Posted by: mattcolvin | March 18, 2013

Gems from Plutarch

I’ve been reading some of Plutarch’s Lives in the Penguin translation entitled Makers of Rome. I’ve found some keeper quotations to add to my collection of commonplaces:

1. Apropos of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent abdication, a footnote on page 173 informs us about the chief priesthood in ancient Rome: “The Pontifex Maximus was elected for life, and could neither resign from nor be deprived of his office.”

2. Apropos of the banksters and corruptocrats who have ruined the American middle class and the poor by their deficit spending, their mortgage bubble, their fiat money, and their bailouts, I found this paragraph of a speech by Tiberius Gracchus, urging his proposal of equitable distribution of public lands:

The wild beasts that roam over Italy have their dens and holes to lurk in, but the men who fight and die for our country enjoy the common air and light and nothing else. It is their lot to wander with their wives and children, houseless and homeless, over the face of the earth. And when our generals appeal to their soldiers before a battle to defend their ancestors’ tombs and their temples against the enemy, their words are a lie and a mockery, for not a man in their audience possesses a family altar; not a one out of all those Romans owns an ancestral tomb. The truth is that they fight and die to protect the wealth and luxury of others. They are called the masters of the world, but they do not possess a single clod of earth which is truly their own. (Life of Tiberius Gracchus, paragraph 9)

(This is for you, Mark Horne, Mark Butler, and Tracey Johnstone.)

3. For Matt Trewhella, I found this amazing argument by which Tiberius Gracchus justified the removal of a fellow tribune of the plebs who was obstructing his land law, refuting his opponents who held that this impeachment and removal was a violation of the sacrosanctity with which tribunes were invested ex officio:

If a tribune should depart from his duty, oppress the people, cripple its powers, and take away its right to vote, he has by his own actions deprived himself of his honorable office by not fulfilling the conditions upon which he accepted it. Otherwise we should be obliged to allow a tribune the freedom even to demolish the Capitol or burn down the naval arsenal. If a tribune commits such actions as these he is still a tribune, even though a bad one, but if he annals the powers of the people, he ceases to be a tribune at all… A tribune who infringes the rights of the people has no just claim to retain the immunity which is granted him for his services to the peopl, since he is destroying the very power which is the foundation of his own.

This is nicely parallel to the 1550 Magdeburg Confession, which argues that Romans 13:4’s language about the magistrate as the minister of God cannot be used to compel Christians to obey an ungodly magistrate who is using his authority to attack God and God’s laws:

The Magistrate is an ordinance of God for honor to good works, and a terror to evil works (Rom. 13). Therefore when he begins to be a terror to good works and honor to evil, there is no longer in him, because he does thus, the ordinance of God, but the ordinance of the devil.

A similar case can be made about politicians who swear to uphold the Constitution.

4. I have recently seen some arguments from certain Reformed fellows who are big on natural law and natural revelation that Plato was pretty close to the truth, and that Reformed folks shouldn’t be down on him. These fellows don’t like the alleged “caricature” of Plato found in Jim Jordan and Doug Wilson and Cornelius Van Til, according to which Plato is perniciously anti-creational in his aversion to matter and bodies.

But I have always thought that that critique was precisely right, because Plato really is anti-creational and hates the material world. Here’s Plutarch once again confirming that picture of Plato (from the description of Archimedes in the Life of Marcellus, section 14):

It was Eudoxus and Archytas who were the originators of the now celebrated and highly prized art of mechanics. They used it with great ingenuity to illustrate geometrical theorems, and to support by means of mechanical demonstrations easily grasped by the senses propositions which are too intricate for proof by word or diagram. For example, to solve the problem of finding two mean proportional lines, which are necessary for the construction of many other geometrical figures, both mathematicians resorted to mechanical means, and adapted to their purposes certain instruments named mesolabes taken from conic sections. Plato was indignant at these developments, and attacked both men for having corrupted and destroyed the ideal purity of geometry. He complained that they had caused her to forsake the realm of disembodied and abstract thought for that of material objects, and to employ instruments which required much base and manual labour. For this reason mechanics came to be separated from geometry, and as the subject was for a long time disregarded by philosophers, it took its place among the military arts.

5. Finally, many of my readers will be familiar with the quotation, ostensibly by Alexander Tytler, that

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.

We are living in an age when the government more and more promises this largess. The impossibility of rolling back this tide of government pseudo-charity can be summed up with Cato the Elder’s words:

On one occasion when he wished to dissuade the Roman people from raising what he considered to be a quite unjustifiable clamor for a free distribution of corn, he began his speech with the words, ‘It is difficult, my fellow citizens, to argue with a belly, since it has no ears.’

True words.



  1. Since you apparently think that Plato really was an anti-creational gnostic, I’m curious what you think of the Timaeus’ portrait of creation. Is it perhaps the case that Plato is not anti-creational – i.e., against matter per se – but rather only against the notion that true knowledge, which cannot change, can be based solely on the ever-changing material?

    • The notion that true knowledge is only of things which cannot change is at the root of the problem.

      God has knowledge of the creation, and it is true knowledge. It is also knowledge of changeable things. God wants us to know these things too.

  2. Ok, but the question concerned whether it’s accurate to claim that Plato is anti-creational because he has a deep suspicion of knowledge claims based on changing material things. I don’t believe it’s correct to say Plato is anti-creational. The Timaeus makes no sense if that accusation is true.

    • While you may suppose that a dialogue about creation and nature would give the lie to the picture of Plato as anti-creational, careful attention to the dialogue itself does not bear that out.

      Timaeus 29a-d clearly states the following as tenets of Plato’s (or Timaeus’) cosmology:

      1. Any beauty that the cosmos exhibits is derived not from created being, which is mutable, but “after the pattern of that which is apprehensible by reason and thought and is self-identical.” In other words, Plato has gerrymandered the cosmos: anything beautiful in the temporal and mutable creation is only reflecting borrowed (stolen?) beauty from the eternal and unchanging realm. (29a)

      2. Our explanations of the physical world are not true, but only likely. The physical world cannot be the object of knowledge. (29c)

      Plato’s demiurge is not the incompetent one of the Gnostics, but I think we need to give him his share of the blame for what they made of him: it is only to be expected that men, finding truth and beauty elude them and cannot be known in temporal existence, should long to escape temporal existence.

      Thus Plato shared with the Valentinians and Marcion an abhorrence of bodily fluids, hair, dirt, and sexual reproduction. These are things that cannot possibly reflect the beauty and truth of the eternal realm; to suppose that they do is “nonsense”, as Socrates says in Parmenides 130c-d.

      True, Plato is not a full-fledged Gnostic, but the core ingredients are already present, and require only the addition of the premise that the demiurge, not being God Himself, didn’t really know what he was doing.

  3. Fair enough, insofar as the specific aspects of Timaeus you’ve pointed out go – though I still don’t believe a case is made for imputing the label “anti-creational” to Plato. Regarding your point (1), I don’t see how it’s erroneous to say created beauty is derived from the eternal – that seems obviously biblical, in fact. Regarding (2), surely the classical analogy from the stick in the water (which I recently used with a class reading the Phaedo) shows that our supposed knowledge of the physical world is, in fact, sometimes false. I’d follow Aristotle more than Plato on the value of physical things to convey knowledge, but Plato still has a point. Seen a mirage lately? Is that river you stepped in today precisely the same as yesterday?

    Why does any of this matter? Well, whatever may have been true for you in your graduate work, in my own I began to see from close studies of various texts that I had more or less been sold a bill of goods by Reformed “worldview thinkers” regarding the supposed horrific errors of “Greek thought.” Of course “the Greeks” (whatever that generalization means) were wrong in some areas, and where their words differ from Scripture’s we follow the latter. But in my judgment it’s just irresponsible to call Plato a “gnostic” (incipient or actual) or to assert he “hates matter” and is “anti-creational” and so forth. These are slurs that obscure fruitful Christian use of the text – as may easily be seen in, e.g., Jones’ Omnibus I essay on Socrates.

    • “Beauty is derived from the eternal” is not the same as “Beauty is created by God.” The distinction between these two statements is the reason I am not a Christian Platonist.

      The fallibility of knowledge gained by sense perception is obvious. (“Is the stick bent or straight? Is the tower round or square?” and other Pyrrhonist favorites.) It does not follow that there is another sort of human knowledge that is free from any similar liability to error, or that this knowledge based on sense perception is inferior to other sorts of knowledge — still less can it support Plato’s main conclusion, which is that only unchanging things can be objects of knowledge at all.

      Sorry you had a bad experience with the purveyors of “Christian worldview thinking”. I agree with you that much of what such men have said about the Greeks is unhelpful, because they don’t have much ability to read or understand them. But that’s not a good reason to go rushing into Plato’s arms. And if we turn from the trees to consider the forest, the broader picture of Greek philosophy on which Cornelius Van Til et al. relied was Werner Jaeger’s _Paideia_. It is not the work of an amateur or a dilettante; Jaeger was one of the 20th century’s greatest scholars of ancient philosophy.

  4. […] Matt Colvin of Colvinism has penned a post on Gems from Plutarch.  The whole piece is quite interesting, but this portion is quite helpful to me when it comes to […]

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