Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. 46–After 119, Before 127 CE)

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(c. 46after 119, before 127 CE)

Plutarch, a Greek biographer and Platonic philosopher, was born in Chaeronea, Boeotia. His teacher was Ammonius, an Egyptian Platonist who resided in Athens and was head of a school that he called the Academy. After his studies (c. 90?) Plutarch established a philosophical school in Chaeronea. Plutarch held important public offices and was a priest at Delphi for twenty years or more. His extant writings include forty-eight biographies and various other works (Moralia ): dialogues; diatribes; theoretical treatises; essays; collections of anecdotes; moralistic lectures; and polemical, antiquarian, and exegetical works. Several dialogues have Delphi as their setting and are concerned with the oracle and other religious problems. Socrates' Daemonic Sign has a historical setting. It portrays Plutarch's circle of friends and students. Table-Talks is a long collection of conversations on a wide range of questions.


Plato's dialogues, especially the Timaeus, but also Platonic school philosophy, as it could be found in manuals and introductory works, provide the basis of Plutarch's philosophy. In Plutarch's day, Platonism was dominated by Pythagorean tendencies, most importantly the tendency to construct a hierarchy of metaphysical principals based on an ontological derivation from the principals "one" and "dyad." Plutarch himself, however, was just as much influenced by the skepticism of the Hellenistic Academy, though in the mitigated form it took under Philo of Larissa. This influence shows in the limited epistemic status he granted to empirical science, his cautious attitude regarding the epistemic claims of popular religion, and his reflections on the unreliability of the senses. This epistemology can be traced back to Plato's Timaeus, and Plutarch explicitly did so. He developed a kind of fallibilism that allowed him provisionally to accept various physical doctrines, for example, about the nature of the moon, or the function of specific organs of the body. The Hellenistic Academy provided Plutarch with numerous arguments against Stoics (Common Notions, Stoic Contradictions ) and Epicureans (Reply to Colotes and That Epicurus Actually Makes a Pleasant Life Impossible ).

Cosmology and Metaphysics

Plutarch devoted a separate treatise to Plato's description of the composition of the world soul in the Timaeus and discussed this issue in several other places. Contrary to the large majority of his fellow Platonists, Plutarch understood Plato's story of the creation of the cosmos by a divine craftsman literally, in that he believed that the cosmos had existed only for a finite time. It came into being when the craftsman, or demiurge, imposed order on a preexisting chaos. Previous to his intervention, there was matter and a precosmic soul, as the principle of motion, both in a disordered state. The Platonic forms too existed, as their existence is eternal, but the world did not yet participate in them. When the demiurge imparted something of himselfnamely intelligibility, or mathematically expressible rationalityto this preexisting soul, it became the world soul. The world soul then started to organize matter and create a structured, beautiful world (or cosmos).

Time, in the Platonic sense of succession characterized by cyclic regularities, was born together with the world. Plutarch leaves unspecified the relation between the craftsman and the forms. The forms and the craftsman belong to the same realm, and when the craftsman imparts something of himself to the preexisting soul, the latter, and through it the world, partake of the forms. The world is not perfect, as the original irrational soul, now integrated into the world soul, at times makes its influence felt. Soul itself, that is, soul in abstraction from the order it has received, is thus Plutarch's principle of evil. Plutarch espouses a mitigated metaphysical dualism: The rational and the irrational, order and disorder, good and evil are engaged in an unending struggle, but the good always dominates. The good he attributed to the gods, whereas higher forces responsible for evil can be mere demons, not gods. Plutarch linked his dualist views to an antagonism, at the level of metaphysical principles, between the One and the indeterminate Dyad. This doctrine was attributed to Plato from as early as Aristotle and was cherished by Pythagorean Platonists. Plutarch equates the demiurge with the highest deity. In his dialogue The Delphic E, Plutarch has his master Ammonius define the supreme god as true being, eternity, and absolute unity, and call this god the One. In his treatise on Egyptian religion, Isis and Osiris, Plutarch interprets Egyptian myths allegorically and explains how they conform with Plato's cosmology and metaphysics, as he understands them.

Moral Psychology and Ethics

The human soul, being an image of the world soul, is analogously constituted. It too consists of rational and irrational parts, the latter being more prominent than it is in the world soul, however. The irrational is part of the human soul itself, is the cause of disorder and the passions, but is also the dynamic force of our mental life. Rationality is intellect and the truly divine coming from outside.

In the eschatological myth at the end of The Face in the Moon, Plutarch develops a theory of a double death: In "ordinary death," the human soul frees itself from the body and ascends to the moon; after purification a second death ensues wherein the intellect sheds the irrational part. In Moral Virtue, Plutarch transposes his cosmological views onto the human soul and on this basis erects a theory of virtue as the mean and the moderation of the passions (metriopatheia ). Plutarch's virtue ethics stands in a Peripatetic tradition, yet has its theoretical foundations in Platonic traditions as well. Our souls have a rational and an irrational part or forcethe passions. The passions have to be made obedient to reason. Reason imposes limit and structure, or even in a sense is the limit, establishing the right mean between extremes, moral virtue between opposite vices. When the passions obey reason, the human soul achieves psychic harmony, which is a necessary and perhaps even sufficient condition for happiness in this life (though not necessarily for success in one's undertakings) and leads to felicity in the next. This is also the fundamental lesson of Plutarch's texts on practical ethics. Plutarch was a keen observer of human behavior, virtues, and vices. His Lives essentially consists of character studies, and some two dozen of his Moralia are on moral themes. Titles include Advice to Bride and Groom, How to Tell a Flatterer from a Friend, Inoffensive Self-Praise, Exile, Compliancy, Superstition, Control of Anger, Tranquillity of Mind, Brotherly Love, Talkativeness. Moral considerations dominate his approach to literature in How to Study Poetry. He even wrote on the behavior of animals: The Cleverness of Animals and Beasts Are Rational.

Platonism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism

Plutarch incorporated ideas, examples, and terminology from other schools into his texts, but he subordinated them to his overall Platonism. This is especially obvious in his dialogues: He presents and examines various views; this typically leads to a Platonic position in which he combines what is sound in the views of other schools and adds an additional, transcendental, perspective. Plutarch construed his Platonism as occupying a middle position between Stoicism and Epicureanism. Whereas the Epicureans denied providence and the Stoics made the gods responsible for everything, the Platonic god is causally responsible for good things only. Plutarch combated the Stoic monolithic view of the mind and the Stoic ideal of being passionless: The passions constitute an intrinsic, indelible part of our psychic make-up; hence we have to learn to manage and control them.

See also Ancient Skepticism; Aristotle; Epicureanism and the Epicurean School; Neoplatonism; Plato; Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism; Stoicism; Virtue Ethics.


All the extant works of Plutarch have been edited and translated in The Loeb Classical Library. Among the more important spurious works included in the Plutarchan corpus are Philosophical Opinions (a doxography), Music (drawn from Peripatetic sources), Fate (a product of syncretistic Platonism of the second century CE), and, on the level of popular philosophy, The Education of Children and Consolation to Apollonius.

general introductions to plutarch

Russell, D. A. Plutarch. London: Duckworth, 1973.

Sirinelli, Jean. Plutarque de Chéronée: Un philosophe dans le siècle. Paris: Fayard, 2000.

Ziegler, Konrat. Plutarchos von Chaironea. In Pauly's Realenzyklopädie, 41. Halbband, 1951: 636.18-962.14 (also published as a monograph: Stuttgart, 1949)

important studies on plutarch's philosophy

Babut, Daniel. Plutarque et le stoïcisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1969.

Brenk, Frederick E. "An Imperial Heritage: The Religious Spirit of Plutarch of Chaironeia." Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt 2.36.1 (1987): 248349.

Dillon, John. The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism, 80 B.C. to A.D. 220. Rev. ed. London: Duckworth, 1996.

on the lives

Duff, Tim. Plutarch's Lives: Exploring Virtue and Vice. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Jan Opsomer (2005)