In addition to his priesthood, Plutarch served as a public official in his native Chaeronea, sometimes as archon, sometimes as diplomat. Though admmitted to Roman citizenship, he did not translate himself to Rome, but kept court in Boeotia. He does not appear to have been a man with great and immoderate desires. Late in life, having worn the robes of a Delphic priest, he wore the consular robes as procurator of the Roman province of Achaea. He was a man of learning, a political man, and a man of the cloth.
It would seem that such multilateralism indicates the decadence, not the vibrancy of religion. And indeed, Plutarch is somewhat of a rational humanist when his roles as biographer, philosopher, and moralist lead him to accounts of the extraordinary and supernatural. But note also how he gives the best and most sympathetic interpretation. Sometimes he says something like, 'well, who am I to disupute that this happened?' which is not as much as to say, 'it did not happen,' while certainly falling far short of saying that it did. He needed to have such a moderate approach when writing of the Greek and Roman heroes, whose births and lives were always said to be accompanied by prodigies. Plutarch himself lived among peoples who employed diviners, though they were then taken much less seriously than in the time of Numa or even Alcibiades.
Homer, Plutarch says, does not
deny the action of a man's own deliberate thought and free choice... But where the act is something out of the way and extraordinary, and seems in a manner to demand some impulse of divine possession and sudden inspiration to account for it, here he does introduce divine agency, not to destroy, but to prompt the human will; not to create in us another agency, but offering images to stimulate our own; images that in no sort or kind make our action involuntary, but give occasion rather to spontaneous action, aided and sustained by feelings of confidence and hope. For either we must totally dismiss and exclude divine influences from every kind of causality and origination in what we do, or else what other way can we conceive in which divine aid and cooperation can act? Certainly we cannot suppose that the divine beings actually and literally turn our bodies and direct our hands and our feet this way or that, to do what is right: it is obvious that they must actuate the practical and elective element of our nature, by certain initial occasions, by images presented to the imagination, and thoughts suggested to the mind, such either as to excite it to, or avert and withhold it from, any particular course.Divine action seems to be a kind of prevenient grace which provokes one to act, something which explains how deliberation ends and choice begins. Who can say what images will come to us in the crucial moment? If we are not to deny human agency, and yet allow for divine intervention, we must grant to the god a kind of intermediary power, a helpfulness, like that of Socrates' little divine thing.
But what is the occasion for Plutarch to engage in this speculation? What, among the many miracles related in his Lives, leads him to need to explain the role of the gods in human affairs in such a careful way? Nothing much: Valeria, Poplicola's sister, had a dream in which it was suggested to her that she should encourage Coriolanus' mother and wife to join them in supplicating him not to attack Rome. It would not seem something that would require divine intervention, except that, the situation being dire in Rome, the priests having failed to dissuade Corionalus from attacking, those in Rome, "placing their hopes chiefly in time and in extraordinary accidents of fortune," "they felt incapable of doing anything for their own deliverance..." (p. 315) It seems that the god acts only when something extraordinary is called for, but then, it is difficult to tell the difference between providence and fortune. Further, it is not so much the greatness of the act, but its timeliness or inexplicability which indicates divine intervention. This is almost enough to say that the more prepared we are, and the less powerless or surprised, the less the need for, or occurrence of, divine acts.
After Coriolanus' mother and wife persuaded him to turn back, and the city was saved, the senate asked the women what they wanted; it was willing to grant any honor or favor. They asked only that a temple be erected to Female Fortune and even offered to pay for it. When the senate accepted but paid for it with city funds, the women collected money for a second image of Female Fortune. This image apparently uttered, as it was being put up, "Blessed of the gods, O women, is your gift." Then it said it a second time.
At this, Plutarch scolds the women for "expecting our belief of what seems pretty nearly an impossibility." He goes on to say that statues may seem to sweat or even groan, and that this may be due to divine causes, but that there must also be some concurrent physical cause. What to conclude, then, about this miracle? "For it was never known that either the soul of man, or the deity himself, uttered vocal sounds and language, alone, without an organized body and members fitted for speech."
The women seem to have gone too far. They would not allow the city to pay for everything, to appropriate their goddess; it needed something of their own devotion, and something incredible which would make their devotion that much more admirable, something redounding to their own honor, like the actions of the Sabine wives in placating their people and bringing peace between the Romans and Sabines. The second statue speaks a second time, as if to give echo to its own redundancy. Plutarch balks, but ultimately cannot refute or deny this miracle, only say that it seems to him "a thing utterly out of possibility." "But," he says,
where history seems in a manner to force our assent by the concurrence of numerous and credible witnesses, we are to conclude that an impression distinct from sensation affects the imaginative part of our nature, and then carries away the judgment, so as to believe it to be sensation; just as in sleep we fancy we see and hear, without really doing either. Persons, however, whose strong feelings of reverence to the deity, and tenderness for religion, have certainly a strong argument for their faith, in the wonderful and transcendent character of the divine power; which admits no manner of comparison with ours, either in its nature or its action, the modes or the strength of its operations. It is no contradiction to reason that it should do things that we cannot do, and effect what for us is impracticable: differing from us in all respects, in its acts yet more than in other points we may well believe it to be unlike us and remote from us. Knowledge of divine things for the most part, as Heraclitus says, is lost to us by incredulity.Faith cannot be refuted, and it may even be that the god deceives the imagination so as to make us believe an action has occurred through special, when it has actually occurred through normal means. One will always find the credulous ready to attribute fantastic things to divine action, and perhaps they know more about the divine. And yet, Plutarch seems to say through the context of this discussion, much that is extraordinary can be understood without the divine by the study of the human, by the study of extraordinary humans-- the heroes. The piety of the women, on the other hand, wishes to attribute divine effect to the ordinary human-- to their own prayers. This, in relation to the passage about Homer, above, would suggest that the pious often invoke the gods as a way of indicating the power of their own wills. But Plutarch, obviously, is more interested in the wills of the great.