On the ‘E’ at Delphi
(De E apud Delphos)

By Plutarch


Plutarch, in this essay On the E at Delphi, tells us that beside the well-known inscriptions at Delphi there was also a representation of the letter E, the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet. The Greek name for this letter was EI, and this diphthong, in addition to being used in Plutarch’s time as the name of FE (which denotes the number five), is the Greek word for ‘if,’ and also the word for the second person singular of the verb ‘to be’ (thou art).

In searching for an explanation of the unexplainable it is only natural that the three meanings of EI (‘five,’ ‘if,’ ‘thou art’) should be examined to see if any hypothesis based on any one of them might possibly yield a rational explanation; and these hypotheses constitute the skeleton about which is built the body of Plutarch’s essay. From it we gain some interesting delineations of character and an engaging portrayal of the way in which a philosopher acts, or reacts, when forced unwillingly to face the unknowable.

Plutarch puts forward seven possible explanations of the letter:

(1) It was dedicated by the Wise Men, as a protest against interlopers, to show that their number was actually five and not seven (EI = E, five). |195|

(2) EI is the second vowel, the Sun is the second planet, and Apollo is identified with the sun (EI = E, the vowel).

(3) EI means ‘if’: people ask the oracle IF they shall succeed, or IF they shall do this or that (EI = ‘if’).

(4) EI is used in wishes or prayers to the god, often in the combination εἴθε or εἰ γάρ (EI = ‘if’ or ‘if only’).

(5) EI, ‘if,” is an indispensable word in logic for the construction of a syllogism (EI = ‘if’).

(6) Five is a most important number in mathematics, physiology, philosophy, and music (EI = E, ‘five”).

(7) EI means ‘thou art” and is the address of the consultant to Apollo, to indicate that the god has eternal being (EI = ‘thou art’).1

Attempts to explain the letter have been also made in modern times by Göttling, Berichte der Sachs. Gesell. der Wiss. I. (1846-47) pp. 311 ff., and by Schultz in Philologus (1866), pp. 214 ff. Roscher, in Philologus (1900), pp. 21 ff.; (1901), pp. 81 ff.; (1902), pp. 513 ff.; Hermes (1901), pp. 470 ff. (comment also by C. Robert in the same volume, p. 490), and the Philologische Wochenschrift (1922), col. 1211, maintains that EI is an imperative from εἶμι, ‘go,’ addressed to the person who came to consult the oracle, and that it means ‘go on,’ ‘continue’ into the temple. The value of this explanation is somewhat doubtful, since EI in this word (εἶμι) is a true diphthong, and so is not generally spelled with simple E except in the Corinthian alphabet. Although |196| Roscher cites a few examples from inscriptions in other dialects where the true diphthongal EI seems to be represented by simple E, his evidence is not convincing.

O. Lagercrantz, in Hermes, xxxvi. (1901) pp. 411 ff., interprets the E as meaning ἢ ‘he said.’ To this, of course, Roscher objects and suggests that Lagercrantz might have thought also of ἦ ‘verily.’ Thus all the various possibilities of interpretation have in turn been suggested, and rejected by others.

W. N. Bates, in the American Journal of Archaeology, xxix. (1925) pp. 239-246, tries to show that the E had its origin in a Minoan character E associated with Gε (as is shown by the evidence of a Cretan gem in the Metropolitan Museum of New York) and later transferred to Delphi. Since the character was not understood, it, like other things at Delphi, came to be associated with Apollo. This character has been found on the old omphalos discovered in 1913 at Delphi in the temple of Apollo.2

Interesting are the two coins reproduced in Imhoof-Blumer and P. Gardner, A Numismatic Commentary on Pausanias, plate x. nos. xxii. and xxiii. (text, p. 119), which show the E suspended between the middle columns of the temple. Learned scholars should note that the letter represented is E, not EI: therefore |197| such explanations as are based on the true diphthong are presumably wrong.

The title of the essay is included in the catalogue of Lamprias, where it appears as No. 117. It is not infrequently quoted or referred to by later writers. It has been separately edited by Bernardakis in the volume of essays in honour of Ernst Curtius, Leipzig, 1894. Of interest is also The Delphic Maxims in Literature, by Eliza Gregory Wilkins, Chicago, 1929.

1^ This explanation is accepted by Poulsen (Delphi, p. 149), but is open to very serious objections.


It might also be recorded that J.E. Harrison, in Comptes Rendus du Congrés International d’Archéologie (Athens, 1905), thinks that the E was ‘originally three betyl stones or pillars placed on a basis and representing the three Charites’! Moreover, C. Fries, in Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, lxxix. (1930) 343-344, offers as ‘nodi explicatio’ the fact that in Sumerian inscriptions Ε means house or temple, and so may be connected with Babylonian ritual (note the Chaldean in chap. iv.)!

On the ‘E’ at Delphi

The persons who take part in the conversation are: Ammonius, Lamprias, Plutarch, Theon, Eustrophus, Nicander, and others whose names are not given.

§1. “Not long ago, my dear Sarapion,1 I came upon some lines, not badly done, which Dicaearchus thinks Euripides2 addressed to Archelaüs:

I will not give poor gifts to one so rich,
Lest you should take me for a fool, or I
Should seem by giving to invite a gift.

For he does no favour who gives small gifts from scanty means to wealthy men; and since it is not credible that his giving is for nothing, he acquires in addition a reputation for disingenuousness and servility. Observe also how, as far as independence and honour are concerned, material gifts fall far below those bestowed by literary discourse and wisdom; and these gifts it is both honourable to give and, at the same time, to ask a return of like gifts from the recipients. I, at any rate, as I send to you, and by means of you for our friends there, some of our Pythian discourses, an offering of our first-fruits, as it were, confess that I am expecting other discourses, both more numerous and of better quality, from you and your friends, inasmuch as you have not only all the advantages of a great |201| city,3 but you have also more abundant leisure amid many books and all manner of discussions.

It seems that our beloved Apollo finds a remedy and a solution for the problems connected with our life by the oracular responses which he gives to those who consult him; but the problems connected with our power to reason it seems that he himself launches and propounds to him who is by nature inclined to the love of knowledge, thus creating in the soul a craving4 that leads onward to the truth, as is clear in many other ways, but particularly in the dedication of the E.5 For the likelihood is that it was not by chance nor, as it were, by lot that this was the only letter that came to occupy first place with the god and attained the rank of a sacred offering and something worth seeing; but it is likely that those who, in the beginning, sought after knowledge of the god either discovered some peculiar and unusual potency in it or else used it as a token with reference to some other of the matters of the highest concern, and thus adopted it.

On many other occasions when the subject had been brought up in the school I had quietly turned aside from it and passed it over, but recently I was unexpectedly discovered by my sons in an animated discussion with some strangers, whom, since they purposed to leave Delphi immediately, it was not seemly to try to divert from the subject, nor was it seemly for me to ask to be excused from the discussion, for they were altogether eager to hear something about it. I found them seats, therefore, near the temple, and I began to seek some answer myself and to put questions to them; influenced as I was by the place and the conversation itself, I remembered |203| what, when Nero was here some years ago, I had heard Ammonius and others discussing, when the same question obtruded itself in a similar way. START HERE

1 A poet living at Athens in Plutarch’s day; see Moralia, 396 d ff. and 628 a.

2 Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Euripides, no. 969.

3 At this time Athens had been for several centuries a university city.

4 Cf. Moralia, 673 b.

5 Cf. 426 8, infra.

§2. That the god is no less a philosopher than a prophet Ammonius seemed to all to postulate and prove correctly, with reference to this or to that one of his several titles 1; that he is the ‘Pythian’ (Inquirer) for those that are beginning to learn and inquire; the ‘Delian’ (Clear) and the ‘Phanaean’ (Disclosing) for those to whom some part of the truth is becoming clear and is being disclosed; the ‘Ismenian’ 2 (Knowing) for those who have knowledge; and the ‘Leschenorian’ (Conversationalist) when people have active enjoyment of conversation and philosophic intercourse with one another. “Since,” he went on to say, “inquiry is the beginning of philosophy, and wonder and uncertainty the beginning of inquiry 3, it seems only natural that the greater part of what concerns the god should be concealed in riddles, and should call for some account of the wherefore and an explanation of its cause. For example, in the case of the undying fire, that pine is the only wood burned here, while laurel is used for offering incense; that two Fates have statues here 4, whereas three is everywhere the customary number; that no woman is allowed to approach the prophetic shrine 5; the matter of the tripod; and the other questions of this nature, when they are suggested to persons who are not altogether without mind and reason, act as a lure and an invitation to investigate, to read, and to |205| talk about them. Note also these inscriptions 6 here, ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Avoid extremes,’ how many philosophic inquiries have they set on foot, and what a horde of discourses has sprung up from each, as from a seed! And no less productive of discourse than any one of them, as I think, is the present subject of inquiry.”

1 Cf. 393. b, infra; Cornutus, chap. xxxii.; von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, i. 543 (p. 123); and “Apollo” in the Index thereto.

2 Plutarch’s attempt to connect Ismenian with ἰδ- (οἶδα) can hardly be right.

3 Cf. Plato, Theaetetus, 155 d.

4 Cf. Pausanias, x. 24. 4.

5 Cf. Euripides, Ion, 222.

6 Cf. Moralia, 164 b, 408 e, 511 a.

§3. When Ammonius had said this, Lamprias, my brother, said, “As a matter of fact, the account that we have heard is simple and quite brief. For they say that those wise men who by some are called the ‘Sophists’ {pre-Socratic} were actually five in number: Chilon, Thales, Solon, Bias, and Pittacus. But when Cleobulus, the despot of the Lindians, and later Periander of Corinth, who had no part or portion in virtue or wisdom, but forcibly acquired their repute through power and friends and favours, invaded this name of the Wise Men, and sent out and circulated throughout Greece certain sentiments and sayings very similar to those famous utterances of the Wise Men, these, naturally, did not like this at all, but were loath to expose the imposture or to arouse open hatred over a question of repute, or to carry through a contest against such powerful men; they met here by themselves and, after conferring together, dedicated that one of the letters which is fifth in alphabetical order and which stands for the number five, thus testifying for themselves before the god that they were five, and renouncing and rejecting the seventh and the sixth as having no connexion with themselves. That this account is not beside the mark anyone may realize who has heard those connected with the shrine |207| naming the golden E the E of Livia, Caesar’s wife, and the bronze E the E of the Athenians, while the first and oldest one, made of wood, they still call to this day the E of the Wise Men, as though it were an offering, not of one man, but of all the Wise Men in common.”

§4. Ammonius smiled quietly, suspecting privately that Lamprias had been indulging in a mere opinion of his own and was fabricating history and tradition regarding a matter in which he could not be held to account. Someone else among those present said that all this was similar to the nonsense which the Chaldean visitor had uttered a short time before: that there are seven vowels in the alphabet and seven stars that have an independent and unconstrained motion; that E is the second in order of the vowels from the beginning, and the sun the second planet after the moon, and that practically all the Greeks identify Apollo with the Sun. 1 “But all this,” said he, “has its source in slate and prate 2 and in nothing else.”

Apparently Lamprias had unwittingly stirred up the persons connected with the temple against his remarks. For what he had said no one of the Delphians knew anything about; but they were used to bring forward the commonly accepted opinion which the guides give, holding it to be right that neither the appearance nor the sound of the letter has any cryptic meaning, but only its name.

1 Cf. Moralia, 1130 a or 381 F, supra, or 393 c, infra.

2 An expression as obscure in the Greek as in the English. It means, apparently, ‘idle talk.’ Cf. S.A. Naber, Mnemosyne, xxviii. (1900) p. 134.

§5. “For it is, as the Delphians assume,” — and on this occasion Nicander, the priest, spoke for them and said, “the figure and form of the consultation of the god, and it holds the |209| first place in every question of those who consult the oracle and inquire IF they shall be victorious, IF they shall marry, IF it is to their advantage to sail the sea, IF to take to farming, IF to go abroad. 1 But the god in his wisdom bade a long farewell to the logicians who think that nothing real comes out of the particle ‘if’ combined with what the consultant thinks proper to undertake, for the god conceives of all the inquiries subjoined to this as real things and welcomes them as such. And since to inquire from him as from a prophet is our individual prerogative, but to pray to him as to a god is common to all, they think that the particle contains an optative force no less than an interrogative. ‘If only I could,’ is the regular expression of a wish, and Archilochus 2 says,

If to me it might be granted Neobulê’s hand to touch.

And in using ‘if only’ they assert that the second word is added unnecessarily, like Sophron’s 3 ‘surely’:

Surely in want of children as well.

This is found also in Homer 4

Since I surely shall break your might

but, as they assert, the optative force is adequately indicated by the ‘if.’ ”

1 Cf. the long list of questions thus introduced in Hunt and Edgar, Select Papyri (in the L.C.L.), i. pp. 436-438 (nos. 193-195).

2 Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. ii. p. 402, Archilochus, no. 71; or Edmonds, Elegy and Iambus (L.C.L.), ii. p. 134.

3 Kaibel, Comic. Graec. Frag. p. 160, Sophron, no. 36.

4 Il. xvii. 29.

§6. When Nicander had expounded all this, my friend Theon, whom I presume you know, asked |211| Ammonius if Logical Reason had any rights in free speech, after being spoken of in such a very insulting manner. And when Ammonius urged him to speak and come to her assistance, he said, “That the god is a most logical reasoner the great majority of his oracles show clearly; for surely it is the function of the same person both to solve and to invent ambiguities. Moreover, as Plato said, when an oracle was given that they should double the size of the altar at Delos 1 (a task requiring the highest skill in geometry), it was not this that the god was enjoining, but he was urging the Greeks to study geometry. And so, in the same way, when the god gives out ambiguous oracles, he is promoting and organizing logical reasoning as indispensable for those who are to apprehend his meaning aright. Certainly in logic this copulative conjunction has the greatest force, inasmuch as it clearly gives us our most logical form, the syllogism. Must not the character of the hypothetical syllogism be of this sort: granted that even wild animals have apperception of the existence of things, yet to man alone has Nature given the power to observe and judge the consequences? That ‘it is day’ and that ‘it is light’ assuredly wolves and dogs and birds perceive by their senses; but ‘IF it is day, then it is light,’ no creature other than man apprehends 2 for he alone has a concept of antecedent and consequent, of apparent implication and connexion of these things one with another, and their relations and differences, from which our demonstrations derive their most authoritative inception. Since, then, philosophy is concerned with truth, and the illumination |213| of truth is demonstration, and the inception of demonstration is the hypothetical syllogism, then with good reason the potent element that effects the connexion and produces this was consecrated by wise men to the god who is, above all, a lover of the truth.

“The god, moreover, is a prophet, and the prophetic art concerns the future that is to result from things present and past. For there is nothing of which either the origin is without cause or the foreknowledge thereof without reason; but since all present events follow in close conjunction with past events, and all future events follow in close conjunction with present events, in accordance with a regular procedure which brings them to fulfillment from beginning to end, he who understands, in consonance with Nature, how to fathom the connexions and interrelations of the causes one with another knows and can declare

What now is, and in future shall be, and has been of aforetime. 3

Very excellently did Homer place first in order the present, then the future and the past, for the syllogism based on hypothesis has its source in what is; for example, ‘if this is, then that has preceded,’ and again, ‘if this is, then that shall be.’ The technical and rational clement here, as has been stated, is the knowledge of consequences; but the senses provide the argument with its premise. Therefore, even if it be a poor thing to say, I shall not be turned aside from saying it, that this is the tripod of truth, namely, argument, which lays down the consequent relation of the conclusion to the antecedent, and then, premising the existent condition, induces the completion of the demonstration. Therefore, if the Pythian god |215| plainly finds pleasure in music and the songs of swans and the sound of lyres, what wonder is it that, because of his fondness for logical reasoning, he vomit welcome and love that portion of discourse of which he observes philosophers making the most particular and the most constant use?

“Heracles, before he had released Prometheus or had conversed with the sophists that were associated with Cheiron and Atlas, when he was young and a thorough Boeotian 4, would do away with logical reasoning; he ridiculed the ‘if the first, then the second,’ and resolved to carry off the tripod by force 5 and fight it out with the god over his art; since, at any rate, as he advanced in years, he also appears to have become most skilled in prophecy and in logic.”

1 Cf. Moralia, 579 b-d; and on the doubling of the cube, T.L. Heath, A Manual of Greek Mathematics (Oxford, 1931), pp. 154-170.

2 Cf. von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, ii. 216 (p. 70) and 239 (p. 78).

3 Homer, Il. i. 70.

4 The Greek equivalent of “Philistine.”

5 Cf. Moralia, 413 a, 557 c, 560 d; Pausanias, x. 13. 4; Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, ii. 6. 2 (with Frazer’s note in L.C.L. edition); Roscher, Lexikon der gr. und rim. Mythologie, i, p. 2213; Baumeister, Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums, i. p. 463 ff. The attempt of Heracles to carry off the tripod is represented on the treasury of the Siphnians in the Museum at Delphi.

§7. When Theon ceased, Eustrophus the Athenian, I think it was, said to us in answer, “Do you see how zealously Theon defends logic, all but arraying himself in the lion’s skin? Under such conditions, we who repose in the Theory of Numbers all affairs together, natures and principles of things divine and human alike, and make this theory far above all else our guide and authority in all that is beautiful and valuable, should not be likely to hold our peace, but to offer to the god the first-fruits of our beloved mathematics, believing, as we do, that, taken by itself, E is not unlike the other letters either in power or in form or as a spoken word, but that it has come to be held in honour as the symbol of a great and sovereign number, the pempad, from which the wise |217| gave the name ‘pempazein’ to counting which is done by fives.’ 1

These words Eustrophus addressed to us not in jest, but for the reason that at this time I was devoting myself to mathematics with the greatest enthusiasm, although I was destined soon to pay all honour to the maxim ‘Avoid extremes,’ when I had once become a member of the Academy. 2

1 That is, by counting on the fingers: cf. 374. a, supra, and 429 d, infra.

2 431 A, infra.

§8. I said, therefore, that Eustrophus solved the difficulty most excellently with his number. “For since,” I continued, “every number may be classified as even or odd, and unity, by virtue of its potentiality, is common to both, for the reason that its addition makes the odd number even and the even number odd 1, and since two makes the first of the even numbers and three the first of the odd, and five is produced by the union of these numbers, very naturally five has come to be honoured as being the first number created out of the first numbers; and it has received the name of ‘marriage’ 2 because of the resemblance of the even number to the female and of the odd number to the male. 3 For in the division of numbers into two equal factors, the even number separates completely and leaves a certain receptive opening and, as it were, a space within itself; but in the odd, when it undergoes this process, there is always left over from the division a generative middle part. Wherefore it is more generative than the other, and in combination it is always dominant and is never dominated. 4 For in no combination of these two numbers (even and odd) is there produced from the two an even number, |219| but in all combinations an odd. Moreover, each when applied to itself and made composite with itself shows the difference. For no even number united with even gives an odd number, nor does it ever show any departure from its own distinctive nature, being impotent through its weakness to produce the other number. and having no power of accomplishment; but odd numbers combined with odd produce a numerous progeny of even numbers because of their omnipresent generative function. It would not be timely at this moment to enumerate the other potent properties and divergences of numbers; let it suffice to say that the Pythagoreans called Five a ‘Marriage’ on the ground that it was produced by the association of the first male number and the first female number.

“There is also a sense in which it has been called ‘Nature,’ since by being multiplied into itself it ends in itself again. For even as Nature receives wheat in the form of seed and puts it to its use, and creates in the interim many shapes and forms through which she carries out the process of growth to its end, but, to crown all, displays wheat again, and thus presents as her result the beginning at the end of the whole, so in like manner, while the other numbers when raised to a power end in different numbers as the result of the increase, only the numbers five and six, when multiplied by themselves, repeat themselves and preserve their identity. Thus six times six is thirty-six, and five times five is twenty-five; and furthermore, the number six does this but once, and the single instance is when it is squared; but with five this result is obtained in raising it to any power, and it has a unique characteristic, when added to |221| itself, of producing either itself or ten alternately 5 as the addition progresses, and of doing this to infinity, since this number takes its pattern from the primal principle which orders the whole. For as that principle by changes creates a complete universe out of itself, and then in turn out of the universe creates itself again, as Heracleitus 6 says, ‘and exchanges fire for all and all for fire, as gold for goods and goods for gold,’ so, in like manner, the conjunction of five with itself is determined by Nature’s law to produce nothing incomplete or foreign, but it has strictly limited changes; it produces either itself or ten, that is to say, either its own characteristic or the perfect whole. 6

1 Cf. 429 a, infra.

2 Cf. Moralia, 263 f, 1012 e, 1018 c, and Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, v. chap. xiv. 93. 4 (p. 702 Potter).

3 Cf. Moralia, 288 c-e.

4 Cf. Plutarch, Life and Poetry of Homer, 145 (Bernardakis, vol. vii. p. 416).

5 That is, a number ending in 5 or 0. Cf. 429 d, infra.

6 Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, i. p. 95, Heracleitus, no. B 90.

§9. “If, then, anyone ask, ‘What has this to do with Apollo?’, we shall say that it concerns not only him, but also Dionysus, whose share in Delphi is no less than that of Apollo. 1 Now we hear the theologians affirming and reciting, sometimes in verse and sometimes in prose, that the god is deathless and eternal in his nature 2, but, owing forsooth to some predestined design and reason, he undergoes transformations of his person, and at one time enkindles his nature into fire and makes it altogether like all else, and at another time he undergoes all sorts of changes in his form, his emotions and his powers, even as the |223| universe does today; but he is called by the best known of his names. 3 The more enlightened, however, concealing from the masses the transformation into fire, call him Apollo because of his solitary state 4, and Phoebus because of his purity and stainlessness. 5 And as for his turning into winds and water, earth and stars, and into the generations of plants and animals, and his adoption of such guises, they speak in a deceptive way of what he undergoes in his transformation as a tearing apart, as it were, and a dismemberment. They give him the names of Dionysus, Zagreus, Nyctelius, and Isodaetes; they construct destructions and disappearances, followed by returns to life and regenerations — riddles and fabulous tales quite in keeping with the aforesaid transformations. To this god they also sing the dithyrambic strains laden with emotion and with a transformation that includes a certain wandering and dispersion. Aeschylus 6, in fact, says

Fitting it is that the dithyramb
With its fitful notes should attend
Dionysus in revel rout.

But to Apollo they sing the paean, music regulated and chaste.

Apollo the artists represent in paintings and sculpture as ever ageless and young, but Dionysus they depict in many guises and forms; and they attribute to Apollo in general a uniformity, orderliness, and unadulterated seriousness, but to Dionysus a certain |225| variability combined with playfulness, wantonness, seriousness, and frenzy. They call upon him 7:

Euoe Bacchus who incites
Womankind, Dionysus who delights
’Mid his honours fraught with frenzy,

not inappositely apprehending the peculiar character of each transformation.

“But since the time of the cycles in these transformations is not equal, but that of the one which they call ‘Satiety 8, is longer, and that of ‘Dearth’ shorter, they observe the ratio, and use the paean at their sacrifices for a large part of the year; but at the beginning of winter they awake the dithyramb and, laying to rest the paean, they use the dithyramb instead of it in their invocations of the god; for they believe that, as three is to one, so is the relation of the creation to the conflagration.

1 Cf. 365 a, supra, and Lucan, v. 73-74; and for the proverb cf. Moralia, 280 p and the note.

2 Cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, v. 14 (p. 711 Potter).

3 Cf. Stobaeus, Eclogae Phys. et Ethic. i. 21. 5 (i. p. 184. 11 ed. Wachsmuth).

4 Cf. 354 b, 381 f, supra, and 393 b, infra.

5 Cf. 393 c, infra.

6 Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Aeschylus, no. 355.

7 Cf. Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. iii. p. 730, Adespota, no, 131; quoted by Plutarch in Moralia, 607 c and 671 c also.

8 Cf. von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, ii. 616 (p. 186); Philo, De Spec. Leg. i. 208.

§10. “But these remarks have been extended somewhat beyond what the occasion requires. However, it is clear that men make Five an attribute of the god, which at one time of itself creates itself, like fire, and at another time out of itself creates ten, like the universe. And in music, which is especially pleasing to him, do we imagine that this number plays no part? For the main application of harmony, so far as it can be put into words, is concerned with chords. That these are five, and no more, reason convinces anyone who wishes, by perception alone without |227| employing reason, to pursue these matters on the strings and stops 1; for they all have their origin in numerical ratios. The ratio of the fourth is four to three 2, that of the fifth is three to two, and that of the octave two to one; that of the octave plus the fifth is three to one 3, and that of the double octave four to one. The extra chord which the writers on harmony introduce, naming it the octave and the fourth extra metrum, does not deserve acceptance, since we should be favouring the unreasoning element in our sense of hearing contrary to reason, which is as much as to say, contrary to law. Now if I may omit any discussion of the five stops of the tetrachord 4, and the first five ‘tones’ or ‘tropes’ or ‘harmonies,’ whatever be their right name, from the changes in which, through a greater or a less tension, the remaining lower and higher notes are derived, I must ask whether, although the intervals are numerous, or rather of infinite number, yet the elements of melody are not five only 5, quarter tone, half tone, tone, a tone plus a half tone, and double tone; and there is, in the range of notes, no additional space, either smaller or greater within the limits set by the high and the low, which can yield melody.

1 Cf. Plato, Republic, 530 d-531 c.

2 Cf. Moralia, 1018 e.

3 Cf. 429 e, infra.

4 Cf. 430 a, infra, and Moralia, 1021 e and 1029 a.

5 Cf. 430 a, infra.

§11. “There are many other examples of this sort of thing,” said I, “which I shall pass over. I shall merely adduce Plato 1, who, in speaking about a single world, says that if there are others besides ours, and ours is not the only one, then there are five altogether and no more. 2 Nevertheless, even if this world of ours is the only one ever created, as Aristotle 3 also thinks, even ours, he says, is in a way put together through |229| the union of five worlds, of which one is of earth, another of water, a third of fire, a fourth of air; and the fifth, the heavens, others call light, and others aether, and others call this very thing a fifth substance (Quintessence), which alone of the bodies has by nature a circular motion that is not the result of any compelling power or any other incidental cause. Wherefore also Plato, apparently noting the five most beautiful and complete forms among those found in Nature, pyramid, cube, octahedron, icosahedron, and dodecahedron, appropriately assigned each to each.

1 Plato, Timaeus, 31 a.

2 Cf. Moralia, 421 f, 422 f, 430 b, and 887 b.

3 De Caelo, i. 8-9 (276 a 18).

§12. “There are some who associate the senses also, since they are of the same number, with those primal elements, observing that touch functions against something resistant, and is earthly, and that taste, through moisture in the things tasted, absorbs their qualities. Air, when it is struck, becomes voice or sound in the hearing of it. Of the two remaining senses, odour, which the sense of smell has received as its portion, since it is an exhalation and is engendered by heat, bears a resemblance to fire; and in sight, which flashes to its goal owing to its kinship with aether and light, there occurs a combination and coalescence of the two, which behaves as they do. The living being possesses no other sense, nor has the world any other nature single and uncombined; but a marvellous distribution and apportionment each to each has, as it seems, been made of the five to the five.”

§13. Therewith I checked myself and, after waiting a moment, said, “What ails us, Eustrophus, that we all but passed over Homer 1 as if he were not the first |231| to divide the world into five parts? For he duly assigned the three in the middle to the three gods, and the two extremes, the heaven and the earth, of which the one is the boundary of things below and the other of things above, he left to all in common, undistributed.

“‘But the discussion must be carried further back,’ as Euripides remarks. 2 For those who exalt Four teach us a lesson that is not without value, that by reason of this number all solids have come into being. For since every such solid body exists through the acquisition of depth by length and breadth, and for length must be presupposed a single point assigned to unity, and length without breadth, which is called a line, is also duality, and the movement of the line breadthwise generates a plane in the third instance, and when depth is added, through the four factors the increase progresses to a solid — it is clear to everyone that four, when it has carried Nature forward to the point of completing a solid body and producing a volume that may be felt and that is resistant, has then left Nature lacking in the most important thing of all. For the inanimate thing is, to put it simply, orphaned, incomplete, and good for nothing, unless there be an animating soul to make use of it. The impulse or dispensation that creates the soul therein, a transformation brought about through five factors in all, gives to Nature its due completeness, and is as much more potent than four as the living being differs in worth from the inanimate thing.

“Moreover, the symmetry and power of five, rather than that of any other number, has prevailed and has not permitted the animate to progress to unlimited classes of beings, but has produced five forms |233| of all living things. For there are, as we know, gods, demigods, and heroes, and after these the fourth class, man 3; and fifth and last the class of unreasoning animals.

“If you should, moreover, make divisions of the soul itself to accord with Nature, the first and least clear part of it is the nutritive, second the perceptive, then the appetitive, and, next after this, the spirited; but when it had reached the power to reason, and had completed its nature, it came to rest there at the fifth element as at the highest point. 4

1 Il. xv. 187.

2 Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Euripides, no. 970; repeated in 431 a, infra.

3 Cf. 415 b, infra.

4 Cf. 429 e, infra.

§14. “Of this number, which has so many and such great powers, the origin also is fair and lovely; not that which we have expounded, that it is composed of two and three, but that which the beginning combined with the first square produces. For the beginning of all number is one, and the first square is four 1; and from these, as though from perfected form and matter, comes five. And if certain authorities are right, who, as we know, posit one as the first square, since it is a power of itself and its product is itself, then five, the offspring of the first two squares, does not lack a surpassing nobility of lineage.

1 Cf. 429 5, infra.

§15. “But,” said I, “the most important matter I fear may embarrass our Plato when it is stated, just as he said that Anaxagoras was embarrassed by the name of the Moon, since he tried to claim as his own some very ancient opinion in regard to its illumination. Has not Plato said this in the Cratylus?” 1

“Certainly,” said Eustrophus, “but what similarity there is I do not see.” |235|

“Well, you know, of course, that in the Sophist 2 he demonstrates that the supreme first principles are five: Being, Identity, Divergence, and fourth and fifth besides these, Motion and Rest. 3 But in the Philebus 4 he employs another method of division and affirms that the Infinite is one and the Definite a second, and from the combination of these all generation arises. The cause which makes them combine he posits as a fourth class; the fifth he has left for us to surmise, by which the things combined attain once more dissociation and disengagement. I infer that these are intended to be figurative expressions corresponding to those just mentioned, generation corresponding to being, the infinite to motion, the definite to rest, the combining principle to identity, and the dissociating principle to divergence. But if these last are not the same as the others, even so, considered either in that way or in this, his division into five different classes would still hold good.

“Evidently someone anticipated Plato in comprehending this before he did, and for that reason dedicated to the god an E as a demonstration and symbol of the number of all the elements.

“Furthermore, observing that the Good displays itself under five categories 5, of which the first is moderation, the second due proportion, the third the mind, the fourth the sciences and arts and the true opinions that have to do with the soul, and the fifth any pleasure that is pure and unalloyed with pain, at |237| this point he leaves off, thus suggesting the Orphic verse. 6

Bring to an end the current of song in the sixth generation.

1 Plato, Cratylus, 409 a.

2 Plato, Sophist, 256 c.

3 Cf. 428 c, infra.

4 Plato, Philebus, 23 c.

5 Cf. ibid. 66 a-c.

6 Orphic Fragments, no. 14.

§16. “Following upon all this that has been said to you, I continued, “‘I shall sing one short verse’ 1 for Nicander and his friends, ‘men of sagacity.’ On the sixth day of the new month, namely, when the prophetic priestess is conducted down to the Prytaneum, the first of your three sortitions is for five, she casting three and you casting two, each with reference to the other. 2 Is not this actually so?”

“Yes,” said Nicander, “but the reason must not be told to others.”

“Then,” said I, smiling, “until such time as we become holy men, and God grants us to know the truth, this also shall be added to what may be said on behalf of the Five.”

Thus, as I remember, the tale of arithmetical and of mathematical laudations of E came to an end.

1 ibid. no. 334; quoted again by Plutarch in Moralia, 636 d.

2 The Greek text is at this point somewhat uncertain.

§17. Ammonius, inasmuch as he plainly held that in mathematics was contained not the least important part of philosophy, was pleased with these remarks, and said, “It is not worth while to argue too precisely over these matters with the young, except to say that every one of the numbers will provide not a little for them that wish to sing its praises. What need to speak of the others? Why, the sacred Seven of |239| Apollo will consume the whole day before the narration of all its powers is finished. Then again, we shall be branding the wise men as ‘warring with’ common custom, as well as with ‘the long years of time,’ 1 if they are to oust Seven from its place of honour and make Five sacred to the god, on the ground that it is in some way more closely related to him. I am therefore of the opinion that the significance of the letter is neither a numeral nor a place in a series nor a conjunction nor any of the subordinate parts of speech. No, it is an address and salutation to the god, complete in itself, which, by being spoken, brings him who utters it to thoughts of the god’s power. For the god addresses each one of us as we approach him here with the words ‘Know Thyself,’ 2 as a form of welcome, which certainly is in no wise of less import than ‘Hail’; and we in turn reply to him ‘Thou art,’ as rendering unto him a form of address which is truthful, free from deception, and the only one befitting him only, the assertion of Being.

1 [Cf. Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. i. p. 522, Simonides, no. 193, and Edmonds in Lyra Graeca, ii. p. 340, in L.C.L.; Plutarch refers to this also in 359 f, supra, and in his Life of Theseus, chap. x. (p. 4 f).]

2 [Cf. Plato, Charmides, 164 d-e.]

§18. “The fact is that we really have no part nor parcel in Being, 1 but everything of a mortal nature is at some stage between coming into existence and passing away 2, and presents only a dim and uncertain semblance and appearance of itself; and if you apply the whole force of your mind in your desire to apprehend it, it is like unto the violent grasping of water, which, by squeezing and compression, loses the handful enclosed, as it spurts through the fingers 3; |241| even so Reason, pursuing the exceedingly clear appearance of every one of those things that are susceptible to modification and change, is baffled by the one aspect of its coming into being, and by the other of its passing away; and thus it is unable to apprehend a single thing that is abiding or really existent.

“‘It is impossible to step twice in the same river’ are the words of Heracleitus 4, nor is it possible to lay hold twice of any mortal substance in a permanent state; by the suddenness and swiftness of the change in it there ‘comes dispersion and, at another time, a gathering together’; or, rather, not at another time nor later, but at the same instant it both settles into its place and forsakes its place; ‘it is coming and going.’

“Wherefore that which is born of it never attains unto being because of the unceasing and unstaying process of generation, which, ever bringing change, produces from the seed an embryo, then a babe, then a child, and in due course a boy, a young man, a mature man, an elderly man, an old man, causing the first generations and ages to pass away by those which succeed them. But we have a ridiculous fear of one death, we who have already died so many deaths, and still are dying! For not only is it true, as Heracleitus 5 used to say, that the death of heat is birth for steam, and the death of steam is birth for water, but the case is even more clearly to be seen in our own selves: the man in his prime passes away when the old man comes into existence, the young man passes away into the |243| man in his prime, the child into the young man, and the babe into the child. Dead is the man of yesterday, for he is passed into the man of today; and the man of today is dying as he passes into the man of tomorrow. Nobody remains one person, nor is one person; but we become many persons, even as matter is drawn about some one semblance and common mould 6 with imperceptible movement. Else how is it that, if we remain the same persons, we take delight in some things now, whereas earlier we took delight in different things; that we love or hate opposite things, and so too with our admirations and our disapprovals, and that we use other words and feel other emotions and have no longer the same personal appearance, the same external form, or the same purposes in mind? For without change it is not reasonable that a person should have different experiences and emotions; and if he changes, he is not the same person; and if he is not the same person, he has no permanent being, but changes his very nature as one personality in him succeeds to another. Our senses, through ignorance of reality, falsely tell us that what appears to be is.

1 Cf. Philo, De Iosepho, 125 (chap. xxii.).

2 Cf. Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, i. 15, Anaximander, no. 9; Plato, Phaedo, 95 Ὲ: von Arnim, Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta, ii. 594 (p. 183).

3 Cf. Moralia, 1082 a.

4 Cf. Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, i. p 96, Heracleitus, no. 91. Plutarch refers to this dictum also in Moralia, 559 c.

5 Cf. Diels, Frag. der Vorsokratiker, i. p. 93, Heracleitus, no. 76.

6 Cf. Plato, Timaeus, 50 c.

§19. “What, then, really is Being? It is that which is eternal, without beginning and without end, to which no length of time brings change. For time is something that is in motion, appearing in connexion with moving matter, ever flowing, retaining nothing, a receptacle, as it were, of birth and decay, whose familiar ‘afterwards’ and ‘before,’ ‘shall be’ and ‘has been,’ when they are uttered, are of themselves a confession of Not Being. For to speak of that which has not yet occurred in terms of Being, or to say of what has already ceased to be, that it is, is silly and absurd. And as for that on which we most rely to |245| support our conception of time, as we utter the words, ‘it is here,’ ‘it is at hand,’ and ‘now’ — all this again reason, entering in, demolishes utterly. For ‘now’ is crowded out into the future and the past, when we would look upon it as a culmination; for of necessity it suffers division. And if Nature, when it is measured, is subject to the same processes as is the agent that measures it, then there is nothing in Nature that has permanence or even existence, but all things are in the process of creation or destruction according to their relative distribution with respect to time. Wherefore it is irreverent in the case of that which is to say even that it was or shall be; for these are certain deviations, transitions, and alterations, belonging to that which by its nature has no permanence in Being.

§20. “But God is (if there be need to say so), and He exists for no fixed time, but for the everlasting ages which are immovable, timeless, and undeviating, in which there is no earlier nor later, no future nor past, no older nor younger; but He, being One, has with only one ‘Now’ completely filled ‘Forever’; and only when Being is after His pattern is it in reality Being, not having been nor about to be, nor has it had a beginning nor is it destined to come to an end. Under these conditions, therefore, we ought, as we pay Him reverence, to greet Him and to address Him with the words, ‘Thou art’; or even, I vow, as did some of the men of old, ‘Thou art One.’

“In fact the Deity is not Many, like each of us who is compounded of hundreds of different factors which arise in the course of our experience, a heterogenous collection combined in a haphazard way. But Being must have Unity, even as Unity must have Being. Now divergence from Unity, because of its differing from Being, deviates into the creation of that which has no Being. Wherefore the first of the god’s names is excellently adapted to him, and so are the second and third as well. He is Apollo, that is to say, denying the Many 1 and abjuring multiplicity; he is Ieius, as being One and One alone 2; and Phoebus, 3 as is well known, is a name that the men of old used to give to everything pure and undefiled; even as the Thessalians, to this day, I believe, when their priests, on the prohibited days, are spending their time alone by themselves outside the temples, say that the priests ‘are keeping Phoebus.’

“Unity is simple and pure. For it is by the admixture of one thing with another that contamination arises, even as Homer 4 somewhere says that some ivory which is being dyed red is being ‘contaminated,’ and dyers speak of colours that are mixed as being ‘spoiled’ 5; and they call the mixing ‘spoiling.’ 6 Therefore it is characteristic of the imperishable and pure to be one and uncombined.

1 Cf. 354 b, 381 f, and 388 f, supra.

2 Ieius is doubtless derived from ἰή, a cry used in invoking Apollo, but Plutarch would derive it from ἴα, ἰής, an epic word meaning ‘one.’

3 Cf. 388 f and 421 c, infra.

4 Homer, Il. iv. 141.

5 Cf. 436 b, infra, and Moralia 270 f.

6 Cf. Moralia, 725 c.

§21. “Those who hold that Apollo and the sun are the same 1, it is right and proper that we welcome and love for their goodness of heart in placing their concept of the god in that thing which they honour most of all the things that they know and yearn for. But, |249| as though they were now having a sleepy vision of the god amid the loveliest of dreams, let us wake them and urge them to proceed to loftier heights and to contemplate the waking vision of him, and what he truly is, but to pay honour also to this imagery of him in the sun and to revere the creative power associated with it, in so far as it is possible by what is perceived through the senses to gain an image of what is conceived in the mind, and by that which is ever in motion an image of that which moves not, an image that in some way or other transmits some gleams reflecting and mirroring his kindliness and blessedness. And as for his vagaries and transformations when he sends forth fire that sweeps his own self along with it, as they say, 2 and again when he forces it down here and directs it upon the earth and sea and winds and living creatures, and, besides, the terrible things done both to living creatures and to growing vegetation — to such tales it is irreverent even to listen; else will the god be more futile than the Poet’s fancied child 3 playing a game amid the sand that is heaped together and then scattered again by him, if the god indulges in this game with the universe constantly, fashioning the world that does not exist, and destroying it again when it has been created. For, on the contrary, so far as he is in some way present in the world, by this his presence does he bind together its substance and prevail over its corporeal weakness, which tends toward dissolution. And it seems to me right to address to the god the words ‘Thou art,’ which are most opposed to this account, and testify against it, believing that never does any vagary or transformation take place near him, but that such acts and experiences are related to some |251| other god, or rather to some demigod, whose office is concerned with Nature in dissolution and generation; and this is clear at once from the names which are, as it were, correspondingly antithetic. For the one is spoken of as Apollo (not many), the other as Pluto (abounding); the one Delian (clear), the other Aïdoneus (unseen); the one Phoebus (bright), the other Scotios (dark) 4; with the one are associated the Muses and Memory, with the other Oblivion and Silence; the one is Theorian (observing) and Phanaean (disclosing), and the other

Lord of the darkling Night and idling Sleep 5;

and he is also

Of all the gods most hateful to mortals. 6

Whereas concerning the other Pindar 7 has said not unpleasingly

And towards mortal men he hath been judged the most gentle.

It was fitting therefore for Euripides 8 to say,

Drink-offerings for the dead who are gone
And the strains that the god of the golden hair,
Apollo, will never accept as his own.

And even before him Stesichorus, 9 |253|

The harp and sport and song
Most doth Apollo love;
Sorrows and groans are Hades’ share.

And it is evident that Sophocles 10 assigns each of the instruments to each god in these words:

No harp, no lyre is welcome for laments.

“As a matter of fact it was only after a long lapse of time and only recently that the flute ventured to utter a sound ‘over things of delight,’ but during all the early time it used to be fetched in for times of mourning, and it had the task of rendering service on these occasions, not a very honourable or cheerful one. Later it came to be generally associated with everything. Especially did those who confounded the attributes of the gods with the attributes of demi-gods get themselves into confusion.

“But this much may be said: it appears that as a sort of antithesis to ‘Thou art’ stands the admonition ‘Know thyself,’ and then again it seems, in a manner, to be in accord therewith, for the one is an utterance addressed in awe and reverence to the god as existent through all eternity, the other is a reminder to mortal man of his own nature and the weaknesses that beset him.”

1 ibid. 1130 a, and 386 b, supra.

2 Cf. 389 c, supra.

3 Cf. Homer, Il. xv. 362.

4 Cf. the note on 385 b, supra.

5 Cf. Moralia, 1180 a; Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. iii. p. 719, Adespota, no. 92; or Edmonds, Lyra Graeca (in L.C.L.), iii. p. 452.

6 Homer, Il. ix. 159.

7 Pindar, Frag. 149 (ed. Christ), quoted also in 413 c, infra, and in Moralia, 1102 e.

8 Suppliants, 975.

9 Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. iii. p. 224, Stesichorus, no. 50; or Edmonds, Lyra Graeca (in L.C.L.), ii. p. 58.

10 Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag., Sophocles, no. 765.

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Plutarch of Chaeronea
(46 A.D.–died after 119 A.D.)
Plutarch was a notable Greek Platonist philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo. He is known primarily for his Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of illustrious Greeks and Romans, and Moralia, a collection of essays and speeches.


Plutarch. "On the ‘E’ at Delphi" (De E apud Delphos), Moralia, vol. 5 of 15. F. C. Babbitt, trans. Loeb Classical Library edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1936, pp. 194‑255. This text is in the public domain.