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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 93. Plutarch.


Πλουτάρχου τοῦ Χαιρωνέως τὰ Ἠθικά. Ed. Tauchnitz Lips. The same with a Latin version and notes in

Plutarchi Chaeronensis Moralia, id est, Opera, exceptis vitis, reliqua. Ed. by Daniel Wyttenbach. Oxon. 1795–1800, 8 vols. (including 2 Index vols.). French ed. by Dübner, in the Didot collection.

Plutarch’s Morals. Translated from the Greek by several Hands. London, 1684–’94, 5th ed. 1718. The same as corrected and revised by William W. Goodwin (Harvard University). With an introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1870, 5 vols.

Octave Greard: De la moralité de Plutarque. Paris, 1866.

Richard Chenevix Trench (Archbishop of Dublin): Plutarch, his life, his Parallel Lives, and his Morals. London (Macmillan & Co.), 2nd ed. 1874.

W. Möller: Ueber die Religion des Plutarch. Kiel, 1881.

Julia Wedgwood: Plutarch and the unconscious Christianity of the first two centuries. In the "Contemporary Review" for 1881, pp. 44–60.


Equally remarkable, as a representative of "unconscious Christianity" and "seeker after the unknown God" though from a different philosophical standpoint, is the greatest biographer and moralist of classical antiquity.

It is strange that Plutarch’s contemporaries are silent about him. His name is not even mentioned by any Roman writer. What we know of him is gathered from his own works. He lived between a.d. 50 and 125, mostly in his native town of Chaeroneia, in Boeotia, as a magistrate and priest of Apollos. He was happily married, and had four sons and a daughter, who died young. His Conjugal Precepts are full of good advice to husbands and wives. The letter of consolation he addressed to his wife on the death of a little daughter, Timoxena, while she was absent from home, gives us a favorable impression of his family life, and expresses his hope of immortality. "The souls of infants," he says at the close of this letter, "pass immediately into a better and more divine state." He spent some time in Rome (at least twice, probably under Vespasian and Domitian), lectured on moral philosophy to select audiences, and collected material for his Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans. He was evidently well-bred, in good circumstances, familiar with books, different countries, and human nature and society in all its phases. In his philosophy he stands midway between Platonism and Neo-Platonism. He was "a Platonist with an Oriental tinge."595595    So Trench calls him, l.c. p. 112. The best account of his philosophy is given by Zeller in his Philosophie der Griechen, Part III., 141-182; and more briefly by Ueberweg, Hist. of Phil. (Eng. Ver.) I. 234-236.95 He was equally opposed to Stoic pantheism and Epicurean naturalism, and adopted the Platonic dualism of God and matter. He recognized a supreme God, and also the subordinate divinities of the Hellenic religion. The gods are good, the demons are divided between good and bad, the human soul combines both qualities. He paid little attention to metaphysics, and dwelt more on the practical questions of philosophy, dividing his labors between historical and moral topics. He was an utter stranger to Christianity, and therefore neither friendly nor hostile. There is in all his numerous writings not a single allusion to it, although at his time there must have been churches in every considerable city of the empire. He often speaks of Judaism, but very superficially, and may have regarded Christianity as a Jewish sect. But his moral philosophy makes a very near approach to Christian ethics.

His aim, as a writer, was to show the greatness in the acts and in the thoughts of the ancients, the former in his "Parallel Lives," the latter in his "Morals," and by both to inspire his contemporaries to imitation. They constitute together an encyclopaedia of well-digested Greek and Roman learning. He was not a man of creative genius, but of great talent, extensive information, amiable, spirit, and universal sympathy. Emerson calls him "the chief example of the illumination of the intellect by the force of morals."596596    Introduction to Goodwin’s ed. p. xi.96

Plutarch endeavored to build up morality on the basis of religion. He is the very opposite of Lucian, who as an architect of ruin, ridiculed and undermined the popular religion. He was a strong believer in God, and his argument against atheism is well worth quoting." There has never been," he says, "a state of atheists. You may travel over the world, and you may find cities without walls, without king, without mint, without theatre or gymnasium; but you will never find a city without God, without prayer, without oracle, without sacrifice. Sooner may a city stand without foundations, than a state without belief in the gods. This is the bond of all society and the pillar of all legislation."597597    Adv. Colotem (an Epicurean), c. 31 (Moralia, ed. Tauchnitz, VI. 265).97

In his treatise on The Wrong Fear of the Gods, he contrasts superstition with atheism as the two extremes which often meet, and commends piety or the right reverence of the gods as the golden mean. Of the two extremes he deems superstition the worse, because it makes the gods capricious, cruel, and revengeful, while they are friends of men, saviours (σωτῆρες), and not destroyers. (Nevertheless superstitious people can more easily be converted to true faith than atheists who have destroyed all religious instincts.)

His remarkable treatise on The Delays of Divine Justice in punishing the wicked,598598    · De Sera Numinis Vindicta. in Goodwin’s ed. vol. IV. 140-188.98 would do credit to any Christian theologian. It is his solution of the problem of evil, or his theodicy. He discusses the subject with several of his relatives (as Job did with his friends), and illustrates it by examples. He answers the various objections which arise from the delay of justice and vindicates Providence in his dealings with the sinner. He enjoins first modesty and caution in view of our imperfect knowledge. God only knows best when and how and how much to punish. He offers the following considerations: 1) God teaches us to moderate our anger, and never to punish in a passion, but to imitate his gentleness and forbearance. 2) He gives the wicked an opportunity to repent and reform. 3) He permits them to live and prosper that he may use them as executioners of his justice on others. He often punishes the sinner by the sinner. 4) The wicked are sometimes spared that they may bless the world by a noble posterity. 5) Punishment is often deferred that the hand of Providence may be more conspicuous in its infliction. Sooner or later sin will be punished, if not in this world, at least in the future world, to which Plutarch points as the final solution of the mysteries of Providence. He looked upon death as a good thing for the good soul, which shall then live indeed; while the present life "resembles rather the vain illusions of some dream."

The crown of Plutarch’s character is his humility, which was so very rare among ancient philosophers, especially the Stoics, and which comes from true self-knowledge. He was aware of the native depravity of the soul, which he calls "a storehouse and treasure of many evils and maladies."599599    Ποικίλον τι καὶ πολυπαθὲς κακῶν ταμεῖον θησαύρισμα, ὡς φησι Δημόκριτος. Animi ne an corporis affectiones sint pejores, c. 2 (in Wyttenbach’s ed. Tom. III. p. 17).99 Had he known the true and radical remedy for sin, he would no doubt have accepted it with gratitude.

We do not know how far the influence of these saints of ancient paganism, as we may call Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch, extended over the heathens of their age, but we do know that their writings had and still have an elevating and ennobling effect upon Christian readers, and hence we may infer that their teaching and example were among the moral forces that aided rather than hindered the progress and final triumph of Christianity. But this religion alone could bring about such a general and lasting moral reform as they themselves desired.



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