Plutarch's Science of Natural Problems

A Study with Commentary on Quaestiones Naturales

Michiel Meeusen

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The role of natural science in the Roman Imperial Era In his Quaestiones naturales, Plutarch unmistakeably demonstrates a huge interest in the world of natural phenomena. The work of this famous intellectual and philosopher from Chaeronea consists of forty-one natural problems that address a wide variety of questions, sometimes rather peculiar ones, and answers pertaining to ancient Greek physics, including problems related to the fields of zoology, botany, meteorology and their respective subdisciplines. By providing a thorough study of and commentary on this generally neglected text, written by one of the most influential and prolific writers from Antiquity, this book contributes to our better understanding of Plutarch’s natural scientific programme and, the condition and role of ancient natural science in the Roman Imperial Era in general.

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Contents Acknowledgements Prologue Plutarch and the history of science: the case of Quaestiones naturales 1. Plato, Plutarch and scientific infancy 2. Date and chronology of Quaestiones naturales: a ‘life’s work’? 3. The value of Plutarch’s natural problems 4. Classical philology and the petrification of science 5. Status quaestionis 6. Note on translations and abbreviations Introduction 1. Problems, problems, problems (and Aristotelian precedents) 1.1. Quaestiones naturales and the Aristotelian genre and tradition of natural problems 1. Preliminary remarks on Plutarch’s Naturwissenschaft 2. Quaestiones naturales: the work of a Plutarchus Aristotelicus? 3. The genre of problems and the Aristotelian tradition of natural problems 4. Internal organisation of Plutarch’s natural problems (microstructure) 5. Coherent reading in Quaestiones naturales and convivales (macrostructure) 6. The title and its programmatic value 1 1.2. Problems related to Plutarch’s scientific discourse 1. Trifles unworthy of Plutarch? Some remarks on authenticity 2. The rhetoric of scientific discourse according to Plutarch 3. The problem of style 4. The problem of morality 5. A ‘generic’ solution 6. Conclusion and new questions 2. The position of Quaestiones naturales in the corpus Plutarcheum 2.1. Scientific traits in the corpus Plutarcheum 1. Intellectual and literary interest of natural phenomena 2. Cluster analysis in Quaestiones naturales 3. Scientific digressions in the Vitae 4. Indirect references to Quaestiones naturales 2.2. A comparative study of Quaestiones naturales and Quaestiones convivales 1. The level of elocutio 2. The level of dispositio 3. The level of inventio 2.3. Hypomnematic text genetics of Quaestiones naturales and Quaestiones convivales 1. Historicity and fiction in Quaestiones convivales 2. Problems and personal notes 3. Zetetic autonomy in Quaestiones naturales 2.4. Opening up Plutarch’s zetetic archive 1. The issue of publication: problems as functional literature 2. Classification and overlap 3. Conclusion and new questions 3. Quaestiones naturales and zetetic παιδεία 3.1. Sitz im Leben: readership and educational context 1. Natural problems and philosophical σχολή 2. Plutarch’s academy 3. Digestive discussions and problematic promenades 4. Quaestiones naturales as school text: technicality and complexity 5. The dialogue between author and reader: vivacity and historicity 3.2. Quaestiones naturales as a preamble to metaphysics 1. Natural problems as a means of exercising the mind 2. Natural problems as a means of easing the mind 3. Conclusion and new questions 4. Plutarch’s Platonic world view: the aetiological design of Quaestiones naturales and its scientific context 4.1. Science and its foes? The ancient scientific value of Quaestiones naturales 4.1.1. Saving popular beliefs: the wonders and paradoxes of nature 1. Natural problems and the fabric of strangeness 2. Democritus and the cucumber 3. Plutarch’s popular beliefs: anti-Aristotelian and anti-Stoic dynamics 4.1.2. Plutarch’s dualistic causality: rationalising the divine and the use of myth and poetry 1. Plato’s scientific revolution 2. Science, religion and mythology 3. Science and poetry 4.2. Constructing scientific authority: between continuity, ingenuity and innovation 4.2.1. Character and use of the scientific tradition 1. Quotations from scientific prose authors 2. Problematisation of scientific knowledge 4.2.2. Scientific innovation and performance 1. A note on the sociology of knowledge and παιδεία 2. The pragmatics of Plutarch’s scientific ingenuity and creativity 4.3. Plutarch’s scientific methodology: a rough guide to explaining natural phenomena 4.3.1. Material principles and natural processes 1. Material principles 2. Natural processes 4.3.2. Towards the limits of natural science 1. A ‘sceptical’ Plutarch: ἐμπειρία, ἐποχή and εὐλάβεια 2. Truth and probability in Quaestiones naturales 3. Sense perception and the issue of autopsy in Quaestiones naturales 4.3.3. Logical-rhetorical dynamics 1. Contradiction, non-contradiction and aetiological freedom 2. Aetiological comprehensiveness and pluricausality 3. Aetiological subtlety and sophistication 4.3.4. Uniformity and technicality of the scientific terminology 1. Let’s talk science: the birth and use of technical vocabulary 2. Big words? High-tech vs. low-tech vocabulary 3. Conclusion: Plutarch, Plato and Aristotle (again) Commentary 0. Approach and structure 1. Salt and water (Q.N. 1–13) 2. Wheat and barley (Q.N. 14–16) 3. Sea animals and fishing (Q.N. 17–19) 4. Land animals and hunting (Q.N. 20–28) 5. Viniculture (Q.N. 30–31) 6. Longolius (Q.N. 32–39) 7. Psellus (Q.N. 40–41) Synopsis Bibliography Index Locorum

Format: Monograph - hardback

Size: 240 × 160 mm

556 pages

ISBN: 9789462700840

Publication: February 10, 2017

Series: Plutarchea Hypomnemata

Languages: English

Stock item number: 114262

Michiel Meeusen is British Academy Postdoctoral Research Associate at King's College London, Department of Classics.

Em conclusão, Meeusen dá um contributo muito relevante para a reflexão sobre a ciência na Antiguidade Clássica, em especial sobre a etiologia filosófica dos problemata em Plutarco e a sua relação com a tradição. A forma como se abordam as dificuldades de interpretação colocadas pelas QN, levam, sem dúvida, o leitor a deixar-se seduzir pela intertextualidade plutarqueana. Saliente-se, ainda, o facto de este livro está profusamente anotado, com bibliografia específica e muito actualizada. Apesar das várias repetições, muito por causa da metodologia estrutural que foi definida, com conclusões no final de cada secção, estamos na presença de um livro com enorme valor filológico e cultural.
Joaquim Pinheiro, Asclepio. 71(2), julio-diciembre 2019, p284. ISSN-L: 0210-4466,

Il libro qui presentato merita, come si sara` compreso, il convinto plauso del recensore, sia per l’ampiezza e la solidita` della dottrina che vi viene profusa, sia per la perizia filologica con la
quale e` scandagliato il testo plutarcheo, sia per il sovrano dominio di pressoche´ tutta la letteratura critica disponibile, sia infine per l’acume e la profondita` delle proposte interpretative avanzate.
Franco Ferrari, Athenaeum 109/1 (2021)

Dans l’ensemble ce livre, écrit de manière vivante et « narrative », fournit une importante somme de renseignements sur les rapports entre Plutarque et la science et sur sa philosophie en général. La conclusion générale est convaincante : le fait que Plutarque ait cédé à la tentation des Problemata, qui sont un genre littéraire estampillé comme « aristotélicien », ne le détourne pas de son platonisme. En fait, on pourrait aller plus loin et dire que ce dossier est une pièce supplémentaire permettant de soutenir la compatibilité foncière de Platon et d’Aristote, comme on l’a fait jusqu’à la Renaissance incluse. In fine un excellent ouvrage.
Pierre PELLEGRIN, Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger, 2019/4 Tome 144,


The dissertation is an exceptional one and brings together virtually all of the important scholarship to date on Plutarch’s collection of forty-one (surviving) Αἰτίαι Φυσικαί. This literature is reviewed less in the 127 pages of the “commentary” proper than in the 350 pages of the prologue and the introduction that precede it, where Meeusen explores an ambitious range of subjects, from the precedents (principally the Aristotelian Problems), the position of the Plutarchan collection in the problem literature and in Plutarch’s own corpus, and the relationship of the collection to “zetetic παιδεία” and to “Plutarch’s Platonic World View” (the title of the longest and concluding section of the introduction). 
Robert Lamberton, Isis, Volume 109, Number 2, June 2018

Michiel Meeusen's book represents an important contribution to our understanding of both the ancient genre of natural aetiology and of the Corpus Plutarcheum. Its main purpose is to assess Plutarch's contribution to natural philosophy by means of a thorough exploration and contextualization of his Natural Problems (Quaestiones naturales), constituting by far the most detailed and complete study of this (at least until recently) neglected work.
Cristian Tolsa, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.42