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Education and Power in Plutarch Quaestiones convivales 736D-737D

Gavin Weaire

Plutarch's Quaestiones convivales (Symposiaka problemata) has attracted much attention in recent years (e.g. König 2007; Klotz & Oikonomopoulou 2011). The position of Quaest. conv. 9.1 (736D-737C) marks it as especially important, for it opens the final (and exceptionally long) ninth book.  This paper examines Plutarch's use of this first problema in book nine to present divergent perspectives on the relationship between education and political power.  The frame narrative presents one such perspective, which is qualified by the anecdotes embedded within the frame narrative.

The frame narrative (736D-E) examines the intersection of two characteristic Plutarchan themes, philotimia (see e.g. Frazier 1996 103-9) and education (see e.g. Duff 1999 73-75).  The setting is a symposium given for teachers of various subjects, whose students were victorious in competition earlier on the same day.  However, the rivalry of the students now reproduces itself inappropriately in the form of chaotic wrangling among their teachers.  The philosopher Ammonius, Plutarch's teacher and the Athenian strategos hosting the event, intervenes by proposing the topic of eukairoi quotations for discussion. 

As the opening of the next section reveals (737D), the learned discussion of quotations that follows succeeds in dampening the teachers' squabbles.  However, the resulting harmony is fragile, and Ammonius has to intervene again to maintain it (740A-B).  Rhetors emerge as the main threats to sympotic harmony (739E-740A; 743C-F), a challenge that calls for tactful management on the part of Ammonius (743E; cf. Klotz 2011 173-175).

Education here is on the one hand a field for competitive philotimia and therefore an area of threat, but also a tool which the philosopher-official can employ to maintain solidarity among the educated, much as the statesman employs ceremonial to promote mild and gentle behavior among the populace (Num. 8.2-3). 

This cosy picture is however complicated by two key anecdotes (737A; 737B) embedded in this opening section.  These anecdotes share features that encourage reading them as a pair.  In the first anecdote (737A), a nameless Corinthian child during the sack of Corinth in 146 B.C. saves himself and his family by moving the conqueror Mummius to tears with a well-chosen Homeric quotation (Od. 5.306).  This superficially reinforces the idea of education as a force for harmony. 

However, the anecdote's setting during the sack of Corinth, a recurrent site of memory in Greek literature of the Roman period (Diod. 32.27; Strabo 8.6.23; Favorinus [Ps.-Dio 37.42]; Paus. 2.1.2; 7.16.7-8) points to the disturbing implications of being dependent on the appeal of education to power.   The second anecdote under discussion (737B) confirms this and illustrates how a misstep in such a context may be disastrous.  In it, the teacher of Pompey's daughter prompts his student, upon her father's return from war, to write out a passage of Homer from memory.   However, the line that he picks to start the young girl off (Il. 3.428) carries a hostile message if applied to Pompey. 

The situations explored in these anecdotes are strikingly inapplicable to the frame narrative. It is therefore not the content of the educated discussion, but the fact of it, that restores harmony.  Beyond that, however, these anecdotes point to a crucial limitation to the model of leadership that the frame narrative presents.  Ammonius is only able to occupy the role of facilitator and maintainer of harmony because he combines power with (specifically philosophical) education.  In the absence of such a figure, the role of education is less comforting: an unreliable yet indispensable tool for protecting oneself.

Session/Panel Title

The Second Sophistic

Session/Paper Number

11.2

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