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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


PLUTARCH

(c. 46 — 120)

 

PLATONISM

Plutarch was born in Chaeronea (in the Greek region of Boeotia), the son of a philosopher and biographer, and educated at the Academy in Athens. He established his own school in his home town. He served in various ministerial posts and was eventually appointed a consul by the Emperor Trajan as well as being installed (c. 95) as a priest at Delphi for life. Plutarch was a prolific writer on many subjects.

 

METAPHYSICS/ RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY

[1] God is Pure Good and Beauty, transcendental, and eternal [a]; and the world of time and change was created by and derives its partial reality from Him [b]. Plutarch attributes evil to the World-Soul, though it participates in Reason which emanates from God [c]. Between God and the world there are numerous intermediate beings [d], such as star gods and daimons. Plutarch also says there are five elements — earth, air, fire, water, and 'aether' [e].

 

PSYCHOLOGY/ KNOWLEDGE

[2] Plutarch distinguishes between reason (nous) and soul (psuche). Both are embodied, but the former is more divine and man's ruling 'daimon', while the latter is subject to evil passions [a]. The soul in both aspects is immortal; and he emphasizes freedom of the soul from bodily passions and its ultimate release when we may "gaze on the beauty of God" and achieve happiness in the knowledge of truth [b]. As for knowledge in this world, Plutarch does not really have a particular theory. In general he is suspicious not only of superstition but also of all theory and dogmatism and prefers to rely on probability [c], although he also puts his trust in an 'immediate intuition' (albeit faint) of the Transcendental as well as in 'revelation' and 'prophecy' [d].

 

ETHICS

[3] Right action consists in achieving moderation — a mean between excess and defect [a]; and Plutarch accepts that feelings cannot be eliminated and have role to play in man's moral life [b]. Recognising the brotherhood of man he stresses that morality should be cosmopolitan [c].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

There is little to criticize in Plutarch's philosophy. While he drew on a wide variety of sources in an attempt to create a unified system, he was in general undogmatic and claimed that his solutions to philosophical problems were only probable. His views about the purification and immortality of the soul, which he strongly defended against the criticisms of Stoics and Epicureans, are open to the same objections as might be made against the similar teachings of Plato and the Neopythagoreans. However, his wide scholarship, his rejection of all superstition, and his emphasis on moderation are his strengths.

 

READING

Plutarch: Bioi paralleloi (Parallel Lives); Moralia. See D. A. Russell, Selected Essays and Dialogues. Translations of Plutarch's complete works are available in the Loeb Classical Library edition.

Studies

R. H. Barrow, Plutarch and His Times.

R. M. Jones, The Platonism of Plutarch.

 

CONNECTIONS

Plutarch

 

[1a] God as transcendent Good and Beauty

   Plato

   Carneades

[3a 4a c 15b]

[1b]

 

[1b] Creation of partially real temporal cosmos by God

   Plato

   Aristotle

   Carneades

[5e]

[12c e]

[1b]

 

[1c] World-Soul — reason or evil

   Pythagoras

   Plato

   Chrysippus

[2a]

[5b d f]

[4b]

 

[1d] Hierarchy and intermediate beings

   Plato

   Posidonius

[1c 2a 3a c]

[1a]

 

[1e] Elements

   Plato

   Aristotle

[5c d]

[12d]

 

[2a] Soul — reason/ dualism; the 'daimon'

   Plato

   Epicurus

   Chrysippus

   Posidonius

Aurelius

   Plotinus

[9a d]

[3a 3b]

[5a]

[3a b 3c]

[1c]

[2c]

 

[2b] Personal immortality/ happiness in knowledge of truth

   Plato

   Epicurus

   Chrysippus

   Posidonius

[9b sec. 10 11f g]

[3c 4a]

[5b]

[3d]

 

[2c] Knowledge and probability/ dogmatism, superstition

   Epicurus

   Carneades

[1a]

[1a 2b]

 

[2d] 'Intuition' of transcendent; revelation

   Plato

   Epicurus

   Carneades

[4b 7e]

[1b 2c]

[1b]

 

[3a] Right action and the mean

   Aristotle

   Epicurus

[19b]

[4b]

 

[3b] Moral life and feelings

   Plato

   Epicurus

   Posidonius

[11b g]

[1b]

[4a]

 

[3c] Cosmopolitanism

   Chrysippus

   Posidonius

[6f]

[4b]