Sunday, January 28, 2018


Michiel Meeusen, Plutarch's Science of Natural Problems: A Study with Commentary on 'Quaestiones Naturales'. Plutarchea hypomnemata. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2016. Pp. 556. ISBN 9789462700840. €85.00.

Reviewed by Cristian Tolsa, Barcelona (

Version at BMCR home site


[The reviewer wishes to apologize for the lateness of this review.]

Michiel Meeusen's book represents an important contribution to our understanding of both the ancient genre of natural aetiology and of the Corpus Plutarcheum. Its main purpose is to assess Plutarch's contribution to natural philosophy by means of a thorough exploration and contextualization of his Natural Problems (Quaestiones naturales), constituting by far the most detailed and complete study of this (at least until recently) neglected work. The author justly describes his work as "a systematic study of the collection, which includes both an analytical and a descriptive approach" (p. 52), benefiting from and complementing thematic studies on particular aspects of the text conducted in the last 20 years (including his own numerous articles).

The format of the book is somewhat puzzling at first sight. After a 44-page prologue, the "study" promised in the title is turned into a very long "introduction" (ca.300 pages) in the table of contents and in the corresponding section heading. This is followed by a 123-page commentary, which might seem rather short after the long introductory study. However, it is quite detailed considering the brevity of Plutarch's text (about 20 pages without notes, comprising the 31 problems in 911C-919E plus 8 extra problems in Longolius' Latin translation plus another 2 in Psellus' adaptation). After the commentary, the author has added a useful 2-page synopsis of the introductory study, which is followed by a bibliography and an index locorum.

It is important to note that, probably contrary to expectation, Meeusen does not include the text of the Quaestiones naturales in any format. This is however an understandable choice given the considerable extra work that a new translation (and edition?) would have entailed, a project in which the author is already engaged (he is preparing a volume for the Budé collection, together with Filippomaria Pontani). Presumably for similar reasons, the reader will not find here an analysis of the textual history of the work, apart from the necessary discussion of textual problems in the commentary. As we are told at the beginning of the prologue, Meeusen relies for the most part on the 1965 Loeb text edited by Sandbach, 1 the translations used in the book (not only of Plutarch) being adopted from the same collection.

I will now provide a brief sketch of the prologue and each of the four chapters of the introduction. The prologue takes as its point of departure (pp. 18-19) Socrates' remark in the Phaedo (also quoted as the epigraph of the book [p.(5)]) that he was deeply interested in the physical causes of things as a young student (Phd. 96a). Meeusen goes on to reflect on the value attached by the ancients to the study of the physical world and the modern assessment of their efforts. This quotation opens up the problem of the chronology of the work within the corpus of Plutarch. Harrison's theory of intermittent composition is found to be useful to explain both the abundance of topics shared with Quaestiones convivales (considered to be of late composition) and the fact that Plutarch portrays himself in that work as a young student working on this kind of problems with Ammonius in Athens. The hypothesis that the Quaestiones naturales is a juvenile work is thus rightly dismissed by Meeusen, who adduces the parallel of the interest in the natural world in Plato's Timaeus. Meeusen could have used a nice parallel with mathematics in Plutarch's own De E (387EF), where his passion for mathematics as a youth is brought up as encouragement for proposing a mathematical solution to the problem at hand (the E). The numerological proposal is ultimately deemed less worthy of credence than the final myth, which alludes to theological causes.2

As to the subject-matter of Quaestiones naturales, Meeusen defends the position that we should use the word "science" to describe it. There is a long and thorough discussion of the pros and cons of this choice (already hinted at in the title of the book), in which the author ultimately prefers to avoid the possible pejorative connotations of historical terms (such as natural history, natural philosophy, or physiology). Meeusen is focused on stressing that this kind of investigation is not to be judged according to modern standards, which would judge it unempirical and unscientific, but this is a tricky question, because, as Meeusen himself observes, the ancients would not have attached to it any term denoting secure knowledge such as ἐπιστήμη, which is generally reserved by Platonists for the theological part of theoretical philosophy. In the end, it is a bit of an ideological question, and in view of the prejudices long operative against the study of ancient natural philosophy, Meeusen's choice seems reasonable. We can also think of our own concept of social sciences, implying a classified and relatively exhaustive body of knowledge in some domain, with certain standardized practices and tools, but lacking the requirements of certainty and empiricism of more exact sciences. In this context it would have been interesting to explore ancient classifications of philosophy to get a clearer view of where the ancients situated natural science. The usual division of theoretical philosophy into physics, mathematics and theology, forming an ascending degree of stability and prestige,3 would perhaps have illustrated the connections and differences between these domains of knowledge, and the reasons for the Platonic emphasis on theology. The prologue finally closes with some thoughtful methodological remarks (emphasis on authorial voice over Quellenforschung), and the status quaestionis, where Meeusen introduces the authors with whom he engages most throughout the book: K. Oikonomopoulou, L. Van der Stockt, S.-T. Teodorsson and F.H. Sandbach. Most notably, L. Senzasono's 2006 edition with translation and commentary is targeted here and throughout the book for its interpretative lacunae.4

In the first introductory essay Meeusen contextualizes Quaestiones naturales within the ancient genre of physical aetiology. The obvious precedent, a genre in itself, is that of the Ps.-Aristotelian Problems. The question of what it implied for Plutarch to contribute to this genre shows up early in the chapter (p. 67). Adhering to Roskam's view that, whereas Plutarch appreciated Aristotle's philosophy, he was only devoted to Plato, Meeusen problematizes the scholarly opinion that Quaestiones naturales represents a sort of tribute to Aristotle (Oikonomopoulou, Teodorsson). Aristotle obviously deserves a special place in this work, but this is more because of Aristotle's tireless activity and acute judgement as a natural philosopher than because Plutarch thinks he is right in everything. It could as well be the case that Plutarch used these problems as a light form of philosophy, perfectly compatible with his Platonic view (p. 75). Meeusen does not provide any comparative analysis, but to many scholars, this apparent conflict between Plutarch's Platonic allegiance and his adherence to the genre of Aristotelian natural problems will ring the bell of other cases in which Aristotelian lore was absorbed by the Platonic tradition in Imperial times (e.g. the adoption, with criticism, of the Aristotelian categories by the Platonist Eudorus of Alexandria). Meeusen also discusses here the micro- and macro-structure of Plutarch's Quaestiones naturales. The conclusions boil down to the concepts of the interrogativity/plausibility of arguments (illustration with examples from the text would have helped here) and the principle of variatio (comparison with literary works where this principle is at work could have improved the discussion).

The second chapter discusses the position of the Quaestiones naturales within the corpus Plutarcheum. In the first part, Meeusen explores Plutarch's natural scientific interests from the point of view of the rest of his works, examining possible indirect references to Quaestiones naturales elsewhere in the corpus and offering a detailed comparison with Quaestiones convivales. The scholarly view that the former were personal notes (ὑπομνήματα) to be used in a full-fledged work such as the latter is convincingly dismissed with the argument that the text of Quaestiones naturales, despite being "hypomnematic" at some points, is too well designed and has the appearance of a finished text, comprising even rhetorical elaboration. Another possible argument would be the adherence to the genre of Aristotelian natural problems noted above. Why otherwise would Plutarch, for example, have missed the opportunity to include moralising ideas?

The third chapter deals with Plutarch's educational goals and the implied readership of Quaestiones naturales. Meeusen begins by situating the practice of solving natural problems in philosophical schools (Aristotle's Lyceum, but also Taurus' Platonic school). Plutarch's Academy (probably his own house) would function as such, and thus constitute an apt context for discussion of such questions, along with the symposium and the promenade. Meeusen further explores features of the problems which make them appropriate for this kind of setting: simplicity and persuasiveness (noted by Plutarch himself), and question-and-answer format. Some instances of vivacity in the text are also brought into the discussion. Finally, the ultimate educational aim of Quaestiones naturales is hypothesized to consist in promoting the exercise of the mind (theoretical challenge) and the ease of the mind (εὐθυμία). The latter goal, connecting the text with Plutarch's religious-philosophical project, is a very welcome contribution by the author, who argues, adducing his own remarks in Quaestiones naturales and elsewhere, that Plutarch directs the common people's interest in mirabilia toward an examination of the physical causes, driving them away from superstitio.

The fourth and longest chapter develops further the relation between the topic of paradoxes and Quaestiones naturales, proposing that Plutarch's dualistic view on causation allows for divine intervention. To the question of why this never appears explicitly in the text, Meeusen ventures that symposiac decorum would not allow it, but it could as well have been argued, in the same way as before, that it was not a characteristic of the genre of problems to introduce this kind of causes. Meeusen finds good reasons to assume that the mythological explanations sometimes concluding the problems as well as quotations from poets (both compiled in useful tables) comply with this function. It would benefit the argument to contrast this with the Ps.-Aristotelian problems, where these features are generally absent, and to explore the function of myths in Plato's dialogues. The second part of the chapter deals with Plutarch's methodology, comprising a study of Plutarch's creative use of received philosophical knowledge and his practice with regard to quotations (including a table). The material principles and natural processes at work in Quaestiones naturales are then reviewed, along with other aspects of Plutarch's methodology, such as his consciousness and expression of the limits of his investigation, the possibility of autopsy (sometimes accepted in recent scholarship) being rightly rejected on both textual and philosophical grounds. The author finally explores logical-rhetorical issues such as the treatment of contradiction, comprehensiveness and sophistication,5 as well as Plutarch's oscillation between technical and non-technical natural-philosophical vocabulary.

The commentary proceeds by lemmata, and presents an extremely useful introduction to each of the problems, always structured in the same way. It first provides an outline of the whole problem (with its proposed causae), and then explains the causes together with their arguments. The first lemma in the problem is often the question itself, for which Meeusen provides parallels in the ancient literature.

In general, the argument of the book is clear and convincing, if slightly redundant, often due to the frequent introductions and conclusions for the numerous subsections. The amount of secondary literature researched, compiled, and discussed is impressive, and this should be praised. Sometimes, however, there is a pedantic excess in criticism (see e.g. the overlong footnote against Senzasono in pp. 326-8), but this does not dectract from the value of the work. I have only spotted a few typos (pp. 32, 41, 88, 288 n. 118, 300, 319, 333 n. 246, 473).


1.   Sandbach, F.H. and Pearson, L. Plutarch's Moralia in sixteen volumes, vol. 11. Cambridge, Mass., 1965.
2.   Cf. Bonazzi, M. "L'offerta di Plutarco. Teologia e filosofia nel De E apud Delphos (capitoli 1-2)", Philologus 152 (2008), 205-211.
3.   Cf. Arist. Metaph. 1026a19, Ptol. Synt. pref., Alcinous ch. 3.
4.   Senzasono, L. Plutarco. Cause dei fenomeni naturali. Introduzione, testo critico, traduzione e commento. Napoli, 2006.
5.   At times here, as when he speaks of "a scientific problem" and "to be regarded as a scientist" (p. 354), Meeusen breaks his self-imposed rules regarding the caution with which the word "science" is to be used.

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