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"As Each Came to Mind": Plutarch's Quaestiones and the Mentality of Intricacy

Michiel Meeusen

King's College, London

In the preface to the second Book of Quaestiones convivales, Plutarch says that he simply jotted down the conversations “without any systematic order, as each came to mind” (Quaest. conv. 629D: σποράδην δ' ἀναγέγραπται καὶ οὐ διακεκριμένως ἀλλ' ὡς ἕκαστον εἰς μνήμην ἦλθεν). This statement is highly programmatic for the work’s underlying writing process and method of composition, including the structuring principles that guide it, however idiosyncratic they may be (König 2007, Morgan 2011). Other miscellanistic authors (like Aelian, Athenaeus, Gellius, and Pamphila) also emphasise the artless and haphazard organisation of their writings, so that we can rightfully speak of a genuine miscellanistic τόπος. The aim of this paper is to examine how this miscellanistic τόπος takes effect in Plutarch’s other collections of quaestiones, where there is no obvious structuring principle either, except from the overarching thematic rubrications (Romanae, Graecae, Platonicae, naturales). Scholars have greatly contributed to our better understanding of the encyclopaedic and dialogical dynamics in these collections (Oikonomopoulou 2013a and b), but the main question remains. How unstructured are these collections really and how does this relate to the miscellanistic organisation of the materials in Quaestiones convivales? Examining how Plutarch’s mentality of intricacy takes effect in these collections is particularly worthwhile, since they stand relatively close, from a compositional perspective, to the author’s personal ὑπομνήματα (Meeusen 2012). I will argue that aspects of inquisitive spontaneity, circumstantiality and specificity far outweigh the demand for a clear organisation of the contents. It is this mind-set that lies at the basis of Plutarch’s πολυμάθεια project and that he aims to communicate to his reader.

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Characterizing the Ancient Miscellany

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