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Plutarch (review)

From: Classical World
Volume 105, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 560-561 | 10.1353/clw.2012.0040

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This edition by Richard Hunter and Donald Russell of Plutarch’s major treatise on education and literature represents the Cambridge “Green and Yellow” commentaries at their best. It provides a wealth of information on sources, parallels, style, and the structure of the argument, yet does not neglect the needs of the mid-level student of Greek, helpfully explaining abstruse words and difficult expressions. Plutarch is a difficult author who employs a rich vocabulary and complex constructions and sometimes verges on obscurity in his zeal for an ingenious simile or image. The notes are a model of clarity and concision, and exhibit the learning and good judgment one expects of these scholars.

Plutarch sets out to defend the teaching of poetry against the critique leveled by Plato in the Republic, where, appalled that poetry represents heroes succumbing to emotion and thereby serves to excuse like behavior in the audience, he chose to eliminate epic and drama entirely from his ideal state. Plutarch believed that in actual society such a ban was not practical and perhaps not a good thing, and that the evils Plato perceived could be neutralized or turned to good effect if students were trained to read critically. The essay consists of a set of strategies for maintaining a distance from the text, by “opposing and resisting” it (ἀπαντῶν καὶ ἀνεϱειδῶν, 28D), a kind of “hermeneutic of suspicion,” in Paul Ricoeur’s phrase, avant la lettre. Students must realize that poets tell falsehoods (they often contradict themselves) and that the greatest heroes are fallible, and they should not submit passively to their authority. One can usually extract a morally acceptable lesson from the texts by subtle (or oversubtle) interpretations of words and phrases. But mimetic poetry necessarily represents wicked or misguided characters (it is true to life) and delights in exciting events: even the gods, when they intervene in human affairs, are not consistently good or tranquil (25D).

Though Plutarch is out to inculcate virtue, the effect of his advice is to produce alert readers who do not surrender to the charm of poetry but subject it to constant scrutiny—and this too is pleasurable. G. M. A. Grube, in The Greek and Roman Critics (Toronto 1965) 317, lamented that Plutarch “is no critic and it is at least doubtful whether he ever enjoyed and appreciated literature as such, whether in verse or prose.” This is hard to credit of so fine a stylist as Plutarch, but Grube was looking for a response to literature entirely different from Plutarch’s and that of ancient readers generally. The numerous parallels that Hunter and Russell cite from scholia and other sources make Plutarch’s relation to contemporary literary criticism abundantly clear; indeed, Plutarch’s own commentary on Hesiod’s Works and Days, now lost, inspired readings in the scholia.

To explicate difficult passages, Hunter and Russell often provide translations, though these are not woodenly literal: they make the meaning clear but still require that students parse the Greek for themselves. It is unfortunate that the critical apparatus does not indicate conjectures other than those adopted in the text (anonymously, with the siglum “c”); emendations are discussed, in general too briefly, in the notes. The siglum “m” means that a reading is attested in at least one manuscript (but not all), so all alternatives are simply marked “m.” One could have wished for something more on textual matters.

A few quibbles. At 28b, the translation should, I think, read “One need not obey [πειστέον] poets, as one must teachers or lawmakers,” not “and poets, like παιδαγωγοί or lawgivers, are not to be believed.” Cato, the model here, questioned but obeyed his pedagogue. At 31b, I would translate “That one who is liable to anger . . . is not unaware of his nature but takes precautions . . . is a mark of amazing foresight,” rather than “Not to be unaware that one is liable to anger . . . but to take precautions . . . is a mark of amazing foresight.” Plutarch observes next that a wine lover should be careful with wine and a sensual person careful about erôs: the emphasis is on the disposition. On 168 (on ἔχθιστος . . . Ὀδυσῆι) “Ajax” is a mistake for “Odysseus.” The Stoics (180) allowed that a sage will lie on occasion...


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