Plato’s Metaphysics: Being and Becoming

Perhaps Plato’s greatest contribution to Western philosophy is the idealism embedded in his Theory of Forms, which in essence breaks down existence itself as not only a physical world of inanimate and animate objects, but a theory of knowledge and understanding which is based upon the notion that a) the understanding of a thing is predicated upon the existence of a true Form, or Idea of a thing without which the understanding, or even the thing itself, could not truly “exist:, and b) that such Forms or Ideas existed eternally as intellectual constructs upon which our understanding of the world around us was based.  It is from this premise and starting point that we must begin to try and grasp Plato’s perspective on not just reality and knowledge, but also ultimately his views on universal creation as well as his conception of the human Soul, all of which underpin not just his ethical philosophy but also his socio-political philosophy as reflected in the Republic and Laws most notably.

One of the primary themes that underlies all of Plato’s works, and can be especially seen in the Timaeus and Phaedo among other of his prominent works, is that the principles of reality or the known universe, and the very meaning of life and the pursuit of wisdom and understanding are not just worth exploring, but represent the very highest goal of life – the end of the philosopher.  His means of exploration, and perhaps the most defining characteristic of the Hellenic philosophical tradition which he so greatly influenced, is the role of reason and argument in the form of dialogue, logos and dialectic respectively, in ascertaining these universal truths, even if absolute truth or certainty is not completely possible given the limits of human understanding.  Whether or not he believed that absolute knowledge (sophia, phronēsis) was altogether possible or not is debatable and this is perhaps one of the great mysteries of Platonic philosophy as we try to understand it through the metaphors, analogies and arguments he presents and explores throughout his dialogues, the method and means of communication of these ideas and principles in fact lending itself to skepticism which was a hallmark of many of the philosophers which succeeded him at the Academy.

With respect to the nature of what can truly be known, from which any definition of reality can be drawn, Plato’s teachings as we understand them through his dialogues establish the first and foremost tradition of skepticism in Western – Indo-European really – thought.  This tradition, which starts with Socrates and clearly influenced Plato significantly, establishes the grounds of epistemology – the study of knowledge (epistêmê)– which is reflected in the philosophical tradition which Plato leaves behind at the Academy which he founded in Athens circa 387 BCE.  This tradition of skepticism” represented the core intellectual stream of thought emanating from the Academy subsequent to Plato which provided the basis for other currents of more materialistic and empiricist philosophical schools such as Stoicism and Epicureanism which has a much more broad definition of knowledge, each playing a strong role in the development of Hellenic philosophy in the classical Greco-Roman period.

Plato’s teachings were founded upon the principle, again believed to have been a legacy of Socrates himself, that there were significant intellectual limits upon that which could be truly known given that knowledge itself was predicated on the a priori existence of Forms or Ideas without which any understanding or comprehension of the physical world of matter comprehended by the senses is possible.  For Plato considered knowledge itself to be a type of “recollection”, which was part of his argument for the immortality of the Soul, which was the “form” of the body, one of the primary themes of the Phaedo, a dialogue which circulated in antiquity under the title of On the Soul.

Probably the most comprehensive literary expression of Plato’s notion of knowledge, the distinction he draws between the intelligible world (higher form of knowledge) and the visible world (lower form) comes from the Republic, expressed in what has come to be known as the analogy of the divided line.

“Conceive then,” said I, “as we were saying, that there are these two entities, and that one of them is sovereign over the intelligible order and region and the other over the world of the eye-ball, not to say the sky-ball, but let that pass.  You surely apprehend the two types, the visible and the intelligible.”  “I do.”

“Represent them then, as it were, by a line divided into two unequal sections and cut each section again in the same ratio (the section, that is, of the visible and that of the intelligible order), and then as an expression of the ratio of their comparative clearness and obscurity you will have, as one of the sections of the visible world, images.  By images I mean, first, shadows, and then reflections in water and on surfaces of dense, smooth and bright texture, and everything of that kind, if you apprehend.”  “I do.”  “As the second section assume that of which this is a likeness or an image, that is, the animals about us and all plants and the whole class of objects made by man.”  “I so assume it,” he said.  “Would you be willing to say,” said I, “that the division in respect of reality and truth or the opposite is expressed by the proportion: as is the opiniable to the knowable so is the likeness to that of which it is a likeness?”  “I certainly would.”

“Consider then again the way in which we are to make the division of the intelligible section.”  “In what way?”  “By the distinction that there is one section of it which the soul is compelled to investigate by treating as images the things imitated in the former division, and by means of assumptions from which it proceeds not up to a first principle but down to a conclusion, while there is another section in which it advances from its assumption to a beginning or principle that transcends assumption, and in which it makes no use of the images employed by the other section, relying on ideas only and progressing systematically through ideas.” [1]

Here we have Plato’s fundamental distinction drawn, in the analogy of a “divided line”, the world of the visible, that which can be perceived by the senses, and the world of intelligibles, i.e. thoughts and ideas divided into two unequal portions of a line, the intelligible portion being given greater emphasis and therefore greater (relative) size than its counterpart that represents the visible world.  Then each of these sections is divided again into two unequal portions of the same ration relative to each other, with the larger proportion of each subsection is sized based upon its relative clarity from an intellectual standpoint.

The smaller of the two segments of the visible portion of the line, i.e. the visible world, is made up of first images – shadows, reflections and the like – which are less “real”, more “obscure”, than the “things” which they represent in and of themselves, i.e. that which makes up the larger portion of the visible world part of the line because the “things” themselves are have more intellectual clarity or definition that the “images” or “shadows” of things.

Likewise, and analogously, the intelligible world is also divided into two unequal sections – of the same proportion.  The first of which, the smaller subsection, consists of the treatment of the images of things, and via various assumptions and conclusions various ideas or “theories”, abstract conclusions are drawn, i.e. “bottom up” or “deductive” reasoning of sorts.  The second section, the larger subsection of the intelligible world does not deal with things themselves, or even their images or representations but only deals with ideas in and of themselves and based upon pure intellectual reasoning – dialectic or logos – progresses from various assumptions or theses up to an ontological first principle or set of principles, i.e. bottom up logic or “inductive reasoning” of sorts.

dividedline-svg

Plato’s Epistemological worldview, i.e. the Analogy Divided Line[2]

Plato then goes on to use this analogy of the divided line as a representation, and relative worth or value, of four different types of knowledge, essentially using the divided line to describe his epistemological worldview.  Each section he describes as “affections of the Soul”, our perhaps better put, “capabilities” or “faculties” of the human mind.  The largest section of the line represents the clearest, the least obscure, and the closest depiction of Truth or Reality and is representative of conclusions drawn by use of pure Reason (logos), the faculty of the mind which deals only with ideas in and of themselves and reaches conclusions from principles up to the greatest and highest principle, i.e. the Good (segment DE).

This type of knowledge is followed then by lesser knowledge which is arrived at by the faculty of understanding, which draws various conclusions based upon “thinking” about not just abstract ideas in and of themselves but also about things and images as well (segment CD).  So although this type of thinking, like geometry for example, still deals with the intelligible world and therefore is of higher value than the “visible” realm of perception, is nonetheless of lesser value than conclusions drawn via pure reason and using pure ideas because this type of knowledge does deal with objects, even if they are simply images or representations of physical objects or things.

These two types of thinking that are categorized in the world of intelligibles are then followed by lower forms of knowledge which deal directly with objects of the visible world, the higher of which Plato refers to as “belief”, or “opinion” which deals with objects of the senses that exist within the world of visible world itself, what one might call the material world or the domain of  physics (segment BC), and then the lowest form of knowledge which he describes as “conjecture” or “imagination” (segment AB) which deals with not things in and of themselves but their shapes or images and deals with the likeness of visible things.[3]

In this section of the Republic, which precedes his more graphic metaphor of his Theory of Forms as told in his Allegory of the Cave, albeit wrapped up in the middle of a socio-political work, does represent from a Western standpoint the one of the first prolific and well-articulated forays into the world of metaphysics, i.e. the exploration of the true nature of reality that underlies the world of the senses, and attempts to explain our place in this world and the illusory and shadowy nature of the objects of our perception independent of any religious or theological dogma.  It also illustrates the prevalence of geometry and mathematics as a one of the primary means to which this reality can be understood, a marked characteristic of not just the Platonic philosophical tradition, but the Western intellectual tradition as a whole.[4]

It is in the Timaeus however, one of the later and more mature works of Plato where he expounds upon his view on the nature of the divine, the source of the known universe (cosmological view), as well as the role of the Soul in nature.  And although Plato, and Socrates as represented by Plato’s earlier works, rejected the mythological and anthropomorphic theology that was prevalent in Ancient Greece, Plato does not completely depart from the concept of a theological and divine or supra-natural creator of the known universe, at least as reflected in the words of Timaeus in the dialogue that bears his name.

In the Timaeus, Plato describes a “likely story” as to how the world was created, leveraging again reason (logos) and dialectic, and heavy use of analogy and metaphor, to describe the creation of the universe as a product of the intelligent design of a creator, his Demiurge.[5]  In many respects, the ideas and postulates of the Timaeus represent an expansion on Plato’s Theory of Forms which he introduces in Phaedo and the Republic but follows its intellectual development into the idea of the Good, and its role in the creation of the cosmos (kosmos), the material universe within which we live.

He starts again by drawing the distinction between the intelligible and sensible worlds, that which he calls Being and Becoming, two terms that have come to define Plato’s epistemological and cosmological worldview.

Now first of all we must, in my judgement, make the following distinction.  What is that which is Existent always [28a] and has no Becoming?  And what is that which is Becoming always and never is Existent?  Now the one of these is apprehensible by thought with the aid of reasoning, since it is ever uniformly existent; whereas the other is an object of opinion with the aid of unreasoning sensation, since it becomes and perishes and is never really existent.[6]

Here again Plato makes a distinction between the physical, or visible, world which is subject to change, and the eternal and changeless world of intelligibles, the Intellect (Nous) which can only be apprehended by use of the mind and reason, i.e. is not perceivable by the senses directly and can be discerned in the realm of the mind or thought.  He draws the basic distinction between that which is subject to change, the “visible” or “material” world (Becoming), and that which is eternal and changeless (Being).  Knowledge of the former, which falls under the category of the natural sciences which is the main thrust and emphasis of Aristotle’s reality, or sphere of knowledge, is not rejected outright by Plato but is held subservient – due to its constant fluctuating and changing state – to the world of ideas and thought which is apprehended by intelligence (Nous) and reason (Logos) and which is changeless and eternal.

The realm of Becoming is always subjected to perishing at some level and therefore never truly “is”, or can be said to “exist” within the context of Plato’s epistemological and ontological framework.  It is conceived of by what he deems “opinion”, alluding to the fact that perception is subjective in nature and what one perceives or experiences is not necessarily the same experience or perception of someone else, or some other being for that matter.  It is perceived via the senses, i.e. not by reason.  Whereas the latter realm always “is”, Being, is changeless and eternal, and is conceived of, apprehended as it were, by reason, mind and intelligence alone.  It is not subject to change and therefore according to Plato it truly can said to “be”, or can be said to “exist” within Plato’s epistemological framework, hence the term Being that he allots to it.

It is within this context of Plato’s distinction between the world of Being and Becoming, as he describes it in the Timaeus here, that the connection between Plato and Parmenides is drawn.  In many ancient philosophical circles, Heraclitus is said to be the mother of Plato’s teachings where Parmenides is said to be his father and it is his later works, and again specifically in the Timaeus, that we see this distinction along the lines of Being and Becoming clearly drawn, representing the most mature form of Plato’s’ intellectual conception of knowledge, i.e. what can be known, what philosophers call epistemology.

Parmenides (late 6th early 5th century BCE) is known for his one work, known by the title On Nature, written in hexameter verse which although does not survive in full, is believed to survive mostly intact through quotations and excerpts of later philosophers and commentators, reflecting its significant influence on early Hellenic philosophical development.  Most certainly Parmenides is one of the most influential of the “Pre-Socratics”, and it is through the interpretation of his philosophy through Plato really, that this determination is made.  He is believed to have been born in Elea in Southern Italy and therefore is historically categorized as part of the “Italian” branch of early Hellenic philosophy – as per Diogenes Laertius, the same branch as Pythagoras who represents the first and earliest of this tradition and as distinguished from the Ionian branch within which Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, as well as the Cynics and Stoics, belong to.

In Parmenides’s poem, he describes a pseudo allegorical journey up into the gates of Heaven driven by a golden chariot where he is initiated into eternal wisdom, i.e. the mysteries as it were, by the goddess of wisdom herself represented by the goddess Night, the very same goddess who plays a critical role in the unfolding of the universe in the in the Orphic mythological tradition.  [In later classical Greek mythology, she is personified as Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the daughter of Zeus, and it is no doubt she who most represents the notion of wisdom (i.e. sophia) as Plato perceives and describes it, in particular its illuminary nature from an intellectual perspective.]

In the excerpts that are extant from his poem On Nature, Parmenides distinguishes in very esoteric and almost mystical – and certainly cryptic – language that which is said to “be” or exist (to eon), or “true reality” (alêtheia), which he associates with thought and language and is wholly distinguishable from that which cannot in fact be said to exist in the same way, i.e. that which is not “real” and is wholly distinct from true reality (again alêtheia), due to its fluctuating and ever changing nature.

The thing that can be thought and that for the sake of which the thought exists is the same; for you cannot find thought without something that is, as to which it is uttered.  And there is not, and never shall be, anything besides what is, since fate has chained it so as to be whole and immovable.  Wherefore all these things are but names which mortals have given, believing them to be true—coming into being and passing away, being and not being, change of place and alteration of bright color.  [R. P. 119].[7]

In Parmenides, as we know him again through the quotations and comments of philosophers from the classical Hellenic period and later, we find what is believed to be the source of Plato’s epistemology where, in Vedic terms, the world of “name and form” which is in a constant state of change and flux, which falls in the domain of what Plato terms “opinion”, is held to be an inferior form of knowledge than the realm of the changeless and eternally existent world of ideas thought, as discerned by pure reason (logos), i.e. “true reality” which Parmenides calls alêtheia  and which Plato refers to as Being, again distinguished from that which is Becoming.  This bifurcation and sublimation of the material world for the ethereal or rational world ultimately provides the basis for Plato’s Theory of Forms and is the basis upon which he builds not only his theory of knowledge but also his cosmology as outlined in the Timaeus.

Furthermore, while Parmenides writes in hexameter verse, there is clearly a logical cohesion to his work, an argument or a case he is trying to make, to establish the grounds of being, in a classical philosophical sense, where he is attempting to justify and rationalize, and in turn provide the logical foundation for, his position of establishing that which “is” (to eon), or can be said to exist due to its eternal and unchanging nature which in turn again is distinguished from, and held to be of higher intellectual and philosophical value than, that which is subject to change and ultimate dissolution, i.e. the objective and material world.[8]

In this sense Parmenides work and philosophy that is represented therein is not only the forefather of Plato’s Being and Becoming as laid out in the Timaeus, but also the forefather of the means by which this distinction is established, i.e. by reason and argument which Plato presents in dialogue form using logic, or dialectic, which can be viewed as a more mature and evolved form of (written) communication of ideas and metaphysics than that which is used by Parmenides who follows in the footsteps of the earlier mythic poets Homer and Hesiod.

Transitioning back to Plato’s cosmology and its relationship to the worlds of Being and Becoming respectively in the Timaeus, we find a description which is markedly anthropomorphic in conception and yet at the same time rests upon his basic metaphysical delineation of reality between Being and Becoming – i.e. that which is permanent, eternal and unchanging and comprehended by reason (logos) and thought or ideas (eidôs), versus the sensible realm which is subject to change and “opinion” and therefore is characterized by an implicit creative and destructive process.

Again, everything which becomes must of necessity become owing to some Cause; for without a cause it is impossible for anything to attain becoming.  But when the artificer of any object, in forming its shape and quality, keeps his gaze fixed on that which is uniform, using a model of this kind, that object, executed in this way, must of necessity [28b] be beautiful; but whenever he gazes at that which has come into existence and uses a created model, the object thus executed is not beautiful.

Now the whole Heaven, or Cosmos, or if there is any other name which it specially prefers, by that let us call it, —so, be its name what it may, we must first investigate concerning it that primary question which has to be investigated at the outset in every case, —namely, whether it has existed always, having no beginning of generation, or whether it has come into existence, having begun from some beginning. It has come into existence; for it is visible and tangible and possessed of a body; and all such things are sensible, [28c] and things sensible, being apprehensible by opinion with the aid of sensation, come into existence, as we saw, and are generated.

And that which has come into existence must necessarily, as we say, have come into existence by reason of some Cause.  Now to discover the Maker and Father of this Universe were a task indeed; and having discovered Him, to declare Him unto all men were a thing impossible.  However, let us return and inquire further concerning the Cosmos, —after which of the Models did its Architect construct it?[9]

Here we see not only the implicit anthropomorphic, or perhaps better put anthrocentric, view of universal creation, but also the fundamental assumption of causality which rests at the heart of what is perhaps best terms his “theological” cosmological conception.  In other words, implicit in the existence of the universe as we know and perceive it, in fact implicit in the existence in anything, is some element of causality even if in this context he intends to mean “purpose” or “reason”, rather than a physical chain of causality which is how we have come to identify the meaning in the modern era of empirical science.[10]

Furthermore, he argues that the universe must have been “created” – i.e. has some sort of beginning in time and space as it were – because it exists within the sensible realm, the realm that is in and of itself defined by change, is apprehended by “opinion”, is subjectively perceived and is therefore – again by definition – in a constant state of flux which is bound by an implicit and eternally present creative and destructive process of Becoming.

[29a] Was it after that which is self-identical and uniform, or after that which has come into existence; Now 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.  But it is clear to everyone that his gaze was on the Eternal; for the Cosmos is the fairest of all that has come into existence, and He the best of all the Causes.  So having in this wise come into existence, it has been constructed after the pattern of that which is apprehensible by reason and thought and is self-identical. [29b]

Again, if these premises be granted, it is wholly necessary that this Cosmos should be a Copy of something.  Now in regard to every matter it is most important to begin at the natural beginning.  Accordingly, in dealing with a copy and its model, we must affirm that the accounts given will themselves be akin to the diverse objects which they serve to explain; those which deal with what is abiding and firm and discernible by the aid of thought will be abiding and unshakable; and in so far as it is possible and fitting for statements to be irrefutable and invincible, [29c] they must in no wise fall short thereof; whereas the accounts of that which is copied after the likeness of that Model, and is itself a likeness, will be analogous thereto and possess likelihood; for I as Being is to Becoming, so is Truth to Belief.

Wherefore, Socrates, if in our treatment of a great host of matters regarding the Gods and the generation of the Universe we prove unable to give accounts that are always in all respects self-consistent and perfectly exact, be not thou surprised; rather we should be content if we can furnish accounts that are inferior to none in likelihood, remembering that both I who speak [29d] and you who judge are but human creatures, so that it becomes us to accept the likely account of these matters and forbear to search beyond it. [11]

In this passage we find Plato, in the words of Timaeus in the dialogue, arguing that there must in fact exist a model upon which the cosmos (kosmos) is fashioned and that this model must be the “best” model, i.e. that which is eternal and changeless which he implies is the source of all things, i.e. the world of Becoming.  This model is based upon the Good, the Form of Forms, an eternal and changeless Idea which can only be apprehended – if it can be apprehended at all – by reason and thought and from which the world of Becoming is generated, or brought about from.

He equates the world of Being here to “true reality”, what he refers to as “Truth”, and the world of Becoming to the domain of “opinion” or “subjective belief”, lining up these two metaphysical principles which presumably derive from Parmenides squarely with his theory of knowledge. The former, the realm Being which is characterized by reason, thought and ideas, he considers to be the higher form of knowledge upon which the latter, the realm of Becoming which is forever changing and in a state of flux and is characterized by “opinion” and subjective belief, is molded from or shaped out of.

Plato then goes on, through the narrative of Timaeus in the dialogue, to describe in detail just how the divine craftsman, the Demiurge, establishes universal creation, what has come to be known as the “Cosmic Soul”, applying various rational, proportional, mathematical and geometrical (presumably of Pythagorean influence) constructs onto the primordial chaos out of which the four basic elements – earth, air, water and fire – as well as the heavens and earth and all living creatures therein came into existence.  But this world of Becoming, and the creative process which he outlines therein, attempting as best he can to provide a logical and rational account of creation in again what he refers to as a “likely” account, resting on and alluding to the limits of human knowledge in and of itself in understanding the reason and ultimate cause and process by which the universe comes into being, nonetheless presumes the universe to be crafted upon the model of the Good, a benign creator as it were that provides the foundation for the Judeo-Christian worldview.

[30a] For God desired that, so far as possible, all things should be good and nothing evil; wherefore, when He 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, deeming that the former state is in all ways better than the latter.  For Him who is most good it neither was nor is permissible to perform any action save what is most fair.  As He reflected, therefore, He perceived that of such creatures as are by nature visible, [30b] none that is irrational will be fairer, comparing wholes with wholes, than the rational; and further, that reason cannot possibly belong to any apart from Soul.  So because of this reflection He constructed reason within soul and soul within body as He fashioned the All, that so the work He was executing might be of its nature most fair and most good.

Thus, then, in accordance with the likely account, we must declare that this Cosmos has verily come into existence as a Living Creature endowed with soul and reason owing to the providence of God.   [30c] This being established, we must declare that which comes next in order.  In the semblance of which of the living Creatures did the Constructor of the cosmos construct it?  We shall not deign to accept any of those which belong by nature to the category of “parts”; for nothing that resembles the imperfect would ever become fair.  But we shall affirm that the Cosmos, more than aught else, resembles most closely that Living Creature of which all other living creatures, severally and generically, are portions.  For that Living Creature embraces and contains within itself all the intelligible Living Creatures, just as this Universe contains us and all the other visible living creatures [30d] that have been fashioned.  For since God desired to make it resemble most closely that intelligible Creature which is fairest of all and in all ways most perfect, He constructed it as a Living Creature, one and visible, containing within itself all the living creatures which are by nature akin to itself.[12]

We can see here that Plato sees the rational and ordered as of higher value than the chaotic and disordered, and he assigns the highest value to reason itself (again logos) which is attributed and ultimately equated with the divine or Cosmic Soul.  Furthermore, Plato perceives the universe, in very much the same vein as the Stoic tradition which was very influential in the Greco-Roman period and influenced early Christian theology (pneuma, the divine spirit), as a living, breathing entity which not only embodies, encapsulates as it were, all of the kosmos within it, but also is endowed with “Soul” and “reason”, just as the individual is at some extent.  God here, the Cosmic Soul, is fashioned in the image of man as it were as opposed to the other way around as it is presented in the Judeo-Christian account of creation.

At the heart of Plato’s philosophy was the belief in the ontological primacy of the rational faculty of man, Reason, along with the tools of the trade which reflected and were to be leveraged by this faculty – namely reason (logos), dialectic, logic and mathematics – as the means by which the fundamental truths of these ancient mystic traditions could be known or brought to light.  He was the first to establish the connection between cosmology, physics and ethics to a degree that had not be done before, a characteristic that became one of the primary characteristics of Hellenic and Roman philosophy and was even followed in the scholastic tradition up until the end of the Middle Ages.

Plato also established a good deal of the semantic framework, in Greek, through which these esoteric, complex and interrelated topics could be discussed and explored, a development whose importance cannot be overstated.  For before Plato the language of philosophy was shrouded in myth, analogy, and metaphor, and after Plato all of the Greek philosophic schools and practitioners now at east had a working vocabulary through which philosophic ideas and concepts could be further explored and elucidated upon, even if the various schools disagreed with each other on a variety of issues.

Plato’s unique contribution to theological development in antiquity then can be viewed as placing the rational faculty of man as the primarily tool through which any knowledge of the gods, or reality itself even, should be drawn.  His reach extended well beyond the theological domain however, extending into topics such as what could actually be known, psychological questions, systems of ethics and virtue, political philosophy, and most importantly the goal of life itself.  Many of his lasting contributions to the philosophic, and later scientific, development in the West are not necessarily the conclusions that he drew or solutions he put forth, but the tools and institutions which he established for their pursuit.

It can be said definitively however that with Plato the supremacy of reason and rationality in the search for truth and meaning in life as well as the nature and origins of the universe is firmly established.  To Plato the epistemological supremacy of the intelligible realm, the world of Being, over the sensible realm, or the world of Becoming, is the predominant characteristic of his metaphysics.  The former of which is characterized by Forms and Ideals from which the material universe as we know it, and all living souls as well, are ultimately “fashioned” from, all modeled and stemming from the belief that the Creator, if indeed he can be said to exist, must have fashioned things according to what is most fair and most just, i.e. the Good or Best.


[1] Plato Republic Book 6, 509d – 510b.  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D6%3Asection%3D509d

[2] AC represents knowledge of the material or “visible” world and CE represents knowledge of the “intelligible” world.  Image From Wikipedia contributors, ‘Analogy of the divided line’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 October 2016, 05:17 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Analogy_of_the_divided_line&oldid=745083560&gt; [accessed 19 October 2016]

[3] See Plato Republic Book 6, 510c-511e.-  From Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D6%3Asection%3D511e and Wikipedia contributors, ‘Analogy of the divided line’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 October 2016, 05:17 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Analogy_of_the_divided_line&oldid=745083560> [accessed 19 October 2016]

[4] Taken one step further can be interpreted to mean that Plato is espousing a doctrine of the illusory nature of reality much like the Vedic tradition and its concept of Maya.  But buried within his allegory is also his dim and morbid view of the role of the philosopher himself, who is tasked with trying to shed light upon the true nature of reality to those steeped in ignorance.

[5] Plato’s Demiurge, the so-called “Divine Craftsman” that he describes in the Timaeus, becomes one of the cornerstone theological principles in the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition and one which bleeds, and fits quite nicely, into the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) anthropomorphic conception of God.  The English Demiurge comes from the Latin Demiurgus, which stems from the Greek Dêmiourgos (δημιουργός), which means “craftsman” or “artisan” but of course morphed into the more theological notion of Creator within the Hellenic theo-philosophical tradition itself.  See Wikipedia contributors, ‘Demiurge’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 December 2016, 18:44 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Demiurge&oldid=755542807&gt; [accessed 18 December 2016].

[6] Plato Timaeus.  27a-28a.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D27

[7] Early Greek Philosophy, translation with notes and commentary by John Burnet.  Chapter IV., Parmenides of Elea.  3rd editions (1920).  London.  From http://www.classicpersuasion.org/pw/burnet/egp.htm?chapter=4

[8] For a more detailed description of the philosophy of Parmenides and analysis of the existent fragments of his work On Nature, see “Parmenides of Elea: What Is Versus What is Not”, by Juan Valdez 2016 at https://snowconenyc.com/2016/09/30/parmenides-of-elea-what-is-versus-what-is-not and Parmenides entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=parmenides.

[9] Plato Timaeus.  28a-28c.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D28

[10] It is in this context of Plato’s notion of Being and Becoming, and his fairly loose but at the same time all-pervading implicit assumption of causality or purpose, within which Aristotle establishes his metaphysical worldview which is based upon substantial form and  causality – the material, formal, efficient and final–  all of which looks to better define that which can be said to “exist”, his being qua being.  Aristotle’s efficient and final causes represent Plato’s notion of “reason” or “purpose” which underlies existence whereas Aristotle’s material and formal causes represent the underlying principles for the material or sensible world.  For more detail on Aristotle’s theory of causality and how it relates to his metaphysical worldview, see the chapter on Aristotle in this work and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Aristotle on Causality” which can be found here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/.

[11] Plato Timaeus.  29a-29d.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D29

[12] Plato Timaeus.  30a-30d.  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Apage%3D30

Sacred Geometry in Plato’s Timaeus

After Pythagoras, the next in line in the propagation of core mathematical constructs, not just numbers themselves but again geometry as well, as key elements of the universal world order, is Plato.  It is said that outside of the Academy which was founded by Plato was inscribed “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter”, and although whether or not the inscription actually existed cannot be confirmed, it is very well consistent with the philosophical system that Plato sets out in his dialogues, especially the Republic and the Timaeus which cover his Theory of Forms, its relationship to numbers and mathematics in general, and his theory of Platonic solids which underlies his physical cosmology.

And particularly with the Platonic school, believed to have been influenced by the Pythagoreans who preceded them, we see a prominent role for numerology and geometry that is hinged not onto the cosmological and physical view of the school – how the universe came to be and is maintained – but how the universe itself in all its grand mystery could be understood.  The gift of mathematics, geometry, as a sacred science was not invented by the Greeks no doubt, but its emphasis along with much of its breadth and early explanation, is a legacy of the Greeks.

The influence of mathematics and numerology on Plato’s philosophy can probably best be seen by later interpreters of his works, as his Being and Becoming, and his notion of the Good which represents the Form of Forms is transformed into the One of the Neo-Platonic tradition, the principle being very squarely aligned with the Pythagorean Monad.  Furthermore, in interpretations of passages in the Republic, reference to numerical and mathematical constructs as things that can be conceived of only in thought, i.e. examples of Forms or Ideas[1].

In Plato’s Timaeus we have a more systematic outlining of the role of mathematics and geometry in the universal world order.  Here we can find not only some traces of Pythagorean thought (as much emphasis is given to the role of triangles in the formulation and construction of the physical world, one of which is Pythagorean so to speak) as well as the role of geometry in general as he outlines a core set of geometric shapes which have come to be known as Platonic solids that form the basic shape and building blocks of the four primary elements – earth, air, water, fire – from which the physical universe is constructed.

In the Timaeus Plato describes a universe that is living in and of itself, i.e. the World Soul, which is governed by a fundamental order, i.e. Pythagoras’s kosmos.  The universal order that Plato speaks of one which akin to eternal Being but yet is in motion, and is governed by time which in turn is governed by number and basic mathematical principles.  This concept of time, its association with number and the movement of the heavenly bodies themselves, is a core characteristic of the World Soul, the universe, and is one of the key attributes of the kosmos itself.

Plato further outlines a hierarchy of beings in the kosmos, one which sits with the Demiurge at the top of the hierarchy and under him you have the various gods who are associated with the heavens and then the world of mortals which are manufactured by the gods, all of which are created via the Demiurge and which represent manifestations of nous, or the intellect of the Demiurge, a principle which came to be known as Intellect itself in later Neo-Platonic interpretations of the Timaeus and which encapsulated the world of Forms and Ideas which represented the core of Plato’s metaphysics[2]

In Plato’s “likely account” (eikôs logos) or “likely story” (eikôs muthos) of the universal creation described in the Timaeus, the Demiurge or World Soul, fashions the corporeal world from the two primordial substances of the universe – what are referred to by most translators as the “Same” and the “Other” denoting one’s (the Same) indivisible nature and the Other’s divisible nature – and an intermediary substance between the two and created two great circles, the outer of which he made the motion of the Same and the inner of which he made the motion of the Other, each moving in opposite directions.  The inner circle he then split into seven parts to yield the 7 celestial spheres, or 8 counting the outermost sphere of the fixed stars, i.e. the circle of the Same.[3]

After the model itself and its motion has been established, Plato then places the divine creatures themselves, i.e. the gods, planets (“wanderers”), into their respective orbits that the Demiurge had fashioned for them, to look after and create the construct of time, mirroring the eternal and unchanging in a movable model fashioned by the Demiurge himself.  The gods, or planets, as they shone in the sky were mostly made of fire, and were the most divine of all beings that were created, and subsequent to them the Demiurge created creatures of the earth, the air and the water, following the four basic elements of the material universe and each partaking in the divine and intelligent harmony of the universal creation, all moving according to number and making up mankind’s notion of Time.

Time, then, came into existence along with the Heaven, to the end that having been generated together they might also be dissolved together, if ever a dissolution of them should take place; and it was made after the pattern of the Eternal Nature, to the end that it might be as like thereto as possible; for whereas the pattern is existent through all eternity, the copy, on the other hand, is through all time, continually having existed, existing, and being about to exist. Wherefore, as a consequence of this reasoning and design on the part of God, with a view to the generation of Time, the sun and moon and five other stars, which bear the appellation of “planets,” came into existence for the determining and preserving of the numbers of Time. And when God had made the bodies of each of them He placed them in the orbits along which the revolution of the Other was moving, seven orbits for the seven bodies.[4]

After outlining the creation of the heavens and living beings in what Plato refers to as the “operations of Reason”, he then outlines what came into existence via “Necessity”, starting again with the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) which are the basic constituents within the “receptacle” of the universe, the nurse of all Becoming and that which houses the copy of the World Soul. 

Given that these four elements have depth and exist in three dimensional space, Plato, influenced no doubt by the atomicist Democritus and Pythagoreans before him, posits that these basic elements at their core consist of geometrical shapes, of which the triangle is the most “fair”, or most perfect.  The rectangular isosceles triangle and the rectangular scalene are the ones which he uses for the basic building blocks of the elements, for from these, geometrically speaking, all other triangles can be constructed.  In turn from these triangular shapes, he describes the construction of what have come to be known as the Platonic solids, each of which are assigned one of the basic elements.  The solids are the tetrahedron, or pyramid which is associated with fire, and the octahedron which is associated with air, the icosahedron which is associated with water, and the cube which is associated with earth.[5]

[1] Plato, Republic 7.526a. 

See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D7%3Asection%3D526a

[2] See https://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/timaeus.htm for a good summary of Plato’s cosmology as outlined in the Timaeus.

[3] The actual dimensions, or more properly put lengths, of the substance that was used to create the different circles can be viewed as a slight variant of Pythagoras tetraktys (the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 laid out as the dimensions of a triangle in descending order) as Plato uses the same series of digits except a power of 2 for even numbers and power of 3 for odd numbers to create the series, as his basic dimensions for the different circles that are fashioned by the Demiurge to construct the celestial spheres are 1, 2, 4, 8 and 1, 3, 9 and 27 respectively, albeit not in that order.  See Plato Timaeus 34a ff. at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Asection%3D34a.

[4] Plato, Timaeus 38b-38c.  Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9 translated by W.R.M. Lamb. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0180%3Atext%3DTim.%3Asection%3D38c

[5] Timaeus 53c -56c.

Middle Platonism: Greek Philosophic Adolescence

Despite the emergence of metaphysics as we know it today in classical Greece, seen most clearly in the (interpretation of) the dialogues of Plato and then more clearly elucidated in the work of Aristotle, a product of Plato’s Academy, and the beginnings of the clear articulation of the role of Mind, and Reason, in not only distinguishing mankind from the rest of the species on the planet but also as the distinctive faculty of the human condition which can and should be leveraged for enlightenment, and on a more practical level happiness (eudaimonia), the rational aspect of the mind of man was looked at by the ancients as just one aspect of the Soul, the Soul in antiquity being the entity, the form, which encapsulates (ensouls) the human body and connects the individual to the cosmos as well as encompasses all of the faculties and functions of what we today call psychology or more recently cognitive science.  To the ancients, the act of perception and cognition, although identified with the mind, was the means by which man could lift himself up from the basic human condition and achieve peace and harmony.

With the Ancient Greeks, we see the establishment of philosophy from which derived what we would call today religion, philosophy as the study of wisdom in all its aspects, including not only the wisdom of the mystery traditions, but also the tradition of the mythic poets (Homer and Hesiod), all of which were stewarded and guarded by priests and the oracle based tradition – not only in Greece, but also in Egypt, Judea (Chaldean Oracles), and even Persia (the Magi).  Philosophy by definition was the attempt at establishing cohesive and complete metaphysical systems which were based upon Reason (Logos); Reason in this context being juxtaposed and complementary with direct revelation of the divine, a tradition which had been prevalent in the ages prior to written history across the Middle East, Egypt, throughout the Mediterranean and even to the East in Persia and India.  The Greeks, in many cases in threat of death and martyrdom, were the first to stop and say that that we should not believe these mystery and cult traditions at face value but that in understanding the role of Mind in the cosmos, the vehicle by which life itself manifested, Truth and order (maat to the Egyptians and again logos to the Greeks) when properly understood and harmonized with, could help man to understand how best to live in this world, in harmony, and even how best to govern and manage society as a whole.

The philosophical systems of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and others included not only a cosmological system which presented alternative theories (or some might argue a recasting or reinterpretation of preexisting cosmologies) for the basic substrata of the universe (archai) as well as to how the foundational principles of the universe were created (the four elements), along with the basic building blocks of the physical world (physics) which described the world of change within which mankind coexisted, and in turn ethics which was based upon the goal of happiness or peace of mind which could be achieved through knowledge and wisdom of the cosmos, how it related to the physical world, and understanding how man could live in harmony and balance with it.  Philosophy in antiquity incorporated the ancient traditions of direct revelation and attempted to explain the role of the gods, through various cosmological mythologies, to the population at large through systems of ethics that were taught in the various philosophic schools.  In all these schools however, the supremacy of the mind, seen as a reflection of the divine Mind which emanated through and was the source of the cosmos, was preeminent.  The specific attributes and features of the mind itself, the role of cognition and perception, did not come to the forefront of philosophical development until the Enlightenment era however, some two thousand years later – most notably found in the work of Descartes encapsulated in his phrase “cogito ergo sum” – by which time the true meaning and import of the philosophies of antiquity had for the most part been lost in their transliteration and absorption into Christianity and to a lesser extent Islam.

 

Two of the most influential Greek philosophical traditions in antiquity, in both the Hellenistic period as well as the period of Roman influence and domination, were Stoicism and Epicureanism, the former of which exerted considerable influence on early Christian theology, which in turn was influenced by Jewish theological development during the same time, most notably seen in the work of Philo of Alexandria.  The Stoic and Epicurean philosophical systems survive down to us in fragments and pieces for the most part, in contrast to the more complete philosophical systems and works that survive down to us from the Platonic and Peripatetic (Aristotle) schools.  For example the (Middle) Platonic philosopher and historian Plutarch from the 2nd century CE, who incidentally was also a priest at Delphi, wrote a quite few works that criticize Stoicism from which we gain important insights into its underlying philosophy.  We also find material related to Stoicism and Epicureanism in the works of the philosophical biographer Diogenes Laertius from the third century CE who was the author of Lives of Eminent Philosophers, a comprehensive treatise which included extensive autobiographical as well as philosophical summaries of virtually all of the major ancient Greek philosophers and schools – Stoic, Platonic and Epicurean being three schools which he covers in great detail.

One cannot ignore the underlying socio-political context which drove these philosophical, really scientific, developments.  With the advent of first the Persian Empire and then the Macedonian Empire in the middle and latter half of the first millennium BCE, we see the lines of communication, exchange and trade routes open up which bridged the ancient populations of the Macedonians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Chaldeans (Palestine and Israel region today) and of course the Persians[1].  The cultural and philosophical epicenters of these developments were, as they are today, forged in urban centers of learning, most notably of course first in Athens, then in Alexandria in northern Egypt, and then in turn in Rome as the Roman and Latin culture began to dominate the intellectual landscape in the first few centuries CE.

Alexandria in particular saw the development of profound intellectual and philosophical development, where most if not all of the most influential ancient philosophers and theologians lived and studied to a large extent between the second century BCE and the second century CE.  This was of course the home of the great Library of Alexandria, perhaps the greatest legacy of Alexander, and the place where the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek, the famed Septuagint (or simply LXX), and where early Christian theology first took shape as reflected in the works the esteemed Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (also known as Philo Judea) who lived and wrote around the time of Christ, Clement of Alexandria who wrote and taught in the 2nd and third centuries CE, and Origen also of Alexandria who is believed to have studied with and was greatly influenced by Clement.  Clement and Origin were some of the first Christian theologians to interpret the Gospels in light of the Greek philosophical tradition, building on the work of Philo who had analyzed and encapsulated Old Testament wisdom in the light of Hellenic philosophy.

This period represented a melting pot of theological dialogue and development, perhaps best described as the enlightenment era of philosophy in antiquity and it is no accident that it is from this period that perhaps the greatest religious figure in the history of mankind emerges, Jesus of Nazareth.  It was a time when all of the significant religious traditions (philosophy) of the Mediterranean, Near East and Egypt were assimilated by some of the best minds in antiquity, an assimilation that occurred at the same time as advanced civilization was starting to blossom, and language and writing – and the existence of extensive libraries – began to manifest in the ancient world, giving philosophers and historians alike access to broad expanses of knowledge across an extensive cultural landscape, granting a perspective on history and theology, and science which at that time encompassed theology, that was unmatched in all of mankind’s history up to that point.  Perhaps it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that it was a time when Reason began to take prominence over ritual and myth as the predominant determining factor that shaped religious thought, where all knowledge was looked upon as a single system and body of work that must hang together cohesively, and where ethics was considered a branch of science just as important as physics.  This is the legacy of the ancient Greeks to the West.

The philosophers of this era looked upon the mythology of the ancient peoples, their cosmologies that were wrapped in fable and epic poetry, as allegories for the ascent of the Soul, not as true stories that explained the inner workings of Nature as some modern historians would have us believe.  This was the “secret” that was kept by the priests of the major sects of the ancient world, with whom the philosophers studied, and what they attempted to encapsulate and describe in whatever form they deemed most appropriate.  Plato wrote in Socratic dialogue form, hiding more abstract and esoteric teachings to a large extent perhaps because he was concerned the same fate of Socrates might befall him or perhaps because he thought that the ancient wisdom he was trying to convey was most appropriately done wrapped in allegory and dialectic so that the wisdom and elegance of the teaching, which he believed was beyond words, could be conveyed as best as possible.  Aristotle was more direct in his approach, more scientific to the modern reader, and perhaps because of this not terribly popular to the everyday man in antiquity that still had an appreciation for myth and allegory – at least certainly not as popular as the Stoic and Epicurean schools which had significant followings in the aristocracy and the middle class of antiquity respectively[2].

What must be kept in mind when reading about the ancient Greek philosophical schools and their respective influence not only on the development of Christianity, but also on ancient interpretations of the Old Testament (which were of course incorporated to a large extent by Christianity) as well as Muslim philosophy, is that perhaps their most lasting contribution was not the philosophy itself, but the academic and intellectual bent that all of these schools shared which was handed down through the West all the way through the Middle Ages and survives to a large extent in the academic tradition that is a hallmark of Western education today.  It is no accident that our word academic derives from the name of Plato’s school in Athens – not to mention the influence Aristotle’s work has had on modern science at the very least from a semantic perspective in delineating the branches of science as well as the meaning of “science” itself, stemming from Aristotle’s epistemological focus even though this connotation has been all but lost on the modern student.

Although it is easy to get lost in the subtle distinctions between the most predominant ancient Greek philosophical schools, it is important to keep in mind that as Christianity begins to take root in the West in the second and third centuries CE, Hellenistic philosophy – at least through the eyes of outsiders – was looked at as a single branch or thread of thought and studied as a whole.  In other words, the scholars and students in Roman antiquity studied all of the Greek philosophic schools, and then went about applying their analysis and interpretation of philosophy in general (which again included ethics, physics and politics among other disciplines in antiquity) through whatever lens or school that they belonged to.  As the ancient Mediterranean became under predominantly Roman influence in the first few centuries CE, the philosophical record starts to become much more Christian than Hellenic as the teachings of Christ start to spread and Christianity takes root in the Roman Empire.  [The one notable exception to this is the Neo-Platonic developments in the third, fourth and fifth centuries by first Plotinus and Porphyry, and then Proclus some two centuries later, their work having significant influence on the development of early Christian theological development as well and perhaps at some level representing the pinnacle of Greek philosophy in and of itself.]

Having pointed out the similarities of the Greek philosophical schools and looking at philosophical development in general in this era as the evolution of philosophy proper into what we today refer to as “religion”, or perhaps more accurately described as “theology”, it is important to point out that there were of course distinctions in worldview, outlook and metaphysics in these competing schools, and these differences were the source of much consternation and academic concern in this period of flourishing theological and philosophical development, a period which effectively came to an end with the beginning of the long standing and well documented history of the persecution of “pagan” traditions/religions by Christian orthodoxy.  Many of the Greek philosophical schools, as well as some of the more esoteric teachings and interpretations surrounding the life of Christ – collectively referred to as Gnosticism – were the first to feel this wrath as Christian orthodoxy emerges toward the end of the fourth century CE.

 

As we look at Hellenic philosophical development during the last few centuries before Christianity takes root, despite the prevalence of competing philosophic traditions, Plato’s teachings as interpreted by his successors at the Academy not only influences succeeding Hellenistic philosophic schools but also continues to thrive in its own right.  Plato’s teachings and influence, although perhaps not quite as predominantly taught or practiced by its sister Hellenic philosophies which had become widespread and popular as previously noted, was still alive and well and still formed a core part of the philosophical education of the intellectual elite during this time, many of whom went on in the in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE to become the first Christian apologists and theologians.

Plato again espoused the supremacy of the intelligible world over the reality of the physical world, as reflected in his powerful Allegory of the Cave (which incidentally shows signs of significant Pythagorean influence given its use of the Sun and Light as the metaphor for knowledge) and espoused a certain level of skepticism or cynicism toward the physical world, the world f change or Becoming that was perceived by the senses, leading to an orthodox interpretation of his teachings by his successors at the Academy on the limits of human knowledge itself, hence its association with skepticism.  This theme can be seen not only in his teachings themselves and their subsequent interpretation by his followers, but also in the method which he wrote and taught – i.e. Socratic dialogue, dialectic, which implied a sort of organic or exploratory nature of reality and truth rather than the exposition or elucidation of truth in hard and fast terms.  This skeptic tradition was a characteristic of the teachings of the Academy until Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 130-68 BCE) takes the scene in the first century BCE, heralding a new period in the development of Platonism[3].

Antiochus’s work marks not only a significant departure from, and an effective end  to, the tradition of skepticism which had been a hallmark of the Academy for several centuries prior, but it also showed clear influences of Stoic philosophy, epistemology in particular, Stoicism having become very influential in the Hellenic intellectual community in Antiochus’s time.  With Antiochus we have the beginning of what later philosophic historians have termed Middle Platonism, “middle” because it sits between the period of skepticism which is characteristic of the teachings of the Academy after Plato’s passing and the development of Neo-Platonism as reflected in the works of Plotinus, Porphyry and Proclus among others  which takes shape in the third century CE, roughly running parallel with early Christianity.

In Antiochus’s view, no doubt influenced by the well documented and ongoing debate between the Skeptic Academics and Stoic and Epicurean realist/materialist philosophic schools, was that in the analysis of Plato’s writings taking into account his so-called “unwritten doctrines” (which we can only assume continued to be passed down through the teachers at the Academy) the mind could in fact distinguish between truth and falsehood, bridging the epistemological divide between the Stoics and Academics to a large extent and setting the stage for further Platonic development for the next few centuries borrowing some ideas from its Hellenic philosophic brethren.  To Antiochus, Plato’s philosophy was in many respects in harmony with not only Stoicism – truth could in fact be discerned from falsehood – but also those of Aristotle to a large extent as well, thereby establishing a new phase of Platonic philosophical development which espoused an epistemological view that was more closely aligned with Stoicism and the Peripatetic schools than his Academic predecessors, as well as a system of ethics which combined classically Platonic elements with some elements of the Stoic and Peripatetic schools as well, reflecting the overall philosophic synthesis that was characteristic of this time period in antiquity.

In the interpretation of Plato’s cosmology during the Middle Platonic period for example, we see the two basic principles of the universe referred to as the One and the Indefinite Dyad (the Monad and the Dyad in the Pythagorean tradition), the former being the single monistic and unchanging principle from which the universe emanates latter being the pluralistic world which is brought into being by the intelligent aspect of the World Soul.  This corresponds to Plato’s doctrine of Being and Becoming in the Timaeus which lays out the basic principles of the universe (archai or ἀρχή which stems from the Greek verb “to begin”), the ordering and intelligent which combines the primary elements (earth, air, water, fire) from which the universe is constructed by the great universal craftsman.  The World Soul according to Plato, the demiurge of the Timaeus, mediates between the realm of Ideas and the realm of matter as characterized by the world of sense perception or that which is subject to change – what he refers to as “Becoming” vs. the principle of Same, or Being.  Plato’s Being and Becoming are the two primary aspects of Nature which are analogous to the One and the Indefinite Dyad in the Middle Platonic period.  And also out of this doctrine comes forth a notion of that which must mediate between the two archai, an intelligent organizing principle which is referred to as Intellect in the later Neo-Platonic tradition and is referred to as Logos in the Stoic school and in subsequent interpretations of first Judaic scripture (the Pentateuch) and then Christian theology as evidenced not only in the Gospels themselves, particularly John, but also in interpretations of the Gospel by early Christian apologists such as Clement and Origin of Alexandria.

In this cosmology we see many of the same characteristics and themes of not only the mystery/mystical traditions that were prevalent throughout Greece at this time, but also similarities to the cosmological systems of the Jews (which Plato may or may have not been exposed to) and most certainly those of the Egyptians[4].  This universal triad which emerges from Middle Platonic thought – the One, the Indefinite Dyad, and an active intellectual ordering principle responsible for the creation of the cosmos of which man reflected – was to have a profound impact not only Neo-Platonic thought, but also on philosophical and theological development in general for the next six hundred years or so, Christianity being no exception of course.

The Stoic cosmology was not that distinct from this Middle Platonic worldview, differing primarily in some aspects of the conception of Plato’s World Soul and how active and integrated it was within the universe which was its byproduct as well as the fundamental nature of the physical world and its constituents, focusing on fire and air being the active ingredients from which the primary governing element of the universe, the pneuma, originated.  Of course the Stoic focus on the primacy of the physical world over the mental and immaterial world of Ideas as Plato put forth was the source of its distinguishing psychological views which focused on the proper functioning of the individual mind via the discriminative faculty (hêgemonikon) rather than the meditation on the abstract principles in the realm of Ideas.

 

[1] Although Alexander the Great did get as far as India in his travels, and there are references in many of the ancient Greek philosophical works of the Indian gymnosophists (literally “naked sages”), the influence of the Indian philosophical systems on the West was minimal and marks from a cultural as well as intellectual development perspective the line between the East and West that is most commonly drawn today.

[2] Seneca a first century CE Roman statesman and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius from the second century CE are both notable followers of the Stoic system.  Virgil the famed author of the epic poem about the founding of Rome entitled the Aeneid from the first century BCE, the poet and philosopher of the of the first century BCE Lucretius, and Diogenes Laertius the historian and autobiographer of the third century CE are all associated with the Epicurean school, the latter two authors being the source of much of our information about ancient Epicureanism.

[3] It is believed that Antiochus was one of the teachers of Cicero.

[4] Plutarch writing at the turn of the first century CE in fact authored a piece, On Isis and Osiris, citing the similarities and basic consistency of Platonic cosmology to not only Egyptian mythology (in particular the myth of Isis, Osiris and Horus) but also may of the other pre-Socratic Greek cosmologies as well as Chaldean and Persian (Zoroastrian) cosmological traditions.

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