Concerning Nature, by Plutarch

Book II.

Having finished my dissertation concerning principles and elements and those things which chiefly appertain to them, I will turn my pen to discourse of those things which are produced by them, and will take my beginning from the world, which contains and encompasseth all beings.

Chapter I.

Of the World.

Pythagoras was the first philosopher that called the world [Greek omitted], from the order and beauty of it; for so that word signifies. Thales and his followers say the world is one. Democritus, Epicurus, and their scholar Metrodorus affirm that there are infinite worlds in an infinite space, for that infinite vacuum in its whole extent contains them. Empedocles, that the circle which the sun makes in its motion circumscribes the world, and that circle is the utmost bound of the world. Seleucus, that the world knows no limits. Diogenes, that the universe is infinite, but this world is finite. The Stoics make a difference between that which is called the universe, and that which is called the whole world; — the universe is the infinite space considered with the vacuum, the vacuity being removed gives the right conception of the world; so that the universe and the world are not the same thing.

Chapter II.

Of the Figure of the World.

The Stoics say that the figure of the world is spherical, others that it is conical, others oval. Epicurus, that the figure of the world may be globular, or that it may admit of other shapes.

Chapter III.

Whether the World be an Animal.

Democritus, Epicurus, and those philosophers who introduced atoms and a vacuum, affirm that the world is not an animal, nor governed by any wise Providence, but that it is managed by a nature which is void of reason. All the other philosophers affirm that the world is informed with a soul, and governed by reason and Providence. Aristotle is excepted, who is somewhat different; he is of opinion, that the whole world is not acted by a soul in every part of it, nor hath it any sensitive, rational, or intellectual faculties, nor is it directed by reason and Providence in every part of it; of all which the heavenly bodies are made partakers, for the circumambient spheres are animated and are living beings; but those things which are about the earth are void of those endowments; and though those terrestrial bodies are of an orderly disposition, yet that is casual and not primogenial.

Chapter IV.

Whether the World is Eternal and Incorruptible.

Pythagoras [and Plato], agreeing with the Stoics, affirm that the world was framed by God, and being corporeal is obvious to the senses, and in its own nature is obnoxious to destruction; but it shall never perish, it being preserved by the providence of God. Epicurus, that the world had a beginning, and so shall have an end, as plants and animals have. Xenophanes, that the world never had a beginning, is eternal and incorruptible. Aristotle, that the part of the world which is sublunary is subject to change, and there terrestrial beings find a decay.

Chapter V.

Whence Does the World Receive its Nutriment?

Aristotle says that, if the world be nourished, it will likewise be dissolved; but it requires no aliment, and will therefore be eternal. Plato, that this very world prepares for itself a nutriment, by the alteration of those things which are corruptible in it. Philolaus affirms that a destruction happens to the world in two ways; either by fire failing from heaven, or by the sublunary water being poured down through the whirling of the air; and the exhalations proceeding from thence are aliment of the world.

Chapter VI.

From what Element God Did Begin to Raise the Fabric of the World.

The natural philosophers pronounce that the forming of this world took its original from the earth, it being its centre, for the centre is the principal part of the globe. Pythagoras, from the fire and the fifth element. Empedocles determines, that the first and principal element distinct from the rest was the aether, then fire, after that the earth, which earth being strongly compacted by the force of a potent revolution, water springs from it, the exhalations of which water produce the air; the heaven took its origin from the aether, and fire gave a being to the sun; those things nearest to the earth are condensed from the remainders. Plato, that the visible world was framed after the exemplar of the intellectual world; the soul of the visible world was first produced, then the corporeal figure, first that which proceeded from fire and earth, then that which came from air and water. Pythagoras, that the world was formed of five solid figures which are called mathematical; the earth was produced by the cube, the fire by the pyramid, the air by the octahedron, the water by the icosahedron, and the globe of the universe by the dodecahedron. In all these Plato hath the same sentiments with Pythagoras.

Chapter VII.

In what Form and Order the World Was Composed.

Parmenides maintains that there are small coronets alternately twisted one within another, some made up of a thin, others of a condensed, matter; and there are others between mixed mutually together of light and of darkness, and around them all there is a solid substance, which like a firm wall surrounds these coronets. Leucippus and Democritus cover the world round about, as with a garment and membrane. Epicurus says that that which abounds some worlds is thin, and that which limits others is gross and condensed; and of these spheres some are in motion, others are fixed. Plato, that fire takes the first place in the world, the second the aether, after that the air, under that the water; the last place the earth possesseth: sometimes he puts the aether and the fire in the same place. Aristotle gives the first place to the aether, as that which is impassible, it being a kind of a fifth body after which he placeth those that are passible, fire, air, and water, and last of all the earth. To those bodies that are accounted celestial he assigns a motion that is circular, but to those that are seated under them, if they be light bodies, an ascending, if heavy, a descending motion. Empedocles, that the places of the elements are not always fixed and determined, but they all succeed one another in their respective stations.

Chapter VIII.

What is the Cause of the World’s Inclination.

Diogenes and Anaxagoras state that, after the world was composed and had produced living creatures, the world out of its own propensity made an inclination toward the south. Perhaps this may be attributed to a wise Providence (they affirm), that thereby some parts of the world may be habitable, others uninhabitable, according as the various climates are affected with a rigorous cold, or a scorching heat, or a just temperament of cold and heat. Empedocles, that the air yielding to the impetuous force of the solar rays, the poles received an inclination; whereby the northern parts were exalted and the southern depressed, by which means the whole world received its inclination.

Chapter IX.

Of that Thing which is Beyond the World, and Whether it be a Vacuum or Not.

Pythagoras and his followers say that beyond the world there is a vacuum, into which and out of which the world hath its respiration. The Stoics, that there is a vacuum into which infinite space by a conflagration shall be dissolved. Posidonius, not an infinite vacuum, but as much as suffices for the dissolution of the world; and this he asserts in his first book concerning the Vacuum. Aristotle affirms, that a vacuum does not exist. Plato concludes that neither within nor without the world there is any vacuum.

Chapter X.

What Parts of the World are on the Right Hand, and what on the Left.

Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle declare that the eastern parts of the world, from whence motion commences, are of the right, those of the western are of the left hand of the world. Empedocles, that those that are of the right hand face the summer solstice, those of the left the winter solstice.

Chapter XI.

Of Heaven, what is its Nature and Essence.

Anaximenes affirms that the circumference of heaven makes the limit of the earth’s revolution. Empedocles, that the heaven is a solid substance, and hath the form and hardness of crystal, it being composed of the air compacted by fire, and that in both hemispheres it invests the elements of air and fire. Aristotle, that it is formed by the fifth body, and by the mixture of extreme heat and cold.

Chapter XII

Into How Many Circles is the Heaven Distinguished; Or, of the Division of Heaven.

Thales, Pythagoras, and the followers of Pythagoras do distribute the universal globe of heaven into five circles, which they denominate zones; one of which is called the arctic circle, which is always conspicuous to us, another is the summer tropic, another is the solstice, another is the winter tropic, another is the antarctic circle, which is always out of sight. The circle called the zodiac is placed under the three that are in the midst, and is oblique, gently touching them all. Likewise, they are all divided in right angles by the meridian, which goes from pole to pole. It is supposed that Pythagoras made the first discovery of the obliquity of the zodiac, but one Oenopides of Chios challenges to himself the invention of it.

Chapter XIII.

What is the Essence of the Stars, and How They are Composed.

Thales affirms that they are globes of earth set on fire. Empedocles, that they are fiery bodies arising from that fire which the aether embraced within itself, and did shatter in pieces when the elements were first separated one from another. Anaxagoras, that the circumambient aether is of a fiery substance, which, by a vehement force in its whirling about, did tear stones from the earth, and by its own power set them on fire, and establish them as stars in the heavens. Diogenes thinks they resemble pumice stones, and that they are the breathings of the world; again he supposeth that there are some invisible stones, which fall sometimes from heaven upon the earth, and are there quenched; as it happened at Aegos-potami, where a stony star resembling fire did fall. Empedocles, that the fixed stars fastened to the crystal, but the planets are loosened. Plato, that the stars for the most part are of a fiery nature, but they are made partakers of another element, with they are mixed after the resemblance of glue. Zenophanes, that they are composed of inflamed clouds, which in the daytime are quenched, and in the night are kindled again. The like we see in coals; for the rising and setting of the stars is nothing else but the quenching and kindling of them. Heraclitus and the Pythagoreans, that every star is a world in an infinite aether, and encompasseth air, earth, and aether; this opinion is current among the disciples of Orpheus, for they suppose that each of the stars does make a world. Epicurus condemns none of these opinions, for he embraces anything that is possible.

Chapter XIV.

Of what Figure the Stars are.

The Stoics say that the stars are of a circular form, like as the sun, the moon, and the world. Cleanthes, that they are of a conical figure. Anaximenes, that they are fastened as nails in the crystalline firmament; some others, that they are fiery plates of gold, resembling pictures.

Chapter XV.

Of the Order and Place of the Stars.

Xenocrates says that the stars are moved in one and the same superficies. The other Stoics say that they are moved in various superficies, some being superior, others inferior. Democritus, that the fixed stars are in the highest place; after those the planets; after these the sun, Venus, and the moon, in order. Plato, that the first after the fixed stars that makes its appearance is Phaenon, the star of Saturn; the second Phaeton, the star of Jupiter; the third the fiery, which is the star of Mars; the fourth the morning star, which is the star of Venus; the fifth the shining star, and that is the star of Mercury; in the sixth place is the sun, in the seventh the moon. Plato and some of the mathematicians conspire in the same opinion; others place the sun as the centre of the planets. Anaximander, Metrodorus of Chios, and Crates assign to the sun the superior place, after him the moon, after them the fixed stars and planets.

Chapter XVI.

Of the Motion and Circulation of the Stars.

Anaxagoras, Democritus, and Cleanthes say that all the stars have their motion from east to west. Alcmaeon and the mathematicians, that the planets have a contrary motion to the fixed stars, and in opposition to them are carried from the west to the east. Anaximander, that they are carried by those circles and spheres on which they are placed. Anaximenes, that they are turned under and about the earth. Plato and the mathematicians, that the sun, Venus, and Mercury hold equal measures in their motions.

Chapter XVII.

Whence do the Stars Receive Their Light?

Metrodorus says that all the fixed stars derive their light from the sun. Heraclitus and the Stoics, that earthly exhalations are those by which the stars are nourished. Aristotle, that the heavenly bodies require no nutriment, for they being eternal cannot be obnoxious to corruption. Plato and the Stoics, that the whole world and the stars are fed by the same things.

Chapter XVIII.

What are Those Stars which are Called the Dioscuri, the Twins, or Castor and Pollux?

Xenophanes says that those which appear as stars in the tops of ships are little clouds brilliant by their peculiar motion. Metrodorus, that the eyes of frighted and astonished people emit those lights which are called the Twins.

Chapter XIX.

How Stars Prognosticate, and what is the Cause of Winter and Summer.

Plato says that the summer and winter indications proceed from the rising and setting of the stars, that is, from the rising and setting of the sun, the moon, and the fixed stars. Anaximenes, that the rest in this are not at all concerned, but that it is wholly performed by the sun. Eudoxus and Aratus assign it in common to all the stars, for thus Aratus says:—

Thund’ring Jove stars in heaven hath fixed,
And them in such beauteous order mixed,
Which yearly future things predict.

Chapter XX.

Of the Essence of the Sun.

Anaximander says, that the sun is a circle eight and twenty times bigger than the earth, and has a circumference very much like that of a chariot-wheel, which is hollow and full of fire; the fire of which appears to us through its mouth, as by an aperture in a pipe; and this is the sun. Xenophanes, that the sun is constituted of small bodies of fire compacted together and raised from a moist exhalation, which condensed make the body of the sun; or that it is a cloud enfired. The Stoics, that it is an intelligent flame proceeding from the sea. Plato, that it is composed of abundance of fire. Anaxagoras, Democritus, and Metrodorus, that it is an enfired stone, or a burning body. Aristotle, that it is a sphere formed out of the fifth body. Philolaus the Pythagorean, that the sun shines as crystal, which receives its splendor from the fire of the world and so reflecteth its light upon us; so that first, the body of fire which is celestial is in the sun; and secondly, the fiery reflection that comes from it, in the form of a mirror; and lastly, the rays spread upon us by way of reflection from that mirror; and this last we call the sun, which is (as it were) an image of an image. Empedocles, that there are two suns; the one the prototype, which is a fire placed in the other hemisphere, which it totally fills, and is always ordered in a direct opposition to the reflection of its own light; and the sun which is visible to us, formed by the reflection of that splendor in the other hemisphere (which is filled with air mixed with heat), the light reflected from the circular sun in the opposite hemisphere falling upon the crystalline sun; and this reflection is borne round with the motion of the fiery sun. To give briefly the full sense, the sun is nothing else but the light and brightness of that fire which encompasseth the earth. Epicurus, that it is an earthy bulk well compacted, with ores like a pumice-stone or a sponge, kindled by fire.

Chapter XXI.

Of the Magnitude of the Sun.

Anaximander says, that the sun itself in greatness is equal to the earth, but that the circle from whence it receives its respiration and in which it is moved is seven and twenty times larger than the earth. Anaxagoras, that it is far greater than Peloponnesus. Heraclitus, that it is no broader than a man’s foot. Epicurus, that he equally embraceth all the foresaid opinions — that the sun may be of magnitude as it appears, or it may be somewhat greater or somewhat less.

Chapter XXII.

What is the Figure or Shape of the Sun.

Anaximenes affirms that in its dilatation it resembles a leaf. Heraclitus, that it hath the shape of a boat, and is somewhat crooked. The Stoics, that it is spherical, and it is of the same figure with the world and the stars. Epicurus, that the recited dogmas may be defended.

Chapter XXIII.

Of the Turning and Returning of the Stars, or the Summer and Winter Solstice.

Anaximenes believes that the stars are forced by a condensed and resisting air. Anaxagoras, by the repelling force of the northern air, which is violently pushed on by the sun, and thus rendered more condensed and powerful. Empedocles, that the sun is hindered from a continual direct course by its spherical vehicle and by the two circular tropics. Diogenes, that the sun, when it comes to its utmost declination, is extinguished, a rigorous cold damping the heat. The Stoics, that the sun maintains its course only through that space in which its sustenance is seated, let it be the ocean or the earth; by the exhalations proceeding from these it is nourished. Plato, Pythagoras, and Aristotle, that the sun receives a transverse motion from the obliquity of the zodiac, which is guarded by the tropics; all these the globe clearly manifests.

Chapter XXIV.

Of the Eclipse of the Sun.

Thales was the first who affirmed that the eclipse of the sun was caused by the moon’s running in a perpendicular line between it and the world; for the moon in its own nature is terrestrial. And by mirrors it is made perspicuous that, when the sun is eclipsed, the moon is in a direct line below it. Anaximander, that the sun is eclipsed when the fiery mouth of it is stopped and hindered from respiration. Heraclitus, that it is after the manner of the turning of a boat, when the concave seems uppermost to our sight, and the convex nethermost. Xenophanes, that the sun is eclipsed when it is extinguished; and that a new sun is created and rises in the east. He gives a farther account of an eclipse of the sun which remained for a whole month, and again of an eclipse which changed the day into night. Some declare that the cause of an eclipse is the invisible concourse of condensed clouds which cover the orb of the sun. Aristarchus placeth the sun amongst the fixed stars, and believeth that the earth [the moon?] is moved about the sun, and that by its inclination and vergency it intercepts its light and shadows its orb. Xenophanes, that there are many suns and many moons, according as the earth is distinguished by climates, circles, and zones. At some certain times the orb of the sun, falling upon some part of the world which is untenanted, wanders in a vacuum and becomes eclipsed. The same person affirms that the sun proceeding in its motion in the infinite space, appears to us to move orbicularly, taking that representation from its infinite distance from us.

Chapter XXV.

Of the Essence of the Moon.

Anaximander affirms that the circle of the moon is nineteen times bigger than the earth, and resembles the sun, its orb being full of fire; and it suffers an eclipse when the wheel makes a revolution, — which he describes by the divers turnings of a chariot-wheel, in the midst of it there being a hollow nave replenished with fire, which hath but one way of expiration. Xenophanes, that it is a condensed cloud. The Stoics, that it is mixed of fire and air. Plato, that it is a body of the greatest part fiery. Anaxagoras and Democritus, that it is a solid, condensed, and fiery body, in which there are flat countries, mountains, and valleys. Heraclitus, that it is an earth covered with a bright cloud. Pythagoras, that the body of the moon was of a nature resembling a mirror.

Chapter XXVI.

Of the Size of the Moon.

The Stoics declare, that in magnitude it exceeds the earth, just as the sun itself doth. Parmenides, that it is equal to the sun, from whom it receives its light.

Chapter XXVII.

Of the Figure of the Moon.

The Stoics believe that it is of the same figure with the sun, spherical. Empedocles, that the figure of it resembles a quoit. Heraclitus, a boat. Others, a cylinder.

Chapter XXVIII.

From Whence is it that the Moon Receives Her Light?

Anaximander thinks that she gives light to herself, but it is very slender and faint. Antiphon, that the moon shines by its own proper light; but when it absconds itself, the solar beams darting on it obscure it. Thus it naturally happens, that a more vehement light puts out a weaker; the same is seen in other stars. Thales and his followers, that the moon borrows all her light of the sun. Heraclitus, that the sun and moon are after the same manner affected; in their configurations both are shaped like boats, and are made conspicuous to us by receiving their light from moist exhalations. The sun appears to us more refulgent, by reason it is moved in a clearer and purer air; the moon appears more duskish, it being carried in an air more troubled and gross.

Chapter XXIX.

Of the Eclipse of the Moon.

Anaximenes believes that the mouth of the wheel, about which the moon is turned, being stopped is the cause of an eclipse. Berasus, that it proceeds from the turning of the dark side of the lunar orb towards us. Heraclitus, that it is performed just after the manner of a boat turned upside downwards. Some of the Pythagoreans say, that the splendor arises from the earth, its obstruction from the Antichthon (or counter-earth). Some of the later philosophers, that there is such a distribution of the lunar flame, that it gradually and in a just order burns until it be full moon; in like manner, that this fire decays by degrees, until its conjunction with the sun totally extinguisheth it. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and all the mathematicians agree, that the obscurity with which the moon is every month affected ariseth from a conjunction with the sun, by whose more resplendent beams she is darkened; and the moon is then eclipsed when she falls upon the shadow of the earth, the earth interposing between the sun and moon, or (to speak more properly) the earth intercepting the light of the moon.

Chapter XXX.

Of the Phases of the Moon, or the Lunar Aspects; or How it Comes to Pass that the Moon Appears to Us Terrestrial.

The Pythagoreans say, that the moon appears to us terraneous, by reason it is inhabited as our earth is, and in it there are animals of a larger size and plants of a rarer beauty than our globe affords; that the animals in their virtue and energy are fifteen degrees superior to ours; that they emit nothing excrementitious; and that the days are fifteen times longer. Anaxagoras, that the reason of the inequality ariseth from the commixture of things earthy and cold; and that fiery and caliginous matter is jumbled together, whereby the moon is said to be a star of a counterfeit aspect. The Stoics, that on account of the diversity of her substance the composition of her body is subject to corruption.

Chapter XXXI.

How Far the Moon is Removed from the Sun.

Empedocles declares, that the distance of the moon from the sun is double her remoteness from the earth. The mathematicians, that her distance from the sun is eighteen times her distance from the earth. Eratosthenes, that the sun is remote from the earth seven hundred and eighteen thousand furlongs.

Chapter XXXII.

Of the Year, and How Many Circulations Make Up the Great Year of Every Planet.

The year of Saturn is completed when he has had his circulation in the space of thirty solar years; of Jupiter in twelve; of Mars in two, of the sun in twelve months; in so many Mercury and Venus, the spaces of their circulation being equal; of the moon in thirty days, in which time her course from her prime to her conjunction is finished. As to the great year, some make it to consist of eight years solar, some of nineteen, others of fifty-nine. Heraclitus, of eighteen thousand. Diogenes, of three hundred and sixty-five such years as Heraclitus assigns. Others there are who lengthen it to seven thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven years.

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