17 April 2007

Two Births, Two Origins

I had asked if you could discover what the flaw was in Mahoney's reply, and it is this. He presumes that ge/nesij in the context means 'birth', and then he tries to find an explanation for why Plato might have referred indefinitely (with peri\ th_n ge/nesin) to the time of birth.

And yet ge/nesij, in contexts in which Plato has in mind the origin of a human being, typically means incarnation, the joining of the soul and the body, the soul's 'coming to be in the form of a human' (although it may loosely be translated as 'birth').

It's clearly used in that way in the Timaeus: when Plato contrasts the first ge/nesij of human beings as males (41e3), with their second ge/nesij as females (42c1), he certainly cannot mean two journeys through the birth canal!

Thus, the problem that Mahoney actually has to face, is to explain why Plato should at 90d1-2 have referred indefinitely to the origin of a human being, when (i) Plato typically understands this to occur at a moment, viz. the moment when the soul and body are joined; and (ii) as we have seen, Plato actually uses language indicating a precise moment in the passage to which, on Mahoney's view, 90d1-2 refers.


Leon said...

Does the passage really indicate a precise moment? 'Pareimi', as far as I know, does not have any purely temporal application. Might it not be better to say 'just then in that circumstance', and, further, to allow 'tote'/'then' some extension beyond an 'instant'? At any rate this seems to me to point toward a reconciliation, and (I hope) with a closer eye to the Greek than Mahoney et al. demonstrate, again.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Leon,

It's a recognized idiomatic use, and a fairly natural one too--see LSJ.


Leon said...

Yes, perfectly natural, as 'instant'. I knew I was being rash in my claims; I suppose my however muted success with the last problem led me to such hubris. Thank you for the graceful refutation.

Thomas Johansen said...

My penny’s worth. I tend to agree that we should not think of genesis simply as the moment of birth but the process of coming-into-being. This is a process that begins before birth (cf. 91d4: megala entos ekthreptôntai) and continues after (cf. 44b1ff.). There are two ways of looking at this genesis in Timaeus’ account: as the coming-into-being of the individual and that of the original human being. The duality is deliberate and Timaeus makes it explicit at 44a8: nun kat’ arkhas te. Compare genesis at 69c4, the reference here is to the entire process by which the human being is to be generated.

As for en tôi paronti at 43c7, it is right that it marks a particular moment in the coming-into-being of the embodied human being. But note that the orbits of the soul have already before that been disrupted by exposure the bodily rectilinear motions, through nutrition in particular (43b5-6: pollou gar ontos tou katakluzontos kai aporreontos kumatos ho tên trophên pareikhen…). The moment when the circle of the Same is stopped and that of the Different is thrown off course is the moment when the motions caused by perception join in with those of nutrition: meta tou reontos endelekhôs okhetou, ktl. So the corruption of the soul is rightly understood as occurring not just at the moment of birth (assuming that this is the moment that perception starts: certainly there can be no vision of the sort described at 45bff. prior to birth), but throughout the process of growing up which started before birth (cf. again also 91d4) and continues afterwards. Compare 44a7-b1: ‘And it is indeed because of all these affections that today, as in the beginning, a soul becomes irrational when first bound within a mortal body. But when the stream of growth and nourishment flows less strongly, the soul’s orbits take advantage of the calm and as time passes steady down in their proper courses, and the movement of the circles at last regains its correct natural form…’. ‘All these affections’ clearly refer not just to perception but also to the nutritive affections, whose disruptive influence continues as we are growing up. The cessation of growth is here singled out as one of the two factors that will allow the soul to regain its circular motions. The other (mentioned next, 44c1) is the right education; this clearly includes the regulation of the perceptual affections, through observation of the planetary revolutions.

Given my view of the relevant meaning of genesis (i.e. not so much a datable event as a type of process which causes continuous disruption to the intellect), I’m sceptical about relevance of the chronological peri. But Sedley's understanding of peri (LSJ C.3 'the object about which one is concerned') is not the only other option. It seems to me preferable to invoke the use of peri in which it means ‘in respect of’, ‘in regard to’, ‘in connection with’; LSJ (s.v. C.5). So the sense would be 'the revolutions in the head that were corrupted in connection with our coming into being'.

I note also what seems to me to be a problem for Sedley’s reading. For Sedley, genesis stands in contrast with ousia, eternal being, which is the object of the study by which we should correct our psychic motions. But in the immediate context (90d3) Timaeus tells us that we should learn from 'tas tou pantos harmonias te kai periphoras', which can mean nothing other than the circular motions of the world soul. And the world soul is not an instance of eternal ousia, as opposed to genesis. Rather the world soul came into being (37a2: aristê genomenê tôn gennêthentôn) as a mixture of eternal ousia and the ousia that comes into being in bodies (35a1-4). That is the immediate context: that is not to exclude that immortal being should also be studied (cf. 90c1-2), and probably even more so that the generated cosmos (cf. 59c7-d2). But it is to say that it cannot be Timaeus’ point at 90d to exclude any kind of genesis as a worthy object of study for him who would become a better man.

David Sedley said...

Far from posing a problem for it, the lines Thomas cites at the end of his post seem to me strong evidence for my interpretation. What Timaeus recommends is learning the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, not as an end, but as a means to rectifying the revolutions in your head and thus re-assimilating your intellect to its object. This has close continuity with Republic 7, 528e-530c, where the advice is to study the heavenly motions created by the demiurge in order to focus your mind, precisely not on those visible revolutions, but on Being (529d, to on tachos kai he ousa bradutes en twi alethinwi arithmwi; cf. 529b4-5), i.e. on the immutable principles that lie behind the celestial motions. (Those who think the point of astronomy is to look at what goes on in heavens will according to Timaeus be reincarnated as birds, so that they can go up and take a closer look, 91d-e.)

Michael Pakaluk said...

I'll add a word here, though I do not pretend it is a last word.

Sedley's reply to Johansen's problem seems sufficient: it's thoroughly Platonic to say that we should strive to attain to the immutable by attaining to that which best approximates the immutable and is available to us.

Yet I think Johansen has nicely sketched two ways in which Mahoney might have preferably accounted for peri genesin:

(a) understand peri as chronological, but understand the disruption to occur over time, as the consequence of a process, even if ensoulment is instantaneous;

(b) understand peri to be referring simply to the (causal) connection between genesis and the disruption--although this meaning seems unlikely to me.

However, does this mean that Mahoney's interpretation of peri genesin wins out after all?

Both interpretations seem tenable, but I'm inclined to say: even if Mahoney were right in understanding peri genesin in 90d1-2 to refer back to (roughly) the time of birth, still Sedley would win the argument on substance.

The reason has to do with what Plato says in the lines that follow, 90d3-5, where Plato supposes that what we are thinking about (the content of our thought) is similar to what is happening in our heads (the character of the thinker). Apparently the only reason Plato wishes to refer back to birth, is that he thinks a disturbance was introduced there that turned our thinking away from its proper objects; if he then wishes to refer back to this disturbance, and urge that we should correct it, this would be so that we might change and correct the content of our thought, in the way that Sedley's interpretation suggests.

(Mahoney never gives a satisfactory alternative explanation. The best he says is on p. 82: "...the world of becoming is modelled on an eternal exemplar that is comprehensible by rational discourse... I suggest that to grasp these principles is to correct one's thinking about becoming, so that one's thoughts emulate those of the world soul.")

Thomas Johansen said...

I quite agree with Michael’s observation that ‘it's thoroughly Platonic to say that we should strive to attain to the immutable by attaining to that which best approximates the immutable and is available to us’. However, my concern is with a somewhat different matter. On Sedley’s interpretation, if I have understood it correctly, the soul has been corrupted through its attention to genesis as opposed to ousia. I am quite happy with the idea that the study of the heavenly motions may in some way help towards the study of the forms. I am also quite happy with the idea that some, or most, kinds of attention to genesis will corrupt the soul. My problem is with the suggestion that the attention paid to genesis understood generically and without further qualification explains why our intellectual motions have been corrupted. (I infer that this is Sedley’s suggestion from n.12 of the 1997 version of ‘Becoming like god’ – I’m sorry I don’t have the later version to hand – where he says that he takes genesis with the definite article at to be used in the sense of “becoming” in general, as opposed to ousia in general’.) But since the study of the motions of the world soul is the study of something that moves and has come into being, there is at least one case of attention to genesis which will not corrupt the soul, but rather cure it. Readers may compare the similar comment on Sedley’s reading by G.Carone (Plato’s Cosmology and Its Ethical Dimensions), p.222, n.49: ‘Becoming as such could hardly be bad for the soul when the intellections of the world-soul themselves that we are recommended to imitate in this passage are described as motions (90c8-d1), and to that extent pertain to the realm of becoming (35a).’

For the point that attention paid to genesis as such does not explain the corruption of the soul, it is worth comparing the activity of the word soul itself at 37b3-8. In Cornford’s transl: ‘Now whenever discourse that is alike true whether it is takes place concerning that which is different or that which is the same, being carried on without speech or sound within the thing that is self-moved, is about that which is sensible, and the circle of the Different, moving aright, carries its message throughout all its soul – then there arise judgments and beliefs that are sure and true.’ It cannot simply be attention to what is perceptible that corrupts the soul if the world soul, while moving aright, has true and certain beliefs about what is perceptible.

In his reply to me, David points to two supporting texts. I read the reference to the ‘bird brains’ at Tim. 91d-e1 differently from David, namely not as a reference to those who have neglected the study of the forms – though no doubt they have also neglected this – but to those who have not studied the motions of the world soul in the right way. The contrast is between two ways of approaching the motions in the heavens: one by mathematically calculating the numbers of the motions of the world soul, where the world soul itself is invisible (36e6), the other simply by observation of what can be seen of the heavenly bodies without any attention to the underlying mathematical regularities. (For the parallel case of music, cf. 47d.) The important point for my purposes is that both kinds of student are studying the motions of the heavens – one doing so correctly, the other not – rather than one kind of student studying the motions in the heavens and the other something else, the forms. As for the relationship between Republic VII and the Timaeus this is clearly a very complicated matter. My own tentative view is rather along the lines of Geoffrey Lloyd’s interpretation: ‘[In the Rep.] Plato is not concerned to discuss astronomical methods as such and in general, but has the limited purpose of identifying the contribution that astronomy can make to training the Guardians in abstract thought’ (Methods and Problems in Greek Science, p. 334). I think both the methodological passage at Tim. 29b-d and later passages such as 59c5-d2 (where producing likely accounts of genesis is something we do when we have set aside the study of eternal being) make it clear that the subject-matter, objectives and standards of cosmology in the Timaeus are distinct from those of the study of the forms as such. On this reading, the Timaeus is not inconsistent with Republic VII; it is just that its project is a rather different one.