Episode 67: An Erudite Esotericist: Introducing Plutarch of Chæronea

Plutarch Epithome Ferrara Lorenzo Rossi 1501 17.II
Plutarch Epithome Ferrara Lorenzo Rossi 1501 17.II

Plutarch of Chæronea is one of the most widely-read authors of antiquity, and had an output to match, having written a large number of biographies and philosophical essays. But running through his work as a whole, an especially in a number of essays on esoteric subjects, is a Middle Platonist philosophic perennialism, accessed through esoteric hermeneutics of a broad ‘tradition’ including not only philosophy proper, but mysteries, initiations, oracles, and other forms of divination, all read as telling a single, Platonist truth.

We introduce the great man, give a survey of his life and works, and broach the subject of his esoteric world-view, preparing the way for more in-depth explorations of Plutarch’s properly esoteric works in coming episodes.

Works Cited in this Episode:

(Note: Plutarch’s works are conventionally cited by the Latin titles given them by Humanists; if the title is a personal name – e.g. ‘Numa’, ‘Julius Cæsar’ – the reference is to one of the Lives, while thematic titles like de defectu oraculorum, or ‘On how the Oracles Have Stopped Functioning’, refer to the Moralia. The works of Plutarch, like those of Plato, have ‘Stephanus numbers’, a standard way of referring to his text based on the critical edition of Stephanus (1572). Thus, de Is. 67-68.377f-378a would refer to ‘On Isis and Osiris Chapters 67-68, Stephanus numbers 377f-378a. As for the first Latin edition of Plutarch, it was edited by Niccolò Tomeo, a fascinating Renaissance esotericist about whom you can hear in this interview)


  • Apuleius Metamorphoses, the narrator Lucius is Plutarch’s relative: 1.2: ‘I went to Thessaly on business: for in that place the foundations of our origin on the maternal side were laid by the illustrious Plutarch, and afterwards by his nephew, Sextus, the philosopher, and thus became the source of renown to us.’ (trans. Thos. Taylor)
  • Artemidorus: Plutarch’s death Oneirocritica 4.72.
  • Plutarch: Calls himself an ‘academic’: see  Charles Brittain. Philo of Larissa: The Last of the Academic Sceptics. Oxford University
    Press, Oxford, 2001, p. 223). He wrote a lost ‘On the Unity of Plato’s Academy’ or possibly ‘On the Unity of the Academy Since Plato’ – both readings of the title are possible. On the ubiquity of the true wisdom, de Is. 67-68.377f-378a. Inspired founders and nomothetes who hid wisdom within religious institutions to protect it from the masses: de E Delphico 9. 388f: κρυπτόμενοι δὲ τοὺς πολλοὺς οἱ σοφώτεροι κτλ. Refrains from telling intiatory secrets: e.g. ibid. 21.359c; 35364e. On Pythagorean secret wisdom (ἄρρητα) see quaest. conv. 728 D 4-6; cf. Numa 22. On the ‘epoptic’ level of the philosophic curriculum: de Is. 77.382d-e. On the gods as esotericists: de Is. 369b-c; cf. de Pyth. orac. 407e where the philosophic secrets in oracles are hidden, not from the unlettered masses, but from tyrants, so as to protect humanity from the potential abuse of power such knowledge would give to tyrannical rulers. Plato expressed his doctrine of the evil world-soul both openly and esoterically: de Isid. 48.370e9-f5.


  • Van Nuffelen, P., ‘Words of Truth: Mystical Silence as a Philosophical and Rhetorical Tool in Plutarch’, Hermathena (2007), pp. 9-39.

Recommended Reading:

  • Dillon, J., The Middle Platonists: A Study of Platonism 80 BC to AD 220 (London: Duckworth, 1977). pp. 184-230.
  • Dillon, J., ‘The Social Role of the Philosopher in the Second Century AD: Some Remarks’, in P.A. Stadter and L. van der Stockt, ed., Sage and Emperor: Plutarch, Greek Intellectuals, and Roman Power in the Time of Trajan (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2002), pp. 29-40.
  • Hirsh-Luipold, R., Plutarchs Denken in Bildern: Studien zur literarischen, philosophischen und religiösen Funktion des Bildhaften (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002).
  • Russell, D.A., Plutarch (London: Duckworth, 1973).


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