Concerning Nature, by Plutarch

Book IV.

Having taken a survey of the general parts of the world, I will take a view of the particular members of it.

Chapter I.

Of the Overflowing of the Nile.

Thales conjectures that the Etesian or anniversary northern winds blowing strongly against Egypt heighten the swelling of the Nile, the mouth of that river being obstructed by the force of the sea rushing into it. Euthymenes the Massilian concludes that the Nile is filled by the ocean and that sea which is outward from it, the last being naturally sweet. Anaxagoras, that the snow in Ethiopia which is frozen in winter is melted in summer, and this makes the inundation. Democritus, that the snows which are in the northern climates when the sun enters the summer solstice are dissolved and diffused; from those vapors clouds are compacted, and these are forcibly driven by the Etesian winds into the southern parts and into Egypt, from whence violent showers are poured; and by this means the fens of Egypt are filled with water, and the river Nile hath its inundation. Herodotus the historian, that the waters of the Nile receive from their fountain an equal portion of water in winter and in summer; but in winter the water appears less, because the sun, making its approach nearer to Egypt, draws up the rivers of that country into exhalation. Ephorus the historiographer, that in summer all Egypt seems to be melted and sweats itself into water, to which the thin and sandy soils of Arabia and Lybia contribute. Eudoxus relates that the Egyptian priests affirm that, when it is summer to us who dwell under the northern tropic, it is winter with them that inhabit under the southern tropic; by this means there is a various contrariety and opposition of the seasons in the year, which cause such showers to fall as make the water to overflow the banks of the Nile and diffuse itself throughout all Egypt.

Chapter II.

Of the Soul.

Thales first pronounced that the soul is that being which is in a perpetual motion, or that whose motion proceeds from itself. Pythagoras, that it is a number moving itself; he takes a number to be the same thing with a mind. Plato, that it is an intellectual substance moving itself, and that motion is in a numerical harmony. Aristotle, that it is the first actuality [Greek ommitted] of a natural organical body which has life potentially; and this actuality must be understood to be the same thing with energy or operation. Dicaearchus, that it is the harmony of the four elements. Asclepiades the physician, that it is the concurrent exercitation of the senses.

Chapter III.

Whether the Soul be a Body, and what is the Nature and Essence of It.

All those named by me do affirm that the soul itself is incorporeal, and by its own nature is in a motion, and in its own self is an intelligent substance, and the living actuality of a natural organical body. The followers of Anaxagoras, that it is airy and a body. The Stoics, that it is a hot exhalation. Democritus, that it is a fiery composition of things which are perceptible by reason alone, the same having their forms spherical and without an inflaming faculty; and it is a body. Epicurus, that it is constituted of four qualities, of a fiery quality, of an aerial quality, a pneumatical, and of a fourth quality which hath no name, but it contains the virtue of the sense. Heraclitus, that the soul of the world is the exhalation which proceeds from the moist parts of it; but the soul of animals, arising from exhalations that are exterior and from those that are within them, is homogeneous to it.

Chapter IV.

Of the Parts of the Soul.

Plato and Pythagoras, according to their first account, distribute the soul into two parts, the rational and irrational. By a more accurate and strict account the soul is branched into three parts; they divide the unreasonable part into the concupiscible and the irascible. The Stoics say the soul is constituted of eight parts; five of which are the senses, hearing, seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, the sixth is the faculty of speaking, the seventh of generating, the eighth of commanding; this is the principal of all, by which all the other are guided and ordered in their proper organs, as we see the eight arms of a polypus aptly disposed. Democritus and Epicurus divide the soul into two parts, the one rational, which bath its residence in the breast, and the irrational, which is diffused through the whole structure of the body. Democritus, that the quality of the soul is communicated to everything, yea, to the dead corpses; for they are partakers of heat and some sense, when the most of both is expired out of them.

Chapter V.

What is the Principal Part of the Soul, and in what Part of the Body it Resides.

Plato and Democritus place its residence in the whole head. Strato, in that part of the forehead where the eyebrows are separated. Erasiatratus, in the Epikranis, or membrane which involves the brain. Herophilus, in that sinus of the brain which is the basis of it. Parmenides, in the breast; which opinion is embraced by Epicurus. The Stoics are generally of this opinion, that the seat of the soul is throughout the heart, or in the spirit about it. Diogenes, in the arterial ventricle of the heart, which is also full of vital spirit. Empedocles, in the mass of the blood. There are that say it is in the neck of the heart, others in the pericardium, others in the midriff. Certain of the Neoterics, that the seat of the soul is extended from the head to the diaphragm. Pythagoras, that the animal part of the soul resides in the heart, the intellectual in the head.

Chapter VI.

Of the Motion of the Soul.

Plato believes that the soul is in perpetual motion, but that it is immovable as regards motion from place to place. Aristotle, that the soul is not naturally moved, but its motion is accidental, resembling that which is in the forms of bodies.

Chapter VII.

Of the Soul’s Immortality.

Plato and Pythagoras say that the soul is immortal; when it departs out of the body, it retreats to the soul of the world, which is a being of the same nature with it. The Stoics, when the souls leave the bodies, they are carried to divers places; the souls of the unlearned and ignorant descend to the coagmentation of earthly things, but the learned and vigorous last till the general fire. Epicurus and Democritus, the soul is mortal, and it perisheth with the body. Plato and Pythagoras, that part of the soul of man which is rational is eternal; for though it be not God, yet it is the product of an eternal deity; but that part of the soul which is divested of reason dies.

Chapter VIII.

Of the Senses, and of Those Things which are Objects of the Senses,

The Stoics give this definition of sense: Sense is the Apprehension or comprehension of an object by means of an organ of sensation. There are several ways of expressing what sense is; it is either a habit, a faculty, an operation, or an imagination which apprehends by means of an organ of sense — and also the eighth principal thing, from whence the senses originate. The instruments of sense are intelligent exhalations, which from the said commanding part extend unto all the organs of the body. Epicurus, that sense is a faculty, and that which is perceived by the sense is the product of it; so that sense hath a double acceptation — sense which is the faculty, and the thing received by the sense, which is the effect. Plato, that sense is that commerce which the soul and body have with those things that are exterior to them; the power of which is from the soul, the organ by which is from the body; but both of them apprehend external objects by means of the imagination. Leucippus and Democritus, that sense and intelligence arise from external images; so neither of them can operate without the assistance of image falling upon us.

Chapter IX.

Whether what Appears to Our Senses and Imaginations be True or Not.

The Stoics say that what the senses represent is true; what the imagination, is partly false, partly true. Epicurus that every impression of the sense or imagination is true, but of those things that fall under the head of opinion, some are true, some false: sense gives us a false presentation of those things only which are the objects of our understanding; but the imagination gives us a double error, both of things sensible and things intellectual. Empedocles and Heraclides, that the senses act by a just accommodation of the pores in every case; everything that is perceived by the sense being congruously adapted to its proper organ.

Chapter X.

How Many Senses are There?

The Stoics say that there are five senses properly so called, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting. and touching. Aristotle indeed doth not add a sixth sense; but he assigns a common sense, which is the judge of all compounded species; into this each sense casts its proper representation, in which is discovered a transition of one thing into another, like as we see in figure and motion where there is a change of one into another. Democritus, that there are divers species of senses, which appertain to beings destitute of reason, to the gods, and to wise men.

Chapter XI.

How the Actions of the Senses, the Conceptions of Our Minds, and the Habit of Our Reason are Formed.

The Stoics affirm that every man, as soon as he is born, has a principal and commanding part of his soul, which is in him like a sheet of writing-paper, to which he commits all his notions. The first manner of his inscribing is by denoting those notions which flow from the senses. Suppose it be of a thing that is white; when the present sense of it is vanished, there is yet retained the remembrance; when many memorative notions of the same similitude do concur, then he is said to have an experience; for experience is nothing more than the abundance of notions that are of the same form met together. Some of these notions are naturally begotten according to the aforesaid manner, without the assistance of art; the others are produced by discipline, learning, and industry; these only are justly called notions, the others are prenotions. But reason, which gives us the denomination of rational, is completed by prenotions in the first seven years. The conception of the mind is the vision that the intelligence of a rational animal hath received; when that vision falls upon the rational soul, then it is called the conception of the mind, for it hath derived its name from the mind [Greek omitted] from [Greek omitted]. Therefore these visions are not to be found in any other animals; they only are appropriated to gods and to us men. If these we consider generally, they are phantasms; if specifically, they are notions. As pence or staters, if you consider them according to their own value, are simply pence and staters; but if you give them as a price for a naval voyage, they are called not merely pence, etc., but your freight.

Chapter XII.

What is the Difference Between Imagination [Greek Omitted], The Imaginable [GREEK OMITTED], Fancy [GREEK OMITTED], and Phantom [Greek Omitted]?

Chrysippus affirms, these four are different one from another. Imagination is that passion raised in the soul which discovers itself and that which was the efficient of it; to use example, after the eye hath looked upon a thing that is white, the sight of which produceth in the mind a certain impression, this gives us reason to conclude that the object of this impression is white, which affecteth us. So with touching and smelling Phantasy or imagination is denominated from [Greek omitted] which denotes light; for as light discovers itself and all other things which it illuminates, so this imagination discovers itself and that which is the cause of it. The imaginable is the efficient cause of imagination; as anything that is white, or anything that is cold, or everything that may make an impression upon the imagination. Fancy is a vain impulse upon the mind of man, proceeding from nothing which is really conceivable; this is experienced in those that whirl about their idle hand and fight with shadows; for to the imagination there is always some real imaginable thing presented, which is the efficient cause of it; but to the fancy nothing. A phantom is that to which we are brought by such a fanciful and vain attraction; this is to be seen in melancholy and distracted persons. Of this sort was Orestes in the tragedy, pronouncing these words:

Mother, these maids with horror me affright;
Oh bring them not, I pray, into my sight!
They’re smeared with blood, and cruel, dragon-like,
Skipping about with deadly fury strike.

These rave as frantic persons, they see nothing, and yet imagine they see. Thence Electra thus returns to him:

0 wretched man, securely sleep in bed;
Nothing thou seest, thy fancy’s vainly led.
(Euripides, “Orestes”, 255.)

After the same manner Theoclymenus in Homer.

Chapter XIII.

Of Our Sight, and by what Means We See.

Democritus and Epicurus suppose that sight is caused by the insertion of little images into the visive organ, and by the reception of certain rays which return to the eye after meeting the object. Empedocles supposes that images are mixed with the rays of the eye; these he styles the rays of images. Hipparchus, that the visual rays extend from both the eyes to the superficies of bodies, and give to the sight the apprehension of those same bodies, after the same manner in which the hand touching the extremity of bodies gives the sense of feeling. Plato, that the sight is the splendor of united rays; there is a light which reaches some distance from the eyes into a cognate air, and there is likewise a light shed from bodies, which meets and joins with the fiery visual light in the intermediate air (which is liquid and mutable); and the union of these rays gives the sense of seeing. This is Plato’s corradiancy, or splendor of united rays.

Chapter XIV.

Of Those Images which are Presented to Our Eyes in Mirrors.

Empedocles says that these images are caused by certain effluxes which, meeting together and resting upon the superficies of the mirror, are perfected by that fiery element emitted by the said mirror, which transforms withal the air that surrounds it. Democritus and Epicurus, that the specular appearances are made by the subsistence of the images which flow from our eyes; these fall upon the mirror and remain, while the light returns to the eye. The followers of Pythagoras explain it by the reflection of the sight; for our sight being extended (as it were) to the brass, and meeting with the smooth dense surface thereof it is forced back, and caused to return upon itself: the same takes place in the hand, when it is stretched out and then brought back again to the shoulder. Any one may use these instances to explain the manner of seeing.

Chapter XV.

Whether Darkness Can be Visible to Us.

The Stoics say that darkness is seen by us, for out of our eyes there issues out some light into it; and our eyes do not impose upon us, for they really perceive there is darkness. Chrysippus says that we see darkness by the striking of the intermediate air; for the visual spirits which proceed from the principal part of the soul and reach to the ball of the eye pierce this air, which, after they have made those strokes upon it, extend conically on the surrounding air, where this is homogeneous in quality. For from the eyes those rays are poured forth which are neither black nor cloudy. Upon this. account darkness is visible to us.

Chapter XVI.

Of Hearing.

Empedocles says that hearing is formed by the insidency of the air upon the cochlea, which it is said hangs within the ear as a bell, and is beat upon by the air. Alcmaeon, that the vacuity that is within the ear makes us to have the sense of hearing, for the air forcing a vacuum gives the sound; every inanity affords a ringing. Diogenes the air which exists in the head, being struck upon by the voice gives the hearing. Plato and his followers, the air which exists in the head being struck upon, is reflected to the principal part of the soul, and this causeth the sense of hearing.

Chapter XVII.

Of Smelling.

Alcmaeon believes that the principal part of the soul, residing in the brain, draws to itself odors by respiration. Empedocles, that scents insert themselves into the breathing of the lungs; for, when there is a great difficulty in breathing, odors are not perceived by reason of the sharpness; and this we experience in those who have the defluxion of rheum.

Chapter XVIII.

Of Taste.

Alcmaeon says that a moist warmth in the tongue, joined with the softness of it, gives the difference of taste. Diogenes, that by the softness and sponginess of the tongue, and because the veins of the body are joined in it, tastes are diffused by the tongue; for they are attracted from it to that sense and to the commanding part of the soul, as from a sponge.

Chapter XIX.

Of the Voice.

Plato thus defines a voice — that it is a breath drawn by the mind through the mouth, and a blow impressed on the air and through the ear, brain, and blood transmitted to the soul. Voice is abusively attributed to irrational and inanimate beings; thus we improperly call the neighing of horses or any other sound by the name of voice. But properly a voice [Greek omitted] is an articulate sound, which illustrates [Greek omitted] the understanding of man. Epicurus says that it is an efflux emitted from things that are vocal, or that give sounds or great noises; this is broken into those fragments which are after the same configuration. Like figures are round figures with round, and irregular and triangular with those of the same kind. These falling upon the ears produce the sense of hearing. This is seen in leaking vessels, and in fullers when they fan or blow their cloths. Democritus, that the air is broken into bodies of similar configuration, and these are rolled up and down with the fragments of the voice; as it is proverbially said, One daw lights with another, or, God always brings like to like. Thus we see upon the seashore, that stones like to one another are found in the same place, in one place the long-shaped, in another the round are seen. So in sieves, things of the same form meet together, but those that are different are divided; as pulse and beans falling from the same sieve are separated one from another. To this it may be objected: How can some fragments of air fill a theatre in which there is an infinite company of persons. The Stoics, that the air is not composed of small fragments, but is a continued body and nowhere admits a vacuum; and being struck with the air, it is infinitely moved in waves and in right circles, until it fill that air which surrounds it; as we see in a fish-pool which we smite by a falling stone cast upon it; yet the air is moved spherically, the water orbicularly. Anaxagoras says a voice is then formed when upon a solid air the breath is incident, which being repercussed is carried to the ears; after the same manner the echo is produced.

Chapter XX.

Whether the Voice is Incorporeal. what is it that the Gives Echo?

Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle declare that the voice is incorporeal; for it is not the air that causes the voice, but the figure which compasseth the air and its superficies having received a stroke, give the voice. But every superficies of itself is incorporeal. It is true that it move with the body but itself it hath no body; as we observe in a staff that is bended, the matter only admits of an inflection, while the superficies doth not. According to the Stoics a voice is corporeal since everything that is an agent or operates is a body; a voice acts and operates, for we hear it and are sensible of it; for it falls and makes an impression on the ear, as a seal of a ring gives its similitude upon the wax. Besides, everything that creates a delight or injury is a body; harmonious music affects with delight, but discord is tiresome. And everything that moved is a body; and the voice moves, and having its illapse upon smooth places is reflected, as when a ball is cast against a wall it rebounds. A voice spoken in the Egyptian pyramids is so broken, that it gives four or five echoes.

Chapter XXI.

By what Means the Soul is Sensible, and what is the Principal and Commanding Part of It.

The Stoics say that the highest part of the soul is the commanding part of it: this is the cause of sense, fancy, consents, and desires; and this we call the rational part. From this principal and commander there are produced seven parts of the soul, which are spread through the body, as the seven arms in a polypus. Of these seven parts, five are assigned to the senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. Sight is a spirit which is extended from the commanding part of the eyes; hearing is that spirit which from the principle reacheth to the ears; smelling a spirit drawn from the principal to the nostrils; tasting a spirit extended from the principle to the tongue; touching is a spirit which from the principal is drawn to the extremity of those bodies which are obnoxious to a sensible touch. Of the rest, the one called the spermatical is a spirit which reacheth from the principal to the generating vessels; the other, which is the vocal and termed the voice, is a spirit extended from the principal to the throat, tongue, and other proper organs of speaking. And this principal part itself hath that place in our spherical head which God hath in the world.

Chapter XXII.

Of Respiration or Breathing.

Empedocles thinks, that the first breath the first animal drew was when the moisture in the embryo was separated, and by that means an entrance was given to the external air into the gaping vessels, the moisture in them being evacuated. After this the natural heat, in a violent force pressing upon the external air for a passage, begets an expiration; but this heat returning to the inward parts, and the air giving way to it, causeth a respiration. The respiration that now is arises when the blood is borne to the exterior surface, and by this movement drives the airy substance through the nostrils; thus in its recess it causeth expiration, but the air being again forced into those places which are emptied of blood, it causeth an inspiration. To explain which, he proposeth the instance of a water-clock, which gives the account of time by the running of water.

Asclepiades supposeth the lungs to be in the manner of a funnel, and the cause of breathing to be the fineness of the inward parts of the breast; for thither the outward air which is more gross hastens, but is forced backward, the breast not being capable either to receive or want it. But there being always some of the more tenuous parts of the air left, so that all of it is not exploded, to that which there remains the more ponderous external air with equal violence is forced; and this he compares to cupping-glasses. All spontaneous breathings are formed by the contracting of the smaller pores of the lungs, and to the closing of the pipe in the neck; for these are at our command.

Herophilus attributes a moving faculty to the nerves, arteries, and muscles, but thinks that the lungs are affected only with a natural desire of enlarging and contracting themselves. Farther, there is the first operation of the lungs by attraction of the outward air, which is drawn in because of the abundance of the external air. Next to this, there is a second natural appetite of the lungs; the breast, pouring in upon itself the breath, and being filled, is no longer able to make an attraction, and throws the superfluity of it upon the lungs, whereby it is then sent forth in expiration; the parts of the body mutually concurring to this function by the alternate participation of fulness and emptiness. So that to lungs pertain four motions — first, when the lungs receive the outward air; secondly, when the outward air thus entertained is transmitted to the breast; thirdly, when the lungs again receive that air which they imparted to the breast; fourthly, when this air then received from the breast is thrown outwards. Of these four processes two are dilatations, one when the lungs attract the air, another when the breast dischargeth itself of it upon the lungs; two are contractions, one when the breast draws into itself the air, the second when it expels this which was insinuated into it. The breast admits only of two motions — of dilatation, when it draws from the lungs the breath, and of contraction, when it returns what it did receive.

Chapter XXIII.

Of the Passions of the Body, and Whether the Soul Hath a Sympathetical Condolency with It.

The Stoics say that all the passions are seated in those parts of the body which are affected, the senses have their residence in the commanding part of the soul. Epicurus, that all the passions and all the senses are in those parts which are affected, but the commanding part is subject to no passion. Strato, that all the passions and senses of the soul are in the rational or commanding part of it, and are not fixed in those places which are affected; for in this place patience takes its residence, and this is apparent in terrible and dolorous things, as also in timorous and valiant individuals.

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