I propose to show that, when read together, Plutarch's Conjugalia Praecepta and Ben Sira's Wisdom (Sirach, Ecclesiasticus) reveal that during the late Hellenistic Period and early Roman Empire a wide range of philosophers were participating in a shared ethical discourse. Both texts are treatises on appropriate social behavior and are addressed in a paternal voice to a younger generation, nominally a child or student of the author. Despite differences in period and culture, these two authors provide similar advice on appropriate marital behavior. Recent scholarship on each author has shown an interest in their sources and influences (Hawley 1999, Schwartz 2009). Some have shown a particular interest in the way that these authors participate in philosophical dialogue with the earlier Greek Stoics (Wicke-Reuter 2001, Casevitz and Babut 2002) or Xenophon, especially with reference to their views on marriage (Kieweler 1992, Pomeroy 1999). Others have set a precedent for arguing that each author's work can be better understood as part of a continuing, multi-cultural dialogue in the Mediterranean (Sanders 1983, Kieweler 1992, Demarais 2005). Modern scholarship has also examined the views of each author on the role of women in marriage (Stadter 1999, Forti 2007). As of yet, however, there have been no comparative studies of Plutarch and Ben Sira.
This paper will fill that gap by looking at the texts together and drawing on scholarship concerning each text to strengthen arguments that the authors were participating in a larger Mediterranean dialogue and to reveal analogies between their works. I will argue that Plutarch and Ben Sira are both contributing to a larger philosophical dialogue in the Mediterranean about appropriate social behavior in response to earlier writers of ethical advice, such as Xenophon. Ben Sira wrote his text in Hebrew during the early 2nd century BCE as part of the Biblical tradition of proverbial advice. His grandson translated the text into Greek in the late 2nd century BCE. As Schwartz has shown, Ben Sira was acutely aware of conflicts between the societal values of traditional Judaism and Hellenistic Greece and attempted to address these in Wisdom. Plutarch lived from 45-120 CE and his work shows great familiarity with the Greek philosophical tradition, but there is no evidence to suggest that Plutarch had read the work of Ben Sira directly. Wisdom covers a wide range of topics, as does the whole of Plutarch's Moralia, but for the purposes of this presentation I will focus on their marriage advice as an example of how these works can profitably be read together. Examples from each text reveal that Plutarch and Ben Sira shared views on the importance of marriage and appropriate behavior for husband and wife within that relationship that go beyond what one might expect from two patriarchal societies. For instance, both authors mention that a wife should be intelligent (Sir 25:8; Mor. 145b-f). Both speak about the relationship between virtue and appearance; Plutarch says that virtue will be the adornment of the plain woman (Mor. 141d) and Ben Sira that vice will make even a beautiful woman appear ugly (Sir 25:17-8). As expected, they both believe that a man should take the lead role in his marriage. Nevertheless, they describe the ideal marriage as one where husband and wife are in harmony (Sir 25:1; Mor. 138c, 139d). These and otherexamples that I will discuss from Plutarch's Conjugalia Praecepta and Ben Sira's Wisdom make a strong case for reading these works together as a part of the moral dialogue on marriage of which Xenophon's Oeconomicus is an early and influential example.