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Plutarch’s Insightful Warfare Worldview

Hello blogging community. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and will enjoy a happy new year.

As I mentioned in my previous post, in my opinion, Plutarch (late first and early second century) was the second most influential non-Christian philosopher on early Christian thinking about God, providence and evil (the first being Philo). What’s interesting is that Plutarch embodies a paradox we find increasingly present in the early church fathers. More specifically, Plutarch combines a thoroughly worked out “warfare worldview” with a thoroughly platonic view of God as non-sequential and utterly changeless. This view of God, I argue, stands in tension with his warfare worldview. In this post I’ll briefly flesh out Plutarch’s warfare worldview, and in a later post I’ll flesh out his non-sequential and changeless view of God.

Plutarch repeatedly insists that God (and other lesser good gods aligned with him) cannot be the source of evil. (e.g. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris, 369B; 377A: for full bibliography of the sources cited, see below). There must therefore be “in nature” some other source of evil. Plutarch’s reasoning is quite straight forward:

“[I]f it is the law of Nature that nothing comes into being without a cause, and if the good cannot provide a cause for evil, then it follows that Nature must have in herself the source and origin of evil, just as she contains the source and origin of good.” (ibid., 369D).

Plutarch claims that he agrees with “[t]he great majority and the wisest of men” when he concludes that the duality of good and evil observable in creation implies “that there are two gods, rivals as it were, the one the Artificer of good and the other of evil.” The two gods are not equal in strength, for the first alone is truly “God” while the second is merely a demi-god or divine being  (in Greek, “daemon“) (ibid., 369D-E). These two beings, as well as other good and evil divinities (daemones) “are constantly at war with each other…” (ibid., 369F). [It’s important to note that daemon [translated “god,” “demi-god” or “divinity”] in Greek didn’t necessarily refer to an evil demon].

According to Plutarch, all the evils in nature and in society are the result of the activity of the evil demi-gods. He claims, for example, that “powerful and impetuous divinities (iskuroi kai biaioi daimones)…bring pestilences and failures of crops upon States and stir up wars and civil discords, until they succeed in obtaining what they desire” (The Obsolescence of Oracles. 417D-E). Indeed, “everything harmful and destructive that Nature contains…is to be set down as a part of Typhon” (Typhon is here the mythic symbol of the evil god, Isis, 369 A). So too, Typhon and evil demi-gods are understood to be the “destructive force” (ibid., 373D) that is “the power of the drought” and “famine” (ibid., 366C) as well as earthquakes and pestilence (ibid., 373D; 370B; 371 B-C’; 372A).

We see that the very fabric of nature is characterized by cosmic warfare, according to Plutarch, which explains why the world as we find it manifests both remarkable goodness as well as horrifying evil. In holding this view Plutarch is very much in accord with the New Testament in which Satan is viewed as controlling the entire world (I Jn. 5:19) and as the “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), the “ruler [archon] of the world” (Jn 12:32; 14:31; 16:11) and the “principality and power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Plutarch’s views are also in accord with the thinking of the earliest church fathers (e.g. Justin, Athenagoras, Tatian, Origen) who never attribute evil events to God but instead place all the blame on Satan, fallen powers and demons (for a sampling of their statements, see my Satan and the Problem of Evil [IVP, 2001]. 39-49, 294-95).

Plutarch is also insightful in some other ways as it concerns the warfare worldview. For example, he rightfully notes that those who confuse “the attributes of the [good] gods with the attributes of [evil] demigods (daemones) get themselves into confusion” (Plutarch, The E at Delphi, 394C, cf. Obsolescence, 417f-418A). When we think that God is ultimately behind the events that are influenced by Satan, the Powers and demons, it can’t help but compromise the beauty of our view of God (on this, see my Is God to Blame? [IVP, 2003]).

Plutarch is also insightful on the way in which the acceptance of inferior and/or evil spiritual agents into our worldview increases the complexity of our theodicy. The main example of this in Plutarch’s writings concerns his explanation for why the oracles (at Delphi and elsewhere) had lessened significantly in his day. While some interpreted this as reflecting the will of God or the higher gods, Plutarch argued that the matter is not so simple, for oracles are primarily the work of good but inferior divinities (daemones) who, unlike the highest God, are subject to everything from emotions to weather patterns (see Obsolescence, 413B-415A; cf. 434 B-C; 479). Since divine providence is not all-controlling and since the inferior divinities have a will of their own, as do humans, we can’t simply say the demise of the oracles is reflective of God’s will (ibid., 414 F). Many variables affect what comes to pass, whether good or evil.

From a Christian perspective, of course, the “problem of evil” Plutarch is wrestling with is trivial since few of us would be inclined to grant that the oracles were divinely inspired in the first place. Their demise, therefore, hardly constitutes a “problem of evil.” But the logic by which Plutarch explains what he regards as a problem of evil is compelling. Once we grant that there exists a vast society of good and evil spirit agents between humans and God, we quickly come to see that its virtually impossible to ever know with confidence why any events, good or bad, happen just the way they do. As I argue in Is God to Blame?, the mystery of why good and evil events transpire so arbitrarily is utterly unfathomable, not because God’s character or will is unknowable, for these are unambiguously revealed in Christ, but because the cosmos we live in is an unfathomably complex, war-torn creation.

However, despite the insightfulness of Plutarch’s warfare worldview, he is also a through-going platonist who, as I said above, holds that the supreme God is “above” all sequence and change. In my next post I’ll flesh out his view of God and argue that it is in tension with his warfare worldview. I shall also argue that this tells us something about how and why early Christian theologians came to embody this same tension and how and why it ultimately succeeded in bringing about the “blueprint worldview” in which all events, including evil events, were understood to be part of an eternal, timeless plan (or blueprint).

Til then, please don’t blame God for any evil in the world. Blame it on Typhon and the evil demi-gods who oppress our creation (as well as on our own willingness to subject ourselves to their malevolent influence).

Have a grand New Year!


Bibliography of cited works

* Plutarch, The E at Delphi, (Peri Tou EI Tou En Delphois) in Plutarch: Moralia, tran. F. C. Babbitt (Cambridge/ London: Harvard University Press, n.d.), 199-253

* Plutarch, Isis and Osiris (De Iside et Osiride) in Plutarch: Moralia, 7-191.

* Plutarch, The Obsolescence of Oracles (De Defectu Oraculorum), in Plutarch: Moralia, 350-501


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