Plutarch, the New Testament, and the Church Fathers

Portrait of Herodotus, identified after other ...

Last year in December, Joel made note of the similarities between the Pastoral Letter of 1st Timothy and Plutarch.

As I was reading Plutarch’s Morals on Kindle myself, I noticed a few similarities between this 2nd century thinker’s viewpoint and the apostles. One difference I would maintain is that for Plutarch, his code of ethics is for males who were born of good birth.

Plutarch wrote his Morals because he believed that ethics was philosophy, and vice versa:

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Highlight Loc. 207-13 |

Philosophy, therefore, ought to be regarded as the most important branch of study. For as regards the cure of the body, men have found two branches, medicine and exercise: the former of which gives health, and the latter good condition of body; but philosophy is the only cure for the maladies and disorders of the soul. For with her as ruler and guide we can know what is honourable, what is disgraceful; what is just, what unjust; generally speaking, what is to be sought after, what to be avoided; how we ought to behave to the gods, to parents, to elders, to the laws, to foreigners, to rulers, to friends, to women, to children, to slaves: viz., that we ought to worship the gods, honour parents, reverence elders, obey the laws, submit ourselves to rulers, love our friends, be chaste in our relations with women, kind to our children, and not to treat our slaves badly”

The life of virtue is one of an on going nourishment:

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Highlight Loc. 1653-55 |

For just as nurses mould with their hands the child’s body, so tutors, receiving it immediately it is weaned, mould its soul, teaching it by habit the first vestiges of virtue.”

The language of teachers being serving as mothers, breastfeeding the soul is reminiscent of Clement of Alexandria’s views on the Church, giving breast milk to all of her little babies: CoA refers the nourishing Father who provides us with milk to drink, which is the teachings and sacrifice of Christ in Clement’s The Educator.

Plutarch continues,

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Note Loc. 269 |
I will next state something quite as important, indeed, if anything, even more important. That is, that life must be spent without luxury, the tongue must be 15under control, so must the temper and the hands.”

Do not these words ring with the Wisdom of the Letter to James:

“But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:25-27

The pure religion has a bridled tongue, solidarity with the poor, and a sanctified lifestyle to offer to the Father.

What I found to be most interesting is Plutarch’s take on wives submitting to husbands, or rather husbands not ruling over wives as complementarians would have us to understand the cultural context,

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Highlight Loc. 1365-67 |

But the husband ought to rule his wife, not as a master does a chattel, but as the soul governs the body, by sympathy and goodwill.”

Plutarch is not trying to appease egalitarians out of some dream of political correctness, as egalitarians like me are accused of. No, what he is saying is that there is an essential unity between man and woman in marriage, and so the overlordship that complementarian academic scholars like the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is not consistent with Greek philosophy of the 1st and 2nd centuries Common Era. My point is that Plutarch’s understanding of submission, although not perfect, or Christian, still come pretty close to what egalitarians have been arguing about men being the SOURCE of women (like Adam “birthing” Eve in Genesis)–Thanks Suzanne!

I have been wondering silently to myself what a Christian Plutarchian understanding of kephale would mean when Christians read 1st Corinthians. Maybe if we took consideration of the Incarnation, how the mystery of the Logos became one with the anatomy of a fetus inside the womb of a 2nd Century Jewish virgin. A soul governing the body? Sound familiar? Read the above paragraph again. Think about it.

Plutarch had a good grasp of what justice is; it is not vengeance or privatized judgements in favor of one person over the other. No, he had a social understanding of justice.

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Note Loc. 1736 |

For virtue, when it considers what it ought to do and what it ought not to do, is called prudence; and when it curbs passion, and sets a fit and proper limit to pleasure, it is called self-control; and when it is associated with our dealings and covenants with one another, it is called justice”

Justice cannot be understood without relationships with others, without covenants. Plutarch’s admonition for his audience (rich Greek males) to practice self-control rings odd in the ears of our hedonistic society today, where the rich get richer and more hedonistic (even when they do go to church) while the poor get poorer and the Republican lecturing circuit.

I will end this post with Plutarch’s political advice to those of us living in the United States today:

Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Highlight Loc. 327-28 |

Abstain from beans: that is, do not meddle in state affairs, for the voting for offices was formerly taken by beans.

Beans beans they are good for your heart, if you eat too many, they will make you fart. Don’t vote, folks, or you’ll get the runs!

Enhanced by Zemanta

3 thoughts on “Plutarch, the New Testament, and the Church Fathers

  1. Pingback: Plutarch and θεόπνευστος | Unsettled Christianity

  2. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 « Cheese-Wearing Theology

  3. Pingback: Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 | Cheesewearing Theology

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *