Plutarch – Platonist Philosopher

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Plutarch of Chaeronea in Boeotia (c. 45 – c. 120 AD) was a Platonist philosopher who studied philosophy, rhetoric, and mathematics in Athens under the philosopher Ammonius.

Plutarch traveled several times to Rome to teach philosophy, and it is clear that traveling was a large part of his life. He ventured across central and western Greece, visited Rome, Sardis (modern day Turkey), Alexandria (modern day Egypt), and Sparta. He lived in Chaeronea for most of his life where he held municipal posts, one of which was chief magistracy.

Plutarch authored an incredible number of works (somewhere between two and three hundred, although many have been lost to history) which are divisible into the philosophical and historical-biographical. Plutarch’s oeuvre consists in large part of the Moralia (Moral Writings), which are a collection of more than 70 essays on ethical, political, polemical, and literary subjects represented in the form of dialogues. Plutarch’s biographies evidence extensive investigations. He consulted many sources for his information, and working through the material would have taken some time. His Parallel Lives demonstrates an invested interest in politics and character formation. He recounts the deeds and characters of Greek and Roman soldiers, orators, legislators, and statesmen, and many famous historical figures of influence appear in the list such as Aristides, Alexander the Great, Romulus, Julius Caesar, and many others. Plutarch’s work is concerned with patterns of moral behaviour, as well as reflections and lessons of a moral nature. For example, he describes the military commander and statesman Themistocles (c. 524 – 459 BC) as of “a vehement and impetuous nature, of a quick apprehension, and a strong and aspiring bent for action and great affairs,” and therefore as a morally exemplary individual of whom a reader might use for his or her own moral improvement.

Plutarch studied philosophy in Athens with a Platonist philosopher by the name Ammonius. He attempted to take the famous Greek philosopher Plato’s (c. 427 – c. 347 BC) ideas and produce a coherent philosophical system out of them. Some of Plutarch’s philosophical work covered areas such as epistemology, metaphysics, natural philosophy, aesthetics, and education, much of which were attempts to advocate Platonist natural philosophy and oppose other philosophical schools. Plutarch also had interests in theology and penned on the topics of divination, divine justice, and divine punishment.

Plutarch was critical of the Stoics and Epicureans, and authored a number of critical and polemical texts on (and against) their philosophies. Although historians realize that one does not always receive a fair engagement with these philosophies from Plutarch, he does provide them with valuable information about these philosophical schools which they may have never had if it wasn’t for Plutarch. He was clearly opposed to them because both the schools criticized Plato, and they also made use of some of Plato’s ideas which Plutarch deemed they did so erroneously. He advocated Platonism against what he considered misguided interpretations and criticisms by the Epicureans and Stoics.

Plutarch believed that philosophy’s primary purpose is to support the ethical life. He was convinced that if philosophy could not demonstrate its support for an ethical life then the entire philosophical system is a failure. This motivated him to show that the Epicureans and Stoics held to false assumptions about human nature and reality, and use this as evidence that their ethical beliefs and doctrines were in error and thus a failure. He also disliked the fact that the Stoics and Epicureans held to a materialist metaphysics which conflicted with many of Plato’s ideas, such as  the intelligible realm consisting of god, Forms, and immaterial souls (all essential to Platonism).

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