Saturday, 25 May 2019

The Frankforts on Parmenides (II)

Some facsimile pages from my notebooks, dating to August 1987, which review what Henri Frankfort and his colleagues had to say about Parmenides and the history of thought before the classical period in Greece. Click to enlarge the images. A page number followed by 'TN' indicates an internal notebook reference. The pages were scanned at 300 dpi, so they are easy to read if downloaded and opened in a viewer. Save the enlarged images for better resolution. The original pages are A4 format and size, so they are easy to print.

In Britain the Frankfort collaboration was published as Before Philosophy; in the US it had the title of The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man.







Friday, 24 May 2019

The Frankforts on Parmenides (I)

Some facsimile pages from my notebooks, dating to August 1987, which review what Henri Frankfort and his colleagues had to say about Parmenides and the history of thought before the classical period in Greece. Click to enlarge the images. A page number followed by 'TN' indicates an internal notebook reference. The pages were scanned at 300 dpi, so they are easy to read if downloaded and opened in a viewer. Save the enlarged images for better resolution. The original pages are A4 format and size, so they are easy to print.

In Britain the Frankfort collaboration was published as Before Philosophy; in the US it had the title of The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man.

It is obvious from these pages that I was heading in the direction of writing something like The Sacred History of Being in 1987, though the actual trip was a long one. There was a lot to learn, and a lot to study. 






Monday, 20 May 2019

The Platonic Theory of Being (full text)





This is the full text of the chapter 'The Platonic Theory of Being', first published in The Sacred History of Being, in 2015. The core argument of the book is contained in this chapter.

The argument here is that Plato is writing about Greek religion, and that philosophy and religion in his time are tightly intertwined. The modern consensus view is that philosophy is a discipline that supersedes religious thought. Yet there is a sentence in Plato's Sophist which makes it clear that his discussion of the Forms or Ideas is very precisely connected with the images of the gods, and consequently with religious ideas.

One of the most prestigious translators of Plato in the twentieth century was Francis Cornford. His single volume translation of Plato's Theaetetus and the Sophist is still a standard textbook for students. By the time I became a student at UCL I could read the text of the Sophist in Greek, and I knew Cornford had entirely omitted that sentence (discussed in this chapter).

I have no certain knowledge as to why Cornford would omit this sentence, but I know that he was committed to the idea that the discipline of philosophy was the successor to mythological thought. Which is likely to be the explanation, since everything he wrote beforehand about Greek thought would be exposed to criticism, if he translated this sentence. Modern students of Plato have no idea that something has been omitted.

He needn't have worried. I brought up this omission in a tutorial, but my objection was waved away, without the tutor bothering to ask me what the sentence was, and why it was important. I'd criticised a scholar, and I was just a student. That taught me a degree of circumspection.

Another theme of The Sacred History of Being is that ancient religion owes its origins to the discussion of what the Greeks termed 'aporia', which are puzzles and paradoxes thrown up by human experience and enquiry. We see this in the history of philosophy, but just ignore it in the context of ancient religion. But it is there too.

The third theme of the book is that polytheism is not, contrary to the prevailing consensus, the precursor of monotheism, but instead is part of the apparatus of a monotheistic interpretation of what reality itself is.

The fourth theme of the book is that ancient religion was about knowledge - principally knowledge of the divine - and not belief. Belief entered into religion when it became a tool for social and political cohesion. Before that there was the concept of the importance of cultic observance (cultus deorum, according to Cicero), rather than the necessity of a defined belief in doctrine. All that is modern. There is no word for religion in ancient Greek.

Thomas Yaeger, May 20, 2019.



***


As Cherniss has shown, [i] though scholars have often spoken of public lectures taking place at the Academy, we have evidence only of one lecture of any sort being given by Plato (a mathematical treatment of the Good).

We know only that matters of epistemology and ontology were discussed within the Academy. Note for example the curious passages in Aristotle's Metaphysics where he speaks as a Platonist: perhaps recalling arguments he used while a member of the Academy. Thus Metaph. 990b:

... not one of the arguments by which we try to prove that the Forms exist demonstrates our point: from some of them no necessary conclusion follows, and from others it follows that there are Forms of things of which we hold that there are no Forms.

The theory of the Forms was presented by Plato himself as having collapsed, in that the Forms, apparently so clearly distinguished as having no participation in each other, are shown to participate. [ii] And, in any case, if they do not participate because of their absolute nature, it would be impossible for us to have any knowledge of them. Thus again, if they participate, it would appear that they are not absolute.

This might be read as indicating the integrity of Plato, in that he faithfully recorded the demolition of everything he stood for. [iii] However at no point in the work of Plato is his enterprise presented as it is interpreted: it is not given to us as a chronological sequence of discussions, nor as a series of arguments which develop one out of the other.

We make a clear distinction between ethical issues and matters of ontology. A proper reading of Aristotles's Ethics however, shows quite clearly that ethical issues were not distinguished in this way by Plato's pupil. The anabasis of the soul described in that work implies at the least a metaphorical emulation of the condition of the divine. [iv] The whole universe is conceived by Aristotle as a moral hierarchy from insect to the Good, and we do well to recall the passage in the Timaeus where Plato speaks of a similar hierarchy, ascended and descended according to the moral worth of the individual in life:

... by virtue of necessity... their bodies are subject to influx and efflux, and these results would necessarily follow, -- firstly sensation that is innate and common to all proceeding from violent effections; secondly, desire mingled with pleasure and pain; and besides these, fear and anger and all such emotions as are naturally allied thereto, and all such as are of a different and opposite character. And if they shall master these they will live justly, but if they are mastered unjustly. And he that has lived his appointed time well shall return again to his abode in his native star, and shall gain a life that is blessed and congenial; but whoso has failed therein shall be changed into woman's nature at the second birth; and if, in that shape, he still does not refrain from wickedness he shall be changed every time, according to the nature of his wickedness, into some bestial form after the similitude of his own nature... [v]
The Timaeus contains a famous passage which discusses the manner in which the forms are conjoined with body:

...it is not possible that two things alone should be conjoined without a third; for there must needs be some intermediary bond to connect the two. And the fairest of bonds is that which most perfectly unites into one both itself and the things which it binds together; and to effect this in the fairest manner is the natural property of proportion. [vi]

The context of this passage is an attempt to explain water and air as intermediary between fire and earth, but what Plato is giving us is more general: a theory of participation which has been the root of the western tradition in art and architecture ever since:
For whenever the middle term of any three numbers, cubic or square, is such that as the first term is to it, so is it to the last term - and again, conversely, as the last term is to the middle, so is the middle to the first.
- then the middle term becomes in turn the first and the last, while the first and last become in turn middle terms, and the necessary consequence will be that all the terms are interchangeable, and being interchangeable they all form a unity. [vii]
Why is it a necessary consequence that all the terms are interchangeable? Each of the terms bears a relation to the others, a proportionate similitude, and each can become first, middle and last terms in an extended sequence, but they are not the same as each other. They are conjoined with one another, but in sequence. They bear likeness to each other in the proper sequential order but not otherwise. It depends on the arrangement. Given the proper arrangement, one may pass through the sequence and establish degrees of similitude between all the different terms. But they are still not the same. They participate in each other, but their proportionate similitude is not identity, and that is essentially what Plato is claiming here.

I think that there is no doubt that this is what Plato means, and it is up to us to explain it. Clearly it underpins the description of the activity of the philosopher in the Republic, where it is said that the process of argument:
...treats assumptions not as principles, but as assumptions in the true sense, that is, as starting points and steps in the ascent to something which involves no assumption and is the first principle of everything; when it has grasped that principle it can again descend, by keeping to the consequences that follow from it, to a conclusion. The whole procedure involves nothing in the sensible world but moves solely through forms to forms, and finishes with forms. [viii]
What Plato is arguing is that, by systematic dialectical enquiry, we can rise from the realms of likelihood and opinion, where we encounter only similitudes, to the realm in which certain knowledge is possible. This is to be achieved by passing through the similitudes, on account of their similitude, to their ultimate origin, the Form of the Good.

In a sense the Platonic dialogues can be understood in this way - as excursions from selected assumptions - and the Republic and the Timaeus illustrate this very well - both employ series of images, of likelihoods which are to be understood as metaphors or similitudes of the general notion which is to be grasped. We are to reject the accounts of the making of the universe in the Timaeus, on the grounds that these accounts possess merely likelihood, and no more. The general notion or the ultimate reality behind the accounts is not to be grasped by collation of the versions, but by an altogether more mysterious process of induction.

Other dialogues also can be understood as discussions of the same propositions from different points of view, though it is not necessary to invoke the notion of a programme of research. For example, the Theaetetus represents an attempt to determine whether or not knowledge can be attained through sensation, which of course it cannot - Plato defines sensation in such a way in the Timaeus that such a conclusion is impossible, i.e., it is a product of motion and therefore of flux, and not part of the intelligible realm. In this region there is nothing to know. Later however, as we shall see, Plato's argument that there is nothing to know in the sensible world breaks down in a highly significant way at Soph. 245-248.

It is not surprising that the conclusion of the Theaetetus is negative: it supports Plato's contention that knowledge is not attainable through sensibles or through the organs of sense themselves. This negative result does not invalidate the theory of the Forms but rather makes such a conjecture necessary, since other ways of accessing knowledge are made to seem implausible.

The Cratylus essentially rehearses the kind of argument later to emerge among the nominalists and realists, discussing the relationship between words and the things they represent, and whether or not the relationship is a necessary one. If the relationship is a necessary one, one would expect that study of the words themselves might be a useful way of investigating the ideas they represent. However, we have to reckon with the possibility of bad copies. Hence it is that we must study their essence, the Ideas themselves, for the relationship between words and the things they represent is conventional and arbitrary. The apparent corollary of this is that the ideas have some kind of absolute reality quite apart from the way in which they are manifest to us.

The view is expressed in the Phaedrus that of all the qualities of which there are Forms (such as Justice, Temperance, Knowledge, Beauty), only the idea of Beauty has a sensible counterpart upon earth. [ix] This is particularly significant in that it apparently makes clear that form in the mundane sense of "shape" is not of itself admitted to the intelligible world (yet shape necessarily participates in the intelligible world in so far as it is beautiful, according to the theory of proportion discussed in the Timaeus). If Plato meant this seriously it implies that the metaphors employed, say, in the myth of the Cave in the Republic are to be understood as metaphors alone: likewise the image of a qualitative hierarchy of images of the form of the Good is itself a metaphor. We are not to understand the shape of an intelligible object as its intelligible nature.

The theme of the Republic is apparently Justice, but, as always with Plato, the real subject is problematic. The theory of the Forms is here completed both on the subjective and objective sides. That is, while the capacity of human beings to make intelligent sense of information varies greatly, the world of things which may be perceived (let us be no more precise than that) is likewise, when below the world of intelligible forms, subject to change and error in its nature. Reality, as it manifests itself, does so in a way which is inconsistent and chaotic and has no fixed nature in itself, compounding the difficulties experienced by the mind with its similar incapacities.

The Republic is often understood as a utopia: as a description of a perfect arrangement of human society. That utopias are impossible is acknowledged by the Republic itself: it is admitted in the course of the dialogue that such a Republic has never existed on earth, nor is it likely to exist, though it might exist, sometime somewhere. It is thus a likely story drawing its worth from its likelihood. [x] Plato is peddling a fiction and tells us so.

It can be argued that the extensive mathematical component of the Timaeus is a Pythagorean import. This implies that, according to the chronological scheme of the dialogues which makes the Timaeus late (and it may be), Plato's philosophy was becoming eclectic, absorbing a philosophical outlook which did not naturally belong to his work in its earlier phase. Is this the case? Given the argument about beauty in the Phaedrus it seems that the mathematics underpinning the relations of things which belong together are logically implicit in the theory of the Forms. However, if Plato's work is understood as a programme of research, it follows that elements in the dialogues which bear a relation to what we know of Pythagoreanism are most likely importations to fill the vacuum left by the departure of the theory of the Forms. By the same token if the chronological sequence of the dialogues collapses or is shown to be irrelevant, the problem of Plato's "eclecticism" changes into another problem altogether.

A second striking feature of the Timaeus is Plato's "failure" to deal directly with the nature and function of God. This is allied to his insistence that he is speaking (through Socrates) in terms of likelihood and that it would be impossible to speak of the maker to the ordinary citizen. [xi] This theogony is thus unique for its period in two major respects: its author tells us that it is not a set of true accounts of the order and nature of things, and the actual accounts given, which are admitted to be no more than likely, apparently give the reason why a true account cannot be given.

Parmenides two-fold poem, "The Way of Truth" and "The Way of Opinion", is also subject to the same difficulty: "The Way of Truth" purports to argue the one true way of conceiving the nature of the universe - that it simply is, and therefore is not subject to becoming or passing-away - yet this assertion is admitted to be inadequate for it is in the form of words, and since all things are a name which mortals lay down and trust to be true - coming into being and perishing, being and not being, and changing place and altering bright colour, [xii it cannot be accounted true.

 The second part of the poem anticipates Plato's detachment from his likely accounts of the making of the universe, for he begins:

Here I cease the trustworthy account and thought concerning truth. From this point learn the opinions of mortals, listening to the deceitful pattern of my words. [xiii]

For Parmenides the ultimate reality is the changeless, the complete, the ungenerated and indestructible, the whole, the unwavering.

Remaining the same in the same place it rests by itself and so remaining firmly where it is. [xiv]

In the Sophist, the ideas, formerly aloof from the world of sensibles and incapable of interaction turn out to be entities capable of participation in each other. And thus, like objects apprehended by opinion, are compounded both of Being and Not-being.

At 244c the Eleatic stranger asks whether the Real is "the same thing as that to which you give the name one? Are you applying two names to the same thing...?" And continues: "it is surely absurd for him Parmenides to admit the existence of two names, when he has laid down that there is no more than one thing..." Thus in attempting to define the One Parmenides cannot state it at all "without recognising three real things." [xv]

At 244d the Stranger questions the notion of the reality as wholeness: is "whole" other than the one real thing or identical with it? For

... if it is a whole - as indeed Parmenides says [xvi] "Every way like the mass of a well-rounded sphere, evenly balanced from the midst in every direction; for there must not be something more nor something less here than there" - If the Real is like that, it has a middle and extremities, and consequently it must have parts, must it not? [xvii]
The Stranger observes that if a thing is divided into parts it may have the property of unity in terms of an aggregate of its parts, "being a sum or whole". However, "the thing which has these properties cannot be just Unity itself... Unity in the true sense and rightly defined must be altogether without parts." [xviii] Thus, how are we to define the Real - is it one and whole? The property of unity is not unity itself, and alternatively,

if the Real is not a whole by virtue of having this property of unity, while at the same time Wholeness itself is real, it follows that the Real falls short of itself... and further... all things will be more than one since Reality on the one side and Wholeness on the other have now each a distinct nature. [xix]

The Real cannot come to be if wholeness does not exist, for "whenever a thing comes into being, at that moment it has come to be as a whole; accordingly, if you do not reckon unity or wholeness amongst real things, you have no right to speak of either Being or coming into being as having any existence." [xx] The Eleatic stranger (probably representing Plato himself) concludes by observing that "countless other difficulties, each involved in measureless perplexity, will arise, if you say that the Real is either two things or only one." [xxi]

In the Timaeus the fully knowable is defined as the eternal and the unchanging, i.e., that which fully "is". However the discussion at Sophist 248-249d seems to jettison this definition. The Eleatic stranger observes that the Idealists (the "Friends of Forms," 248a) distinguish between "Becoming" and "Real being": the definition of the former involving the sensible world, and the latter communing via the soul through reflection. And whereas Real being is defined as unchanging, Becoming is subject to change (the word used is koinonein: "to be in touch with". The same word is used of our communion or participation with both change and the changeless). The Eleatic stranger recalls an earlier proposition that the "sufficient mark of real things is the presence in a thing of the power of being acted upon or of acting in relation to however insignificant a thing." [xxii] The Friends of Forms do not accept this argument and reply that: "a power of acting and being acted upon belongs to Becoming, but neither of these powers is compatible with Real being." [xxiii]

Thus apparently is distinguished the material world subject to causal relations from the world of Forms and those objects which participate in them, clearly by acausal means; the division would seem to be absolute.

The Friends of Forms acknowledge that the soul knows, and that Real being is known, it is agreed; and then the stranger asks if it is agreed that

knowing or being known is an action, or is it experiencing an effect, or both? Or is one of them experiencing an effect, the other an action? Or does neither of them come under either of these heads at all? [xxiv]

It can of course be neither action or effect, as the text makes clear, [xxv] if the Friends of Forms are to avoid contradicting their earlier remarks, for: if knowing is to be acting upon something, it follows that what is known must be acted on by it; and so, on this showing, Reality when it is being known by the act of knowledge must, in so far as it is known, be changed owing to being so acted upon; and that, we say, cannot happen to the changeless. [xxvi]

Cornford's translation of the remainder of 248e is unsatisfactory, since it obscures one of the most interesting allusions in Plato. It may be translated thus:

Before God - that we might be easily persuaded that truly motion, life, soul and wisdom are not completely real - neither life itself nor thought, but revered and sacred, it has no mind, if it put on existence unmoved. [xxvii]

The allusion, semnon kai hagion, is, as Campbell noted in his edition of the Sophist, to the statues of the gods. This phrase might be written off as of no great moment, but I think it unwise to do so. Reality has been spoken of as revered and sacred, using a phrase of specific application to the images of the gods. We catch here (I think) a glimpse of the true scope of this argument and its consequences: it concerns the logic underpinning the patterns of understanding among the Greeks. [xxviii]

It would seem to be in the mind of the speaker that the matter of devotion to the gods hangs or falls by this philosophical argument about whether or not the Real is changeless or changing; and whether or not any form of contact with the gods is at all possible. [xxix] If this is the correct interpretation, then there is a great deal more at stake here than a mere philosophical disputation (and for ourselves, the notion that philosophical argument is a refinement, a clarification of thought processes which first stumbled into the light of day in the context of religion might repay re-examination).

In response to the Eleatic stranger's positing of the impossible dilemma, that change, life, soul and understanding are unreal, or that the Real has no life and is unchanging, and is devoid of intelligence, Theaetetus responds saying that it "would be a strange doctrine to accept." [xxx] They agree that reality cannot have intelligence without life, and that it must possess soul in which both reside. [xxxi] But then, possessing intelligence, life and soul, it cannot be said that a living thing remains at rest and is unchanging. The conclusion must be, if reality has intelligence, life and soul, both things that change and change itself are real. [xxxii]

The conclusion is drawn by the Stranger: without change there can be no intelligence, but if all things change and nothing abides, intelligence equally could not exist or be discovered. He concludes:

On these grounds, then, it seems that only one course is open to the philosopher who values knowledge and the rest above all else. He must refuse to accept from the champions either of the One or of the many Forms the doctrine that all Reality is changeless; and he must turn a deaf ear to the other party who represent Reality as everywhere changing... he must declare that Reality or the sum of things is both at once - all that is unchangeable and all that is in change. [xxxiii]

Ultimately there must be a point of contact between the formal cause and the maker of the universe: this however, as is well known, is not an easy matter to disentangle in Plato. As he says at Tim 28c, "... to discover the Maker and Father of this Universe were a task indeed..." Elsewhere the ultimate root of reality is spoken of as the form of the Good. It is spoken of as fully knowable, capable of apprehension by the reason alone. The difficulty of knowing it appears to be a matter of intelligence, of discerning it as the universal among the particulars of the sensible world. It is the eternal and unchanging.

Yet it turns out that it cannot be fully known: reality is always beyond any description, any categorization we employ to define it. As we rise through the Forms it remains as far distant as ever, eluding any attempt to know it: when it turns out that the Real necessarily participates in the world of change, it is necessary to postulate that reality embraces both the changing and the changeless at the same time. It is thus a paradoxical matrix, for the Forms participate and are all around us: the division between the realm of intelligibles and sensible form has broken down.

The ultimate reality, whether it be termed the form of the Good or given another necessarily inadequate name does not reside in space - in fact the notion that things have a place is described as "a kind of bastard reasoning":

we dimly dream and affirm that it is somehow necessary that all that exists should exist in some spot and occupying some place, and that which is neither on earth nor anywhere in the Heaven is nothing. [xxxiv]

In the Phaedrus [xxxv] Socrates speaks of the region above heaven,

never worthily sung by any earthly poet". It is, however, as I shall tell; for I must dare to speak the truth... the colourless, formless, [xxxvi] and intangible truly existing essence, with which all true knowledge is concerned, holds this region and is visible only to the mind... [xxxvii]

The implication of an ultimate reality beyond any human categorization except identity with itself, [xxxviii] which nevertheless cannot be spoken of as unchanging is that, for analytical and practical purposes, all the possible categories of knowing are contingent and relative; and likewise, all attempted descriptions of the nature of its Being. The nature of reality is forever beyond our capacity to know on the one hand, and on the other, it is itself beyond any possible self-definition, not because it does or does not change, but because it embraces the all which contains both change and the unchanging.

Reality, in short, if it is to be described at all, must be conceived of as an absolute collapse of all possible categories, both of knowing and of Being. All space, all time, all possibility resides here, in no place, at no time, beyond all conception, all manifestation. It is simply whatever it is. If we knew it fully the knowledge would be meaningless to us. And what we can say we know of its nature isn't really knowledge. [xxxix]

The idea of the Form of the Good therefore, is necessarily simply another device in Plato's armoury of likelihoods. Reality, as the ultimate categorical collapse (we have to give it some useful description), if it resembles anything at all within our experience, anything which supplies a concrete image to the conception, must be indistinguishable from chaos - at the extreme of its nature it is forever beyond ordered interpretation.

Immediately following the passage concerning the discovery of the Maker and Father of this Universe, Socrates says that "to declare Him to all men were a thing impossible." [xl] This can be understood in a number of ways. It might be the case that the matter is too complex to be explained to the ordinary mortal in that it breaches the rules of common sense (and also for us the Aristotelian Laws of Thought); that it is impossible to accurately describe the indescribable, except via metaphor (which is a constant Platonic refrain); and thirdly, that it is simply socially impossible to talk about this conception of reality within the society in which the discussions take place. [xli] That Socrates says at Phaedrus 247c that he dares to speak the truth concerning the nature of the region above heaven implies strongly that it is dangerous to do so - and after all, one of the charges against him was that he made theological innovations. Xenophon suggests that, though he was not formally charged with disbelief in the gods per se, Socrates was suspected of a form of atheism. [xlii] To hold the ultimate reality to be virtually indistinguishable at root from chaos, a place devoid of justice, beauty, order, etc., (and without location in time or space) except in potential, would be indistinguishable to the ordinary citizen from atheism. No wonder therefore that Plato writes the ironical words at Tim 40d:

Concerning the other divinities, to discover and declare their origin is too great a task for us, and we must trust to those who have declared it aforetime, they being, as they affirmed, descendants of gods and knowing well, no doubt, their own forefathers.

And at Tim 29a, concerning the model after which the universe was patterned, Timaeus asks:

Was it after that which is self-identical and uniform, or after that which had come into existence?

The latter implies change and disorder; therefore

if so be that this Cosmos is beautiful and its Constructor good, it is plain that he fixed his gaze on the Eternal, but if otherwise (which is an impious supposition), his gaze was on that which has come into existence.

Which is no more than an appeal to common sense. The nature of the arguments which might be adduced in antiquity to explain the world of appearance are, as the Sophist shows, much more complex.

Conditioned therefore both by the difficulty of the subject matter, and the social impracticability of the doctrine, we are forced to work out the doctrine for ourselves. That the method employed to convey the doctrine sometimes created unnecessary difficulties for the understanding, quite apart from its inherent difficulty is shown by the remark at 48c where some matters are not explained

solely for this reason, that it is difficult for us to explain our views while keeping to our present method of exposition.

Nevertheless, the description of the Receptacle at Tim 50-51 is possibly the clearest exposition in Plato of the Real:

... it is right that the substance which is to receive within itself all the kinds should be void of all forms... that the substance which is to be fitted to receive frequently over its whole extent the copies of all things intelligible and eternal should itself, of its own nature, be void of all the forms... a Kind invisible and unshaped, all--receptive, and in some most perplexing and most baffling way partaking of the intelligible...

If then, Plato's unwritten doctrine (agrapha) placed chaos at the heart of Being, his conclusion would not be out of place among Greek speculations in general as to the nature of the arche: the difference is simply that he underpinned this conclusion with powerful philosophical arguments. [xliii] These we do not have for the earlier speculations, and therefore it is easy to conclude that they did not in fact exist; that the early speculations were not supported by cogent argument, and that the idea of chaos as the root or beginning of things never was any more than a concrete image of disorder. That we find the chaos at the beginning of more or less mythical narratives, at the start of apparently causal chains of creation, is taken to suggest no abstract idea, but simply the metaphorical transfer of image from context to context. But Plato himself, putting the argument into the mouth of Timaeus [xliv] uses such a concrete image, saying that God

took over all that was visible, seeing that it was not in a state of rest but in a state of discordant and disorderly motion, He brought it into order out of disorder...

We have virtually the whole of the Platonic corpus: of the earlier philosophers we have fragments like the one above. We should be cautious in presuming the absence of clear reasoning behind images simply because we have no direct access to such reasoning: that we do read concrete conceptions into the concrete images of the presocratics is partly due to the fact that this was often the practice among the ancients themselves, and partly because, building upon this fragmentary and distorted evidence, we can frame a scheme in which there is a beginning, middle and notional end to the history of ideas, starting with concrete images and working up to pure abstraction.

Commentators have always had a great deal of difficulty in accommodating the Parmenides. H.N. Fowler, translator of the Loeb edition of the text says (probably echoing Jowett's judgement) that the dialogue seems to be

a reductio ad absurdum of the Eleatic doctrines and methods, put into the mouth of the chief of the Eleatic school. Yet this is the school of thought for which Plato appears to have had the greatest respect... it is hardly to be supposed that the whole purpose of this dialogue is to show the difficulties inherent in the doctrine of Ideas and in the Eleatic doctrine of being, since these are the doctrines which Plato elsewhere advocates... yet this negative result is all that appears with any clearness. [xlv]

Miller notes in his Plato's Parmenides, as does Cornford in less technical language at Soph. 248d, & note 3, Plato's Theory of Knowledge, p240, that: "in implicitly attributing sameness and difference to the One as the object of specifically discursive knowledge, leaves open the possibility of a non-discursive knowledge. As non-discursive, such knowledge would transcend the analytic framework of sameness and difference; it would be such insight alone, if any at all, that could reach to the form as such, the form in its innermost being." [xlvi]

To be disclosed for what it truly is by collection and division, the form must not only stand as the stable subject of a series of predicates in order, finally, to be spelled out as the whole of these, but it must also be present in a way that precedes discourse and composite structure, present therefore, as a simple nature for a pre-analytic insight or intuition. [xlvii]

Miller also observes that in the Sophist "Plato neither explicitly drops nor explicitly affirms the simplicity of the form" and suggests that to understand these concepts we require to be "open to the possibility of subsurface meaning." [xlviii]

Miller's analysis illustrates that the default position adopted by the speakers in the Sophist, that Reality must embrace contradictory categories of knowledge and being, is in fact the goal of the dialectic of collection and division, and thus confirms us in the conclusion reached earlier, that, at the heart of Being, all the categories are collapsed together, and that the innermost being of the Forms is this condition of categorical collapse. The similar collapse of epistemological categories, far from making impossible access to the Forms, represents what he describes as "pre-analytic insight" or "intuition". This, more likely than any of the reconstructions made on the basis of the reports of Aristotle, represents the core of the "unwritten doctrine" of Plato. In other words, rephrasing the Parmenidean insight, all visible manifestations of Reality are misleading as to the essential nature of that Reality until marshalled to show the paradoxical nature of their evidence; likewise with the analytical tools of epistemology: the truly Real is only known at the point of collapse.

If Reality is held to be essentially potential, it must also be considered to be potent in the extreme. That it is no thing in particular, but potentially what may be made of it, may lie beneath the sense of liberation from darkness which we already associate with both the Classical and Renaissance epochs. Bruno's "infinity of worlds" owes much to it; his world view was steeped to a degree hard to imagine in such a theory of Being. [xlix] For example:

The light contains the first life, intelligence, unity, all species, perfect truths, numbers, grades of things. Thus what in nature is different, contrary, diverse, is there the same, congruent, One.

And, despite this acknowledgement of categorical collapse at the heart of Being, we find the theory of the Forms still alive and well, apparently, for Bruno, not invalidated by its supposed dialectical demolition in the Sophist and the Parmenides:

The formation of things in the lower world is inferior to true form, a degradation and vestige of it. Ascend, then, to where the species are pure, and formed with true form.

The theory of Being, the theory of Forms, and interestingly, also the logic and practice of magical processes, were connected in the mind of Bruno:

Of all the forms of the world, the pre-eminent are the celestial forms. Through them you will arrive from the confused plurality of things at the unity. Parts of the body are better understood together than when taken separately. Thus when the parts of the universal species are not considered separately but in relation to their underlying order, what is there that we may not... understand, and do? [l]

Is this collocation of theurgic magic and philosophy implicit also in the writings of Plato, or is this the enthusiastic invention of the Renaissance neoplatonists? It is well known that theurgy was a major interest of the original neoplatonists, including Proclus, a major commentator on Plato and the last head of the Academy. The answer is that Plato too understood there to be an important connection between the ontology discussed in his dialogues, and the arts of men who practice forms of magic. This is clear from the passage at Laws XI, 933, where he clearly distinguishes between two levels of magic:

now it is not easy to know the nature of all these things; nor if a man do know can he readily persuade others to believe him. And when men are disturbed in their minds at the sight of waxen images fixed either at their doors, or in a place where three ways meet, or upon the sepulchres of parents, there is no use trying to persuade them that they should despise all such things because they have no certain knowledge about them... he who attempts to... enchant others knows not what he is doing... unless he happens to be a prophet or diviner.

The penalties for the crime of witchcraft in the Laws are therefore different in the case of the witch and the prophet or diviner, for the prophet knows what he is doing. [li] Plato here distinguishes quite distinctly the phenomenon of magic as association of ideas, as a problem of knowledge, and magic as hinging upon certain knowledge, as dependent upon ontology.

The implications of this passage in the Laws are unequivocal: magic is an art associated with those who are capable of apprehending the world of Forms, and consequently it must be intimately bound up with Plato's view of reality. His ontology, epistemology, the practice of dialectic, etc, have to be understood as operating within this cultural context if we are to understand them at all, both historically and philosophically, and not, as has been the case since the Renaissance, understood to be free of the taint of things too foolish to be connected with the Dialogues - or even with philosophy at all.

This is an appropriate point at which to look at a Greek description of ultimate reality. This is expressed in terms of an image of this ultimate reality, rather than the reality itself. As Plato said, we need to look at a reflection of the Good (or God), in a darkened pool before we can safely apprehend the Good directly. In his account of the world which has been brought into existence (in the Timaeus) he speaks of it as a creature, as a living animal. This creature has no eyes because there is nothing beyond itself to see, no ears because there is nothing to hear; no limbs, since there is nothing to grasp, and nowhere for it to go.

This seems at first sight to be a very curious way of designating something which is alive, since it might be considered to be devoid of most of the characteristics which we associate with the living, but what we are reading involves a notion of living which we have lost:

And on the outside round about, it was made smooth with great exactness, and that for many reasons. For of eyes it had no need, since outside of it there was nothing visible left over; nor yet of hearing, since neither was there anything audible; nor yet was there any air surrounding it which called for respiration; nor, again, did it need any organ whereby it might receive the food that entered and evacuate what remained undigested. For nothing went out from it or came into it from any side, since nothing existed; for it was so designed as to supply its own wastage as food for itself, and to experience by its own agency and within itself all actions and passions, since He that had constructed it deemed that it would be better if it were self-sufficing rather than in need of other things. Hands, too, He thought He ought not to attach unto it uselessly, seeing they were not required either for grasping or for repelling anyone; nor yet feet, nor any instruments of locomotion whatsoever. [lii]

We might scratch our heads to understand why this should be a living creature at all: it does not move, does not see, hear, breathe, eat, and it exists where nothing exists. Yet Plato says that the creature possesses attributes which belong only to living creatures. Thus:

For movement he assigned unto it that which is proper to its body, namely, that one of the seven motions which specially belongs to reason and intelligence; wherefore He spun it round uniformly in the same spot and within itself and made it move revolving in a circle. [liii]

In some technical sense therefore, the living animal has reason and intelligence, and also ‘soul’:

And in the midst thereof He set Soul, which He stretched throughout the whole of it, and therewith He enveloped also the exterior of its body. [liv]

This is clearly an image of the heavens, with the seven rotating motions being represented by the seven Greek planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Sun and Moon). This identification is confirmed elsewhere in the Timaeus through an indication that in this image there is an angle of inclination between the path of the Sun and the celestial equator. The suggestion contained in this image is that it is a representation of divinity itself, and is a close copy.

The paradox of soul and reason putting on existence without physical animation is discussed in a famous passage in the Sophist, which tells us that Plato understood something of our problem with the notion of a ‘living animal’ rotating in solitary and unregarded splendour. [lv]

The living animal is alive because it has motion, proper to itself. It reasons because there is change represented in the motions of the planets. These planets, from the point of view of the earthbound observer, do not move in simple linear motion around the heavens, but sometimes perform retrograde motions before once again moving in a forward direction. The designation ‘planet’ is derived from the Greek ‘planetes’, meaning ‘wanderer’. Thus the image suggests that decision making is taking place within the Living Animal. The creature possesses Soul, since the idea of the soul refers to the participation of the Living Animal in the nature of the divine. Thus its nature and attributes are shaped by the ground of Being, which is God, and it in a sense is tethered to it. Soul is all through it, since God is perfect in all respects. Thus a copy of the divine must have many things in common with the perfection, the completeness of the divine, though it is different from it, and not the same in all respects. The paradoxical nature of reality, the unfathomableness of the divine, must also be present in the copy.


[i] Cherniss, Harold The Riddle of the Early Academy, 1945.
[ii] Sophist 256e for example, in connection with motion; Soph. 249b-d; see also the Parmenides 133b-134c.
[iii] Jowett, in his introduction to the Parmenides argues that the Platonic Ideas were in constant process of growth and transmutation; sometimes veiled in poetry and mythology, then again emerging as fixed Ideas, in some passages regarded as absolute and eternal, and in others as relative to the human mind, existing in and derived from external objects as well as transcending them... Their transcendental existence is not asserted, and is therefore implicitly denied in the Philebus: different forms are ascribed to them in the Republic, and they are mentioned in the Theaetetus, the Sophist, the Politicus, and the Laws, much as universals would be spoken of in modern books... the perplexities which surround the one and many in the sphere of the Ideas are... attended to in the Philebus, and no answer is given to them... To suppose that Plato, at a later period of his life, reached a point of view from which he was able to answer them, is a groundless assumption. Benjamin Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato, vol. IV, p 6-7.
[iv] Interestingly, in defining the action of the gods as passive contemplation, Aristotle reproduces the extreme Parmenidean form of Plato's Ideal theory, in which the Form of the Good is unchanging and unchangeable. In Bk. X of the Ethics Aristotle characterizes the activity of the divine as contemplation. The gods are living beings from whom all forms of activity have been removed. "...if a being lives, and action cannot be ascribed to him,... what remains but contemplation? It follows, then, that the divine life, which surpasses all others in blessedness, consists of contemplation". (Nic. Eth. X. 8. 7., F. H. Peters trans.)
[v] Tim. 42a.
[vi] Tim 31b-c
[vii] Tim 31c-32a
[viii] Rep. 511b-c
[ix] Accordingly beauty is important in awakening the soul to the reality of the world of the Forms through recollection.
[x] Rep. 592b; 499a.
[xi] Tim 28c
[xii] Barnes, Jonathan Early Greek Philosophy, "Parmenides", p135 (Frag. 8.38), drawn from Simplicius, Commentary on the Physics 144.25-146.27
[xiii] Guthrie, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy, vol.II, p50 Frag. 8.50.
[xiv] Guthrie, W.K.C. Op Cit, vol.II, p34. Frag. 8.29
[xv] Cornford, F.M. Plato's Theory of Knowledge, p221.
[xvi] Frag. 8.43
[xvii] 244d-e
[xviii] 245a
[xix]245c
[xx] 245d
[xxi] 245e
[xxii] Soph.248c.
[xxiii] Soph. 248c
[xxiv] 248d
[xxv] There is a minor textual problem concerning the identity of the speaker at this point in the dialogue which does not affect the sense of the argument - see L. Campbell, Sophistes, p128
[xxvi] 248e.
[xxvii] Soph. 248e-249a. Lewis Campbell comments, in addition to noting the allusion to the statues of the gods, that there is a striking passage in the Laws (967 a-e) ‘where it is said that the deepest study of astronomy, instead of encouraging the notion of a blind necessity, leads directly to the supposition of a celestial mind or minds.’ Sophistes and Politicus, Oxford, 1867, p129. Reprinted by the Arno Press, New York, 1973.
[xxviii] We are not generally accustomed to imagine that belief is something for which sound arguments can be supplied, though christian religious history provides numerous examples of the use of philosophy to support the foundation of these.
[xxix] Note also frag. 26.1 of Xenophanes (Guthrie, op. cit., vol. II, p37., n2.) Guthrie comments on this earlier example, where Parmenides "deliberately called up in our minds the image of Xenophanes' pantheistic god, who 'always remains in the same place, not moving at all' (in connection with Parmenides frag. 8.29sqq., quoted earlier).
[xxx]249a
[xxxi]249a
[xxxii]249b
[xxxiii] 249c-d
[xxxiv] Tim 52b
[xxxv] 247c
[xxxvi] aschematismos
[xxxvii] 247c-d
[xxxviii] Tim 52a
[xxxix] That the divine was understood to be beyond our comprehension at least as early as the 6th century we have only to look at the reply of the oracle at Delphi to Croesus as to whether or not he should make war against the Persians (Hdt. Bk. 1.49): "I know the number of the sands, and the measure of the sea; I understand the dumb, and hear him that does not speak..." These things are impossible, and are concrete images of the impossible. The gods have powers beyond our capacity to understand, to the point where they transcend the categories of knowing. The corollary of this is that the Being of the gods is likewise beyond all mortal definition.
[xl] Tim 28c
[xli] See Phaedrus 275c-d, where Socrates says: "He who thinks... anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person... if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written". And at 277e-278b: "...in the written word there is necessarily much that is playful, and... no written discourse deserves to be treated very seriously... the best of them really serve only to remind us of what we know...."
[xlii] "And how could he, who trusted the Gods, think that there were no Gods?" Memorabilia Bk 1 ch.1.5
[xliii] Compare for example lines 116-128 of Hesiod's Theogony.
[xliv] Tim 30a.
[xlv] Plato vol. IV, trans. H.N. Fowler, London and Harvard 1920, p196-7.
[xlvi] op. cit.,"Epilogue", p181.
[xlvii] op. cit. p182-3; compare for example Husserl's concept of Transcendental Intersubjectivity, in his Cartesian Meditations; compare also Tim. 31b-32a.
[xlviii] op. cit. p183
[xlix] His first book, the De Umbris Idearum, draws from Ficino's De Vita Coelitus Comparanda, the latter being the first to undertake the systematic translation of Plato into Latin. Both Ficino and Bruno drew also upon the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius, which they imagined to be pre-Platonic, but which in fact date from the time of the Roman empire. See Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, 1964, Ch. XI p195.
[l] Yates, Frances. A. The Art of Memory, p222-3. These quotations come from Giordano Bruno's De Umbris Idearum, 1582.
[li] Trans. Jowett, Dial. Plat. vol. V. p322-3
[lii] Plato, Timaeus, 33b-34a. Loeb edition.
[liii] Plato, Timaeus, 34a. Loeb edition.
[liv] Plato, op. cit. 34a. The seven motions are also referenced at 43b, and the ‘rotatory’ motion of reason is referenced at Laws 898a. Compare also Tim. 37a, 42c, 47d, 77b.
[lv] Plato, Sophist, 248e.

Friday, 17 May 2019

The Destruction of Ancient Astronomy




There is a tide in the affairs of men./Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/
Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries./
On such a full sea are we now afloat,/And we must take the current when it serves,/
Or lose our ventures./ (Brutus to Cassius, in Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224)

Of course that didn’t work out well in the end, since they chose to fight Octavian at Philippi, and lost. The point is however that everything has a tendency to follow an arc through time, and it is very difficult to preserve an insight or a way of thinking over an extended period. Or an empire. Or anything at all.  And sometimes the tide is in favour of your opponents.

We can look at what happened as a disaster of sorts. But it is also something of a miracle that so much survives, in some shape or form. The astronomy was still intact in the civilizations of South America when the Spanish arrived, followed by the missionaries, and there is still information circulating in the populations, as the writer and anthropologist William Sullivan found out (The Secret of the Incas). Despite the efforts of the Spanish priests to root it out. 

Why did the Christians take against astronomy and astronomical lore? There are two ways in which to look at this question. 

The sky, imagined as a moving image of god, or eternity, is one, and what it is. This seems to have been a deeply rooted idea from time immemorial, and it surfaces in the writing of Plato, and in the later Platonists. The oneness of the image is perhaps the main reason for its identification as an image of god. Another is that it was understood to be forever beyond out reach. But in addition, it contains other images, some of which were identified and described as gods. Not all of them were anthropomorphic deities, but by virtue of their presence in the heavens, all of them had a kind of divine status.

So, the heaven represents what is one and divine, and at the same time contains a plethora of gods. For the Christians, and not just the early ones, that must have been a disturbing thing to contemplate.

Polytheism is one of the most difficult things for human beings (in the modern west) to deal with, both within academia, and in the population at large. Historians and theologians argue that polytheism arose before monotheism, and that it represents an earlier and more barbarous form of religion. And yet, the idea that they both have their reality somewhere in a moving image of God is there in the sky above us.

Scholars will argue that polytheism shows that early man was not thinking of the divine in terms of a single overarching abstraction, which could be imagined to be responsible for the creation, for existence, for generation, etc. And yet, if the myths concerning the gods who belong to a polytheistic pantheon are explored, we find evidence of abstract thought, ideas of creation, the generation and ordering of earthly reality, etc. Instead, it will be argued that the polytheistic gods are representations of things which were important in human society, and which needed to be placated. Therefore they can be interpreted as personifications of natural forces (the existence of storm gods is usually regarded as a clincher), or representations of tribal gods or totems, later integrated into a pantheon which reflects the society built up from earlier and looser groupings.

None of that is impossible, and in many cases, that might be the best explanation. But it is a lazy way to look at intellectual and social history, when there is in existence clear evidence that monotheistic and polytheistic patterns of thought once both belonged to the same model of reality.

One of the most ancient of questions is ‘why are there many, if there is one?’ Thousands of years of theological and philosophical thought were shaped by that question. Considering that the one (or Being itself) is the only truly real thing, does not force us to deny the existence of multiplicity. But it does create a problem, in that it is not easy to find the explanation for multiplicity. One of the ancient arguments was that since only the one was truly real, the world of physical reality was an illusion – a set of subjective perceptions of Being which stand between us and an understanding of Being itself. 
This multiplicity also can be interpreted as the product of the divine’s understanding of itself. In which case, we are part of the working out of what the divine is. Mythology and polytheistic conceptions can be understood as the articulation of that working out.

The point here is that the idea of many gods is deeply disturbing to many human beings, and not just for doctrinal reasons. It is disturbing because there is a deep seated, rarely formulated, and mostly unconscious conception in us that reality (however that is understood) must be itself, and itself alone. The corollary of that is that multiplicity enshrines falsehood and error. Add to that the general view that we are getting smarter over time (the myth of progress, which J.B. Bury wrote about in the twenties) and that we left error behind when (in the west at least) we embraced monotheism instead of polytheism (the concept of the trinity notwithstanding).

This body of ideas spills out into political and social notions (not always in a bad way – many socio-political creations in antiquity owed their origin to discussions of the nature of the divine, and its manifestation in physical reality. The unification of the poleis in Attica is a case in point – the administrative, political and liturgical functions of the state were expressly modelled on the natural divisions of the year).

The political and theological development of the Hebrew kingdoms in the first half of the 1st millennium B.C.E. is mostly unknown to us, since the texts were redacted in the 5th century B.C.E., and reflect the views of the winners of the hegemonic struggle. But we can tell from the later history the general outline of the trajectory of change. Early on there seems to have been a considerable amount of freedom of religious worship in the Hebrew kingdoms (these were also modelled on the natural divisions of the year) until they came into severe conflict with Assyria. After that political and religious power became ever more concentrated in Jerusalem. One god, one power, one place of religious observance, one source of the law, etc.

Christianity, gifted to us partly as the consequence of a similar concentration of power in ancient Rome (another story), took over the idea of a single omniscient god, who was also able to become flesh and blood and walk on the earth (and on water too, which image reflects Babylonian iconography). All the other gods became, in the end, falsehoods, demons, devils, and in the pages of Tertullian, a species of fornication, which he reckoned to be the principal nature of sin, which embraced all others.

Hence the antipathy to astronomy, and the gods from cultures who foolishly embraced a multiplicity of them. Despite the fact that, the Christian scriptures, as well as the Hebrew ones, are full of astronomical and mythological imagery, and characters who were once understood to have their essential reality in the sky.