Who was Plutarch?

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Plutarch of Chaeronea in Boeotia (c. 45 – c. 120 CE) was a Platonist philosopher who studied philosophy, rhetoric, and mathematics.

Plutarch traveled several times to Rome to teach philosophy. Traveling was a large part of his life as he ventured across central and western Greece, 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 many works (somewhere between two and three hundred, although many have been lost to history) which can be divided into the philosophical and historical-biographical. Plutarch’s oeuvre consists of the Moralia (Moral Writings), a collection of more than seventy 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 this material would have taken time. His Parallel Lives demonstrates an invested interest in politics and character formation. He narrates the deeds 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 behavior, as well as reflections and lessons of a moral nature. For example, he describes the military commander and statesman Themistocles (c. 524 – 459 BCE) 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 moral improvement. 

Plutarch studied philosophy in Athens and attempted to take the famous Greek philosopher Plato’s (c. 427 – c. 347 BCE) 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 composed writings on the topics of divination, divine justice, and divine punishment. He was critical of the Stoics and Epicureans and authored several 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 valuable information which we may have never had if it was not for Plutarch. Plutarch opposed these schools because they criticized Plato and also made use of some of Plato’s ideas which Plutarch thought they did erroneously.

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 then 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 that 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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