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This webpage reproduces the essay
That a Philosopher Ought to Converse Especially with Men in Power


as published in Vol. X
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1936

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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(Vol. X) Plutarch, Moralia


The work appears in pp25‑47 of Vol. X of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of the Moralia, first published in 1936. The Greek text and the English translation (by H. N. Fowler) are now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1964 and was not renewed at the appropriate time, which would have been that year or the year before. (Details here on the copyright law involved.)

 p27  Loeb Edition Introduction

This brief essay was written in support of the contention that the philosopher should exert himself to influence the thought and conduct of men in power and should not shut himself away from the world. This view is consistent with Plutarch's own life. The essay is less carefully written than some of the others, and the text is somewhat uncertain in a few places, among which may be mentioned the very first sentence. In this the first word, Sorcanus, appears to be a proper name, but the name does not occur elsewhere, and therefore numerous emendations have been proposed. If the reading is correct, Sorcanus was some important personage and must have been well known to the person, whoever he was, to whom the essay is addressed; for although not written exactly in the form of a letter, the essay seems to be intended primarily for some one person's edification or entertainment.

 p29  (776) 1 1 In clasping Sorcanus to your bosom, in prizing, pursuing, welcoming, and cultivating his friendship —
a friendship which will prove useful and fruitful to many in private and to many in public life — you are acting like a man who loves what is noble, who is public-spirited and is a friend of mankind, not, as some people say, like one who is merely ambitious for himself. No, on the contrary, the man who is ambitious for himself and afraid of every whisper is just the one who avoids and fears being called a persistent and servile attendant on those in power. For what does a man say who is an attendant upon philosophy and stands in need of it? "Let me change from Pericles or Cato and become Simo the cobbler or Dionysius the schoolmaster, in order that the philosopher may converse with me and sit beside me as Socrates did with Pericles." CAnd while it is true that Ariston of Chios, when the sophists spoke ill of him for talking with all who wished it, said, "I wish even the beasts could understand words which incite to virtue," yet as for us, shall we avoid becoming intimate with  p31 powerful men and rulers, as if they were wild and savage?

The teaching of philosophy is not, if I may use the words of Pindar,​1 "a sculptor to carve statues doomed to stand idly on their pedestals and no more"; no, it strives to make everything that it touches active and efficient and alive, it inspires men with impulses which urge to action, with judgements that lead them towards what is useful, with preferences for things that are honourable, Dwith wisdom and greatness of mind joined to gentleness and conservatism, and because they possess these qualities, men of public spirit are more eager to converse with the prominent and powerful. Certainly if a physician is a man of high ideals, he will be better pleased to cure the eye which sees for many and watches over many, and a philosopher will be more eager to attend upon a soul which he sees is solicitous for many and is under obligation to be wise and self-restrained and just in behalf of many. For surely, if he were skilled in discovering and collecting water, Eas they say Heracles and many of the ancients were, he would not delight in digging the swineherd's fount of Arethusa​2 in a most distant spot "by the Crow's Rock," but in uncovering the unfailing sources of some river for cities and camps and the plantations of kings and sacred groves. So we hear Homer​3 calling Minos "the great god's oaristes," which  p33 means, according to Plato,​4 "familiar friend and pupil." For they did not think that pupils of the gods should be plain citizens or stay-at‑homes or idlers, but kings, Ffrom whose good counsel, justice, goodness, and high-mindedness, if those qualities were implanted in them, all who had to do with them would receive benefit and profit. Of the plant eryngium they say that if one goat take it in its mouth, first that goat itself and then the entire herd stands still until the herdsman comes and takes the plant out, such pungency, like a fire which spreads over everything near it and scatters itself abroad, is possessed by the emanations of its potency. Certainly the teachings of the philosopher, if they take hold of one person in private station who enjoys abstention from affairs and circumscribes himself by his bodily comforts, as by a circle drawn with geometrical compasses, 777 do not spread out to others, but merely create calmness and quiet in that one man, then dry up and disappear. But if these teachings take possession of a ruler, a statesman, and a man of action and fill him with love of honour, through one he benefits many, as Anaxagoras did by associating with Pericles, Plato with Dion, and Pythagoras with the chief men of the Italiote Greeks. Cato himself sailed from his army to visit Athenodorus; and Scipio sent for Panaetius when he himself was sent out by the senate

to view the violence and lawfulnessº of men,

 p35  as Poseidonius says.​5 BNow what should Panaetius have said? "If you were Bato or Polydeuces or some other person in private station who wished to run away from the midst of cities and quietly in some corner solve or quibble​6 over the syllogisms of philosophers, I would gladly welcome you and consort with you; but since you are the son of Aemilius Paulus, who was twice consul, and the grandson of Scipio Africanus who overcame Hannibal the Carthaginian, shall I, therefore, not converse with you?"

2 1 But the statement that there are two kinds of speech, one residing in the mind, the gift of Hermes the Leader, and the other residing in the utterance, merely an attendant and instrument, is threadbare; we will let it come under the heading

CYes, this I knew before Theognis' birth.​7

But that would not disturb us, because the aim and end of both the speech in the mind and the speech in the utterance is friendship, towards oneself and towards one's neighbour respectively; for the former, ending through philosophy in virtue, makes a man harmonious with himself, free from blame from himself, and full of peace and friendliness towards himself.

 p37  Faction is not, nor is ill-starred strife, to be found in his members,​8

there is no passion disobedient to reason, no strife of impulse with impulse, no opposition of argument to argument, there is no rough tumult and pleasure on the border-line, as it were, between desire and repentance, Dbut everything is gentle and friendly and makes each man gain the greatest number of benefits and be pleased with himself. But Pindar says​9 that the Muse of oral utterance was "not greedy of gain, nor toilsome" formerly, and I believe she is not so now either, but because of lack of education and of good taste the "common Hermes"​10 has become venal and ready for hire. For it cannot be that, whereas Aphroditê was angry with the daughters of Propoetus​11 because

First they were to devise for young men a shower of abominations,​12

yet Urania, Calliopê, and Clio are pleased with those who pollute speech for money. No, I think the works and gifts of the Muses are more conducive to friendship than are those of Aphroditê. EFor approbation, which some consider the end and purpose of speech, is admired as the beginning and seed of friendship; but most people rather bestow reputation altogether by goodwill, believing that we praise  p39 those only whom we love. But just as Ixion slipped into the cloud when he was pursuing Hera, so these people seize upon a deceptive, showy, and shifting appearance in lieu of friendship. But the man of sense, if he is engaged in active political life, will ask for so much reputation as will inspire confidence and thereby give him power for affairs; Ffor it is neither pleasant nor easy to benefit people if they are unwilling, and confidence makes them willing. For just as light is more a blessing to those who see than to those who are seen, so reputation is more a blessing to those who are aware of it than to those who are not over­looked. But he who has withdrawn from public affairs, who communes with himself and thinks happiness is in quiet and uninterrupted leisure, he, "being chaste, worships afar off"​13 the reputation which is popular and widespread in crowds and theatres, 778 even as Hippolytus worshipped Aphroditê, but even he does not despise reputation among the right-minded and estimable; but wealth, reputation as a leader, or power in his friendships he does not pursue, however neither does he avoid these qualities if they are associated with a temperate character; nor, for that matter, does he pursue those among the youths who are fine-looking and handsome, but those who are teachable and orderly and fond of learning; nor does the beauty of those whom he sees endowed with freshness, charm, and the flower of youth frighten the philosopher or scare him off and drive him away from those who are worthy of his attention. So, then, if the dignity that befits leader­ship and power are associated with a man of moderation and culture, the philosopher  p41 Bwill not hold aloof from making him a friend and cherishing him, nor will he be afraid of being called a courtier and a toady.

For those of men who too much Cypris shun

Are mad as those who follow her too much;​14

and so are those who take that attitude towards friendship with famous men and leaders. Hence, while the philosopher who abstains from public affairs will not avoid such men, yet one who is interested in public life will even go to them with open arms; he will not annoy them against their will, nor will he pitch his camp in their ears with inopportune sophistical disquisitions, but when they wish it, he will be glad to converse and spend his leisure with them and eager to associate with them.

3 1 The field I sow is twelve days' journey round;

Berecynthian land;​15

Cif this speaker was not merely a lover of agriculture but also a lover of his fellow men, he would find more pleasure in sowing the field which could feed so many men than in sowing that left plot of Antisthenes'​16 which would hardly have been big enough for Autolycus to wrestle in; but if [he meant]: "I sow all this in order that I may subjugate the whole inhabited world," I deprecate the sentiment.17  p43 And yet Epicurus, who places happiness in the deepest quiet, as in a sheltered and landlocked harbour, says that it is not only nobler, but also pleasanter, to confer than to receive benefits.

For chiefest joy doth gracious kindness give.​18

Surely he was wise who gave the Graces the names Aglaïa (Splendour), Euphrosynê (Gladness), and Thalia (Good-cheer); Dfor the delight and joy are greater and purer for him who does the gracious act. And therefore people are often ashamed to receive benefits, but are always delighted to confer them; and they who make those men good upon whom many depend confer benefits upon many; and, on the contrary, the slanderers, backbiters, and flatterers who constantly corrupt rulers or kings or tyrants, are driven away and punished by everyone, as if they were putting deadly poison, not into a single cup, Ebut into the public fountain which, as they see, everyone uses. Therefore, just as people laugh when the flatterers of Callias are ridiculed in comedy, those flatterers of whom Eupolis says19

No fire, no, and no weapon,

Be it of bronze or of iron,

Keeps them from flocking to dinner,

 p45  but the friends and intimates of the tyrant Apollodorus, of Phalaris, and of Dionysius​20 they bastinadoed, tortured, and burned, and made them for ever polluted and accursed, since the former had done harm to one man, but the latter through one, the ruler, to many. So the philosophers who associate with persons in private station make those individuals inoffensive, harmless, and gentle towards themselves, but he who removes evil from the character of a ruler, For directs his mind towards what is right, philosophizes, as it were, in the public interest and corrects the general power by which all are governed. States pay reverence and honour to their priests because they ask blessings from the gods, not for themselves, their friends, and their families alone, but for all the citizens in common; and yet the priests do not make the gods givers of blessings, for they are such by nature; the priests merely invoke them. But philosophers who associate with rulers do make them more just, more moderate, and more eager to do good, so that it is very likely that they are also happier.

4 1 779 And I think a lyre-maker would be more willing and eager to make a lyre if he knew that the future owner of that lyre was to build the walls of the city of Thebes, as Amphion did,​21 or, like Thales,​22 was to put an end to faction among the Lacedaemonians by the music of his charms and his exhortations; and a carpenter likewise in making a tiller would be more  p47 pleased if he knew that it would steer the flagship of Themistocles fighting in defence of Hellas, or that of Pompey when he overcame the pirates. What, then, do you imagine the philosopher thinks about his teaching, Bwhen he reflects that the statesman or ruler who accepts it will be a public blessing by dispensing justice, making laws, punishing the wicked, and making the orderly and the good to prosper? And I imagine that a clever shipbuilder, too, would take greater pleasure in making a tiller if he knew that it was to steer the Argo, "the concern of all,"​23 and a carpenter would not be so eager to make a plough or a wagon as the axones24 on which the laws of Solon were to be engraved. And surely the teachings of philosophers, if they are firmly engraved in the souls of rulers and statesmen and control them, acquire the force of laws; and that is why Plato sailed to Sicily, in the hope that his teachings would produce laws and actions in the government of Dionysius; Cbut he found Dionysius, like a book which is erased and written over, already befouled with stains and incapable of losing the dye of his tyranny, since by length of time it had become deeply fixed and hard to wash out. No, it is while men are still at their best that they should accept the worthy teachings.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Pindar, Nem. V.1 οὐκ ἀνδριαντοποιός εἰμ’, ὥστ’ ἐλινύσοντα ἐργάζεσθαι ἀγάλματ’ ἐπ’ αὐτᾶς βαθμίδος, loosely quoted. The translation is adapted from that of Sir John Sandys (in L. C. L.).

2 Homer, Od. XIII.404‑410. The allusion is to the feeding-place of the swine tended by Eumaeus.

3 Od. XIX.179.

4 Minos, 319D. Generally regarded as spurious.

5 Homer, Od. XVII.487.

6 περιέλκειν, literally, "pull about." Plato (Republic, 539B) says that the young, when new to argument, find pleasure ὥσπερ σκυλάκια τῷ ἕλκειν τε καὶ σπαράττειν τῷ λόγῳ τοὺς πλησίον ἀεί, "like little dogs, in pulling and tearing apart by argument those who happen to be near them."

7 By an unknown comic poet; Kock, Com. Att. Frag. III p495. Cf. Moralia, 395E, Aulus Gellius, I.3.19, Marx on Lucilius 952.

8 A verse of an unknown poet. Ascribed to Empedocles by Bergk.

9 Isthm. II.10.

10 Κοινὸς Ἑρμῆς is a proverbial expression meaning "good luck should be shared" (cf. Menander, Arbitrants, 67; Lucian, Navigium, 12, p256; Theophrastus, Characters, 30.7; Aristotle, 1201 A20). But Hermes was god, not only of gain and luck, but also of eloquence, and here the meaning is that eloquence, which should be for the common good of all, has to be bought.

11 See Ovid, Metam. X.221 ff., especially 238 ff.

12 From an unknown poet.

13 Euripides, Hipp. 102.

14 See Euripides, Hipp. 115, and Stobaeus, Flor. 63.3; Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p493.

15 Aesch. Niobe, Frag. 153, Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p52. The speaker is Tantalus. The Berecynthian land is near Mount Berecynthus in Phrygia.

16 See Xen. Symposium, 3.8, where Antisthenes that his land is hardly enough to furnish sand to sprinkle Autolycus with before wrestling.

17 The text is very corrupt, but the general course of the argument based upon the lines supposed to have been spoken by Tantalus may very well have been what is given in the translation. If the rich and powerful use their advantages for the common good of men, they are worthy of the philosopher's attention, but not so if they use their resources for purely selfish ends. See critical note, p42.

The critical note to the Greek text printed in the Loeb edition reads:

εἰ δέ σε . . . παραιτοῦμαι] Bernardakis surmised that beneath the corrupt text lurked a metrical version of what a humane Tantalus might have said. The translation assumes a prose version of a prose explanation that a self-seeking Tantalus might have said, as if Plutarch wrote, e.g.: εἰ δ’ εἶπε· Σπείρω (Bernardakis) ἵνα τὴν οἰκουμένην ἅπασαν καταστρέφω, παραιτοῦμαι.

18 Probably an iambic trimeter. See Kock, Com. Att. Frag. III p495.

19 From the Flatterers, by Eupolis; Kock, Com. Att. Frag. I p303.

20 Cruel tyrants of Cassandreia, Acragas, and Syracuse respectively.

21 According to the legend, when Amphion played on his lyre, the stones of their own accord formed the walls of Thebes.

22 Nothing is known of a musician or poet Thales. The musician Thaletas is said to have taught the lawgiver Lycurgus, but we do not hear of his putting an end to faction at Sparta.

23 Homer, Od. XII.70.

24 In his Life of Solon, xxv, Plutarch says that Solon's laws were originally inscribed on revolving wooden tablets (axones) in wooden frames. The axones were set up in the Royal Stoa. Toward the end of the fifth century, the wooden text having disintegrated and the laws having been modified, a new edition of Solon's laws was inscribed on both sides of a marble wall built in the Royal Stoa and of this a fragment has recently come to light in the Athenian Agora. See J. H. Oliver, Hesperia, IV.5 ff., whose views are represented in the above statement.

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