“Moralia: On Fate and Divine Justice” by Plutarch

Divine Justice Transcends Time and Space

Plutarch points out that the notion of justice presupposes the persistence of identity, not only of an individual, but of a family, a race and a nation. An individual goes through many changes in his lifetime, from a newborn baby, to a child, an adult and an old man. How can anyone be held responsible for his past action if he is no longer the same person who committed it? In the same vein, though a family, a race or a nation changes over time and space, it is still accountable for the deeds of its ancestors.

We are more apt to wonder at distances of time than those of space. And yet there is more reason to wonder, that Athens should be infected with an epidemic contagion taking its rise in Ethiopia, that Pericles should die and Thucydides be smitten with the infection, than that, upon the impiety of the Delphians and Sybarites, delayed vengeance should at length overtake their posterity. For these hidden powers and properties have their sacred connections and correspondences between their utmost endings and their first beginnings; of which although the causes be concealed from us, yet silently they bring to pass their proper effects.

A schoolmaster who strikes one boy admonishes others, a general who executes one man in ten inspires his whole army with respect, and that in this way certain dispositions, afflictions, and corrections are transmitted not only to one part through another, but also to one soul through another, and indeed more readily than through the body. For when the transmission is through the body, the same affection and change must take place in both parts; whereas the nature of the soul is such that it is guided by imagination to feel assurance or terror, and thus fare better or worse.

On Fate

Plato has indicated fate as an activity (a) in Phaedrus 248c, “This is the ordinance of Adrasteia [Destiny], if a soul have accompanied a god and beheld aught of reality, it shall suffer nought until the next revolution, and if able to do so ever, it shall ever go unscathed”; (b) in Timaeus, when he speaks of the “laws” applying to the nature of the universe, which God proclaimed to the immortal soul; (c) in the Republic he calls fate the “word of Lachesis, maiden daughter of Necessity”. To recast these descriptions in more ordinary language, fate might be called (a) “a divine formula which, owing to a cause from which there is no escape, is not transgressed”; (b) a “law conforming to the nature of the universe, determining the course of everything that comes to pass”; (c) it is a “divine law determining the linking of future events to events past and present”. For this is what Lachesis performs.

In terms of Aristotelian categories, the law of a state promulgates its commands as consequents of hypotheses1, and embraces all the concerns of a state in the form of universal statements. It does not lay down the law for this or that individual, but speaks primarily of the general case, and only secondarily of what comes under it; The law of nature, while dealing with universals primarily, deals secondarily with particulars. The latter too are all fated after a fashion, since they are co-fated with the former. The determinate, which is appropriate to divine wisdom, is seen rather in the universal—and the divine law and the political are of this description —while the unlimited is seen in the particular.

The Stoic dictum “everything confirms to fate” is true in the sense that all the consequents confirm to the law as divinely appointed, but false in the sense that the law includes many things, such as treason and adultery, which are not lawful, that is, the antecedents do not confirm to the purpose of the law and divine beneficence.

Fate as a substance appears to be the entire soul of the universe in all three of its subdivisions, the fixed portion, the portion supposed to wander, and third, the portion below the heavens in the region of the earth; of these the highest is called Clotho, the next Atropos, and the lowest Lachesis, who is receptive to the celestial activities of her sisters, and combines and transmits them to the terrestrial regions subject to her authority.

Communication of Thought

If the body is moved with little trouble by a notion that enters the understanding without the help of spoken language, the understanding may be guided by a higher understanding and a diviner soul, that lays hold of it from without by a touch, which is the way in which it is the nature of thought to impinge on thought, just as light produces a reflection. For our recognition of one another’s thoughts through the medium of the spoken word is like groping in the dark; whereas the thoughts of daemons are luminous and shed their light on the daemonic man. Their thoughts have no need of verbs or nouns, which men use as symbols in their intercourse, and thereby behold mere counterfeits and likenesses of what is present in thought, but are unaware of the originals except for those persons who are illuminated, as I have said, by some special and daemonic radiance.

Even so the phenomenon of speech serves in a way to allay the doubts of the incredulous. For on receiving the impression of articulate sounds, the air is fully changed to language and speech and conveys the thought to the soul of the hearer. Need we then feel surprised that the air, with its ready susceptibility, should also be transformed by the mere ideas of higher beings and thereby indicate to divine and exceptional men the meaning of him who conceived the idea.


  • 1. Hypothesis has the literal sense of “putting under” and “subjoining”.

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