A Plutarchean key to the Tiers Livre
This article originally appeared in Sixteenth Century Journal
Rabelais’s Tiers Livre turns on a series of questions posed by Plutarch in the dialogue The Oracles at Delphi no longer given in verse: “if one ought to marry, or to start on a voyage, or to make a loan.”
The Tiers Livre is dominated by Panurge’s agonization over whether or not to marry. The intellectual struggle is preceeded by an argument between Panurge and Pantagruel about whether or not to borrow money. The book ends with the royal household equipping for a voyage in search of the Oracle of the Bottle, from whom Panurge seeks a solution.
The Tiers Livre departs from Rabelais’ earlier books. Concern shifts from the ribald adventures of the gigantic royal family in Pantagruel and Gargantua, to everyday matters, to “a world more akin to real life,” as Screech notes. “This change is emphasized by the conscious humanism of the first chapter of the Tiers Livre, with its sustained indebtedness to Plutarch — from now on a major influence in Rabelais’ art and thought.” [Screech]
Plutarch’s influence is apparent in Rabelais’ first book. In Gargantua’s didactic letter to Pantagruel, the old king wrote, “voulentiers me délecte à lire les Moraulx de Plutarche.” [Rabelais] Gargantua extolled to the heavens the instauration of learning, especially the revival of Greek studies, and he placed the Morals on par with the marvellous works of Plato, Pausanias, and Athenaeus.
Gargantua’s delight in Plutarch compensated for the trouble of learning Greek, a linguistic ability suspected in the sixteenth century as an inducement to heresy (Rabelais’ Greek texts were temporarily confiscated during his noviatiate in Poitou). Knowledge of Greek opened sections of the Morals not then available in translation. Among the treatises awaiting the reader of Greek was the dialogue investigating the nature of prophecy, of special interest to Rabelais during the writing of the Tiers Livre, a book concerned with prophecy in many of its senses. [Plattard]
Plutarch, a priest at Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, wrote The Oracles at Delphi no longer given in verse near the end of his life. The dialogue is Plutarch’s apology for the oracle, which was then enoying a brief flourish after centuries of decline. Theon, a priest who leads the dialogue, defends the oracle, especially against the criticism that since the priestess no longer prophesizes poetically, then the god must have deserted the shrine. Acknowledging that the oracle’s devotees were once inspired to poetry, Theon explains that such omens were suitable for a time when personal temperaments were naturally poetic, and when even history and philosophy were expressed in verse. In addition, poetry gave the advantage of vagueness, double entendre, and indirect statement, strategies necessary when dealing with kings and tryants who might have harmed the god’s assistants if unfavorable oracles had been bluntly proclaimed.
Theon is content with the settled conditions of peace and tranquillity prevalent during his lifetime. In the absence of wars or maladies requiring unusual remedies, Theon concludes there is no reason for “epic versifications, strange words, circumlocutions and vagueness.” The god adapts the language to suit the times: “When there is nothing complicated or secret or terrible, but the interrogations are on slight and commonplace matters, like the hypothetical questions at school: if one ought to marry, or to start on a voyage, or to make a loan [. . .] to clothe such things in verse, to devise circumlocutions, and to foist strange words upon inquiries that call for a simple short answer is the thing done by an ambitious pedant embellishing the oracle to enhance his repute.” [Plutarch]
These mundane concerns, fit questions for debating class, are the three subjects to which Rabelais devotes the philosophic Tiers Livre, written after an 11 year hiatus.
Rabelais’ lifetime was a tense and troubled period. Militant religious reform flared up with Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and a host of others. Twenty-two heretics were burned at the stake in Paris between November 1534 and January 1535 in reponse to the affaire des placards, when posters attacking the idolatry of the Mass were strewn about the streets of Paris. In 1545 royal troops slaughtered thousands of Waldensians in southeastern France. At Cabrieres, after the men were dispatched, the women were locked in a granary and burnt alive. In 1546, the year the Tiers Livre was published, Etienne Dolet was hanged and burnt for publishing a dialogue which denied the immortality of the human soul.
Rabelais was in the midst of the religious controversy. His espousal of peaceful reform within the Church earned him the enmity of both the hyperorthodox Catholics and the zealous reformers. Although the Tiers Livre was printed with the privilege of King François I and dedicated to Queen Margaret of Navarre, the book was almost immediately condemned by the Sorbonne. Rabelais fled Paris, as he had fled in 1533 after the censure of Pantagruel, and in 1535 after that of Gargantua. In 1553, the year Rabelais died, Calvin included him on a list of impious writers, “Curs who assume the attitudes of comedy in order to enjoy greater freedom to vomit their blasphemies.” [Screech, page 325.]
Rabelais’ observations and opinions forced him to “devise circumlocutions, and to foist strange words upon inquiries that call for a simple short answer.” His actions were not those of “an ambitious pedant embellishing the oracle to enhance his repute,” but rather “strategies for dealing with powerful kings and tyrants.”
M.A. Screech, Rabelais, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 224.
François Rabelais, Pantagruel, ed. V.L. Saulnier, Textes Litteraires Français, Geneva: Droz, 1965), p. 45 (Ch. 8).
Jean Plattard, L’Oeuvre de Rabelais, Paris: 1969, pp. 233, 242.
Plutarch, The Oracles at Delphi no longer given in verse, in Plutarch’s Moralia, 5, trans. Frank Cole Babbit, Loeb Classical Library, 306, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936, p. 339 (408C).
2 January 1999
1. Swanson, James L., “A Plutarchean key to the Tiers Livre”. The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), 1986.
2. Plutarch (c. 46–120 AD), The Oracles at Delphi no longer given in verse. Moralia, Volume V. Frank Cole Babbitt (1867–1935), translator. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936. p. 337. Loeb Classical Library
The E at Delphi
“For it is, as the Delphians assume,”—and on this occasion Nicander, the priest, spoke for them and said, “the figure and form of the consultation of the god, and it holds the first place in every question of those who consult the oracle and inquire if they shall be victorious, if they shall marry, if it is to their advantage to sail the sea, if to take to farming, if to go abroad.”
[Cf. the long list of questions thus introduced in Hunt and Edgar, Select Papyri (in the L.C.L.), i. pp. 436-438 (nos. 193-195)]
The Oracles at Delphi
“For my part, I am well content with the settled conditions prevailing at present, and I find them very welcome, and the questions which men now put to the god are concerned with these conditions. There is, in fact, profound peace and tranquillity; war has ceased, there are no wanderings of peoples, no civil strifes, no despotisms, nor other maladies and ills in Greece requiring many unusual remedial forces. Where there is nothing complicated or secret or terrible, but the interrogations are on slight and commonplace matters, like the hypothetical questions in school: if one ought to marry, or to start on a voyage, or to make a loan; and the most important consultations on the part of States concern the yield from crops, the increase of herds, and public health—to clothe such things in verse, to devise circumlocutions, and to foist strange words upon inquiries that call for a simple short answer is the thing done by an ambitious pedant embellishing an oracle to enhance his repute.”
Pantagruel refers to Plutarch, Pliny
Comment Pantagruel conseille Panurge prevoir l’heur ou le malheur de son mariage par songes.
Or puys que ne convenons ensemble en l’exposition des sors Virgilianes, prenons aultre voye de divination. Quelle? (demanda Panurge), Bonne, (respondit Pantagruel) antique, & authenticque, c’est par songes. Car en songeant avecques conditions les quelles descripvent Hippocrates lib., Platon, Plotin, Iamblicque, Synesius, Aristoteles, Xenophon, Galen, Plutarche, Artemidorus Daldianus, Herophilus, Q. Calaber, Theocrite, Pline, Atheneus, et aultres, l’ame souvent prevoit les choses futures.