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The distinction between 'Platonic' and 'Aristotelian' dualism

Bust of the philosopher and scientist Aristotle. Archaeological Museum, Palermo (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Aristotle (Archaeological 
Museum, Palermo)
The following article by Abraham P. Bos, former professor of classical and patristical philosophy, was published in A. Pérez Jiménez & F. Casadesús (eds.), Estudios sobre Plutarco. Misticismo y Religiones mistericas en la Obra de Plutarco (2001 Madrid-Málaga) 57-70. As its title suggests, it deals with Aristotelian dualism; the example is taken from Plutarch's treatise On the Face in the Moon. For the time being, there will be no footnotes online; you will have to consult the book itself.

The distinction between 'Platonic' and 'Aristotelian' dualism, illustrated from Plutarch's myth in De facie in orbe lunae.


In this article I want to make a contribution to our understanding of Plutarch. But I must apologize in advance for the fact that I will be speaking more about Aristotle than about Plutarch. I believe we must make a much better distinction than has been done so far between a 'Platonic' dualism and an 'Aristotelian' dualism. Plutarch, in my view, is an important representative of 'Aristotelian' dualism. I want to make this clear with reference to Plutarch's myth at the end of De facie in orbe lunae. In this myth Sulla talks about a Stranger who ends up in our world but who originally came from the 'Great Continent' beyond Okeanos, and who had been sent from there on a mission to the island where Kronos was held prisoner, somewhere between the 'Great Continent' and our world. Kronos is staying there, bound by Zeus in the chains of sleep. The stranger gave a revelation about what happens to man after his death on earth. A very special part is where he talks about the 'twofold liberation' which can take place at a human being's death.

This myth has all the features and characteristics of a philosophical myth. In this case the entire myth is in fact hung on an axiom with a strictly systematic-philosophical nature. This basic axiom is:

'the intellect is not a part of the soul, just as the soul is not a part of the body'.
This negative formulation, which clearly implies a criticism of anthropological theories attributed to the 'large majority', is then formulated in positive terms as well:
'the intellect is so much more excellent and divine than the soul as the soul is in relation to the body'.
I believe the modern literature on Plutarch's myth has not done enough justice to the importance of this position. It has failed to search adequately for the philosophical motivation of this (contra)proposition and for its consequences.

Why is the intellect not a part of the soul?

What moves the dialogue character Sulla to advance this proposition? And can we determine what his objections are to those whose position he rejects here? I start my argument with a short survey of some earlier contributions to the debate.

R.M. Jones, 1916

In 1916 R.M. Jones commented on Plutarch's myths as a group: 'The principal non-Platonic elements are the connection with demonology, the different mythical treatment of the noËw and the cuxÆ, and speculations concerning the part played by the sun and the moon'. It is striking in this statement that Jones sees a non-Platonic element in Plutarch's treatment of the relationship between 'intellect' and 'soul'.

H. Cherniss, 1957

H. Cherniss makes an attempt on p. 197 n. c of his text edition with an English translation. But, very exceptionally, in this case he is not very illuminating. The author starts with references to Plutarch, De virtute morali 441D-442A and De genio Socratis 591D-E, where comparable trichotomies are to be found. Next, he refers to Plato's Timaeus 30B; 41-42; 90A; Laws XII 961D-E; Phaedrus 247C and calls passages like these 'the ultimate source of Plutarch's conception of the relation of mind, soul, and body'. But this note can lead to a misunderstanding. Though it is correct that Plato in these passages uses a trichotomy of intellect, soul, and body, he never argued that the intellect exists independently by itself. The nous is emphatically the highest part and guiding principle of the soul (Phdr. 247B7).

In his note Cherniss appeals to P. Thévenaz, L'âme du monde, le devenir et la matière chez Plutarque, Paris, 1938, pp. 70-73. This author had remarked: 'Plutarque ne dit rien de nouveau sur ce point. Aristote avait déja affirmé cela et surtout Platon...' (p. 70). But he is referring here to the claim that the intellect comes 'from outside'. In his further argument he talks, in connection with Plato, about 'l'espèce d'âme la plus élevée en nous' and about 'l'âme intelligente'. That is to say, he uses for Plato precisely the terminology which Plutarch is criticizing (cf. Tim. 90A).

Cherniss rejects the claim of M. Adler that Plutarch is criticizing Plato here as the one who made the intellect a part of the soul, but he does not provide sound reasons for doing so.

Rather Cherniss should have pointed to Thévenaz's claim on p. 72 of his dissertation: 'La hiérarchie néoplatonicienne se dessine: le noËw est supérieur, meilleur et plus divin que l'âme'. Neoplatonism separated the 'soul' and the 'intellect' in a way and with a consistency which Plato had not yet accepted. We could perhaps reformulate Cherniss's argument as follows: the text of Plato's dialogues indicated a problem with regard to the precise relation of 'intellect' and 'soul' which received a standard solution in Neoplatonism in the sense that the intellect is superior to and more divine and original than the soul.

J.M. Dillon, 1986

In his important study on Plutarch and the Platonism of his time J. Dillon remarks: 'Plutarch derives from somewhere a strong contrast between soul and intellect (nous) ... and, together with that, a belief in what he calls a 'double' or two-stage death, set out in the myth of the dialogue On the Face in the Moon (945BC)'. Slightly further on he observes: 'Such a belief in a separable intellect is reminiscent of a doctrine that turns up in the Hermetic Corpus (Tractate 10, esp. sections 19-21) ... Whether Plutarch derives any influence from that quarter is doubtful, but certainly this doctrine, like his basic dualism, is an accretion of his Platonism brought in from outside'.

P. Donini, 1988

Another very valuable article by P. Donini is devoted to the question how far Plutarch can justifiably be said to be an 'eclectic'. On the one hand Donini points out 'that Plato more than anyone else influenced Plutarch', on the other that 'in the De facie there are also some themes that are not only foreign but perhaps even hostile to Plato's philosophy (at least apparently so)'. Donini emphasizes that this can and should be understood by seeing that the Platonism of Plutarch's time 'had absorbed many Aristotelian doctrines'.

It is highly significant, according to Donini, that a core element of the myth at the end of De facie is the 'threefold Aristotelian division of theoretical sciences'. He infers this from the statement that, on Kronos' island, astronomy, geometry, and all other philosophical disciplines are practised in the service of the deity, that is to say, with an 'obvious preeminence of theology over all the theoretical sciences'.

From his analysis of De facie he concludes: 'we shall have to admit that the presence of Aristotelianism in Plutarch is much greater than we had been accustomed to think'.

But as well as Platonic and Aristotelian concepts Donini is forced to recognize another, foreign element: the author of De facie talks about the soul as a corporeal entity. Donini believes that this facet is unmistakably Stoic, even though he also believes that Plutarch almost always opposes Stoicism. Owing to Stoic influence, however, 'Plutarch was in a certain sense compelled to accept a kind of materialization of the soul'.

Yet Donini vigorously affirms that Plutarch's doctrine of mind cannot be called Stoic: 'there cannot be any doubt whatsoever that nous in Plutarch is immortal and immaterial', and 'The aim of nous is ... the supreme and ideal goal that reveals itself in the sun, namely the Good'.

R. Chlup, 2000

Recently R. Chlup offered a contribution in an article on 'Plutarch's Dualism and the Delphic cult'. He too observes in Plutarch the 'fundamental opposition of Soul and Intelligence', but he regards Plutarch's development of this opposition as being at odds with the text of Plato's dialogues. Here, too, we shall have to conclude that Plutarch saw the need for a change of tack with regard to Plato's philosophical choices, and carried it out while preserving as many elements from Plato's text as possible.

Sulla articulates a fundamental Aristotelian proposition

In my view, we must recognize that the position of Sulla in Plutarch's dialogue is very specifically the position of Aristotle, who urged precisely this point as his main objection to Plato.

The basis of Plato's ontology was the division between corporeal and non-corporeal reality. For Plato this division was parallel to the division between (visible) body and (invisible) soul. In his view, the intellect is always a part (the highest and most divine part) of the soul. Aristotle excludes this structurally. The core of his conflict and the focal point of his discussion with Plato is Aristotle's consistent separation of soul and intellect. It is remarkable (and it has too often been neglected) that both Cicero and Hippolytus, when they talk about one fundamental disagreement between Aristotle and his teacher, refer to their controversy about the relation of the divine Intellect to the World-Soul, or the relation of the human soul to the human intellect.

For Aristotle it is clear: the soul is immaterial, but never 'without body'. By contrast, the intellect as intellect (that is to say, thought which is aimed not at empirical reality but at the transcendent and at the comprehensive principles) is in no way related to corporeal reality but is structurally 'separated' from it. True enough, Aristotle also held that the human soul has a potential (dynamis) for intellect. But as long as it is a potential, it is not yet an intellect. And as soon as the intellect is actualized, it differs fundamentally from 'soul' because it is not connected with body. It does not have or need a sôma organikon like the soul.

New light on Aristotle's psychology and noology

Everybody is agreed that Aristotle characterized the soul as 'not without body'. But few have connected him in any way with Plutarch's particular form of dualism. In my view, this is because, since Alexander of Aphrodisias, Aristotle has been misinterpreted.

Alexander had rejected Aristotle's lost dialogues as witnesses to Aristotle's own philosophical views. And he had crucially misinterpreted De anima II 1. Aristotle argued there that the soul is 'not without body' and he defined the soul as 'the first entelechy of a sôma physikon organikon'. Alexander explained this in the sense that the soul is inextricably linked to the coarse-material, visible body, which is equipped with organs. But what Aristotle meant was: the soul is inextricably linked to a fine-material natural body which serves the soul as an organon, as a 'tool' or 'instrument'. 

Elsewhere I have offered detailed explanations of this position, which involves a radical correction of the standard interpretation of Aristotle's psychology. Later I also noticed that Plutarch is an important witness to the original interpretation of the concept of sôma organikon in the sense of 'instrumental body'.

Obviously, if organikon should be read as 'instrumental' and as referring, not to the visible body, but to a special soul-body, we no longer have to assume a gap between Aristotle's De anima and his lost dialogue the Eudemus. This explodes the whole Jaegerian paradigm of a development in three of even more phases.

We have to notice that Aristotle does not say anywhere in De anima that the disappearance of the visible body means the death of the soul. In fact, he talks there about the 'withdrawal' and 'moving away' of the soul.

This leads to the necessary conclusion that Aristotle's De anima is not incompatible with what the Eudemus says about the 'return of the soul' to its fatherland, after the death of the individual. Apparently for this journey from the sublunary sphere to the celestial regions the immaterial soul in De anima also needs an 'instrumental body' as a vehicle, because movement, according to Aristotle, is a matter of 'natural bodies'.

This suddenly opens our mind to the idea that precisely the 'ascent of the soul' is only possible, according to Aristotle, thanks to a sôma organikon with which the soul as soul was inextricably linked as with its ochêma or vehicle.

We can now better understand Cicero's reports about a quinta essentia, an astral body which is the substance of the soul in Aristotle; this astral substance may have formed part of the sôma organikon of the human soul gifted with reason. We also understand more readily that Aristotle, by emphasizing that the soul must be connected with a special soul-body, took an important step in the direction of Stoic hylozoistic psychology, even though he himself never identified the soul with this soul-body.

Soul and intellect in Aristotle's Eudemus

Let us assume that the reader is willing to consider that no gap yawned between Aristotle's views in his published dialogue Eudemus or On the soul and his lecture notes De anima, because both works present the soul as the eidos of a body; and specifically of a body which is 'instrumental' for the soul; and both works talked about or at least admitted a survival of the soul after the individual has died. Yet enough questions remain.

What did Aristotle actually think about the relation of 'soul' to 'intellect' in the Eudemus?

Cicero reports to us in a famous text that the death of Eudemus should not be viewed as an absolute end but as a 'return home' of the soul. And Plutarch, in his Consolatio ad Apollonium, gives us a lengthy literal quotation from the Eudemus, in which Silenus reveals to Midas that existence after death on earth has a higher quality than life resulting from biotic reproduction.

Moreover, the Eudemus, we are told by Themistius, presented 'proofs' or 'arguments' supporting the proposition that the soul is immortal.

But, an observant reader might ask: So there is, after all, a clear difference here between the Eudemus and De anima? Surely the latter work ascribed immortality and transcendence only to the mind?

We will then have to consider that Themistius' information on the arguments supporting immortality of the soul states very precisely that these arguments actually amounted to arguments for the immortality of the intellect!

What should we do with these rather contradictory reports about the Eudemus? It is surprising, in fact, that this problem has hardly been discussed in the modern literature. For if the soul is immortal in the proper sense, and the soul is always connected with a 'natural instrumental body', Aristotle did not recognize transcendence in the proper sense. But if Aristotle ascribed immortality in the proper sense to the nous, the big question is how he saw the situation of the soul after the earthly individual has died.

Is there a solution to this problem? In any case a solution is theoretically conceivable if we realize that Aristotle talks about 'the divine' and about 'eternity' in two senses and on two levels. On the one hand, he talks about the totally transcendent, metaphysical reality of Being as Being and the divine Intellect. On the other hand, he talks about the astral part of physis as divine and eternal. Consequently, Aristotle can fully agree with the proposition that the 'mind is so much more excellent and divine than the soul is with regard to the body'. The soul is more divine than the visible body, inasmuch as the soul owes its vital powers to the astral sphere. When the human individual dies, the astral component of the human being returns to its place of origin, the astral sphere. But the intellect has a higher degree of divinity. The intellect-in-act is totally free of corporeality. So it is also free of the sôma organikon which is inseparable from the soul.

How is this to be conceived? Only in the sense that, at the end of the soul's ascent, after it has left the earthly body, the intellect is 'released' from every form of corporeality, so also from the astral soul-body, and thus achieves perfect realization of its power. This is what Hippolytus suggests when in his Adversus omnes haereses he claims that in Aristotle's view the soul survives after death but in due course dissolves into the ether. The same Hippolytus, describing the doctrine of the Gnostic Basilides, indicates how this should be understood. According to Basilides, the transcendent 'second Sonship' depends on 'holy Pneuma' for its ascent through the heavenly spheres. But at the 'Boundary' of the cosmos the Sonship cannot take Pneuma with it, because Pneuma is not of the same essence as the transcendent Deity. In Basilides the Sonship therefore needs a 'natural body (Pneuma) as a 'vehicle' to ascend to the Boundary of natural reality and leaves the vehicle behind at this boundary, because the Sonship and Pneuma are not of the same essence. This must mean that the Sonship is perfectly transcendent and immaterial, but Pneuma as the vehicle of the Sonship is not. This is also the eschatological perspective sketched by the Hermetic Corpus in various treatises. But this is no reason to surmise, with J. Dillon, that Plutarch was influenced by the Hermetic tradition. Rather we will have to conclude that Plutarch, Basilides, and the author(s) of the Hermetic Corpus are representatives of 'Aristotelian dualism'.

The conception of De mundo

We can add that various details in the small work De mundo, which forms part of the Aristotelian Corpus and which, if it is not by Aristotle, in any case presents an Aristotelian conception, are also characteristic of an 'Aristotelian dualism'. The entire first chapter of this work talks about philosophy as the activity by which the soul, guided by the intellect, in a transcendent movement, raises itself above mortal, earthly reality, and ascends to its home, celestial and divine reality, where it takes in divine matters with the divine eye of the soul. Also, the work makes a fundamental distinction between contemplation of the cosmos from the (immanental) perspective of the physikos and the (transcendent) perspective of the 'theologos'.

In passing, however, chapter 4 shows that the author holds a psychology in which pneuma is described as 'the ensouled and life-generating substance in plants and animals which completely pervades them'.

That is to say, that the treatise De mundo holds a doctrine of soul which agrees entirely with the view of Aristotle's Eudemus, which I also argued for De anima above, and that it, too, is a witness of the typical 'Aristotelian dualism'.


Returning to Plutarch's De facie after these considerations, we have to conclude that P. Donini pointed the way to a truly sound assessment of Plutarch's intentions in De facie. But we need to make two short comments on Donini's interpretation.

(a) Plutarch's theology is essentially a theology of a transcendent Principle, completely unchanging and immaterial, and only active as final cause and as object of desire. In this way the Platonic theology of an active world-creating Demiurge has been wholly subordinated to a theology of a purely intellectual, theoretical principle. And of all sublunary creatures only man contains a principle-in-potentiality, the potential intellect, which shows a likeness to this transcendent God. But in Nature everything is corporeally qualified, not only the celestial beings but also the minds and souls of people in their earthly condition. In this respect, however, Plutarch does not follow a Stoic conception, but the correct Aristotelian conception, which holds that no soul can function without a sôma.

(b) In explaining the final myth of De facie it is better not to interpret the sleeping Kronos as a symbol of the 'first philosophy', but rather as a symbol of 'natural philosophy', that is, the philosophy which can keep man imprisoned and can lull and seduce him 'to sleep' (just as Penelope's handmaidens seduced the suitors of their mistress), and can prevent him from arriving at knowledge of the Truth and the truly Divine in reality and in himself. Zeus and the 'Great Continent' are symbolic in the myth of the perfectly transcendent science and the 'first philosophy'.

I believe it is very important to see how 'Aristotelian dualism', based on the insight that intellectual activity is different from all typically psychological activities, led in Plutarch to five themes which can all be regarded as consequences of this basic axiom:

  1. God is pure Intellect, completely unchanging and transcendent, and active as final cause and as object of desire;
  2. intellect is heterogeneous with regard to the soul;
  3. the soul as soul is connected with a (fine-material) body and is not totally unchanging;
  4. The concept of the fine material body that is the instrument of the immaterial soul principle also implies that each kind of living being has its specific soul-body. Therefore, there is no transmigration of a human soul to an animal soul.
  5. the potential for intellectuality of the rational soul must be awakened by the Intellect-in-act;
  6. The World-Soul, or the god Kronos or the World-Archon, is bound by the chains of sleep until he is brought to realization of his potential-for-intellectuality by contact with the transcendent Intellect.


  • Bos, A.P., Cosmic and meta-cosmic theology in Aristotle's lost dialogues, Leiden, 1989
  • Chlup, R., 'Plutarch's Dualism and the Delphic cult', Phronesis 45 (2000) 138-158;
  • Dillon, J.M., 'Plutarch and second-century Platonism', in A.H. Armstrong (ed.), Classical Mediterranean Spirituality, New York, 1986, 214-229;
  • Donini, P., 'Science and metaphysics. Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism in Plutarch's On the Face in the Moon', in J.M. Dillon; A.A. Long (ed.), The question of "Eclecticism". Studies in later Greek Philosophy, Berkeley, 1988, pp.126-144.;
  • Plutarch's Moralia, vol. XII with an English translation by H. Cherniss and W.C. Helmbold, London, 1957; 
  • Jones, R.M., The Platonism of Plutarch,1916; repr. New York/London, 1980. 
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