LINEBURG


<< . .

 6
( 33)



. . >>

for his or her own coherent philosophical development, is a common one
2 E.g., see Eagleton (1996) 40“4 for a convenient account of the importance of coherence for the New
Criticism of the mid-twentieth century.
3 For claims about random composition, see, for example, Gell. NA pr. 2“3, discussed by Holford-
Strevens (2003) 34, who cites a number of parallels, including Pamphile (attested by Phot. Bibl. 17: 119b
27“32), Clem. Al. Strom. 6.2.1, Plin. Ep. 1.1.1; Pliny™s claim in particular has been shown to be dubious:
see Sherwin-White (1966) 21“3 and 42“51; cf. Vardi (2004) 169“79 who draws a contrast between
the genuinely random structure of Gellius™ miscellany, and other miscellanistic works where we ¬nd
much clearer signs of thematic grouping (with brief mention (169“70) of Plutarch™s Quaest. conv.,
along with works by Athenaeus, Macrobius, Clement and Solinus). Cf., p. 62, below, for discussion
of the disingenuous nature of Plutarch™s claims about the randomness of his own composition in
Quaest. conv.
Plutarch™s Sympotic Questions 45
in ancient philosophical literature. Here one of the most obvious Imperial
examples “ albeit not a miscellanistic example “ is in the work of Galen,
who often represents his medical writing as provisional, stressing the fact
that each reader must reach a full understanding of each individual subject,
and of the medical art as a whole, for him- or herself, via proper application
of logical method.4
This chapter takes Plutarch™s Sympotic questions (Quaest. conv.) “ an
enormous accumulation of dinner-party conversations on scienti¬c, lit-
erary and sympotic topics, recorded accurately, so Plutarch claims, from
several decades of symposium-going “ as a test-case for those approaches.
I want to suggest that this work exempli¬es all of the different kinds of
order outlined in the previous paragraph. I also want to suggest, however,
that Plutarch is in some ways highly untypical, especially in the degree to
which he is self-conscious about his own project of conjuring order from
diversity.5 More speci¬cally, I argue that the Sympotic questions does offer
us, contrary to ¬rst impressions, a carefully orchestrated vision of how we
can draw coherence out of its own fragmented aggregation of material, if
only we read with proper philosophical attention. In order to achieve that
effect, it draws on models of how to read which are carefully theorised else-
where in Plutarch™s oeuvre (more on that in the next section). The Sympotic
questions prompts us to read actively “ in other words to respond creatively
and philosophically for ourselves to the many different questions under
discussion, and to stay alert to the recurring themes and patterns of the
4 E.g., see Gal., Thras. 3“4 for one good example of that.
5 The Quaest. conv. had demonstrable in¬‚uence over later miscellanism, but none of its imitators quite
matches Plutarch™s fascination with the tension between order and disorder: see Gell. NA 3.6 and 17.11
for essays which take their material from the Quaest. conv.; and cf. n. 3, above, for Vardi™s argument
that Gellius on the whole resists the underlying coherence of the Quaest. conv.; however, see also
Morgan (2004) on the underlying ethical coherence of Gellius™ work; also Gell. NA pr. 16“18, where
Gellius emphasises, like Plutarch, his hope that the reader will be inspired to personal re¬‚ection
and improvement by his reading of the work, a passage which shows some traces of Plutarchan
requirements for the reader to create his or her own coherence. Macrobius draws on the Quaest.
conv. heavily in Saturnalia book 7, but he is much less interested than Plutarch in showing his guests
indulging in inventive speculation (e.g., the Greek guests in the Saturnalia are repeatedly criticised
by other speakers for their ingenuity and inventive styles of argumentation (e.g., 7.5.1, 7.9.9, 7.16.1)).
At ¬rst sight, he seems to fall far short of Plutarch™s ideals of active reading (i.e., the idea that each
individual “ both the symposium guests and the reader of the Quaest. conv. “ should value the
process of thinking creatively more than getting the right answer); on closer inspection, however, it
becomes clear that Macrobius is committed to the principle that verbatim quotation of the literature
of the past is quite compatible with creative, original, personally distinctive expression: ˜language, for
Macrobius, was what the present user made of it, even though the thoughts and expressions of the
present were inseparable from what had been thought and written earlier by others™ (MacCormack
(1998) 82). In that sense, as for Gellius, we may be seeing the traces of a Plutarchan insistence on the
way in which the interpretations of the individual reader or sympotic speaker brings a kind of order
to diverse material.
¨
46 j a son k on ig
texts. Plutarch also shows us his fellow dinner-guests learning that style of
active response for themselves, using the topics they discuss as springboards
for personal response, as stepping-stones in their philosophical lives. The
work demonstrates, in other words, how processes of universally relevant
philosophical enquiry can start from frivolous snatches of conversation. In
that sense, it follows the principle stated in Xenophon, Symposium 1.1, that
the true philosopher can do philosophy anywhere.6
In addition, I also argue that Plutarch hints at parallels between those
patterns of philosophical learning, and the organising patterns of social and
political life in Roman Greece. Plutarch sets all of these discussions on spe-
ci¬c occasions, many of them in speci¬c cities, contexts which are brie¬‚y
but vividly sketched in their opening lines. In doing so, as we shall see, he
not only foregrounds the links between fragmented conversational subject
matter and all-empowering philosophy, but also, in a way which is closely
parallel with that, insists on the power of fragmented local identities within
the all-embracing political and philosophical culture of the Roman Empire.
It is a vision of overarching Greek culture as something which depends on
and encompasses local speci¬city, and which is in tune with the promi-
nence Plutarch gives elsewhere to the intertwining of local identity with
philosophical cosmopolitanism within his own life.7 And that vision, as we
shall see in the ¬nal section of this chapter, frames and enhances his insis-
tence on engagement with detail in the quest for overarching philosophical
knowledge.
What implications does that parallel have for our understanding of
Plutarch™s view of the cultural and political hierarchies of his own contem-
porary Greco-Roman world? We have suggested in our introduction that
the archival patterns of thought which map unity through diversity may be
fundamentally ˜imperial™ patterns, developed in the service of empire. We
have also suggested that they are available to be reshaped in ways which
subvert or redirect the rhetoric of imperial dominance. Plutarch™s use of the
themes of unity and diversity is one such reshaping, based on the conviction
that the ¬nal uni¬ed framework within which the fragmented diversity of
the world can most powerfully be contained will be a philosophical one.
And that philosophical framework, he suggests, ¬nds not only its most

6 The question of whether it is right or possible to combine philosophical speech with the playful
atmosphere of the symposium is the subject of both the preface and ¬rst dialogue of book 1; in the
preface (612d) Plutarch justi¬es that combination with reference to the philosophical symposia of
Plato and Xenophon and others.
7 Cf. Plutarch™s Greek questions, where his exploration of Greek tradition takes the form of inquiry into
obscure local customs and local terminology.
Plutarch™s Sympotic Questions 47
fertile ground but also its most powerful guiding metaphor in the Panhel-
lenic interweaving of local commitment with overarching Greek identity.
That is not to say that Plutarch™s philosophical project in the Sympotic ques-
tions is insulated from the realities of Roman power. On the contrary, he is
obsessed with its capacity to encompass and explain Roman culture as well
as Greek,8 and with the many things it has in common with non-Greek
thought, Roman, Egyptian and otherwise.9 But it is nevertheless strongly
marked as a Greek project, dependent upon patterns of thought whose basic
technique of seeking unity in diversity resembles the unity-in-diversity of
Greek Panhellenic experience.

plu ta rch on re a d i n g
Plutarch is repeatedly interested in giving us guidelines for proper philo-
sophical response to texts and speeches. That insistence on personal
response as a central part of philosophy, is one of the things which unites
his many writings “ whether historical, scienti¬c, ethical “ as part of a
broader philosophical project. The text which lays out those principles
in most detail is Plutarch™s On listening. In the traditional order of the
Moralia the work comes close to the beginning of the collection, pre-
ceded only by On the education of children, and On how the young man
should listen to poetry. Whoever arranged these treatises seems to have seen
these three works as programmatic and interconnected, moving as they do
from the techniques of education and interpretation suitable for the very
youngest children, through to the approaches which are appropriate for
young men, and indeed all men, once they graduate to proper study of
philosophy. That assumption of coherence is in some ways unconvincing,
not least because the ¬rst work, On the education of children, is generally
believed to be by someone other than Plutarch.10 But there are clearly
signalled overlaps between the second and third works in the series, on
poetry and listening respectively. The work on poetry suggests strategies of
reading suitable for the young, who listen to poetry before they graduate
to philosophical subject matter, and who should accustom themselves to
reading creatively, imposing ethically edifying interpretations even on pas-
sages which at ¬rst sight seem unsuited to such interpretation, in order that
they will be more prepared for philosophical ideas once they are exposed to

8 E.g., see Preston (2001), Boulogne (1992) and (1987) on those themes in the Greek and Roman
questions.
9 10 See Whitmarsh (2001) 98“100 for brief discussion.
E.g., in his work On Isis and Osiris.
¨
48 j a son k on ig
them.11 On listening deals with the next step on that path, as the very open-
ing sentence of the work suggests in offering advice to a young man named
Nicander, who has just reached adulthood, with the freedom to manage his
own education which that implies. Plutarch emphasises ¬rst (On listening
1 (37c“e)) the need for Nicander to take reason as his controlling guide,
rather than revelling in the sense of freedom from guidance which adult-
hood might be thought to bring with it. He then suggests (2 (37e“38a)) that
Nicander will be familiar with philosophical reasoning already because of
the way in which his early training has been saturated with it. Clearly the
addressee is envisaged as someone who has been brought up according to
the precepts of On how the young man should listen to poetry; the techniques
recommended in On listening are part of a lifelong project of philosophical
education.
After this prefatory address to Nicander, Plutarch then stresses both the
bene¬ts and the dangers the sense of hearing can bring with it, arguing for
a style of listening that is obedient and attentive, but also at the same time
selective and sceptical.12 The whole of the rest of the dialogue is dedicated
to illustrating those principles, and above all to demonstrating the way in
which listening should be an active process, which involves responding for
oneself to the arguments one has heard. It is a technique which may not
come easily to the young, he explains, but which can be developed with
perseverance (17 (47b“d)): ˜For the mind is not like a vessel in need of
¬lling, but rather, like wood, needs only a spark to kindle it, to produce
an impulse towards inventiveness, and a desire for the truth™ (18 (48c)).13
Passive, unre¬‚ective listening, by that standard, can never be adequate for
anyone who aspires to philosophical progress.
One of the work™s many striking features “ which hints at the relevance
of these principles to the Sympotic questions “ is the recurring presence of
the symposium as a point of reference. For Plutarch, in this text at least,
the symposium is both an imagined context for the styles of listening and
response he recommends, and at the same time an important metaphor for
those styles. In 6, for example, he suggests that one should listen affably,
˜as though one is a guest at a dinner or a festival banquet™, in other words
not in a spirit of rivalry, but also not in a way which buries one™s capacity
for criticism:

11 See Whitmarsh (2001) 49“54; cf. Zadorojnyi (2002) for the argument that this stress on ethical
response in On how a young man should listen to poetry is Platonic in character.
12 See Goldhill (1999) 106“7 for brief discussion.
oÉ g‡r Þv ˆgge±on ¾ no“v ˆpoplhrÛsewv ˆll ¬ Épekka…matov m»non ãsper Ìlh de±tai, ¾rmŸn
13
–mpoio“ntov eÉretikŸn kaª Àrexin –pª tŸn ˆlžqeian.
Plutarch™s Sympotic Questions 49
When speakers are successful, we should assume that they are successful not by
chance or by accident, but rather through their care and hard work and study, and
we should imitate these qualities, feeling admiration for them and envy. When
speakers make mistakes, on the other hand, we must turn our minds to the question
of what the reason for the error was and where it came from. (6 (40b))14
Similarly in 10 we hear that we should be willing to listen respectfully, but
also be ready to contribute problems for discussion when that is appropriate,
just as an ideal symposium guest would do. And in 14 Plutarch explains that
we should avoid the temptation of passive listening, like those who sit back
and enjoy themselves at a dinner party while others do the work. Rather
we must work together with the speaker, criticising our own arguments as
much as his. Mutual respect and co-operation between listener and speaker
are the hallmarks of Plutarchan listening, as they are of all sympotic con-
versation. And these skills of responsive, self-re¬‚exive interpretation are
precisely the things which allow us to draw together the varied impressions
our experience of the world confronts us with, just as they allow us to draw
together in a morally coherent way the varied material of Plutarch™s oeuvre,
and the ostentatiously varied miscellanism of the Sympotic questions.
What relevance do these principles of responsive reading have, in prac-
tice, for Plutarch™s massive enterprise of knowledge aggregation? For one
thing they hint at ethical signi¬cance lying behind Plutarch™s agglomera-
tions of detail, which have the potential to spark self-re¬‚ection and morally
admirable lifestyle in the responsive reader. That is most obvious in his col-
lections of historical material, both in the Lives and elsewhere, with their
focus on the deeds and sayings of individuals, which offer both positive
and negative examples for the reader to decipher and assess. A number of
these historical compilations actually underline the disjointed nature of the
excerpted material they present us with, and yet at the same time prompt
us to see an underlying potential for unity. In the prefatory letter of his
Sayings of kings and commanders,15 for example, Plutarch draws attention
to the way in which the emperor Trajan will be able to read these snip-
pets brie¬‚y and yet also pro¬tably: ˜taking away from these brief words (–n
brac”si) the opportunity for re¬‚ection (ˆnaqeÛrhsin) on many men who
have been worthy of memory™ (172e).16 Those closing phrases of the work™s

to±v m•n o”n katorqoum”noiv –pilogist”on Þv oÉk ˆp¼ t…chv oÉd ¬ aÉtom†twv ˆll ¬ –pimele©aƒ
14
kaª p»nwƒ kaª maqžsei katorqo“tai, kaª mimht”on ta“ta qaum†zont†v ge dŸ kaª zhlo“ntav.
to±v d ¬ ‰martanom”noiv –jist†nai crŸ tŸn di†noian, Ëj ¬ ¦n a«ti¤n kaª ‚qen ¡ paratropŸ
g”gonen.
15 See Beck (2002) for arguments in favour of viewing the prefatory letter as Plutarch™s own work.
–n brac”si poll¤n ˆnaqeÛrhsin ˆndr¤n ˆx©wn mnžmhv genom”nwn lamb†nonti.
16
¨
50 j a son k on ig
prologue draw attention to the paradoxical combination of brevity with
lasting value, whose attainment will be dependent on the reader™s capacity
to respond through active ˜re¬‚ection™ (ˆnaqeÛrhsiv), a word Plutarch uses
similarly elsewhere to describe the most desirable kind of re¬‚ective response
to reading.17 In the prologue to Bravery of women, similarly, Plutarch pro-
claims both the disjointed nature of his narrative, and at the same time the
need to look for a de¬ning essence of bravery which underlies the super¬-
cial differences between the many examples he is presenting us with, and
which is the same for women as for men, though it may not at ¬rst sight
seem so.18 Coherence comes, then, in part from the capacity of disparate
material to be interpreted within a consistent moral framework.
Secondly, and perhaps less obviously, it has increasingly been recognised
that Plutarch embeds the requirement for personal response in the very
form of his writing, forcing us to take up the provocative challenges of
interpretation precisely through his arrangement of material. In the Lives,
for example, the ¬nal passages of synkrisis “ where the pairs of biographical
subjects are compared with each other at length, after they have been
individually biographised “ not only prompt re¬‚ection on similarities and
differences between the men in question, but also force us to reassess each of
them individually, through their frequent inconsistency with the material
we have already encountered.19 In that sense the ordering of the work™s
details is very far from being neutral and artless, but rather makes a central
contribution in provoking response.

le a rning to rea d in t h e s y m p o t i c q u e s t i o n s
The Sympotic questions, I will argue here, is the among most intricate and
self-conscious of all Plutarch™s actualisations of those principles. And yet,
despite that, the text has frequently had a bad press.20 The negative attention
it has received is typical of common criticisms of encyclopedic and miscel-
lanistic writing. Plutarch™s arguments, for example, are branded ineffective,
even frivolous. Francois Fuhrmann, not untypically, laments as follows:
¸

17 E.g., the same word is used in Quomod. adul. 19e to describe the process of creative reading, which
goes beyond face value in its search for meaning in a text.
18 Plut. De mul. vir. 243b“d. For the general point, see McInerney (2003) on the way in which Plutarch™s
new understanding of conjugal relations emerges (but only partly) from beneath this apparently
disparate collection of conventional moralizing material.
19 See Duff (1999), esp. 243“86.
20 For an important exception to that, see Romeri (2002), esp. 109“89, who analyses at length the way
in which Plutarch privileges speech ahead of consumption, drawing on Platonic precedents, in this
work and others.
Plutarch™s Sympotic Questions 51
Au lieu de chercher les causes v´ritables des ph´non`mes, Plutarque se contente en
e e e
g´n´ral de la vraisemblance, en citant plusieurs th´ories qui s™y rapportent, ou en
ee e
rappelant ce que divers auteurs en ont dit. Les diff´rentes opinions se succ`dent
e e
ainsi sans aucune analyse et le plus souvent sans solution, comme si ceux qui sont
charg´s de les d´fendre s™amusaient avec elles.™21
e e
In this case, the fault is attributed not so much to Plutarch himself as to
the generic assumptions he is working with22 and to the ˜affaiblissement
g´n´ral de l™esprit scienti¬que™,23 an assumption which exempli¬es a com-
ee
mon failure to understand the rhetorical idiom of so much ancient scienti¬c
writing.24 And second, closely related to that criticism, is the suggestion
that Plutarch™s main interest is in the indiscriminate amassing of informa-
tion. Michel Jeanneret, for example, categorises Plutarch with Athenaeus
and Macrobius, as writers who aim for quantity and variety of material, in
an ˜orgy™ of erudition, rather than seeking narrative realism or convincing
argumentation.25 Both of those criticisms, I suggest, underestimate more
than anything the importance of Plutarch™s self-conscious exploration of
the activities of reading, listening and interpreting within this work. And
both of them are criticisms to which the Sympotic questions has powerful
in-built replies.
The ¬rst point to make is that the Sympotic questions shows us how com-
prehensive erudition can be adapted for speci¬c social situations, through
the symposiasts™ capacity for creative manipulation of their wide reading.
Knowledge in the Plutarchan symposium is always a performance.26 In that
sense, the Sympotic questions resists commonly stated modern assumptions
that the project of compiling knowledge in textual form, and the practice of
exhaustive reading, are faceless exercises of indiscriminate absorption and
accumulation.27 In addition, Plutarch draws on the traditional status of the
symposium as a space for elite initiation in representing these conversations
as occasions for himself and his fellow symposiasts to learn the distinctive

21 Fuhrmann (ed.) (1972) xxiv, quoted approvingly by Teixeira ( 1992) 221; and by Flaceli`re and Irigoin
e
(eds.) (1987) lxxxiii. Cf. similar criticisms elsewhere, e.g., Barrow (1967) 21.
22 23 Ibid.: ˜cette “triviality” etait, h´las, le lot du genre™.
See Fuhrmann (ed.) (1972) xxiii. e
´
24 On the rhetorical character of Imperial scienti¬c writing, see esp. Barton (1994b).
25 E.g., see Jeanneret (1991) 166“7; for criticism of Jeanneret™s assumption, see Relihan (1992) 218.
26 Martin (1998) discusses the way in which performance, often within a sympotic context, is a central
part of the wisdom of the seven sages of Greek tradition; Plutarch™s engagement with that tradition
is clear from his work Symposium of the seven wise men, which depicts the seven sages drinking
and talking together, and which has many similarities with the guiding principles of sympotic,
philosophical discussion in the Quaest. conv. “ especially in those passages where the sages take it in
turns to offer opinions on ethical and political problems “ as Romeri (2002) 109“89 shows.
27 Cf. n. 29, below, for Jeanneret™s claims about the facelessness of the Quaest. conv. and other sympotic
compilations.
¨
52 j a son k on ig
styles of ingenious analysis with which the work is saturated, not only by
listening but also by responding in a spirit both of imitation and of friendly
rivalry to the conversations they hear. For example, he repeatedly returns
to the scene of young men learning appropriate styles of speech from their
older companions, or of Roman readers working hard to learn and par-
ticipate in Greek styles of speech.28 In doing so, he draws attention to his
own involvement,29 and the involvement of his Roman addressee, Sosius
Senecio, in many of the conversations he describes. Often, for example,
as we shall see further in the next section, Plutarch is himself the ¬gure
who speaks last and most authoritatively, as if to set an example to the
younger or less experienced men who have spoken before him. At other
points he takes us back to the symposia of his youth, for example in book 9,
where we see Plutarch as a star pupil in the skills of sympotic conversation,
trumping his fellow students in front of their great philosophical mentor,
Ammonius. We, too, are offered instruction, both in the prologues, where
Plutarch often lays out explicit recommendations for habits of learning and
speaking; and also, implicitly, in the models for action which are presented
to us in the conversations themselves. If the young symposiasts are to learn
from the example of watching and responding to the arguments of their
elders “ as Plutarch recommends repeatedly in his work On listening “ it
seems hard to avoid the impression that we are being prompted to engage
with those models in similar ways ourselves through the act of reading.30
Learning, for these young symposiasts at least, works by repetition. The
recurring rhythms and gestures of sympotic conversation become ingrained
in them through repeated exposure. And the repetitions of Plutarch™s text
invite us to share in that experience.
What, then, are the de¬ning features of the style of speech which is
on display? Most distinctively of all, it is a style of speech which aims for
a variety of different explanations for each question which is proposed.
The questions under discussion tend to arise from the circumstances of
the symposium, as the symposiasts comment on recent events, on their
surroundings, or on the running of the symposium they are attending.

28 See Swain (1990) 130“1.
29 Claims that Plutarch takes a back seat in this work could hardly be more wrong: e.g., see Barrow
(1967) 15 and Jeanneret (1991) 167, who writes that ˜the author melts into an anonymous collector
and mediator™. For good examples of discussions where Plutarch makes his own contribution the
climax of the discussion, see (in addition to those discussed below): Quaest. conv. 1.9, 5.2, 5.4, 6.4,
6.5, 6.6, 7.5.
30 Cf., e.g., Swain (1996) 138: ˜A key part of Plutarch™s plan for moral improvement, with the aim of
constituting one™s life according to philosophy, was the observation of others™, with several examples
from the Moralia.
Plutarch™s Sympotic Questions 53
Plutarch and his fellow guests then take it in turns to propose solutions.31
They quote repeatedly from their wide reading, in a way which often leads
to juxtaposition of competing explanations from different authorities: Plato
and Aristotle ¬gure most often, but they share the stage with a dazzling
range of other authorities. In addition, the speakers often speculate on their
own account, with varying degrees of plausibility and ingenuity. Originality
and ingenious, improvised speculation seem to be valued almost as much as
exhaustive knowledge of earlier writing.32 The use of alternative explanation
as an interpretative strategy was of course far from being unusual. It was
enshrined most in¬‚uentially in a number of Aristotelian works (esp. Pseudo-
Aristotle, Problems), which raise scienti¬c problems in question form, and
then proceed to answer them with one or more possible explanations.33 It
is also widespread within the aetiological and scienti¬c work of many of
Plutarch™s contemporaries, and Plutarch himself uses variations of it in a
great many of his own works.34 There is also evidence from the Hellenistic
period and later for speci¬c association of this style of analysis with learned
sympotic writing and styles of sympotic speech.35
What effects does Plutarch achieve through his traditional but also
unusually vivid emphasis on this strategy of ˜interpretative pluralism™?36
Plutarch™s use of it signals his alignment with the precedent of the Pseudo-
Aristotelian Problems, casting his own work as a version of Aristotle™s projects
of systematising and advancing a great range of different areas of human
knowledge. It also signals his alignment with some of Aristotle™s successors.
Theophrastus, for example, in his meteorological work, repeatedly accepts
a variety of possible explanations for one single phenomenon. In doing so,
he not only gives an impression of comprehensiveness, showing that he has
31 Cf. Jacob (2001), esp. xxx“iii on Athenaeus™ very similar use of the technique of z¯t¯sis (which he
ee
suggests may date back to the symposia of the Mouseion of Alexandria (lxxii)), whereby one guest

<< . .

 6
( 33)



. . >>

Copyright Design by: Sunlight webdesign