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I’ll Tell You When I’m Older: Comparing Plutarchs in De E apud Delphos and Amatorius

Anne McDonald

Plutarch presents many different versions of himself not only across the corpus of his dialogues, but even within individual texts.  This paper examines Plutarch’s self-presentations in two such texts, De E apud Delphos and Amatorius.  I argue that by provocatively juxtaposing older and younger versions of himself in these dialogues, Plutarch invites his reader to locate points of difference and continuity between them.  Further, by employing multiple literary selves to illustrate his development, Plutarch provides guidance for assessing the philosophical content of each dialogue.

            In De E apud Delphos, an older Plutarch provides an extended view of a much less mature younger self.  In the dialogue’s dedication, Plutarch reports that recently his sons, engaged in conversation with some visitors to Delphi, urged him to lead the group in a discussion of the Delphic Ε.  Although he had repeatedly denied the same request in the past, Plutarch agreed to take up the subject.  He began to lead an inquiry in the Socratic style, but it did not get far:  suddenly, he remembered a conversation on the same topic in which he had taken part at Delphi many years earlier.  At this point, Plutarch abandoned the present debate in favor or recalling of this earlier conversation, an  account of which occupies the remainder of De E.  Within this account, we encounter a Plutarch as an overzealous young student whose theory on the E, despite its enthusiastic presentation, is poorly received by his teacher.  Plutarch’s narrative strategy in De E is puzzling:  why does he offer this rather unflattering view of himself, rather than extending our exposure to his older, more authoritative self?

            In Amatorius, too, we find older and younger versions of Plutarch.  The dialogue’s outer frame, although more indirectly and briefly than in De E, gives us a view of Plutarch as a father eager to share his earlier philosophical discussions with his son.  The dialogue opens with Autobulus, Plutarch’s eldest son, agreeing to give an account of  a debate on Eros in which his father took part as a newlywed, and which Plutarch has related to him.  Autobulus hence becomes the dialogue’s narrator, and his position as such is curiously artificial.  As others have noted, he contributes nothing of his own – not a single comment or quibble – to his account (Scarcella, Flacelière).  Further, his control over his report seems to wane over the course of the dialogue (Scarcella).  By the end of the dialogue, we find an authoritative narrative voice that belongs more to Plutarch – and an older Plutarch, at that – than his mouthpiece (Flacelière).  Plutarch’s use of an undynamic, rather threadbare narrator begs a question:  why did Plutarch choose not to recount the dialogue on Eros in his own voice, or simply to present it dramatically?

            Remarking on the intriguing frames of these dialogues, scholars have frequently cited their Platonic precedent, and the majority consider their “statements of occasion” to be imaginary (Russell).  Few, however, have seriously considered Plutarch’s purpose in employing such frames, and the relationship between Plutarch’s different self-presentations has not figured in their hypotheses (e.g. Van der Stockt, Babut).  In this paper, I attempt to shed light on Plutarch’s narrative strategy in these dialogues by interrogating the gap between the younger and older Plutarchean selves they present.  I investigate how the stark contrast Plutarch creates in De E between his older self, hesitant to offer his own view on the Delphic Ε, and his freewheeling younger self guides our reading of the dialogue’s central debate.  With respect to Amatorius, I consider how the awareness that Autobulus raises of the elder Plutarch as a seasoned husband and father colors our reading of the newlywed Plutarch’s proselytizing on the merits of married love and procreation.  I demonstrate that comparing self-presentation in each dialogue shows how Plutarch conceives of his own development, and how comparison offers direction for assessing each text’s arguments and themes.

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Representation and Self-Representation in Imperial Greek and Latin Dialogues

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