[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

This webpage reproduces the essay
Aquane an ignis utilior


as published in Vol. XII
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1957

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!

(Vol. XII) Plutarch, Moralia

 p287  Is Water or Fire More Useful?​a


The work appears in pp287‑307 of Vol. XII of the Loeb Classical Library's edition of the Moralia, first published in 1957. The Greek text and the English translation (by William Helmbold) are now in the public domain pursuant to the 1978 revision of the U. S. Copyright Code, since the copyright expired in 1985 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.)

 p288  Loeb Edition Introduction

There seems to be no reason to discuss this little work in detail, since F. H. Sandbach​1 has shown conclusively that it cannot be genuine. Still more might be added to his proofs, sound and thorough as they are; but this is not the place to slay the slain. It is the more to be regretted that Ziegler, in the article on Plutarch in Pauly-Wissowa, Realencyclopädie, has not had access to Sandbach's work,​2 though he does refer to Xylander's athetesis, only to reject it, and might have mentioned Meziriacus' as well.

Sandbach well observes: "To write an exercise on the comparative utility of fire and water may seem so difficult to us moderns who do not have such tasks as part of our education, that we do not recognize how badly the topic is here handled. . . . While it is possible that Plutarch wrote this work as a parody, or when a schoolboy, or under some strange circumstances, yet . . . the most probable view is that a miserable sophistical exercise on the subject Whether fire or water is more useful was fathered on the author of a diversion entitled Whether land- or water-animals are more intelligent, just as the Consolatio ad Apollonium  p289 was ascribed to the author of a consolation addressed to his wife, or the Lives of the Ten Orators to the author of some more famous biographies."

The text is extremely bad, as may be seen by examining Wegehaupt's topheavy​3 apparatus in Χάριτες für Friedrich Leo (Berlin, Weidmann, 1911), pp158‑169. It is possible, to be sure, that part at least of the difficulty of the text is due to the author. Less emendation than that admitted here might not seriously damage what is irreparable nonsense in any case. Some attempt has been made to reproduce the childish style of the original.

The work is no. 206 in the catalogue of Lamprias.​4

 p291  (955) 1 1 Water is best, but gold is a flaming fire,

Esays Pindar.​5 He, therefore, bluntly assigns the second place to fire; and Hesiod​6 agrees with him in the words

And first of all came Chaos into being;

for most people believe that this is his name for water because it flows (chysis).​7 Yet the balance of witnesses on both sides seems to be equal. There are, in fact, some​8 who state that fire is the first principle of the universe and, like a seed, creates everything out of itself and receives all things into itself when the conflagration occurs.​9 Ignoring the authors, let us examine the arguments on both sides and see where they will lead us.

2 1 Is not that element the more useful of which most of all, everywhere, invariably, we stand in need as a household tool Fand, I swear, a friend, ready to help us at any time, in any emergency? Yet fire is  p293 not always useful; sometimes, indeed, we find it too much and interrupt our use of it. But water is used both winter and summer, sick and well, night and day: 956 there is no time when a man does not need it. That, of course, is the reason why the dead are called alibantes, meaning that they are without libas, "moisture,"​10 and for lack of that deprived of life. Man has often existed without fire, but without water never. Besides, that which, from the beginning, was coincidental with the inception of man is more useful than that which was discovered later; for it is obvious that Nature bestowed the one as vitally necessary, while the other was brought to light by luck or contrivance for a superfluous use. Now, none may tell of a time when water was unknown to man, nor is any god or hero said to be its discoverer; it was, in fact, at hand instantly when man appeared and was itself the cause of his appearance. BBut the use of fire, they say,​11 was discovered only a day or two ago by Prometheus; <consequently all our preceding life was deprived of> fire, though it was not without water. And that this is no poetic fiction is proved by present modes of living; for there are certain races of man who live without fire, with no house or hearth, under the open sky. And Diogenes​12 the Cynic reduced the use of fire to a minimum, so that he even swallowed a squid raw, remarking, "Thus, gentlemen, do I risk my life for you." But  p295 without water no one ever thought it good, or even possible, to live.

3 1 And why do I split hairs by discussing merely human nature? For though there are many, or rather countless, sorts of creatures, Cman is practically the only one that knows the use of fire, while all the others live and feed without it: they subsist, whether they range abroad or fly or crawl, upon roots or produce or flesh, all without fire; but without water no creature of the sea or land or air ever existed. For even flesh-eating animals, some of which Aristotle​13 says do not drink, nevertheless keep alive by using the fluids in the flesh. That element, therefore, without which no living nature can subsist or endure is more useful.

4 1 Let us pass from the people who use fire to the things that we use, namely plants and produce,​14 of which some are completely devoid of heat, while others have an infinitesimal and uncertain amount. Moisture, however, is the element in nature that makes them all burgeon, growing and bearing fruit. DAnd why should I enumerate honey and wine and oil and all the rest that come to us from the vintage, the milking of herds, or taking off of honey — and it is obvious where they belong​15 — when even wheat itself, though it is classed as a dry food, moves into the category of liquids by alteration, fermentation, and deliquescence?16

5 1 Moreover, what is never detrimental is more  p297 useful. Now fire, when it forms a stream, is most destructive; but the nature of water is never harmful. Then again, of two elements that is more beneficial which is cheaper and provides its help without any preparation. Now the use of fire requires a supply of fuel, Efor which reason rich people have more of it than poor, and kings than private persons; but water has another merit in service to man, that of equality, with no discrimination. For it needs no tools or implements, being a self-sufficient, self-fulfilling good.

6 1 Then, too, that which by multiplication destroys its own contribution is the less useful. Such a thing is fire which, like an all-devouring beast, consumes everything near, so that it is useful rather by skilful handling and craft and moderation in use than by its own nature; but water is never dangerous. Further, of two things the one which may be joined with its fellow is more useful. Now fire does not admit moisture and is of no use when in conjunction with it; Fbut water is of service when combined with fire, for hot water is healing and well adapted to medicinal purposes. A watery fire you will never see; but water is as useful to mankind when hot as when cold.

7 1 Furthermore, though there are but four elements,​17 water provides from itself a fifth, so to say, the sea, 957 one no less beneficial than the others, especially for commerce among other things. This element, therefore, when our life was savage and unsociable, linked it together and made it complete, redressing defects by mutual assistance and exchange and so  p299 bringing about co‑operation and friendship. Now Heraclitus​18 declares, "If there were no sun, it would be perpetual night"; in the same way we may say that if there were no sea, man would be the most savage and destitute of all creatures. But as it is, the sea brought the Greeks the vine from India, from Greece transmitted the use of grain across the sea, from Phoenicia imported letters Bas a memorial against forgetfulness,​19 thus preventing the greater part of mankind from being wineless, grainless, and unlettered. How, then, should water not be more useful when it has the advantage over fire of one more element?20

8 1 What could anyone find to say on the other side from this point on? This, that God, the master workman, had as material four elements from which to construct the universe. Among these, again, there is a simple mutual distinction, namely, that earth and water are a foundation at the bottom of the universe, being, like raw material, the substance of which things are constructed and moulded, having just so much form and organization, and indeed of capacity for growth and procreation, as is imparted to them by the other elements, air and fire, Cwhich are makers and artisans and rouse them, lying lifeless as they were until then, to the act of creation. Between these two, again, fire and air, there is the distinction that fire assumes the rule and leader­ship. This is clear by induction:​21 earth without warmth  p301 is barren and unfruitful, but fire, when it takes possession and inflames, causes it to swell to the point of generation; and it is impossible to find any other reason why rocks and the bare bones of mountains are barren except that they have either no part at all, or very little share, in fire.

9 1 And, in general, water is so far from being self-sufficient for the preservation or generation of other things that the want of fire is water's destruction. For heat maintains everything in its proper being and keeps it in its proper substance, water itself as well as everything else. DWhen fire withdraws and fails, water putrefies: the dearth of heat is the death and destruction of water. It is, of course, marsh waters and such as are stagnant, some too that have drained into depressions with no outlet, that are bad​22 and finally putrefy​23 because they have very little motion, which preserves everything by stirring up its heat. This is the reason why we commonly say that those waters are "living" which have most motion and the strongest current; the heat is maintained by their motion. How, then, should that not be the more useful of two things which has provided what is necessary for the other's existence, as fire does for water? EAnd surely that is the more useful, the lack of which, if it be entirely taken away, causes the living creature to die. For it is obvious that anything without which a creature cannot live must have been a necessary cause of its existence, while it did exist. Now even corpses have moisture which does not entirely vanish; otherwise dead bodies would not  p303 putrefy, since putrefaction is not a change from dry to moist, but rather a corruption of the moisture in flesh. Death, then, is nothing but the total disappearance of heat and so dead men are extremely cold; if you attack them with a razor-blade, you will blunt the edge of it through excess of cold. FIn the living creature itself, too, the parts that have the least heat are the least sensitive, like bones and hair and the parts that are a long way from the heart. And, in general, the presence of fire makes a greater difference​24 than that of moisture; for it is not mere moisture that produces plants and fruits, but warm moisture; cold water, of course, is either less productive or not productive at all. Yet if by its own nature water were fruitful, it would always bear fruit by itself;​25 958 but on the contrary it is even harmful.

10 1 To begin again: for the use of fire as fire we do not need water; on the contrary, it would be in our way since it extinguishes and destroys it. But in most circumstances it is impossible to use water without fire. When water is heated, it is more useful; otherwise it is harmful. And it is heat which has made the sea more beneficial, its waters being warmer, since it differs from other waters in no other respect.​26 So that of two things, that is better which of itself lends us its use without need of the other. Besides,  p305 water is solely beneficial to the touch, when you wash or bathe in it; but fire is profitable to all the senses. It can, in fact, both be touched and seen from a distance, so that in addition to its other uses, Bthere is also its variegated character.

1127 For to say that man ever exists without fire is absurd, nor can he exist at all without it; but there are differences in kind as in other things. As for men who have no need of fire from without, they have this experience not because they do not need it, but because their own heat more than suffices. This must be predicated also of other animals which do not need fire.​28 So that in this respect, too, the use of fire is probably superior. Water is never in such a condition as to need no external support, but fire is self-sufficient because of its great excellence. CAs, then, a general is better who manages the affairs of his city so that it needs no allies from without, so also an element is superior which does not often need external assistance.

Yet, to take the opposite point of view, that is more useful which we alone make great use of, since by the powers of our reason we are able to choose what is better. For what is more useful and more profitable to man than reason? But brute beasts do not have it. What then? Is what has been discovered by the foresight of our better part for this reason less useful?

 p307  12 1 DAnd since we have arrived at this point in our argument: What is more profitable to life than Art? And it was fire that discovered and still preserves all the arts. That is why they make Hephaestus the first of artificers. Man has been granted but a little time to live and, as Ariston​29 says, sleep, like a tax-collector, takes away half of that. But I would rather say that it is a question of darkness; for although a man might stay awake all night, yet no good would come of his wakefulness if fire did not give him the benefits of day and remove the difference between day and night.​30 If, then, there is nothing more advantageous to man than life and life is many times increased by fire, how should fire not be the most useful of all things?

13 1 And, to be sure, will not that be the most advantageous of which each of the senses has the greatest proportion? EDo you not perceive, then, that there is no one of the senses which uses moisture by itself without an admixture of air or fire; and that every sense partakes of fire inasmuch as it supplies the vital energy; and especially that sight, the keenest of the physical senses,​31 is an ignited mass of fire​32 and is that which has made us believe​33 in the gods? And further, through sight, as Plato​34 says, we are able to conform our souls to the movements of the celestial bodies.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Class. Quart. XXXIII (1939), pp198‑202. G. Kowolski, De Plut. scriptorum iuvenilium colore rhetorico, Cracow, 1918, pp258 ff., also denied the authenticity.

2 This is very puzzling since Ziegler later (936) cites the same article as authoritative on rhythmical matters.

3 Wegehaupt collated some 34 MSS. for his edition, all of which he cites separately.

4 The new Teubner edition of this and the following essays appeared while this volume was in proof, so that only the most necessary changes and corrections could be made. In this essay (since Wegehaupt's edition was already available) they have not been so plentiful as in the subsequent ones, for which Hubert has now provided the first truly critical edition that these works have ever had.

5 Olympians, I.1.

6 Theogony, 116.

7 Etymologizing (as in Mor. 948E‑F supra) chaos from chysis, "diffusion of liquid."

8 The Stoics; cf., e.g., von Arnim, S. V. F. I, p27 (Zeno, frag. 98); cf. Mor. 1053A‑B; 1067A; 1077B.

9 On the Universal Conflagration of the Stoics see von Arnim, op. cit. II, pp183 ff.; on that of Heraclitus, Cherniss, Aristotle's Criticism of the Presocratics, p29, n. 108.

10 Cf. Mor. 736A; Galen, De Temperament. I.3 (I, p522 K.).

11 As, e.g., Aeschylus, Prometheus, 254. The following words in lozenge brackets are conjecturally supplied.

12 This anecdote is told with rather more point and relevance in 995C‑D infra.

13 Historia Animal. VIII.3 (601B).

14 "This must be one of the most remarkable transitions in literature" (Sandbach, op. cit. p200).

Thayer's Note: With the benefit of seventy years of scientific investigation since Sandbach wrote, and maybe of a more scientifically oriented mind, I find the transition remarkable in its understanding of life and its foreshadowing of modern biology. In our own time, we have come to understand that higher organisms, like animals and plants, can be viewed as very complex associations of very small and simple organisms living in water and using it as a medium of nourishment and exchange: the primordial soup of life in essence still exists inside each one of us, and cells and their components depend on water in much the same way as marine creatures depend on the sea. Most of this curious essay may be marginal, but even if accidentally, this one passage at least is right on target.

15 That is, they must be classed as liquids.

16 Cf. 968A infra: here, however, the author seems to be talking about beer.

17 Cf. Mor. 948D above; in 729B the sea is called the "naturally hostile element."

18 Diels-Kranz, Frag. der Vorsok. I.173, frag. B 99. In Mor. 98C a fuller and more appropriate version is given; but see now H. Fränkel, Wege und Formen, p270 and n. 1.

19 Cf. Euripides, frag. 578 (p542 Nauck).

20 For this delightful absurdity see Sandbach, op. cit. p199, n. 4.

21 Possibly; but the argument hardly demonstrates this. The text is corrupt and a different solution than that adopted here is proposed by M. Adler (Wien. Stud. XXXI.308).

22 That is, "salt," as, for example, the Dead Sea.

23 Cf. Mor. 1129D, 725D; Athenaeus, 46B‑C.

24 Or adopting Schultz's (Hermes, XLVI.632) emendation: "the difference between living and non‑living comes from the presence of fire"; but the text is hopelessly corrupt.

25 That is, without heat.

26 This sentence was transferred here from the following chapter by Wegehaupt.

27 The order of the sentences in this chapter, in addition to its many other corruptions, has been badly disturbed.

28 This clause was transferred here by the editor from 958C infra at the end of the paragraph.

29 Von Arnim, S. V. F. I, p90, frag. 403; cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I.13.12 (1102 B7).

30 A very corrupt passage. Adler's reconstruction (Wien. Stud. XXXI.308), with additions by Post, has been followed.

31 Cf. Plato, Phaedrus, 250D; cf. Mor. 654D‑E, 681E.

32 Cf. von Arnim, S. V. F. II, pp196, 199; but Post believes the words may mean "a chain of fire" linking the eye with its object.

33 It is the visible heavens and their fire that make us believe by "declaring the glory" of the celestial gods. See A. S. Pease, "Caeli Enarrant," Harvard Theological Review, XXXIV (1941), pp163‑200.

34 Timaeus, 47A‑B.

Thayer's Note:

a In the Loeb edition, the title is given thruout as Is Fire or Water More Useful?; but there seems to me no good reason for the change: it runs counter to the word order in the traditional Latin title and that in the edition's own facing Greek, and finally to the train of thought, such as it is, of the text itself.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 24 Feb 18