Friday, October 13, 2023

But the Moon rescues others as they swim from below - a glance at the essays and dialogues of Plutarch

The great ragged Greek philosophy readalong ends with Plutarch, famous for his extraordinary Parallel Lives but also the innovative author of a large mass of essays and dialogues which picked up the title Moralia (late 1st C.) along the way.  Plutarch was hardly an original philosophical thinker, but he invented the familiar essay, and most readers of Montaigne will find Plutarch to be a genial companion.  Of course Montaigne quotes Plutarch (and Seneca, and Lucretius) frequently.

Plutarch has retroactively become a “Middle Platonist,” one of a number of 1st century Greek writers creating a Plato revival, preparing for the eventual triumph of the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, who would be the next logical person to read if I kept going.  I suggested the Oxford World’s Classics Selected Essays and Dialogues (tr. Donald Russell) as a good place to see Plutarch in his more philosophical modes, but now I see that my premise was false.  Plutarch was always in a philosophical mode.  He lived in a social world suffused with philosophy, much like the community surrounding Socrates, except Plutarch’s mental world also includes Stoicism, Epicureanism (the enemy), and other movements we have encountered.  And although he himself is a priest at Delphi, as Greek a profession as I can imagine, his world also includes Rome, as he will demonstrate in his Parallel Lives where Roman history turns out to be a version of Greek history.

Essays like “Bashfulness” and “Talkativeness” are the Montaigne-like essays.  The argument of, say, “Talkativeness” is really a long string of examples of the dangers of the vice, pulled from a masterful knowledge of Greek and Roman history.  “These remarks are not meant as a denunciation of talkativeness, but as therapy” (218).  Virtue, but of the practical sort.

More impressive and difficult are Plutarch’s dialogues, modelled on Plato but with innovations.  “Socrates’ Daimonion” is a highlight.  Socrates openly said that he was sometimes warned against specific actions by a daimon, a friendly spirit outside of himself.  He was never advised to do anything but only warned against things.  In Plutarch’s dialogue a number of Thebans and others, including an old friend of Socrates, debate what he might of meant, complicating the concept of daimon, climaxing in the remarkable “Myth of Timarchus,” a wild vision of the afterlife where the soul and intellect are distinct, the latter actually being the outside daimon.  The stars are daimones being pulled to the moon.

But the Moon rescues others as they swim up from below. These are they for whom the end of Becoming has come.  The foul and unpurified, however, she will not receive.  She [the moon!} flashes and roars at them most horribly and will not let them near her.  They lament their fate and are borne away down there once again, to another birth, as you can see.  (108)

That’s up there with Plato’s late, weird visionary myths.  The discussion of the daimon is intermixed with the story of a political conspiracy to overthrow the tyrant of Thebes.  The philosophical discussion is part of what is really a piece of historical fiction (the conspiracy is 400 years in the past).  This is what I mean when I say the dialogues can be difficult – this is a dang complex text.

I tracked down an old translation of “On the ‘E’ at Delphi,” a cryptic title.  Alongside the famous “Know Thyself” inscription, Delphi had the an uppercase epsilon (the same as our E) inscribed on the temple of Apollo.  What does it mean?  Plutarch puts himself in this dialogue but does not give himself the last word.  Many theories are explored.  Fans of Thomas Browne’s magnificent The Garden of Cyrus (1658) will enjoy the long discussion of the meaning of the number five; others may well be baffled.

Don’t miss the other Delphic essays, “Oracles in Decline” and “Why Are Delphic Oracles No Longer Given in Verse?” or the short, heartbreaking “A Consolation to His Wife,” on the death of his infant daughter.  Don’t miss, if you like this book, the additional essays in the Penguin Classics collection.  Don’t miss Parallel Lives, at least the best parts – the life of Anthony! – whatever you do.

So that’s the Greek philosophy readalong.  I meant to write more and for that matter think more, but life interfered in a way that was almost ironic.  Still, a success as far as it went.  Many thanks to the people who helped me out by joining in, on the internet or in real life.

Just a bit more about real life tomorrow.


  1. What does E mean? The ancient Greeks were probably ignorant of Sumerian, though maybe they had contemporaries who knew where the E came from. Google E Sagila.

  2. Very interesting, although that reference would likely surprise Plutarch. The discussion, of course, is about what the "E" means, what message is intended.

  3. I'm such a narcissist that sometimes I come across a sentence in your blog posts and think it is specifically for me.
    Like this line "Don’t miss Parallel Lives, at least the best parts – the life of Anthony! – whatever you do."

  4. If not exactly for you than certainly suggested by our discussion of the relevance to Shakespeare. In a gigantic book, the Life of Anthony is a clear high point.