During a five-year trial period initiates of a Pythagorean community were expected to listen in silence, and to withhold any comments or questions: this rule was technically designated echemythia,that is « verbal restraint ». Plutarch’s interest in this relatively uncommon notion has so far escaped scholars’ attention, although in my view it sheds new light on Plutarch’s theological views. In this paper I investigate how Plutarch uses the concept of echemythia,with special attention devoted to the section of De Iside, 378 C-D. In this passage Plutarch interprets the young Egyptian god Harpocrates, with his finger on his lips, as a promoter of restrained speech (echemythia), and considers him as such to be the « patron saint » of theology. I first stress how Plutarch largely reinterprets the Pythagorean notion of echemythia so as to transform it into a theological virtue. For the Pythagoreans it was a discipline to be observed by the initiated in order not to disclose the truths they were learning about the divine. In Plutarch’s view, by contrast, it is intended to avoid pronouncing untruths and blasphemies about the gods. In this way, echemythia is no longer an esoteric dictate: it becomes in Plutarch’s thought a universal discipline,aimed at the layperson everyone is when trying to express the divine. I then widen the scope of my analysis to consider Plutarch’s theology in relation to other Middle Platonists, in order to bring out the specific use Plutarch makes of the Pythagorean legacy. It has been noticed (cf. R. Mortley, etc) that Pythagoreanizing trends in the Alexandrian milieu of the first centuries B.C.and A.D. may have played an important part in the emergence of the theme –characteristic of Middle Platonism – of divine transcendence and ineffability.Because of its mathematisation of the first principles and its identification of the supreme archè with the One or the Monad, the Pythagorean legacy is indeed likely to have advanced the idea that language, which by nature implies plurality, is unable to express this supreme Unity, and to have promoted the development of negative theology. Yet,contrary to other Middle Platonists, Plutarch is hardly interested either inthe equation « God = the One » or in the theological use of aphairesis, i. e.« abstraction » by negation (cf. J. Opsomer 2007). My paper relies on evidence from Plutarch’s corpus to stress that his proper way to highlight God’s ungraspability is not to resort to negative utterances such as « God is ineffable », but to recommend verbal restraint as a result of which discourse on God paradoxically tends to silence. My purpose is therefore to draw attention to an aspect of the Pythagorean influence on Platonic theology that so far has been ignored: the previous literature has stressed the part played by Pythagorean doctrine in promoting a theology grounded in linguistic negation, but it has been unaware that Pythagorean legacy also had an influence through the practicesof the school. When read from this perspective, Plutarch indeed exploits the inner-school rule of echemythia to promote an alternative to aphairetic theology, i. e. an echemythic theology. According to this practice the theologian is called upon to imitate the silence intrinsic to the divine, and in this manner to pursue the goal of life as the Middle-Platonists defined it, i. e. likeness to God.
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