence that the philosophical symposium, with symposiarch as doctor, can prevent in its guests and readers.

The collection next turns to the "self" in a section beginning with Frieda Klotz's essay on Plutarch's "self- presentation," a version of the conclusions reached in her 2007 article tailored for this volume.1 Klotz notices the creative tension between the temporal progression of Table Talk from beginning to end and Plutarch's representation of himself. He is an adult teacher in the beginning of the text, in the company of his grandfather and his father elsewhere, and a youthful student of Ammonius in the end. Klotz argues that such self-presentation is part of Plutarch's pedagogy and his way of modeling teacher-student relationships (161). Klotz demonstrates how in control and authoritative Plutarch's narrative voice is in 1.1 and how engaged with Plato's Symposium, rendering Plutarch a Socratic teacher. But just as Socrates does, as Klotz ingeniously notices, Plutarch also has a Diotima (171). Klotz considers how in Book 9 Ammonius replaces Plutarch as Socratic-style teacher by leading his interlocutors as Plutarch had earlier in the work. She suggests that Plutarch's "kaleidoscopic" self-presentation as "mature thinker" and "modest student" model different ways for readers young and old to "emulate" Plutarch (178).

Jason König takes up this analytical thread by looking more closely at the interplay between the authoritative and the deferential Plutarchan self. The central issue here is the tension between the demand for individual ingenuity and the need to subordinate oneself to members of the sympotic community present and past. In setting up his argument, König writes a brief and extremely illuminating review of scholarship on the presence of the self manifest by the use of the first person in both Greek and Latin technical and scientific texts of various periods (180-187). He concludes that, although Plutarch is a strong narrator and assertive symposiast, he is rather deferential, that is, he uses first person pronouns less often than one would expect in his prefaces and even in his commanding sympotic performances. König sees a balance of effacement and promotion of Plutarch's self in his relationship both with a contemporary sympotic community and with the sympotic community of the past (the authors Plutarch cites).

Christopher Pelling's essay appears with the conclusion in a short final section. Pelling's piece fits nicely with the spirit of König's contribution. Pelling reads a few of the small number (he discovers) of anecdotes told both in Lives and Table Talk and seeks to explain the presence and the absence of "Lives-material" in Table Talk. Pelling looks to the local contexts of the Lives and Table Talk to discover some very reasonable explanations for variations in the small number of shared anecdotes. As for the unexpected absence in Table Talk of great sympotic moments in Lives, Pelling appeals to a version of what he had earlier seen expressed in the text as operating anupoptōs (without suspicion, as Pelling understands this word, 212-3). Operating "without suspicion" of one's sympotic community both present and past means to Pelling a Plutarchan concern for not being a know-it-all at dinner, not mixing one's biographical researches with dinner conversation, and being generous at the table to your ancient sources and to individuals of the past.

A brief conclusion to the volume follows Pelling's contribution and considers the reception of Plutarch in Gellius' Attic Nights. Gellius is found to excerpt mostly "facts" from Table Talk without engaging directly with the dramatic and sympotic setting of the original work. The conclusion urges looking at the results of such intertextual moments in miscellanies as a way forward.

This collection plots a good beginning course for the study of Table Talk. With its emphasis on the role of philosophy in the symposium, Table Talk does demand an account of its relationship to philosophy. The accounts this volume offers make careful and convincing claims about Table Talk's philosophizing, especially its epistemology and, to an extent, its ethics. Likewise, the very present Plutarchan self in the text forms another area of immediate interest to the reader of Table Talk. The authors in this collection show Plutarch's carefully choreographed self-positioning and give convincing reasons for his multifacetedness of self. These analyses often achieve something beyond a monolithic view of elite self-fashioning, modeling ways of constructing the intellectual nuances of the Plutarchan self. Especially heartening to this reader are the ways in which the authors view Table Talk as offering readers something beyond socially useful information.

For the uninitiated, this collection will provide a solid introduction to Table Talk and some issues at stake in reading and analyzing this text. For experienced Table Talk readers, the collection provides many moments of specific interest, raising possibilities for further analyses of Plutarch's text, thus agreeably mirroring its general understanding of how Table Talk works.


1.   Klotz, Frieda. 2007. "Portraits of the philosopher: Plutarch's self-presentation in the Quaestiones Conviviales" CQ 57.2: 650-67.

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