Month: February 2017

110. De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

110. De Anima (On the Soul) by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

My copy is the Penguin classic edition translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred (ISBN 0140444718)

My thoughts:
Aristotle, student of Plato, was Renaissance Man 1800 years before the Renaissance, with writings on biology, physics, philosophy, ethics, literature and politics. While scholars cannot agree in what order his surviving works were written, it seems like De Anima was the beginning of a series of lectures on the biological sciences so I thought this would be an easy introduction for me. Wrong.

The first thing to note is that the word ‘soul’ in the English title is not analogous to the religious meaning we currently associate with it, but translated from the Greek psyche as some sort of life force, which endows the body with the abilities of movement and perception. While reading On the Soul, it is very hard to keep reminding oneself that it is life force we are really discussing.

Aristotle starts by reviewing the works on the subject by earlier authors, most of whom concentrate on the material composition of the soul on the atomic level. As I discovered earlier in Plato’s Timaeus, the Ancient Greek view of the universe included a belief in solids being composed of atom-sized particles, with different sorts and shapes for fire, water, earth and air. Dust motes in the air were taken to be visible atoms. This was also taken further to suggest that some objects were made from a combination of different sorts of atoms, in fixed proportions. Genius stuff!!

Other suggestions on the nature of the soul include that it is the ratio of the mixtures of various elements of the body, and different parts of the body (muscle, bone, etc.) have different ratios and therefore different souls (life forces) throughout the body; or that the soul is the intellect which is set on a circular course like the heavenly bodies (which Aristotle dismisses as it would mean that we would think the same thoughts repeatedly – circular thinking, indeed!) An even more outlandish theory was that the soul is a number, and I won’t even try to explain that!

Suffice to say that Aristotle is not having any of this. His theory introduces consideration of the type of body the soul is attached to; so he proposes three levels of soul, one for plants which provides only a nutritive drive (to seek sustenance and reproduce), a higher level for animals which also allows both perception (desire, pleasure, pain) and movement, and the highest level for man allows belief and imagination.

The last two thirds of the work dwell on the five senses  – how they work, and their importance. Much of this seemed almost within my grasp but slid away – all the more frustrating than Plato as this was based around the biological sciences which I should have a grasp on. Does not bode well for the coming weeks.

Favourite lines/passages:

“[Reproduction] is the most natural of the functions of such living creatures … namely to make another thing like themselves, an animal an animal, a plant a plant, so that in the way that they can they may partake in the eternal and the divine”         II, 4 (page 165)

Personal rating:  3.

Kimmy’s rating:  A wet rainy day for the last day of summer, so Kimmy wisely stayed wrapped in her blanket and conserved her life force.

 Next :  Aristotle will dominate the posts for the next couple of months, but the end of the Greek era is in distant sight. Next will be his Parva Naturalia.


109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

Plot:   An Athenian, a Spartan and a Cretan walk into a bar …. no, sorry, …. walk from Cnossus to Zeus’ shrine on Crete, listening to the nameless Athenian formulate legislation for a new city to be called Magnesia.

Having recognized that his ideas for the ideal society as described in The Republic are unlikely to see the light of day, Plato here addresses a second-best blueprint for his utopia by laying down laws for every aspect of human life, from birth to death and everything in between.

My edition is the Penguin Classic translated by Trevor Saunders (ISBN 0140442227)

My thoughts:  The last of Plato I will probably ever read, and not too bad an experience, albeit lengthy, and my mind did start to wander by the time I reached the criminal law section. He does not hide behind Socrates any more, but still puts his words into the mouth of this ‘nameless Athenian’. The constant agreement of the other two with Plato’s suggestions becomes tiresome, so I simply learnt to skip their comments (which are mostly just a phrase or two praising or asking for more clarity, on Plato’s ideas).

These ideas, expressed as laws and guidelines to build and maintain his idea of Utopia are a mixed bag when taken from a 21st century viewpoint. On the plus side are his views on the equality of women, where a society which does not train women in the same way as men is “only half a state, and develops only half its potentialities, whereas with the same cost and effort, it could double its achievement”   (page 294)

while on the negative are his strong views on censorship in the arts, where music and literature are heavily regulated to prevent subversive progress or innovation for the sake of novelty.

“No one shall sing a note, or perform any dance movement, other than those in the canon of public songs, sacred music, and the general body of chorus performances…”   (page 286)

The projected utopia Magnesia is to be formed from 5,040 households, no more or less, at the time of establishment, as that magic number can be divided by all numbers 1-12 (except 11) making it ideal for administrative purposes. Oh, and buying or selling your house or land is a criminal act – you must stick to what you are given – which in theory would make real estate agents at best redundant and at worst criminals 🙂

Wealth and money is generally frowned upon, except for small amounts to pay tradesmen and wages for slaves. This last point I had not heard before, but it could have only been small amounts – maybe to let them buy some food or clothes?

And when selecting settlers from other parts of Crete to embark on this new enterprise, if anyone should not agree to their participation, they would be “gently compelled” 😦

The section on impiety towards the end did revive my interest, as it discussed three kinds of heresy : (i) disbelief in the gods (atheism), (ii) belief in gods who ignore man entirely, and (iii) belief in gods who could be persuaded by prayer or sacrifices to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour, all of which could weaken the morals underlying the community laws Plato was setting down. The argument for refuting all these heresies is based on the primary existence of a soul (actually two souls, one good and one evil) which brings about motion and order in the universe, and from which all else has arisen, and disregarding the supposed atheistic belief that everything in nature has arisen by randomness and chance.

I must confess that after this section, the last 100 pages did not look particularly interesting, and I was content to let the three gentlemen walk on discussing commercial and family laws and other miscellaneous legislation without me.

Favourite lines/passages:

  • Drinking parties are an educational opportunity whereby resisting temptation of further pleasure once mildly inebriated helps build self-control. Indeed, drunkenness is frowned on, and wine is the gift of Dionysus “to help cure the crabbiness of age…. to make us young again…. ready to sing his songs .. with more enthusiasm and less embarrassment”  (page 105)
  • “All the gold upon the earth, and all the gold beneath it, does not compensate for lack of virtue”  (page 190)
  • “An expectant mother should think it important to keep calm and cheerful and sweet-tempered throughout her pregnancy”   (page 277)

Personal rating:  Only a 3. Sorry Plato me old china, and you put so much work into it too.

Also in that year (ish):  Around 349 BC Athens is at war with Macedonia, under the rule of Philip II. The next decade sees Macedonia eventually become the dominant Greek state, while Rome is now the dominant city on the Italian peninsula.

Next :  Adieu Plato (and Socrates), and welcome to the next generation with Aristotle’s musings On the Soul (De Anima)

108. Critias by Plato (c.355 BC)

108. Critias by Plato (c.355 BC)

Plot:  Socrates has explained his ideal society to his friends Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates in The Republic, and asked them to supply some real-world evidence of its likely success. Timaeus started with an account of the creation of the Universe and Mankind in Timaeus (see post 107) and now Critias describes the lead up to the ancient battle between Athens and Atlantis in this fragment. Whether it was ever finished, or if the third part of the trilogy to be supplied by Hermocrates was ever written will never be known.

My version is included in the Plato volume of Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952.

My thoughts:

Critias offers Ancient Athens as a workable example of Socrates’ (Plato’s) Republic, with the warrior caste of men and women living selfless, communal lives of service to the state.

Equally virtuous were the ten kings of Atlantis, until they gradually became more debased and selfish, until Zeus decided to punish them. This is where the surviving fragment ends, but presumably the war with Athens, and finally the earthquake which sinks Atlantis are divinely ordered.

The island of Atlantis, beloved by Poseidon, consisted of concentric circles of land separated by canals, with the Royal Palace on the centre island. A lush, fertile land where there lived

” a great number of elephants in the island, for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both of those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those that live in mountains and on plains …. whatever fragrant things there now are in the Earth, whether roots or herbage or woods, or essences which distil from fruit and flower, grew and thrived”

I haven’t been including most fragments in my reading unless they are the only surviving text for a renown author (e.g Sappho) or of some personal interest. Plato was apparently the first author to mention Atlantis so I was intrigued to see its description here.

Personal rating: 4/10

Next :  Probably Plato’s Laws

107. Timaeus by Plato (c.355 BC)

107. Timaeus by Plato (c.355 BC)

Plot:  Following on from his presentation of his model society in The Republic, Socrates now asks those who were present for examples of practical applications of those ideas. Initially Critias tells of a time 9000 years earlier when ancient Athens had such a society (as recorded by the Egyptians, but now forgotten by the Greeks themselves) and fought a war against Atlantis; but before going into detail (which is covered in the next read Critias), Timaeus is asked to set the scene by a description of the creation of the universe and mankind, underlain by divine purpose, which traverses astronomy, atomic physics, psychology and philosophy, anatomy and physiology, and religion. Not bad for an afternoon’s work!

My version is the Penguin Classic translated and introduced by H. D. P. Lee, published 1965.

Key points:  Unlike Plato’s earlier Socratic dialogues, this is more like a long lecture, and Socrates is content to take a back seat and listen. Firstly Timaeus describes the deliberate creation of the universe/world, with its own soul and intelligence, by a God, but notably not the supreme leader of the usual Greek pantheon Zeus. He then describes how this creator used the entirety of all four elements – earth and fire, bound together by air and water, into a perfect physical sphere complete with soul. (The only things which have independent power of movement are living, and living things have souls, therefore heavenly bodies in motion must be living and have souls as there is no evidence of an external force causing them to move)

The distant stars are placed on an outermost ring, (the Same) with the nearer Sun and planets on concentric rings (the Different) closer to the World. All these are gods, the whole creation infused with the Soul – the Same and Different rotating in different directions to allow us a measure of Time – day and night, month and year.

Of living creatures associated with the World, there are four types: gods (those known from traditional Greek mythology, made by the Creator), and birds, water creatures and land creatures. Plants are mentioned later as living, but with souls focused solely on appetite, and the perception of pleasure and pain (!). Mankind are included in the land creatures – made by the lesser gods and with a mixture of mortal (the body) and immortal nature (the soul).

Mankind has a soul placed in a spherical head (modelling the Universe), transported by a body with arms and legs. Daylight combines with the natural fire within the body that shines out of the eyes, to provide a sensation of sight to the soul. At night the lack of daylight renders the visual stream from the eyes ineffective and induces sleep, as the eyelids shut off the flow of the internal fire. And so on… not quite how Professor Orr explained it to us in Biology 100.

This leads to the rudimentary atomic theory using geometric solids formed of various triangles as the particles of the four elements, which can be broken down and transformed into each other or combined with each other e.g. fire and water can be combined in different ways to make wine, honey or acid.

Much of the description of how things work or are composed does make a sort of logical sense, and is often ingenious based on the limited information available at the time. It will be interesting to hear Aristotle’s thoughts on some of this, one generation further on.

The least logical belief is one of “de-evolution” : where the first generation of men who lived weak or cowardly lives were reincarnated as women (Plato’s words, not mine!!) , and then birds or four-legged animals if their thoughts or desires were misplaced, with the basest individuals brought back as sea creatures. Yet it does indicate a belief in every living creature having some fragment of immortal soul.

Favourite lines/passages:

The gods gave mankind sight to allow us to observe the movements of the Heavens, and thereby inquire into the nature of things and become philosophers. Likewise, speech and hearing are for the betterment of the intellect : music is to restore internal harmony, not “irrational pleasure”, while rhythm “was given us from the same heavenly source to help us in the same way, for most of us lack measure and grace”    page 65.

“This we postulate as the origin of fire and the other bodies, our argument combining likelihood and necessity ; their more ultimate origins are known to god and to men whom god loves.”                                                                                                                    page 72

“A man’s genitals are naturally disobedient and self-willed, like a creature that will not listen to reason, and will do anything in their mad lust for possession. Much the same is true of the matrix or womb in women, which is a living creature within them which longs to bear children. And if it is left unfertiised long beyond the normal time, it causes extreme unrest, strays about the body, blocks the channels of the breath and causes in consequence acute distress and disorders of all kinds”                                                                                                                                                                   page 120

Personal rating: Ingenious in its own way. 5/10.

Kimmy’s rating: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz *leg twitch, snort* zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

 Also in that year: Around this time, Rome is busy subduing its neighbours, while Philip II has become King of Macedonia (356 BC). Iron Age technology has reached sub-Saharan Africa.

Next : Critias by Plato.