06 November 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 7: bodies, chains, sets and means

So I recently finished reading the Timæus and Critias, and I’ve needed some time to digest them both because there’s a lot there that I’m sure that I just didn’t get. Moreover, I’m still bent on going back to the Avesta when I’m done with the Laws, because I really want to understand where Plato’s mythopœic sensibilities come from, and also to understand how radical they are when compared to other, more mainstream Classical Greek thinkers. I still think Aristotle was wrong about Persia, and Plato was – if not wholly right about Persia, then at least less wrong. Indeed, if we look at Plato’s placing of the myth of Atlantis into the mouth of Critias (who was one of the Thirty Tyrants of whose crimes Socrates was considered guilty-by-association), it becomes a little clearer (if it wasn’t already from the Funeral Oration) that Plato is not altogether a fan of the Athenian tendency to juxtapose its virtues against both Persia’s vices and her might.

But that’s very far from the most interesting or frustrating aspect of the Timæus, which at times reads like a tract on traditional Chinese medicine. The descriptions of the human body would find a number of places of agreement with the modern practitioners of TCM: the importance of the bodily fluids, the impact of the five (in Plato’s case, four) elements on each of the major organs, the hierarchical orientation of the parts of the body to each other. But the Timæus is not only a medical tract, just as TCM itself is not solely about medicine as it’s understood in the modern West. The Timæus presents us with a series of ‘pictures’ of the human being, going down to the level of the human being’s ‘constituent elements’ – or even past that, to the level of certain axiomatic geometric truths.

I still really don’t know what Plato was getting at here, and I fear to get something dangerously and egregiously wrong. So, if you’ll take the word of one such as me, struggling to get a clearer ‘picture’ myself and feeling at times a bit like a blind man groping around in the dark, it seems like Plato’s Timæus was putting forward, as I was saying above, a series of images of the human ‘form’ (with the full depth and range of meaning of the word implied): the idea that the human being is made up of irreducible constituent elements; the idea that the human being is a living biological unity of the elements and functions only when the organs retain a balance between the four (without excess or dearth); and then the idea that the human being also has a reasoning soul which abides within (but at the same time transcends) the material elements. I think this may be where we get the idea of a ‘chain of being’: each of the higher levels participates completely in the levels below it. It’s a mathematical set, in other words, which includes everything in the set beneath. And it’s only by a transcendental ‘effort’ (note how man is biologically-oriented to ‘face forward’, and the effort to overcome the gap between the matters of biology and the matters of the soul is likened to the effort needed to turn ourselves around physically!) that the lower levels are able to perceive or participate in the higher ones.

At any rate, I was discussing this Dialogue with another member of my church over coffee hour yesterday, and he directed me – wisely, I think – to examine the Timæus in reference to the Republic and especially the Phædrus. Each of the human ‘forms’ in the Timæus seems to correspond with one segment of Plato’s ‘divided line’ in the Republic, which corresponds in perfect ratio to the ones beneath it in the same way the Golden Mean (1 : 1.618) would do; and they also seem to correspond with the different elements present in Plato’s cave. Sense-impression has less reality than the object of that sense-impression; which in turn has less reality than the mathematical ‘solids’ from which they are composed and formed; which in turn have less reality than the form of the good.

Despite the presence in the Timæus of a demiurge, this is one of the reasons why I’m increasingly convinced that a ‘Gnostic’ reading of Plato doesn’t make much sense at all. Yes, Plato’s Socrates has us try to ‘forget the body’ temporarily, in the Republic – to get us to escape, momentarily, the biological demands of sex. He also has us try to ‘forget the body’ temporarily in the Phædo to reconcile us philosophically to the death of the body. But he is far from demanding of us that we ‘forget the body’ permanently! Even in the Phædrus, note, the virtuous philosophers who fall in love cannot escape the demands of the flesh; they merely understand the need to tame it, moderate it, harmonise the needs of belly and mating organs with the rede of head and heart. It’s worth noting also that in the Timæus the concern with sex (and at that, an ambiguous treatment) only comes about when the ‘picture’ of the human soul is presented.

Erōs, the divine madness, is indeed one of the few drives in the human spirit that can rightly ‘turn us around’ to an awareness of a higher ‘link’ in the chain of being. Or, alternatively, if left unharnessed, it can degrade us to the point where we’re no longer aware of anything in that chain, but instead ‘broken down’ past bestiality to our constituent triangles and atoms and elements. That’s one of the things that Socrates keeps bringing us back to in those three books, the Phædrus, the Symposium and the Republic. It’s the erotic drive in Glaucon that is seen to ‘save’ him from the fate of Gyges, but only by Socrates directing the desires of his soul toward something other than glamour, earthly splendour, mastery of others, libido dominandi, the ‘lust of the eyes and the pride of life’ (as the Gospel of Saint John would have it). We have to erotically desire ‘the good’ (justice, in Glaucon’s case) in order to really see it for what it is. And that is not an apology for licentiousness. It is instead a call to treat erōs with the care and respect it deserves, and to somehow aim the (natural, present) wants of the body toward higher things, whether through fasting or through some other discipline.

Talking about the Timæus with someone who actually understood what to look for and where the really meaningful references lay, did indeed help me sort out a couple of things about it. Even so, I am well aware that there’s a lot there I didn’t get on first read.

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