Plato’s Genius

Posted by on July 11, 2011

Reading through Plato’s Timaeus, one is reminded of a characteristic of genius which finds itself born every few generations.  This genius has the vision to combine the theories of their predecessors and contemporaries with their own creativity.  By doing so, they achieve the remarkable feat of supplanting the legitimacy of other theories with one of their own.  In recent times, one thinks of someone like Einstein who, with his theories of general and special relativity, combined a diverse set of theories of physics with his own ideas and was able to supplant theirs with his own compelling theory.  While it is true Einstein’s theories are being challenged today by the likes of String theory and others, it is the genius of men like these, who take the leap of imagination and dare to answer the bigger questions of their generation as a whole, which allows for greater human progress.   Once they present their own stable ideas, we find holes in them with more questions which lead to greater ideas.   On this note, we appreciate Plato’s Timaeus and its comparison with the Pre-Socratic conception of cosmology.

One of the Pre-Socratic theories of interest is atomism as founded by Democritus, Leucippus, and Epicurus. Their theories challenge the ideas of other Pre-Socratics because the elements fire, water, earth, and air are no longer the basis of the cosmos, rather it is the presence and interaction of these small, indivisible “particles” called atoms which, along with the void, make up the cosmos.  The view of Democritus is that what people see as water, air, or fire is simply the atoms and the void. He states that, “by convention sweet, by convention bitter; by convention hot, by convention cold; by convention color; but in reality: atoms and the void” (Pg. 65).   While Democritus states that the view of the elements in nature is simply the interaction of the atoms and the void, Plato describes the existence of the elements coming into being through the interaction and composition of fundamental atomic triangles.

Though Plato’s theory appears to be similar to that of the atomists, there is a major difference.  The atoms of Democritus may have many shapes and sizes but Plato’s triangles come in two primary forms the isosceles and scalene right triangles (Timaeus 53d, Pg. 638).  This makes Plato’s theory more elegant because it formulates a way by which the theory can elaborately, rather than vaguely, describe the cosmos, while also allow testing for validity.   In this way, Plato’s theory also combines a form of Pythagoras’s theory, which believed number to be the basis of the cosmos, for geometrical triangles are the basis of the cosmos for Plato.

While commenting on Plato’s theory of the cosmos and comparing it to a Pre-Socratic theory, it is impossible to not also discuss other theories such as Pythagoras’s or Empedocles’.  Every element of Plato’s theory combines and surpasses some form of another Pre-Socratic theory. For example, Empedocles recognized that the four elements underlay all physical changes, yet unlike Plato, was unable to explain the transformation of one element to another.  “This mixture and separation results in the world as we perceive it, and Empedocles even gives ‘recipes’ for the proportion of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water in bone and blood” (Pg. 49).  Plato accomplishes this explanation of transformations through his geometrical atomic triangles. Fire, Air, and Water are able to transform into each other through geometrical, mathematical principles (54c – 57c, Pg. 638 – 642).

Essentially I find Democritus’ theory to be the most interesting because it is the theory that Plato borrows the most from.  The entirety of Plato’s theory of cosmology is based upon the fundamental atomic triangles, which are borrowed from the concept of atoms in atomism.  The genius of Plato is truly examined when viewing his theory in comparison to the Pre-Socratics.  In science, reductive reasoning is usually preferred, whereby unnecessary pieces are discarded, leaving a beautiful, stable sculpture of an idea that may be tested.  Plato’s cosmology does much of this same beautifying by chopping away at the ambiguity of Democritus atom’s many shapes and forms, replacing it with an elaborate description of how fundamental atomic triangles form and interact with each other to create the cosmos as we view it.  His cosmology may not be entirely scientific as it relies on an explanation of the physical world coming to be through a Creator (30 a, Pg. 615), but an explanation of the cosmology that combines and surpasses previous theories deserves appreciation.

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