Plutarch on the Delay of the Divine Justice
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DELAY OF THE DIVINE JUSTICE.
AN INTRODUCTION AND NOTES.
LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY.
By Andrew P. Peabody.
John Wilson and Son, Cambridge.
§ 1. The dialogue opens with comments on the cavils againstthe Divine Providence by a person who is supposed to have justdeparted.
2. The alleged encouragement to the guilty by the delay ofpunishment, while the sufferers by the guilt of others aredisheartened by failing to see the wrong-doers duly punished.
3. The guilty themselves, it is said, do not recognizepunishment when it comes late, but think it mere misfortune.
4. Plutarch answers the objections to the course of Providence.In the first place, man must not be too confident of hisability to pass judgment on things divine. There are manythings in human legislation undoubtedly reasonable, yet withno obvious reason. How much more in the administration of theuniverse by the Supreme Being!
5. God by the delay of punishment gives man the example offorbearance, and rebukes his yielding to the first impulses ofanger and of a vindictive temper.
6. God has reference, in the delay of punishment, to thepossible reformation of the guilty, and to the services which,when reformed, they may render to their country or their race.Instances cited.
7. The wicked often have their punishment postponed till afterthey have rendered some important service [iv]in which theyare essential agents, and sometimes that, before their ownpunishment, they may serve as executioners for other guiltypersons or communities.
8. There is frequently a peculiar timeliness andappropriateness in delayed punishment.
9. Punishment is delayed only in appearance, but commences whenthe guilt is incurred, so that it seems slow because it is long.
10. Instances of punishment in visions, apprehensions, andinward wretchedness, while there was no outward infliction ofpenalty.
11. There is really no need that punishment be inflicted;guilt is in the consciousness of the guilty its own adequatepunishment.
12. Objection is made by one of the interlocutors to thejustice of punishing children or posterity for the guilt offathers or ancestors, and he heaps up an incongruous collectionof cases in which he mingles confusedly the action of theDivine Providence and that of human caprice or malignity.
13. In answer to the objection, Plutarch first adduces as aprecisely parallel order of things, with which no one findsfault, that by which children or posterity derive enduringbenefit and honor from a parent’s or ancestor’s virtues andservices.
14. There are alike in outward and in human nature occult andsubtle transmissions of qualities and properties, both in timeand in space. Those in space are so familiar that they exciteno wonder; those in time, though less liable to attract notice,are no more wonderful.
15. A city has a continuous life, a definite and permanentcharacter, and an individual unity, so that its moralresponsibility may long outlast the lives of those who firstcontracted a specific form of guilt.
[v]16. The same is to be said of a family or a race; and,moreover, the punishment for inherited guilt may often have acurative, or even a preventive efficacy, so that children orposterity may refrain from guilt because the ancestral penaltyfalls upon them before they become guilty.
17. The immortality of the soul asserted, on the ground thatGod would not have deemed a race doomed to perish after a briefearthly life worth rewarding or punishing.
18. Punishments in a future state of being are out of sight,and are liable to be disbelieved. Therefore it is necessary,in order to deter men from guilt, that there should be visiblepunishments in this life.
19. The remedial efficacy of the penal consequences of parentalor ancestral guilt reaffirmed, and illustrated by analogies inthe treatment of disease.
20. God often punishes latent and potential vice, visible onlyto Omniscience.
21. If a child has no taint of a father’s vices, he remainsunpunished. But moral qualities, equally with physical traits,often lapse in the first generation, and reappear in the secondor third, and even later.
22. The story of Thespesius, who—apparently killed, but reallyin a trance, in consequence of a fall—went into the infernalregions, beheld the punishments there inflicted, and came backto the body and its life, converted from a profligate into aman of pre-eminent virtue and excellence.
Plutarch[vii:2] was born, about the middle of the first Christiancentury, at Cheroneia in Boeotia, where he spent the greater partof his life, and where he probably died. The precise dates of hisbirth and death are unknown; but he can hardly have been born earlierthan A. D. 45, and he must have lived nearly or quite tillA. D. 120, as some of his works contain references to eventsthat cannot have taken place earlier than the second decade of thesecond century. We know little of him from other sources, much fromhis own writings. There may have been many such men in his time; butantiquity has transmitted to us no record like his. He reminds oneof such men as were to be found half a century ago in many of ourAmerican country towns. Those potentially like them have now, for themost part, emigrated to the large cities, and have become very unliketheir prototypes. Cheroneia, with its great memories, was a small andinsignificant town, [viii]and Plutarch was a country gentleman, superior, asin culture so in serviceableness, to all his fellow citizens, holdingthe foremost place in municipal affairs, liberal, generous, chosen toall local offices of honor, and especially of trust and responsibility,associating on the most pleasant terms with the common people, alwaysready to give them his advice and aid, and evidently respected andbeloved by all. He belonged to an old and distinguished family, andseems always to have possessed a competency for an affluent, thoughsober, domestic establishment and style of living, and for an unstintedhospitality. He was probably the richest man in his native city; forhe assigns as a reason for not leaving it and living at some centreof intellectual activity, that Cheroneia could not afford to lose theproperty which he would take with him in case of his removal.
He had what corresponds to our university education, at Athens, underthe Peripatetic philosopher Ammonius. He also visited Alexandria, thena renowned seat of learning; but how long he stayed there, or whetherhe extended his Egyptian travel beyond that city, we have no means ofknowing. There is no proof of his having been in Rome or in Italy morethan once, and that was when he was about forty years of age. He wentto Rome on public business, probably in behalf of his native city,and remained there long enough to become acquainted with some eminentmen, to make [ix]himself known as a scholar and an ethical philosopher,and to deliver lectures that attracted no little public notice. Thisvisit seems to have been the great event of his life, as a winter spentin Boston or New York used to be in the life of one of our countrygentlemen before the time of railways.
He had a wife, who appears to have been of a character kindred to hisown; at least five children, of whom two sons, if not more, lived tobe themselves substantial citizens and worthy members of society;and two brothers, who seem to have possessed his full confidence andwarm affection. He was singularly happy in his relations to a largecircle of friends, especially in Athens, for which he had the lifelonglove that students in our time acquire for a university town. He wasarchon, or mayor, of Cheroneia, probably more than once,—the officehaving doubtless been annual and elective,—and in this capacity heentered, like a veritable country magistrate, into material details ofthe public service, superintending, as he says, the measuring of tilesand the delivery of stone and mortar for municipal uses. He officiatedfor many years as priest of Apollo at Delphi, and as such gave severalsumptuous entertainments. Indeed, hospitality of this sort appears, sofar as we can see, to have been the sole or chief duty of his priestlyoffice. As an adopted citizen of one of the Athenian tribes, he was notinfrequently a guest at civic banquets and semi-civic festivals.
As regards Plutarch’s philosophy, it is easier to say to which ofthe great schools he did not belong than to determine by what namehe would have preferred to be called. He probably would have termedhimself a Platonist, but not, like Cicero, of the New Academy, whichhad incorporated Pyrrhonism with the provisional acceptance of thePlatonic philosophy. At the same time, he was a closer follower anda more literal interpreter of Plato than were the Neo-Platonists ofAlexandria, who had not yet become a distinctly recognized sect, andwho in many respects were the precursors of the mysticism of theReformation era. Plutarch, with Plato, recognized two eternities: thatof the Divine Being, supremely good and purely spiritual; and that ofmatter, as, if not intrinsically evil, the cause, condition, and seatof all evil, and as at least opposing such obstacles to its own bestideal manipulation that the Divine Being could not embody his pure andperfect goodness, unalloyed by evil, in any material form. Herein thePlatonists were at variance with both the Stoics and the Epicureans.The Stoics regarded matter as virtually an emanation from the SupremeBeing, who is not only the universal soul and reason, but the creativefire, which, transformed into air and water,—part of the water becomingearth,—is the source of the material universe, which must at the end ofa certain cosmical cycle be re-absorbed into the divine essence, whencewill emanate in endless succession [xi]new universes to replace those thatpass away. The Epicureans, on the other hand, believed in the existenceof matter only, and regarded mind and soul as the ultimate product ofmaterial organization.
In one respect Plutarch transcends Plato, and, so far as I know, allpre-Christian philosophers. Plato’s theism bears a close kindredto pantheism. His God, if I may be permitted the phrase, is onlysemi-detached. He becomes the creator rather by blending his essencewith eternal matter, than by shaping that matter to his will. He israther in all things than above all things, rather the Soul of theuniverse than its sovereign Lord. But in Plutarch’s writings theSupreme Being is regarded as existing independently of material things;they, as subject to his will, not as a part of his essence.
Plutarch was, like Plato, a realist. He regarded the ideas or patternsof material things, that is, genera, or kinds of objects, as havingan actual existence (where or how it is hard to say), as projected fromthe Divine Mind, floating somewhere in ethereal spaces between theDeity and the material universe,—the models by which all things in theuniverse are made.
As to Plutarch’s theology, he was certainly a monotheist. He probablyhad some vague belief in inferior deities (daemons he would havecalled them), as holding a place like that filled by angels and byevil spirits in the creed of most Christians; [xii]yet it is entirelyconceivable that his occasional references to these deities are duemerely to the conventional rhetoric of his age. His priesthood of theDelphian Apollo can hardly be said to have been a religious office.It was rather a post of dignity and honor, which a gentleman ofrespectable standing, courteous manners, and hospitable habits mightcreditably fill, even though he had no faith in Apollo. But thatPlutarch had a serious, earnest, and efficient faith