April 8, 2018
Episode 31: Sun, Line, Cave: Plato’s Inner Republic
(This episode is the first in our series of ‘SHWEP recorded in exotic locations’ podcasts. The birds and other critters you hear in the background are the typical spring denizens of an Andalucian olive grove on the side of a mountain.)
In the previous episode we discussed the west’s first utopia, the perfect state outlined by Socrates in Plato’s Republic. But the Republic also features a beautiful and compelling vision of an inner world, the world of forms. This is a real place – more real, in fact, than the world we think we are living in in our day-to-day lives – but it is accessed through the mind.
In this episode we look at three set-pieces in the dialogue which approach this supernal realm from different angles. Plato outlines a detailed epistemology. He offers encouragement and a kind of roadmap to the philosophic seeker after truth. He also deploys some very subtle and tricksterish esoteric geometric symbolism, which is somehow related to the structures soul and its ability to apprehend the highest reality.
This episode also touches on:
- The problem of the ineffable, and how Plato’s treatment of the Good in the Republic can be interpreted as an important early instance of a ‘poetics of transcendence’ aimed, paradoxically, at expressing the ineffable,
- Plato’s use of the Greek terms nous and noesis, and his allusions to a highest mode of consciousness capable of apprehending the transcendent form of the Good,
- The golden section and ratio, and the use Plato makes of these fascinating geometric constants in the Divided Line passage of the Republic.
Works Discussed in this Episode:
Bremer, J. (2000). ‘Some Arithmetical Patterns in Plato’s “Republic”‘, Hermathena : 69-97.
On Plato’s Epistemology in the Republic
- Annas J., An Introduction to Plato’s Republic, Oxford 1981 (esp. Chs. 9-11).
- Cairns D., Hermann F.G., and Penner T. (eds.), Pursuing the Good: Ethics and Metaphysics in Plato’s Republic, Edinburg 2007 [in particular Chs. 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12].
- Cross R.C. and Woozley A.D., Plato’s Republic: A Philosophical Commentary, London-New York, NY 1964 (repr. London 1979).
- Ferejohn M.T., ‘Knowledge, Recollection and the Forms in Republic VII’, in Santas G. (ed.), The Blackwell Guide to Plato’s Republic, Oxford-Malden, MA 2005, pp. 214-233.
- Fine G., ‘Knowledge and Belief in Republic V-VII’, in Everson S. (ed.), Epistemology, Cambridge 1990, pp. 85-111.
- Mueller I., ‘Mathematical Method and Philosophical Truth’, in Kraut R. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato, Cambridge 1992, pp. 170-199.
- Vlastos G., ‘Degrees of Reality in Plato’, in Platonic Studies, Princeton 1973, pp. 52-75 (I find Vlastos’ arguments over Plato’s use of the Greek verb ‘to be’ unconvincing, but this is a good example off an analytic reading of what he might mean when he says the world of forms is ‘more real’ than the phenomenal world).
- White N., Plato on Knowledge and Reality, Indianapolis 1976.
- White, N., A Companion to Plato’s Republic, Oxford 1979.
- White, N., ‘Plato’s Metaphysical Epistemology’, in Kraut R. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato, Cambridge 1992, pp. 277-310
On the Golden Section and Harmonics in the Republic
- Bremer, J. (2000). ‘Some Arithmetical Patterns in Plato’s “Republic”‘, Hermathena : 69-97.
- McClain, E., 1978. The Pythagorean Plato: Prelude to the Song Itself. Nicolas-Hays, York Beach, MN.
- Mountford, J. (1923). ‘The Musical Scales of Plato’s Republic’, Classical Quarterly 17 : 125-36.
- This web page from the University of Surrey has a good introduction to all things Fibonacci and Golden Section.
Epistemology, Geometry, Ineffablility, Inner Worlds, Philosophy, Plato, Soul, Transcendent Consciousness
October 1, 2019
After listening to your account of the divided line I could see how marvellous this analogy is.
At first you see a four term proportion: Representations (a) are to Sensible Things (b) as Geometric Figures (c) are to Forms (d).
But then you can find (as others have shown) that from a+b : c+d :: a : b :: c : d linear geometry demands that b must equal c. With the two middle terms equated we get a three term proportion [ana-logia] where Representations (a) are to Sensible Things (b=c) as Sensible Things are to Forms (d). This is matched in the text ‘…using as image the very same things of which images were made…’ [511a].
This then suggests a continuation of the proportion [exes ana-logia] from a to b=c to d and then on to e. What is e? The Form of the Good. This matches the text where you go from the Forms to the first principle [511b]. The inexpressible remains unexpressed but thee is the logos series to point the way.
I don’t reckon Simone Weil every found this, because if she did then she would surely have sung it from the rooftops!
As for the Golden Mean: Of course this sectioning could be according to the golden mean, but it need not be. So there is the syllable count. But is there textual evidence? The way I read the passage your mentioned [510a??], it only seemed to confirm that the second division is in the same ratio as the first. The only way I can get the Golden Mean is if I presume that the Form of the Good is the entire line. This would be e = noetic + physical , d = noetic, c = physical. Thus c + d : d as d : c=b as c=b : a, as per the Golden ratio. That the Form of Forms (like the creator-God) is omnipresent and omniscient we know from earlier with the sun analogy, but I fear I have missed hidden message in the text of this section??
December 18, 2019
I wish I understood more about the nature of publishing in Plato’s time. For instance, were books typically read aloud to groups or read alone? Plato’s books are preserved in full, they have never been out of print. But who bought them? I’ve heard that Philip of Opus was Plato’s secretary- – so did Plato dictate or write himself? Why do we know so damned little about Plato’s life, when he founded the eternal Academy and was celebrated as the virgin-birthed son of Apollo immediately upon his death? Oh… Maybe that’s why. It’s like he is Jesus, but speaking attic Greek.
( for a depressing review of the available sources on Plato’s life (Boas, 1948): https://www.jstor.org/stable/2181715)
Nevertheless, comments are for unhinged speculation, so let’s get on with it. After listening to this episode, I would hypothesize that Plato’s famous failed attempt at effing the ineffable, his lecture “on the good”, was provided as a public response to the wild success of the Republic – – and repeated requests for a more clear exposition. Spoiler alert: the lecture exposits that the good is One. He was never so clear in his written dialogue. Sadly, he wasn’t up front about this Oneness idea in hid lecture– I suppose he wanted to cultivate some suspense. But since nobody understood the math, most of the audience walked out before the end and the lecture was a fail.
I like to think that, if Plato hadn’t waited for “the big reveal” and just spoke up, he might have explained the core mystery of the uni-verse to the whole of Athens. There’d be no need for the esoteric at all. But where’s the fun in that?
(Source discussing his lecture, “on the good”, with better debate on whether it was early or late in his career:
December 18, 2019
Thanks for the comments. The options for ‘writing’ seem to have been A: writing and B: dictating to a slave. References exist to Plato’s having composed the Republic on tablets, by which are probably meant wooden planks with wax poured on them, making an erasable writing-surface; such an easily-countable format of writing would help to explain how he put so much crazy structure into the work: he was counting pages/lines/tablets. There was also the papyrus-option, which we can surmise was expensive, but we can’t really say how expensive, or how common, or what. Parchment existed, but only came to be really mass-produced in Hellenistic times in the kingdom of Pergamum (hence the name ‘Parchment’, allegedly, though some linguistic twists and turns), who were in competition with Ptolemaic Egypt for who had the best literate culture, Musaion, and so forth..
As for the details of his life, they are shockingly thin. Note, though, that Plato-as-born-of-Apollo doesn’t shew up before Olympiodorus writing in the 6th century CE (unless I’ve missed a source here).
December 18, 2019
Here is the best article I’ve found on the cost of papyrus. It is a fun read – – with some Platonic trivia. A well used book costing about a day’s wage for an architect, with the assumption that blank paper might be a bit more.
Still, cheaper than Plato acquired the source material for the Timeaus! Hehe
It’s quite an early source for the divine birth: Speussipus’ funeral speech is the source that DL references, describing how Apollo came to Plato’s father, telling him to stay away from his wife. Of course, this doesn’t prove that Apollo *was* Plato’s father – – Hermes might have gotten there first!
December 18, 2019
Great! Thanks for the Speusippus: I take back everything I said about Olympiodorus. The reference is Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Eminent Philosophers III.2, citing Speusippus’ Plato’s Funeral Feast. The implication is definitely some kind of ‘virgin birth’.
December 18, 2019
Nice. Glad that’s resolved, then 🙂
Speusippus of Athens: A Critical Study With a Collection of the Related Texts, By Leonardo Tarán, p 228, has more..