Thursday, May 04, 2017

Plutarch on citizens of the universe

As Dante/pilgrim approaches the Primum Mobile, the ninth sphere of Paradise, he is verging on a place beyond particulars, beyond the individualities of place and time. 

I happened upon a passage from Plutarch's De exilio that presents an ancient Greek view of man on earth, and of the human being in relation to things beyond the local: the higher order of universals, gods, totality.

Comparing the latter half of Paradiso 27 with Plutarch's passage might provide some insights into the relation of the Christian poet's vision to the worldview of a classical antecedent.


Wherefore, if we fall into any real evil or calamity, we must bring in what is pleasant and delightful of the remaining good things in our possession, and thus, by what we enjoy at home, mitigate the sense of those evils that befall us from abroad. But where there is no evil in the nature of the things, but the whole of that which afflicts us is framed by imagination and false opinion, in this case we must do just as we deal with children that are apt to be frighted with false faces and vizards; by bringing them nearer, and making them handle and turn then on every side, they are brought at last to despise them; so we, by a nearer touching and fixing our consideration upon our feigned evils, may be able to detect and discover the weakness and vanity of what we fear and so tragically deplore.

Such is your present condition of being banished out of that which you account your country; for nature has given us no country, as it has given us no house or field, no smith's or apothecary's shop, as Ariston said; but every one of them is always made or rather called such a man's by his dwelling in it or making use of it. For man (as Plato says) is not an earthly and unmovable, but a heavenly plant, the head raising the body erect as from a root, and directed upwards toward heaven.1 Hence is that saying of Hercules:

Am I of Thebes or Argos? Whether 
You please, for I'm content with either; 
But to determine one, 'tis pity, 
In Greece my country's every city.

But Socrates expressed it better, when he said, he was not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world (just as a man calls himself a citizen of Rhodes or Corinth), because he did not enclose himself within the limits of Sunium, Taenarum, or the Ceraunian mountains.

Behold how yonder azure sky, 
Extending vastly wide and high 
To infinitely distant spaces, 
In her soft arms our earth embraces.

These are the boundaries of our country, and no man is an exile or a stranger or foreigner in these, where there is the same fire, water, air, the same rulers, administrators, and presidents, the same sun, moon, and daystar; where there are the same laws to all, and where, under one orderly disposition and government, are the summer and winter solstices, the equinoxes, Pleiades, Arcturus, times of sowing and planting; where there is one king and supreme ruler, which is God, who comprehends the beginning, the middle, and end of the universe; who passes through all things in a straight course, compassing all things according to nature: justice follows him to take vengeance on those that transgress the divine law, which justice we naturally all make use of towards all men, as being citizens of the same community.

1 Plato, Timaeus

2 Euripides, Frag. 935.


Pete D'Epiro said...

I just want to add to Plutarch's comments on this subject Dante's own remarks (in Epistle 12) on having to go into exile from Florence. After refusing to consider returning to his native city via a humiliating public ceremonial of repentance, he says that he would, however, return if his fame and honor would be left intact. He closes the letter with these words: "If no such path leads back to Florence, then will I never enter Florence more. What then? May I not gaze upon the mirror of the sun and stars wherever I may be? Can I not ponder on the sweetest truths wherever I may be beneath the heaven, but I must first make me inglorious, nay infamous, before the people and the state of Florence? Nor shall I lack for bread." (Trans. P. H. Wicksteed)

Tom Matrullo said...

Yes - perhaps exiles more than others feel the pull of the common and universal elements that bind us all - thanks Pete.