Go to the Index of 120 Philosophers Squared
Plutarch of Chaeronia (45 – 120) was born Greek but later became a Roman citizen. He was a Platonist philosopher but is remembered as a historian. “ KNOW THYSELF and AVOID EXTREMES”
(It is difficult to know which of these quotes are Plutarch’s ideas and which are those of the people whom he is studying in his histories, so I will simply attribute them to him and let those interested google him for his sources.)
By the study of their biographies, we receive each man as a guest into our minds, and we seem to understand their character as the result of a personal acquaintance, because we have obtained from their acts the best and most important means of forming an opinion about them. “What greater pleasure could’st thou gain than this?” What more valuable for the elevation of our own character?
The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth. Suppose someone were to go and ask his neighbors for fire and find a substantial blaze there, and just stay there continually warming himself: that is no different from someone who goes to someone else to get to some of his rationality, and fails to realize that he ought to ignite his own flame, his own intellect, but is happy to sit entranced by the lecture, and the words trigger only associative thinking and bring, as it were, only a flush to his cheeks and a glow to his limbs; but he has not dispelled or dispersed, in the warm light of philosophy, the internal dank gloom of his mind.
The whole life of man is but a point of time; let us enjoy it, therefore, while it lasts, and not spend it to no purpose. The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.
Be ruled by time, the wisest counselor of all.
The man who puts off until tomorrow is wrestling with disaster.
Fate leads him who follows it, and drags him who resist.
Fate, however, is to all appearance more unavoidable than unexpected.
For to err in opinion, though it be not the part of wise men, is at least human.
To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.
To Harmodius, descended from the ancient Harmodius, when he reviled Iphicrates [a shoemaker’s son] for his mean birth, “My nobility,” said Iphicrates, “begins in me, but yours ends in you.”
It is indeed a desirable thing to be well-descended, but the glory belongs to our ancestors.
When Eudæmonidas heard a philosopher arguing that only a wise man can be a good general, “This is a wonderful speech,” said he; “but he that saith it never heard the sound of trumpets.”
Phocion compared the speeches of Leosthenes to cypress-trees. “They are tall,” said he, “and comely, but bear no fruit.”
A soldier told Pelopidas, “We are fallen among the enemies.” Said he, “How are we fallen among them more than they among us?”
He said they that were serious in ridiculous matters would be ridiculous in serious affairs.
The measure of a man’s life is the well spending of it, and not the length.
There is nothing more dignified and noble than to maintain a calm demeanor when an enemy reviles one. Once you acquire the habit of bearing an enemy’s abuse in silence, you will easily bear up under a wife’s attack when she rails at you; you will hear without discomposure the bitterest words of friend and brother; you will bear the blows of father or mother without passion or wrath.
A man is farther from envying the good fortune of friends and relatives if he has acquired the habit of commending his enemies. What training produces greater benefit to our souls, or a better disposition, than that which takes away our jealousy and envy? If we acquire the habit of practicing honesty in dealing with our enemies, we shall never deal dishonestly with our friends.
It is impossible to acquire many slaves or many friends with little coin; the coin of friendship is goodwill and graciousness combined with virtue; nothing in nature is more rare.
True friendship seeks three things: virtue as a good thing, intimacy as a pleasant thing, usefulness as a necessary thing. A man ought to use judgment before accepting a friend and these requirements stand in the way of having many friends.
If you become a philosopher you will live pleasantly and learn to subsist pleasantly anywhere and with any resources. Wealth will give you gladness for the good you will do to many, poverty for your freedom from many cares, repute for the honors you will enjoy, and obscurity for the certainty that you will not be envied.
We have not come into this world to make laws for its governance, but to obey the commandments of the gods.
Don’t eat when you’re not hungry or drink when you’re not thirsty. ds who preside over the universe and the decrees of Fate.
With regard to food and drink, it is more expedient to note what kinds are wholesome rather than pleasant, to be better acquainted with those that are good for the stomach rather than the appetite, and those that do not disturb the digestion rather than those that tickle the palate.
Infirmity makes many philosophers.
Health is not to be purchased by idleness and inactivity, the greatest evils attend on sickness. The man who thinks to conserve his health by idle ease does not differ from the man who guards his eyes by not seeing and his voice by not speaking.
Kings fond of the arts make persons incline to be artists; those fond of letters make many want to be scholars, and those fond of sport make many take up athletics. In like manner a man fond of his personal appearance makes a wife all paint and powder; one fond of pleasure makes her licentious, while a husband who loves what is good and honorable makes a wife discreet and well-behaved.
How do you know good government? The people stand in as much fear of the law as of a despot. Bad men are not allowed to hold office and good men are not allowed to refuse it.
Where nothing superfluous is needed and nothing necessary lacks.
A man assumes that wealth is the greatest good. This falsehood contains venom; it feeds upon the soul, distracts him, does not allow him to sleep, fills him with stinging desires, pushes him over precipices, chokes him and takes from him his freedom of speech.
Disbelief in the Divinity is to have no fear of the gods. Superstition, which means dread of deities, is an emotional idea that humbles and crushes man for he thinks that there are gods and they are the cause of pain and misery. In the one case ignorance engenders disbelief in the One who can help him, in the other is bestows the idea that He causes injury. Atheism is falsified reason and superstition is an emotion engendered from false reason.
The atheists don’t think they see the gods at all, the superstitious see them everywhere and think them evil. The former disregard them the latter conceive their kindliness to be frightful, their fatherly solicitude to be despotic, their loving care to be injurious, their slowness to anger to be savage. Such persons give credence to workers in metal and stone and wax who make images of gods in the likeness of men and worship them. They hold in contempt philosophers who try to prove that the majesty of Zeus is associated with goodness, magnanimity, kindness and solicitude.
The atheist thinks there are no gods; the superstitious man wishes there were none.
Apollo has many titles: Pythian (Inquirer), Delian (Clear), Phanacan (Disclosing), Ismenian (Knowing), Leschenorian (Conversationalist). Since inquiry is the beginning of philosophy, and wonder and uncertainty the beginning of inquiry, it seems natural that a great part of what concerns the god should be concealed in riddles that call for some explanation of the cause. Consider the inscriptions, KNOW THYSELF and AVOID EXTREMES, how many philosophic inquires have they set on foot, and what a hoard of discourses!
How, if we remain the same persons, do 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 admiration and disapproval, and that we use other words and feel other emotions and no longer have the same personal appearance, external form or the same purposes of mind? Without change it is not reasonable that a person should have different experiences and if he changes he is not the same, he has no permanent being and changes his very nature as one personality succeeds to another. Our senses, through ignorance of reality, falsely tell us what appears to be.
What then really is Being? It is that which is eternal, without beginning and without end, to which time brings no change. Time is in motion, appearing in connection with moving matter, ever flowing, retaining nothing, a receptacle of birth and decay whose familiar ‘after,’ ‘before,’ ‘shall be’ and ‘has been,’ when they are uttered, are of themselves a confession of Not Being. To speak of that which has not yet occurred in terms of Being, or to say that has ceased to be, is, is absurd.
If Nature, when it is measured, is subject to the same processes as the agent that measures it, then there is nothing in Nature that has permanence or even existence, and all things are in the process of creation or destruction according to their relative position in time. 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 character has no permanence in Being.
What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.
The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.
Let us carefully observe those good qualities wherein our enemies excel us; and endeavor to excel them, by avoiding what is faulty, and imitating what is excellent in them.
To find fault is easy; to do better may be difficult.
The omission of good is no less reprehensible than the commission of evil.
There is considerable material found in a web search of Plutarch, but for the goal of this project, basing a philosophy on an author’s quotes, there is a problem in that most of Plutarch’s quotes seem to be derived from other earlier people’s quotes. I accept that and move on. One strange quote, “They that are serious in ridiculous matters would be ridiculous in serious affairs,” caught my attention. Could he be referring to endless philosophizing about words, their definitions, and their borders, which would be considered as ridiculous to a military commander in the field? Or perhaps he would consider these as a sharpening of his understanding of life and death situations. Or perhaps as Phocion compared the speeches of Leosthenes to cypress-trees: “They are tall, and comely, but bear no fruit.” The challenge to a leader, “There is nothing more dignified and noble than to maintain a calm demeanor when an enemy reviles one,” seems to be a recurrent subject of his writings, and implies that a great leader must be willing to endure considerable abuse from those not subject to his authority. Being a leader isn’t all about being revered. One consistent theme with most of the philosophers is the stoic idea of living tranquilly with what one possesses, “If you become a philosopher you will live pleasantly and learn to subsist pleasantly anywhere and with any resources. Wealth will give you gladness for the good you will do to many, poverty for your freedom from many cares, repute for the honors you will enjoy, and obscurity for the certainty that you will not be envied.” They seem to agree that money beyond normal necessities is counter-productive, and as Plutarch states it, “A man assumes that wealth is the greatest good. This falsehood contains venom; it feeds upon the soul, distracts him, does not allow him to sleep, fills him with stinging desires, pushes him over precipices, chokes him and takes from him his freedom of speech.” What he seems to think is optimum is, “Where nothing superfluous is needed and nothing necessary lacks.” Plutarch writes, “Consider the inscriptions, KNOW THYSELF and AVOID EXTREMES,” which we have all heard since childhood, but usually in the form of “Choose the Middle Path.” Of course all old sayings require some level of wisdom to be applied reasonably, but I like his way of stating the idea, as avoiding the extremes offers a huge amount of flexibility between the extremes, whereas choosing the middle path has a geometrically precise point and thus is very confining. In reading these Classic Roman philosophers, like Plutarch, I feel they come close to the modern American way of thinking. They have much less technical access to information of course, but if we change out the references to Roman-named gods for modern liberal ones, generally not now given the term “gods,” but forces of Nature, we can feel right at home. His intended audience for these writings wasn’t the average Roman but the aristocrats, as is seen from their lordly tone, and he seems like a less erudite Machiavelli-like personality. By the way, when Machiavelli was out of political office, living in exile on his farm, he wrote an excellent “History of Florence.”
When Demosthenes was asked what was the first part of oratory, he answered, “Action;” and which was the second, he replied, “Action;” and which was the third, he still answered, “Action.” I have commented on the fact that philosophers often write that the end of all learning is action. The morality of action may be a complex issue, and it may be viewed in many ways, but without action a man is nothing at all, nothing more than a pebble tossed about on the ocean’s beach.
It is circumstance and proper measure that give an action its character, and make it either good or bad. That sentiment is what stymies most people from actions driven by personal decisions. Nearly everyone is willing and able to follow instructions, but few are able to make significant decisions, and thus are driven by happenstance. A leader must have clear internalized goals in order to act with conviction in our morally conflicted and turbulent world.
When one asked him what boys should learn, “That,” said he, “which they shall use when men.” Action is again at the heart of what many philosophers have proclaimed; learning at school and reading may precede oratory, but these all are intended as preparations for action.
There are two sentences inscribed upon the Delphic oracle, hugely accommodated to the usages of man’s life: “Know thyself,” and “Nothing too much”; and upon these all other precepts depend. Plutarch, the author of the books being quoted, was at one time the chief administrator of the Delphic Oracle high in the mountains and the mayor of a local city.
A problem with quoting Plutarch is that he himself is frequently quoting individuals for whom he is writing biographies; the words quoted may be his words, buffed up by his writing skill, but the ideas contained within those words are those of other people. Some of these people are extraordinary, such as Alexander the Great and Caesar, and it would have been difficult for a modest administrator to have put himself into the mindset necessary to quote them properly.