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Plutarch Of Chaeronea: From The Moralia- Of The Word ‘EI’ At Delphi

Apollo kitharoidos (holding a kithara) and musagetes (leading the Muses),

Found with a group of seven statues of the Muses near Tivoli in 1774,

in the ruins of Cassius’ villa. Marble, Roman artwork, 2nd century CE.

In the collections of the Pio-Clementino museum in the Vatican city, Italy.


And we resume our labors of love with this sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, an excerpt from Plutarch of Chaeronea’s ‘Moralia’ with his dialog about ‘The Word ‘Ei’ Engraved Over the Gate of Apollo’s Temple At Delphi’ , translated and  edited by William Watson Goodwin (1831-1912), from the ‘Moralia’s’ edition of 1878, index 384. ‘Historians of old relate that the great Temple of Apollo at Delphi had several inscriptions on its entrance. Most prominent was a large letter E (Epsilon) made of gold. Its meaning was an enigma, even in antiquity. Over the millennia, many interpretations have been suggested. Some are based on the meaning of E, fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, as the number five. Others say it is not an letter at all, but a religious symbol, or glyph, which predates writing. Plutarch, the eminent biographer and Middle Platonist philosopher, was, in addition, a priest at Delphi. He suggested that the meaning is found not in the letter itself, but in its pronunciation: “EI”, which in Greek means “Thou art.” Hence he speculated it served as a respectful address to the god, Apollo — as though, when entering the temple, one honors the god by saying “Thou art!” A still more intriguing possibility is that “EI” is the god’s greeting to visitors. That is, the god of revelation, Apollo, greets the seeker, saying: “Know, O soul, this most profound and mysterious truth, beside which all else fades to insignificance: THOU ART!” (From professor John Uebersax’s website).


Coin found in Kallatis, Thrace. 3rd.-2nd. c. BC. EI within ivy-wreath, thyrsos in right field. .



§ 1. I happened not long since, dear Serapion, on certain not unelegant verses, which Dicaearchus supposes Euripides to have spoken to King Archelaus: “I’m poor, you rich, I’ll therefore nothing give; Lest me or fool or beggar you believe.” For he who out of his little estate makes small presents to those that have great possessions does them no pleasure; nay, being not believed to give even that little for nothing, he incurs the suspicion of being of a sordid and ungenerous disposition. But since pecuniary presents are both in bounty and beauty far inferior to such as proceed from learning and wisdom, it is honorable both to make such presents, and at our giving them, to desire suitable returns from the receivers. I therefore, sending to you, — and through you to our friends in those parts, — as a first-fruit offering, some discourses concerning the Pythian affairs, confess that I do in requital expect others, both more and better, from you, as being persons conversant in a great city, and enjoying more leisure amongst many books and conferences of all sorts. For indeed our good Apollo seems to cure and solve such difficulties as occur in the ordinary management of our life, by giving his oracles to those that resort to him; but as for those which concern learning, he leaves and proposes them to that faculty of the soul which is naturally addicted to the study of philosophy, imprinting in it a desire leading to truth; as is manifest both in many other matters, and in the consecration of this inscription ei. For it is not probable, that it was by chance or by a lottery (as it were) of letters that this word alone was placed in the principal seat by the God, and received the dignity of a sacred donary and spectacle; but it is highly credible that those who at the beginning philosophized concerning this God gave it that station, either as seeing it in some peculiar and extraordinary power, or using it as a symbol to signify some other thing worthy of our attention. Having therefore often formerly declined and avoided this discourse, when proposed in the school, I was lately surprised by my own children as I was debating with certain strangers, who were on their departure out of Delphi, so that I could not in civility hold them in suspense nor yet refuse discoursing with them, since they were exceeding earnest to hear something. Being therefore set down by the temple, I began myself to search into some things, and to ask them concerning others, being by the place and the very talk put in mind of those things we had heretofore, when Nero passed through these parts, heard Ammonius and some others discourse; the same difficulty having been then likewise in this very place propounded.

§ 2. Since therefore this God is no less a philosopher than a prophet, Ammonius seemed to all of us rightly to apply every one of his names to this purpose, and to teach that he is Pythius (or a questionist) to those who begin to learn and enquire; Delius and Phanaeus (or a manifester and prover) to those to whom somewhat of the truth is already manifest and shines forth; Ismenius (or knowing) to those that have acquired knowledge; and Leschenorius (or discoursing) when they practise and enjoy their science, making use of it to discourse and philosophize with one another. Now, forasmuch as to philosophize implies to enquire, to wonder, and to doubt, it is probable (he said) that many of the things that concern God are not unfitly concealed under enigmas, and require that one should ask the reason why, and seek to be instructed in the causes, — as, why of all wood fir only is burnt in the eternal fire, why the laurel only is used in fumigations, why there are erected but two statues of the Fates, they being everywhere else thought to be three, why no woman is permitted to have access to the oracle, what is the reason of the tripod, and other such like things, which, being proposed to those who are not altogether irrational and soulless, allure and incite them to consider, hear, and discourse something about them. And do but behold how many questions these inscriptions, “Know thyself” and “Nothing too much,” have set afoot amongst the philosophers, and what a multitude of discourses has sprung up from each of them, as from a seed; than neither of which, I think the matter now in question to be less fruitful.

§ 3. Ammonius having spoken thus, Lamprias the Delphian said: The reason indeed which we have heard of this is plain and very short; for they say that those Sages, who were by some called sophists, were but five, Chilo, Thales, Solon, Bias, and Pittacus. But after that Cleobulus the tyrant of the Lindians, and Periander the Corinthian, though wholly destitute of virtue and wisdom, had by their power, friends, and courtesy forced a reputation, they usurped the name of Sages, and set forth and dispersed all over Greece certain sentences and sayings, not unlike to those which had been spoken by the five former wise men. The five, however, being discontented at this, would not reprove their arrogancy, nor openly contest and enter into quarrels for glory with men of so great power; but assembling here together, and consulting with one another, they consecrated the letter e, which is in the order of the alphabet the fifth, and signifies five in number, protesting of themselves before the God that they were but five, and rejecting and abdicating the sixth and seventh as not belonging to them. Now that these things are not spoken beside the cushion, any one might understand who should have heard those around the sanctuary naming the golden ei the ei of Livia, the wife of Augustus Caesar; and the brazen one the ei of the Athenians; but the first and ancientest of all, which is the wooden one, they call the ei of the Sages, as not being of any one, but the common dedication of them all.

§ 4. At this Ammonius gently smiled, supposing Lamprias to have delivered an opinion of his own, but to have feigned that he had heard the story from others, lest he might be obliged to give an account of it. But another of those that were present said that this had some affinity with what a certain Chaldean stranger had lately babbled, to wit, that there are in the alphabet seven letters rendering a perfect sound of themselves, and in the heavens seven stars moved by their own proper motion, not bound or linked to that of the others; that E is from the beginning the second in order of the vowels, and the sun the second of the planets, or next to the moon, and that the Greeks do unanimously (so to speak) repute Apollo to be the same with the sun. But these things, said he, wholly savor of his counting-table and his trifling. But Lamprias, it seems, was not sensible of his having stirred up all those of the sanctuary against his discourse. For there was not a man of the Delphians who knew any thing of what he said; but they all alleged the common and current opinion, holding that neither the sight nor the sound of this writing, but the word alone as it was written, contained some symbol or secret signification.

§ 5. For the syllable ei (if) is, as the Delphians conceive it, and as Nicander the priest (who was then present) also said, a conveyance and form of prayer to the God, and has the leading place in the questions of those who at every turn use it, asking if they shall overcome, if they shall marry, if it is convenient to go to sea, if to till the ground, if to travel. And the wise God, bidding adieu to the logicians, who think nothing at all can be made of this particle EI and any clause following it, understands and admits all interrogations annexed to it, as real things. Now, because it is proper for us to consult him as a prophet, and common to pray to him as a God, they suppose that this word has no less a precatory than an interrogatory power. For every one who prays or wishes says, εἰ γὰϱ ὤφελον-ei gár ófelon, ‘If only I could‘, as a regular expression of a wish. And Archilochus has also this expression: ‘It to me it might be granted Neobule’s hand to touch’. And they say that the second syllable in the word εἴθε (eíthe) is redundant like θήν (thín) in this of Sophron, Ἃμα τέϰνων ϑὴν δευομένα, ‘surely in want of children as well’; and in this of Homer, Ὡς ϑὴν ϰαὶ σὸν ἐγὼ λύσω μένος, ‘since I surely shall break your might’; but in the word EI there is sufficiently declared an optative power.

§ 6. Nicander having delivered these words, our friend Theon, whom you know, asked Ammonius if he might have liberty to plead for logic, which was so highly injured. And Ammonius bidding him speak and defend it, he said: Now that this God is a most expert logician many of his oracles show; for it is, to wit, the part of the same artist to dissolve and frame ambiguities. Moreover, as Plato said, when an oracle was given to the Greeks that they should double the altar in Delos, which is a work of the utmost perfection in geometry, that the God did not order the doing of that very thing, but commanded the Greeks to apply themselves to geometry; so the same God, by giving ambiguous oracles, honors and recommends logic, as necessary to those who desire to understand him aright. Now this conjunction EI, or if, has a very great efficacy in logic, as forming the most rational proposition; for how can it be otherwise, since the very brutes have indeed the knowledge of the substance of things, but to man only has Nature given the consideration and judgment of consequence? For that there is both day and light, wolves and dogs and birds are sensible. But that if it is day there must be light, no other animal understands but man, who only has the conception of antecedent and consequent, of the significance and connection of these things with one another, and of their habitude and difference, from which demonstrations take their principal beginnings. Now since philosophy is conversant about truth, since the light of truth is demonstration, and the beginning of demonstration this connection of propositions; the faculty which contains and effects this was by wise men, with good reason, consecrated to the God who most of all loves truth. Now the God indeed is a prophet, and the art of prophesying is a divination concerning the future from things that are present and past. For neither is the original of any thing without a cause, nor the foreknowledge of any thing without reason. But since all things that are done follow and are connected to those that have been done, and those that shall be done to those that are done, according to the progress proceeding from the beginning to the end; he who knows how to look into the causes of this together, and naturally connect them one with another, knows also and divines “What things now are, shall be, or e’er have been.” And Homer indeed excellently well places first things that are present, and afterwards what is future and past. For by the very nature of the connection the argument is based on that which now is. Thus, “if this is, that preceded;” and again, “if this is, that shall be.” For the knowledge of the consequence is, as has been said, an artificial and rational thing; but sense gives the assumption to reason. Whence (though it may seem indecent to say it) I will not be afraid to aver this, that the tripod of truth is reason, which recognizes the dependence of the consequent on the antecedent, and then, assuming the reality of the antecedent, infers the conclusion of the demonstration. If then the Pythian Apollo delights in music, and is pleased with the singing of swans and the harmony of the lute, what wonder is it that, for the sake of logic, he embraces and loves this argumentative particle, which he sees the philosophers so much and so frequently to use? Heracles indeed, not having yet unbound Prometheus, nor conversed with the sophists that were with Chiron and Atlas, but being still a young man and a plain Boeotian, at first abolished logic and derided this word EI; but afterwards he seemed by force to have seized on the tripod, and contended with our God himself for the pre-eminence in this art; for being grown up in age, he appeared to be the most expert both in divination and logic.

§ 7. Theon having ended his speech, I think it was Eustrophus the Athenian who said to us: Do you not see how valiantly Theon vindicates logic, having, in a manner, got on the lion’s skin? So it is not right even for us — who comprehensively place all the affairs, nature, and principles of things both divine and human in number, and make it most especially the author and lord of honest and estimable things — to be at quiet, but we must willingly offer the first-fruits of our dear mathematics to the God; since we think that this letter E does not of itself differ from the other letters either in power, figure, or expression, but that it has been preferred as being the sign of that great number which has an influence over all things, called the Quinary (or Pemptas), from which the Sages have expressed the art of numbering by the verb πεμπτάζειν (pemptázein-signifying to account by fives). Now Eustrophus spake these things to us, not in jest, but because I did at that time studiously apply myself to the mathematics, and perhaps also in every thing to honor that saying, “Nothing too much”, as having been conversant in the Academy.

§ 8. I answered therefore that Eustrophus has excellently solved the difficulty by number. For (said I) since all number is distributed into even and odd, unity is in efficacy common to them both, — for that being added to an even number, it makes it odd, and to an odd, it makes it even, two constituting the beginning of the even, and three of the odd. Now the number of five, composed of these two, is deservedly honored, as being the first compound made of the first simple numbers, and is called the marriage, for the resemblance of the odd with the male, and the even with the female. For in the divisions of the numbers into equal parts, the even, being wholly separated, leaves a certain capacious beginning and space in itself; but in the odd, suffering the same thing, there always remains a middle, of generative distribution, by which it is more fruitful than the other, and being mixed is always master, never mastered. For by the mixture of both, even and odd together, there is never produced an even number but always an odd. But which is more, either of them added to and compounded with itself shows the difference; for no even joined with another even ever produced an odd, or went forth of its proper nature, being through weakness unable to generate another and imperfect. But odd numbers mixed with odd do, through their being every way fruitful, produce many even ones. Time does not now permit us to set down the other powers and differences of numbers. Therefore have the Pythagoreans, through a certain resemblance, said that five is the marriage of the first male and the first female number. This also is it for which it is called Nature, by the multiplication of itself determining again into itself. For as Nature, taking a grain of wheat for seed and diffusing it, produces many forms and species between, by which she brings her work to an end, but at last she shows again a grain of wheat, restoring the beginning in the end of all; so, while the rest of the numbers, when they are multiplied into others, terminate by the increase only those of five and six, multiplied by themselves, bring back and preserve themselves. For six times six makes thirty-six, and five times five makes twenty-five. And again, six does this once, and only after one manner, to wit, when it is squared. But this indeed befalls five both by multiplication and by composition with itself, to which being added, it alternatively makes itself and ten; and this as far as all number can extend, this number imitating the beginning or first Cause which governs the universe. For as that first Cause, preserving the world by itself, does reciprocally perfect itself by the world, as Heraclitus says of fire, Fire turns to all things, and all things to fire; and as money is changed for gold, and gold for money; so the congress of five with itself is framed by Nature to produce nothing imperfect or strange, but has limited changes; for it either generates itself or ten, that is, either what is proper to itself, or what is perfect.

§ 9. Now if any one shall say, What is all this to Apollo? we will answer, that it concerns not Apollo only, but Dionysos also, who has no less to do with Delphi than Apollo himself. For we have heard the divines, partly in verse partly in prose, saying and singing, that the God is of his own nature incorruptible and eternal, but yet, through a certain fatal decree and reason, suffers changes of himself, having sometimes his nature kindled into a fire, and making all things alike, and otherwhiles becoming various, in different shapes, passions, and powers, like unto the World, and is named by this best-known of names. But the wiser, concealing from the vulgar the change into fire, call him both Apollo from his unity and Phoebus from his purity and un-pollutedness. But as for the passion and change of his conversion into winds, water, earth, stars, and the various kinds of plants and animals, and its order and disposition, this they obscurely represent as a certain distraction and dismembering; and they now call him Dionysus, Zagreus, Nyctelius, and Isodaetes, exhibiting and chanting forth certain corruptions, disparitions, deaths, and resurrections, which are all riddles and fables suited to the said mutations. To Dionysus or Dionysos they sing dithyrambic verses, full of passions and change, joined with a certain wandering and agitation backwards and forwards; for, as Aeschylus says, The dithyramb, whose sounds are dissonant, ‘Tis fit should wait on Dionysos. But to Apollo they sing the well-ordered paean and a discreet song. And Apollo both in their sculptures and statues they always make to be young and never declining to old age; but Dionysus they represent in many shapes and forms. Lastly, to the one they attribute equality, order, and unmixed gravity; but to the other, a certain unequal mixture of sports, petulancy, gravity, and madness, surnaming him, Evius Dionysos, who to rage incites Women on tops of mountains, and delights In frantic worship. Thus they not unfitly touch the property of both changes. Now because the time of the revolutions in these changes is not equal, but that of the one which they call Koros (that is, satiety) is longer, and that of the other named Chresmosyne (or want) shorter; observing in this the proportion, they all the rest of the year use in their sacrifices the paean; but at the beginning of winter, rousing up the dithyramb, and laying the paean to rest, they do for three months invocate Dionysos instead of Apollo, esteeming the creation of the world to be the same in proportion of time to the conflagration of it as three to one.

§ 10. But these things have perhaps had more than sufficient time spent on them. This, however, is evident, that they properly attribute to this God the number of five, saying that it sometimes of itself produces itself like fire, and other whiles the number of ten, like the world. But do we think that this number is not also concerned with music, which is of all things most acceptable to this God? For the chiefest operation of harmony is, as one may say, about symphonies. Now that these are five and no more, reason convinces even him who will by his senses without reasoning make trial either on strings or pipe-holes. For all these accords take their original in proportions of number; and the proportion of the symphony dia-tessaron is ses-qui-tertial, of diapente ses-qui-alter, of diapason duple, of diapason with diapente triple, and of dis-diapason quadruple. But as for that which, transcending all measures, the musicians add to these, naming it diapason with diatessaron, it is not fit we should receive it, gratifying the unreasonable pleasure of the ear against proportion, which is as the law. I may therefore let pass the five positions of the tetrachords, and also the five first, — whether they are to be called tones, tropes, or harmonies, — according to the changes of which by rising or falling, either to more or less, the rest are bases or trebles. And, whereas there are many or rather infinite intervals, are not five of them only used in music, to wit, diesis, hemi-tonion, tonos, tri-emi-tonion, and di-to-non? Nor is there in the voice any other space, either greater or less, that, being distinguished by base or treble, comes into melody.

§ 11. Passing by many other such like things, said I, I will produce only Plato; who says, that there is but one world, but that if this were not alone, so that there were others besides it, they would be in all five and no more. For indeed, though there is but this one only world, as Aristotle is also of opinion, yet this world is in some sort composed and assembled of five, of which one indeed is of earth, another of water, the third of fire, the fourth of air, and the fifth, being heaven, some call light and others the sky; and some also name this same the fifth essence, which alone of all bodies is naturally carried about in a circle, and not of necessity or otherwise by accident. Wherefore Plato, knowing that, of the figures which are in Nature, there are five most excellent and perfect, — to wit, the pyramid, the cube, the octahedron, the icosahedron, and the dodecahedron, — has fitly accommodated each of them to each of these worlds or bodies.

§ 12. There are some also who apply the faculties of the senses, being equal in number, to these five first bodies, seeing the touch to be firm and earthly, and the taste to perceive the qualities of savors by moisture. Now the air being struck upon is a voice and sound to the ear; and as for the other two, — the scent, which the smell has obtained for its object, being an exhalation and engendered by heat, is fiery; and the sight, which shines by reason of its affinity to the sky and light, has from them a temperature and complexion equally mingled of both. Now neither has any animal any other sense, nor the world any other nature simple and unmixed; but there has been made, as appears, a certain wonderful distribution and congruity of five to five.

§ 13. Having here stopped a little, and made a small pause between, I said: What a fault, O Eustrophus, were we like to have committed, having almost passed by Homer, as if he were not the first that distributed the world into five parts, who assigned the three which are in the midst to three Gods, and left the two extremes, Olympus and the Earth — of which one is the limit of things above, the other of things below — common and undistributed. But we must, as Euripides says, return to our discourse. For those who magnify the quaternary, or number of four, teach not amiss, that every solid body had its generation by reason of this. For since every solid consists in length and breadth, having withal a depth; and since before length there is extant a point, answerable to unity, and length without breadth is called a line and consists of two; and the motion of a line towards breadth exhibits also the procreation of a superficies in the number three; and the argumentation of this, when depth is added to it, goes on to a solid in the number four; it is manifest to every one, that the quaternary, having carried on Nature hitherto, and even to the perfecting of a body and the exhibiting it tangible, massy, and solid, has yet at last left it wanting the greatest accomplishment. For that which is inanimate is, to speak sincerely, orphan-like, imperfect, and fit for nothing at all, unless there is some soul to use it; but the motion or disposition introducing a soul, being a change made by the number five, adds the consummation to Nature, and has a reason so much more excellent than the quaternary, as an animal differs in dignity from that which is inanimate. Moreover, the symmetry and power of this number five, having obtained greater force, has not permitted the animate body to proceed to infinite sorts, but has exhibited five species of all things that have life. For there are Gods, Genii, and heroes, and then after them the fourth sort is men, and the fifth and last the irrational and brutish animal. Furthermore, if you divide the soul itself according to its nature, its first and most obscure part or faculty is the vegetative, the second the sensitive, then the concupiscible, after that the irascible; and having brought on and perfected Nature in the faculty of the rational, it rests in this fifth, as in the top of all.

§ 14. Now the generation of this number, which has so many and so great faculties, is also beautiful, — not that which we have already discoursed of, from two and three, but that which the first principle joined with the first square has exhibited. For the principle of all number is unity, and the first square is the quaternary; now the quinary is composed of these, as of form and of matter which has attained to perfection. And if it is right, which some hold, that unity is also square, as being the power of itself and terminating in itself; the quinary, being made of the first two squares, could not have a more noble original.

§ 15. But as for its greatest excellency, I fear, lest being spoken it should press our Plato as much as he himself said Anaxagoras was pressed by the name of the moon, when he made a certain opinion concerning her illuminations, which was very ancient, to be an invention of his own. For has he not said this in his dialogue entitled Cratylus?” Yes indeed, answered Eustrophus; but I see not any thing that has fallen out like it. And yet you know, that in the Sophist he demonstrates five principal beginnings, to wit, that which is, or Ens (τὸ ὄν-to on), the Same, the Different, adding to these, for a fourth and fifth, Motion and Rest. Again, in his dialogue called Philebus, using another manner of division, he says, that there is one thing Infinite, and another the End; and that all generation consists of these two mixed together. Then he puts the cause by which they are mixed for the fourth kind; and has left us to conjecture the fifth, by which the things that were mixed have again a division and dissipation. Now I am of opinion that these last are delivered as the images or representations of those before, — to wit, the things engendered of Ens, the Infinite of Motion, the End of Rest, the Mixing Principle of the Same, and the Separating Principle of the Different. But if these are different from those, yet both that way and this way these principles are still distinguished into five kinds and differences. Now some one, said he, being persuaded of these things and seeing them before Plato, consecrated to the God two E E, for a mark and symbol of the number of all things. And having perhaps further understood that good also appears in five kinds, of which the first is the mean, the second the commensurate, the third understanding, the fourth the sciences, arts, and true opinions in the soul, and the fifth a certain pleasure, pure and unmixed with sorrow; he stops there, subjoining that of Orpheus: In the sixth age stay your desire of singing.

§ 16. After what I have spoken to you, I said, Yet one short word to those about Nicander, I’ll sing to men of skill. For on the sixth day of the new moon, when you introduce the Pythia into the Prytaneum, the first of the three lots tends with you towards five, casting neither three, nor two, one to another. For is not this so? It is so, said Nicander; but the cause is not to be told to others. Well then, said I smiling, till such time as the God admits us, being consecrated, to know the truth, this also shall be added to those things that have been spoken concerning the quinary. This end, as I remember, had the discourse of the arithmetical and mathematical encomiums of E.

§ 17. But Ammonius, who had himself also bestowed not the worst part of his time in mathematical philosophy, was delighted with what had been spoken, and said: It is not meet too eagerly to oppose these young men about these things, except by saying that every one of the numbers will afford you, if you desire to praise it, no small subject of commendations. And what need is there to speak of others? For the septener, sacred to Apollo, will take up a day’s time, before one can in words run through all its powers. We shall therefore pronounce, that the Sages do at once contest both against common law and a long series of time, if. throwing the septenary out of its seat, they consecrate the quinary to the God, as being more suitable to him. I am therefore of opinion, that this syllable signifies neither number, order, nor connection, nor any other of the deficient parts, but is a self-perfect appellation and salutation of the God, which brings the speaker to the conception of the power of the God at the very moment of uttering it. For the God in a manner calls upon every one of us who comes hither, with this salutation, Know thyself, which is nothing inferior to All hail. And we again, answering the God, say to him El, thou art; attributing to him the true, unfeigned, and sole appellation of being, as agreeing to him alone.

§ 18. For we indeed do not at all essentially partake of being; but every mortal nature, being in the midst between generation and corruption, exhibits an appearance, and an obscure and weak opinion of itself. And if you fix your thought, desiring to comprehend it, — as the hard grasping of water, by the pressing and squeezing together that which is fluid, loses that which is held, — so when reason pursues too evident a perception of any one of the things subject to passion and change, it is deceived and led away, partly towards its generation and partly towards its corruption, being able to apprehend nothing either remaining or really subsisting. For we cannot, as Heraclitus says, step twice into the same river, or twice find any perishable substance in the same state; but by the suddenness and swiftness of the change, it disperses and again gathers together, comes and goes. Whence what is generated of it reaches not to the perfection of being, because the generation never ceases nor is at an end; but always changing, of seed it makes an embryo, next an infant, then a child, then a stripling, after that a young man, then a full-grown man, an elderly man, and lastly, a decrepit old man, corrupting the former generations and statures by the latter. But we ridiculously fear one death, having already so often died and still dying. For not only, as Heraclitus said, is the death of fire the generation of air, and the death of air the generation of water; but you may see this more plainly in men themselves; for the full-grown man perishes when the old man comes, as the youth terminated in the full-grown man, the child in the youth, the infant in the child. So yesterday died in today, and today dies in tomorrow; so that none remains nor is one, but we are generated many, according as matter glides and turns about one phantasm and common mould. For how do we, if we remain the same, delight now in other things than we delighted in before? How do we love, hate, admire, and contemn things contrary to the former? How do we use other words and other passions, not having the same form, figure, or understanding? For neither is it probable we should be thus differently affected without change, neither is he who changes the same. And if he is not the same, neither is he at all; but changing from the same, he changes also his being, being made one from another. But the sense is deceived through the ignorance of being, supposing that to be which appears.

§ 19. What then is it that has really a being? That which is eternal, unbegotten, and incorruptible, to which no time brings a change. For time is a certain movable thing appearing in connection with fleeting matter, always flowing and unstable, like a leaky vessel full of corruption and generation; of which the sayings “after” and “before,” “it has been” and “it shall be,” are of themselves a confession that it has no being. For to say that what not yet is or what has already ceased to be is in being, how foolish and absurd is it. And as for that on which we chiefly ground the under standing of time, — saying, the instant, present, and now, — this again reason wholly rejects and overthrows; for it is lost between the future and the past, like a flash of light, and is separated into two when we will behold it. Now if the same thing befalls Nature, which is measured by time, as does the time which measures it, there is nothing in it permanent or subsistent, but all things are either breeding or dying, according to their commixture with time. Whence also it is not lawful to say of any thing which is, that it was or shall be; for these are inclinations and departures and changes of that whose nature is not to continue in being.

§ 20. But God, we must say, is, and he is not in any time, but in eternity, which is immovable without time, and free from inclination, in which there is nothing first, or last, or newer; but being one, it has filled its eternal duration with one only “now”; and that only is which is really according to this, of which it cannot be said, that it either was or shall be, or that it begins or shall end. Thus ought those who worship to salute and invocate this Eternal Being, or else indeed, as some of the ancients have done, with this expression Εἶ ἕν- Eí én, Thou art one. For the Divinity is not many, as every one of us is made of ten thousand differences in affections, being a confused heap, filled with all diversities. But that which is must be one, as one must have a being. But diversity, which is esteemed to be different from being, goes forth to the generation of that which is not. Whence both the first of his names agrees rightly with this God, as do also the second and third. For he is called Apollo, as denying plurality and rejecting multitude; and Ieios, as being only one; and Phoebus was the name given by the ancients to every thing that is pure and chaste; as the Thessalians even to this day, if I am not mistaken, say of their priests, when on vacant days they keep themselves retired, that they purify themselves (φοιβονομεῖσθαι- foivonomeísthai). Now that which is one is sincere and pure. For pollution is by the mixture of one thing with another; as Homer, speaking of a piece of ivory dyed red, said it was “polluted” by the dye, and dyers say of mixed colors that they are corrupted, and call the mixture itself corruption. It is therefore always requisite for that which is incorruptible and pure to be one and unmixed.

§ 21. Now, as for those who think Apollo and the Sun to be the same, they are to be caressed and loved for their ingenuity, as placing the notion of God in that which they most reverence, of all things that they know and desire. And now, as if they were dreaming of God the most glorious dream, let us stir up and exhort them to ascend higher, and to contemplate his reality and his essence; but to honor also this his image (the Sun), and to venerate that generative faculty he has placed in it, since it exhibits in some sort by its brightness — as far as it is possible for a sensible thing to represent an intellectual, and a movable thing that which is permanent — certain manifestations and resemblances of his benignity and blessedness. But as for those his sallyings out and changes, when he casts forth fire, . . . and when he again draws himself in, afterwards extending himself into the earth, sea, winds, animals, and strange accidents both of animals and plants, they cannot so much as be hearkened to without impiety; or else God will be worse than the child in the poet, — who made himself sport with a heap of sand, first raised and then again scattered abroad by himself, — if he shall do the same in respect of the universe, first framing the world when it was not, and then destroying it when made. On the contrary, whatsoever of him is in any sort infused into the world, that binds together its substance, and restrains the corporeal weakness which tends to corruption. And it seems to me that this word is chiefly opposed to that doctrine, and that Εἶ, Thou art, is spoken to this God, as testifying that there is never in him any going forth or change. But to do and suffer this agrees to one of the other Gods, or rather Daemons, ordained to take care about Nature in generation and corruption; as is immediately manifest from their names, being wholly contrary and of different significations. For the one is called Apollo (or not many), the other Pluto (or many); the one Delius (from clearness), the other Aidoneus (from obscurity); the one Phoebus (or shining), the other Scotius (or dark); with the one are the Muses and Mnemosyne (or song and memory) with the other Lethe and Siope (or forgetfulness and silence). The one is (from contemplating and showing) named Theorius and Phanaeus; the other is Prince of dark night and sluggish sleep, whose fate Is that men him most of all Gods do hate. Of Apollo also Pindar not unpleasantly sung, that he The gentlest of all Gods to mortals is declared. And therefore Euripides rightly also said:

‘These mournful songs suit well with men deceased,
With which gold-haired Apollo’s no way pleased.”
And before him Stesichorus:

“Apollo joys in sports and pleasant tones; but Pluto takes delight in griefs and moans.”

Sophocles also evidently attributes to either of them his proper instruments, in these words:

“Neither the lute nor psaltery is fit For mournful matters.”

For it is but very lately, and in a manner of yesterday, that the pipe has dared to introduce itself into delightful matters; having in former times drawn men to mourning, and possessing about these things no very honorable or splendid employment. But afterwards all was brought into confusion, which was due especially to those who confounded the affairs of the Gods with those of the Genii. But the sentence, Know thyself, seems in one respect to contradict this word EI, and in another to agree with it. For the one is pronounced with admiration and veneration to God, as being eternal; and the other is a remembrance to mortal men of their nature and infirmity.’


Original Greek


Roman era coin depicting the EI at the tempe of Apollo in Delphi. From professor John Uebersax’s website.


Portrait of U.S. classical scholar William Watson Goodwin (May 9, 1831 – June 15, 1912) published in the January-June 1912 issue of the ‘American journal of archaeology’, volume 434.


More about Plutarch of Chaeronea: 🌿English translation source: 🌿About William Watson Goodwin: 🌿Professor John Uebersax’s Home Page:
Plutarch Of Chaeronea: From The Moralia- Of The Word ‘EI’ At Delphi

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