Plutarch, Moralia. The E at Delphi

LCL 306: 194-195

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The E At Delphi


Plutarch, in this essay on the Ε at Delphi, tells us that beside the well-known inscriptions at Delphi there was also a representation of the letter E, the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet. The Greek name for this letter was EI, and this diphthong, in addition to being used in Plutarch’s time as the name of Ε (which denotes the number five), is the Greek word for “if,” and also the word for the second person singular of the verb “to be “(thou art).

In searching for an explanation of the unexplainable it is only natural that the three meanings of EI (“five,” “if,” “thou art”) should be examined to see if any hypothesis based on any one of them might possibly yield a rational explanation; and these hypotheses constitute the skeleton about which is built the body of Plutarch’s essay. From it we gain some interesting delineations of character and an engaging portrayal of the way in which a philosopher acts, or reacts, when forced unwillingly to face the unknowable.

Plutarch puts forward seven possible explanations of the letter:

(1) It was dedicated by the Wise Men, as a protest against interlopers, to show that their number was actually five and not seven (EI = E, five).


The E At Delphi

(2) EI is the second vowel, the Sun is the second planet, and Apollo is identified with the sun (EI = E, the vowel).

(3) EI means “if”: people ask the oracle IF they shall succeed, or IF they shall do this or that (EI = “if”).

(4) EI is used in wishes or prayers to the god, often in the combination εἴθε or εἰ γάρ (EI = “if” or “if only ”).

(5) EI, “if,” is an indispensable word in logic for the construction of a syllogism (EI = “if”).

(6) Five is a most important number in mathematics, physiology, philosophy, and music (EI = E, “five”).

(7) EI means “thou art” and is the address of the consultant to Apollo, to indicate that the god has eternal being (EI = “thou art”).a

Attempts to explain the letter have been also made in modern times by Göttling, Berichte der Sachs. Gesell. der Wiss. I. (1846-47) pp. 311 ff., and by Schultz in Philologus (1866), pp. 214 ff. Roscher, in Philologus (1900), pp. 21 ff.; (1901), pp. 81 ff.; (1902), pp. 513 ff.; Hermes (1901), pp. 470 ff. (comment also by C. Robert in the same volume, p. 490), and the Philologische Wochenschrift (1922), col. 1211, maintains that EI is an imperative from (εἶμι) “go,” addressed to the person who came to consult the oracle, and that it means “go on,” “continue” into the temple. The value of this explanation is somewhat doubtful, since EI in this word (εἶμι) is a true diphthong, and so is not generally spelled with simple Ε except in the Corinthian alphabet. Although

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.plutarch-moralia_e_delphi.1936