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Analyses et interprétations

Plutarque, Sur l' E de Delphes 390 B 6-8 et l'explication de  la vision en Timée 45 b-d*

Alain Lernould


The essay (or dialogue) On the E at Delphi of the Platonist Plutarch of Chaeronea (c. 50 – c. 125 A.D.) is devoted to the elucidation of the mysterious E – the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet – that is dedicated to Apollo. According to one interpretation the E is, in a Pythagorean manner, meant to be the number five, i.e., the number of the universe. In this context is mentioned a theory espoused by 'some people' who claim that there is a correspondence between the five senses and the five primal elements. In this paper an attempt is made at showing that the two lines about vision (De E 390b6-8) are influenced by Timaeus 45b-d, a passage where Plato explains the mechanism of vision by referring to a coalescence of the visual current (or ray) with the external daylight. However, the short passage in Plutarch is not at all a piece of orthodox Platonism, given the  assimilation of the Aristotelian aether with the Platonic pure external fire. In any case the extreme brevity of this summary of a Platonic passage that is itself fraught with difficulties is responsible for the fact that these two enigmatic lines have never been correctly understood. The notions of homoiopatheia (homogeneity) and summetria (commensurability) in Timaeus 45b-d et 67c-e are also treated in this paper and an interpretation of these terms is proposed which stresses the dynamical character of Plato’s theory of vision. Finally, an Appendix outlines the history of the different readings of De E 390b6-8 from the Renaissance up to the standard critical editions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Electronic reference

Alain Lernould, “Plutarque, Sur l' E de Delphes 390 B 6-8 et l'explication de  la vision en Timée 45 b-d*”Methodos [Online], 5 | 2005, Online since 08 April 2005, connection on 28 March 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Alain Lernould

CNRS-UMR 8519 « Savoirs et Textes », Lille 3

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Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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