What intrigues me about Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is how hard it is to reconcile the observable order of the universe with human understanding of that same order. The problem is much like our modern struggle to fit our experience of our own minds with our understanding of the brain that is thought to be largely responsible for those minds in the first place.

In the Timaeus,

  1. First, there is Plato who authored the dialogue to explain his understanding of the cosmos as essentially harmonious.
  2. Second, there is the narrator, Timaeus, in whose words the cosmos is presented and explained.
  3. Third, there is the mythical craftsman, Timaeus’ agent for creating the stars, planets, and Earth as one coherent system.
  4. Followed by the mechanical (and problematic) model of the cosmos from which the craftsman works as a kind of armillary sphere, a model derived from human study of the cosmos itself.
  5. And of course the several translators of the Timaeus, each of whom applies his own perspective and familiarity with Plato’s use of the ancient Greek language.

Taken together with the cosmologies of other ancient philosophers, all leading to the confusion in my mind resulting from my effort to fit Plato into my discussion of what our engagements with the stars reveal about our impulse to find meaning in the stars, whether we know anything about them or not.

And now I have to consider the effects on any of my readers who might try to make sense of the ongoing engagement between human minds and the stars.

The central problem comes down to a glitch in Timaeus’ presentation of the relationship between stars, planets, Earth, and human’s viewing the stars overhead.

  1. The thrust of Timaeus’ argument is that the stars and constellations as mapped onto the cosmos all share in the same coherent system as demonstrated by their harmonious, circular motions.
  2. Except that Earth rotates west-to-east on its axis, while the stars seem to pass east-to-west about the celestial pole.
  3. The two motions in opposite directions cancelling out any need to explain the apparent motion of the stars. Earth’s rotation explains the illusion.
  4. While exactly that explanation is the essential point of the whole cosmic structure that Timaeus presents on Plato’s behalf in insisting on a world soul that unifies the so-called universe as one coherent system driven from the center by godly force.

The celestial craftsman takes pains to create a system in which stars-planets-Earth all move in rational order in conformity with the idea of circular motion in the same direction being the only proof and criterion for the system as a divine whole.

But that isn’t how the universe works. The stars appear to move one way, while Earth rotates in the opposite direction. Plato and his creator-craftsman can’t have it both ways. That wouldn’t fit with Plato’s idea of the world-soul uniting stars-planets-Earth into one perfect system.

So what did he do, the greatest philosopher of all time? He had his cake and ate it too. He let the discrepancy ride for what it was. He shrugged and walked away. That is, he left behind him the unsubstantiated faith that everything would work out all right.

Which is consistent with his belief in men and women forming two mutually exclusive orders of society despite all evidence to the contrary. He doesn’t quibble about both men and women being necessary parts of a unified system. He just settles for a duality as how society is structured in his day with women on a lower level than men.

The moral of this tale is that the more elaborate philosophical systems become, the more likely they are to be inconsistent within themselves, the more prone to error, the more apt to be wrong. And the philosopher more apt to muddle through vaguely because having gotten in over his head, he has no choice but to become an apologist for his own way of thinking.

Even the greatest philosophers are fallible human beings. Particularly when trying to prop-up the foundations of false or dubious beliefs. Beliefs so perfect they ought to be true. It is far easier to believe that the apparent motion of the stars along circular routes through the heavens is due to observers on Earth moving counter to those routes, making the harmonious motion of the stars an illusion projected by human minds onto the heavens.

It was an illusion for the Sumerians, an illusion for the Greeks, and is today an illusion for us, even though we take photographs of star trails by putting cameras on tripods pointed upwards while leaving the shutter open for hours on end.

But it was not an illusion for the priests and philosophers whose livelihoods depended on a cosmological system maintained by adherence to that mistaken belief. Adherence to an idea in their minds being projected onto the stars because it suited the stories they told about a prime mover driving the stars through the heavens, about stars forming the retinue of such a divine being, about planets being angelic messengers bearing commands and prophecies straight from the prime mover to his faithful flock below, and about members of that flock having an obligation to discover profound meaning in precisely the appearances of those relative motions as seen from below.

Whoee! what a ride it is to go to such lengths to devote your one life to such wrong beliefs. And to defend such beliefs against all who doubt them. Or even to burn them as heretics at the stake, as we nowadays kill them with bursts of fire from AK-47s or drone-fired rockets.

Would those who so earnestly instruct us believe in an untruth or out-and-out lie? Unthinkable. Heretical. Grounds for doing battle to stamp out all such contrary beliefs. The rest is the history of the world as told by-and-to gullible human minds.

The stars are a gleaming mirror in the sky giving us back a reflection of our own enticing yet mistaken ideas and beliefs.

 

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The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.