Plato: Timaeus, Critias, and Mystical Thinking
So, how does Plato explain interaction between the Forms, which are eternal, unchanging Being; and the physical world, which is changing (and mortal) Becoming? In the Timaeus treatise, he adds the clarifying concept of a physical “receptacle of becoming” and details how the soul (Being) is contained in our bodies (Becoming) and our world.
Timaeus starts the day after the Republic with Timaeus, Critias and Socrates still taking about the ideal society. Socrates wishes to see this ideal in action and find out if it works; Critias tells him that Athens once was this ideal society. He heard from Solon, who heard from an old man, who heard from an Egyptian that Athens was that ideal at the time they defeated Atlantis. Having no writing, the Athenians forgot this and are learning it all fresh, leading the Egyptian to remark, “There is no such thing as an old Greek”. Note Plato’s suggestion that the new literacy will make Athens both more knowledgeable and sclerotic.
Rather abruptly, they turn to how the physical world was created. For Plato, everything is Being, Becoming, or Space. The sensible/physical world is in a state of Becoming, threaded through with soul-stuff in a static state of Being- hence the stars don’t seem to change. (The shape of this is a bit like an Armillary Sphere) The stuff of the sensible world is formed by combinations of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, an idea we also encounter in Empedocles, as well as classical Indian writings of Buddhism and Hinduism. Bodies contain all four elements until death, when air, heat, and water leave and we return to earth. Nothing physical appears or disappears, but only changes its composition.
How does the soul, which is Being, create things in the sensible realm of Becoming? Timaeus suggests that the world has a “receptacle of Becoming”, into which images of the eternal forms are stamped. Thus, physical things are plastic copies of the eternal forms, and so the implication is that these copies are continually decaying. Knowledge of the true forms comes by teaching and false opinions of sensible things comes by persuasion; here Timaeus compares Knowledge and Opinion in a way that seems identical to Parmenides’s Aletheia and Doxa.
However, since Plato has process via Becoming, he has an idea of cultural degeneration. In Critias, the Athenians who defeated Atlantis are shown to have degenerated to the extent that their laws and thoughts moved away from the original divine form. The undercurrent of authoritarianism in Plato comes from the hope that society can be preserved by creating pure laws and institutions to fight off any social change: by laws, we save the soul from the body.
We are both body and soul. Like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Pythagoreans, Plato believes there is reincarnation. If a man lives a virtuous life, he achieves blissful immortality in an appointed star in the heavens; if he lives an unjust life, he is reincarnated as a woman, and if a woman, as an animal. The immortal soul is riveted into the body, which is subject to change and decay. It’s also subject to sensation, which can delude the soul. The way to correct this “irrational” aspect of embodiment is through education. Philosophy is seen as intellectual, and anti-sensual, a bias that Nietzsche would later attack.
Fire, Earth, Air and Water are themselves made of combinations of triangles, chosen as the simplest bounded geometrical form. These triangles form planes, which form three-dimensional bodies: the Earth as cube, Air as octahedron, the Cosmos as dodecahedron, Fire as pyramid. Timaeus describes how they dissolve and reconstitute in naturalistic terms quite similar to Heraclitus; here too change is constant. He also uses their shapes to explain tactile experience: touching fire feels about like being cut up by tiny pyramids. His take on color- rays on a spectrum between white and black- is basically accurate.
As for the soul, Plato divides it into Reason, residing in the head, Spirit in the heart, and Appetite in the belly; each has to be regularly exercised. Reason is promoted by the liver, which gives bitterness to protect us from false knowledge- the liver has a divinatory role. Bones anchor the soul, the lungs allow in the smallest particles of air, and so forth. Diseases are caused by excesses of earth, air, fire or water; but also by disproportional relations between body and soul. The genitals (male and female) meanwhile, are unruly because they continually seek emission.
The physical world, then, is a living creature containing all the living creatures that are visible. It contains gods, of whom Plato says very little, animals, birds, fish, plants, and men, and was created by a God above gods. It makes sense that Middle Ages Christian Europe studied the Timaeus, while ignoring much of Plato.
This is philosophy. It is also mysticism. To my mind, mystical thinking is to see the patterns that shine forth in the world’s endless flood of sensory information as images of the pure and eternal Divine. For a mystic, it isn’t important if this knowledge comes by mental epiphany or by divine Revelation; all that matters is that we know.
1. Naturally, I’d like to discuss The Republic very soon, as well as the fragments of Empedocles.
2. Patrick Deenan recently wrote an essay on the Great Books, questioning the idea that it is in the interest of conservatives to defend them. He makes some good points. Frankly, the progressive/conservative divide on the canon has always struck me as being more than a bit random, and increasingly it feels very time-bound- a product of the late 80s/early 90s. (The academic equivalent of Huey Lewis and the News!) Not really being much of a liberal or conservative, the political issue doesn’t bother me. But this might still be an interesting discussion to have in the future.