No Comment, Quotation — June 6, 2009, 7:21 am

Plato’s World-Soul


????? ??????????. ????? ?? ?????? ???? ?? ?????? ??? ?? ????????. ?? ?? ?? ????? ?? ???? ??? ????????? ???????? ??? ?????? ?? ??? ????? ?? ??????????? ?? ???? ????? ????? ???????: ??? ??? ???????????, ?? ????? ????? ???? ??? ???????? ???? ??????, ?????????? ???? ???????????, ?????? ?????????? ?????????? ?? ???? ????? ????????, ??????? ????? ??????? ?????? ????????. ????? ?? ?? ?????… ?????????. ??????? ??? ????????? ???? ??? ??? ??????? ???????, ??? ???? ??? ???? ???? ??? ???????? ??????? ?????: ??? ?? ???? ????? ?? ?? ???? ??? ?? ????? ?????????? ???? ??????? ????? ????????? ???????????, ??? ?? ?? ?????? ???????? ??????? ??? ??????? ?????????? ???????.

????? ?? ??? ????? ??? ???????? ???? ???? ??? ???? ???????? ???? ????????? ????? ??? ?????? ??????? ?? ?? ????? ???? ??? ???? ??? ?????? ?? ?????? ??????? ???? ????????: ????? ?? ??? ?? ????? ????? ???? ??? ?????? ?? ??????? ??? ??? ?????? ?? ???? ???? ????????????, ??? ????? ?? ?????? ??????????? ??????? ??? ????? ?????? ??????????, ??’ ?????? ?? ????? ???? ????????? ???????????? ??? ??????? ?????? ????????????, ???????? ?? ??? ????? ?????? ????? ????. ??? ????? ?? ????? ????????? ???? ????? ??????????.

And he bestowed on it the shape which was befitting and akin. Now for that Living Creature which is designed to embrace within itself all living creatures the fitting shape will be that which comprises within itself all the shapes there are; wherefore He wrought it into a round, in the shape of a sphere, equidistant in all directions from the center to the extremities, which of all shapes is the most perfect and the most self-similar, since He deemed that the similar is infinitely fairer than the dissimilar. And on the outside round about, it was all made smooth with great exactness, and that for many reasons… 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; and all the other six motions He took away and fashioned it free from their aberrations.

Such, then, was the sum of the reasoning of the ever-existing God concerning the god which was one day to be existent, whereby He made it smooth and even and equal on all sides from the center, a whole and perfect body compounded of perfect bodies, 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; and as a Circle revolving in a circle He established one sole and solitary Heaven, able of itself because of its excellence to company with itself and needing none other beside, sufficing unto itself as acquaintance and friend. And because of all this He generated it to be a blessed God.

Plato (??????), Timaeus (???????) 33c-34a (ca. 385 BCE)(following J. Burnet transl. 1903)(myth of the creation of the earth and the world-soul)

Today every college student seems to read the Republic and most have also read Symposium. Timaeus, however, would fall well down the reading list and generally would be something only for the serious Platonist. But in an earlier age, the situation was different. From the age of Augustine through the end of the Middle Ages, Timaeus was the most important, the pre-eminent Platonic dialogue. It’s easy to see why—it contains Plato’s efforts to chart the cosmos; it presents a monotheistic credo; its mysticism presents some interesting opportunities to put up a bridge to Christianity. These aspects were accentuated by Plotinus, and that in turn gave Augustine and other church fathers much of the material they needed to reconcile the Platonic view of the cosmos to Christian doctrine. (Jan Provoost’s painting of the Christian allegory of the cosmos, above, is a fascinating depiction of this effort—with the Christian images overlapping with Plato’s and other Neoplatonic concepts).

But if we strip away this Christian gloss, the original Platonic text is perhaps the best evidence to make Plato a Pythagorean. We see the obsession with numbers and mathematical relationships, the myth of Atlantis, the idea of “music of the spheres,” and the idea, presented in this passage, that the world should itself be understood as sentient creature, a sort of demigod. Plato is fond of myths and allegories, but Timaeus as a whole seems less a work of scientific analysis with some interesting illustrations and more a collection of mysteries, an effort to portray things beyond the reach of human perception or reason. Why does he stretch so far? Perhaps he feels the Pythagorean impulse of demonstrating that there is a rational ordering of the universe, and that mathematical relationships reveal its basic structure and will ultimately make it comprehensible to humans.

But in the entire dialogue, this text is among the most difficult to understand. Cicero translated it into Latin, for instance, and insisted that he didn’t really understand it (though his portrait of Scipio’s Dream reveals an extremely subtle understanding of this text). Some aspects are, however, plain. There is one universe, he tells us, and one god. This fact was of course critical for Plato’s acceptance in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but it shows Plato for a follower of Pythagoras. The references to geometric shapes is also key. Plato is telling us that these shapes are natural and recurring in the universe, that they can be expressed as a series of mathematical relationships, and that they belong to the universe’s secret language or building blocks. But it’s foolishness to understand all of this, and the physical description of the cosmos, as a pronouncement of doctrine, of religious mysterium. More accurately, Plato says that man must undertake the mental challenge to study and attempt to explain the world around him, including the cosmos beyond his perceptive abilities. Plato gives us respect for religion and an effort to sanctify, but at the same time he insists that the cosmos is not beyond the ability of the human mind to study and explain. Medieval theologians saw in this text a doctrinal model for the cosmos, but that seems very far from Plato’s intention.

In Plato’s day, the world itself seemed boundless beyond comprehension, its resources inexhaustible, and the dangers and wonders of nature were a test for human knowledge. With the passage of time, humanity has grown much more conscious of the finite nature of the earth and its resources. And with time, Plato’s conceptualization of the earth as a living creature has also become a more appealing model–it pointed the way to discovery of the ecological systems by which the world breathed, moved, transformed and regenerated itself. Today humanity approaches final mastery of the world–but what does this mean for the world-soul and for humanity’s ultimate survival in its terrestrial setting?

After the Pythagorean Brotherhood came the society of Freemasons, which consciously cultivated Pythagorean symbols and images. Listen to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Masonic cantata “Dir, Seele des Weltalls, o Sonne” KV 429 (1783) which gives these ideas a stirring musical form, leading with a salute to “You, the World-Soul, the Sun.”

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  • eric

    Plato was not a monotheist. The Timaeus talks of multiple gods even. I can understand old Christian scholars thinking so but it’s lazy scholarship today.



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