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The Didactic Oracle: The Delphic Oracle in Plutarch’s ‘Delphic Dialogues’

Rebecca Frank

University of Virginia

The Didactic Oracle: The Delphic Oracle in Plutarch’s ‘Delphic Dialogues’

As a priest of Apollo at Delphi, Plutarch of Chaeronea is an invaluable source on the state of the Delphic oracle in the second century CE. The oracle appears in nearly all of his Greek Parallel Lives, either in the form of oracular responses or journeys to the sanctuary itself, as well as being the setting, and occasionally the subject, of a number of Plutarch’s dialogues. And yet, by Plutarch’s day, the Delphic oracle had long since lost the political clout it once wielded. Consequently, the prominence of the oracle in Plutarch’s writings has prompted speculation as to why Delphi holds such a visible position in his works.

Scholars have argued that Plutarch is an apologist for the oracular site, striving to pull it out of its obscurity and celebrate a hallmark of Greek culture before its subjugation to Rome (e.g. Brenk 1977, 2017; Stadter 2004, 2011). McInerney (2004) has suggested that Plutarch’s presentation of Delphi is political: a celebration of classical Greek culture and a rejection of Roman domination. In this paper, I argue that while Plutarch is acting as a ‘diplomat for Delphi’ (Stadter 2004), he is not proposing a return to Delphi’s previous role in the Greco-Roman world, but advocating for a new identity for the oracular sanctuary. In so doing, I extend the arguments of Opsomer (1998) and Simonetti (2017) regarding the centrality of the Delphic oracle in Plutarch’s philosophy. Rather than the Delphic oracle simply being a motif Plutarch uses to explain his philosophical beliefs, I argue that, faced with the oracle’s increasing obsolescence, Plutarch proposes a new identity and purpose for the oracular sanctuary: a center for philosophical and theological contemplation.

In this paper I focus on the so-called ‘Delphic dialogues’: De E apud Delphos, De Pythiae oraculis, and De defectu oraculorum. These dialogues present a series of conversations held at Delphi regarding different aspects of the god, the oracle, and the oracular sanctuary. I demonstrate that in the Delphic dialogues, Delphi stands as a touchstone for humans to access divine knowledge through the oracular responses, but also through its physical presence. Walking through the sanctuary opens up new lines of inquiry for those with curious minds, and provides clues as to how those questions might be answered. Delphi is the center of the world, perhaps not literally, but certainly metaphorically, or so Plutarch would have his reader believe. As a result, Plutarch demonstrates in the dialogues that Delphi serves as an ideal location for philosophical inquiry because it is a sanctuary to a philosophical god whose presence permeates Delphic ritual and cult as well as the physical dedications at Delphi. The Delphic oracle may no longer play a pivotal role in the political sphere, but through the Delphic dialogues Plutarch makes the case for a new role for the sanctuary as a philosophical center where individuals from different schools of thought may gather to share knowledge and work together in their search for deeper understanding.

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God and Man in the Second Sophistic

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