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Plutarch’s Science of Natural Problems in Its Imperial Context

Michiel Meeusen

KU Leuven

This paper provides a concise overview of how the Aristotelian Natural Problems were received in the Early Empire (esp. the first two centuries A.D.), an era in which the genre of natural problems revived and gained in popularity beyond the confines of the Lyceum. The evidence shows that the Problems sparked much debate among Greek and Roman philosophers, doctors, sophists and scholars. The work was known to a variety of authors, such as Apuleius, Athenaeus, Cicero, Clement, Galen, Gellius, Pliny, Plutarch, Seneca and Strabo, and a number of new collections of natural-medical problems were composed, each of which shows clear overlaps with – and also clear departures from – Aristotelian orthodoxy. None of these collections (except Plutarch’s) have been studied in depth, if at all.

The goal of this paper is to examine which intellectual traditions outside of the Lyceum interfered in the text’s circulation process in the Early Empire, that is, how the Problems became an authoritative scientific text among Greek and Roman authors, through which networks of social and intellectual exchange it travelled, and in which spheres of influence it thrived. Special attention goes to Plutarch’s contribution to this tradition. The Chaeronean discusses natural problems in several of his writings: not only in an autonomous fashion in Quaestiones naturales but also within the literary-sympotic framework of Quaestiones convivales and in a number of scientific digressions (παρεκβάσεις) in the narratives of the Vitae. A seminal passage from Quaestiones convivales (734C-D) sheds light on how the Problems circulated in the Mediterranean region. Plutarch there reports how his Roman friend, L. Mestrius Florus, obtained a copy of the Problems that had been brought to Thermopylae, and shared it with his friends for discussion during daytime strolls. Aristotle’s authoritative explanation is cited in the debate that follows (on unreliable dreams in fall), but it is not simply accepted by Plutarch and his peers. Clearly, the Problems were not conceived of as a static text but a dynamic one that was open to further development and adaptation.
Recent scholarship has greatly advanced our understanding of Plutarch’s science of natural problems and its ‘internal’ organization, both at literary and intellectual level (see, e.g., Desideri 1992; Harrison 2000a-b; König 2007; Boulogne 2008; Kechagia 2011; Oikonompoulou 2011; Van der Stockt 2011; Meeusen forthcoming). Therefore, the aim of this paper is to provide a more ‘external’ perspective by confronting Plutarch’s case with that of other Imperial authors and texts (listed above). By taking into consideration the socio-intellectual dynamics in other Early Imperial milieus, our aim is to further chart and analyze the reception of a very influential, yet largely forgotten ancient scientific genre in a period that was key to its transmission (from ‘Aristotle’ to the Middle Ages).

The following questions are relevant to us: ‘What latent agendas can be identified in the reception process of the Aristotelian Problems (e.g., scientific, philosophical, medical, scholarly)?’, ‘How does the opposition between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture manifest itself in this process?’, ‘What were the eventual goals later authors had in mind in re-creating the text in the first place and what was their measure of success?’.

The argument will be centered around three focal axes, examining (1) the availability and mobility of scientific knowledge – and of the Aristotelian Problems more specifically – in the Roman Empire, paying attention to the role formal and informal institutions played in this regard (such as public and private libraries, philosophical and medical schools and networks of learned individuals); (2) the Problems’ actual use in numerous social and intellectual milieus in the Mediterranean region, showing how the work provided much food for thought to Greek and Roman intellectuals (spawning not only serious debate but also playful discussion and even caricature); and (3) the intellectual appreciation, not just of the Problems’ peculiar scientific contents, but also of its methodological standards (providing a useful causal-inquisitive model for explaining a wide range of particular natural phenomena).

Session/Panel Title

The Intellectual World of the Early Empire (organized by the International Plutarch Society)

Session/Paper Number


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