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On Having Many Acquaintances: Friend-Making in Table Talk

Bryant Kirkland

University of California, Los Angeles

Plutarch’s Table Talk asserts the “friend-making” (philopoios) effect of commensality (612D), aligning the work with Plutarch’s broader interest in the subject of friendship (O’Neil 1997) and with an important topic of philosophic consideration (Baumbach and von Möllendorff 2017: 140). Yet Table Talk’s participants avoid direct discussion of friendship and of how the symposium helps to forge it, leaving readers to discern an implicit ethics of amity. While friendly repartee can be found in, for instance, collective acts of recall (Oikonomopoulou 2011: 109-23) or the permissive atmosphere of ingenious answering (König 2007: 70-5), we may still wonder how Plutarch’s explicit pronouncements about friendship inform this text. In this paper I focus on the structuring of select exchanges, and on Plutarch’s comments on friendship in his fourth preface, to argue that he uses the sympotic format to present models of amicability more flexible than in his more directly philosophical works. Table Talk’s interest in balance essentially requires that non-intimates participate in the banquet, the better to enact a broad mode of sociality (see Eshleman 2013: 149-53). Yet even as conversation among friends is expanded to less intimate acquaintances, who may become friends, Plutarch seems to operate with a relatively loose definition of friendship ab initio.

I first discuss Plutarch’s On Having Many Friends, especially the view that friendship occurs between people in full agreement (96F), following a process of judgment (94B; Van der Stockt 2011: 28-36). I show the incompatibility of these ideas with early moments in Table Talk centered on the judgment needed for throwing dinner-parties, occasions when agreement proves elusive and deep friendship may seem doubtful. I focus on 1.2, where the interlocutors leave unresolved the issue of whom to invite and how to seat them. Plutarch’s programmatic recusatio as judge (616F) echoes his brother’s refusal to judge his friends (616C), and I suggest that the work begins by revealing the difficulties of judgment, and the attendant need for an openness at odds with Plutarch’s resolute endorsements in On Having Many Friends.

Plutarch breaks Senecio in slowly to the work’s style of sociality, for it is not until the book 4 preface that Plutarch explicitly relaxes his definition of friendship. I then show how the conversation at 4.4 picks up threads from this preface. Polycrates and Symmachus undertake answers, but Symmachus agrees to do so on condition of being supported (667E). Parrhēsia is not an individual matter here but is conditioned by the desire for social alliance. Notably, this exchange occurs when Plutarch has been relatively reticent, after his earlier admission (4.2) that in speaking on a “common topic” (koinon ... logon) he makes no progress (665E). His solo effort is implicitly contrasted with the sociable tack adopted by Polycrates and Symmachus, who affirm the prefatory point about parties as sites for making connections.

Later, discussion of symposium invitations (7.6) reveals how dinners, if not always serving deep friendship, nonetheless may foster incipient acquaintanceship – though not always for the host. Plutarch says it is not “strange” (atopos, 708D) to let invitees bring friends, especially if they believe the host likely to view an unknown person as an “opportunity for friendship” (philias ... archēn, 709E). Yet friend-making in 7.6 often seems less about the symposiarch’s accruing new intimates and more about his providing an atmosphere that sparks connections between others, again bending the ideals of On Having Many Friends, and, I suggest, testing even the book 4 preface, since here the symposiarch is meant to foster friendships not his own. I invoke the conclusion of Lucian’s Toxaris (62-3) to show how rivals, absent a judge or symposiarch, can pronounce themselves friends through efforts of persuasion, affirming principles voiced in Table Talk (614C, 745C-D). The suspended judgments of Table Talk apply, then, not only to its questions but also to its friend-making: each gathering reopens social possibilities. But for this to be possible, Plutarch must himself reopen the borders of his definitions.

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Literary Banquets of the Imperial Era

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