Thursday, February 7, 2019


Elsa Giovanna Simonetti, A Perfect Medium? Oracular Divination in the Thought of Plutarch. Plutarchea Hypomnemata. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2017. Pp. 256. ISBN 9789462701113. €75,00.

Reviewed by Crystal Addey, University of St Andrews (

Version at BMCR home site


For much of the twentieth century, classicists and ancient historians paid little attention to the fact that ancient philosophers, from archaic Greece through to late antiquity, often engaged extensively with and wrote about oracles and other forms of divination.1 In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, scholars have begun to rectify this oversight—a rectification no doubt partially catalysed by the flourishing of scholarly interest in ancient divination as an important area of investigation in its own right—with recent scholarship focusing much more closely on the relationship between ancient philosophy and divination (particularly, although not exclusively, within the Platonic tradition).2 Elsa Giovanna Simonetti's study, which examines the roles and significance of oracular divination in the thought of Plutarch, is part of this recent reassessment of the extensive and important links between philosophy and divination in antiquity. Plutarch of Chaeronea (c.45-120 AD) focused on the nature and operation of the Delphic oracle in three treatises collectively referred to as the Delphic Dialogues, as well as writing about the daimonion of Socrates and the oracle of Trophonios in De genio Socratis (Plutarch devoted one of his lost works to the latter as well: On the descent into the cave of Trophonios, Lamprias catalogue no. 181). As well as being a Platonist philosopher, biographer, and prolific writer in the imperial period, Plutarch was also a priest (hiereus) at the oracle of Apollo in Delphi, possibly for as long as twenty-five or thirty years.3 This priestly role, which involved responsibility for ritual and liturgical activity at the shrine, means that Plutarch was extremely well-placed to offer first-hand, direct testimony concerning the operation of the Delphic oracle. Thus, the lack of focus on Plutarch's approach towards oracles and, in a broader sense, divination, in modern scholarship (especially within the Anglo-American world) to date is even more astonishing.4 Simonetti's work helps to fill this gap, as the first work in the English language to focus extensively on the roles of oracular divination in Plutarch's philosophy.

Simonetti's study demonstrates that the Delphic oracle is located at the very core of Plutarch's thinking, drawing together his ontology and metaphysics, his view of the soul, his conceptions of the divine and his epistemological stance. The work is divided into four chapters in addition to an introduction and conclusion. The first three chapters provide a thorough analysis of each of Plutarch's Delphic Dialogues (Chapter 1: De Pythiae oraculis; Chapter 2: De defectu oraculorum; Chapter 3: De E apud Delphos), while the final chapter (Chapter 4: Divination and the Soul) develops an overall interpretation of Plutarch's conception of divination in relation to his theory of the soul (human and cosmic), building on the analyses of the previous chapters. This is an eminently sensible arrangement, given that this is the first study to focus so extensively on the philosophical treatment of oracles in Plutarch's Delphic Dialogues. The order of the chapters is well-conceived and traces an ascending path evident within these three dialogues, beginning with the Pythia and her oracular words, passing through to the more complex dynamics of divination based on the interaction between material and spiritual agents, and finally reaching Plutarch's view of Apollo as a supreme beneficent god and of the Delphic temple as a symbol of the interaction between the material and the transcendent realms. Throughout the analysis, Simonetti draws on and alludes to relevant passages and works from across Plutarch's corpus (from both the Moralia and the Lives), which enhances the richness of her study and demonstrates her masterly expertise in Plutarch's thought.

A major strength of this work is the thorough and detailed analysis of the diverse range of characters, mythological anecdotes, religious beliefs and philosophical arguments contained within the Delphic Dialogues. Simonetti demonstrates how every character and element in each of these dialogues contributes to the overarching question or problem posed in that specific work. In doing so, Simonetti implicitly shows the importance and philosophical sophistication of Plutarch's exegesis and use of the dialogic method, both of which draw extensively on Plato's own methodology. For example, Chapter 1 examines Plutarch's De Pythiae oraculis as a relevant source for our knowledge of the functioning, physical appearance and landscape of the Delphic oracle. Chapter 2 explores the way in which religious beliefs, mythological narratives and geological accounts are used to define the Delphic oracle as the perfect place of mediation between humans and the divine. Delphi emerges in these dialogues as a central place of encounter between divine wisdom and the human desire for knowledge. As such, Simonetti argues, the Delphic oracle functions as a microcosm reflecting cosmic dynamics for Plutarch. In relation to this, Simonetti analyses the way in which Plutarch's works exploring human-divine interaction as manifested in oracular activity offer multiple strategies for connecting Apollo with the material cosmos and especially focus on the need to provide a "wise middle path" between atheism and superstition, as well as between the two extreme philosophical perspectives of the Stoics (endorsing complete mixture of the divine with material reality) and the Epicureans (affirming divine withdrawal and detachment from material reality), respectively, which are often represented through the specific interlocutors in his dialogues (for instance, in De Pythiae oraculis, Boethus represents the Epicurean position while Sarapion embodies the Stoic perspective). The overall picture that emerges is that, for Plutarch, the divine operates only while respecting the inferior laws of necessity at work in the material cosmos, in an indirect, necessarily mediated (and non-deterministic) fashion.

Furthermore, Simonetti's exposition of Plutarch's philosophical and literary methodology in relation to his accounts of religious phenomena is masterful: she stresses Plutarch's 'academic scepticism', drawing on the work of Jan Opsomer and arguing that the search for truth in Plutarch is tentative and that the dialogical structure of many of his works demonstrates that philosophical investigation is driven by an aporetic-zetetic spirit and is based on the awareness of the provisional character of human knowledge (p.65). Even more importantly, Simonetti illustrates throughout her analysis the ways in which Plutarch, in his Delphic Dialogues, combines rigorous philosophical investigation with a pious and subtle religious spirit. The complementarity of philosophical and scientific investigation and religious piety are exemplified in (1) Plutarch's 'double causation' theory which involves investigating both supernatural and physical causes (examined in Chapters 1 and 2) and (2) in the characteristics ascribed to Apollo himself, as the god of both rationality and mantic activity (explored in Chapter 3). Simonetti's study provides insight into Plutarch's conception of an authentically rational foundation for divination, which is conceived as simultaneously scientific and religious. She thoroughly analyses Plutarch's model of double causation (that is, primary-transcendent and secondary-material) employed to elucidate the operation and functioning of oracles (especially the Delphic oracle), as well as being grounded in Plutarch's conception of the ontological structure of the cosmos (i.e., the sensible world is mixed and composed of divine rationality plus matter). The Pythia works as an intermediary agent of Apollo, but also occupies an ontologically intermediate position between the absolute transcendence of the deity and the ordinary status of human beings (Chapter 1, p.57). In Chapter 2, Simonetti explores Plutarch's De defectu oraculorum and shows that Lamprias' final account draws together elements of the preceding arguments made by the other interlocutors within the dialogue to showcase Plutarch's double causation theory, whereby divination is neither attributed uniquely to supernatural causes nor to physical factors but results from a complex interaction of both, that is to say, favourable conditions (physical factors), backed by divine endorsement.

In Chapter 3, Simonetti analyses Plutarch's De E apud Delphos and presents an inclusive reading of all the different proposed solutions to the enigma of the 'E' progressively advanced by the characters within the dialogue. She demonstrates that the accounts of each character concur to create a complex, multifaceted, and dynamic image of Apollo. In Chapter 4, Simonetti argues that Plutarch's theory of the soul (both the world soul and the individual soul) is central to his idea of divination; the soul, by virtue of its mediating function, is primarily responsible for the connection between the transcendent realm and the material world, just as divination itself is an effective medium between humanity and Apollo, as well as between becoming and being, and temporality and eternity. She also contrasts Plutarch's representation of Socrates and his daimonion (characterised by Simonetti as a form of 'individual divination') with the oracular divination of the Pythia, while noting the inspired character of both forms of divination and the connections between Socrates and Delphi (especially the oracle about Socrates which catalysed the latter's philosophical mission). In addition to a comparison of the Delphic dialogues and De genio Socratis, Simonetti draws on several treatises where Plutarch expresses his philosophical positions in his own voice: De virtute morali, Quaestiones Platonicae and De animae procreatione in Timaeo. This chapter explores the crucial role that Plato's Timaeus plays in Plutarch's explanation of divination, with regard to its cosmological framework and practical procedures.

Although this study is fluently written on the whole, occasional slips of style, some awkward phrasing and the use of some obscure terms (such as 'telluric' on p.12, 'gnoseological' on p. 14) do betray the fact that the author is not a native speaker of English. In particular, the term 'remind' is often used where 'recall' is actually needed (for example, "we should remind that according to Plutarch's theological reflection…"). There are also grammatical errors (such as on p. 21: "Plutarch never gives a clear, definite assessment of the meaning of myths and symbols, nor he studies these elements in an object way") and several typos (such as 'Pyhtia' on p. 22). In relation to these issues, the work would have benefited from a much more thorough process of copy-editing and proofreading by the press. However, these stylistic issues and minor typographical errors do not obscure the overall sense and content of this impressive work. The volume also contains a comprehensive bibliography and a very helpful Index Locorum. Overall, this is an extremely thorough, erudite, and convincing exploration of Plutarch's philosophical conceptions of oracular divination, which offers a detailed and sensitive analysis of Plutarch's philosophical theories regarding the operation and efficacy of divination and makes an extremely important contribution to scholarship on ancient philosophy and its relationship with divination. As such, this work should be read by all scholars and postgraduate students of ancient philosophy and Graeco-Roman religions. It will also be immensely useful for scholars and students in philosophy, classics, religious studies, theology, and anthropology.


1.   In the few examples of twentieth-century scholarship where Classicists and historians of religion did examine the relationship between ancient Graeco-Roman philosophers and divination, they often dismissed this interaction as philosophically insignificant, "irrational" and "superstitious" – cf. E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1951) for a representative example of this tendency. However, an important exception to this trend is evident in the erudite and sensitive work of F. Brenk, In Mist Apparelled: Religious Themes in Plutarch's Moralia and Lives (Leiden, 1977).
2.   Cf. for example, P. Athanassiadi, "Philosophers and Oracles: Shifts of Authority in Late Paganism", Byzantion 62 (1992): 45-62; "Dreams, Theurgy and Freelance Divination: The Testimony of Iamblichus", JRS 83 (1993): 115-130; C. Addey, Divination and Theurgy in Neoplatonism: Oracles of the Gods (Farnham, 2014); P. Struck, Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity (Princeton and Oxford, 2016).
3.   See Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 700e1-10; CIG 1713, ed. Boeckh (1828-38), 171; H.W. Parke and D.E.W. Wormell, The Delphic Oracle II: The Oracular Responses (Oxford, 1956), ix; R. Lamberton, Plutarch (New Haven, 2001), 52-54, 155. Indications of service for twenty-five or thirty years: Plutarch, An seni respublica gerenda sit 792f6-14. Cf. also 785c9-d5.
4.   A notable exception is the work of X. Brouillette, La Philosophie delphique de Plutarque. L'itinĂ©raire des Dialogues pythiques (Paris, 2014).

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