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Spurning Glosses: Etymological Interpretation of Poetry as a Social Phenomenon at Plutarch’s Symposia

David F. Driscoll

           During the Second Sophistic etymological interpretations of obsolete words and archaic poetry served as a means for determining customs in the distant past. Since the past carried important ramifications for prestige and status in contemporary society, these etymological interpretations thus carried considerable weight (Whitmarsh 2001, Oikonomopoulou 2007). It has been insufficiently appreciated, however, that in certain performance settings individuals not only objected to specific examples of this practice but to the use of the practice altogether. Building on recent work that richly explores Second Sophistic intellectual culture as a social phenomenon (notably Schmitz 1997, König 2010, and Eshleman 2012 and 2013), I analyze several representations of this practice in action in the symposia of Plutarch’s Quaestiones Convivales. This paper falls into two parts: first, I show that most characters in Plutarch’s symposia follow the typical pattern of using etymological interpretations to squabble over their relative social position in the sympotic environment. Second, I argue that these discussions are criticized by the character of Plutarch, who disdains the practice as characteristic of low-status grammarians and prefers to him higher status arguments from likelihood.

            First, I analyze two examples of this type of interpretation in action to show how in both Quaestiones Convivales 6.7 and 8.6 etymology about the past provokes conflict at the symposium. Most characters attempt to obtain the upper hand over one another through the deployment of etymologies that validate their sympotic behavior as a reproduction of the past. In 6.7, a Niger and Aristion argue over whether one should drink filtered wine, presenting different understandings of the ancients’ use of the word τρύξ and the proper understanding of Homer’s διατρύγιος and αἶθοψ. I demonstrate that Niger, who recently learned to drink unfiltered wine from a philosopher, embraces a new habit as a way of establishing his higher status and justifying the prestige of this habit through etymological interpretation. Likewise, in 8.6, characters use etymology and interpretation of individual poetic words to consider the proper time for dining, arguing over the meaning of Alcaeus’ ζοφοδορπίδαν, “the archaic lifestyle” (τὸν ἀρχαῖον βίον), and the time of δεῖπνον and ἄριστον in Homer. This conflict becomes fairly heated by the standards of the QC, as the disagreement is troped as a lawsuit, where characters choose sides and “take on” one side’s case (726B: ὑπερδικῶν).

            Second, I show how certain characters privileged by the Quaestiones Convivales, notably Plutarch himself, reject this mode of analysis altogether in favor of arguments from likelihood. Both of the paired talks of 2.4 and 2.5 take place at the victory celebrations for Sosicles and in both conversations high status members of the symposium open with etymological explanations in order to shed light on the distant past and determine the relative prestige of the sports at the Panhellenic games: in the former, a Lysimachus offers the explanation he heard from a grammarian, that the palaestra is named after wrestling (πάλη), and in the latter Plutarch’s brother Timon shows that Homer consistently reflects the historical order of boxing, wrestling, and racing. In both cases Plutarch objects and substitutes instead an argument from plausibility, i.e. constructing arguments about the past not from potentially counterintuitive historical evidence but instead from application of universal rules to the past. In the former case, he suggests that it “makes sense” (638D: λόγον ἔχει) that the sophisticated sport of wrestling cannot be the oldest sport, since nature produces simpler things first, and in the latter case Plutarch improvises an analogy between the order of the events and the stages of battle. In both cases Plutarch rejects historicizing readings of individual words or Homer in favor of readings that use reason (λόγος) to infer the ancient past. In general we might describe this approach as ‘philosophical,’ and I contend that just as Plutarch spurns sophistic contests (Schmitz 2012), so too here Plutarch chooses to stage his competitions for status as philosophical rather than grammatical.

Session/Panel Title:

Texts and Transmission

Session/Paper Number

1.1

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