Our Bodies Are Punishment for Murder

Plutarch’s Moralia, The eating of Flesh 996a-C

“This is the third day since I made mention of that comment by Xenocrates in a discussion, that the Athenians rendered a judgment against the man who flayed a ram while it was still alive. But I think that someone who tortures something while it still lives is not worse than the one who kills it. Rather, as it seems to me, we are more sensitive to things that are against common practice than those against nature.

I am also saying these things in a more common way here. But this great, mysterious, and unbelievable matter, as Plato says, is something I am reluctant to frame with the principle of my belief with clever people who are mulling over mortal affairs, just as a captain in a storm pauses before moving his ship or a poet hesitates at raising the machine during the performance of a play.

But it may not be worse also to set the tune and anticipate the theme by using Empedocles’ words. For he allegorizes souls in his lines, suggesting that humans are imprisoned in bodies in order to pay the price for murder, eating flesh, and being cannibals. This belief has an older appearance, however. For there are stories told of the sufferings of Dionysus when he was dismembered and the outrages the Titans committed, how they were punished and struck by lightning after they tasted his blood. This myth is an occult tale about rebirth.”

ἐμνήσθην δὲ τρίτην ἡμέραν διαλεγόμενος τὸ τοῦ Ξενοκράτους ὅτι Ἀθηναῖοι τῷ ζῶντα τὸν κριὸν ἐκδείραντι δίκην ἐπέθηκαν· οὐκ ἔστι δ᾿, οἶμαι, χείρων ὁ ζῶντα βασανίζων τοῦ παραιρουμένου τὸ ζῆν καὶ φονεύοντος· ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον, ὡς ἔοικε, τῶν παρὰ συνήθειαν ἢ τῶν παρὰ φύσιν αἰσθανόμεθα. καὶ ταῦτα μὲν ἐκεῖ κοινότερον ἔλεγον· τὴν δὲ μεγάλην καὶ μυστηριώδη καὶ ἄπιστον ἀνδράσι δεινοῖς, ᾗ φησιν ὁ Πλάτων, καὶ θνητὰ φρονοῦσιν ἀρχὴν τοῦ δόγματος ὀκνῶ μὲν ἔτι τῷ λόγῳ κινεῖν, ὥσπερ ναῦν ἐν χειμῶνι ναύκληρος ἢ μηχανὴν αἴρειν ποιητικὸς ἀνὴρ ἐν θεάτρῳ σκηνῆς περιφερομένης. οὐ χεῖρον δ᾿ ἴσως καὶ προανακρούσασθαι καὶ προαναφωνῆσαι τὰ τοῦ Ἐμπεδοκλέους· . . . ἀλληγορεῖ γὰρ ἐνταῦθα τὰς ψυχάς, ὅτι φόνων καὶ βρώσεως σαρκῶν καὶ ἀλληλοφαγίας δίκην τίνουσαι σώμασι θνητοῖς ἐνδέδενται. καίτοι δοκεῖ παλαιότερος οὗτος ὁ λόγος εἶναι· τὰ γὰρ δὴ περὶ τὸν Διόνυσον μεμυθευμένα πάθη τοῦ διαμελισμοῦ καὶ τὰ Τιτάνων ἐπ᾿ αὐτὸν τολμήματα, κολάσεις τε τούτων καὶ κεραυνώσεις γευσαμένων τοῦ φόνου, ᾐνιγμένος ἐστὶ μῦθος εἰς τὴν παλιγγενεσίαν·

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