© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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E-mail Archives :
Greek bias against the Indeterminate

September 7, 1995

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: sophia <sophia@liverpool.ac.uk>
Date : September 7, 1995, 21:09:33
Subject : Greek bias against the Indeterminate

> The greatest Cosmological Revolution of the Western world is now unfolding, based on the very recent discovery that the Greek conception of passive matter is fundamentally flawed. Contemporary physics has shown that matter at its deepest level is a process, a harmonic field of vibrating energy. Matter is not passive and dumb -- it is active and intelligent. Solid, static matter doesn't even exist: *all* is form, pattern, and intelligence. Modern physics dematerializes the world and takes Platonic idealism to an undreamt of deeper level. (1)

Are you sure that, in saying that, you are not a victim of Aristotle's (mis)understanding of Plato's idealism that poisonned our reading of the dialogues for centuries on, up until now?

If you carefully read the Timæus forgetting what you heard before, you will see that for Plato, everything, including matter, has form. Actually, it is as an introduction to the description of matter that Timæus alludes to the "theory of ideas" (51b, sq). And what are the triangles if not forms? The problem for Plato at that point is not to oppose form to matter, but something that is outside space and time to things that are becoming. Remember that, for Plato, even time is created. For all that is becoming, the starting point is not matter but place, the chôra, something he is the first one to describe as almost impossible for us to grasp. For Plato, the chôra is not prime matter (that's Aristotle!), it is "spacial nothingness" devoid of any form, but able to accept any form. And the first thing he puts in there is matter, the "first" elements, which are compounds that he describes primarily through forms (the triangles). And even these primary forms of "prime" matter are "compounds": a triangle is made up of three sides, and I guess these sides have a "symbolic" value, (sides have "power", "dunamis", and the hypothenusis is "irrational" with respect to the sides), in much the same way even the prime constituants of the word soul are themselves "compounds" of sameness, otherness and being (always three).

So, whichever way you look at it, in Plato, and for Plato, all is form, except the chôra, place (modern science would say space, the "void"). As I said, the relevant opposition for Plato is not between matter and form, but between what is, outside time and space ("ideas", if you will), and what becomes in time and space. And that's why his world view is dynamic, unlike Aristotle's (even though Aristotles speacks of "dunamis"). Aristotle "form", the "entelechy", is within time and space, along with the matter it "informs". It is little more than an ADN string that will produce what it is the form of, no matter what, short of some external impediment.

In order to see how Plato's forms are much more dynamic, we must go back to the Timæus and realize that, as expected from Plato, it is interested primarily in the forms of man. One of these forms is the soul, but it is not the only one; Timæus also describes the "form" of the body, built by the subsidiary gods with a goal in view (to host the soul) and according to instructions from the demiourgos (who also hands over that soul). This is the "form" of man that a physician would like: it describes organs, their purpose, and the laws that make them work. But this body itself is made from matter, which means that the form of matter that was described through the triangles is also another more primitive "form" of man (the one that would please the physicist). But all these forms (form of the soul, form of the body, form of matter) are in time and space, they are within Timæus' "muthos".

Yet, there is still another "form" of man, the ultimate one, the one that most truly can be called idea, the one that is outside time and space, the one that is "outside" the "muthos", justice. How is this "form" shown in the dialogue? By the summary of the first part of the Republic at the beginning, that is, outside the muthos! And this one is not given in advance. Each one of us has to decide by himself wheter or not he wants to "participate" in it. Becoming is not developing an initial thrust, it is chosing what we want to become, within the bounds of anagkè (that sets limits to the demiourgos as well) and of the "laws" of the "subsidiary" forms we participate in (matter, body, soul).

The two ways we can do that are illustrated by two related "myths", in the Republic precisely, that answer one another: the story of Gyges, and the "myth" of the cave. Gyges (the "earthly" man) starts as a shepperd in the outside world, and is driven inside a "cave" opened by the forces of nature "where he was", seeking in these forces his own being. What he finds is but a dead body within a dead soul (kind of a trojan (the "political" dimension reduced to poetical myth) horse (remember the winged chariot of the Phædrus) open to all winds), a chunk of flesh and bones (the physician's form, or the phisicist's one, alone). And when he gets back outside, it is with a self-inflicted "ring" (would you prefer "chain") that allows him to escape his responsibility in becoming invisible, and to use the tricks of love (compare with Diotime's speech) to seduce the king's wife, kill the king and take his place to fleece his new sheep, his fellow men that sent him to the king.

Now, do I have to reread the myth of the cave to see it is the exact opposite? And the myth of Er, at the end tells us that it is up to us to chose between these two ways of becoming: end up a man or a beast. Not evade one form (the body, matter) to reach the other, but "participate" in all of them, each one according to its own "laws", so far as we can grasp them. The Republic does not tell us anything else, with its "triangular" (tripartite) soul...

(1) Quotation from the conclusion of an essay by David Fideler <phanes@cris.com>, 1995, called "The Meaning of Chaos", posted to the <sophia> list on September 6, 1995 at 16:28:38, in a post titled "Greek bias against the Indeterminate". (back)

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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