08 May 2007

Genesis and Timaeus

It seems that the following exchange stemming from an earlier post might itself be promoted to a post.

Thomas Johansen
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
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
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....

Thomas Johansen
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.


Michael Pakaluk said...


Isn't there a simple reply to your query?

You say, "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".

Distinguish then:
(a) the study of genesis (without qualification), from
(b) the study of genesis as a means of grasping ousia.

The former cannot be recommended, because there is nothing about it that guarantees that it will be good; it can therefore suitably be referred to as a source of corruption.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that it is not suitable to cite a general activity without qualification as a source of corruption simply because it is not guaranteed that engaging in it will be good. Swimming may not be good for you if you do it in freezing water, but in other circumstances it will be. It seems to me that in the case of such activities which may or may not be good for you, we want to know what it is that makes the outcome good or bad in particular cases. If you are asked, ‘what was the cause of Smith’s death?’ and you just answer ‘swimming’, there is something important missing from your answer, because we don’t get the information that helps us see why death rather than good health should have followed from Smith’s engaging in this activity. Contrast the case where you answered, in the appropriate circumstances, ‘jumping off a tall building’. Similarly, it seems to me not suitable to cite ‘being concerned with genesis (tout court)’ as the cause of the corruption of our soul, since studying genesis not only in and of itself does not explain why our souls were corrupted, but also in a particular circumstances – namely where the genesis studied is the harmonious motions of the world soul – provides the cure for our psychic corruption.

It might be helpful in this discussion to clarify what is meant by recommending (b) the study of genesis as a means of grasping ousia. One way of taking this is that when we are studying genesis properly we are in fact studying ousia. So when we are studying the motions of the world soul properly the object of our study is in fact not the motions of the world soul as such but rather the eternal mathematical principles that they exhibit. While the world soul may itself be in motion, the mathematical principles it instantiates are not. I take this to be Sedley’s reading. In his 1997 article he notes the case of the world soul’s thinking about becoming as well as being at 37a-c (apologies for not having said in my previous comment that David anticipated this objection) and he says that we should not follow the world soul on this point: ‘Nevertheless, the text strongly suggests that our assimilation to the revolutions of the world soul is meant to get us away from thoughts about becoming’ (p.335). I take it that it is because David thinks that in the case of astronomy, properly pursued, we are studying being rather than becoming that Timaeus can say that our soul have been corrupted by attending to genesis in a general sense. For even in astronomy – where one might have thought that at least here there is a case of genesis that merits our study - we should in fact not study the heavens as moving but rather in terms of the eternal being that they illustrate. So the motions of the world soul do not represent an exception to the claim that we should study being rather than becoming. Hence, I take it that Michael’s argument in his latest comment wouldn’t be David’s. Nor, does it seem, would David’s Timaeus recommend (b) if we take studying becoming in order to study being to imply the study of both - as one might study mathematics in order to study medicine – for we are supposed to be studying being instead of becoming.

Another way of construing the recommendation that we study genesis as a means of grasping ousia allows that we study the motions of the world soul as such but says that doing so will enable us to study forms. The rationale for this recommendation would be that it is only when our souls are moving aright that we are able to think correctly about the forms, and other matters. Compare the effects of the corruption of the human soul at 43e-44a: because the circles of the Same and the Different in our soul get all twisted and turned we end up making all the wrong judgments about what is the same as, and what is different from, what. The contrast here is with the description of the motions of the world soul (37a-c) which run smoothly and therefore produce knowledge about being and true beliefs about becoming. What we do when we study the motions of the world is to assimilate the motions of our souls to their orderly motions (47b-c) so that we will be able to think correctly about the forms, and other matters. I take it that this reading goes better with 59c7-d2, where Timaeus says that it is when we set aside accounting for the forms that we produce likely accounts about genesis, as a measured and sensible pastime (i.e. as a pastime that provides our souls with measure and good sense).

I am sorry my comments have gone on for so long, but I blame Michael for cleverly having picked an apparently minor question of translation which in fact goes to the heart of Plato’s cosmology.