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The Paradox of Plutarch and Early Christian Theology

Hi folks,

Hope you’re all enjoying the Holiday season. I am quite a bit, largely because (you guessed it) I’ve been enjoying my study of the Middle Platonist philosopher Plutarch.

Where Mr. Magoo failed, Plutarch succeeded!

Heh, we all have our own way of “getting into the Holiday spirit.”

What an interesting thinker Plutarch was! What makes him important to me is that, apart from Philo, he was (I will argue) the single most influential non-Christian philosopher on the developing view of God among the early church fathers. (Plutarch wrote at the end of the first and beginning of the second century A.D.).

In this blog I’ll just give a brief overview of a few of his views and the paradox contained in them. In my next couple of blogs I’ll flesh this out by giving specifics. (This research, by the way, is in preparation for my forthcoming work [now slated to come out in two 1,000 page volumes] entitled The Myth of the Blueprint. The projected publication date is now around 2011, but that may be optimistic).

The thing I find most fascinating about Plutarch is that he embodies many of the paradoxes that came to characterize early Christian theology (and that are largely still with us today). On the one hand, Plutarch clearly affirms free will and has the most developed “warfare worldview” of any thinker in the Platonic tradition. Plutarch holds that the world is caught in the crossfire of conflicting forces of good and evil and believes that this warfare permeates the very fabric of non-divine reality. In this respect, I argue, he is in accord with the New Testament and most of the early church fathers prior to Augustine.

At the same time, Plutarch is arguably the first philosopher to work through consistently Plato’s conception of time as “the moving shadow of eternity.” He was, I shall argue, the first philosopher to unambiguously articulate a non-durational view of eternity – that is, the idea that God exists in an “Eternal Now.” (The view is anticipated by Plato, and before him, Parmenides, but its not clear whether these earlier thinkers saw “eternity” as timeless or simply as unchanging duration). Moreover, Plutarch is very clear in articulating the conviction that this timeless, unchanging, utterly simple God is the only really real being and that everything that has a “before” and “after” – everything involved in a temporal process – is somewhat unreal.

Not only this, but Plutarch was a priest at the temple of Delphi, the famous ancient site of divine oracles (viz. divinely inspired prophecies and wisdom). Plutarch was thus a staunch defender of prophecy and, following a very ancient Greek tradition that goes back at least to Homer and that was worked out intensely by the Stoics, he assumed the ability to forecast the future implied that the future is exhaustively settled. (I shall argue that the assumption that god(s) can know the future as exhaustively settled is ultimately rooted in this ancient, almost uniform, confidence in prophetic divination).

What’s most interesting to me is that Plutarch doesn’t reflect any awareness that there is a possible contradiction in holding to free will and the warfare worldview, on the one hand, and the timeless view of God and an exhaustively settled future, on the other. Neither do most of the early church fathers who come to embrace these same beliefs. And this, I maintain, is not a mere coincidence. It reflects the fact that Plutarch and early Christian thinkers largely shared the same philosophical assumptions about God and the world.

Both Plutarch and the early Christians stood out somewhat from most of their intellectual contemporaries in their intensely warfare worldview. But both also share with their platonic contemporaries the tendency to conceive of God as utterly unchanging and outside (“above”) the temporal flow and share with most of their contemporaries the ancient assumption that the future is exhaustively settled.

As I said, I’ll back up my claims with quotes from Plutarch in subsequent posts. Until then, if you want to get in the Christmas spirit, you might want to give several of Plutarch’s essays a read. The most important ones on the topic of this post are: Isis and Osiris, The E at Delphi, The Oracles at Delphi No Longer Given in Verse, and The Obsolescence of Oracles. All are contained in Plutarch: Moralia, tran. F. C. Babbitt (Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, n.d.). (This edition is especially helpful since it gives a critical edition of the original Greek alongside the English).

If this doesn’t get you in the spirit, try watching Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.




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