Platonic Questions
(Platonicae Quaestiones)

By Plutarch

What is the reason that God bade Socrates to act the midwife’s part to others, but charged himself not to generate; as he says in Theaetetus? 1

1 See Plato, Theaetetus p. 149 B.

§1.1 For he would never have used the name of God in such a merry, jesting manner, though Plato in that book makes Socrates several times to talk with great boasting and arrogance, as he does now. ‘There are many, dear friend, so affected towards me, that they are ready even to bite me, when I offer to cure them of the least madness. For they will not be persuaded that I do it out of goodwill, because they are ignorant that no God bears ill-will to man, and that therefore I wish ill to no man; but I cannot allow myself either to stand in a lie or to stifle the truth.’ 1 Whether therefore did he style his own nature, which was of a very strong and pregnant wit, by the name of God, — as Menander says, ‘For our mind is God,’ and as Heraclitus, ‘Man’s genius is a Deity’? Or did some divine cause or some Daemon or other impart this way of philosophizing to Socrates, whereby always interrogating others, he cleared them of pride, error, and ignorance, and of being troublesome both to themselves and to others? For about that time there happened to be in Greece several sophisters; to these some young men paid great sums of money, for which they purchased a strong |426| opinion of learning and wisdom, and of being stout disputants; but this sort of disputation spent much time in trifling squabblings, which were of no credit or profit. Now Socrates, using an argumentative discourse by way of a purgative remedy, procured belief and authority to what he said, because in refuting others he himself affirmed nothing; and he the sooner gained upon people, because he seemed rather to be inquisitive after the truth as well as they, than to maintain his own opinion.

1 Theaetetus p. 161 C.

§1.2 Now, however useful a thing judgment is, it is mightily impeached by the begetting of a man’s own fancies. For the lover is blinded with the thing loved; and nothing of a man’s own is so beloved as is the opinion and discourse which he has begotten. And the distribution of children, said to be the justest, in respect of discourses is the unjustest; for there a man must take his own, but here a man must choose the best, though it be another man’s. Therefore he that has children of his own, is a worse judge of other men’s; it being true, as the sophister said well, ‘The Eleans would be the most proper judges of the Olympic games, were no Eleans gamesters.’ So he that would judge of disputations cannot be just, if he either seeks the bays for himself, or is himself antagonist to either of the antagonists. For as the Grecian captains, when they were to decide by their suffrages who had behaved himself the best, every man of them voted for himself; so there is not a philosopher of them all but would do the like, besides those that acknowledge, like Socrates, that they can say nothing that is their own; and these only are the pure uncorrupt judges of the truth. For as the air in the ears, unless it be still and void of noise in itself, with out any sound or buzzing, does not exactly take sounds; so the philosophical judgment in disputations, if it be disturbed and obstreperous within, is hardly comprehensive of what is said without. For our familiar and inbred |427| opinion will not admit that which is at variance with itself, as the number of sects and parties proves, of which philosophy — if she deals with them in the best manner — must hold one to be right, and all the others to be at war with the truth in their opinions.

§1.3 Furthermore, if men can comprehend and know nothing, God did justly interdict Socrates the procreation of false and unstable discourses, which are like wind-eggs, and bid him convince others who were of any other opinion. And reasoning, which rids us of the greatest of evils, error and vanity of mind, is none of the least benefit to us; ‘For God has not granted this to the Esculapians.’ 3 Nor did Socrates give physic to the body; indeed he purged the mind of secret corruption. But if there be any knowledge of the truth, and if the truth be one, he has as much that learns it of him that invented it, as the inventor himself. Now he the most easily attains the truth, that is persuaded he has it not; and he chooses best, just as he that has no children of his own adopts the best. Mark this well, that poetry, mathematics, oratory, and sophistry, which are the things the Deity forbade Socrates to generate, are of no value; and that of the sole wisdom about what is divine and intelligible (which Socrates called amiable and eligible for itself), there is neither generation nor invention by man, but reminiscence. Wherefore Socrates taught nothing, but suggesting principles of doubt, as birth-pains, to young men, he excited and at the same time confirmed the innate notions. This he called his Art of Midwifery, which did not (as others professed) extrinsically confer intelligence upon his auditors; but demonstrated it to be innate, yet imperfect and confused, and in want of a nurse to feed and strengthen it. |428|

1 Theognis, vs. 482.

Why does he call the Supreme God Father and Maker of all things? 1

1 Plato, Timaeus, p. 28 C.

§2.1 Is it because he is (as Homer calls him) of created Gods and men the Father, and of brutes and things that have no soul the maker? If Chrysippus may be credited, he is not properly styled the father of the afterbirth who supplied the seed, although it springs from the seed. Or has he figuratively called the maker of the world the father of it? In his Convivium he calls Phaedrus the father of the amatorious discourse which he had introduced; and so in his Phaedrus 1 he calls him ‘father of noble children,’ when he had been the occasion of many excellent discourses about philosophical matters. Or is there any difference between a father and a maker? Or between procreation and making? For as what is procreated is also made, but not the contrary; so he that procreated did also make, for the procreation of an animal is the making of it. Now the work of a maker — as of a builder, a weaver, a musical-instrument maker, or a statuary — is altogether distinct and separate from its author; but the principle and power of the procreator is implanted in the progeny, and contains his nature, the progeny being a piece pulled off the procreator. Since therefore the world is neither like a piece of potter’s work nor joiner’s work, but there is a great share of life and divinity in it, which God from himself communicated to and mixed with matter, God may properly be called Father of the world — since it has life in it — and also the maker of it.

1 Phaedrus, p. 261 A.

§2.2 And since these things come very near to Plato’s opinion, consider, I pray, whether there may not be some |429| probability in them. Whereas the world consists of two parts, body and soul, God indeed made not the body; but matter being provided, he formed and fitted it, binding up and confining what was infinite within proper limits and figures. But the soul, partaking of mind, reason, and harmony, was not only the work of God, but part of him; not only made by him, but begot by him.

§3.0 In the Republic, 1 he supposes the universe, as one line, to be cut into two unequal sections; again he cuts each of these sections in two after the same proportion, and supposes the two sections first made to constitute the two genera of things sensible and things intelligible in the universe. The first represents the genus of intelligibles, comprehending in the first subdivision the primitive forms or ideas, in the second the mathematics. Of sensibles, the first subdivision comprehends solid bodies, the second comprehends the images and representations of them. Moreover, to every one of these four he has assigned its proper judicatory faculty; — to the first, reason; to the mathematics, the understanding; to sensibles, belief; to images and likenesses, conjecture.

But what does he mean by dividing the universe into unequal parts? And which of the sections, the Intelligible or the Sensible, is the greater? For in this he has not explained himself.

1 Republic, vi. pp. 509 D-511 E.

§3.1 At first sight it will appear that the sensible is the greater portion. For the essence of intelligibles being indivisible, and in the same respect ever the same, is contracted into a little, and pure; but an essence divisible and pervading bodies constitutes the sensible part. Now what |430| is immaterial is limited; but body in respect of matter is infinite and unlimited, and it becomes sensible only when it is defined by partaking of the intelligible. Besides, as every sensible has many images, shadows, and representations, and from one and the same original several copies may be taken both by nature and art; so the latter must needs exceed the former in number, according to Plato, who makes things intelligible to be patterns or ideas of things sensible, like the originals of images and reflections. Further, Plato derives the knowledge of ideas from body by abstraction and cutting away, leading us by various steps in mathematical discipline from arithmetic to geometry, thence to astronomy, and setting harmony above them all. For things become geometrical by the accession of magnitude to quantity; solid, by the accession of profundity to magnitude; astronomical, by the accession of motion to solidity; harmonical, by the accession of sound to motion. Abstract then sound from moving bodies, motion from solids, profundity from superficies, magnitude from quantity, we are then come to pure intelligible ideas, which have no distinction among themselves in respect of the one single intelligible essence. For unity makes no number, unless joined by the infinite binary; then it makes a number. And thence we proceed to points, thence to lines, from them to superficies, and profundities, and bodies, and to the qualities of the bodies so and so qualified. Now the reason is the only judicatory faculty of intelligibles; and the understanding is the reason in the mathematics, where intelligibles appear as by reflection in mirrors. But as to the knowledge of bodies, because of their multitude, Nature has given us five powers or distinctions of senses; nor are all bodies discerned by them, many escaping sense by reason of their smallness. And though every one of us consists of a body and soul, yet the hegemonic and intellectual faculty is small, being hid |431| in the huge mass of flesh. And the case is the same in the universe, as to sensible and intelligible. For intelligibles are the principles of bodily things, but every thing is greater than the principle whence it came.

§3.2 Yet, on the contrary, some will say that, by comparing sensibles with intelligibles, we match things mortal with divine, in some measure; for God is in intelligibles. Besides, the thing contained is ever less than the containing, and the nature of the universe contains the sensible in the intelligible. For God, having placed the soul in the middle, hath extended it through all, and hath covered it all round with bodies. The soul is invisible, and cannot be perceived by any of the senses, as Plato says in his Book of Laws; therefore every man must die, but the world shall never die. For mortality and dissolution surround every one of our vital faculties. The case is quite otherwise in the world; for the corporeal part, contained in the middle by the more noble and unalterable principle, is ever preserved. And a body is said to be without parts and indivisible for its minuteness; but what is incorporeal and intelligible is so, as being simple and sincere, and void of all firmness and difference. Besides, it were folly to think to judge of incorporeal things by corporeal. The present, or now, is said to be without parts and indivisible, since it is everywhere and no part of the world is void of it. But all affections and actions, and all corruptions and generations in the world, are contained by this now. But the mind is judge only of what is intelligible, as the sight is of light, by reason of its simplicity and similitude. But bodies, having several differences and diversities, are comprehended, some by one judicatory faculty, others by another, as by several organs. Yet they do not well who despise the intelligible and intelligent faculty in us; for being great, it comprehends all sensibles, and attains to things divine. The most important thing he himself |432| teaches in his Banquet, where he shows us how we should use amatorious matters, turning our minds from sensible goods to things discernible only by the reason, that we ought not to be enslaved by the beauty of any body, study, or learning, but laying aside such pusillanimity, should turn to the vast ocean of beauty. 1

1 See Plato’s Symposium, p. 210 D.

§4.0 What is the reason that, though Plato always says that the soul is ancienter than the body, and that it is the cause and principle of its rise, yet he likewise says, that neither could the soul exist without the body, nor the reason without the soul, but the soul in the body and the reason in the soul? for so the body will seem to be and not to be, because it both exists with the soul, and is begot by the soul.

§4.1 Perhaps what we have often said is true; viz., that the soul without reason and the body without form did mutually ever coexist, and neither of them had generation or beginning. But after the soul did partake of reason and harmony, and being through consent made wise, it wrought a change in matter, and being stronger than the other’s motions, it drew and converted these motions to itself. So the body of the world drew its original from the soul, and became conformable and like to it. For the soul did not make the Nature of the body out of itself, or out of nothing; but it wrought an orderly and pliable body out of one disorderly and formless. Just as if a man should say that the virtue of the seed is with the body, and yet that the body of the fig-tree or olive-tree was made of the seed, he would not be much out; for the body, its innate motion and mutation proceeding from the seed, grew up and became what it is. So, when formless and indefinite matter was once formed by the inbeing soul, it received such a form and disposition. |433|

§5.0 Why, since bodies and figures are contained partly by rectilinears and partly by circles, does he make isosceles triangles and triangles of unequal sides the principles of rectilinears; of which the isosceles triangle forms the cube, the element of the earth; and a scalene triangle forms the pyramid which is the seed of fire, the octahedron which is the seed of air, and the icosahedron which is the seed of water; — while he does not meddle with circulars, though he does mention the globe, where he says that each of the afore-reckoned figures divides a round body that encloses it into equal parts. 1

1 See Timaeus, pp. 53-56.

§5.1 Is their opinion true who think that he ascribed a dodecahedron to the globe, when he says that God made use of it in delineating the universe? For upon account of the multitude of its bases and the obtuseness of its angles, avoiding all rectitude, it is flexible, and by circumtension, like globes made of twelve skins, it becomes circular and comprehensive. For it has twenty solid angles, each of which is contained by three obtuse planes, and each of these contains one and the fifth part of a right angle. Now it is made up of twelve equilateral and equangular quinquangles (or pentagons), each of which consists of thirty of the first scalene triangles. Therefore it seems to resemble both the Zodiac and the year, it being divided into the same number of parts as these.

§5.2 Or is a right line in Nature prior to circumference; or is circumference but an accident of rectilinear? For a right line is said to bend; and a circle is described by a centre and distance, which is the place of a right line by which a circumference is measured, this being everywhere equally distant from the middle. And a cone and a cylinder are made by rectilinears; a cone by keeping one side of a triangle fixed and carrying another round with the |434| base, — a cylinder, by doing the like with a parallelogram. Further, that is nearest to principle which is less; but a right is the least of all lines, as it is simple; whereas in a circumference one part is convex without, another concave within. Besides, numbers are before figures, as unity is before a point, which is unity in position. But indeed unity is triangular; for every triangular number 1 taken eight times, by adding unity, becomes quadrate; and this happens to unity. Therefore a triangle is before a circle, whence a right line is before a circumference. Besides, no element is divided into things compounded of itself; indeed there is a dissolution of all other things into the elements. Now a triangle is divided into no circumference, but two diameters cut a circle into four triangles; therefore a rectilinear figure is before a circular, and has more of the nature of an element. And Plato himself shows that a rectilinear is in the first place, and a circular is only consequential and accidental. For when he says the earth consists of cubes, each of which is contained with rectilinear superficies, he says the earth is spherical and round. Therefore there was no need of making a peculiar element for round things, since rectilinears, fitted after a certain manner among themselves, do make up this figure.

1 Triangular numbers are those of which equilateral triangles can be formed in this way: — Such are 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36, 45, etc.; that is, numbers formed by adding the digits in regular order. (Goodwin.)

§5.3 Besides, a right line, whether great or little, preserves the same rectitude; but as to the circumference of a circle, the less it is, the crookeder it is; the larger, the straighter. Therefore if a convex superficies stands on a plane, it sometimes touches the subject plane in a point, sometimes in a line. So that a man may imagine that a circumference is made up of little right lines.

§5.4 But observe whether this be not true, that no circle |435| or sphere in this world is exact; but since by the tension and circumtension of the right lines, or by the minuteness of the parts, the difference disappears, the figure seems circular and round. Therefore no corruptible body moves circularly, but altogether in a right line. To be truly spherical is not in a sensible body, but is the element of the soul and mind, to which he has given circular motion, as being agreeable to their nature.

§6.0 How comes it to pass that in Phaedrus it is said, that the nature of a wing, by which any thing that is heavy is carried upwards, participates most of the body of God? 1

1 See Phaedrus, p. 246 D.

§6.1 Is it because the discourse is of love, and love is of beauty inherent in a body? Now beauty, by similitude to things divine, moves and reminds the soul. Or it may be (without too much curiosity) he may be understood in plain meaning, to wit, that the several faculties of the soul being employed about bodies, the power of reasoning and understanding partakes most about divine and heavenly things; which he did not impertinently call a wing, it raising the soul from mean and mortal things to things above.

§7.0 In what sense does Plato say, that the antiperistasis (or reaction) of motion—by reason there is no vacuum — is the cause of the effects in physicians’ cupping-glasses, in swallowing, in throwing of weights, in the running of water, in thunder, in the attraction of the loadstone, and in the harmony of sounds? 1

1 See Timaeus, pp. 79-81.

§7.1 For it seems unreasonable to ascribe the reason of such different effects to the selfsame cause.

§7.2 How respiration is made by the reaction of the air, |436| he has sufficiently shown. But the rest, he says, seem to be done miraculously, but really the bodies thrust each other aside and change places with one another; while he has left for us to determine how each is particularly done.

§7.3 As to cupping-glasses, the case is thus: the air next to the flesh being comprehended and inflamed by the heat, and being made more rare than the pores of the brass, does not go into a vacuum (for there is no such thing), but into the air that is without the cupping-glass, and has an impulse upon it. This air drives that before it; and each, as it gives way, strives to succeed into the place which was vacuated by the cession of the first. And so the air approaching the flesh comprehended by the cupping-glass, and exciting it, draws the humors into the cupping-glass.

§7.4 Swallowing takes place in the same way. For the cavities about the mouth and stomach are full of air; when therefore the meat is squeezed down by the tongue and tonsils, the elided air follows what gives way, and also forces down the meat.

§7.5 Weights also thrown cleave the air and dissipate it, as they fall with force; the air recoiling back, according to its natural tendency to rush in and fill the vacuity, follows the impulse, and accelerates the motion.

§7.6 The fall also of thunderbolts is like to darting any thing. For by the blow in the cloud, the fiery matter exploded breaks into the air; and it being broken gives way, and again being contracted above, by main force it presses the thunderbolt downwards contrary to Nature.

§7.7 And neither amber nor the loadstone draws any thing to it which is near, nor does any thing spontaneously approach them. But this stone emits strong exhalations, by which the adjoining air being impelled forceth that which is before it; and this being carried round in the circle, and returning into the vacuated place, forcibly draws the iron in the same direction. In amber there is a flammeous and |437| spirituous nature, and this by rubbing on the surface is emitted by recluse passages, and does the same that the loadstone does. It also draws the lightest and driest of adjacent bodies, by reason of their tenuity and weakness; for it is not so strong nor so endued with weight and strength as to force much air and to act with violence and to have power over great bodies, as the magnet has. But what is the reason the air never draws a stone, nor wood, but iron only, to the loadstone? This is a common question both by them who think the coition of these bodies is made by the attraction of the loadstone, and by such as think it done by the incitement of the iron. Iron is neither so rare as wood, nor altogether so solid as gold or a stone; but has certain pores and asperities, which in regard of the inequality are proportionable to the air; and the air being received in certain seats, and having (as it were) certain stays to cling to, does not slip away; but when it is carried up to the stone and strikes against it, it draws the iron by force along with it to the stone. Such then may be the reason of this.

§7.8 But the manner of the waters running over the earth is not so evident. But it is observable that the waters of lakes and ponds stand immovable, because the air about them stagnates immovable and admits of no vacuity. For the water on the surface of lakes and seas is troubled and fluctuates as the air is moved, it following the motion of the air, and moving as it is moved. For the force from below causes the hollowness of the wave, and from above the swelling thereof; until the air ambient and containing the water is still. Therefore the flux of such waters as follow the motion of the retreating air, and are impelled by that which presses behind, is continued without end. And this is the reason that the stream increases with the waters, and is slow where the water is weak, the air not giving way, and therefore suffering less reaction. So the |438| water of fountains must needs flow upwards, the extrinsic air succeeding into the vacuity and throwing the water out. In a close house, that keeps in the air and wind, the floor sprinkled with water causes an air or wind, because, as the sprinkled water falls, the air gives way. For it is so provided by Nature that air and water force one another and give way to one another; because there is no vacuity in which one can be settled without feeling the change and alteration in the other.

§7.9 Concerning symphony, he shows how sounds harmonize. A quick sound is acute, a slow is grave. Therefore acute sounds move the senses the quicker; and these dying and grave sounds supervening, what arises from the contemperation of one with the other causes pleasure to the ear, which we call harmony. And by what has been said, it may easily be understood that air is the instrument of these things. For sound is the stroke upon the sense of the hearer, caused by the air; and the air strikes as it is struck by the thing moving, — if violent, acutely, — if languid, softly. The violent stroke comes quick to the ear; then the circumambient air receiving a slower, it affects and carries the sense along with it.

§8.0 What means Timaeus, 1 when he says that souls are dispersed in to the earth, the moon, and into other instruments of time?

1 See Timaeus, p. 42 D.

§8.1 Does the earth move like the sun, moon, and five planets, which for their motions he calls organs or instruments of time? Or is the earth fixed to the axis of the universe; yet not so built as to remain immovable, but to turn and wheel about, as Aristarchus and Seleucus have |439| shown since; Aristarchus only supposing it, Seleucus positively asserting it? Theophrastus writes how that Plato, when he grew old, repented him that he had placed the earth in the middle of the universe, which was not its place.

§8.2 Or is this contradictory to Plato’s opinion elsewhere, and in the Greek instead of χρόνου should it be written χρόνῳ, taking the dative case instead of the genitive, so that the stars will not be said to be instruments, but the bodies of animals So Aristotle has defined the soul to be ‘the actual being of a natural organic body, having the power of life.’ 1 The sense then must be this, that souls are dispersed into meet organical bodies in time. But this is far besides his opinion. For it is not once, but several times, that he calls the stars instruments of time; as when he says, the sun was made, as well as other planets, for the distinction and conservation of the numbers of time.

1 See Aristotle On the Soul, ii. 1, with Trendelenburg’s note. (Goodwin.)

§8.3 It is therefore most proper to understand the earth to be here an instrument of time; not that the earth is moved, as the stars are; but that, they being carried about it, it standing still makes sunset and sunrising, by which the first measures of time, nights and days, are circumscribed. Wherefore he called it the infallible guard and artificer of night and day. For the gnomons of dials are instruments and measures of time, not in being moved with the shadows, but in standing still; they being like the earth in intercepting the light of the sun when it is down, — as Empedocles says that the earth makes night by intercepting light. This therefore may be Plato’s meaning.

§8.4 And so much the rather might we consider whether the sun is not absurdly and without probability said to be made for the distinction of time, with the moon and the rest of the planets. For as in other respects the dignity |440| of the sun is great; so by Plato in his Republic 1 the sun is called the king and lord of the whole sensible nature, as the Chief Good is of the intelligible. For it is said to be the offspring of Good, it giving both generation and appearance to things visible; as it is from Good that things intelligible both are and are understood. But that this God, having such a nature and so great power, should be only an instrument of time, and a sure measure of the difference that happens among the eight orbs, as they are slow or swift in motion, seems neither decent nor highly rational. It must therefore be said to such as are startled at these things, that it is their ignorance to think that time is the measure of motion in respect of sooner or later, as Aristotle calls it; or quantity in motion, as Speusippus; or an interval of motion and nothing more, as some of the Stoics define it, by an accident, not comprehending its essence and power, which Pindar has not ineptly expressed in these words: Time, who surpasses all in the seats of the blest. Pythagoras also, when he was asked what time was, answered, it was the soul of this world. For time is no affection or accident of motion, but the cause, power, and principle of that symmetry and order that confines all created beings, by which the animated nature of the universe is moved. Or rather, this order and symmetry itself — so far as it is motion—is called time. For this,

Walking by still and silent ways,
Mortal affairs with justice guides. 2

According to the ancients, the essence of the soul is a number moving itself. Therefore Plato says that time and heaven were coexistent, but that motion was before heaven had being. But time was not. For then there neither was order, nor measure, nor determination; but indefinite motion, as it were, the formless and rude matter of time. |441| … But when matter was informed with figures, and motion with circuitions, from that came the world, from this time. Both are representations of God; the world, of his essence; time, of his eternity in the form of motion, as the world is God in creation. Therefore they say heaven and motion, being bred together, will perish together, if ever they do perish. For nothing is generated without time, nor is any thing intelligible without eternity; if this is to endure for ever, and that never to die when once bred. Time therefore, having a necessary connection and affinity with heaven, cannot be called simple motion, but (as it were) motion in order having terms and periods; whereof since the sun is prefect and overseer, to determine, moderate, produce, and observe changes and seasons, which (according to Heraclitus) produce all things, he is coadjutor to the governing and chief God, not in trivial things, but in the greatest and most momentous affairs.

1 Plato, Republic, vi. pp. 508, 509.

2 Euripides, Troad. 887.

§9.0 Since Plato in his Commonwealth, discoursing of the faculties of the soul, has very well compared the symphony of reason and of the irascible and the concupiscent faculties to the harmony of the middle, lowest, and highest chord, 1 some men may properly ask this question:—

Did Plato place the rational or the irascible faculty in the middle? For he is not clear in the point.

1 See Republic, iv. p. 443 D.

§9.1 Indeed, according to the natural order of the parts, the place of the irascible faculty must be in the middle, and of the rational in the highest, which the Greeks call hypate. For they of old called the chief and supreme ὕπατος. So Xenocrates calls Jove, in respect of immutable things, ὕπατος (or highest), in respect of sublunary things |442] νε:´ατος (or lowest.) And long before him, Homer calls the chief God ὕπατος κρειόντων, Highest of Rulers. And Nature has of due given the highest place to what is most excellent, having placed reason as a steersman in the head, and the concupiscent faculty at a distance, last of all and lowest. And the lowest place they call νεάτη, as the names of the dead, νέρτεροι and ἔνεροι, do show. And some say, that the south wind, inasmuch as it blows from a low and obscure place, is called νότος. Now since the concupiscent faculty stands in the same opposition to reason in which the lowest stands to the highest and the last to the first, it is not possible for the reason to be uppermost and first, and yet for any other part to be the one called ὕπατος (or highest). For they that ascribe the power of the middle to it, as the ruling power, are ignorant how they deprive it of a higher power, namely, of the highest, which is competible neither to the irascible nor to the concupiscent faculty; since it is the nature of them both to be governed by and obsequious to reason, and the nature of neither of them to govern and lead it. And the most natural place of the irascible faculty seems to be in the middle of the other two. For it is the nature of reason to govern, and of the irascible faculty both to govern and be governed, since it is obsequious to reason, and commands the concupiscent faculty when this is disobedient to reason. And as in letters the semi-vowels are middling between mutes and vowels, having something more than those and less than these; so in the soul of man, the irascible faculty is not purely passive, but hath often an imagination of good mixed with the irrational appetite of revenge. Plato himself, after he had compared the soul to a pair of horses and a charioteer, likened (as every one knows) the rational faculty to the charioteer, and the concupiscent to one of the horses, which was resty and unmanageable altogether, bristly about the ears, deaf and disobedient both to whip |443| and spur; and the irascible he makes for the most part very obsequious to the bridle of reason, and assistant to it. As therefore in a chariot, the middling one in virtue and power is not the charioteer, but that one of the horses which is worse than his guider and yet better than his fellow; so in the soul, Plato gives the middle place not to the principal part, but to that faculty which has less of reason than the principal part and more than the third. This order also observes the analogy of the symphonies, i.e. the relation of the irascible to the rational (which is placed as hypate) forming the diatessaron (or fourth), that of the irascible to the concupiscent (or nete) forming the diapente (or fifth), and that of the rational to the concupiscent (as hypate to nete) forming an octave or diapason. But should you place the rational in the middle, you would make the irascible farther from the concupiscent; though some of the philosophers have taken the irascible and the concupiscent faculty for the selfsame, by reason of their likeness.

§9.2 But it may be ridiculous to describe the first, middle, and last by their place; since we see hypate highest in the harp, lowest in the pipe; and wheresoever you place the mese in the harp, provided it is tunable, it sounds more acute than hypate, and more grave than nete. Nor does the eye possess the same place in all animals; but whereever it is placed, it is natural for it to see. So a pedagogue, though he goes not foremost but follows behind, is said to lead (ἄγειν), as the general of the Trojan army,

Now in the front, now in the rear was seen,
And kept command; 1

but wherever he was, he was first and chief in power. So the faculties of the soul are not to be ranged by mere force in order of place or name, but according to their |444| power and analogy. For that in the body of man reason is in the highest place, is accidental. But it holds the chief and highest power, as mese to hypate, in respect of the concupiscent; as mese to nete, in respect of the irascible; insomuch as it depresses and heightens, — and in fine makes a harmony, — by abating what is too much and by not suffering them to flatten and grow dull. For what is moderate and symmetrous is defined by mediocrity. Still more is it the object of the rational faculty to reduce the passions to moderation, which is called sacred, as effecting a harmony of the extremes with reason, and through reason with each other. For in chariots the best of the beasts is not in the middle; nor is the skill of driving to be placed as an extreme, but it is a mediocrity between the inequality of the swiftness and the slowness of the horses. So the force of reason takes up the passions irrationally moved, and reducing them to measure, constitutes a mediocrity betwixt too much and too little.

1 Il. xi. 64.

§10.0 Why said Plato, that speech was composed of nouns and verbs? 1

1 Plato’s Sophist, p. 262 A.

§10.1 For he seems to make no other parts of speech but them. But Homer in a sportive humor has comprehended them all in one verse:

αὐτὸς ἰὼν κλισίηνδε τὸ σὸν γέρας, ὄφρ᾽ εὖ εἰδῇς 1

For in it there is pronoun, participle, noun, preposition, article, conjunction, adverb, and verb, the particle -δε being put instead of the preposition εἰς; for κλισίηνδε, to the tent, is said in the same sense as ᾿Αθηνάζε to Athens. What then shall we say for Plato?

|445| Is it that at first the ancients called that λόγος, or speech, which once was called protasis and now is called axiom or proposition, — which as soon as a man speaks, he speaks either true or false? This consists of a noun and verb, which logicians call the subject and predicate. For when we hear this said, ‘Socrates philosophizeth’ or ‘Socrates is changed,’ requiring nothing more, we say the one is true, the other false. For very likely in the beginning men wanted speech and articulate voice, to enable them to express clearly at once the passions and the patients, the actions and the agents. Now, since actions and affections are sufficiently expressed by verbs, and they that act and are affected by nouns, as he says, these seem to signify. And one may say, the rest signify not. For instance, the groans and shrieks of stage-players, and even their smiles and reticence, make their discourse more emphatic. But they have no necessary power to signify anything, as a noun and verb have, but only an ascititious power to vary speech; just as they vary letters who mark spirits and quantities upon letters, these being the accidents and differences of letters. This the ancients have made manifest, whom sixteen letters sufficed to speak and write anything.

1 Il. i. 185.

§10.2 Besides, we must not neglect to observe, that Plato says that speech is composed of these, not by these; nor must we blame Plato for leaving out conjunctions, prepositions, and the like, any more than we should cavil at a man who should say such a medicine is composed of wax and galbanum, because fire and utensils are omitted, without which it cannot be made. For speech is not composed of these; yet by their means, and not without them, speech must be composed. As, if a man pronounce beats or is beaten, and put Socrates and Pythagoras to the same, he offers us something to conceive and understand. But if a man pronounce indeed or for or about, and no more, |446| none can conceive any notion of a body or matter; and unless such words as these be uttered with verbs and nouns, they are but empty noise and chattering. For neither alone nor joined one with another do they signify any thing. And join and confound together conjunctions, articles, and prepositions, supposing you would make something of them; yet you will be taken to babble, and not to speak sense. But when there is a verb in construction with a noun, the result is speech and sense. Therefore some do with good reason make only these two parts of speech; and perhaps Homer is willing to declare himself of this mind, when he says so often,

᾿επος τ᾽ ἔφατ᾽ ἔκ τ᾽ ὀνόμαζεν.

For by ἔπος he usually means a verb, as in these verses.

῏ωγύναι, ἢ μάλα τοῦτο ἔπος θυμαλγὲς ἔειπες,


χαῖρε, πάτερ, ὦ ξεῖνε, ἔπος δ᾽ εἴπερ τι λέλεκται
δεινὸν, ἄφαρ τὸ φέροιεν ἀναρπάξασαι ἄελλαι. 1

For neither conjunction, article, nor preposition could be called δεινόν (terrible) or θυμαλγές (soul-grieving), but only a verb expressing a base action or a foolish passion of the mind. Therefore, when we would praise or dispraise poets or writers, we are wont to say, such a man uses Attic nouns and good verbs, or else common nouns and verbs; but none can say that Thucydides or Euripides used Attic or good or common articles.

1 Odyss. xxiii. 183; viii. 408.

§10.3 What then? may some say, do the rest of the parts conduce nothing to speech? I answer, They conduce, as salt does to victuals, or water to barley cakes. And Euenus calls fire the best sauce. Though sometimes there is neither occasion for fire to boil, nor for salt to season our food, which we have always occasion for. Nor has speech always occasion for articles. I think I may say |447| this of the Latin tongue, which is now the universal language; for it has taken away all prepositions, saving a few, nor does it use any articles, but leaves its nouns (as it were) without skirts and borders. Nor is it any wonder, since Homer, who in fineness of epic surpasses all men, has put articles only to a few nouns, like handles to cans, or crests to helmets. Therefore these verses are remarkable wherein the articles are expressed:

αἴαντι δὲ μάλιστα δαΐφρονι θυμὸν ὄρινε
τῷ τελαμωνιάδῃ: 1


ποίεον ὄφρα τὸ κῆτος ὑπεκπροφυγὼν ἀλέαιτο 2

and some few besides. But in a thousand others, the omission of the articles hinders neither perspicuity nor elegance of phrase.

1 Il. xiv. 459.

2 Il. xx. 147.

§10.4 Now neither an animal nor an instrument nor arms nor any thing else is more fine, efficacious, or graceful, for the loss of a part. Yet speech, by taking away conjunctions, often becomes more persuasive, as here:

One rear’d a dagger at a captive’s breast;
One held a living foe, that freshly bled
With new-made wounds; another dragg’d a dead. 1

And this of Demosthenes:

‘A bully in an assault may do much which his victim cannot even describe to another person, — by his mien, his look, his voice, — when he stings by insult, when he attacks as an avowed enemy, when he smites with his fist, when he gives a blow on the face. These rouse a man; these make a man beside himself who is unused to such foul abuse.’

And again:

‘Not so with Midias; but from the very day, he talks, he abuses, he shouts. Is there an election of magistrates? |448| Midias the Anagyrrasian is nominated. He is the advocate of Plutarchus; he knows state secrets; the city cannot contain him.’ 2

Therefore the figure asyndeton, whereby conjunctions are omitted, is highly commended by writers of rhetoric. But such as keep overstrict to the law, and (according to custom) omit not a conjunction, rhetoricians blame for using a dull, flat, tedious style, without any variety in it. And inasmuch as logicians mightily want conjunctions for the joining together their axioms, as much as charioteers want yokes, and Ulysses wanted withs to tie Cyclop’s sheep; this shows they are not parts of speech, but a conjunctive instrument thereof, as the word conjunction imports. Nor do conjunctions join all, but only such as are not spoken simply; unless you will make a cord part of the burthen, glue a part of a book, or distribution of money part of the government. For Demades says, that money which is given to the people out of the exchequer for public shows is the glue of a democracy. Now what conjunction does so of several propositions make one, by knitting and joining them together, as marble joins iron that is melted with it in the fire Yet the marble neither is nor is said to be part of the iron; although in this case the substances enter into the mixture and are melted together, so as to form a common substance from many and to be mutually affected. But there be some who think that conjunctions do not make any thing one, but that this kind of discourse is merely an enumeration, as when magistrates or days are reckoned in order.

1 Il. xviii. 536.

2 Demosthenes Against Midias, p. 537, 25, and p. 578, 29.

§10.5 Moreover, as to the other parts of speech, a pronoun is manifestly a sort of noun; not only because it has cases like the noun, but because some pronouns, when they are applied to objects heretofore defined, by their mere utterance give the most distinct and proper designation of them. |449| Nor do I know whether he that says Socrates or he that says this one does more by name declare the person.

§10.6 The thing we call a participle, being a mixture of a verb and noun, is nothing of itself, as are not the common names of male and female qualities (i.e. adjectives), but in construction it is put with others, in regard of tenses belonging to verbs, in regard of cases to nouns. Logicians call them ἀνάκλ ιστοι, (i.e. reflected), — as φρονῶν comes from φρόνιμος and σωφρονῶν from σώφρονος, — having the force both of nouns and appellatives.

§10.7 And prepositions are like to the crests of a helmet, or footstools and pedestals, which (one may rather say) do belong to words than are words themselves. See whether they rather be not pieces and scraps of words, as they that are in haste write but dashes and pricks for letters. For it is plain that ἐμβῆναι and ἐκβῆναι are abbreviations of the whole words ἐντὸς βῆναι and ἐκτὸς βῆναι, προγενέσθαι for πρότερον γενέσθαι, and καθίζειν for κάτω ἵζειν. As undoubtedly for haste and brevity’s sake, instead of λίθους βάλλειν and τοίχους ὀρύττειν men first said λιθοβολεῖν and τοιχωρυχεῖν.

§10.8 Therefore every one of these is of some use in speech; but nothing is a part or element of speech (as has been said) except a noun and a verb, which make the first juncture admitting of truth or falsehood, which some call a proposition or protasis, others an axiom, and which Plato called speech.

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Plutarch of Chaeronea
(46 A.D.–died after 119 A.D.)
A notable Greek Platonist philosopher, Plutarch was also an 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. “Platonic Questions,” Plutarch’s Morals. Translated from the Greek by several hands. Corrected and revised by William W. Goodwin, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1874. vol. 5, pp. 425-449. This text is in the public domain.