After nearly a year of writing, rewriting, reflecting, a great deal of reading and pondering, I am looking forward to beginning a PhD in October with the wonderful Open University.
In a sense it was born out of my MA, but also out of a lifelong fascination with the concept of time. So this will be a study which will be concerned with ancient ideas about time, and some very specific ways in which it was thought about, experienced and written about. I’ll be studying this part time, and am greatly looking forward to beginning officially.
To kick off this research, I’d like to start with one of Plutarch’s writings, De Defectu Oraculorum, Reference at the end of this post) which is found in Plutarch’s Moralia. At the centre of this particular account, found within the text, is a man called Cleombrotus. This section is narrated by Lamprias, also the name of Plutarch’s father and brother. Cleombrotus is described by Lamprias as a ‘revered man’, who was ‘wealthy enough’, and did not see any point in having more than enough. He liked “seeing things and acquiring great knowledge” and to this end he used his wealth to travel to many different places for the purpose of being able to form a history, and from this basis he planned to form a theology. From the story he recounted and the way he recounted it, I would suggest that he really enjoyed what today we might today call ‘out of the box’ thinking.
The scene that Lamprias give us, is that Cleombrotus had met up, either by intent or unintentional coinciding, with another revered man called Demetrius, who was on his way home from Britain back to Tarsus. Demetrius, we are told, was a grammarian. He serves here as the person to whom Cleombrotus first tells his story.
Lamprias tells us that Cleombrotus had recently visited the Shrine of Ammon (in Egypt, known as the Oracle of the Libyan deity Ammon). He apparently was not too impressed with most of what he saw there, but one thing stood out. The testimony of the priests. Their story as told by Cleombrotus, was as follows,
“…but in regard to the everburning lamp he related a story told by the priests which deserves special consideration ; it is that the lamp consumes less and less oil each year, and they hold that this is a proof of a disparity in the years, which all the time is making one year shorter in duration than its predecessor ; for it is reasonable that in less duration of time the amount consumed should be less.”
Lamprias narrates that Demetrius immediately reacted by ridiculing such a thing, stating that,
“…a wick and lamp postulating a mutation in the heavens and the universe, and doing away completely with mathematical science.”
…is to be obviously dismissed.
Here though, is the interesting thing, Cleombrotus argues back really rather expertly. He gives three different arguments, first arguing that ‘these men’ the priests would consider it much easier to determine with accuracy, the time for a lamp to burn and oil to be burned, than mathematicians can measure accurately the cycle of the celestial objects. He emphasises the accuracy of the measurements the priests make. Then he argues without giving an example that to dismiss small things goes against many examples of when small things are used to indicate great things. He then addresses Demetrius and the company with him (it seems there are at least two or three others listening in to this), as “You people…” and so it would seem setting himself outside of this company in some way. He criticises and perhaps even makes fun of their own logic giving three examples of how they take single instances in Homer and turn each into a generalisation. Then he continues by giving five different examples of medical science and science where small things are observed and given to be indicators of great things. It could be thought that Cleombrotus was arguing not on behalf of the priests but in his own thinking. This, I think becomes parhaps more apparent when a philosopher who we are told is present, speaks up, His name is Ammonius and he gave an astronomical reason for the year appearing to be shorter, saying that the mathematicians tend not to mention this apparent disparity of the duration of the Sun’s cycles, due to this then throwing all the celestial mechanics into unnecessary confusion. Cleombrotus gives at this point his final argument, and this is the point which I would suggest shows that Cleombrotus has become convinced by the priests. He says,
“I myself actually saw the measure; for they had many of them to show, and that of this past year failed to come up to the very oldest by not a little.”
The final word goes to Ammonius who then suggests that there is more likely to be another reason then, such as a difference in cold or heat, such as, he suggests, fire burning better in the winter. Cleombrotus does not get an opportunity to reply to Ammonius,
Lamprius at this point interrupts and says,
“why don’t you tell us about the oracle instead Cleombrotus…”
for which Cleombrotus gives no answer, for reasons we can only conjecture.
There are fascinating aspects of this account. One is that it could be argued that this was a discussion about the nature of time, and whether there were strange goings on in the Cosmos with years becoming shorter. Another aspect is the way the arguments were set out for and against. It reads rather like something out of a modern debating society, until finally Lamprius seemingly gets fed up and changes the subject. What it clearly shows though is how difficult it clearly was to determine a duration of time. The celestial objects moving through the heavens, the rising and setting of the Sun at different times of year being in different places, and the oil which burned in lamps were all changeable because of either unknown outside influences or complexities of the celestial cycles. Underlying all of this discussion was the idea that one year had the same duration as the previous year, in other words that there was such a thing as predictable time, but there was it seems a challenge here from the priests that something was amiss, and that no matter what the mathematicians and philosophers had worked out, they didn’t know everything. This is rather like many of today’s science and faith debates. I always find it quite reassuring to see how so much of what we think is new today, is actually simply history repeating itself. I think often of the words of Ecclesiastes when he says,
“There is nothing new under the Sun” (Ecclesiastes chapter 1, verse 9)
This narration Lamprias gives, is often seen to be a discourse though which attempts to unite ‘religion’ and science, and this can be seen throughout the rest of De Defectu Oraculorum, the next part which I will be returning to in a future post.
I have come to like Cleombrotus, I like that he does not crumble under the weight of Demetrius’ ridicule, and that he shows an independence of thought. He also has some well thought out counter arguments and these arguments draw out an acceptance that the priests observations were perhaps accurate, but their interpretations according to Ammonius, incorrect. It is Ammonius who takes up the possible causes for this. It is he who takes Cleombrotus seriously. This is the point where Lamprius brings this discussion to an end and the account moves on to other things.
There are questions to be asked here though, such as the relationship to the priests’ belief that the quicker burning oil was an indication of the shortening of the year, with their god Ammon. Did they cast this as an ominous sign, or merely a sign that it was the god or gods who controlled time, as can be seen in Homer and Hesiod for example? Is there an answer to this question if we read further in this text? Were these priests likely to be dismissive of the mathematicians or would they have argued back in the style Cleombrotus did, or was he putting into their mouths his own words?
Plutarch is brilliant at creating characters who have discussions. It has been suggested that Lamprias is actually Plutarch himself here.
Concepts of time are foundational to science, perhaps especially cosmology. This little foray listening in to their discussion, is the beginning of many. There is nothing quite like reading the whole thing for yourself though, because it is in reading these texts which lead to other texts and before you know it, you’ve had ten cups of tea/coffee and the day has gone…but what more pleasant a way of spending time.
If you would like to read the text, you can find it here, I would start at section 2, here is the link,
If this does not work, then go to Perseus Digital Library (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/) and do a search for Plut. De Defect. 2 and this whole section should appear. I’ve just tried it and it does.
The text is from Plutarch. Moralia. with an English Translation by. Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1936. 5.