I’ve been reading through Plutarch‘s treatise De sera numinis vindicta (= On the Delays of Divine Vengeance) which features the character Thespesius experiencing an out-of-body vision.
Thespesius narrαtes how the rational part of his soul walks through the subluminary regions of the (Platonic) cosmos and encounters several disembodied souls in the afterlife who are awaiting a kind of purification before they can escape the lower regions towards a higher level of existence, although some souls regress, sink down, and get reincarnated as animals (Plutarch, De sera 563D-568A).
Though a person might be able to conceal his passions and vices from others while alive and embodied, the disembodied soul is completely exposed for its true condition. If a person somehow committed wrongs and was never brought to justice in the earthly life, there is a reckoning after death. Thespesius so explains:
- But whoever comes here from the world below unpunished and unpurged, is seized by (the goddess) Justice (ἡ Δίκη), with the soul exposed and naked, having nothing by which to sink out of sight, or hide, or cover one’s shame…. The scars and welts left by the different passions are more persistent in some, less so in others. Observe – he said – the mixture and diversity of colors in the souls (χρώματα τῶν ψυχῶν; 565B) *
Apparently, according to this myth recorded by Plutarch, souls are scarred by the passions and vices (οὐλαὶ δὲ καὶ μώλωπες ἐπὶ τῶν παθῶν) and the scars/welts show up as various colors depending on the type of passion or vice that a person committed. Plutarch gives quite an extensive list in 565C on the correlation of a soul’s color with the corresponding vice:
- So if the soul is a dirty brown (τὸ ὄρφνινος καὶ ῥυπαρόν) color, this stain is caused by greed (πλεονεξία)
- A fiery-red (τὸ αἱμωπὸν καὶ διάπυρον) comes from savagery and bitterness (ὡμότητος καὶ πικρίας)
- A blue-grey (τὸ γλαύκινον) signals some kind of incontinence in pleasure (ἀκρασία τις περὶ ἡδονάς)
- A green (τὸ ἰῶδες) is from spite with a begrudging envy (κακόνοια μετὰ φθόνου)
Plutarch further describes how the souls are punished with pains and torments far beyond any physical whipping. However, the result of such chastisement is the purification or purging of the soul of all vice and passion so that eventually “the soul becomes luminous in consequence and uniform in color (τὴν ψυχὴν αὐγοειδῆ καὶ σύγχρουν γίνεσθαι)” (565D).
|Temple of Apollo at Delphi where Plutarch (ca. 40-120 AD) was a priest
Photo by Max Lee © 2014 Delphi
There are so many fascinating observations that can be made from this passage. For one thing, again, the idea that the afterlife was a place where final justice was exercised is illustrated by the scene where the goddess Δίκη seizes souls and punishes them according to what their scars reveal about past crimes, vices, and passions. When Justice puts the souls on trial, they stand naked and exposed, unable to hide the scars left by their passions.
Secondly, moral and immoral action shapes who we are and what we become. They leave a scar or welt on our souls. Almost like an ancient version of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Plutarch’s narrative tells the tale of souls who are seen for what they really are. Forgive the pun, but their ‘true colors’ are shown in all their drab, dirty, ugly hues. We might undergo the illusion that pursuing vice has no effect on us as Dorian Gray thought, but as soon as the veil is uncovered, behind the curtain lies a vivid portrait of how greed, violent savagery, wanton pursuit of pleasure, and bitter spite has scarred our inner selves.
Third, purity or perfection is symbolized as luminescence. It is such an interesting scene that the soul, once colored with vices, could through divine discipline be purged of evil and shine forth like the sun.
I’m not sure if this text finds any parallels in Paul’s thought or other NT texts. I just enjoyed reading this narrative for its own end. Give me a week and I’ll post on any intertextual connections the Plutarch passage might have with the Pauline corpus. In the meanwhile, guard your soul and don’t color it with vice. Peace!
* The Greek text and English translation (with some modifications) comes from Philip De Lacy and Benedict Einarson, Plutarch: Moralia (vol. 7; LCL; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), 281.