Section 8.

We have now to consider how far in any of these speculations Plato approximated to the discoveries of modern science. The modern physical philosopher is apt to dwell exclusively on the absurdities of ancient ideas about science, on the haphazard fancies and a priori assumptions of ancient teachers, on their confusion of facts and ideas, on their inconsistency and blindness to the most obvious phenomena. He measures them not by what preceded them, but by what has followed them. He does not consider that ancient physical philosophy was not a free enquiry, but a growth, in which the mind was passive rather than active, and was incapable of resisting the impressions which flowed in upon it. He hardly allows to the notions of the ancients the merit of being the stepping-stones by which he has himself risen to a higher knowledge. He never reflects, how great a thing it was to have formed a conception, however imperfect, either of the human frame as a whole, or of the world as a whole. According to the view taken in these volumes the errors of ancient physicists were not separable from the intellectual conditions under which they lived. Their genius was their own; and they were not the rash and hasty generalizers which, since the days of Bacon, we have been apt to suppose them. The thoughts of men widened to receive experience; at first they seemed to know all things as in a dream: after a while they look at them closely and hold them in their hands. They begin to arrange them in classes and to connect causes with effects. General notions are necessary to the apprehension of particular facts, the metaphysical to the physical. Before men can observe the world, they must be able to conceive it.

To do justice to the subject, we should consider the physical philosophy of the ancients as a whole; we should remember, (1) that the nebular theory was the received belief of several of the early physicists; (2) that the development of animals out of fishes who came to land, and of man out of the animals, was held by Anaximander in the sixth century before Christ (Plut. Symp. Quaest; Plac. Phil.); (3) that even by Philolaus and the early Pythagoreans, the earth was held to be a body like the other stars revolving in space around the sun or a central fire; (4) that the beginnings of chemistry are discernible in the ‘similar particles’ of Anaxagoras. Also they knew or thought (5) that there was a sex in plants as well as in animals; (6) they were aware that musical notes depended on the relative length or tension of the strings from which they were emitted, and were measured by ratios of number; (7) that mathematical laws pervaded the world; and even qualitative differences were supposed to have their origin in number and figure; (8) the annihilation of matter was denied by several of them, and the seeming disappearance of it held to be a transformation only. For, although one of these discoveries might have been supposed to be a happy guess, taken together they seem to imply a great advance and almost maturity of natural knowledge.

We should also remember, when we attribute to the ancients hasty generalizations and delusions of language, that physical philosophy and metaphysical too have been guilty of similar fallacies in quite recent times. We by no means distinguish clearly between mind and body, between ideas and facts. Have not many discussions arisen about the Atomic theory in which a point has been confused with a material atom? Have not the natures of things been explained by imaginary entities, such as life or phlogiston, which exist in the mind only? Has not disease been regarded, like sin, sometimes as a negative and necessary, sometimes as a positive or malignant principle? The ‘idols’ of Bacon are nearly as common now as ever; they are inherent in the human mind, and when they have the most complete dominion over us, we are least able to perceive them. We recognize them in the ancients, but we fail to see them in ourselves.

Such reflections, although this is not the place in which to dwell upon them at length, lead us to take a favourable view of the speculations of the Timaeus. We should consider not how much Plato actually knew, but how far he has contributed to the general ideas of physics, or supplied the notions which, whether true or false, have stimulated the minds of later generations in the path of discovery. Some of them may seem old-fashioned, but may nevertheless have had a great influence in promoting system and assisting enquiry, while in others we hear the latest word of physical or metaphysical philosophy. There is also an intermediate class, in which Plato falls short of the truths of modern science, though he is not wholly unacquainted with them. (1) To the first class belongs the teleological theory of creation. Whether all things in the world can be explained as the result of natural laws, or whether we must not admit of tendencies and marks of design also, has been a question much disputed of late years. Even if all phenomena are the result of natural forces, we must admit that there are many things in heaven and earth which are as well expressed under the image of mind or design as under any other. At any rate, the language of Plato has been the language of natural theology down to our own time, nor can any description of the world wholly dispense with it. The notion of first and second or co-operative causes, which originally appears in the Timaeus, has likewise survived to our own day, and has been a great peace-maker between theology and science. Plato also approaches very near to our doctrine of the primary and secondary qualities of matter. (2) Another popular notion which is found in the Timaeus, is the feebleness of the human intellect—‘God knows the original qualities of things; man can only hope to attain to probability.’ We speak in almost the same words of human intelligence, but not in the same manner of the uncertainty of our knowledge of nature. The reason is that the latter is assured to us by experiment, and is not contrasted with the certainty of ideal or mathematical knowledge. But the ancient philosopher never experimented: in the Timaeus Plato seems to have thought that there would be impiety in making the attempt; he, for example, who tried experiments in colours would ‘forget the difference of the human and divine natures.’ Their indefiniteness is probably the reason why he singles them out, as especially incapable of being tested by experiment. (Compare the saying of Anaxagoras—Sext. Pyrrh.—that since snow is made of water and water is black, snow ought to be black.)

The greatest ‘divination’ of the ancients was the supremacy which they assigned to mathematics in all the realms of nature; for in all of them there is a foundation of mechanics. Even physiology partakes of figure and number; and Plato is not wrong in attributing them to the human frame, but in the omission to observe how little could be explained by them. Thus we may remark in passing that the most fanciful of ancient philosophies is also the most nearly verified in fact. The fortunate guess that the world is a sum of numbers and figures has been the most fruitful of anticipations. The ‘diatonic’ scale of the Pythagoreans and Plato suggested to Kepler that the secret of the distances of the planets from one another was to be found in mathematical proportions. The doctrine that the heavenly bodies all move in a circle is known by us to be erroneous; but without such an error how could the human mind have comprehended the heavens? Astronomy, even in modern times, has made far greater progress by the high a priori road than could have been attained by any other. Yet, strictly speaking—and the remark applies to ancient physics generally—this high a priori road was based upon a posteriori grounds. For there were no facts of which the ancients were so well assured by experience as facts of number. Having observed that they held good in a few instances, they applied them everywhere; and in the complexity, of which they were capable, found the explanation of the equally complex phenomena of the universe. They seemed to see them in the least things as well as in the greatest; in atoms, as well as in suns and stars; in the human body as well as in external nature. And now a favourite speculation of modern chemistry is the explanation of qualitative difference by quantitative, which is at present verified to a certain extent and may hereafter be of far more universal application. What is this but the atoms of Democritus and the triangles of Plato? The ancients should not be wholly deprived of the credit of their guesses because they were unable to prove them. May they not have had, like the animals, an instinct of something more than they knew?

Besides general notions we seem to find in the Timaeus some more precise approximations to the discoveries of modern physical science. First, the doctrine of equipoise. Plato affirms, almost in so many words, that nature abhors a vacuum. Whenever a particle is displaced, the rest push and thrust one another until equality is restored. We must remember that these ideas were not derived from any definite experiment, but were the original reflections of man, fresh from the first observation of nature. The latest word of modern philosophy is continuity and development, but to Plato this is the beginning and foundation of science; there is nothing that he is so strongly persuaded of as that the world is one, and that all the various existences which are contained in it are only the transformations of the same soul of the world acting on the same matter. He would have readily admitted that out of the protoplasm all things were formed by the gradual process of creation; but he would have insisted that mind and intelligence—not meaning by this, however, a conscious mind or person—were prior to them, and could alone have created them. Into the workings of this eternal mind or intelligence he does not enter further; nor would there have been any use in attempting to investigate the things which no eye has seen nor any human language can express.

Lastly, there remain two points in which he seems to touch great discoveries of modern times—the law of gravitation, and the circulation of the blood.

(1) The law of gravitation, according to Plato, is a law, not only of the attraction of lesser bodies to larger ones, but of similar bodies to similar, having a magnetic power as well as a principle of gravitation. He observed that earth, water, and air had settled down to their places, and he imagined fire or the exterior aether to have a place beyond air. When air seemed to go upwards and fire to pierce through air—when water and earth fell downward, they were seeking their native elements. He did not remark that his own explanation did not suit all phenomena; and the simpler explanation, which assigns to bodies degrees of heaviness and lightness proportioned to the mass and distance of the bodies which attract them, never occurred to him. Yet the affinities of similar substances have some effect upon the composition of the world, and of this Plato may be thought to have had an anticipation. He may be described as confusing the attraction of gravitation with the attraction of cohesion. The influence of such affinities and the chemical action of one body upon another in long periods of time have become a recognized principle of geology.

(2) Plato is perfectly aware—and he could hardly be ignorant—that blood is a fluid in constant motion. He also knew that blood is partly a solid substance consisting of several elements, which, as he might have observed in the use of ‘cupping-glasses’, decompose and die, when no longer in motion. But the specific discovery that the blood flows out on one side of the heart through the arteries and returns through the veins on the other, which is commonly called the circulation of the blood, was absolutely unknown to him.

A further study of the Timaeus suggests some after-thoughts which may be conveniently brought together in this place. The topics which I propose briefly to reconsider are (a) the relation of the Timaeus to the other dialogues of Plato and to the previous philosophy; (b) the nature of God and of creation (c) the morality of the Timaeus:—

(a) The Timaeus is more imaginative and less scientific than any other of the Platonic dialogues. It is conjectural astronomy, conjectural natural philosophy, conjectural medicine. The writer himself is constantly repeating that he is speaking what is probable only. The dialogue is put into the mouth of Timaeus, a Pythagorean philosopher, and therefore here, as in the Parmenides, we are in doubt how far Plato is expressing his own sentiments. Hence the connexion with the other dialogues is comparatively slight. We may fill up the lacunae of the Timaeus by the help of the Republic or Phaedrus: we may identify the same and other with the (Greek) of the Philebus. We may find in the Laws or in the Statesman parallels with the account of creation and of the first origin of man. It would be possible to frame a scheme in which all these various elements might have a place. But such a mode of proceeding would be unsatisfactory, because we have no reason to suppose that Plato intended his scattered thoughts to be collected in a system. There is a common spirit in his writings, and there are certain general principles, such as the opposition of the sensible and intellectual, and the priority of mind, which run through all of them; but he has no definite forms of words in which he consistently expresses himself. While the determinations of human thought are in process of creation he is necessarily tentative and uncertain. And there is least of definiteness, whenever either in describing the beginning or the end of the world, he has recourse to myths. These are not the fixed modes in which spiritual truths are revealed to him, but the efforts of imagination, by which at different times and in various manners he seeks to embody his conceptions. The clouds of mythology are still resting upon him, and he has not yet pierced ‘to the heaven of the fixed stars’ which is beyond them. It is safer then to admit the inconsistencies of the Timaeus, or to endeavour to fill up what is wanting from our own imagination, inspired by a study of the dialogue, than to refer to other Platonic writings,—and still less should we refer to the successors of Plato,—for the elucidation of it.

More light is thrown upon the Timaeus by a comparison of the previous philosophies. For the physical science of the ancients was traditional, descending through many generations of Ionian and Pythagorean philosophers. Plato does not look out upon the heavens and describe what he sees in them, but he builds upon the foundations of others, adding something out of the ‘depths of his own self-consciousness.’ Socrates had already spoken of God the creator, who made all things for the best. While he ridiculed the superficial explanations of phenomena which were current in his age, he recognised the marks both of benevolence and of design in the frame of man and in the world. The apparatus of winds and waters is contemptuously rejected by him in the Phaedo, but he thinks that there is a power greater than that of any Atlas in the ‘Best’ (Phaedo; Arist. Met.). Plato, following his master, affirms this principle of the best, but he acknowledges that the best is limited by the conditions of matter. In the generation before Socrates, Anaxagoras had brought together ‘Chaos’ and ‘Mind’; and these are connected by Plato in the Timaeus, but in accordance with his own mode of thinking he has interposed between them the idea or pattern according to which mind worked. The circular impulse (Greek) of the one philosopher answers to the circular movement (Greek) of the other. But unlike Anaxagoras, Plato made the sun and stars living beings and not masses of earth or metal. The Pythagoreans again had framed a world out of numbers, which they constructed into figures. Plato adopted their speculations and improved upon them by a more exact knowledge of geometry. The Atomists too made the world, if not out of geometrical figures, at least out of different forms of atoms, and these atoms resembled the triangles of Plato in being too small to be visible. But though the physiology of the Timaeus is partly borrowed from them, they are either ignored by Plato or referred to with a secret contempt and dislike. He looks with more favour on the Pythagoreans, whose intervals of number applied to the distances of the planets reappear in the Timaeus. It is probable that among the Pythagoreans living in the fourth century B.C., there were already some who, like Plato, made the earth their centre. Whether he obtained his circles of the Same and Other from any previous thinker is uncertain. The four elements are taken from Empedocles; the interstices of the Timaeus may also be compared with his (Greek). The passage of one element into another is common to Heracleitus and several of the Ionian philosophers. So much of a syncretist is Plato, though not after the manner of the Neoplatonists. For the elements which he borrows from others are fused and transformed by his own genius. On the other hand we find fewer traces in Plato of early Ionic or Eleatic speculation. He does not imagine the world of sense to be made up of opposites or to be in a perpetual flux, but to vary within certain limits which are controlled by what he calls the principle of the same. Unlike the Eleatics, who relegated the world to the sphere of not-being, he admits creation to have an existence which is real and even eternal, although dependent on the will of the creator. Instead of maintaining the doctrine that the void has a necessary place in the existence of the world, he rather affirms the modern thesis that nature abhors a vacuum, as in the Sophist he also denies the reality of not-being (Aristot. Metaph.). But though in these respects he differs from them, he is deeply penetrated by the spirit of their philosophy; he differs from them with reluctance, and gladly recognizes the ‘generous depth’ of Parmenides (Theaet.).

There is a similarity between the Timaeus and the fragments of Philolaus, which by some has been thought to be so great as to create a suspicion that they are derived from it. Philolaus is known to us from the Phaedo of Plato as a Pythagorean philosopher residing at Thebes in the latter half of the fifth century B.C., after the dispersion of the original Pythagorean society. He was the teacher of Simmias and Cebes, who became disciples of Socrates. We have hardly any other information about him. The story that Plato had purchased three books of his writings from a relation is not worth repeating; it is only a fanciful way in which an ancient biographer dresses up the fact that there was supposed to be a resemblance between the two writers. Similar gossiping stories are told about the sources of the Republic and the Phaedo. That there really existed in antiquity a work passing under the name of Philolaus there can be no doubt. Fragments of this work are preserved to us, chiefly in Stobaeus, a few in Boethius and other writers. They remind us of the Timaeus, as well as of the Phaedrus and Philebus. When the writer says (Stob. Eclog.) that all things are either finite (definite) or infinite (indefinite), or a union of the two, and that this antithesis and synthesis pervades all art and nature, we are reminded of the Philebus. When he calls the centre of the world (Greek), we have a parallel to the Phaedrus. His distinction between the world of order, to which the sun and moon and the stars belong, and the world of disorder, which lies in the region between the moon and the earth, approximates to Plato’s sphere of the Same and of the Other. Like Plato (Tim.), he denied the above and below in space, and said that all things were the same in relation to a centre. He speaks also of the world as one and indestructible: ‘for neither from within nor from without does it admit of destruction’ (Tim). He mentions ten heavenly bodies, including the sun and moon, the earth and the counter-earth (Greek), and in the midst of them all he places the central fire, around which they are moving—this is hidden from the earth by the counter-earth. Of neither is there any trace in Plato, who makes the earth the centre of his system. Philolaus magnifies the virtues of particular numbers, especially of the number 10 (Stob. Eclog.), and descants upon odd and even numbers, after the manner of the later Pythagoreans. It is worthy of remark that these mystical fancies are nowhere to be found in the writings of Plato, although the importance of number as a form and also an instrument of thought is ever present to his mind. Both Philolaus and Plato agree in making the world move in certain numerical ratios according to a musical scale: though Bockh is of opinion that the two scales, of Philolaus and of the Timaeus, do not correspond...We appear not to be sufficiently acquainted with the early Pythagoreans to know how far the statements contained in these fragments corresponded with their doctrines; and we therefore cannot pronounce, either in favour of the genuineness of the fragments, with Bockh and Zeller, or, with Valentine Rose and Schaarschmidt, against them. But it is clear that they throw but little light upon the Timaeus, and that their resemblance to it has been exaggerated.

That there is a degree of confusion and indistinctness in Plato’s account both of man and of the universe has been already acknowledged. We cannot tell (nor could Plato himself have told) where the figure or myth ends and the philosophical truth begins; we cannot explain (nor could Plato himself have explained to us) the relation of the ideas to appearance, of which one is the copy of the other, and yet of all things in the world they are the most opposed and unlike. This opposition is presented to us in many forms, as the antithesis of the one and many, of the finite and infinite, of the intelligible and sensible, of the unchangeable and the changing, of the indivisible and the divisible, of the fixed stars and the planets, of the creative mind and the primeval chaos. These pairs of opposites are so many aspects of the great opposition between ideas and phenomena—they easily pass into one another; and sometimes the two members of the relation differ in kind, sometimes only in degree. As in Aristotle’s matter and form the connexion between them is really inseparable; for if we attempt to separate them they become devoid of content and therefore indistinguishable; there is no difference between the idea of which nothing can be predicated, and the chaos or matter which has no perceptible qualities—between Being in the abstract and Nothing. Yet we are frequently told that the one class of them is the reality and the other appearance; and one is often spoken of as the double or reflection of the other. For Plato never clearly saw that both elements had an equal place in mind and in nature; and hence, especially when we argue from isolated passages in his writings, or attempt to draw what appear to us to be the natural inferences from them, we are full of perplexity. There is a similar confusion about necessity and free-will, and about the state of the soul after death. Also he sometimes supposes that God is immanent in the world, sometimes that he is transcendent. And having no distinction of objective and subjective, he passes imperceptibly from one to the other; from intelligence to soul, from eternity to time. These contradictions may be softened or concealed by a judicious use of language, but they cannot be wholly got rid of. That an age of intellectual transition must also be one of inconsistency; that the creative is opposed to the critical or defining habit of mind or time, has been often repeated by us. But, as Plato would say, ‘there is no harm in repeating twice or thrice’ (Laws) what is important for the understanding of a great author.

It has not, however, been observed, that the confusion partly arises out of the elements of opposing philosophies which are preserved in him. He holds these in solution, he brings them into relation with one another, but he does not perfectly harmonize them. They are part of his own mind, and he is incapable of placing himself outside of them and criticizing them. They grow as he grows; they are a kind of composition with which his own philosophy is overlaid. In early life he fancies that he has mastered them: but he is also mastered by them; and in language (Sophist) which may be compared with the hesitating tone of the Timaeus, he confesses in his later years that they are full of obscurity to him. He attributes new meanings to the words of Parmenides and Heracleitus; but at times the old Eleatic philosophy appears to go beyond him; then the world of phenomena disappears, but the doctrine of ideas is also reduced to nothingness. All of them are nearer to one another than they themselves supposed, and nearer to him than he supposed. All of them are antagonistic to sense and have an affinity to number and measure and a presentiment of ideas. Even in Plato they still retain their contentious or controversial character, which was developed by the growth of dialectic. He is never able to reconcile the first causes of the pre-Socratic philosophers with the final causes of Socrates himself. There is no intelligible account of the relation of numbers to the universal ideas, or of universals to the idea of good. He found them all three, in the Pythagorean philosophy and in the teaching of Socrates and of the Megarians respectively; and, because they all furnished modes of explaining and arranging phenomena, he is unwilling to give up any of them, though he is unable to unite them in a consistent whole.

Lastly, Plato, though an idealist philosopher, is Greek and not Oriental in spirit and feeling. He is no mystic or ascetic; he is not seeking in vain to get rid of matter or to find absorption in the divine nature, or in the Soul of the universe. And therefore we are not surprised to find that his philosophy in the Timaeus returns at last to a worship of the heavens, and that to him, as to other Greeks, nature, though containing a remnant of evil, is still glorious and divine. He takes away or drops the veil of mythology, and presents her to us in what appears to him to be the form-fairer and truer far—of mathematical figures. It is this element in the Timaeus, no less than its affinity to certain Pythagorean speculations, which gives it a character not wholly in accordance with the other dialogues of Plato.

(b) The Timaeus contains an assertion perhaps more distinct than is found in any of the other dialogues (Rep.; Laws) of the goodness of God. ‘He was good himself, and he fashioned the good everywhere.’ He was not ‘a jealous God,’ and therefore he desired that all other things should be equally good. He is the IDEA of good who has now become a person, and speaks and is spoken of as God. Yet his personality seems to appear only in the act of creation. In so far as he works with his eye fixed upon an eternal pattern he is like the human artificer in the Republic. Here the theory of Platonic ideas intrudes upon us. God, like man, is supposed to have an ideal of which Plato is unable to tell us the origin. He may be said, in the language of modern philosophy, to resolve the divine mind into subject and object.

The first work of creation is perfected, the second begins under the direction of inferior ministers. The supreme God is withdrawn from the world and returns to his own accustomed nature (Tim.). As in the Statesman, he retires to his place of view. So early did the Epicurean doctrine take possession of the Greek mind, and so natural is it to the heart of man, when he has once passed out of the stage of mythology into that of rational religion. For he sees the marks of design in the world; but he no longer sees or fancies that he sees God walking in the garden or haunting stream or mountain. He feels also that he must put God as far as possible out of the way of evil, and therefore he banishes him from an evil world. Plato is sensible of the difficulty; and he often shows that he is desirous of justifying the ways of God to man. Yet on the other hand, in the Tenth Book of the Laws he passes a censure on those who say that the Gods have no care of human things.

The creation of the world is the impression of order on a previously existing chaos. The formula of Anaxagoras—‘all things were in chaos or confusion, and then mind came and disposed them’—is a summary of the first part of the Timaeus. It is true that of a chaos without differences no idea could be formed. All was not mixed but one; and therefore it was not difficult for the later Platonists to draw inferences by which they were enabled to reconcile the narrative of the Timaeus with the Mosaic account of the creation. Neither when we speak of mind or intelligence, do we seem to get much further in our conception than circular motion, which was deemed to be the most perfect. Plato, like Anaxagoras, while commencing his theory of the universe with ideas of mind and of the best, is compelled in the execution of his design to condescend to the crudest physics.

(c) The morality of the Timaeus is singular, and it is difficult to adjust the balance between the two elements of it. The difficulty which Plato feels, is that which all of us feel, and which is increased in our own day by the progress of physical science, how the responsibility of man is to be reconciled with his dependence on natural causes. And sometimes, like other men, he is more impressed by one aspect of human life, sometimes by the other. In the Republic he represents man as freely choosing his own lot in a state prior to birth—a conception which, if taken literally, would still leave him subject to the dominion of necessity in his after life; in the Statesman he supposes the human race to be preserved in the world only by a divine interposition; while in the Timaeus the supreme God commissions the inferior deities to avert from him all but self-inflicted evils—words which imply that all the evils of men are really self-inflicted. And here, like Plato (the insertion of a note in the text of an ancient writer is a literary curiosity worthy of remark), we may take occasion to correct an error. For we too hastily said that Plato in the Timaeus regarded all ‘vices and crimes as involuntary.’ But the fact is that he is inconsistent with himself; in one and the same passage vice is attributed to the relaxation of the bodily frame, and yet we are exhorted to avoid it and pursue virtue. It is also admitted that good and evil conduct are to be attributed respectively to good and evil laws and institutions. These cannot be given by individuals to themselves; and therefore human actions, in so far as they are dependent upon them, are regarded by Plato as involuntary rather than voluntary. Like other writers on this subject, he is unable to escape from some degree of self-contradiction. He had learned from Socrates that vice is ignorance, and suddenly the doctrine seems to him to be confirmed by observing how much of the good and bad in human character depends on the bodily constitution. So in modern times the speculative doctrine of necessity has often been supported by physical facts.

The Timaeus also contains an anticipation of the stoical life according to nature. Man contemplating the heavens is to regulate his erring life according to them. He is to partake of the repose of nature and of the order of nature, to bring the variable principle in himself into harmony with the principle of the same. The ethics of the Timaeus may be summed up in the single idea of ‘law.’ To feel habitually that he is part of the order of the universe, is one of the highest ethical motives of which man is capable. Something like this is what Plato means when he speaks of the soul ‘moving about the same in unchanging thought of the same.’ He does not explain how man is acted upon by the lesser influences of custom or of opinion; or how the commands of the soul watching in the citadel are conveyed to the bodily organs. But this perhaps, to use once more expressions of his own, ‘is part of another subject’ or ‘may be more suitably discussed on some other occasion.’

There is no difficulty, by the help of Aristotle and later writers, in criticizing the Timaeus of Plato, in pointing out the inconsistencies of the work, in dwelling on the ignorance of anatomy displayed by the author, in showing the fancifulness or unmeaningness of some of his reasons. But the Timaeus still remains the greatest effort of the human mind to conceive the world as a whole which the genius of antiquity has bequeathed to us.

One more aspect of the Timaeus remains to be considered—the mythological or geographical. Is it not a wonderful thing that a few pages of one of Plato’s dialogues have grown into a great legend, not confined to Greece only, but spreading far and wide over the nations of Europe and reaching even to Egypt and Asia? Like the tale of Troy, or the legend of the Ten Tribes (Ewald, Hist. of Isr.), which perhaps originated in a few verses of II Esdras, it has become famous, because it has coincided with a great historical fact. Like the romance of King Arthur, which has had so great a charm, it has found a way over the seas from one country and language to another. It inspired the navigators of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; it foreshadowed the discovery of America. It realized the fiction so natural to the human mind, because it answered the enquiry about the origin of the arts, that there had somewhere existed an ancient primitive civilization. It might find a place wherever men chose to look for it; in North, South, East, or West; in the Islands of the Blest; before the entrance of the Straits of Gibraltar, in Sweden or in Palestine. It mattered little whether the description in Plato agreed with the locality assigned to it or not. It was a legend so adapted to the human mind that it made a habitation for itself in any country. It was an island in the clouds, which might be seen anywhere by the eye of faith. It was a subject especially congenial to the ponderous industry of certain French and Swedish writers, who delighted in heaping up learning of all sorts but were incapable of using it.

M. Martin has written a valuable dissertation on the opinions entertained respecting the Island of Atlantis in ancient and modern times. It is a curious chapter in the history of the human mind. The tale of Atlantis is the fabric of a vision, but it has never ceased to interest mankind. It was variously regarded by the ancients themselves. The stronger heads among them, like Strabo and Longinus, were as little disposed to believe in the truth of it as the modern reader in Gulliver or Robinson Crusoe. On the other hand there is no kind or degree of absurdity or fancy in which the more foolish writers, both of antiquity and of modern times, have not indulged respecting it. The Neo-Platonists, loyal to their master, like some commentators on the Christian Scriptures, sought to give an allegorical meaning to what they also believed to be an historical fact. It was as if some one in our own day were to convert the poems of Homer into an allegory of the Christian religion, at the same time maintaining them to be an exact and veritable history. In the Middle Ages the legend seems to have been half-forgotten until revived by the discovery of America. It helped to form the Utopia of Sir Thomas More and the New Atlantis of Bacon, although probably neither of those great men were at all imposed upon by the fiction. It was most prolific in the seventeenth or in the early part of the eighteenth century, when the human mind, seeking for Utopias or inventing them, was glad to escape out of the dulness of the present into the romance of the past or some ideal of the future. The later forms of such narratives contained features taken from the Edda, as well as from the Old and New Testament; also from the tales of missionaries and the experiences of travellers and of colonists.

The various opinions respecting the Island of Atlantis have no interest for us except in so far as they illustrate the extravagances of which men are capable. But this is a real interest and a serious lesson, if we remember that now as formerly the human mind is liable to be imposed upon by the illusions of the past, which are ever assuming some new form.

When we have shaken off the rubbish of ages, there remain one or two questions of which the investigation has a permanent value:—

1. Did Plato derive the legend of Atlantis from an Egyptian source? It may be replied that there is no such legend in any writer previous to Plato; neither in Homer, nor in Pindar, nor in Herodotus is there any mention of an Island of Atlantis, nor any reference to it in Aristotle, nor any citation of an earlier writer by a later one in which it is to be found. Nor have any traces been discovered hitherto in Egyptian monuments of a connexion between Greece and Egypt older than the eighth or ninth century B.C. It is true that Proclus, writing in the fifth century after Christ, tells us of stones and columns in Egypt on which the history of the Island of Atlantis was engraved. The statement may be false—there are similar tales about columns set up ‘by the Canaanites whom Joshua drove out’ (Procop.); but even if true, it would only show that the legend, 800 years after the time of Plato, had been transferred to Egypt, and inscribed, not, like other forgeries, in books, but on stone. Probably in the Alexandrian age, when Egypt had ceased to have a history and began to appropriate the legends of other nations, many such monuments were to be found of events which had become famous in that or other countries. The oldest witness to the story is said to be Crantor, a Stoic philosopher who lived a generation later than Plato, and therefore may have borrowed it from him. The statement is found in Proclus; but we require better assurance than Proclus can give us before we accept this or any other statement which he makes.

Secondly, passing from the external to the internal evidence, we may remark that the story is far more likely to have been invented by Plato than to have been brought by Solon from Egypt. That is another part of his legend which Plato also seeks to impose upon us. The verisimilitude which he has given to the tale is a further reason for suspecting it; for he could easily ‘invent Egyptian or any other tales’ (Phaedrus). Are not the words, ‘The truth of the story is a great advantage,’ if we read between the lines, an indication of the fiction? It is only a legend that Solon went to Egypt, and if he did he could not have conversed with Egyptian priests or have read records in their temples. The truth is that the introduction is a mosaic work of small touches which, partly by their minuteness, and also by their seeming probability, win the confidence of the reader. Who would desire better evidence than that of Critias, who had heard the narrative in youth when the memory is strongest at the age of ten from his grandfather Critias, an old man of ninety, who in turn had heard it from Solon himself? Is not the famous expression—‘You Hellenes are ever children and there is no knowledge among you hoary with age,’ really a compliment to the Athenians who are described in these words as ‘ever young’? And is the thought expressed in them to be attributed to the learning of the Egyptian priest, and not rather to the genius of Plato? Or when the Egyptian says—‘Hereafter at our leisure we will take up the written documents and examine in detail the exact truth about these things’—what is this but a literary trick by which Plato sets off his narrative? Could any war between Athens and the Island of Atlantis have really coincided with the struggle between the Greeks and Persians, as is sufficiently hinted though not expressly stated in the narrative of Plato? And whence came the tradition to Egypt? or in what does the story consist except in the war between the two rival powers and the submersion of both of them? And how was the tale transferred to the poem of Solon? ‘It is not improbable,’ says Mr. Grote, ‘that Solon did leave an unfinished Egyptian poem’ (Plato). But are probabilities for which there is not a tittle of evidence, and which are without any parallel, to be deemed worthy of attention by the critic? How came the poem of Solon to disappear in antiquity? or why did Plato, if the whole narrative was known to him, break off almost at the beginning of it?

While therefore admiring the diligence and erudition of M. Martin, we cannot for a moment suppose that the tale was told to Solon by an Egyptian priest, nor can we believe that Solon wrote a poem upon the theme which was thus suggested to him—a poem which disappeared in antiquity; or that the Island of Atlantis or the antediluvian Athens ever had any existence except in the imagination of Plato. Martin is of opinion that Plato would have been terrified if he could have foreseen the endless fancies to which his Island of Atlantis has given occasion. Rather he would have been infinitely amused if he could have known that his gift of invention would have deceived M. Martin himself into the belief that the tradition was brought from Egypt by Solon and made the subject of a poem by him. M. Martin may also be gently censured for citing without sufficient discrimination ancient authors having very different degrees of authority and value.

2. It is an interesting and not unimportant question which is touched upon by Martin, whether the Atlantis of Plato in any degree held out a guiding light to the early navigators. He is inclined to think that there is no real connexion between them. But surely the discovery of the New World was preceded by a prophetic anticipation of it, which, like the hope of a Messiah, was entering into the hearts of men? And this hope was nursed by ancient tradition, which had found expression from time to time in the celebrated lines of Seneca and in many other places. This tradition was sustained by the great authority of Plato, and therefore the legend of the Island of Atlantis, though not closely connected with the voyages of the early navigators, may be truly said to have contributed indirectly to the great discovery.

The Timaeus of Plato, like the Protagoras and several portions of the Phaedrus and Republic, was translated by Cicero into Latin. About a fourth, comprehending with lacunae the first portion of the dialogue, is preserved in several MSS. These generally agree, and therefore may be supposed to be derived from a single original. The version is very faithful, and is a remarkable monument of Cicero’s skill in managing the difficult and intractable Greek. In his treatise De Natura Deorum, he also refers to the Timaeus, which, speaking in the person of Velleius the Epicurean, he severely criticises.

The commentary of Proclus on the Timaeus is a wonderful monument of the silliness and prolixity of the Alexandrian Age. It extends to about thirty pages of the book, and is thirty times the length of the original. It is surprising that this voluminous work should have found a translator (Thomas Taylor, a kindred spirit, who was himself a Neo-Platonist, after the fashion, not of the fifth or sixteenth, but of the nineteenth century A.D.). The commentary is of little or no value, either in a philosophical or philological point of view. The writer is unable to explain particular passages in any precise manner, and he is equally incapable of grasping the whole. He does not take words in their simple meaning or sentences in their natural connexion. He is thinking, not of the context in Plato, but of the contemporary Pythagorean philosophers and their wordy strife. He finds nothing in the text which he does not bring to it. He is full of Porphyry, Iamblichus and Plotinus, of misapplied logic, of misunderstood grammar, and of the Orphic theology.

Although such a work can contribute little or nothing to the understanding of Plato, it throws an interesting light on the Alexandrian times; it realizes how a philosophy made up of words only may create a deep and widespread enthusiasm, how the forms of logic and rhetoric may usurp the place of reason and truth, how all philosophies grow faded and discoloured, and are patched and made up again like worn-out garments, and retain only a second-hand existence. He who would study this degeneracy of philosophy and of the Greek mind in the original cannot do better than devote a few of his days and nights to the commentary of Proclus on the Timaeus.

A very different account must be given of the short work entitled ‘Timaeus Locrus,’ which is a brief but clear analysis of the Timaeus of Plato, omitting the introduction or dialogue and making a few small additions. It does not allude to the original from which it is taken; it is quite free from mysticism and Neo-Platonism. In length it does not exceed a fifth part of the Timaeus. It is written in the Doric dialect, and contains several words which do not occur in classical Greek. No other indication of its date, except this uncertain one of language, appears in it. In several places the writer has simplified the language of Plato, in a few others he has embellished and exaggerated it. He generally preserves the thought of the original, but does not copy the words. On the whole this little tract faithfully reflects the meaning and spirit of the Timaeus.

From the garden of the Timaeus, as from the other dialogues of Plato, we may still gather a few flowers and present them at parting to the reader. There is nothing in Plato grander and simpler than the conversation between Solon and the Egyptian priest, in which the youthfulness of Hellas is contrasted with the antiquity of Egypt. Here are to be found the famous words, ‘O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are ever young, and there is not an old man among you’—which may be compared to the lively saying of Hegel, that ‘Greek history began with the youth Achilles and left off with the youth Alexander.’ The numerous arts of verisimilitude by which Plato insinuates into the mind of the reader the truth of his narrative have been already referred to. Here occur a sentence or two not wanting in Platonic irony (Greek—a word to the wise). ‘To know or tell the origin of the other divinities is beyond us, and we must accept the traditions of the men of old time who affirm themselves to be the offspring of the Gods—that is what they say—and they must surely have known their own ancestors. How can we doubt the word of the children of the Gods? Although they give no probable or certain proofs, still, as they declare that they are speaking of what took place in their own family, we must conform to custom and believe them.’ ‘Our creators well knew that women and other animals would some day be framed out of men, and they further knew that many animals would require the use of nails for many purposes; wherefore they fashioned in men at their first creation the rudiments of nails.’ Or once more, let us reflect on two serious passages in which the order of the world is supposed to find a place in the human soul and to infuse harmony into it. ‘The soul, when touching anything that has essence, whether dispersed in parts or undivided, is stirred through all her powers to declare the sameness or difference of that thing and some other; and to what individuals are related, and by what affected, and in what way and how and when, both in the world of generation and in the world of immutable being. And when reason, which works with equal truth, whether she be in the circle of the diverse or of the same,—in voiceless silence holding her onward course in the sphere of the self-moved,—when reason, I say, is hovering around the sensible world, and when the circle of the diverse also moving truly imparts the intimations of sense to the whole soul, then arise opinions and beliefs sure and certain. But when reason is concerned with the rational, and the circle of the same moving smoothly declares it, then intelligence and knowledge are necessarily perfected;’ where, proceeding in a similar path of contemplation, he supposes the inward and the outer world mutually to imply each other. ‘God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply them to the courses of our own intelligence which are akin to them, the unperturbed to the perturbed; and that we, learning them and partaking of the natural truth of reason, might imitate the absolutely unerring courses of God and regulate our own vagaries.’ Or let us weigh carefully some other profound thoughts, such as the following. ‘He who neglects education walks lame to the end of his life, and returns imperfect and good for nothing to the world below.’ ‘The father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible.’ ‘Let me tell you then why the Creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable.’ This is the leading thought in the Timaeus, just as the IDEA of Good is the leading thought of the Republic, the one expression describing the personal, the other the impersonal Good or God, differing in form rather than in substance, and both equally implying to the mind of Plato a divine reality. The slight touch, perhaps ironical, contained in the words, ‘as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men,’ is very characteristic of Plato.

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