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The Myths of Plato, Part 2

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Part 2 of 2

Socrates in Raphael's The School of Athens with Hermocrates, Critias, and Timaeus [1]

Socrates in Raphael’s The School of Athens with Hermocrates, Critias, and Timaeus

Author’s Note:

The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of Part 2 [2] of my lecture on “The Myths of Plato.” As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness and corrected small mistakes. To focus this transcript on the Timaeus and Critias, I moved all extraneous material to the transcript [3] of Part 1.  

The reason why this class on “The Myths of Plato” focuses on the Timaeus and the Critias is simple. The Timaeus and Critias are almost entirely myths. They are just myths from beginning to end, and myths in the very specific sense as fanciful stories. They’re dialogues, and they have a narrative structure, but most of what they contain are just simply long stories that are spun out, the first by Timaeus and the second by Critias. Now, that alone should recommend them.

But there are other reasons for recommending these dialogues to begin studying the myths of Plato. For one thing, they are extremely fundamental myths, especially the one in the Timaeus, because it’s a myth about the origin of the cosmos. What better place to start than the very beginning, as the song goes? So, what’s the better place to start than the origin of the cosmos?

Another thing that’s very important about these myths is that the pair, I think, contrast nicely. Plato is quite aware of the perils of myth. He’s quite aware of the perils of traditional, non-philosophical myths. Yet, at the same time, he’s quite bullish, if you will, on philosophic myths. The myth of the Timaeus is a model philosophical myth, whereas the myth of Atlantis, which begins at the beginning of the Timaeus and is told mostly in the Critias, is shown to be a kind of paradigmatic traditional myth with lots of problems. I think that the two are juxtaposed as a way of highlighting the differences between traditional and philosophical myths.

I think that the strange characteristic of the Critias, namely that it breaks off in mid-sentence, is deliberate. I don’t think it was unfinished. J. N. Findlay, who is otherwise a responsible and actually a rather good scholar, speculates that Plato must have had a stroke and didn’t finish the Critias. I think that’s just preposterous, considering that he went on to write the Laws, which is a very long work and doesn’t display mental paralysis of any sort. And if he had gone on to write the Laws, he certainly could have gone on to finish the Critias if that was his intent.

I think it’s purposeful that the dialogue breaks off in mid-sentence, and I think that the reason it breaks off might have something to do with the recognition on the part of Critias about the nature of the kind of tale he’s telling. So, I’ll just throw that out as a clue for interpreting it. I think that Critias breaks off because he has a kind of illumination experience. Suddenly, something hits him about the nature of the tale that he is telling, and what hits him is, I think, set up in the previous dialogue with the other tale. So, those are my main reasons for doing the Timaeus and the Critias.

With that, let me try to move us now into the Timaeus itself. I would like to begin our discussion of the Timaeus by pointing to Raphael’s School of Athens. The reason is that in the School of Athens the book Timaeus is represented here under Plato’s arm. It says Timaeo, and Plato’s pointing to the heavens which, of course, indicates the primarily cosmological meaning of the myth. Socrates is also depicted, and he is counting on his fingers. I do think it’s interesting that the Timaeus begins, “One, two, three, but where, my dear Timaeus, is the fourth of our guests of yesterday and our hosts of today?” And Socrates is counting. There’s one, two, three fingers extended. Which means that at least three of these figures are the other figures mentioned in the Timaeus. Now, who are the other three figures? Well, there’s Timaeus, Hermocrates, and Critias. Hermocrates is the famous general from Syracuse who destroyed the Athenian expeditionary force in 415–413 B.C. He utterly crushed Athens as a power, which led eventually to its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, and Greece has never really recovered since. I’m sure the figure in the helmet is meant to be Hermocrates. Now, Critias is described as a really old man, and an old man wearing a funny hat is depicted, so that’s got to be Critias. Timaeus is a figure who was respected in his own city, but he’s probably pretty much a contemporary of Socrates. Frankly, that would mean he would be an adult man, and he’d have a beard. There are several candidates. One fellow who’s sort of saying, “Yoo-hoo! Over here!” Another person in the background. And a dreamy-looking young fellow who’s a bit out of it. One of them must be Timaeus. I don’t know who. But, anyway, I think it’s a representation of the opening of the Timaeus. I think these two figures in the background should probably be discounted, and this person here who looks like he’s not paying much attention must be our Timaeus. But he doesn’t look like a very formidable or wise figure as rendered by Raphael.

Let me tell you just a bit about the three major parties of the dialogue aside from Socrates. We all know Socrates, right? Socrates is a local Athenian philosopher. He’s sort of a bum when you get right down to it. But what about Critias, Timaeus, and Hermocrates?

Well, all we know really about the historical Timaeus comes from Plato’s dialogue. First of all, it is said that he is from Locri. Locri was a Greek city-state in southern Italy. The Greek cities of southern Italy were ruled by the Pythagorean sect or members of the Pythagorean school of philosophy. Pythagoras came from there, and his followers attained political power in many of these cities. Even after Pythagoras himself was driven away, his followers held power. They were philosopher-kings in other words. Timaeus is described as a philosophic statesman who has held all the important offices in his city, and his account of the cosmos is very much the kind of account you would expect from the Pythagoreans. So, what does that mean? What are the Pythagoreans?

Pythagoras, of course, was the inventor of mathematics as a science. Before Pythagoras, of course, people counted and measured things. The word geometry, for instance, literally means “Earth-measurement,” and so geometry arose from the practical necessity of surveying land. It was a practical art rather than a science or theoretical activity. Pythagoras is credited with the transformation of arithmetic and geometry into purely speculative sciences which could be used to give an account of nature. Pythagoras, however, was not primarily a speculative philosopher in the sense that the Greek natural philosophers were. He was very much a moral philosopher in his primary focus. His mathematical studies were directed towards the practical aim of separating the soul and the body. How can that work? Well, mathematics involves abstracting away from physical things and shapes and appreciating ideal things like numbers. The idea was that as one becomes more practiced in mathematics one is more capable of separating soul from body, one’s ideas from physical things.

Why would anyone want to be able to live in the realm of abstractions, to separate and elevate one’s soul above the body? The Pythagoreans held that the soul pre-exists the body and survives the body’s death. It’s immortal. Souls go through cycles of reincarnation. The original source, though, is somewhere above this world, and they somehow fall into the clutches of matter and become caught up in the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth, which is a source of nothing but suffering. The soul on its own is happy. The soul in matter suffers from desire. Desire, attachment, all of these are the sources of suffering. This is very much like Buddhism. In order to release one’s self, to liberate one’s self, from suffering, one has to liberate one’s self from desire by practicing asceticism in this life. And so the Pythagoreans were not only mathematicians, they also gave up on sex and they gave up on meat. They were vegetarians. They lived in little communities with one another, and they practiced techniques of meditation and separating the soul from the body, mental discipline, and so forth. And mathematics was one of these mental disciplines.

The goal was in this life to attain such separation of the soul from the body, such mastery of the body by the soul, that when death came the soul and the body could go their separate ways — the soul returning to its source and the body simply degenerating into muck — and thereby attain liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth for all time. So, it was primarily a moral philosophy, a philosophy of salvation, but they did have this mathematical natural science. The discourse of the Timaeus is a discourse that makes use of mathematics the way the Pythagoreans did, and so it’s very clear that he was a Pythagorean himself and that many of Plato’s works also contain influence from the Pythagoreans. Socrates himself didn’t seem to be terribly influenced by these people, but Plato did, and that’s one of the differences between the two of them.

Now, if Timaeus is from Locri, this allows us to give a very precise date for the dialogue for the following reason. From 429 to 404 B.C. was the so-called Peloponnesian War, which was a war between all of the Greeks, basically. Athens was the leader of one of the factions and Sparta the other. The Peloponnesian War lasted for 25 years, and it led to Athens’ defeat and destruction as a great power. The war was fought and then stopped and then started up again. It stopped from 422 to 421 B.C. which was the so-called Peace of Nicias, who was a general in Athens. Nicias had created peace, and it was during this period, 422 to 421 B.C., that someone like Timaeus could be expected to be in Athens, since the Locrians were enemies of the Athenians, rather bitter enemies, actually. In 426, they got involved in the war with Athens. In 425 B.C. they defeated an Athenian expeditionary force sent against them, which was no mean feat, and in 424 B.C. they refused to accept peace with Athens even though the Athenians had made peace with their enemies in Italy and Sicily. All the other Italian and Sicilian states made peace with Athens in 424, but the Locrians refused.

Later in 422, when a general peace was declared, the Locrians made peace as well, and the reason why they made peace was simply that they got involved in another war between two of their neighboring city-states, and they didn’t want to have to worry about Athens. So, they concluded peace with Athens as part of this general peace called the Peace of Nicias which lasted for a year.

During this period of peace one could expect a Locrian ambassador, a man of high rank, to be in Athens, because before that there was war, and after that there was war. So, it had to be 422 to 421 B.C.

There’s a festival that’s mentioned at the beginning of the text, a festival to the goddess Athena, and it’s not referred to as the Great Festival. There were two festivals that were celebrated by the Athenians for their goddess. One is called the Greater Panathenaea, which was celebrated every 4 years. Another was called the Lesser Panathenaea which was celebrated every year that the other one wasn’t celebrated. We know that in 422 there was a Greater Panathenaea, and since it’s not mentioned we would have to infer that the date of this is 421 B.C. sometime during the middle of the month of August which was when this festival was celebrated. So, it is 421 B.C., mid-August, when this discussion takes place.

Now, this also fits in very nicely with what we know about Hermocrates. Socrates makes very clear that Hermocrates is somebody who is known to him only by reputation. He’s not known to him in any other way. Hermocrates was, according to Thucydides, a man second to none in intelligence. He was an extraordinarily intelligent statesman and general, and he had just begun to make an impression on the world in 421 B.C. when there was a great Pan-Sicilian Congress at the city of Gela. At this congress, Hermocrates spoke about war with Athens, the necessity of fighting the war, and how to fight it and so forth. He made his reputation then. He came to be known at about that time. He hadn’t really done anything yet, but he was reputed for his speeches if not his deeds. He became famous for his deeds only in 415-413 B.C. when he utterly destroyed Athens’ expeditionary force to Sicily.

There would be no time that he would be welcome in Athens after 415, and because of the necessities of war he would have to be there after 425, during this period of the Peace of Nicias. And so, again, it makes sense that he would be there in 421 B.C. There was a large number of ambassadors and personages traveling from Athens’ erstwhile and future enemies to the city. So, we have a date.

Now, what about Critias? Critias is an interesting character. But, the identity of Critias has been disputed for a long time. The reason is there is a famous character known as Critias the Tyrant who was a cousin of Plato’s mother. Critias the Tyrant, along with Plato’s uncle Charmides, were members of a group called the Thirty Tyrants who ruled in Athens for about a year after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Both of them died in 403 B.C. when the Thirty Tyrants were overthrown and most of them died in the process.

The ancient commentators, especially Proclus who was a sixth-century A.D. Neo-Platonist who wrote a commentary on the Timaeus, have identified the Critias here as Critias the Tyrant. This can’t be true, though, because of the way that the characters are described. The Greeks had a habit of naming children after their grandparents. This isn’t uncommon even today, but the Greeks were especially this way. Generally, the first born son would be named after his grandfather on his father’s side. If this held true, then Critias the Tyrant had a grandfather named Critias, and if Critias the Tyrant had a grandfather named Critias, then this Critias would be about the right age to be the Critias of the Timaeus, and so it has been speculated — and there’s now some independent evidence that has come to light to back this up — that there was another Critias who was the grandfather of Critias the Tyrant. He would be the perfect person chronologically to be the Critias here.

Now let’s outline the transmission of the Atlantis myth. Critias tells the story of Atlantis here. Atlantis sinks. There’s a thousand-year-long oral tradition that later is written down and preserved for 8,000 years by the Egyptians. Now, of course, the Egyptians certainly weren’t around and writing for 8,000 years at the time that Plato was living, and not since. Egyptian culture wasn’t that old. This is fanciful. A priest at the Egyptian city of Sais told Solon, who was one of the seven sages of Greece, one of the great founders of the Athenian polity. To say that he founded it doesn’t mean that he started it, but that he was one of the people who founded the form of government that existed at the time, which was a mixture of democracy and oligarchy. Solon was a friend of a fellow known as Dropeides II, and he was also a cousin of him, and he was therefore a distant ancestor of Plato himself.

Solon went to Sais in Egypt. At the time, Sais was the capitol of Egypt and remained so until 525 B.C. when Egypt was conquered by the Persians. There was a period known as the Saitic Renaissance during which Egypt had thrown out all of its foreign invaders and dominators and had resurged to a position of great wealth and respect in the world. This lasted about 200 years. The penultimate pharaoh of this period was Amasis, and he’s mentioned here. Amasis actually didn’t belong to the Saite dynasty. He was an interloper. Amasis was a general who became pharaoh during a civil war, and he was an enormously splendid and powerful political figure. He was one of the great late Egyptian political figures. He managed to keep the Persians out for a very long time, even though they were trying to take over. Shortly after his death, when the throne reverted to one of the members of the family he had overthrown, one Psammetichus III, the Persians finally descended and conquered Egypt.

Amasis was a good friend of the Greeks, and he allowed the Greeks to found a city in Egypt, a trading city called Naucratis, which is being excavated now, and is full of Greek ruins and pottery. It was during this time that the Greeks first came into contact with Egyptians. The effects on Greek art were quite apparent. Pre-Classical or so-called Archaic Greek sculpture is very Egyptian in its aesthetic. Later, as the Classical period dawned, it became much more naturalistic and free flowing and less blocky than the Egyptian art. The Egyptians had enormous influence on Greek art, and they were an immensely old civilization at this time. They were aware of that, and they had an enormous cultural self-confidence. This is why the Saitic priest says, “Oh, you Greeks, are just children!” They were, relatively speaking!

Anyway, the priest of Sais tells the story. He doesn’t have time to look it up, he says, but he tells the story of Atlantis from memory, even though he says there are 8,000-year-old written records. He tells the story to Solon. Solon tells it to another Critias, who is the grandfather of our Critias in the dialogue and thus the great, great grandfather of Critias the Tyrant. This first Critias, the companion of Solon, when he is a 90-year-old man (which would be about 510 B.C.), tells the story of Atlantis to our Critias when he’s a 10-year-old boy. Then our Critias tells this tale to Socrates and the other people present. And our Critias is clearly an old man in this dialogue which is set in 421 B.C. He would be a rather old man if he was born in 520 B.C., but it wasn’t unheard of for these Greeks to live very long periods of time. Gorgias the Sophist lived 105 or 109 years. Sources vary.

As you will read in the text, it says that he started telling the story the day before, but he couldn’t quite remember it all, and so he went home and he started thinking about it. He says, “It’s remarkable. I forget things that happened just yesterday, but I can remember this as it had just happened the day before even though I only heard this at age 10 which was 90 some years before.” So, he says that he will tell the whole Atlantis story, but after Timaeus tells his stories. So, Timaeus tells his big story, and then the Critias begins with Critias relating this tale.

All of this detail is extremely important because it’s giving an indication of one of the problems of conventional, ordinary myths: the whole process of transmission. How are we to believe, after all, that a story that happened 9,000 years before was accurately transmitted a thousand years by means of oral tradition then was accurately copied and recopied for 8,000 years in a written tradition, and then was accurately related to Solon by a priest who was too busy to actually go and look it up, so he was depending on his memory? Solon later told this to the first Critias. And the first Critias, when he was 90, told this to his 10-year-old grandson, and his 10-year-old grandson, when he’s more than 100, tells the story to Socrates, Timaeus, and Hermocrates. It seems very, very unlikely, right? It seems very unlikely that this could all be done well. Socrates sticks all of this in there for a reason. He wants us to reflect upon the difficulties of memory and the difficulties of oral transmission and written transmission.

Of course, there are additional problems here, because Socrates, presumably, told this story to Plato, and then that story has been transmitted for more than 2,000 years through manuscripts. For 2,000 years, before the printing press came along, it was copied and recopied in manuscript form, and then after the invention of printing, in printed form, and then it was translated by Mr. R. G. Bury for us. So, we’re forced to reflect upon the difficulties of transmission of myths.

But for our purposes Critias here is just a transmission belt. He’s a very old man who heard this from a very old man when he was a very young child, and he is passing this on. It’s apparently not written down any other place, so he’s the sole thread, the sole link in the chain of this long story. So, we have to wonder about it. We have to recognize that memory was trained by the ancient peoples to pass on such stories. However, there are certain dramatic details that will throw that into difficulty here, too. The fact is that the story is told to a 10-year-old on a single day, and then the 10-year-old, when he’s more than 100, keeps talking about his memory, but he says that he’s sure that he remembers it as clear as yesterday, even though he can’t remember what happened yesterday. So, even with trained memories, we’re dealing with somebody who was so young when he heard it that you have to wonder how well trained his memory could have been, and so old when he told it, that his memory is already fading.

So we have talked about the main characters: Socrates, Hermocrates, Timaeus, and Critias. We know the time: August of 421 B.C. In our next session, we will talk about the introductory material of the Timaeus. At the beginning of the Timaeus, Socrates recounts what they talked about the day before, when Socrates was their host at his little hovel. There, he told them about an ideal city, which sounds in many ways like the city in the Republic. Now, they are at the house of Critias, which probably was a very grand house, and Critias, as it turns out, is playing host to Timaeus and Hermocrates, which would be reasonable. Such dignitaries would go to the house of a wealthy man to stay.

We have yet to talk about the fourth person, the unnamed fourth person who is absent. There is some speculation about his possible identity. One possible person is Alcibiades. That would fit in with the historical account. Another person who is maybe more plausible in some ways, although historically wouldn’t fit, is Pericles. Warman Welliver is a scholar who has argued that it’s Pericles. Of course, Pericles died in 429 B.C., so he couldn’t have just fallen sick. But other Platonic dialogues play fast and loose with chronologies, so we don’t necessarily have to be too tied to it here. In any case, next week, we’ll talk about the missing fourth and about the Republic tale.