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Plutarch’s Practical Ethics: The Social Dynamics of Philosophy (review)

From: Classical World
Volume 105, Number 4, Summer 2012
pp. 564-565 | 10.1353/clw.2012.0033

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There is a core of ethical writings within the so-called Moralia of Plutarch which, though not widely read today, was for centuries central to Plutarch’s reputation as a writer. Various attempts have been made by modern scholars to define and analyze that group, and Lieve Van Hoof’s is the latest—and in many ways the most successful—of such attempts. This is because she sets out to explain, with sensitivity and patience, not only what Plutarch was doing in these essays, but why and how. The result is a book that goes far toward restoring the ethical core of the Moralia to its proper place in the Plutarchan corpus, while on a larger stage it has a great deal to tell us about the relationship of philosophy, rhetoric, and self-definition in the intellectual world of the high Empire.

We may start with the most original part of Van Hoof’s thesis (necessarily the last in the sequence of her argument), by looking at “Plutarch’s agenda” and “unique self-presentation” (261). At stake is the much discussed relationship of Plutarch to the second sophistic (261, with n. 13)—and, more concretely and immediately, to his own society and intellectual environment. Van Hoof’s analysis of the rhetoric of the core of the Moralia leads her to assert that Plutarch “uses his works of practical ethics to promote himself in his society” (263), much as the rhetors of the second sophistic used their own performances. She makes a good case for the rethinking of Plutarch’s relationship to the second sophistic and his manipulation of philosophy as “a kind of symbolic capital that can be acquired, deployed, lost or won in the social game that is human life.” (264).

How, then, do the rhetorical techniques used here by Plutarch work? Van Hoof has answers to this question, and revealing ones, but they are spread through the close readings of five essays central to her definition of the corpus of “Plutarch’s practical ethics,” the core of the book (Part II). In each of these (“Tranquility of Mind,” “Exile,” “Talkativeness,” “Curiosity,” and, rather surprisingly, “Keeping Well”), she undertakes “to explore the dynamics of the text as a speech act” (85) and to show how Plutarch, by various sorts of manipulation (depending in part on the genre in question: letter, unaddressed essay, dialogue) “suggests philosophy will bring about an inner change that will allow the reader to make the best of the external events that happen to him while living the life of his own choice” (95). That is, Plutarch, unlike most philosophers writing in a comparable mode, is not writing protreptic, not trying to convert his reader to philosophy and the philosophical life. What Plutarch does attempt to bring home to the reader are the benefits that philosophy has to offer to him, as a member of the Roman elite of ca. 100 c.e. This unique brand of ethical philosophy, then, is what Van Hoof means by philosophy “in society,” philosophy that asserts its own authority, its own therapeutic stance, and its exclusive ability to produce desirable and profitable change, always on the level of the individual.

But is this really philosophy? The very qualities that Van Hoof appreciates in Plutarch and communicates to her reader are those that have led to the belief that he was at best a second-rate ethical philosopher. He seldom refers back to principle, and while he maintains a general allegiance to Platonism, he could not be said to have advanced the ethical arguments of any school. Rather, he minimized the conflict between the values of philosophy and those of the world. If he has a single specific design on his reader, it is the replacement of self-love (φιλαυτία) with self-knowledge (35). His advice varies “depending on the context, perspective, or discourse” (30). Referring to this as a “non-rigid philosophical approach” (38), Van Hoof shows its positive side and makes a strong argument for viewing Plutarch as an heir to classical Greek ethical thought who was simply doing something different. It is her elucidation of this innovative project that makes her book an important contribution to the intellectual history...

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