A Conversational Prompt for Awkward Silences at Holiday Meals

In his “Table-Talk”, Plutarch provides a series of conversations on specific topics. Here’s the first. Win over new friends and impress your family by bringing these topics to holiday meals!

Table Talk, Moralia 612-613: Question 1:

“It is right to practice philosophy while drinking?”

The question of philosophizing while drinking has been put first of all—for you must remember that in Athens once there was a discussion after dinner whether it is right and what the limit is for having philosophical conversations while drinking. Ariston, one of those present, said “Dear Gods! Are there really people who don’t provide room for philosophers while drinking?”

I responded “Really, there are, my friend, and they say very seriously by way of explanation that philosophy has no more right to speak over wine than the lady of the house does. Indeed, they also claim that the Persians act rightly in drinking and dancing not with their wives but their mistresses instead.

They believe it is right that we introduce these things to our drinking party—acting, and music—and that we should not touch philosophy. For they also believe that it is not appropriate to play games with philosophy and that in these situations we are not in earnest moods. They claim, moreover, that Isocrates the sophist submitted to pleas to speak during wine only to say “I am skilled at matters not right for the present time; in matters right for the present time, I am not skilled.”

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“And so philosophers, whenever they engage in subtle and dialogic problems while drinking, annoy most people who cannot follow them. These guests in turn commit to singing any kind of song, nonsense stories, and talk of business and the market. The aim of the shared space of the party goes out the window and Dioynsus himself is offended. In the same way, when Phrynichus and Aeschylus added myths to tragedy and suffering, people asked “What has this to do with Dionysus?”

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Εἰ δεῖ φιλοσοφεῖν παρὰ πότον

Πρῶτον δὲ πάντων τέτακται τὸ περὶ τοῦ φιλοσοφεῖν παρὰ πότον. μέμνησαι γὰρ ὅτι, ζητήσεως Ἀθήνησι μετὰ δεῖπνον γενομένης εἰ χρηστέον ἐν οἴνῳ φιλοσόφοις λόγοις καὶ τί μέτρον ἔστι χρωμένοις, Ἀρίστων παρών, “εἰσὶν γάρ,” ἔφησε, “πρὸς τῶν θεῶν οἱ φιλοσόφοις χώραν ἐπ᾿ οἴνῳ μὴ διδόντες;”

Ἐγὼ δ᾿ εἶπον, “ἀλλὰ γὰρ εἰσίν, ὦ ἑταῖρε, καὶ πάνυ γε σεμνῶς κατειρωνευόμενοι λέγουσι μὴ δεῖν ὥσπερ οἰκοδέσποιναν ἐν οἴνῳ φθέγγεσθαι φιλοσοφίαν, καὶ τοὺς Πέρσας ὀρθῶς φασι μὴ ταῖς γαμεταῖς ἀλλὰ ταῖς παλλακίσι συμμεθύσκεσθαι καὶ συνορχεῖσθαι· ταὐτὸ δὴ καὶ ἡμᾶς ἀξιοῦσι ποιεῖν εἰς τὰ συμπόσια τὴν μουσικὴν καὶ τὴν ὑποκριτικὴν ἐπεισάγοντας φιλοσοφίαν δὲ μὴ κινοῦντας, ὡς οὔτε συμπαίζειν ἐκείνην ἐπιτήδειον οὖσαν οὔθ᾿ ἡμᾶς τηνικαῦτα σπουδαστικῶς ἔχοντας· οὐδὲ γὰρ Ἰσοκράτη τὸν σοφιστὴν ὑπομεῖναι δεομένων εἰπεῖν τι παρ᾿ οἶνον ἀλλ᾿ ἢ τοσοῦτον· ‘ἐν οἷς μὲν ἐγὼ δεινός, οὐχ ὁ νῦν καιρός· ἐν οἷς δ᾿ ὁ νῦν καιρός, οὐκ ἐγὼ δεινός.’”

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οὕτω τοίνυν, ὅταν οἱ φιλόσοφοι παρὰ πότον εἰς λεπτὰ καὶ διαλεκτικὰ προβλήματα καταδύντες ἐνοχλῶσι τοῖς πολλοῖς ἕπεσθαι μὴ δυναμένοις, ἐκεῖνοι δὲ πάλιν ἐπ᾿ ᾠδάς τινας καὶ διηγήματα φλυαρώδη καὶ λόγους βαναύσους καὶ ἀγοραίους ἐμβάλωσιν ἑαυτούς, οἴχεται τῆς συμποτικῆς κοινωνίας τὸ τέλος καὶ καθύβρισται ὁ Διόνυσος. ὥσπερ οὖν, Φρυνίχου καὶ Αἰσχύλου τὴν τραγῳδίαν εἰς μύθους καὶ πάθη προαγόντων, ἐλέχθη τὸ ‘τί ταῦτα πρὸς τὸν Διόνυσον;’

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