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

Pythagoras: The Father of Greek Philosophy

Pythagoras, Thales of Miletus, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Zeno, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus all made contributions to Pre-Socratic philosophical thought and were referenced by later philosophers and historians to some extent or another.

Although none of the complete works of Pre-Socratic philosophers survive today in full, we do have excerpts and references to their work that allude to who these philosophers were and to some extent what their metaphysical, theological, and philosophical premises and theses were.  References to these Pre-Socratic philosophers, quotations as well as summaries of their belief system and philosophies comes from of course Aristotle and Plato, the Middle Platonist Plutarch, the (Epicurean) philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius, from early Judeo-Christian scholars such Philo Judaeus, Origen and Clement of Alexandria and from 3rd and 4th century CE Neo-Platonist authors such as Iamblichus, Porphyry and Simplicius.

It is clear from the works of Plato and Aristotle that they were influenced by these Pre-Socratic philosophers; even if only within the context of disagreeing with their fundamental tenets or conclusions, or illustrating the supremacy of their intellectual premises or beliefs with their predecessors, all of which generally fall under the category of Pre-Socratics.  This can be seen for example in that many of the Pre-Socratic philosophers were characters and/or referenced in Plato’s dialogues – Pythagoras and Parmenides for example.  All of these Pre-Socratic philosophers, and Socrates himself if we are to believe the portrayal of him by Plato, shared the common principle of the rejection of the hitherto traditional mythological and Theogonical, i.e. divine, explanation of universal creation and order reality that permeated ancient thought, and to a great extent all of them attempted to answer such fundamental questions of the origin of the universe and the nature of reality in a more rational, reasonable fashion as contrasted by the traditions that came before them.

Of the Pre-Socratic philosophers, Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) is undoubtedly the most influential and the most enigmatic.  He is the first supposedly to have called himself a “philosopher”, literally “lover of wisdom”, and as such it is probably not too much of a stretch to call him the father of western philosophy, although many might argue against this depiction.  Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras, and the tradition which followed him as understood through his disciples, the sect that he founded, and his intellectual influence not only on other Pre-Socratic philosophers, but in the “Italian” philosophical tradition as it was defined in antiquity and looked upon as distinct from the “Ionian” philosophical tradition – as distinguished by Aristotle and Diogenes Laertius among other ancient authors – but also on the “Socratic” tradition as well as reflected on the works of Plato.[2]

Much of the modern academic literature surrounding Pythagoras focuses on what can truly be said to be “historically accurate” concerning his life and teachings.  This is a somewhat tricky problem because a) it is widely held that he authored no works himself, b) it is believed that his teachings were to be kept secret by initiates and c) because the biographies of his life that have survived are from authors that lived and wrote centuries after his death, most notably those of the Epicurean philosophical historian Diogenes Laertius who flourished in the early 3rd century CE, and the Neo-Platonists Porphyry and Iamblichus who are also 3rd and 4th century CE authors, some 9 centuries at least after Pythagoras is supposedly to have lived and taught, circa 6th century BCE (570 – 501 BCE).[3]

By the time these biographies were written however, Pythagoras had evolved into a semi-divine figure of fairly eminent heroic stature so the stories surrounding his life and teachings weave myth and history into a single narrative, making it somewhat difficult to ascertain the “facts” regarding not just his biography but also his specific teachings, their origins, and their true import and influence on the subsequent Hellenic intellectual landscape.  Diogenes Laertius in his most influential and lasting work Lives of Eminent Philosophers notably spends as much ink on the life and teachings of Pythagoras as he does on Plato and Aristotle, so if nothing else that should give the reader a good estimation on the relative import of this figure on the development of Hellenic philosophical tradition, at least as seen through the eyes of one of the most prominent Philosophical historians in Hellenic antiquity, a work which undoubtedly influenced our understanding of the early development of the Hellenic philosophical tradition as much if not more than any other work in the history of Western intellectual development.  It should come as no surprise then that Pythagoras was and is still widely regarded as one of the most influential Hellenic philosophers in antiquity, and certainly is one of the most, if not the most, influential and widely studied of all of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

 

Pythagoras was reportedly born on the island of Samos just off the coast of modern day Turkey in the Aegean Sea.  This region of the Mediterranean at that time rested just on the Eastern Ionian border, and just on the Eastern borders of what was then the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire.  To this extent, and this is true of the cities of Miletus and Ephesus as well, both of which were centers of intellectual thought in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE during the time of the “Pre-Socratic” philosophical movement if we may call it such, it is fairly reasonable to assume some sort of Near Eastern, i.e. Persian and Chaldean, as well as Egyptian influence on the philosophy of Pythagoras.[4]

While Aristotle supposedly wrote a treatise On the Pythagoreans, it is unfortunately no longer extant, so that leaves us with scant relatively contemporaneous sources to look to regarding what can be determined to be “historically accurate” regarding the life and teachings of this famous historical figure from antiquity.  Both Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BCE) as well as Plato (428 – 348 BCE) mention his “school” in passing, and Aristotle (367 – 347 BCE) does refer to a “Pythagorean School” or set of beliefs to which he was associated at somewhat greater length (more on this below), but even these authors write at least a century or two after Pythagoras died so we need to view their assertions and statements regarding what has come to be known as “Pythagorean” philosophy with a certain level of skepticism.[5]

However, what we can surmise definitively from the very early sources was that as an historical figure he did in fact exist, and that he was in fact the founder of a somewhat countercultural intellectual movement (again today what we would call a “sect” which involved some sort of secret initiations and various rights, beliefs and practices), and that he did consider himself to be a philosopher in the later Hellenic sense of the term, that he studied and travelled abroad throughout the Mediterranean and Near East prior to founding his “school” in southern Italy and that at the very least he was well known in antiquity, leaving the question of influence and how well respected he was within the later Hellenic philosophical community (if we may call it that) aside as evidenced for example by the criticism of Pythagoras in a quotation attributed to Heraclitus[6].

So it’s hard to discern fact from fiction as it were with respect to what Pythagoras actually taught versus what the subsequent philosophers that were influenced by him, his students, actually understood and interpreted his philosophy to be.  Especially when you’re dealing with a figure that clearly cultivated a semi-divine status and had a religious following of sorts that lasted some several hundred years after his death.  What is known is for certain is that he cultivated and promoted a way of life that was vegan, was a believer in the notion of metempsychosis – i.e. that the Soul lives on after death and passes into the bodies of other animate “things” such as plants or animals or even humans or deities depending upon its actions – and that his philosophical teachings were focused on numeric harmony and proportion, from which his association with the famed Pythagorean theory stems from even though he was not a mathematician per se.

All of the historical sources however are fairly consistent when speaking to the various “Oriental” influences on Pythagoras from a theo-philosophical perspective.  It is widely held for example that he travelled and studied with various priests and mystics throughout the Mediterranean during his life.  In particular it believed that he spent a good deal of time in Egypt, and is also believed to have been influenced and/or initiated by Chaldean and Persian (Magi) priests.  It is also believed by some later authors that he was exposed to the philosophy of the Hebrews as well which would not be altogether surprising given the geography and time period within which he lived and taught.  Evidence for influence from as far East as India is lacking however, despite many efforts to prove otherwise and despite the fact that his beliefs in reincarnation (metempsychosis) have a very “Eastern” and classically Indian (Hindu) theo-philosophical flavor.  Regardless however, Pythagoras for a variety of political and social reasons ended up after his studies and travels settling in Croton in Southern Italy where the bulk of his teachings and followers ensued, and where he eventually met his untimely death around 490 BCE, later being attributed as one of the founders of the so-called “Italian” philosophical school, at least as how Diogenes Laertius distinguished it specifically from the Ionian school as reflected by the teachings of Socrates and his followers to the East (the East of Italy at least).

It was in Persia to the East of Ionia during the time of Pythagoras and the Pre-Socratics that the Magi (the Greek designation for their priestly class during the Median, Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian periods of Iranian/Persian history) held such great influence over theological matters as well as presumably matters of state as well which was so often the case in antiquity.  These priests, again Magi, were often referred to in the Greek literature in classical antiquity, had a reputation for divination (telling the future) and astronomy, and were in fact the very same class of priests who were said to have come and witnessed the birth of Christ.  There is even a tale told by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers of a letter sent by Darius I, one of the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire, to Heraclitus asking him to join his court as a Greek emissary of sorts, an offer in which he declined apparently.[7]

While at times the Persians were the great adversaries of the Greeks in antiquity, as were at other times the Spartans and the Macedonians each who had their turns at imperial dominion of what later became the Roman Empire, this was the same civilization that had assimilated (really conquered) the Assyrian/Sumer-Babylonian peoples and the same people that adopted in one form or another what came to be known in Greek circles as Zoroastrianism.  Zoroastrianism in this context was the form of the worship of great god Ahura Mazda, as understood from the teachings of the legendary Persian prophet Zarathustra, teachings that were captured in the Avesta which held theological influence over the Persians/Iranians from at least the time of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550 – 330 BCE) down to the time of the Sassanian Empire (224 – 651 CE), up until the overthrow of the Persian (Sassanian) Empire during the first half of the 6th century CE era when they were conquered by the Arabs/Muslims – so for almost 1000 years give or take.[8]

The earliest attested writings attributed to Pythagoras himself are the so-called Golden Verses, a set of aphorisms written in dactylic hexameter verse that are attested to have existed and been in wide circulation as early as the third century BCE, but only show up in the written records by Neo-Platonist authors and commentators in the 5th centuries CE.  The aphorisms themselves bear a striking resemblance to a Zoroastrian tradition called andarz[9], which follows a very similar mode of style as the Golden Verses where short sayings or proverbs are attributed to great rulers or teachers that facilitate the cultivation of religious or spiritual endeavors, providing further evidence of the connection between Pythagorean doctrine and Persian theology, i.e. the Magi.[10]

It is also widely held that much of Pythagoras’s numerological and arithmological philosophy, the philosophy of harmony and proportion for which he was so well known, was derived from the Egyptians and/or the Chaldeans.  For both the Chaldeans, which heralded from ancient Sumer and Babylon (aka Assyrian) as well as the Egyptians and Indo-Aryans in fact, had a long standing tradition and association with astronomy, mathematics, and geometry, as well as a longstanding belief in the mystical and divine nature of number, arithmology and geometry in general – ideas which played an integral part in what we have come to understand as Pythagorean philosophy.[11]

 

The earliest reliable reference we have regarding “Pythagorean” philosophy is of course from Aristotle, in particular from Book I of Metaphysics where in typical Aristotelian fashion he outlines (and typically criticizes) previous philosophical belief systems and teachings prior to establishing his own system.

At the same time, however, and even earlier the so-called Pythagoreans applied themselves to mathematics, and were the first to develop this science; and through studying it they came to believe that its principles are the principles of everything.  And since numbers are by nature first among these principles, and they fancied that they could detect in numbers, to a greater extent than in fire and earth and water, many analogues of what is and comes into being—such and such a property of number being justice, and such and such soul or mind, another opportunity, and similarly, more or less, with all the rest—and since they saw further that the properties and ratios of the musical scales are based on numbers, and since it seemed clear that all other things have their whole nature modelled upon numbers, and that numbers are the ultimate things in the whole physical universe, they assumed the elements of numbers to be the elements of everything, and the whole universe to be a proportion or number.

Well, it is obvious that these thinkers too consider number to be a first principle, both as the material of things and as constituting their properties and states.  The elements of number, according to them, are the Even and the Odd.  Of these the former is limited and the latter unlimited; Unity consists of both (since it is both odd and even); number is derived from Unity; and numbers, as we have said, compose the whole sensible universe.  Others of this same school hold that there are ten principles, which they enunciate in a series of corresponding pairs: (1.) Limit and the Unlimited; (2.) Odd and Even; (3.) Unity and Plurality; (4.) Right and Left; (5.) Male and Female; (6.) Rest and Motion; (7.) Straight and Crooked; (8.) Light and Darkness; (9.) Good and Evil; (10.) Square and Oblong.[12]

Here we see many of the classical elements of Pythagorean philosophy laid out, albeit in a manner that is not altogether clear whether or not the belief systems were held and taught by Pythagoras himself, or were espoused by later interpreters and/or followers of his teachings.  Regardless, these doctrines as Aristotle describes them come to be known as the fundamental attributes of Pythagorean philosophy as well as the founding principles upon which the “Italian” school, which Pythagoras is the founding member of, is based.

We have first and foremost the discipline of mathematics assigned to this school of thought, and through which they came to understand that mathematics – number and arithmetic and basic geometry – was basically the language of the universe, or the language through which the universal order, and moral and ethical order of the individual and society at large, could be best understood.  The far reaching implications of this belief in the relationship between number, mathematics, geometry and the universal order on Western intellectual developments cannot be overstated.  Furthermore, through this “mathematical” understanding of the cosmos, and in particular through their understanding of harmonic and music theory to which Pythagoras himself is closely associated, the Pythagoreans came to believe that harmony and proportionality, which in turn were based upon the relationships of the fundamental numbers between 1 and 10, could be used to describe the universe in its entirety – at least metaphysically and metaphorically speaking.

Furthermore, and this is perhaps where we start to shift more into Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy rather than perhaps his teachings, or the teachings of his followers, is the leap between the universal harmonic order based upon numbers and their inherent (mathematical and geometrical) relationships, to numbers as “first principles”, which for the most part is what Aristotle is trying to establish in the context of the work which he is speaking about Pythagorean philosophy, i.e. Metaphysics or “first philosophy”.  In this context then, Aristotle lists the ten list of fundamental, opposing forces – Even and Odd, Darkness and Light, Good and Bad, Male and Female, etc. – each of which is ascribed a numerical value, and the sum total of which describe all of the elemental forces of the universe –i.e. again his “first principles”.

So we can see here, at least at some level, through the great analytical lens of Aristotle himself, the association of “Pythagorean” philosophy not only with numerology and harmony which is what it has classically come to be seen as predominantly focused on as universal and ontological “first principles”, or arche, but also – and somewhat less emphasized, or in fact altogether ignored, by later interpreters and expositioners of Pythagorean philosophy, is the belief in the universe or cosmos as an ordered structure of pairs of opposites, from which the underlying harmony and balance, i.e. proportion, of the cosmic world order can best be understood, or said another way how the underlying structure of the universe as we “experience” it can best be explained.

The description of Pythagorean doctrinal development by the Syrian Neo-Platonist Iamblichus is also worth mentioning as it is not only more consistent with more modern interpretations of Pythagorean intellectual developments, but it also explains to a certain extent why Aristotle refers to Pythagorean philosophy in the aggregate and avoids attributing the belief systems which have come to be understood as “Pythagorean”, even by the 4th century BCE, to Pythagoras himself.  That is to say why Aristotle uses the language the words “so-called Pythagoreans” which is quite different than how he refers to the belief systems surrounding first principles of Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, Democritus, Xenophanes and Parmenides from the very same passage which are all described within the very same passage.[13]

In his work Life of Pythagoras, Iamblichus distinguishes between two different branches of Pythagorean thought – akousmatikoi and mathematikoi.[14]  The former was in all likelihood the topic of analysis and discussion of the now lost works of Aristotle On the Pythagoreans, as well as the somewhat more contemporary (contemporary to Pythagoras) work by Anaximander of Miletus (c. 610 – 546 BCE) entitled An Explanation of Pythagorean Symbola.  These works presumably described and analyzed not just the life of the famed figure Pythagoras himself but also presumably the sayings and aphorisms, i.e. symbola, which had been directly attributed to Pythagoras himself and which encapsulated his philosophical teachings.

These sayings or aphorisms, which dealt primarily with ethical and moral matters, as well as matters of theology and what later came to be known as “philosophy” (with respect to doctrines describing a way of life for example) in all likelihood were the original source of the later compilation of the Golden Verses which again we know circulated throughout the Hellenic intellectual community by at least the 3rd century BCE and which was attributed to Pythagoras himself.  The followers of these symbola were, at least in later Neo-Platonic intellectual circles, distinguished from the Pythagorean mathematikoi as akousmata, which according to Iamblichus at least had a musical element, a chanting aspect to them – hence the term.  The other branch of Pythagorean thought, i.e. the mathematikoi, were in all likelihood the ones that had the most influence over Platonic philosophy, in particular the underlying geometry of universal order as described in the Timaeus.[15]

 

What is also interesting and somewhat baffling is that Ovid’s recollection and reverence for Pythagoras is almost entirely left out of the academic literature in terms of it actually truly reflecting “Pythagorean” philosophy, even though a) he explicitly outlines what he means by Pythagorean doctrine, and b) he sits some two centuries at least before the later Neo-Platonist authors of Porphyry and Iamblichus that are typically cited as the most reliable sources for Pythagorean life and teachings, and c) Ovid himself is known to have been well schooled in philosophy and was born and raised in the very same region (Southern Italy) where we know Pythagoras spent a great deal of his later life teaching and where he clearly exerted great influence.

Ovid spends a good deal of his final Book of Metamorphoses covering Pythagorean teachings in fact, told within the context of the story of the founding of Crotone by Numa Pompilius (753-673 BCE), Rome’s legendary second king.  Crotone is where Pythagoras founded his “school” and herein Ovid takes the opportunity to run through Pythagorean doctrine as it were, as he describes the founding of the city by Numa and just before he closes his work with the deification of Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus.  After describing the vegan lifestyle, and the belief in the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), both attributes of Pythagorean thought and doctrine that were and are widely held to be true, Ovid goes on to describe Pythagorean doctrine in more detail, aligning it squarely with his overarching theme for his work in fact, i.e. change or metamorphosis as the primary characteristic and qualification of existence.

‘Since I have embarked on the wide ocean, and given full sails to the wind, I say there is nothing in the whole universe that persists.  Everything flows, and is formed as a fleeting image.  Time itself, also, glides, in its continual motion, no differently than a river.  For neither the river, nor the swift hour can stop: but as wave impels wave, and as the prior wave is chased by the coming wave, and chases the one before, so time flees equally, and, equally, follows, and is always new.  For what was before is left behind: and what was not comes to be: and each moment is renewed.[16]

This is not typically the philosophical teaching that is attributed to Pythagoras, Pythagoras the mystical mathematician who espoused the belief in the underlying harmony of number and ratio as reflections of the divine universal order, and although Ovid clearly has an axe to grind to try and closely align one of the greatest Italian philosophers of antiquity with the overarching theme of change which permeates his work, the philosophy that he lays out however is very reminiscent of the philosophy and metaphysics that underlie the cornerstone of Far Eastern (Chinese) philosophy, i.e. the Yijing.

Ovid goes on to describe how the elements themselves are subject to change – earth, air, water and fire – describing a process of transformation that bears even more striking similarity to Yijing metaphysics as its described in the Ten Wings and the various bagua (trigram) arrangements.

‘Even the things we call elements do not persist.  Apply your concentration, and I will teach the changes, they pass through.  The everlasting universe contains four generative states of matter.  Of these, two, earth and water, are heavy, and sink lower, under their own weight.  The other two lack heaviness, and, if not held down, they seek height: that is air, and fire, purer than air.  Though they are distinct in space, nevertheless they are all derived from one another, and resolve into one another.  Earth, melting, is dilated to clear water: the moisture, rarified, changes to wind and air: then air, losing further weight, in the highest regions shines out as fire, the most rarified of all.  Then they return, in reverse, revealing the same series of changes.  Since fire, condenses, turns into denser air, and this to water, and water, contracted, solidifies as earth.

‘Nothing keeps its own form, and Nature, the renewer of things, refreshes one shape from another. Believe me, nothing dies in the universe as a whole, but it varies and changes its aspect, and what we call ‘being born’ is a beginning to be, of something other, than what was before, and ‘dying’ is, likewise, ending a former state.  Though, ‘that’ perhaps is transferred here, and ‘this’, there, the total sum is constant.[17]

So while relatively contemporary interpretations of Pythagorean doctrine most certainly include a references to a certain lifestyle and diet, as well as initiation into a private sect that clearly represented some sort of religious and/or mystery cult type of movement, as well as an association with sacred mathematical and geometric symbolism and a universal order based upon the interaction of a finite set of opposing, basic elemental forces, we also find with Ovid in particular an association of Pythagorean teachings with basic elemental change, as well as an integration and assimilation of the teachings in general to the more archaic and pre-historic Mythos of the Hellenic world to which Ovid’s entire work rests in in fact.

What we find in Ovid’s interpretation of Pythagorean teaching, is a more archaic form of theology as it were, and one that is hinged on the idea of change and flux being the primordial characteristic of existence, as well as – consistent with Aristotle’s interpretation of Pythagorean philosophy in terms of first principles – the idea or notion that the universe is best understood as the interrelationships and intermixing of a basic set of opposing forces, forces which are aligned with number, proportion and harmonic balance.  In total, in looking at the “philosophical” interpretation of Pythagorean theology and cosmology, and combining it within the mythological and more pre-historic narrative provided by Ovid and his notion of change as being the primordial elemental property of reality, we are left with a worldview, a theo-philosophical system, that looks very similar to that which is represented by the Classic of Changes, i.e. the Yijing, from the Far East, a view and a comparison which is rarely made – if ever – and one which begs the question as to where and why these similarities exist between two of the primordial philosophical systems that emerge from these geographically disparate and theoretically distinctive civilizations which we believe did not have any sort of cultural or social connection at this phase in their respective civilizational development.

 


[2] According to Aristotle, Platonic philosophy is for the most part “aligned” with and consistent with the “Italian” schools which came before him. of which Pythagoras is the most eminent and influential figure of course.  He also aligns Platonic philosophy with Heraclitus as well, specifically in reference to his doctrine of the whole sensible world being in a state of “flux”.  See Aristotle. Metaphysics.  Book I .987a from Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D987a

[3] While references to Pythagoras can be found in the extant works of both Plato and Aristotle, it can be argued that neither of them assign him specifically with the establishment philosophical significance per se.  See Huffman, Carl, “Pythagoras”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/pythagoras/&gt;.

[4] Miletus was the epicenter of the so-called Milesian School where Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, all very prominent early Pre-Socratic philosophers heralded from, and Ephesus was the home of Heraclitus, the famed philosopher of flux and change which supposedly, according to Aristotle at least, heavily influenced the philosophic thought of Plato.

[5] Herodotus says that the Pythagoreans agreed with the Egyptians in not allowing the dead to be buried in wool in his Histories Book II, verse 81.  See The History of Herodotus, parallel English/Greek, tr. G. C. Macaulay, [1890], at sacred-texts.com at http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hh/hh2080.htm.  For the reference to the Pythagoreans in Plato’s Republic where Plato associates the Pythagoreans with a doctrine of universal harmony with respect to astronomical matters, see Republic 7.530d from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0168%3Abook%3D7%3Asection%3D530d.

[6] Much learning does not teach one to have understanding, else it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and again Xenophanes and Hecataeus.”  Quotation attributed to Heraclitus by Diogenes Laertius, Proclus and other ancient authors.  See Heraclitus of Ephesus, translated by G.W.T. Patrick 1889 at http://classicpersuasion.org/pw/heraclitus/herpate.htm.

[7] Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Diogenes Laertius. R.D. Hicks. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1972 (First published 1925).  Book IX, Chapter I.  Verses 12-14.  See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0258%3Abook%3D9%3Achapter%3D1.

[8] Affinities and similarities between the culture and theological beliefs in the Avesta literature and the Vedas of the Indo-Aryans is covered in detail in other sections of this work.

[9] See http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/andarz-precept-instruction-advice.

[10] For the full listing of 71 aphorisms, see Wikipedia contributors, ‘The golden verses of Pythagoras’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 February 2016, 20:59 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_golden_verses_of_Pythagoras&oldid=706531167> [accessed 28 September 2016]

[11] The opening passage to the famed Egyptian Rhind Mathematical Papyrus for example, a mathematical textbook which dates to the early part of the second millennium BCE more than 1000 years before Pythagoras was born, reads: “Accurate reckoning.  The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets.”.  From the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.  Volume I.  Free Translation and Commentary by Arnold Buffum Chace.  Mathematical Association of America, Oberlin, Ohio.  1927.  Page 49.  The actual papyrus dates to around 1650 BCE and we are told is from a copy from an even older text dating from the 19th century BCE during the reign of Amenemhat II.  It was written in hieratic script and is a mathematical textbook of sorts which contains teachings and formulas on not just basic arithmetic and geometry, but also calculation of volume and area, fairly sophisticated algebraic equations and solutions, and other advanced geometry and mathematical topics that was clearly produced as a teaching tool.  The Indo-Aryans as well, at least with respect to geometry and basic mathematics and algebra as reflected in the Shulba Sutras, a text related to the construction of altars related to Agni (fire) worship and altar construction dated from the early part of the first millennium BCE.  For a deeper exploration of the connections between ancient Greek and Vedic geometry see “Greek and Vedic Geometry” by Frits Staal.  Published in the Journal of Indian Philosophy in 1999 by Kluwer Academic Publishers.  Vol. 27, No. 1/2, pg. 105.

[12] Aristotle. Metaphysics Book I 985b 986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D985b

[13] Again see Aristotle Metaphysics 1.985a – 1.986b.  Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols.17, 18, translated by Hugh Tredennick. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989.  From http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0052%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D985a

[14] The Life of Pythagoras by Iamblichus.  Translated from the Greek by Thomas Taylor.  Theosophical Publishing House, Hollywood, CA.  1918. Page 62-64.

[15]  For a detailed treatment of the source and nature of these “akousmata”, as well as a description of the delineation between “akousmatikoi” and “mathematikoi” as described by the Neo-Platonist Iamblichus, see “The Pythagorean Akousmata and Early Pythagoreanism” by Johan C. Thom at https://www.academia.edu/15440495/The_Pythagorean_Akousmata_and_Early_Pythagoreanism

[16] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:176-198.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Eternal Flux.”  From http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph15.htm.

[17] Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Anthony S. Kline, 2000.  Bk XV:237-258.  “Pythagoras’s Teachings: The Elements”  From http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph15.htm.

Parmenides of Elea: What Is Versus What is Not

(1) The car that bears me carried me as far as ever my heart desired, when it had brought me and set me on the renowned way of the goddess, which leads the man who knows through all the towns.  On that way was I borne along; for on it did the wise steeds carry me, drawing my car, and maidens showed the way.  And the axle, glowing in the socket—for it was urged round by the whirling wheels at each end—gave forth a sound as of a pipe, when the daughters of the Sun, hasting to convey me into the light, threw back their veils from off their faces and left the abode of Night.

There are the gates of the ways of Night and Day, fitted above with a lintel and below with a threshold of stone.  They themselves, high in the air, are closed by mighty doors, and Avenging Justice keeps the keys that fit them.  Her did the maidens entreat with gentle words and cunningly persuade to unfasten without demur the bolted bars from the gates.  Then, when the doors were thrown back, they disclosed a wide opening, when their brazen posts fitted with rivets and nails swung back one after the other.  Straight through them, on the broad way, did the maidens guide the horses and the car, and the goddess greeted me kindly, and took my right hand in hers, and spake to me these words:

Welcome, O youth, that comest to my abode on the car that bears thee tended by immortal charioteers!  It is no ill chance, but right and justice that has sent thee forth to travel on this way.  Far, indeed, does it lie from the beaten track of men!  Meet it is that thou shouldst learn all things, as well the unshaken heart of well-rounded truth, as the opinions of mortals in which is no true belief at all.  Yet none the less shalt thou learn these things also,—how passing right through all things one should judge the things that seem to be.

But do thou restrain thy thought from this way of inquiry, nor let habit by its much experience force thee to cast upon this way a wandering eye or sounding ear or tongue; but judge by argument [Logos] the much disputed proof uttered by me.  There is only one way left that can be spoken of…. R. P. 113.[1]

 

Such is the opening of the one and only treatise attributed to Parmenides, one of the most prominent and influential of the Pre-Socratic philosophers who flourished in the late 6th and early 5th century BCE from Elea, a town in Southern Italy which became one of the centers of philosophical development in the Hellenic world in antiquity, the so called Eleatic School.  The poem is believed to have been almost 800 verses in length, and although it only survives in fragmentary form through quotations and excerpts from later authors, it is believed that much of it – and specifically the part that pertains to the mode of inquiry which is to have a such a significant impact on subsequent philosophical development in and around the Mediterranean for centuries afterwards – has been preserved.[2]

In this passage above, Parmenides describes his journey on a chariot up to the gates of heaven led by the maidens of Sun god (Helios) up to the halls of Night, i.e. the realm of the dead, which is guarded by Justice herself.  The whole treatise therefore is rooted in ancient Mythos that is reflective of the general belief systems that permeated the Mediterranean at the time.  The language of the work entitled On Nature is Greek hexameter verse, the same linguistic form of the epic poems of Hesiod and Homer, speaking directly to the continuity of tradition, at least at this period of philosophical development in the Hellenic world, of the form of “inspired” writing and poetic verse which was a legacy of pre-historical antiquity.

The entire treatise in fact, is hinged ancient pre-historical language and terminology, not just with respect to language it is written in, but also in terms of the overall narrative which is steeped in references to the gods and goddesses which were so reflective of the prevailing Mythos of the time.  We have the abode of Night, and the very goddess who was so instrumental in establishing order and justice in the Orphic Theogony as the very same goddess who “reveals” the Way of Truth to Parmenides, and even a reference to the role of Eros as one of the primary forces of nature which speaks directly to the heritage of Hesiod’s Theogony.[3]

In particular, we see this notion of change explored in some detail, couched in what can only be deemed pre-historical terms of the assimilation and interaction of opposing forces – in this case dark and light and male and female, quite reminiscent of the mode of inquiry and metaphysical foundation of Far Eastern thought as reflected in the Yijing.

 

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 colour. R. P. 119.

Mortals have made up their minds to name two forms, one of which they should not name, and that is where they go astray from the truth.  They have distinguished them as opposite in form, and have assigned to them marks distinct from one another.  To the one they allot the fire of heaven, gentle, very light, in every direction the same as itself, but not the same as the other.  The other is just the opposite to it, dark night, a compact and heavy body.  Of these I tell thee the whole arrangement as it seems likely; for so no thought of mortals will ever outstrip thee. R. P. 121.

Now that all things have been named light and night, and the names which belong to the power of each have been assigned to these things and to those, everything is full at once of light and dark night, both equal, since neither has aught to do with the other. R. P. 123, 124

The narrower bands were filled with unmixed fire, and those next them with night, and in the midst of these rushes their portion of fire.  In the midst of these is the divinity that directs the course of all things; for she is the beginner of all painful birth and all begetting, driving the female to the embrace of the male, and the male to that of the female. R. P. 125.[4]

 

We can see in these different fragments and quotation from the work, not an altogether dismissal of the belief in the nature of the universe and its becoming into existence as the mixing and interaction of opposing forces, forces which emerge from and have their ultimate source in some divine being, a precursor to Plato’s Demiurge.  We see Parmenides elucidating (and not ignoring or dismissing) the existence of the basic elemental forces of dark and light, male and female, but a hint of a different perspective on how these basic universal attributes should be looked at if one is trying to understand the basic nature of reality, i.e. the nature of change.

For if nothing else, On Nature represents one of the first attempts in the Hellenic intellectual tradition to try to describe the attributes of “what Is” (to eon), a precursor to Aristotle’s notion of “being qua being”, as well as the process by which one can come to an understanding of “true reality” (alêtheia), i.e. reason or Logos, each of which comes to represent the basic hallmark characteristics of the Hellenic philosophical tradition – a tradition which we understand today as it is reflected primarily in the works of Plato and Aristotle and through later interpretations of their works by subsequent “philosophers”.  Both Plato and Aristotle in fact each alludes to and refer to Parmenides as one of the early expounders of philosophy, even if again his ideas are looked upon as incoherent or lacking insight or clarity in certain matters.  In the case of Aristotle in particular, it is Parmenides’s notion of change and its relationship to the definition of “reality” which he takes issue with, the detailed and systematic description of which represent the overarching purpose and themes of Aristotle’s works of course.[5]

Once Parmenides has been allowed into the abode of Night, the goddess begins to teach him the way of true knowledge, in language that is cryptic and full of contradictions that is reminiscent of the language and way of understanding that is presented by Laozi in the Far East actually.

 

(4, 5) Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away—the only two ways of search that can be thought of.  The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion.  The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,—that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all.  For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. R. P. 114

(6) It needs must be that what can be spoken and thought is;    for it is possible for it to be, and it is not possible for what is nothing to be.  This is what I bid thee ponder.  I hold thee back from this first way of inquiry, and from this other also, upon which mortals knowing naught wander two-faced; for helplessness guides the wandering thought in their breasts, so that they are borne along stupefied like men deaf and blind.  Undiscerning crowds, who hold that it is and is not the same and not the same, and all things travel in opposite directions! R. P. 115[6]

 

Here Parmenides describes “what Is” (to eon), as being related to that which can be thought or spoken of.  Here we have some of the beginning aspects of classical Hellenic philosophical inquiry presented with respect to the relationship of thought (which eventually morphs into Plato’s Forms), as well as the presentation of language, or speech, as the expression of thought (which becomes a key part of the Stoic epistemological tradition for example) herein established as the foundations upon which knowledge – that which can be known and in turn that which can be said to “exist” or is “real” – are put forth.  So while Parmenides presents his treatise in very pseudo-Orphic, illuminary context, i.e. that knowledge itself is “revealed” rather than “understood” or “taught”, he still nonetheless espouses the doctrine that a way of truth, as determined by reason, again Logos, does in fact exist and can, and should, be used to help define “true reality” (alêtheia).

While later interpretations of Parmenides’s thought are couched in terms of classical Hellenic philosophical inquiry, there are clearly significant remnants of pre-historical Mythos that permeate the work.  It should be kept in mind that the bulk of extant fragments from the poem that have been preserved have been done so to either prove or disprove various perspectives of philosophical inquiry by later authors, all of whom had some sort of axe to grind so to speak but regardless of which axe is being grinded they all are trying to prove or disprove certain points or aspects of philosophical inquiry.  Even in the modern academic literature, Parmenides is viewed in terms of the role he play in the development of classical Greek philosophy per se, not necessarily as a bridge between pre-historical Mythos – and the divine revelationary aspects to which it is fundamentally related – and Logos, which provides the intellectual foundations for all subsequent philosophical development.

In this context Parmenides and his poem On Nature does indeed represent one of the early milestones on the intellectual evolutionary journey of philosophical development in ancient Greece.  And despite the strong undercurrent of mythological and illuminary themes, the work does nonetheless represent a significant break in the Hellenic intellectual tradition by expounding upon the mode of inquiry into how an understanding and comprehension of true reality is to be arrived at from which the foundations of knowledge itself upon which it is based should be constructed.  This method of inquiry, what came to be understood as Logos, which was the standard method which was used to ascertain the properties of change which was never challenged as the ultimate property of material existence, was to be a hallmark of the philosophical tradition in the Hellenic world.

 


[1] 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

[2] See Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/parmenides/&gt;.

[3] “(13) First of all the gods she contrived Eros. R. P. 125”.  From 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

[4] 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

[5] For Aristotle’s perspective on Parmenides’s “philosophy”, see Cael. 3.1.298b14–24; Metaph. 1.5.986b14–18, Ph. 1.2.184a25-b12.  References from Palmer, John, “Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/parmenides/&gt;.  With respect to Plato’s perspective on the “philosophy” of Parmenides, he dedicates an entire dialogue to the topic, i.e. the Parmenides, where a discussion between Parmenides and Socrates is narrated and Plato’s Theory of Forms is defended at length through a series of lengthy deductive arguments.  See Rickless, Samuel, “Plato’s Parmenides”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/plato-parmenides/&gt;.

[6] 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

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