The explicit aim of Plutarch’s How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend is to help the great manage their interactions with the somewhat less great. However, the last third of this text seems designed not for the more powerful man in an unequal friendship, but for the man whose status is slightly lower than his associate. This paper argues that much of the advice given throughout Plutarch’s text can also apply to the lesser party in an unequal friendship and that this reflects both the hierarchical nature of imperial society, including inequality among elites, and Plutarch’s own views on ethics.
While this work has often been read as having no political significance (Gallo and Pettine 1988; Konstan 1997; Connolly 2001), scholars have increasingly begun to address the political dimension of friendship in the text (Engberg-Pedersen 1996; Van Meirvenne 2002, Whitmarsh 2006). My argument is more in line with the latter approach and seeks to emphasize the intermeshing of ethics and politics, examining the particular form this took during the early second century CE.
Even though Plutarch’s Flatterer is addressed to Philopappus, a man of exalted status, Plutarch also clearly aims to guide a broader reading audience among the cultural and political elite, as in his other didactic writings that have personal addressees (Van Hoof 2010). Nowhere is this clearer than in the definitive break that occurs two thirds of the way through the text, when the advice ceases to aim at helping the potential flatteree avoid the snares of the flatterer and instead seems directed toward those who might need help managing their powerful friends. The shift is encapsulated in this suggestion: if we keep a careful watch over ourselves, we will recognize that “what we need is not a friend who praises and glorifies us, but a friend to censure us, to speak to us frankly, and by Jove even to blame us when we do wrong. For there are only a few out of many who are daring enough to speak frankly to their friends rather than to humor them” (66a). The passage begins by identifying the didactic “we” with those who might be the targets of flatterers, but ends with a hint at the author’s own expertise in the art of giving tactful criticism.
The advice that appears after this point applies to those who find themselves in the precarious position of trying to guide their more prominent friends without offense while also avoiding giving the impression of being toadies. Yet, if we examine the preceding section of the text in light of the ending, it becomes apparent that Plutarch often inserts advice that seems designed for a reader interacting with his social superiors. For example, during a discussion of the flatterer’s practice of pandering to pleasure, he counsels, “one should hurt a friend only for the sake of helping him” (55c). This maxim is focalized through the viewpoint of the man who might need to use frank criticism toward his friend, as set in opposition to (but implicitly in the same social position as) the villainous flatterer.
Yet, in isolating individual strands among the text’s interwoven range of voices, we should not assume that the respective social strata to which they speak represent fixed and separate groups of men. Depending on the situation, the same person would find himself in a superior or inferior social position; the only person at the top of the social hierarchy was the emperor himself. Furthermore, not only do the same people perform different roles, but, in reading this text, a single individual is prompted to think himself into multiple subject positions in any given moment, as informed by his various experiences. In order to determine the correct course of behavior, Plutarch’s addressees must imagine how others in different positions of power would view them, an ability that is for Plutarch the very definition of self-awareness.