Wednesday, April 19, 2023

A Living Thing

Timaeus. The only piece of Plato's writing directly known to the early medieval world.

Plato is quite clear that the universe is “a single living thing that contains within itself all living things, mortal or immortal.” A living thing. How lovely that is, and how different from the dead universe of scientific materialism. In Plato, everything is against a living background.

Note that every human being has two souls, a mortal one based in the trunk and an immortal one based in the head, with further subdivisions and hierarchy within the mortal one. And it is part of the lower soul, seated in the liver, that dreams and practices divination. (Which must then be interpreted by the rational upper soul to make it useful knowledge.)

Then there’s the daft, immensely entertaining description of how and why the Demiurge created the human body: it’s extraordinary that seasoned veterans of of edged-weapon warfare could be so ignorant of human anatomy (no, Tim, there is one abdominal aorta in the center, not a matched pair on either side of the spine!), but there it is. Also – but this is more understandable, in a rabid patriarchy – total ignorance of embryology. The fact that every known human being starts little and grows up has apparently made no impression on these men at all. 

So yes, all the exasperation that Enlightenment science, not to mention feminism, finds in a text like this is well-earned. So much wasted intellectual effort! Start at step A and think up any old crude version of a falsifiable test, and you wouldn’t need to bother with any other steps. This is ridiculous.

And yet. And yet. Where it comes from: a deep conviction that the universe is intelligible, that satisfying explanations can be found, that everything in this living, intertwined universe has intention and desire; that our minds resonate with the world because we belong here, because everything we think shapes and is shaped by reality. Underneath my laughter and incredulity runs a current of regret: a conviction that under this heap of error there is one thing these men achieved that we cannot. They built a conceptual world that was worth living in. Can we say the same?

Monday, April 10, 2023


Well, Theaetetus is one that I certainly need to reread: extraordinarily rich. This is the one in which Socrates likens the task the god has given him to midwifery: delivering other people of their ideas. He's dead serious, both about the task and about the god. And this is the one that dallies with, (but does not accept) the idea that there are irreducible unknowns ("things of which we know only the names") that are the foundational elements of all the knowns.

On to Timaeus, and then I’m done with my first rapid read of Plato’s greatest hits. Man. I had no idea how rewarding this was going to be. Nor how illuminating of the whole tradition that I’ve been nibbling at the edges of all my life: these texts are central. Ridiculous of me to have neglected them because they are philosophy, and philosophy is not something I do: how puerile an attitude is that, to be frightened away from my birthright by some cataloger’s decision to put these books on one shelf instead of another?

I wrote to a friend:
I am just marveling at Mr Plato these days. I can’t believe I never read him, in all these decades of reading. More and more resentful (irrationally, I know) of The Republic for giving me such a skewed and squinted view of him. Imagine if you were introduced to Dostoevsky by some lengthy antisemitic Russian triumphalist tract (didn’t he write such a thing?) and everyone went about saying it was his best work… so after slogging through it you just skipped Brothers K and Crime and Punishment. Like that. I’m reading Theaetetus right now. So good. (So totally unpronounceable as an English name. That’s probably really why people go around recommending The Republic: they know how to pronounce it.)