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This webpage reproduces the essay
On Superstition


as published in Vol. II
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1928

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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(Vol. II) Plutarch, Moralia


The work appears in pp452‑495 of Vol. II of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of the Moralia, first published in 1928. The Greek text and the English translation (by F. C. Babbitt) are now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1956 and was not renewed at the appropriate time, which would have been that year or the year before. (Details here on the copyright law involved.)

 p452  Loeb Edition Introduction

Plutarch's essay on Superstition is, in the main, an attempt to prove that superstition is worse than atheism. Its somewhat impassioned tone savours more of the emotional sermon than of the carefully reasoned discourse, and suggests that it was originally prepared for public presentation.

Wyttenbach was disturbed because in the catalogue of Lamprias, in which this essay is No. 155, the title is given as Περὶ δεισιδαιμονίας πρὸς Ἐπίκουρον, and he thought that this title might refer to some other treatise of Plutarch. The explanation is so simple that the only surprising thing is that it should have escaped a man of Wyttenbach's acumen. On the first page of the essay are the words, "the universe . . . atoms and void . . . assumption is false." Then, as now, librarians and reviewers looked at the first page, and reached their conclusions; so it was only natural that the compiler of the catalogue should conclude that the rest of the book was equally hostile to Epicurus. On the other hand, this affords interesting evidence that the compiler of the catalogue of Lamprias probably had a copy of Plutarch's works before him when he drew up his list.

The MS. tradition of this essay is better than of many others, and one MS. (D) has preserved many  p453 excellent readings.​1 Only one passage, a quotation (170B), presents serious difficulty, and of this Professor Goodwin remarked: "As to the original Greek, hardly a word can be made out with certainty."

Mention should be made of a separate edition and a parallel English translation of this essay in a book entitled "Περὶ δεισιδαιμονίας. Plutarchus and Theophrastus on Superstition with various appendices and a life of Plutarchus. Printed A.D. 1828. (Privately) printed by Julian Hibbert . . . Kentish Town." The translation is very literal, but is sometimes an improvement on that of William Baxter in the translation of Plutarch by "Several Hands" (London, 1684‑94). Intimate and amusing is the preface of the author, who, in his notes, admits that he has never read Plato, but ends his Preface by consigning all 'Greek Scholars' to the special care of Beelzebub."

A spirited defence of this essay (if any defence is needed) may be found in John Oakesmith's The Religion of Plutarch (London, 1902), chap. IX pp179 ff.

 p455  (164) 1 1   [link to original Greek text] Ignorance and blindness in regard to the gods divides itself at the very beginning into two streams, of which the one produces in hardened characters, as it were in stubborn soils, atheism, and the other in tender characters, as in moist soils, produces superstition.​2 Every false judgement, and especially concerning these matters, is a mischievous thing; but where emotion also enters, it is most mischievous. For every emotion is likely to be a delusion that rankles; Fand just as dislocations of the joints accompanied by lacerations are hardest to deal with, so also is it with derangements of the soul accompanied by emotion.

A man thinks that in the beginning the universe was created out of atoms and void.​3 165His assumption is false, but it causes no sore, no throbbing, no agitating pain.

A man assumes that wealth is the greatest good. This falsehood contains venom, it feeds upon his 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.

Again, some people think that virtue and vice are corporeal.​4 This piece of ignorance is disgraceful,  p457 perhaps, but it is not worthy of wailings or lamentations. But consider judgements and assumptions that are like this:

Poor virtue! A mere name thou art, I find,

But I did practise thee as real!​5

and thereby I gave up wrongdoing which is productive of wealth, and licentiousness which begets every sort of pleasure. These it is right and proper that we pity, and at the same time loathe, Bbecause their presence engenders many distempers and emotions, like maggots and grubs, in men's souls.

2 1   [link to original Greek text] To come now to our subject: atheism, which is a sorry judgement that there is nothing blessed or incorruptible, seems, by disbelief in the Divinity, to lead finally to a kind of utter indifference, and the end which it achieves in not believing in the existence of gods is not to fear them. But, on the other hand, superstition, as the very name (dread of deities) indicates, is an emotional idea and an assumption productive of a fear which utterly humbles and crushes a man, for he thinks that there are gods, but that they are the cause of pain and injury. In fact, the atheist, apparently, is unmoved regarding the Divinity, Cwhereas the superstitious man is moved as he ought not to be, and his mind is thus perverted. For in the one man ignorance engenders disbelief in the one who can help him, and on the other it bestows the added idea that He causes injury. Whence it follows that atheism is falsified reason, and superstition is an emotion engendered from false reason.

3 1   [link to original Greek text] Clear it is that all distempers and emotions of the soul are disgraceful, but in some of them are to  p459 be found pride, loftiness, and exaltation, owing to their uplifting power; and no one of them, we might say, is destitute of an impulse to activity. But this general complaint may be made against every one of the emotions, that by their urgings to be up and doing they press hard upon the reasoning power and strain it. DBut fear alone, lacking no less in boldness than in power to reason, keeps its irrationality impotent, helpless, and hopeless. It is on this ground that the power of fear to tie down the soul, and at the same time to keep it awake, has come to be named both terror and awe.6

Of all kinds of fear the most impotent and helpless is superstitious fear. No fear of the sea has he who does not sail upon it, nor of war he who does not serve in the army, nor of highwaymen he who stays at home, nor of a blackmailer he who is poor, nor of envy he who holds no office, nor of earthquake he who is in Gaul,​7 nor of the lightning-stroke he who is in Ethiopia; but he who fears the gods fears all things, Eearth and sea, air and sky, darkness and light, sound and silence, and a dream. Slaves in their sleep forget their masters, sleep makes light the chains of prisoners, and the inflammations surrounding wounds, the savage gnawing of ulcers in the flesh, and tormenting pains are removed from those who are fallen asleep:

Dear soothing balm of sleep to help my ill,

How sweet thy coming in mine hour of need.​8

Superstition does not give one a right to say this;  p461 for superstition alone makes no truce with sleep, and never gives the soul a chance to recover its breath and courage by putting aside its bitter and despondent notions Fregarding God; but, as it were in the place of torment of the impious, so in the sleep of the superstitious their malady calls up fearful images, and horrible apparitions and divers forms of punishment, and, by keeping the unhappy soul on the rack, chases it away from sleep by its dreams, lashed and punished by its own self as if by another, and forced to comply with dreadful and extraordinary behests. When, later, such persons arise from their beds, they do not contemn nor ridicule these things, nor realize that not one of the things that agitated them was really true, but, trying to escape the shadow of a delusion 166that has nothing bad at the bottom, during their waking hours they delude and waste and agitate themselves, putting themselves into the hands of conjurors and impostors who say to them:

If a vision in sleep is the cause of your fear

And the troop of dire Hecate felt to be near,​9

then call in the old crone who performs magic purifications, dip yourself in the ocean, and sit down on the ground and spend the whole day there.

Greeks from barbarians finding evil ways!​10

because of superstition, such as smearing with mud, wallowing in filth, immersions, casting oneself down with face to the ground, disgraceful besieging of the gods, and uncouth prostrations. "To sing with the mouth aright" was the injunction given to the harp-players by those who thought to preserve the good old forms of music; Band we hold it to be  p463 meet to pray to the gods with the mouth straight and aright, and not to inspect the tongue laid upon the sacrificial offering to see that it be clean and straight, and, at the same time, by distorting and sullying one's own tongue with strange names and barbarous phrases, to disgrace and transgress the god-given ancestral dignity of our religion.

Nor is there lack of humour in what the comic poet​11 has somewhat said with reference to those who cover their bedsteads with gold and silver:

The one free gift the gods bestow on us,

Our sleep, why make its cost to you so much?

CBut to the superstitious man it is possible to say, "The gift of sleep which the gods bestow on us as a time of forgetfulness and respite from our ills; why do you make this an everlastingly painful torture-chamber for yourself, since your unhappy soul cannot run away to some other sleep?" Heracleitus​12 says that people awake enjoy one world in common, but of those who are fallen asleep each roams about in a world of his own. But the superstitious man enjoys no world in common with the rest of mankind; for neither when awake does he use his intelligence, nor when fallen asleep is he freed from his agitation, but his reasoning power is sunk in dreams, his fear is ever wakeful, and there is no way of escape or removal.

4 1   [link to original Greek text] A despot much feared in Samos was Polycrates, as was Periander in Corinth, but nobody feared these men Dafter he had removed to a free State governed by its own people. But as for the man who fears  p465 the rule of the gods as a sullen and inexorable despotism, where can he remove himself, where can he flee, what country can he find without gods, or what sea? Into what part of the universe shall you steal away and hide yourself, poor wretch, and believe that you have escaped God? There is a law even for slaves who have given up all hope of freedom, that they may demand a sale, and thus exchange their present master for one more mild. But superstition grants no such exchange; and to find a god whom he shall not fear is impossible for him who fears the gods of his fathers and his kin, who shudders at his saviours, Eand trembles with terror at those gentle gods from whom we ask wealth, welfare, peace, concord, and success in our best efforts in speech and action.

Then again these same persons hold slavery to be a misfortune, and say,

For man or woman 'tis disaster dire

Sudden to be enslaved, and masters harsh

To get.​13

But how much more dire, think you, is the lot of those for whom there is no escape, no running away, no chance to revolt? For a slave there is an altar to which he can flee, and there are many of our shrines where even robbers may find sanctuary, and men who are fleeing from the enemy, if once they lay hold upon a statue of a god, or a temple, take courage again. These are the very things that most inspire a shuddering fear and dread in the superstitious man, and yet it is in them that those who in fear of the most dreadful fate place their hopes. Do not drag the superstitious man  p467 away from his shrines, Ffor it is in them that he suffers punishment and retribution.

What need to speak at length? "In death is the end of life for all men,"​14 but not the end of superstition; for superstition transcends the limits of life into the far beyond, making fear to endure longer than life, and connecting with death the thought of undying evils, and holding fast to the opinion, at the moment of ceasing from trouble, that now is the beginning of those that never cease. 167The abysmal gates of the nether world swing open, rivers of fire and offshoots of the Styx are mingled together, darkness is crowded with spectres of many fantastic shapes which beset their victim with grim visages and piteous voices, and, besides these, judges and torturers and yawning gulfs and deep recesses teeming with unnumbered woes. Thus unhappy superstition, by its excess of caution in trying to avoid everything suggestive of dread, unwittingly subjects itself to every sort of dread.

5 1   [link to original Greek text] Nothing of this kind attaches to atheism, but its ignorance is distressing, and to see amiss or not to see at all in matters of such importance is a great misfortune for the soul; Bfor it is as if the soul had suffered the extinction of the brightest and most dominant of its many eyes, the conception of God. But superstition is attended by emotion, as has already been said,​15 and by sore distress and disturbance and mental enslavement from the very beginning. Plato​16 says that music, the creator of  p469 harmony and order, was given to mankind by the gods not for the sake of pampering them or tickling their ears, but so that whatever in a man's body is disturbing and errant, affecting the cycles and concords of the soul, and in many instances, for lack of culture and refinement, waxing wanton because of licentiousness and error, Cmusic should, in its own way, disengage and bring round and restore to its proper place again.

Whatsoever things there be

Which by Zeus are not held dear,

says Pindar,17

In affrighted panic flee

When the Muses' voice they hear.

In fact they become provoked and angry; and tigers, they say, surrounded by the sounds of beaten drums go utterly mad, and get so excited that they end by tearing themselves to pieces.​18 There is less harm, therefore, for those who, as the result of deafness or impairment of hearing, have a feeling of indifference and insensibility toward music. Teiresias laboured under a misfortune in not being able to see his children or his intimate friends, but greater was the misfortune of Athamas​19a and Agave,​19b who saw them as lions and deer; Dand for Heracles​19c in his madness it would undoubtedly have been better neither to see his sons, nor to realize that they were present, than to treat his nearest and dearest as enemies.

6 1   [link to original Greek text] What then? Does it not seem to you that the feeling of the atheists compared with the superstitious presents just such a difference? The former do not see the gods at all, the latter think that they do exist and are evil. The former disregard them, the latter conceive their kindliness to be frightful,  p471 their fatherly solicitude to be despotic, their loving care to be injurious, their slowness to anger to be savage and brutal. Then again such persons give credence to workers in metal, stone, or wax, who make their images of gods in the likeness of human beings,​20 Eand they have such images fashioned, and dress them up, and worship them. But they hold in contempt philosophers and statesmen, who try to prove that the majesty of God is associated with goodness, magnanimity, kindliness, and solicitude. So the atheists have more than enough of indifference and distrust of the Beings who can help them, whereas the superstitious experience equal agitation and fear towards the things that can help them. Or, in fine, atheism is an indifferent feeling toward the Deity, which has no notion of the good, and superstition is a multitude of differing feelings with an underlying notion that the good is evil. For the superstitious fear the gods, and flee to the gods for help; they flatter them and assail them with abuse, pray to them and blame them. FIt is the common lot of mankind not to enjoy continual good fortune in all things.

Age and illness not their lot,

Toil and labour they know not,

'Scaped is Acheron's loud strait,

says Pindar​21 of the gods, but human experiences and actions are linked with chance circumstances which move now in one course and now in another.

7 1   [link to original Greek text] Come now, observe the atheist in circumstances not desired by him, and take note of his attitude. If he be moderate in general, you will note that he takes  p473 his present fortune without a word, and tries to procure for himself means of help and comfort; but if he be given to impatience or violent emotion, you will note that he directs all his complaints against Fortune and Chance, 168and exclaims that nothing comes about according to right or as the result of providence, but that the course of all human affairs is confusion and disorder, and that they are all being turned topsy-turvy. This, however, is not the way of the superstitious man; but if even the slightest ill befall him, he sits down and proceeds to construct, on the basis of his trouble, a fabric of harsh, momentous, and practically unavoidable experiences which he must undergo, and he also loads himself with fears and frights, suspicions and trepidations, and all this he bitterly assails with every sort of lamentation and moaning. For he puts the responsibility for his lot upon no man nor upon Fortune nor upon occasion nor upon himself, but lays the responsibility for everything upon God, Band says that from that source a heaven-sent stream of mischief has come upon him with full force; and he imagines that it is not because he is unlucky, but because he is hateful to the gods, that he is being punished by the gods, and that the penalty he pays and all that he is undergoing are deserved because of his own conduct.

The atheist, when he is ill, takes into account and calls to mind the times when he has eaten too much or drunk too much wine, also irregularities in his daily life, or instances of over-fatigue or unaccustomed changes of air or locality; and again when he has given offence in administering office, and has encountered disrepute with the masses or calumny with  p475 a ruler, he looks to find the reason in himself and his own surroundings:

Where did I err, and what have I done? What duty of mine was neglected?​22

But in the estimation of the superstitious man, every indisposition of his body, Closs of property, deaths of children, or mishaps and failures in public life are classed as "afflictions of God" or "attacks of an evil spirit."​23 For this reason he has no heart to relieve the situation or undo its effects, or to find some remedy for it or to take a strong stand against it, lest he seem to fight against God and to rebel at his punishment; but when he is ill the physician is ejected from the house, and when he is in grief the door is shut on the philosopher who would advise and comfort him. "Oh, sir," he says, "leave me to pay my penalty, impious wretch that I am, accursed, and hateful to the gods and all the heavenly host."24

DIt is possible in the case of a man unconvinced of the existence of the gods, when he is in grief and great distress in other ways, to wipe away a tear, cut his hair, and take off his cloak; but what words can you address to the superstitious man, or in what way shall you help him? He sits outside his house with sackcloth on and filthy rags about him; and oftentimes he rolls naked in the mire as he confesses divers sins and errors of his — eating this or drinking that, or walking in a path forbidden by his conscience. But if he is very fortunate, and but mildly yoked with  p477 superstition, he sits in his house, subjecting himself to fumigation, and smearing himself with mud, and the old crones, as Bion says, E"bring whatever chance directs and hang and fasten it on him as on a peg."

8 1   [link to original Greek text] Tiribazus, they say, when an attempt was made by the Persians to arrest him, drew his sword, being a man of great strength, and fought desperately. But when the men protested and cried out that they were arresting him by the King's command, he instantly threw down his sword and held out his hands to be bound.​25 Is not what actually happens just like this? The rest of men fight desperately against misfortunes, and force their way through difficulties, contriving for themselves means to escape and avert things undesired; but the superstitious man, without a word from anybody, Fsays all to himself, "This you have to undergo, poor soul, by the dispensation of Providence and by God's command," and casts away all hope, gives himself up, runs away, and repulses those who would help him.

Many ills of no great moment are made to result fatally by men's superstition. Midas of old, dispirited and disturbed, as it appears, as the result of some dreams, reached such a state of mind that he committed suicide by drinking bull's blood.​26 And Aristodemus, king of the Messenians in the war against the Spartans, when dogs howled like wolves, and quitch-grass began to grow around his ancestral  p479 hearth, and the seers were alarmed by these signs, lost heart and hope by his forebodings, and slew himself by his own hand.​27 169It would perhaps have been the best thing in the world for Nicias, general of the Athenians, to have got rid of his superstition in the same way as Midas and Aristodemus, rather than to be affrighted at the shadow on the moon in eclipse and sit inactive while the enemy's wall was being built around him, and later to fall into their hands together with forty thousand men, who were either slain or captured alive, and himself meet an inglorious end.​28 For the obstruction of light caused by the earth's coming between sun and moon is nothing frightful, nor is the meeting of a shadow with the moon at the proper time in its revolutions anything frightful, but frightful is the darkness of superstition falling upon man, Band confounding and blinding his power to reason in circumstances that most loudly demand the power to reason.

Glaucus, see, the mighty ocean

Even now with billows roars,

Round about the Gyrian summits

Sheer in air a dark cloud soars,

Sign of storm . . .;​29

when the pilot sees this, he prays that he may escape the storm, and calls upon the Saviours,​30 but while he is praying he throws the helm over, lowers the yard, and

 p481  Furling the big main sail,

Hastens to make his escape

Out from the murky sea.​31

Hesiod advises​32 that the farmer before ploughing and sowing should

Pray to Zeus of the world below and to holy Demeter

Cwith his hand on the plough-handle; and Homer says​33 that Ajax, as he was about to engage in single combat with Hector, bade the Greeks pray to the gods for him, and then, while they were praying, donned his armour; and when Agamemnon enjoined​34 on the fighting men,

See that each spear is well sharpened, and each man's shield in good order,

at the same time he asked in prayer from Zeus,

Grant that I raze to the level of earth the palace of Priam;​35

for God is brave hope, not cowardly excuse. But the Jews,​36 because it was the Sabbath day, sat in their places immovable, while the enemy were planting ladders against the walls and capturing the defences, and they did not get up, but remained there, fast bound in the toils of superstition as in one great net.

9 1   [link to original Greek text] DSuch are the characteristics of superstition in undesired and critical (as they are called) circumstances and occasions, but it is not one bit better than atheism even under pleasurable conditions. The pleasantest things that men enjoy are festal  p483 days and banquets at the temples, initiations and mystic rites, and prayer and adoration of the gods. Note that the atheist on these occasions gives way to insane and sardonic laughter at such ceremonies, and remarks aside to his cronies that people must cherish a vain and silly conceit to think that these rites are performed in honour of the gods; but with him no harm is done save this. On the other hand the superstitious man, much as he desires it, is not able to rejoice or be glad:

The city is with burning incense filled;

EFull too of joyous hymns and doleful groans​37

is the soul of the superstitious man. When the garland is on his head he turns pale, he offers sacrifice and feels afraid, he prays with quavering voice, with trembling hands he sprinkles incense, and, in a word, proves how foolish are the words of Pythagoras,​38 who said that we reach our best when we draw near to the gods. For that is the time when the superstitious fare most miserably and wretchedly, for they approach the halls or temples of the gods as they would approach bears' dens or snakes' holes or the haunts of monsters of the deep.

10 1   [link to original Greek text] Hence it occurs to me to wonder at those who say that atheism is impiety, Fand do not say the same of superstition. Yet Anaxagoras was brought to trial for impiety on the ground that he had said the sun is a stone; but nobody has called the Cimmerians impious because they do not believe even in the existence of the sun at all.​39 What say you? The  p485 man who does not believe in the existence of the gods is unholy? And is not he who believes in such gods as the superstitious believe in a partner to opinions far more unholy? Why, for my part, I should prefer that men should say about me that I have never been born at all, and there is no Plutarch, 170rather than that they should say "Plutarch is an inconstant fickle person, quick-tempered, vindictive over little accidents, pained at trifles. If you invite others to dinner and leave him out, or if you haven't the time and don't go to call on him, or fail to speak to him when you see him, he will set his teeth into your body and bite it through, or he will get hold of your little child and beat him to death, or he will turn the beast that he owns into your crops and spoil your harvest."40

When Timotheus, in a song at Athens, spoke of Artemis as

Ecstatic bacchic frantic fanatic,​41

Cinesias, the song-writer, standing up in his place among the audience, Bexclaimed, "May you have a daughter like that!" It is a fact that the superstitious make assumptions like that, and even worse than that, about Artemis:

If hasting in fear from a hanging corpse,

If near to a woman in childbirth pain,

If come from a house where the dead are mourned,

Polluted you entered the holy shrine,

Or if from the triple cross-roads come

 p487  Drawn to the place by cleansing rites

For the part you bear to the guilty one.​42

And they think no more reasonably than this about Apollo and about Hera and about Aphrodite. For they tremble at all of these and dread them. And yet what did Niobe say regarding Leto that was so irreverent as the belief which superstition has fixed in the minds of the unthinking regarding the goddess, that, Cbecause she was derided, she required that the unhappy woman's

Daughters six that she bore and six sons in the prime of young manhood​43

be shot dead? So insatiable was she in doing harm to others, and so implacable! For if it were really true that the goddess cherishes anger, and hates wickedness, and is hurt at being ill spoken of, and does not laugh at man's ignorance and blindness, but feels indignation thereat, she ought to require the death of those who falsely impute to her such savagery and bitterness, and tell and write such stories. At any rate, we bring forward the bitterness of Hecuba as something barbaric and savage when she says,

DI wish I might eat up his liver,

Biting it 'tween my teeth.​44

And yet of the Syrian goddess​45 the superstitious  p489 believe that if anybody eats sprats or anchovies, she will gnaw through the bones of his shins, inflame his body with sores, and dissolve his liver.

11 [link to original Greek text] Is it, then, an unholy thing to speak meanly of the gods, but not unholy to have a mean opinion of them? Or does the opinion of him who speaks malignly make his utterance improper? It is a fact that we hold up malign speaking as a sign of animosity, and those who speak ill of us we regard as enemies, since we feel that they must also think ill of us. You see what kind of thoughts the superstitious have about the gods; Ethey assume that the gods are rash, faithless, fickle, vengeful, cruel, and easily offended; and, as a result, the superstitious man is bound to hate and fear the gods. Why not, since he thinks that the worst of his ills are due to them, and will be due to them in the future? As he hates and fears the gods, he is an enemy to them. And yet, though he dreads them, he worships them and sacrifices to them and besieges their shrines; and this is nothing surprising; for it is equally true that men give welcome to despots, and pay court to them, and erect golden statues in their honour, but in their hearts they hate them and "shake their head."​46 Hermolaüs​47 attended upon Alexander, Pausanias​48 served as bodyguard for Philip, and Chaerea​49 for Gaius Caligula, Fyet each one of these must have said as he followed along:

Verily I would have vengeance if only my strength were sufficient.​50

 p491  The atheist thinks there are no gods; the superstitious man wishes there were none, but believes in them against his will; for he is afraid not to believe. And yet, as Tantalus would be glad indeed to get out from under the rock suspended above his head, so the superstitious man would be glad to escape his fear by which he feels oppressed no less than Tantalus by his rock, and he would call the condition of the atheist happy because it is a state of freedom. But, as things are, the atheist has neither part nor lot in superstition, whereas the superstitious man by preference would be an atheist, but is too weak to hold the opinion about the gods which he wishes to hold.

12 1   [link to original Greek text] 171Moreover, the atheist has no part in causing superstition, but superstition provides the seed from which atheism springs, and when atheism has taken root, superstition supplies it with a defence, not a true one or a fair one, but one not destitute of some speciousness. For it is not because these people saw in the heavens anything to find fault with, or anything not harmonious or well-ordered in the stars or seasons, or in the revolutions of the moon or in the movements of the sun around the earth, "artisans of day and night,"​51 or in the feeding and growth of living creatures, or in the sowing and harvesting of crops, as the result of which they decided against the idea of a God in the universe; but the ridiculous actions and emotions of superstition, its words and gestures, Bmagic charms and spells, rushing about and beating of drums, impure purifications and dirty sanctifications, barbarous and outlandish penances and mortifications at the shrines — all these give occasion to some to say that it were better there should be no gods at all than gods who accept with  p493 pleasure such forms of worship, and are so overbearing, so petty, and so easily offended.

13 1   [link to original Greek text] Would it not then have been better for those Gauls​52 and Scythians​53 to have had absolutely no conception, no vision, no tradition, regarding the gods, than to believe in the existence of gods who take delight in the blood of human sacrifice Cand hold this to be the most perfect offering and holy rite? Again, would it not have been far better for the Carthaginians to have taken Critias or Diagoras​54 to draw up their law-code at the very beginning, and so not to believe in any divine power or god, rather than to offer such sacrifices as they used to offer to Cronos?​55 These were not in the manner that Empedocles describes​56 in his attack on those who sacrifice living creatures:

Changed in form is the son beloved of his father so pious,

Who on the altar lays him and slays him. What folly!

No, but with full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; Dmeanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money,​57 and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums took the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people. Yet,  p495 if Typhons or Giants were ruling over us after they had expelled the gods, with what sort of sacrifices would they be pleased, or what other holy rites would they require? Amestris, the wife of Xerxes, caused twelve human beings to be buried alive​58 as an offering in her behalf to propitiate Hades, of whom Plato says​59 that it is because he is humane and wise and rich, Eand controls the souls of the dead by persuasion and reason, that he has come to be called by this name. Xenophanes, the natural philosopher, seeing the Egyptians beating their breasts and wailing at their festivals, gave them a very proper suggestion: "If these beings are gods," said he, "do not bewail them; and if they are men, do not offer sacrifices to them."60

14 1   [link to original Greek text] But there is no infirmity comprehending such a multitude of errors and emotions, and involving opinions so contradictory, or rather antagonistic, as that of superstition. We must try, therefore, to escape it in some way which is both safe and expedient, and not be like people who incautiously and blindly run hither and thither to escape from an attack of robbers or wild beasts, or from a fire, Fand rush into trackless places that contain pitfalls and precipices. For thus it is that some persons, in trying to escape superstition, rush into a rough and hardened atheism, thus overleaping true religion which lies between.61

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 In spite of the fact that Pohlenz in his preface to Vol. I (Leipzig, 1925) of the Moralia (p. xiv) uses these words: "Codicem Paris D e recensione libidinosissima ortum!" Paton, who edited this essay, accepts the readings of D a good part of the time, and his edition would have been more intelligible had he accepted them more often.

2 Cf. Plutarch, Life of Alexander, chap. lxxv (p. 706B) and Life of Camillus, chap. vi (p. 132C).

3 Aimed at the theories of Epicurus, and possibly of Democritus.

4 Aimed at the Stoics, who referred all qualities to the body. Cf. Plutarch, Moralia, 1084A.

5 Author unknown; cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p910, Adespota, No. 374.

6 The derivations of "terror" from "tie," and "awe" from "awake" are not more fanciful than those in which Plutarch indulges.

7 Cf. Aristotle, Ethica Nicomachea, III.7, and Pliny, Natural History, II.80 (195).

8 Euripides, Orestes, 211‑12.

9 Author unknown; cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p910, Adespota, No. 375.

10 Euripides, The Trojan Women, 764.

11 Probably some poet of the new Comedy; cf. Kock, Com. Att. Frag. III p438.

12 Diels, Fragmenteº der Vorsokratiker, I p95.

13 From an unknown tragic poet; cf. Nauck, Trag. Graec. Frag. p910, Adespota, No. 376.

14 From Demosthenes, Or. XVIII (On the Crown), 97; quoted again in Moralia, 333C.

15 Supra165B.

16 Adapted freely from the Timaeus, p. 47D.

17 Pythian Odes, I.13 (25); quoted also in Moralia, 746B and 1095E.

18 Cf. Moralia, 144D.

19a 19b 19c All these were victims of a god-sent madness.

20 Or, as given in most MSS., "that the bodies of the gods are like the bodies of men."

21 Frag. 143 (ed. Christ). Cited by Plutarch again in Moralia, 763C and 1075A.

22 Pythagoras, Carmina aurea, 42; quoted again in Moralia, 515F.

23 Cf. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, II.29 (72).

24 Perhaps the language was suggested by the words in Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 1340.

25 Plutarch, in his Life of Artaxerxes, chap. xxix (p. 1026C), represents Tiribazus as fighting to the end, but this may have been on another occasion.

26 Plutarch, in trying to be a physician of the soul to cure superstition, has here unwittingly turned homoeopath. Cf. B. Perrin's note on chap. xxxi (p. 128A) of the Life of Themistocles in Plutarch's Themistocles and Aristides (New York, 1901), page 256. To the references there given should be added Nicander, Alexipharmaca, 312.

27 Other portents which disheartened Aristodemus are related by Pausanias, IV.13.

28 The details regarding Nicias are to be found in Thucydides, VII.35‑87, and in Plutarch's Life of Nicias, chap. xxiii (p. 538D) ff.

29 A fragment from Archilochus; cf. Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. II p696, Archilochus, No. 54.

Thayer's Note: Quoted also in Theophrastus, de Signis, 45; and see the editor's note there.

30 Castor and Pollux.

31 Cf. Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. III p730; Plutarch, Moralia, 475F, and Nauck Trag. Graec. Frag. p910, Adespota, No. 377.

32 Works and Days, 465‑8.

33 Homer, Il. VII.193 ff.

34 Ibid. II.382.

35 Adapted from Homer, Il. II.413‑414.

36 Perhaps the reference is to the capture of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 B.C. (cf. Dion Cassius, XXXVII.16), or possibly to its capture by Antony in 38 B.C. (cf. Dio Cassius, XLIX.22). Cf. also Josephus, Antiquitates Jud. XII.6.2, and 1 Maccabees, ii.32 ff.

37 Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, 4; quoted also in Moralia, 95C, 445D, and 623C.

38 Cf. Moralia, 413B.

39 Cf. Homer, Od. XI.13‑19.

40 Probably a covert reference to Artemis who sent the Calydonian boar to ravage the fields: Homer, Il. IX.533 ff.

41 Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. III p620, Timotheus, No. 1; cf. Plutarch, Moralia, 22A.

42 Cf. Bergk, Poet. Lyr. Graec. III p680; Lobeck, Aglaophamus, p633, and Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Lesebuch (Berlin, 1902), p336.

43 Adapted from Homer, Il. XXIV.604.

44 Homer, Il. XXIV.212.

45 Cf., for example, Athenaeus, 346D, or Kock, Com. Attic. Frag. III p167, Menander, No. 544.

46 Sophocles, Antigone, 291.

47 Cf. Plutarch, Life of Alexander, chap. lv (p. 696C).

48 It is said that Pausanias later helped to kill Philip. Cf. Aristotle, Politics, V.10; Diodorus Siculus, XV.94‑95; Aelian, Varia Historia, III.45; Valerius Maximus, I.8, ext. 9.

49 Cassius Chaerea fomented the conspiracy which resulted in the death of Caligula; cf. Tacitus, AnnalsI.32; Suetonius, Caligula, 56‑58.

50 Homer, Il. XXII.20.

51 Adapted from Plato, Timaeus, p. 40C. Plutarch quotes the phrase more accurately in Moralia, 937E, 938E, and 1006E.

52 Cf. Caesar, Gallic War, VI.16 and Strabo, IV.4.5.

53 Cf. Herodotus, IV.70‑72.

54 Both Critias and Diagoras were famous atheists of antiquity. Cf. Sextus Empiricus, Adversus Mathematicos, IX.54; Plutarch, Moralia, 880D, 1075A.

55 Plutarch says (Moralia, 175A and 522A) that the practice was stopped by Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, after his victory over the Carthaginians in 480 B.C. But cf. Diodorus, XX.14, which suggests that the practice was later revived. Cronos here is, of course, the Greek equivalent of the Phoenician El (Hebrew Moloch or Baal). Cf.  G. F. Moore in the Journal of Biblical Lit. XVI (1897), p161.

56 Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, I p275.

57 Since the bad omen of her conduct would nullify the good effect of the sacrifice.

58 Herodotus, VII.114; but compare III.35.

59 The reference is probably to Plato, Cratylus, pp. 403A‑404B, where are repeated the popular etymologies of Pluto from πλοῦτος (wealth), and Hades from πάντα τὰ καλὰ εἰδέναι (all-knowing of good).

60 The saying is quoted also in Moralia, 379B and 763C, and referred to in 228E, cf. also Aristotle, Rhetoric, II.23, 27.

61 An application of the Aristotelian doctrine that virtue is the mean between two extremes (vices).

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