Plutarch's 'Lives' and the critical reader
Duff, T. (2011) Plutarch's 'Lives' and the critical reader. In: Roskam, G. and Van der Stockt, L. (eds.) Virtues for the people: aspects of Plutarch's ethics. Plutarchea Hypomnemata (4). Leuven University Press, Leuven, pp. 59-82. ISBN 9789058678584
This paper analyses the kind of reader constructed in the Lives and the response expected of that reader. It begins by attempting a typology of moralising in the Lives. Plutarch does sometimes make general 'gnomic' statements about right and wrong, and occasionally passes explicit judgement on a subject's behaviour. In addition, the language with which Plutarch describes character is inherently moralistic; and even when he does not pass explicit judgment, Plutarch can rely on a common set of notions about what makes behaviour virtuous or vicious. However, the application of any moral lessons is left to the reader's own judgement. Furthermore, Plutarch's use of multiple focalisations means that the reader is sometimes presented with varying ways of looking at the same individual or the same historical situation. In addition, many incidents or anecdotes are marked by 'multivalence': that is, they resist reduction to a single moral message or lesson. In such cases, the reader is encouraged to exercise his or her own critical faculties. Indeed, the prologues which precede many pairs of Lives and the synkriseis which follow them sometimes explicitly invite the reader's participation in the work of judging. The syncritic structure of the Parallel Lives also invites the reader's participation, as do the varying perspectives provided by a corpus of overlapping Lives. In fact, the presence of a critical, engaged reader is presupposed by the agonistic nature of much of Greek literature, and of several texts in the Moralia which stage opposing viewpoints or arguments. Plutarch himself argues for such a reader in his How the young man should listen to poems.