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The Persona "Plutarch" in The Dialogue on Love

Frederick Brenk

Understanding the nature of the personae in his dialogues is essential to interpreting Plutarch’s thought. He appears as a character in The E at Delphi, Sympotic Questions, The Dialogue on Love, and Reply to Colotes). He did have specific objectives for his appearances and offers hints for interpreting them. The dialogue form opened up possibilities for “interpretative pluralism” (cf. König 2007 42, 50, 2008; Kechagia 2011, “aporetic,” 99). Besides serving as a guide, Plutarch follows his own advice on the qualities of an ideal intellectual (pepaideumonos), recommended in his “practical ethics (cf. Pelling 2011, 56; König 2011, esp. 180, 202-203). In general, his personae have individual characteristics such as adherence to a philosophical school, personality traits, or even quirks, such as his brother Lamprias’ fondness for wrong etymologies (726E). Plutarch distance himself somewhat from his characters’ views, even in the case of his teacher, Ammonius (Opsomer 2007, 289; underestimated by Hirsch-Luipold, 2005; Boulogne 2003; and Frazier 2008). An exception is in That Epicurus Actually Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible, where others continue the preceding anti-Epicurean diatribe, Against Colotes. Formally, most complicated of his appearances are those in the Sympotic Questions, where he serves as author, persona, and guide, somewhat along the lines of Cicero in his “Academic dialogues” (Schofield 2008, 64, 83-84).

            “Plutarch” is a young man in On the E at Delphi, the late Dialogue on Love, and in Sympotic Questions 3.1 and possibly in 9.2 and 9.3. In these, he is the “star pupil” (König 2007, 52; Klotz 2011, 171-178) or alumnus of Ammonius. In On the E at Delphi, he has not yet “entered the Academy,” but has seemingly mastered most of Plato and others on natural science, physics, and astronomy, and is something of a precocious genius. Ammonius, though praising him, is dismissive of his “shotgun” solution and concludes the dialogue with his long discourse based on one interpretation, that the “E” means “Thou art.” or “Thou art one.” Clearly, the young “Plutarch” and mature author have been bundled into two persons, the young “Plutarch” and “Ammonius,” none of whom is entirely representative of Plutarch’s thought.

            In The Dialogue on Love, his son, Autobulus, recalls for his friends a conversation of his newly wed father, which took place at Thespiae years before. Both “Autobulus” and “Plutarch” have incredible memories, recalling accurately seventy-two direct quotations of Greek poetry, not to mention numerous allusions to Plato’s major works, and apparently to ones which Plutarch had not yet written, such as the Lives, On the Face in the Moon, and On Isis and Osiris. The young “Plutarch” is also well versed in Roman history, and though living in the age of Nero, can recount events from the time of Vespasian and apparently of Trajan. 

            Through this complicated arrangement, Plutarch can present sensational views on marriage and homosexuality, while, as author, distancing himself somewhat from the young husband in love with marriage. The innumerable poetic citations, mostly about love, add to the depiction of the youthful “Plutarch.” Plutarch can, thus, advocate views on marriage which contrast with his earlier Advice to a Bride and Groom, namely, approval of a wealthy young widow kidnapping a boy (the kalos), marrying him, and dominating the marriage.

            Along the way, “Plutarch” revises Plato’s views on homoerotic love (Rist 2001). Through argument and exempla, he demonstrates that many women are equal, if not superior, to men in virtue and intelligence, and that failure in marriage is usually the husband’s fault. The philosophical knowledge of the mature Plutarch was evidently necessary for the argument. More puzzling is “Plutarch’s” knowledge of Roman history, and the impossible chronology at the end. His son, Autobulus may have finishes the work (Ingenkamp 2006, 185). The improbabilities, however, may equally serve as signposts that the views represented belong not only to  “Plutarch in love,” but are shared, at least in part, by the mature Plutarch, and deserve serious consideration.

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Representation and Self-Representation in Imperial Greek and Latin Dialogues

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