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

From: Journal of the History of Philosophy
Volume 49, Number 3, July 2011
pp. 372-373 | 10.1353/hph.2011.0083

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Lieve Van Hoof's welcome addition to the study of Plutarch's moral works focuses on a group of writings that discuss practical issues, ranging from coping with exile and curbing one's curiosity to proper nutrition and table manners. Van Hoof collectively refers to these treatises as "Plutarch's practical ethics," setting them apart from Plutarch's theoretical works, which discuss key philosophical concepts.

Van Hoof begins by noting with regret the scholarly neglect of Plutarch's practical ethics. Historians of philosophy, who usually read Plutarch's moral works as sourcebooks on academic philosophical theories, are frustrated when confronted with Plutarch's practical treatises, where references to academic philosophy are sparse and mostly cursory. Van Hoof seeks to remedy this and the subsequent neglect of these works by reading Plutarch's writings on practical ethics as they were intended, "for their own sake and in their own right, as literary compositions in dynamic interaction with their socio-historical context" (8). Her dual goal is to draw a portrait of Plutarch as a philosopher and moralist and to demonstrate the interaction between philosophy and society during the so-called "Second Sophistic" of the second and third century CE.

The book has two parts. The first is a systematic exposition of the general characteristics of Plutarch's writings and practical ethics, with special attention to their intended audience and rhetorical goals. These two factors determine Plutarch's choice of topics, style, and content, accounting for the divide between his theoretical and practical writings. The former are intended for readers with extensive background in philosophy and are aimed at providing arguments for Plutarch's Platonism. The latter are addressed to members of the social elite who are well-educated but too busy with political and social affairs to have anything more than a superficial knowledge of, and interest in, philosophy. Their aim is to offer concrete guidance about practical concerns of the social elite, such as dealing with the loss of political rights or behaving properly during a dinner party and conversation.

Apart from tailoring his themes and level of philosophical sophistication to his audience, Plutarch also demonstrates a socially conscious attitude in his rhetoric. Rather than seeking to radically revise his readers' social and moral views, they are used instead as a means of convincing his readers to follow his advice. This is often accomplished by evoking feelings of shame toward inappropriate activities, or by emphasizing the hidden benefits that accompany apparently regrettable events, such as exile. Contrary to other moral philosophers, such as Seneca and Epictetus, Plutarch's goal is not to draw his readers toward a life of study. Rather, it is to provide a clear-headed and reflective (in other words, philosophical) assessment of the various situations they might find themselves in and to propose exercises that can help put his advice into practice.

The book's second part offers a close reading of five treatises: On Feeling Good, On Exile, On Talkativeness, On Curiosity, and Precepts of Health Care. These discuss an assortment of seemingly disparate subjects and in a variety of literary styles. Yet Van Hoof manages to unify them by finding in Plutarch's content, style, and language hints that reveal the general characteristics identified in the first part. Van Hoof's conclusion presents Plutarch as a self-perceived expert in practical morality who very consciously and adroitly adapts his practical ethics to their social context.

Van Hoof's attention to details in style and content makes her book a valuable contribution to scholarship, as well as adding persuasiveness to her portrait of Plutarch. Her exposition is well-structured, clear, and avoids overly technical discussions of style or long diversions into related philosophical questions. In fact, Van Hoof offers surprisingly little discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of Plutarch's practical ethics and makes very few references to scholarly works on Plutarch's "theoretical" philosophy. By her own admission, the book is "less about philosophical arguments than about rhetorical strategies" (9). As a result, she does not critically assess Plutarch's moral views by offering counterarguments and possible replies. She also offers only brief sketches of how Plutarch's practical moral views relate to his theoretical...

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