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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead

p. 255




In the chapter on Philo we attempted to set before the reader some outlines of the central doctrine of Hellenistic theology—the sublime concept of the Logos—as envisaged by a learned Jew of the Diaspora, steeped in Hellenism, and living in the capital of Egypt and the centre of the intellectual life of Greater Greece.

In the present chapter we shall endeavour to give the reader a further insight into this master-idea from another standpoint, and shall reproduce the views of a learned Greek, who, while remaining on the ground of Hellenic traditions proper, turns his eyes to Egypt, and reads what part of its mysterious message he can decipher, in Greek modes of thought.

Plutarch, of Chæroneia in Bœotia, nourished in the second half of the first century A.D., and so follows immediately on Philo and on Paul; like Philo, however, he knows nothing of the Christians, though like the Alexandrian he treats of precisely those problems and questions which were and are of pre-eminent interest for Christians.

Plutarch chooses as his theme the myth and mysteries of Osiris and Isis. He gives the myth in its main outlines, and introduces us into the general religious

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atmosphere of the Egyptian belief of what we may, perhaps, be allowed to call “Demotic” times. But he does far more than this. Initiated himself into the Osiriaca, of which there was apparently a thiasos at Delphi, though on the one hand he possesses more knowledge of formal details than he feels himself permitted to disclose, on the other hand he is aware that the “true initiate of Isis” is one who goes far beyond any formal reception of the symbolic mysteries; the true initiate must of his own initiative for ever keep searching and probing more deeply into the intimate reason of things, as adumbrated by the “things said and done” in the sacred rites (iii. 3).

For this task Plutarch is well equipped, not only by his wide knowledge of the philosophy and theology and science of his day, but also by the fact that he held a high office at Delphi in the service of Apollo and also in connection with the Dionysiac rites. He was almost certainly a hierophant, and no merely formal one at that.

Plutarch accordingly gives a most instructive exposition, which should enable us, if only we are content to put ourselves in his place, and condescend to think in the terms of the thought of his day, to review the ancient struggle between physical reason and formal theology which was then in full conflict—a conflict that has been renewed on a vastly extended scale for the last few centuries, and which is still being fought to a finish or honourable truce in our own day.

Our initiated philosopher is on the side neither of atheism or pure physicism, nor on that of superstition, as he understood those terms in his day; he takes a middle ground, and seeks final refuge in the fair vision of the Logos; and that, too, in all humility, for he knows well that whatever he can say is at best but a

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dim reflection of the glory of the Highest, as indeed he expressly tells us when writing:

“Nor can the souls of men here on the earth, swathed as they are in bodies and enwrapped in passions, commune with God, except so far as they can reach some dun sort of a dream of Him with the perception of a mind trained in philosophy” (lxxiii. 2).

We accordingly find Plutarch discussing the various theories of his day which professed to explain the mythological and theological enigmas of the ancients, with special reference to the Osiris myth.

He discusses the theory of Evemerus, that the gods were nothing but ancient kings and worthies, and dismisses it as no really satisfactory explanation (xxiii.).

He then proceeds to consider the theory that these things refer to the doings of daimones,—which he thinks a decided improvement on that of Evemerus (xxv.).

Thence he passes to the theories of the Physicists or natural phenomenalists (xxxii.), and of the Mathematici—that is to say, the Pythagorean speculations as to the celestial spheres, and their harmonies (xli.).

In each of these three latter theories he thinks there is some truth; still each by itself is insufficient; they must be combined (xlv.), and even then it is not enough.

He next considers the question of first principles, and discusses the theories of the One, the Two, and the Many; again finding something to be said for each view, and yet adopting none of them as all-sufficient.

But of all attempted interpretations he finds the least satisfactory to be that of those who are content to limit the hermeneutics of the mystery-myths simply to the operations of ploughing and sowing. With this “vegetation god” theory he has little patience, and stigmatises its professors as that “dull crowd” (lxv.).

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[paragraph continues] And here, perhaps, some of us may think that Plutarch is not out of date even in the twentieth century of grace, and his arguments might be recommended to the consideration of those anthropologists who are just now with such complacency running to death what Mr Andrew Lang humourously calls the “Covent Garden” theory.

Further on, dealing as he does with the puzzling question of Egyptian “animal worship,” Plutarch is brought face to face with many problems of “taboo” and “totemism,” and he is not without interest in what he says on these subjects (lxxii. f.), and in the theories of utilitarianism and symbolism which he adduces (lxxiv.).

Finally, he gives us his view of the rationale of the custom of incense-burning (lxxix.), which should be of some concern to many in present-day Christian communities.

But the whole of this complex of custom and rites, puzzling and self-contradictory as they may appear, and the whole of the riddles and veiled enigmas of Egyptian priestly tradition, are, Plutarch believes, resolvable into transparent simplicity by a proper understanding of the true nature of man and of his relation to Divine Nature, that Wisdom who is the eternal and inseparable spouse of Divine Reason, the Logos.

It would perhaps have been simpler for some of my readers—it certainly would have been shorter—had I condensed what Plutarch has to say; but my desire is rather to let this student of the comparative theology of his day speak for himself, and not to give my own views; for I still believe, in spite of the superior formal education of the twentieth century, that we cannot normally know more about the ancient

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mysteries and their inner purport than the best minds who were initiated into them while they still flourished.

For not only are we without the precise data which these ancients possessed, but also the phase of thought through which we have recently been passing, and in which we mostly still are, is not one which can sympathetically tolerate those very considerations which, in my opinion, provide the most fertile ground of explanation of the true inwardness of what was best in those mystery-traditions.

Moreover, I have thought it of service to give a full version of this treatise of Plutarch’s from a decent critical text, 1 for the only translation in English read by me is by no means a careful piece of work, 2 and manifestly rendered from a very imperfect text; also, the language of Plutarch in some passages appears to me to be deserving of more careful handling than has as yet been accorded it, for a number of sentences seem to have been purposely phrased so as to be capable of conveying a double meaning.

Finally, with regard to his own interpretation, I would suggest that Plutarch, as was natural to a Greek, has more insisted on intellectual modes of thought than perhaps an Egyptian priest would have been inclined to do; for it seems probable that to the Egyptian mind the chief interest would lie in the possibility of the realisation of immediate contact with the Mystery in all those modes which are not so much intellectual as

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sensible; in other words, it would be by making himself a vehicle of the Great Breath in his body rather than a mirror of the Mystery in his mind, that the son of the Nile Land would seek for union.

It is, moreover, of interest to find that Plutarch addresses his treatise to a lady. For though we have extant several moral tractates addressed to wives—such as Porphyry’s Letter to Marcella, and Plutarch’s Consolation to his own wife, Timoxena—it is rare to find philosophical treatises addressed to women, and nowadays many women are once more interested in such “philosophy.”

Plutarch wrote his essay at Delphi (lxviii. 6), and addressed it to Klea, a lady who held a distinguished position among the Delphic priestesses, and who had herself been initiated into the Osiriac Mysteries—her very name Klea being, perhaps, her mystery-name (xxxv.). The treatise is, therefore, addressed to one who was prepared to read into it more than appears on the surface.

It should also be remembered that in all probability the main source of Plutarch’s information was the now lost treatise of Manetho on the Egyptian Religion, and in this connection it is of interest to record Granger’s opinion, who, in referring to Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride, says:

“First he deals with those opinions which identify the Egyptian gods with natural objects—Osiris with the Nile, Isis with the land, and so on. Then he considers the interpretations of those who identify the gods with the sun and moon, etc. (ch. lxi.). These speculations summarise for us, at first or second hand, some of the Hermetic books current in Plutarch’s time.” 1


259:1 I use the texts of Parthey, Plutarch: Über Isis und Osiris (Berlin, 1850), and of Bernardakis, Plutarchi Chaeronensis Moralia (“Bibliotheca Teubneriana”; Leipzig, 1889), ii. 471 ff.

259:2 See King (C. W.), Plutarch’s Morals: Theosophical Essays (London, 1889), pp. 1-71. S. Squire’s Plutarch’s Treatise of Isis and Osiris (Cambridge, 1744) I have not read, and few can procure a copy nowadays.

260:1 Granger (F.), “The Poemander of Hermes Trismegistus,” Jour. Theol Stud., vol. v. No. 19, p. 399.

Next: Address to Klea concerning Gnosis and the Search for Truth