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The lives and opinions of Socrates and Stilpo as defended by Plutarch against the insidious yet ignorant attacks of Colotes

La vie et l'opinion de Socrate et de Stilpon défendues par Plutarque contre les attaques insidieuses mais ignorantes de Colotès
Le vite e le opinioni di Socrate e Stilpo come difesa da Plutarco contro gli attacchi insidiosi ancora ignoranti di Colote
Jan Opsomer


Dans les chapitres 17 à 23 de l’Adversus Colotem, Plutarque défend Socrate et Stilpon contre les critiques de Colotès. J’examine l’insertion de cette section dans le contexte plus large de l’œuvre, les liens entre la section sur Socrate et Stilpon, les critiques de Colotès et les contre-arguments ainsi que les stratégies polémiques de Plutarque. Ce faisant, je tente de démêler les différentes couches de ce texte complexe. Socrate est présenté comme un imposteur et un sceptique par Colotès. Plutarque affirme que la philosophie de Socrate implique certes une méfiance radicale à l’égard des sens, mais que cela n’empêche ni Socrate ni ses disciples de vivre leur vie quotidienne. La philosophie socratique doit être préférée de très loin à l’épicurisme. Stilpon, un mégarique, appartient également à la tradition socratique. Plutarque apporte son soutien à la bonne réputation morale de ce philosophe à l’esprit vif contre le mauvais traitement que Colotès lui avait infligé. Ce dernier avait aussi attaqué le rejet par Stilpon de toute prédication, à l’exception de la prédication d’identité. Plutarque affirme que l’argument de Stilpon est un pur exercice dialectique et ne menace aucunement nos vies quotidiennes. Plutarque lance en outre une contre-attaque contre la philosophie épicurienne du langage, et plus particulièrement la suppression du niveau intermédiaire – celui des significations. Le fameux argument de Stilpon, tel qu’il est présenté par Plutarque, revient à nier la relation ontologique à laquelle correspond la prédication ordinaire. La conclusion de Plutarque – selon laquelle Stilpon nous invite simplement à abandonner l’usage du verbe « être » comme copule – ne convient pas à l’argument tel qu’il le présente. La meilleure explication de ce décalage est l’hypothèse que Plutarque a copié l’argument de manière assez fidèle sans l’analyser dans le détail. Cela expliquerait également le fait que l’argument ne fasse aucun usage de la théorie platonicienne de la prédication dans le Sophiste.

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Notes de l’auteur

I wish to thank Dr. David Butorac for help with the English.

Texte intégral

1In this contribution I analyse Plutarch’s defence on behalf of Socrates and Stilpo in chapters 17 to 23 of the Adversus Colotem. First I examine how this section is embedded in the larger argument of the book and argue that Plutarch may have had several reasons for treating Socrates and Stilpo in sequence. Then I briefly discuss the polemical strategies used and explain the complexity of the polemic by distinguishing several layers in the text. This is then followed by an analysis of the two sections, where I first discuss Colotes’ criticisms and then Plutarch’s counter-arguments.

The place of the sections on Socrates and Stilpo in Plutarch’s argument

  • 1 E. Kechagia, Plutarch “Against Colotes”. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, Oxford, OUP, (...)

2In Colotes’ work On the fact that according to the doctrines of the other philosophers it is impossible even to live the chapter on Socrates was not immediately followed by the section on Stilpo. With the notorious exception of Democritus, Colotes respected the chronological order: after Socrates he discussed Plato and his followers, and this section was followed by the polemic against Stilpo (Adv. Col. 22, 1119C4-5). Then he moved on to his contemporaries, whom he attacked without naming. It is clear, however, whom they were: the Cyrenaics, on the one hand, Arcesilaus and the Academy, on the other (Adv. Col. 24, 1120B11-C9). The absence of Aristotle and the Peripatetics in this sequence has worried scholars. Plutarch suggests that Colotes regarded them just as followers of Plato (Adv. Col. 14, 1114F4-1115A4), but maybe, as Eleni Kechagia recently suggested, Colotes thought that Aristotle was just not liable to the main charge, or at least not obviously enough.1 The absence of Aristotle’s followers is probably a natural consequence of the omission of Aristotle himself.

  • 2 E. Kechagia, Plutarch “Against Colotes”. A lesson in history of philosophy, op. cit., p.  (...)
  • 3 This is the result of a double reversal. Besides the one already mentioned, Plu (...)
  • 4 On the thorny issue of the Megarian school, see D.N. Sedley, “Diodorus Cronus and Helleni (...)
  • 5 Cic. De or. 3, 16.61-17.62. See also Plato, Phaed. 59B-C. The testimonies on the (...)
  • 6 Cic. De or. 3, 17.62; Diog. Laert. 2,47.
  • 7 E. Kechagia, Plutarch “Against Colotes”. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p.  (...)
  • 8 The position of Stilpo in the sequence poses a problem for R. Westman, Plutarch gegen Kol (...)
  • 9 It is not impossible that Plutarch knew Aristotle’s report (Met. 1.6, 987B1-7) on the dif (...)
  • 10 E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p.  (...)
  • 11 See Lampr. cat. 63 ( “On the unity of the Academy from Plato onwards”); P. Donini, “L’ere (...)
  • 12 P. Donini, “L’eredità academica e i fondamenti del platonismo in Plutarco”, op. cit., p.  (...)

3Plutarch offers a section by section refutation of Colotes’ charges, but explains that his own treatment deviates from the original sequence. He had good reasons for his reorganisation of the material, as becomes clear from what he says. It is impossible to assign priorities to the different reasons he may have had – that may even have been so for the author himself – but it is obvious that the sequence adopted by Plutarch has several advantages, the general aim being a greater thematic coherence.2 Plato is now grouped together with Parmenides,3 which makes sense given the fact that their ontologies, as perceived by Colotes and Plutarch, are not unrelated. As Plutarch understands them, both posited a distinction between sensible and intelligible reality, and were criticised by the Epicureans for similar reasons (Adv. Col. 13, 1114E10-F3). More importantly for the present purpose, in Plutarch’s sequence Socrates is immediately followed by Stilpo. Not only are there striking similarities between those two, we now also have a larger section that runs from Socrates to the Academics. The philosophers discussed in this section – Socrates himself, Stilpo, the Cyrenaics, the Academics – are in some way Socratics. Surely Socrates was not a follower of himself, but no-one would contest that his way of engaging in philosophy was Socratic. As for the others: the Megarians,4 with whom Stilpo belongs, and the Cyrenaics are traditionally grouped under the name “Socratics”;5 and Arcesilaus, a member of Plato’s Academy, has Socrates as one of his philosophical heroes, as becomes abundantly clear in the Adversus Colotem (and as a follower of Plato, he could be considered as “officially” a Socratic6). This may not have been the primary thematic criterion Plutarch had in mind, though. E. Kegachia argues persuasively that the reorganisation of the material carried out by Plutarch was based on the traditional distinction between physics and dialectic: Plutarch thus distinguishes a first group of “physicists”, consisting of Democritus, Empedocles, Parmenides, and Plato. These are here treated as physicists because their views singled out for criticism were all considered to pertain to physics, at least by Plutarch. We would call them ontological theses, concerned with the existence and the nature of things such as the world, ordinary objects and human beings. The second group consists of Socrates, Stilpo, the Cyrenaics and Arcesilaus. The views attacked were held to belong to dialectics or logic (or “canonics” according to the Epicurean terminology). The issues at stake have to do with what beliefs we can form about things, what we can know and what we can express about them.7 It is certainly no coincidence that the dialectic group coincides with those one could regard as Socratics.8 For dialectical questions, such as what beliefs we can hold about things and what we can express about them, were linked to the Socratic mode of philosophy. One could object to this equation of the Socratic with the dialectical by saying that Socrates stood for many other things besides this, especially if one looks beyond the convenient modern figment of the “early dialogues”. The Socrates of the so-called middle and late dialogues as well as the Socrates portrayed by Xenophon expresses strong ontological views. And overall, Socrates is primarily an ethicist. The latter aspect is certainly important in Plutarch’s text, the ontological views somewhat less.9 E. Kechagia points out that Plutarch elsewhere uses the epithet “… the Socratic” to identify philosophers such as Antisthenes, Aristippus, Euclid, and Xenophon, but does not apply the term to Plato.10 She also refers to an ancient historiographic tradition that testifies to a hostility between Plato and the other Socratics and suggests Plutarch may be aware of that opposition. Yet it is unlikely that Plutarch would have seen a strong opposition here. After all, he clearly regards the spirit of Arcesilaus’ philosophy as Socratic and at the same time considers him to be a true follower of Plato. Plutarch probably even wrote a separate treatise in which he defended the thesis of the unity of the Academic tradition,11 which expressly includes Plato himself. It is also clear from many works that he sees a unity of inspiration between Plato and Socrates. Moreover, as P.L. Donini has shown, the polemical framework of the Adversus Colotem is such that Plutarch in his treatment of Socrates and Arcesilaus needs to stress the affinity of Plato and Socrates, at the expense of another tradition that emphasises the Pythagorean provenance of Plato’s philosophy and which makes Aristotle rather than Arcesilaus the true heir of Plato. In that light, Plutarch’s own philosophy may be understood as an attempt to reconcile both traditions.12 Be that as it may, in the organisation of his text Plutarch groups Plato together with Parmenides and discusses their ontological views, whereas the treatment of Socrates is here very close to that of Arcesilaus. However, he does not make an opposition between Socratic epistemological concerns and the philosophy of Plato. And as we shall see, Plutarch suggests that Socrates’ critical stance regarding sense-perception is reconcilable with, and explainable by, a Platonic epistemological and ontological framework, more precisely with the dichotomy between the sensible and the intelligible.

Style of argumentation, polemical strategies, different sources of bias

  • 13 I adopt this useful threefold distinction from E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes. A (...)
  • 14 M.F. Burnyeat, “The Sceptic in his Place and Time”, in R. Rorty, J.B. Schneewind, Q. Skin (...)
  • 15 E. Kechagia, Plutarch “Against Colotes”. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., (...)

4Colotes’ polemic can be reconstructed from the quotations (direct speech), reports (indirect speech) and echoes contained in Plutarch’s text,13 and also from Plutarch’s replies, which to some extent mirror Colotes’ attacks. His pamphlet was a mixture of arguments and sneers. Many of the arguments were perceived as insulting and preposterous, and from a scholarly point of view they indeed often are just that. Plutarch’s counter-arguments are somewhat better, but they too do not always meet present-day scholarly standards. But then, they were not meant to fulfil these standards. Colotes argued that if one were to take the views of the non-Epicurean philosophers seriously, even life would become impossible, let alone a pleasurable life. In other words, one cannot really live by what these philosophers claim. If it were truly impossible to tell the difference between a door and a wall in a reliable way, we would not be able to enter or leave buildings, except by pure luck, and would probably die from starvation and thirst. If all we could express in language were tautological statements, communication through language would become totally impossible, again with devastating consequences. These two cases in essence correspond to the views that Colotes imputes to Socrates and Stilpo, respectively. Colotes’ argument seems outrageous from our perspective: how could any philosophical theory constitute a direct threat to our capacity for surviving or even for our capacity to live a life in conformity with human values? Apparently, insulation of philosophy from life (and vice versa) is a modern phenomenon.14 Moreover, the Hellenistic conception of philosophy as therapy entails the conviction that philosophical positions can have direct consequences for our way of life.15

  • 16 There are some exceptions, but not in our section: E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes(...)

5In most cases,16 Plutarch defends the victims of Colotes’ polemic by showing that their philosophy does not make it impossible to live. He can do so by conceding that Colotes’ opponents are indeed committed to the views that Colotes imputes to them but denying that the alleged disastrous consequences follow, or by simply showing that Colotes’ opponents do not hold the views that Colotes maliciously or ignorantly attributed to them. So the strategy consists in showing that Colotes misrepresents his opponents and/or that his reasoning is fallacious. By doing so Plutarch not only vindicates the other philosophers but moreover shows Colotes in a bad light.

  • 17 See Ar. Rhet. 2.23, 1398A3-4; 12-14, cited by E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes. A (...)

6Plutarch’s defence of the other philosophers is invariably coupled with a counter-attack. Almost always Plutarch turns the tables on Colotes, that is, he tries to show that Colotes or the Epicureans in general are guilty of the very charge that they are making. We can call this an overturning argument.17 This can even turn into a full-scale attack on Epicurean views in a way that goes beyond the preceding criticisms. Plutarch wants to show that Epicurean philosophy is fundamentally false and misguided and that it has undesirable consequences. A strategy related to, compatible with but not necessarily identical to, the overturning strategy consists in pointing out an inconsistency between the criticism voiced by Colotes and some other view to which he is committed. Finally it should be said that the polemic does not just play at the level of philosophical argumentation: Colotes is frequently abusive of his opponents, and Plutarch gleefully returns the insults and sneers.

  • 18 The best example is De sera 1, 548A1-B5.

7I consider it unlikely that Plutarch wrote with primarily an audience of contemporary Epicureans in mind. He rather addressed his own circle and other like-minded people, but possibly also adherents of other currents more or less congenial to Platonism (as were the Stoics in some respects). In the dialogical settings of some of his works people with different philosophical leanings are still present, although the Epicureans usually leave the discussion at an early stage.18 Plutarch probably wants to indicate that, contrary to Stoics for instance, Epicureans are simply not able to participate in advanced philosophical debates. Their rejection of certain fundamental tenets (the existence of providence, the immortality of the soul) disqualifies them from the kind of philosophical debate envisaged by Plutarch. Stoics, with whom there was much more common ground, are, on the contrary, allowed full participation in Plutarch’s fictional dialogical settings.

  • 19 See L. Van Hoof, Plutarch’s practical ethics. The social dynamics of philosophy, Oxford, (...)

8To what extent the situations portrayed by Plutarch correspond to the realities at the turn of the first to second century is hard to tell. Plutarch’s dialogues are of course idealised. We can only guess about the real presence of serious Epicureans offering themselves as sparring partners in the educational setting of Plutarch’s “school”, or rather of Epicureans that could expect themselves to be treated as equal partners in a civilised philosophical conversation. Their real-life existence, even in provincial towns, is beyond doubt, as the inscription put up by Diogenes of Oenanda shows. Even so, Plutarch’s tract probably does not address contemporary Epicureans with the aim of converting them, it seems to me. My main reason for thinking so is that Plutarch does not engage with Epicurean views in such a way as to convince those who hold them: one cannot reasonably expect any Epicurean to be persuaded by Plutarch’s arguments. This is simply not the function of polemical tracts such as Plutarch’s, or Colotes’ for that matter. What the historical person Plutarch wanted to achieve is impossible to establish with certainty; probably not even the author himself had a clear view of all of his goals and motives and how they relate to one another. Part of it will have been to reassure himself and his disciples of the correctness of their philosophical perspective and of the wickedness of the competition (both historical and contemporary opponents). Plutarch may also have hoped that others – prospective students and cultivated people in general – would see why the Academic-Platonic position is superior to the Epicurean.19

9Disentangling this intricate web of polemic and counter-polemic is a tricky business. In principle, it is possible to distinguish at least the following levels:
I. Philosophers attacked by Arcesilaus ( “the other philosophers”)
(1) the original views of the other philosophers
II. Colotes (Epicureans)
(2) Colotes’ interpretation of the philosophical views of the other philosophers;
(3) (a) Colotes’ own views and (b) Epicurean views in general
(4) Colotes’ criticism of the other philosophers, whether this criticism be (a) internal or (b) external to their position
III. Plutarch
(5) Plutarch’s understanding of (1)
(6) Plutarch’s understanding of (2) (Plutarch does not always look for a distinction between (1) and (2))
(7) Plutarch’s understanding of (3)
(8) Plutarch’s understanding of (4)
(9) Plutarch’s own philosophical views
(10) Plutarch’s criticism of (a) Colotes and (b) the Epicureans in general, based on (7) and (8), informed by (5) and (6) and (9)
(11) Plutarch’s general criticism of the Epicureans (dependent upon (7)), independently of their attack on other philosophers.

  • 20 For the use made by the Academics of presocratic philosophers, see C. Brittain, (...)
  • 21 See M. Isnardi Parente, “Plutarco contro Colote”, in I. Gallo (ed.), Aspetti dello stoici (...)
  • 22 J.M. Dillon, “Plutarch and Second Century Platonism”, in A.H. Armstrong (ed.), Classical (...)

10In principle one could try to make a further distinction between what Plutarch really believes and the way he presents his views and criticisms. Also, the understanding of other philosophers’ views (see 5, and also 2) may be mediated by other sources, such as compilations, commentaries or doxographical sources. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Colotes’ criticism of some of the other philosophers probably served a further purpose, namely to attack one or one group of them in particular. It is indeed believed, as we will see shortly, that the criticism against the predecessors of Arcesilaus, including the Cyrenaics, was primarily directed at Arcesilaus and his fellow Academics, who had cited and appropriated them.20 In other words, the Academics had claimed the authority of their predecessors for their own philosophical project, which in most cases involves an additional bias. Colotes appears to have been well aware of this strategy and counters it. Indeed, this may very well have been his main reason for writing his pamphlet. That should not mean, however, that the entire polemic is reducible to an anti-Academic polemic.21 Plutarch, in turn, was very well aware of this whole situation, considers himself to stand in the tradition of Arcesilaus, at least to a large extent, and in this spirit counters the challenge posed by Colotes’ text. Thus, once more a level of possible bias is introduced. Plutarch may think he appreciates the situation in largely the same way as Arcesilaus, but given the changed philosophical context additional shifts are likely. And indeed, as I have already briefly indicated and as I and others have argued elsewhere,22 Plutarch wants to underline the unity of the Academic tradition, starting from Plato up to his own day, and incorporates developments from later Hellenistic and Post-Hellenistic times, without always being fully aware of the various historical shifts. His brand of Platonism was indeed influenced more particularly by the later Hellenistic Academy, more specifically by the thought of Philo of Larissa, by “Middle Platonic” Pythagoreanising tendencies and attempts to systematise Platonic philosophy. Hence he will not have assessed this already ancient polemic from a fully detached point of view.

  • 23 Compare E. Kechagia, Plutarch “Against Colotes”. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. c (...)

11Plutarch’s interpretation of Colotes’ own views and his criticism could, in particular cases, be honest and plausible, or biased (without him being aware of it), or involve deliberate distortions. These questions are hard to decide: the evidence needs to be weighed in every individual case. Nor will it be practicable to examine all possible levels for every point. Such a procedure would be tedious. For reasons of convenience, I will not discuss (1) in the case of Socrates, in order to avoid a quagmire and the traps set up by the Socrates industry. More fundamentally, it is impossible to get a neutral assessment of the views of ancient philosophers; we always run the risk of setting up our own biases as standards by which ancient interpreters should be measured. For sure, to an extent this risk is unavoidable, but it should be minimised.23

Socrates, an impostor and a sceptic (17-21, 1116E8-1119C3)

12Plutarch discusses three charges directed against Socrates:

131) Adv. Col. 17-18, 1116E9-1117E9: Colotes called the oracle delivered to Chaerephon according to which no one is wiser than Socrates a “sophistical and vulgar story”.

142) Adv. Col. 19-20, 1117E10-1118C2: Colotes criticised Socrates disavowal of sense-perception as dishonest and accordingly called Socrates a “braggart” or “charlatan” (ἀλαζών). If one were to live without relying on the senses, life would be impossible, so the argument appears to be; but although Socrates professed not to rely on his senses, in everyday situations he did trust them, hence there is a disagreement between his words and his deeds. Colotes apparently added other examples of behaviour qualifying as “boasting” (ἀλαζονεία).

153) Adv. Col. 20-21, 1118C2-1119C3: Colotes criticised Socrates’ quest for self-knowledge as preposterous, absurd, and vulgar. The idea is that he who is searching for knowledge about who he is, does not yet know himself, pretends not to know himself, or ignores that he already knows. But not to know oneself would make life impossible.

  • 24 See M.T. Riley, “The Epicurean view of Socrates”, Phoenix, 34, 1980, p. 55-68; (...)

16These charges correspond to different sections in Plutarch’s defence that one may presume to correspond to sections of Colotes’ text. In fact, they amount to two lines of criticism: (A) the first directed at Socrates’ character, alleged to be dishonest, vulgar, and sophistical; (B) the second pertaining to views attributed to Socrates that make life impossible: the disavowal of the senses and the ignorance concerning his own nature. In order to live a life it is necessary, so Colotes argues, to know what one is – a human being, with all that entails – and to be able to rely on what one perceives through one’s senses. The arguments that aim to show that it is impossible to live in accordance with Socrates’ expressed philosophical views are in line with the core idea of Colotes’ general polemic. To this is added an attack of Socrates as a person that is more outspoken and villainous than in the case of the other victims of Colotes’ attacks. Slander against Socrates was a wide-spread phenomenon in the Epicurean tradition,24 and here we witness one of its earliest appearances.

17The different charges are unmistakably intertwined. The accusation of dishonesty and braggery is related to the story about the oracle, which can in turn be connected to the quest for self-knowledge and knowledge in general. This quest presupposes an initial lack of knowledge, which is again associatively linked to ignorance regarding sense-objects, even though the ignorance in the two cases stems from different sources. The sceptical claims about the sensible world are again evidence for Socrates’ dishonesty.

  • 25 See Adv. Col. 17, 1116E11-F1.
  • 26 Xenophon’s Apologia deserves a special mention here: Plutarch defends Socrates (...)
  • 27 See G. Vlastos, Socrates, Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Cambridge, Cornell University Pr (...)
  • 28 See J. Opsomer, In Search of the Truth. Academic Tendencies in Middle Platonism, Brussel, (...)

18The modern reader may wonder about the sources on which Colotes’ criticism is based. The story about the oracle was of course well-known in Antiquity25 and has come to us from many sources besides Plato’s Apology.26 But what to make of the claim that Socrates distrusted the senses? I guess that for an ancient reader, unaware of Gregory Vlastos’ definition of what Platonic dialogues count as Socratic,27 the answer is pretty obvious: in the Theaetetus Socrates shows that sense-perception does not produce knowledge. This argument was seized on by Arcesilaus and followers in support of their brand of scepticism. The Theaetetus indeed played an important role in the Hellenistic epistemological debates.28

  • 29 Adv. Col. 18, 1117D6-7; E3-4; E8. Inconsistency between one’s views and one’s c (...)
  • 30 It is called thus at Adv. Col. 26, 1122A9-11.
  • 31 J. Warren, “Socratic Scepticism in Plutarch’s Adversus Colotem”, op. (...)
  • 32 Adv. Col. 18, 1117D2-7.
  • 33 Adv. Col. 19, 1117F5-1118A10; 2, 1108B4-5.
  • 34 Adv. Col. 27, 1122E4-F1, with J. Opsomer, In Search of the Truth, op. cit., p. 88, (...)
  • 35 A bath also figured prominently in polemical arguments issued by Epictetus agai (...)
  • 36 E.g. see P.H. De Lacy, B. Einarson, Plutarch. Moralia, Volume XIV, Cambridge (M (...)
  • 37 See C. Brittain, J. Palmer, “The New Academy’s appeals to the Presocratics”, op. cit., es (...)

19Colotes attacks Arcesilaus for foisting his ideas about (universal) suspension of judgment and the impossibility of attaining self-certifying impressions upon Socrates and others (Plato, Parmenides, and Heraclitus are mentioned by name), blaming him for a lack of originality (Adv. Col. 26, 1121E9-1122A4). More importantly he attacks the sceptical position attributed to Socrates and Arcesilaus in virtue of the same argument, that of apraxia, and using very similar examples that are meant to show that these philosophers did not in fact live in accordance with their principles.29 The apraxia argument30 holds that certain philosophical principles make life impossible: if we are denied conviction in our senses for our every-day decisions we will as it were be paralysed.31 But since those who advocated these principles continued to live pretty normal lives, there seems to be an inconsistency between their views and their conduct. Plutarch quotes Colotes arguing against Socrates that we eat edible food, not grass; that we cross rivers by foot when they are fordable, but by boat when the river is high, and concludes that Socrates’ words are impostorous (ἀλαζόνας) because of the incongruence between what is said and done.32 From Plutarch’s reply we may infer that Colotes added further examples: Socrates wraps his cloak around himself, not around a pillar, and keeps out of the way of snakes and wolves. This shows that Socrates was perfectly able to identify cloaks, food, snakes, wolves, but also – although Plutarch does not point this out – knew the difference between himself and a pillar (which would connect the argument nicely with the point about self-knowledge), and knows the difference between his mouth (where he puts the food) and his ear (no distinction yet between knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description).33 The arguments against Arcesilaus are very similar: suspension of judgment seems to be irreconcilable with Arcesilaus knowing the difference between a chamber-pot and a bath and between a wall and a door.34 Also Plutarch’s reply will be basically the same in the two cases, as we shall see.35 Most scholars36 think that the rivalry between Epicureans and Academics may very well have been the main reason for Colotes to attack the older philosophers. This would explain the many similarities between the attack on Arcesilaus and other philosophers. This is obvious in the case of the philosophers explicitly named as predecessors of Arcesilaus, but also for the Cyrenaics and their claim that our senses do not give us access to the external world (chapters 24-25) or for Democritus who allegedly abolished all knowledge of our own human nature by denying that there is such a nature (8, 1110E7-F1).37 Moreover, in his reply Plutarch associates Democritus’ dictum “no more so than so” with the inability to distinguish between opposite sensory qualities (4, 1109B1-C4). But nowhere is the similarity with the account of Arcesilaus so obvious as in the case of Socrates.

20Plutarch’s reply on behalf of the other philosophers is clearly motivated by his high opinion of them but also by his commitment to the Academic tradition and its roots in the philosophy of Socrates and Plato. Let us now look at his counter-arguments more closely.

  • 38 The meaning of Epicurus’ reaction is complex and not entirely clear. For a brief bibliogr (...)
  • 39 See Adv. Col. 2, 1108B2-4.
  • 40 Earlier on in the treatise Plutarch had already anticipated this line of attack. At Adv. (...)

21(1) Against the criticism of Chaerephon’s oracle as vulgar and sophistical, Plutarch at first counters with an argument ad populum, appealing to the general respect enjoyed by famous people. If Colotes were right, then Plato, who wrote down the story, would be just as vulgar and sophistical, and the same would be true for Lycurgus and the Spartans, Themistocles and the Athenians, and the legendary law-givers, who all appealed to oracles. But in fact Socrates was divinely inspired and driven toward virtue (17, 1116F3-1117A4). By this last remark Plutarch vindicates Socrates, but also prepares the counter-attack. For Plutarch now contrasts the previous examples with Colotes himself, in the form of a tu quoque argument: if Socrates is vulgar, what to say of Colotes’ slavish worship of Epicurus? Contrary to Socrates, who was directed by god towards virtue, Colotes is directed by Epicurus toward pleasure. Plutarch quotes from a letter of Epicurus in which the latter literally recommends pleasure, calling virtue futile and foolish. He adds a quotation from Metrodorus testifying to the religious worship of Epicurus by his followers. Then Plutarch relates an episode in which Colotes falls to his knees in worship of his master, only to be rewarded with what is probably a mixture of acknowledgment and a disdainful ironic reaction from the latter, which is again literally quoted by Plutarch.38 The conclusion, which ties in with his general criticism of Colotes,39 is that the latter is himself boorish and pathetic, and projects his own shortcomings upon others (17, 1117A4-C11). Plutarch’s reply is just as much ad hominem as was Colotes’ attack.40

  • 41 Adv. Col. 18, 1117D7-8. See E. Kechagia, Plutarch Against Colotes. A Lesson in History (...)
  • 42 Plutarch repeats the point in the epilogue: Adv. Col. 32, 1126B6-9.

22Having turned the tables on Colotes, Plutarch returns to the accusation of braggery (ἀλαζονεία), quoting a passage from Colotes’ text that connects this accusation with an attack on Socrates’ alleged scepticism regarding sense-perception through an implicit use of the apraxia argument (18, 1117D1-E9). This is the passage where the examples of the food and the river, mentioned above, are used and where Colotes also makes it clear that the accusation of braggery follows from the perceived inconsistency between words and deeds: the one who declares that the senses cannot be trusted but acts in full reliance on them is just showing off (1117D2-7). Colotes’ words receive the ironic depreciatory label “clever remarks about sense-perception” (1117D1-2) but it is the braggery to which Plutarch turns first. His reply is again a mixture of vindicating Socrates and redirecting the accusation at Epicurus himself. Plutarch begins by ironically echoing Colotes’ criticism in his own description of Socrates – one of the Chaeronean’s favourite tactics.41 A quotation from Epicurus is then given in evidence of the latter’s self-glorification and is subsequently qualified as boorish (1117D9-E3). Colotes’ criticism therefore applies to Epicurus himself, not to Socrates, for how can there be boasting if all Socrates did was to learn and search for the truth (1117D7-8)? To prove Socrates’ consistency Plutarch cites a number of well-known events showing Socrates to stand by his principles in the face of danger: he even died for his principles.42 Plutarch concludes that Socrates’ conduct was fully consistent with his deeds. He adds a clever and scornful remark: if Socrates’ guiding principle had not been virtue, but pleasure, then and then alone could his conduct be said to be inconsistent with his view. This is a sneer at the Epicureans, implying that their end – pleasure – does not produce heroic deeds (1117E6-9). At the end of this section Plutarch is convinced to have vindicated Socrates’ character: “So much in reply to the slander” (1117E10).

  • 43 See J. Opsomer, In Search of the Truth, op. cit., p. 104. See also Quaest. Plat. (...)

23It is striking that Colotes’ scolding of Socrates is not only mirrored in Plutarch’s criticism of the Epicureans, but also reflects Plato’s assessment of Socrates’ opponents, which in turn returns the ridicule to which Socrates had been subjected by his detractors, for instance in Aristophanes’ Clouds. The various sides accuse each other of the same vices: insincerity, sophistry, boasting, and arrogance.43

  • 44 Adv. Col. 27, 1122E4-F5. See J. Opsomer, In Search of the Truth, op. (...)
  • 45 The expression and the idea are borrowed from J. Warren, “Socratic Scepticism i (...)

24(2) The discussion of the second charge starts, once more, with a tu quoque argument: it is Colotes who should not be able to trust his senses. For, as Plutarch shows through another quotation from Epicurus, only the wise can rely infallibly upon their senses, and Colotes is not a wise man, despite his flattery directed at Epicurus (again a sneer). Yet Colotes does not fall prey to apraxia (19, 1117E10-1118A4). This shows the way to the solution: in order for us to live our daily lives our senses do not have to be infallible, they should merely be reasonably reliable, or as Plutarch puts it: we can live by trusting what appears to us (1118A4-5). From an attack on Colotes Plutarch has turned to the defence of Colotes’ victim: if the opinion resulting from sense-perception (ἡ περὶ τῶν αἰσθήσεων δόξα, 1118A6, obviously considered to be equivalent with τὸ φαινόμενον, 1118A5) is in practice sufficient for Colotes, then it should also be sufficient for Socrates. For practical purposes appearance, i.e. what is given to the senses, will do very well. The senses are indeed inaccurate and fallible, but nonetheless things appear to us in a certain way (1118B2-8). This is basically the same solution as that offered in defence of Arcesilaus.44 Whether Colotes should be impressed by it, is an entirely different matter. Colotes could insist that Socrates and his adherents need some account making it plausible that the senses, unreliable as they are, nonetheless can guide “consistently reasonable action”.45

  • 46 Adv. Col. 13, 1114C4-D2; J. Warren, “Socratic Scepticism in Plutarch’s Adversus Colotem”, (...)
  • 47 This issue is brought up in a rather provocative way by H. Tarrant, review of T (...)
  • 48 Compare Quaest. Plat. 1, 1000D10-11.
  • 49 Compare M. Isnardi Parente, “Plutarco contro Colote”, op. cit., p. 76.

25Plutarch concludes his vindication of Socrates by alluding to another type of knowledge, desired by the soul, for which the senses do not suffice (1118B9-10). This remark ties in with an earlier passage, where Plutarch attributes to Socrates the ontological and epistemological dichotomy between the fleeting objects of opinion (τὸ δοξαστόν) and the stable and ungenerated objects of intellection (τὸ νοητόν), thus associating him with the ontology of Parmenides and Plato.46 This corroborates my previous observation that Plutarch’s image of Socrates includes aspects that most Socrates scholars nowadays blend out as not corresponding to the Socrates of Plato’s “Socratic” dialogues.47 The knowledge desired by the soul to which the present passage refers is presumably supposed to be the knowledge of intelligible truth.48 Plutarch thus ascribes to Socrates the view that the senses are not just fallible, i.e. that our sense-impressions may sometimes be deceptive, but rather that they never provide true knowledge.49

  • 50 Compare Gellius 11.5.6; Sext. Emp. PH 1.7.
  • 51 Compare Quaest. Plat. 1, 1000E2; Adv. Col. 20, 1118C9-10.

26The argument is as usual combined with rhetorical flourishes: an ironic echo of the accusation of braggery and an equally ironic remark that the writings of Epicurus may be useful for the wise but not for us, ordinary people. We are indeed on equal footing with Colotes as far as the reliance on appearances is concerned (1118A9-B2). This remark may be intended as indirectly confirming Socrates’ disavowal of wisdom: he is not the kind of sage addressed by Epicurus’ precepts. At any rate, Socrates’ distrust of the senses, which Plutarch does not contest, is rather interpreted in what we would call a Platonic framework, i.e. in the light of the distinction between knowledge and opinion, probably linked to a distinction between ontological realms. The outlook of his philosophy is not so much sceptical in the modern sense, but zetetic.50 Plutarch himself explains that philosophy as practiced by Socrates consists in learning51 and searching for the truth (18, 1117D7-8).

27Plutarch concludes the section with an internal reference to later sections of the text: there will be more opportunity to speak on the same issue (20, 1118C1-2), i.e. about the senses and Colotes’ attack on those who hold them to be unable to provide knowledge of the external world. The reference is to the sections on Arcesilaus (certainly) and the Cyrenaics (probably).

  • 52 See also De ad. et am. 25, 65E8-F3; Cons. ad Ap. 28, 116D8-D1; De E 2, 385D2-7; (...)

28(3) For the third charge against Socrates, Plutarch does not give a quotation from Colotes’ tract, but merely a report. Colotes ridicules Socrates for his search (ζητοῦντα) into what a human being is and for his closely related claim that he does not even know himself. This is the silly behaviour of a youngster (20, 1118C2-5). Plutarch replies that Colotes’ mockery is due to immaturity: he has not even reached the stage where he would see the point of the quest for self-knowledge. Yet that it is important is shown by an appeal to authority: Heraclitus and the Delphic oracle ( “Know thyself”) proclaim it to be of primary importance. Moreover, Aristotle locates the beginning of Socratic aporetic and zetetic practice in this oracle.52 “But Colotes finds this ridiculous” (1118C11). It is the authority of the ancients against that of Colotes. Guess who wins…

29Next Plutarch overturns the argument: Colotes should mock his own master, for in searching for the nature of the soul he was looking for the nature of man. Plutarch quotes Epicurus (1118D9-E5) and adds that this shows that not just the “impostor” Socrates, but also the “wise people themselves” regard the quest for self-knowledge as something important (20, 1118D6-8) – a double, ironical, sneer, one directed at Epicurus, the other at Colotes for his slander. Plutarch moreover uses the quotation to criticise Epicurus’ materialistic conception of the soul, which fails to account for our reasoning power. For when it comes to explain thinking Epicurus can no longer invoke a mixture of heat, gas and air, but has to resort to an “unnameable” constituent. This is no more than a confession of ignorance, Plutarch comments: it is indeed not an easy thing to discover the nature of our faculty of reason. Hence, Plutarch concludes, Socrates was no fool when he decided he had to look for just this before all other things. Those, on the contrary, like the Epicureans, who talk about all kind of things before having looked into the highest part of our soul have embarked upon a futile enterprise (1118E5-F7).

  • 53 This position is comparable to the harmony hypothesis put forward by Simmias in the Phaed (...)
  • 54 The lost treatise Περὶ τοῦ γνῶθι σαυτὸν καὶ εἰ ἀθάνατος ἡ ψυχή (Lamprias Cat. 177) appear (...)
  • 55 For the metaphors used, see J. Opsomer, In Search of the Truth, op. cit., p. 98 (...)
  • 56 See De Is. et Os. 49, 371B3-4: Τυφὼν δὲ τῆς ψυχῆς τὸ παθητικὸν καὶ τιτανικὸν καὶ ἄλογον (...)

30Apparently Colotes had not just mocked Socrates for searching his true nature, he had also argued that this endeavour makes life impossible. Therefore Plutarch now addresses this second part of the accusation and grants for the sake of the argument that Socrates’ quest is “cheap” and useless (21, 1118F8-1119A3). Plutarch pictures a fictional self-dialogue of someone going through the different possibilities (1119A3-B2): my true self could be (i) a blend of soul and body; (ii) the soul using the body (an instrumentalist position); (iii) the leading part of the body, principle of thought and action (a different instrumentalist position); (iv) no substance at all, but just a blend of the body (a form of eleminitavism or epiphenomenalism).53 This short self-dialogue is meant to show that many philosophers, notably the natural philosophers (1119B3), have asked themselves this question without thereby endangering their lives. It would be much more dangerous indeed to take the irrational powers for our true self. As long as these are not recognised for what they are and held in check, they can throw our lives into chaos (1119B2-8). The question Socrates asks in the Phaedrus (230A3-6), whether he is “a beast more intricate and puffed up than Typhon” or rather something divine54 and free from infatuation,55 does not threaten our lives, but merely the worst part of ourselves. And this deserves to be threatened. It is indeed irrationality that we should get rid of. It is dangerous, as can be seen in the case of “your leader”, i.e. Epicurus, who has implanted plenty of Typhon (i.e. irrationality56) in his disciples by waging a war against gods and godlike men (1119B8-C3). With this last reference to Epicurus’ alleged atheism and his blasphemous criticism of Socrates Plutarch concludes the section on Socrates.

Stilpo, a decent man with a subtle and playful mind (22-23, 1119C4-1120B9)

  • 57 Sen. Ep. 1, 9.1; 9.18 (fr. 173-175, in H. Usener, Epicurea, Leipzig, Teubner, 1887). (...)
  • 58 Tranq. an. 17, 475C7-10; Demetr. 9, 9-10.
  • 59 Sen. Ep. 1, 9.18; De const. sap. 5.6.
  • 60 Plut. Demetr. 9,9-10.
  • 61 See Chrysippus, ap. Plut. Stoic. rep. 10, 1036C2-5.
  • 62 Tranq. an. 6, 467F5-468A10. It is probably no coincidence that Stilpo figures twice in a (...)

31As with Socrates, Colotes was not the first of his school to have criticised the Megarian philosopher Stilpo. Epicurus himself had already rebuked Stilpo for his view according to which the sage is completely self-sufficient and does not need friends.57 A well-known anecdote, cited elsewhere by Plutarch,58 illustrates this conviction of his. When Demetrius had pillaged Megara and his soldiers had stolen Stilpo’s material goods (according to Seneca Stilpo also lost his wife and children59) Stilpo replied to Demetrius, who had asked whether he had by any chance lost anything: “I still have all my goods with me.” In one version, cited by Plutarch, Stilpo specified that they had not taken his knowledge.60 Recounting another famous anecdote, Plutarch tells his readers that Stilpo was not disturbed by the licentious life led by his daughter and explained that this had nothing to do with him. By an elegant rhetorical (some might say sophistical61) argument, playing on the polysemy of words (amphibolia), Stilpo fends off his Cynic detractor.62 In De prof. 12, 83C3-D3 Plutarch tells another story which shows that Stilpo was so composed and undisturbed that even in his dreams he remained calm when an angry Poseidon appeared to him.

  • 63 This is suggested by De prof. 12, 83B6-C3.
  • 64 See G. Giannantoni, Socratis et Socraticorum reliquiae, op. cit., section (...)
  • 65 Even his proverbial womanising and alcoholism were cited in his favour. See Cic. Fat. 5.1 (...)
  • 66 For a more careful interpretation than my hasty remark, see G. Giannantoni, Socratis et S (...)

32Plutarch’s references to Stilpo in his other works thus make up a consistent portrait: Stilpo was a philosopher who believed in the self-sufficiency of virtue and lived accordingly. Through training63 he had managed to control the irrational element of his soul, so that he could enjoy a very high degree of tranquillity. This, one should add, made him a worthy Socratic and moreover a philosopher who was perfectly able to live in accordance with his principles. Other sources confirm his gentle and upright character and unpretentiousness.64 Diogenes Laertius, for instance, offers a remarkably sympathetic portrait of the Megarian. He also mentions the agility of his mind, his argumentative skill and creativity, his subtility and conversational elegance (2.113; 115),65 but is strikingly silent about his views. He merely tells us that Stilpo rejected the theory of Forms (2.119).66

  • 67 Some of these tenets can be derived from the anecdotes. Iamblichus (ap. Simpl. in Cat. 40 (...)
  • 68 See Diog. Laert. 2.114 (ἦν δὲ καὶ πολιτικώτατος); 6.76. See K. Döring, Die Megariker. Kom (...)
  • 69 See Diog. Laert. 2.115-116. See K. Döring, Die Megariker, op. cit., p. 140.

33It is from this overall positive image of Stilpo that Plutarch starts his discussion (while reminding us that in Colotes’ pamphlet the sequence was Socrates-Plato-Stilpo: Adv. Col. 22, 1119C4-5). We do not really learn what kind of abuse was heaped upon Stilpo, but Plutarch censures his opponent for not mentioning the many good things there are to say about Stilpo: his true doctrines and words by which he brought distinction to himself, to his country, his friends, and those kings who valued him, his “high spirit (φρόνημα) joined with gentleness (πραότης) and restraint over the passions (μετριοπάθεια)” (1119C5-10). The doctrines that Plutarch expressly calls “true” are probably the ethical principles that Stilpo embraced.67 The fact that he mentions friends is not without consequence, given Epicurus’ criticism of Stilpo regarding his views on the use of friends: although Stilpo maintained that someone in complete possession of virtue does not need friends, he himself obviously had friends and was good to them. This is no contradiction: Stilpo presumably held the moderate view that while the wise person enjoys having friends, (s)he does not require them in order to be happy. Stilpo was moreover active in politics68 and indeed on close terms with kings (Ptolemy Soter and Demetrius Poliorcetes).69

  • 70 As argued by K. von Fritz, “Megariker”, in Paulys Realenzyklopädie der classisc (...)
  • 71 R. Muller, Introduction à la pensée des Mégariques, op. cit., p. 193-197; G. Giannantoni, (...)
  • 72 K. von Fritz, “Megariker”, op. cit., p. 719.58-64.

34The ethical principles to which Stilpo appears to be firmly committed need not be attributed to Cynic influence.70 There is no reason for thinking that they were not indigenous to the Megaric school71 and part of its Socratic heritage.72

  • 73 E. Kechagia, Plutarch “Against Colotes”. A Lesson in History of Philosophy, op. cit., p.  (...)
  • 74 See also 23, 1120B4, reading ἐξέπαιξε with B. Einarson and P.H. De Lacy.
  • 75 Adv. Col. 22, 1119C9-10: ὧν δὲ παίζων καὶ χρώμενος γέλωτι πρὸς τοὺς σοφιστὰς λογαρίων προ (...)

35Plutarch does not here say much about Stilpo’s character, presumably because there was no need to do so. This time, contrary to the case of Socrates, Colotes had not attempted a character assassination. What he had done instead was fasten on one of Stilpo’s logical arguments, make fun of it, and claim that it makes life impossible. The argument in question amounts to a rejection of all predication except identity predication: it is ruled out that one thing is predicated of another (1119D1-2: ἕτερον ἑτέρου μὴ κατηγορεῖσθαι – I shall call the predication of non-identicals ordinary predication). If predication were not possible, daily life would indeed become difficult.73 Plutarch, however, seems to think that this does not present a philosophical tenet to which Stilpo was seriously committed. He suggests that the argument, like other similar arguments, was offered by way of play, “in order to tease the sophists” as it were.74 It is no more than a dialectical exercise. Plutarch further intimates it was rather foolish of Colotes not to have understood this, but to have used it instead ing thrt an iave themorefed by wll suggests uall" id="bodyftf hisiicatioernd bodet fed inom this ovvvvvvvvvvtice alectical exercise. P class="footnotecall" id="bodyftn74" href="#ftn65">(.75a> Plutarch hiiclearly mot contenced to the arriouslyss ( the accument, liich in tuy gose offs Soll-kith the onnnnnnnnnnertic coage of e Megarian phhool

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