Plutarch and the end of the oracles

In my History of Disenchantment class, we’ve been discussing Plutarch’s essay on the cessation or the silence or the failure of the oracles. (The key word there, ekleloipoton, seems to be an odd one — I’m trying to learn more about it.) I read it long ago, but this is the first time I’ve taught it, and goodness, what a fascinating piece of work.

It was widely recognized in Plutarch’s time (late first and early second century A.D.) that the great oracles of the ancient world — the most famous of them being the one at Delphi, of course — had largely ceased to provide useful guidance or had fallen silent altogether. Some of the once famous shrines had been abandoned and had fallen into ruin. But no one understood why this had happened. Plutarch’s “essay” is a fictional dialogue — narrated by one Lamprias, who also takes the leading role in the conversation and may well be Plutarch’s mouthpiece — in which a group of philosophically-inclined men debate the possible reasons for the oracles’ failure.

In the opening pages of the dialogue, some of the participants deny that there is any real problem. They point to the inaccessibility of some of the shrines, and the lack of population in the surrounding areas: for them the issue is merely one of low demand leading to low supply. But this view is not widely accepted; most of the philosophers are uneasy about the oracles and feel that something is up. And after all, if low demand leads to low supply, why is there low demand? Even if the oracles are located in remote places, surely people would take the trouble to make a pilgrimage there if they believed that by doing so they could receive wise guidance for their lives.

To one of the participants, the answer to the whole problem is obvious: The gods are angry at us for our wickedness and have punitively withdrawn their guidance. But, perhaps surprisingly, no one finds this a compelling explanation. For one thing, it’s not clear to them there was any less wickedness in the earlier eras when the oracles flourished; and more to the point, are oracles given by the gods in the first place?

If they are, then shouldn’t they continue forever, since the gods themselves are immortal, unless they are specifically withdrawn? Not necessarily, says one: “the gods do not die, but their gifts do” — a line he says is from Sophocles, though I don’t know its source. Maybe the oracles lived their natural course and have now fallen silent, as one day we all will.

But what if oracles do not come from the gods, but rather from daimons? In that case the oracles might die because the daimons do. This leads to a long discussion about whether daimons are mortal, and if mortal or not whether they are necessarily good. (The one truly famous passage from this essay — in which someone recounts a story about a sailor instructed to pass by an island and cry out “The great god Pan is dead” — assumes that Pan was not a god but rather a daimon, the son of Hermes by Odysseus’s famously loyal wife Penelope.)

And this in turn leads to a very long conversation about the beings that populate the world and whether there might be other worlds populated differently and, now that we think about it, how many worlds are there anyway? (The most popular answer among the discussants: 185.) As I told my students, this is by modern standards a bizarre digression, especially since it takes up about half the dialogue, but our standards were not those of Plutarch’s time; and in any case the discussants might plausibly say that we can’t come up with a reliable solution to the puzzle of the silenced oracles unless we have a good general understanding of the kind of cosmos we live in.

In any event, the discussion eventually circles back around to the initial question, and in the final pages Lamprias gets the chance to develop the argument that he has been hinting at all along. In brief, he contends that oracles are always situated in or near caves because from those caves issue “exhalations of the earth”; and that certain people with natural gifts and excellent training of those gifts may be sensitized to the character of those exhalations, and in that way come to some intuitive and not-easily-verbalized awareness of what the world has in store for people. It’s almost a Gaia hypothesis, this idea that the world as a whole acts in certain fixed ways, and those “exhalations” attest to the more general movements of the planet. But these processes are, like all processes in Nature, subject to change over time. As a spring might dry up, or a river after flooding alter its course, so too the conditions for such exhalations might change so that there is nothing for even the most exquisitely sensitive and perfectly trained priestess to respond to.

The first and overwhelming response to Lamprias’s explanation is: Impiety! One of the interlocutors comments that first we rejected the gods in favor of daimons, and now we’re rejecting daimons in favor of a purely natural process. That is, Lamprias’s position is fundamentally disenchanting. To this Lamprias replies that his position is not impious at all, because they had all agreed earlier that in addition to humans and daimons and gods, none of whom create anything, we also have, abobe and beyond all, The God, “the Lord and Father of All,” and He is he first cause of all things, including exhalations of the earth and priestesses.

But whether it’s impious or not, Lamprias’s account is disenchanting, because it removes power from spirits and gods and concentrates them in a single transcendent Monad. His monotheism is a big step towards the religion of Israel, which tells us in the very first words of its Scriptures that the sun and moon and stars are not deities at all, but rather things made by YHWH, who alone merits our worship. Lamprias’s position, like that of the Jews, looks to those accustomed to polytheism as a kind of atheism. And by their standards that’s just what it is.