Guide Plutarchs Morals: Ethical Essays

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In other words, a metaphysical explanation in terms of the Forms and god, the creator of the universe, must be sought De def. This is what, for Plutarch, demarcates the philosopher from the mere natural scientist physikos ; De primo frigido B-C , a distinction further exploited by later Platonists e.

Atticus fr. Plutarch is guided here by the dichotomy between natural and intelligible causes found in Phaedo 97BD and Timaeus 68ED Opsomer , Explaining the physical world through an appeal to natural causes alone is insufficient, Plutarch argues, since such an explanation ignores the agent god and the end for which something happens in the world De def.

The fundamental ontological and epistemological distinction between the sensible and intelligible realms suggests to Plutarch an analogous distinction of corresponding levels of explanation Donini a, , Opsomer , Plutarch maintains that there are two levels of causality, physical and intelligible, and full understanding of natural phenomena requires the grasping of both.

While in the case of natural phenomena suspension of judgment maintains an unfailing spirit of research, in the case of the divine realm, where human understanding is seriously limited, suspension of judgment, Plutarch suggests, is due also as a form of piety towards the divine De sera E; Opsomer , — Plutarch's metaphysics rests heavily on his interpretation of the Timaeus.


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Plutarch maintains that the cosmogony of the Timaeus must be interpreted literally, which means that the world had a temporal beginning Plat. Timaeus 30a, 52db.

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Plutarch argues against the interpretation of most Platonists of his time, who refuse to understand creation in terms of an actual generation De an. This literal interpretation of the Timaeus also aims to solve the puzzle of how the soul in Plato is said to be both uncreated Phaedrus ca as well as created Timaeus 34ba; De an. Plutarch tries to address these issues in a number of works see above, sect.

Plutarch proposes the following interpretation. The cosmos is an ordered entity that has come into existence at a certain point when time did not exist; Plat.

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God puts this matter in order De an. De Iside E-F , which means that god cannot be the only cosmic principle, otherwise disorderly matter would be left unaccounted for. Plutarch postulates two antithetic and antagonistic cosmic principles: the one is God the Monad or the One, the unitary eternal substance from which everything devolves; see below sect. This is why God is the object of striving for all nature De facie E. The Indefinite Dyad, on the other hand, is the principle of non-being, multiplicity, disorder, chaos, irrationality and badness De def.

This principle is described as being identical with matter which is ordered by God De def. These two principles, God and the Indefinite Dyad, were allegedly accepted by the ancient Pythagoreans Diogenes Laertius 8. Plutarch identifies the two principles with the Limited and the Unlimited of the Philebus he also calls the Indefinite Dyad limitlessness, apeiria ; De def.

The two principles are constantly opposing each other in the form of goodness and badness De def. Although God, the One, prevails over the Dyad De def. Both the Indefinite Dyad and God relate to the universe through intermediaries, namely a non-rational and a rational world soul see above , which operate as antithetic powers of the two antagonistic cosmic principles. The result of the interaction of the two cosmic principles through these powers is the cosmos in which humans live. This interaction happens in stages. Before the world has come into being, the universe was animated by the non-rational world soul, which accounts for the disordered motion of matter.

Plato speaks indeed of the receptacle as amorphous Timaeus 50d7, 51a7 , there is, however, no explicit mention of a non-rational pre-cosmic soul in the Timaeus , which is why Plutarch has been accused of arbitrariness in this regard Cherniss, Plutarch Moralia , Loeb vol. It is wrong, though, to treat Plutarch as one might treat a modern commentator of the Timaeus , with conscientious scholarly attention to what is and is not made explicit in a text.

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None of these passages lend clear support to Plutarch's interpretation, since nowhere does Plato explicitly speak of a pre-cosmic maleficent soul or other pre-cosmic soul-like entities: even the maleficent soul of the Laws is not pre-cosmic Cherniss, ibid. Yet Plutarch's interpretation does have merits in imposing consistency on Plato's work as a whole in the following sense.

First, according to the Timaeus 35a the demiurge the creator god does not create the substance of the soul, but compounds the world soul by blending indivisible with divisible being, which Plutarch not unreasonably identifies with the divine intellect and the non-rational world soul respectively De an. This does justice to the nature of the soul, which for Platonists is not subject to change and corruption.

Secondly, it was generally assumed that no motion is possible without a principle of motion cf. Aristotle, De anima a6—7 , and this traditionally is identified with the soul in Platonism cf. Phaedrus c-e ; so the disordered motion of matter before the creation of cosmos that Plato appears to postulate in the Timaeus needs to be accounted for by a soul see Laws a , which must, then, be a pre-cosmic one De an.

Further, the existence of a pre-cosmic non-rational soul is suggested also if one considers the world soul and the human soul in conjunction. Already the Timaeus 34c, 41d-e, 69c suggests a relation between the two. Plutarch takes the human soul to be derivative from the world soul, which means that their natures are similar De an.

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In Republic 4, in the Phaedrus and also in the Timaeus it is argued that the human soul has a rational and a non-rational aspect, fighting for dominance. And it is suggested that order and harmony is established in the soul when the rational aspect rules over the non-rational, yet the non-rational aspect is always capable of revolting against rationality and creating disorder and badness.

Plutarch identifies the rational aspect with intellect, which he distinguishes from the soul, making the former the cause of order and goodness while the latter the cause of disorder and badness De an. If the human soul reflects the nature of the world soul, then also in the latter even when rationality prevails, when the cosmos comes into being, there is room for disharmony and disorder.

This is evidenced by occurrences of badness in the world, such as accidents, natural catastrophes, etc. If there is no such non-rational aspect in the world soul, then either God must be ultimately accountable for such phenomena, which is what the Stoics maintain — and this, argues Plutarch, hardly fits God's goodness De an.

Better to think that such occurences are caused by the non-rational aspect of the world soul. Finally, a pre-cosmic soul is needed to play the role of mediator between God and matter De an. Timaeus 35a , which is required in order to maintain God's transcendence, goodness, and purity, since matter, because of its inherent disorderliness and badness, pollutes and taints, and thus is hardly worthy of God cf. The first stage in creation is that God imparts his own intelligence and reason to the pre-cosmic non-rational soul, making it into a partly rational thing De an.

This does not entirely eradicate the world soul's initial non-rationality De an. This means that matter ceases to be disordered and indefinite.

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Presumably Plutarch is referring here to the transcendent Forms. He states that the cosmos comes into being when the soul disperses the semblances from the intelligible world to this one ibid. Timaeus 50c-e, 52dc. Plutarch appears to maintain that the world soul is capable of being molded by receiving the intelligible Forms, which is how presumably the world soul becomes rational De an.

This transmission seems to take a two-stage process, allegedly implied in the Timaeus. First, the Forms inform matter to bring about primary bodies, such as water and fire, as Timaeus 53b-d, 69b-c suggests De an. The precise role of Forms in Plutarch's interpretation of the creation remains obscure. Plutarch discussed this issue in treatises no longer extant, such as, for example, Where are the Forms?

The Editor's Notes:

Some insight can be gained from the myth of Isis and Osiris, which Plutarch presents as an analogy to the world creation in his De Iside et Osiride. Osiris is a divine intellect that brings everything into being by being sown in matter, that is, in Isis, the reasons logoi of himself De Iside E-F , eventually producing Horus, i. Apparently Osiris stands for the demiurge of the Timaeus and also the Form of the Good of the Republic cf.

De an. De facie E and Isis stands for the receptacle De Iside ibid. This suggests that Plutarch probably maintained the existence of the Forms in God cf. Timaeus 39e , as did several other Platonists in late antiquity e. Alcinous, Didascalikos This is supported by the fact that for Plutarch Osiris is both the intellect and the logos present in the world soul De Iside A, C, De an.

However, it is not clear how for Plutarch the Forms exist in God, since in Plutarch's view God, as Osiris, can be analyzed into three elements, intellect, soul, and body De Iside A. Presumably, then, Plutarch assumes the existence of a divine soul, guided by statements in Plato Philebus 30c, Sophist da, Timaeus 46d-e, according to which the intellect, to the extent that it implies life, requires the presence of the principle of life, namely soul Plat.

There is a question, then, as to where in the divine creator the transcendent Forms reside. We have reason to believe that Plutarch places the Forms not in the intellect of the divine creator as thoughts, as was assumed by several later Platonists e. Alcinous, Porphyry , but rather in the soul Schoppe , —, Baltes ; against Opsomer , — Syrianus testifies this explicitly In Metaphysica The reason for endorsing such a view presumably was that it allows one to maintain the utter simplicity and order of the demiurgic intellect, so as to preserve God as the source of intelligibility, and yet to distance God from the creation, without, however, either creating gaps between god and creation or destroying the unity of God.

This was the path already taken by Moderatus Dillon , and later Platonists, such as Numenius and Plotinus, who postulated distinct divine hypostases. If Plutarch endorsed the view that the Forms exist in the divine soul, this may explain why he sometimes speaks of God and the Forms as a unity e. De sera D , and at other times as if they are separate De an. The reason may be that sometimes Plutarch speaks of the divine creator in the strict sense, as an intellect, and some other times in the wider sense, as an animated intellect one in a soul.

The antagonism between God and the Indefinite Dyad, between intellect and soul, between the rational and the non-rational aspect of the world soul, and ultimately between goodness and badness is an entrenched feature of the world, according to Plutarch. He claims that the world contains both goodness and badness and he postulates two antithetical principles to account for each one of them De Iside C—D , since God can only be the principle of goodness ibid; cf.

Republic c, Theaetetus a. And he criticizes the Epicureans and the Stoics, who postulate either matter the atoms or god respectively as active principles of the world De Iside A. Plutarch expresses his dualism also in religious-symbolic terms: he equates the pair of good and evil principles with the Persian pair of gods Oromazes and Areimanius De Iside D—E. Plutarch's pervasive dualism gives rise to problems, however. The constant presence and operation of the disorderly, non-rational aspect of the soul in the universe De an. Yet, on the other hand, he does distinguish between the rule of nature, or fate, on the one hand, and divine providence on the other, arguing, against the Stoics, that God can dominate nature De facie A-B and can function providentially for us De comm.

The fact that God, by means of his logos , with which he is often identified De Iside A-B , moulds the principle of disorder, the Indefinite Dyad, suggests to Plutarch the supremacy of God over any other force. This is actually one of the reasons why Plutarch defends temporal creation; if the world were eternal and God responsible for it, then God would be the cause of both good and bad, while on Plutarch's interpretation of the Timaeus badness is accounted for by the evil world soul, which, as I said above, according to Plutarch is pre-cosmic see Dillon , ; see also below, sect.

The problem however remains.