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Plutarch’s Hellish Cures for Ardiaeus: The Myth of Thespesius and the Occlusion of Plato’s ‘Incurables’

Collin Miles Hilton

Bryn Mawr College

            Plutarch’s dialogue De Sera Numinis Vindicta concludes with an elaborate myth: Aridaeus, a wicked young man, fell on his neck and died, but rose on his pyre three days later to announce the things his soul saw on its journey out from the body and throughout the outer world, such as the structures of cosmic governance and the punishments of the wicked (563b-f). His name is changed to Thespesius, and he mends his ways. Scholars have long noted the similarities between Plutarch’s frame and that of Plato’s myth at the end of the Republic—the flight of the soul described by Er, who fell in battle but rose on his pyre twelve days later (X.614b-c). Hume (1752) saw it as a rare blemish on Plutarch’s “plain sense,” inferring a desire to imitate the “ravings of Plato” (261). Hirzel (1895) noted further similarities, such as the resemblance of the initial name Aridaeus to Plato’s tortured tyrant in the myth of Er (215n1), Ardiaeus. Tauffer (2010) adduces many more examples, and Brenk (1977) concludes that “the major constituent elements of the myth reveal a great lack of originality and an exceptionally heavy dependence upon Plato” (137). These similarities, however, should emphasize the manifest differences between Plutarch’s myth and the Platonic model: while Plato’s Ardiaeus is tortured forever—flayed and bound twisted over spikes to deter other souls from tyrannical evil (615e-616a), without any hope of redemption, Plutarch’s Aridaeus is successfully cured by his near-death vision. Plutarch thus radically deemphasizes the “incurably wicked” (ἀνίατοι): they are included in De Sera, but are simply removed, shrouded from all view or memory—rather unlike the tyrants in the myth in Plato’s Gorgias, eternally chained tortured to the wall of the infernal jail as warnings for all to see (525c-d). Even the character in De Sera that seems most liable to suffer eternal punishment, Nero, is reincarnated into a frog (567e-568a)—an unenviable and comical fate, but far different from unending torture that can only serve as a painful warning to others.

            The pun inherent in the name of Plutarch’s protagonist, I argue, is philosophically significant: by drawing attention to the most prominent “incurable” in Plato’s myths, it emphasizes the converse role of punishment as cure in the cosmic machinery of the De Sera myth. This is a substantial departure, particularly from the myth in the Gorgias, which Plutarch imitates in other respects: the vibrantly colorful scars and welts that vices leave stained upon souls in De Sera (565b-c) elaborates the image of whip-scars on stripped souls in the Gorgias (524b-525a). But in the latter, this category of “incurables” is extremely prominent in the judicial structure: the judge Radamanthus even stamps whomever he deems wicked with “curable” or “incurable” (526b). The punishments in the myth of Er are so gruesome, moreover, that the Epicurean Colotes deemed them worse than anything in all of poetry (apud Proclus, In Remp. II.105.26-106.8). Plutarch’s De Sera is oriented as a defense of providence against Epicurus’ attacks (548a-c), and I think this aspect of the myth, the deemphasis of the “incurables,” forms a part of Plutarch’s response: the punishments the Epicureans bewail actually benefit the punished, even in troublesome cases, such as ancestral guilt (561c-e). Scholars have elucidated different aspects of Plutarch’s departures from Plato’s eschatological myths: Brenk (1987), for instance, argues for the significance of the Laws and Timaeus for the Nero episode (135-141), Wiener (2004) draws attention to the short duration of the departure from the body as a response to Colotes' complaint that Er’s body would have rotted by the twelfth day (61-62), and Gagné (2015) analyzes the myth beyond Plato, as “une refonte de toutes les catabases précédentes” (319). This diminution of the “incurables,” however, marks one of the greatest twists of Plutarch’s myth: the worst punishments of Plato are transformed into treatments for the curably wicked, and not just deterrents for other souls.

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Greek Political Thought

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