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Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. AD 45–c.120)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A091-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 02, 2022, from

Article Summary

The Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch of Chaeronea is the greatest Greek literary figure of the first century ad. He is properly called Plutarch of Chaeronea, to distinguish him from the minor fourth-century ad Platonist Plutarch of Athens. His fame rests not so much on his contributions to philosophy as on those to history and biography. Indeed, despite the survival of a large body of philosophical and semi-philosophical writings known under the collective title Moralia, most of his more technical philosophical treatises have perished. Nevertheless, his importance for our understanding of the development of Middle Platonism is great. Plutarch is a reasonably orthodox Platonist (in so far as that expression has any meaning), although his Platonism has some distinctive features. Against Antiochus, he accepts the sceptical New Academy as part of the Platonic tradition, but he also exhibits a degree of cosmic dualism (postulating a pre-cosmic evil soul) which goes rather beyond the Platonist norm. It is misleading, however, to oppose him to a supposed tradition of ‘school-Platonism’.

As the ethical ‘end’ or ‘goal’ (telos), he adopts the normal later Platonist one of ‘likeness to god’. In ethics, as in logic, he tends to favour Aristotelianism rather than Stoicism (advocating, for example, moderation of the passions rather than their extirpation, and appropriating as authentically Platonic the Aristotelian categories and syllogistic). A tendency to favour New Academic scepticism seems indicated in the titles of some of his lost works, but is not very evident in the surviving ones.

As first principles, he postulates a pair consisting of God – who is one, the Good, and really existent – and the Platonic-Pythagorean Indefinite Dyad, which is a principle of multiplicity, and ultimately material. As secondary principles, he seems to adopt a logos, or active reason-principle of god, although the evidence for this is not copious, and a world-soul, which is essentially irrational but desirous of ‘impregnation’ with reason by the logos. There is also in the universe, however, an active principle of disorder, which can never be entirely mastered by the divinity. A hint of Persian dualism seems to enter here into Plutarch’s thought. Such a system is derivable above all from his essay On Isis and Osiris, which may not be entirely typical. Other distinctive features include a tendency to triadic divisions of the universe, a developed demonology, and an interesting combination of Aristotelian and Stoic logics.

Citing this article:
Dillon, John. Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. AD 45–c.120), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A091-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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