Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies

Author: Plutarch

Question VIII.


Does the earth move like the sun, moon, and five planets, which for their motions he calls organs or instruments of time? Or is the earth fixed to the axis of the universe; yet not so built as to remain immovable, but to turn and wheel about, as Aristarchus and Seleucus have shown since; Aristarchus only supposing it, Seleucus positively asserting it? Theophrastus writes how that Plato, when he grew old, repented him that he had placed the earth in the middle of the universe, which was not its place.

Or is this contradictory to Plato’s opinion elsewhere, and in the Greek instead of [Greek omitted] should it be written [Greek omitted], taking the dative case instead of the genitive, so that the stars will not be said to be instruments, but the bodies of animals? So Aristotle has defined the soul to be "the actualization of a natural organic body, having the power of life." The sense then must be this, that souls are dispersed into meet organical bodies in time. But this is far besides his opinion. For it is not once, but several times, that he calls the stars instruments of time; as when he says, the sun was made, as well as other planets, for the distinction and conservation of the numbers of time.

It is therefore most proper to understand the earth to be here an instrument of time; not that the earth is moved, as the stars are; but that, they being carried about it, it standing still makes sunset and sunrising, by which the first measures of time, nights and days, are circumscribed. Wherefore he called it the infallible guard and artificer of night and day. For the gnomons of dials are instruments and measures of time, not in being moved with the shadows, but in standing still; they being like the earth in closing out the light of the sun when it is down,—as Empedocles says that the earth makes night by intercepting light. This therefore may be Plato’s meaning.

And so much the rather might we consider whether the sun is not absurdly and without probability said to be made for the distinction of time, with the moon and the rest of the planets. For as in other respects the dignity of the sun is great; so by Plato in his Republic (Plato, "Republic." vi. pp. 508, 509.) the sun is called the king and lord of the whole sensible nature, as the Chief Good is of the intelligible. For it is said to be the offspring of Good, it supplying both generation and appearance to things visible; as it is from Good that things intelligible both are and are understood. But that this God, having such a nature and so great power, should be only an instrument of time, and a sure measure of the difference that happens among the eight orbs, as they are slow or swift in motion, seems neither decent nor highly rational. It must therefore be said to such as are startled at these things, that it is their ignorance to think that time is the measure of motion in respect of sooner or later, as Aristotle calls it; or quantity in motion, as Speusippus; or an interval of motion and nothing else, as some of the Stoics define it, by an accident, not comprehending its essence and power, which Pindar has not ineptly expressed in these words: Time, who surpasses all in the seats of the blest. Pythagoras also, when he was asked what time was, answered, it was the soul of the universe. For time is no affection or accident of motion, but the cause, power, and principle of that symmetry and order that confines all created beings, by which the animated nature of the universe is moved. Or rather, this order and symmetry itself—so far as it is motion —is called time. For this,

Walking by still and silent ways,
Mortal things with justice leads.
(Euripides, "Troades," 887.)

According to the ancients, the principle of the soul is a number moving itself. Therefore Plato says that time and heaven were coexistent, but that motion was before heaven had being. But time was not. For then there neither was order, nor measure, nor determination; but indefinite motion, as it were, the formless and rude matter of time. ... But when matter was informed with figures, and motion with circuitions, from that came the world, from this time. Both are representations of God; the world, of his essence; time, of his eternity in the sphere of motion, as the world is God in creation. Therefore they say heaven and motion, being bred together, will perish together, if ever they do perish. For nothing is generated without time, nor is anything intelligible without eternity; if this is to endure forever, and that never to die when once bred. Time, therefore, having a necessary connection and affinity with heaven, cannot be called simple motion, but (as it were) motion in order having terms and periods; whereof since the sun is prefect and overseer, to determine, moderate, produce, and observe changes and seasons, which (according to Heraclitus) produce all things, he is coadjutor to the governing and chief God, not in trivial things, but in the greatest and most momentous affairs.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Plutarch, "Question VIII.," Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies, ed. Firth, John B. and trans. Jowett, Benjamin, 1817-1893 in Complete Works of Plutarch—Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2018,

MLA: Plutarch. "Question VIII." Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies, edited by Firth, John B., and translated by Jowett, Benjamin, 1817-1893, in Complete Works of Plutarch—Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2018.

Harvard: Plutarch, 'Question VIII.' in Complete Works of Plutarch— Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies, ed. and trans. . cited in , Complete Works of Plutarch—Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2018, from