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Plutarch’s “curiosity” in the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius

Joseph Howley

Columbia University

This paper argues that Aulus Gellius, in his Noctes Atticae, engages in a significant translation of Plutarch’s concept of the appetite of πολυπραγμοσύνη—not simply translating the word (as Apuleius does, resulting in curiositas), but isolating the corollary concept, the stimulus that acts upon the appetite, and giving it a Latin name instead (inlecebra, “seduction”).  This underscores Gellius’s significance as an ancient theorizer of cognition, and as a recipient and transmitter of ancient philosophical concepts.  This paper combines a conceptual reappraisal of Plutarch’s program with close readings of Gellius to show that Gellius’s NA constitutes a site of reception of Plutarch that is parallel to but distinct from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses.

Traditional philological methods that search for ancient concepts by discrete terms and synonyms have excluded Gellius from the history of curiosity and πολυπραγμοσύνη.  Plutarch’s Moralia have long been understood as an antiquarian source for Gellius (Holford-Strevens 2003).  More recently, it has been suggested that Gellius, in writing miscellany, is following the formal lead of Plutarch’s dialogues (Klotz & Oikonomopoulou 2011).  Far more discussed is Plutarch’s influence on Apuleius’s Metamorphoses (DeFilippo 1990, Kirichenko 2008, Ní Mheallaigh 2009, Hunter 2009; Van der Stockt 2012).  Plutarch’s treatise has also received attention in the history of “curiosity” (Ehrenberg 1947, Brown 2006, Van Hoof 2010, Leigh 2013).  The possibility of conceptual influence by Plutarch on Gellius, in terms of πολυπραγμοσύνη or any other subject, remains unconsidered.

Gellius advertises his acquaintance with Plutarch’s treatise at NA 11.16, where a discussion about the impossibility of translating πολυπραγμοσύνη into Latin is prompted by a flagrant πολυπράγμων who sees Gellius holding a copy of the book and, because he does not know Greek, demands to know what it contains.  Reappraising the relationship between Plutarch’s treatise and the entire Noctes yields conspicuous but unacknowledged intertexts.  Most prominently, Gellius NA 10.17 and Plutarch 521C-D both relate the story of Democritus, who intentionally blinded himself to free his mind from the distractions that come with the faculty of sight: for Plutarch, this is about the nature of the mind, while for Gellius, it is about the inlecebra videndi—the seduction of vision itself.  Inlecebra forms Gellius’s counterpart to Plutarch’s πολυπραγμοσύνη: present in the same examples and situations, it relocates the site of concern from the individual’s mind to the outside world.

Inlecebra, it becomes clear, is invoked throughout the Noctes; just as Plutarch equates the πολυπράγμων’s desire for knowledge and stories with desire for sex, food, and drink, so Gellius identifies inlecebra with the seductions of the cinaedus (NA 3.5), wine (NA 15.2), engaging conversation (NA 12.5, 13.11), unreliable titles of books (NA 18.6), worthless but enticing mirabilia (10.12).  Most provocatively for his own program, inlecebra is a quality of narrative fiction itself, as in the case of Aesopic fable, which uses the inlecebra audiendi (2.29) to hold men’s minds fast while it imparts useful knowledge to them.  Inlecebra describes the same problem as πολυπραγμοσύνη, but from a different perspective with different concerns.  The urban and political space of Rome are, for Plutarch, very real phenomena (522E).  Gellius, a keen observer of the information overload that of an Antonine Rome saturated with experts and books, finds in Plutarch’s model a useful tool for discussing not the mind itself but those externalities in the world that act upon the mind.

Greek πολυπραγμοσύνη and Latin curiositas denote an ancient conceptual space more broad, and more distinctly ancient, than our modern “curiosity.”  Gellian inlecebra sheds new light on Plutarch’s thought, and on the exchange of ideas between Greek and Latin literature in the imperial period.

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Translation and Reception

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