Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

PLATO.

§ I.
Of the “Timæus” of Plato and Some Other Things.

The fathers of the Church, of the first four centuries, were all Greeks and Platonists: you find not one Roman who wrote for Christianity, or who had the slightest tincture of philosophy. I will here observe, by the way, that it is strange enough, the great Church of Rome, which contributed in nothing to this establishment, has alone reaped all the advantage. It has been with this revolution, as with all those produced by civil wars: the first who trouble a state, always unknowingly labor for others rather than for themselves.

The school of Alexandria, founded by one named Mark, to whom succeeded Athenagoras, Clement, and Origen, was the centre of the Christian philosophy. Plato was regarded by all the Greeks of Alexandria as the master of wisdom, the interpreter of the divinity. If the first Christians had not embraced the dogmas of Plato, they would never have had any philosophers, any man of mind in their party. I set aside inspiration and grace which are above all philosophy, and speak only of the ordinary course of human events.

It is said that it was principally in the “Timæus” of Plato that the Greek fathers were instructed. This “Timæus” passes for the most sublime work of all ancient philosophy. It is almost the only one which Dacier has not translated, and I think the reason is, because he did not understand it, and that he feared to discover to clear-sighted readers the face of this Greek divinity, who is only adored because he is veiled.

Plato, in this fine dialogue, commences by introducing an Egyptian priest, who teaches Solon the ancient history of the city of Athens, which was preserved faithfully for nine thousand years in the archives of Egypt.

Athens, says the priest, was once the finest city of Greece, and the most renowned in the world for the arts of war and peace. She alone resisted the warriors of the famous island Atlantis, who came in innumerable vessels to subjugate a great part of Europe and Asia. Athens had the glory of freeing so many vanquished people, and of preserving Egypt from the servitude which menaced us. But after this illustrious victory and service rendered to mankind, a frightful earthquake in twenty-four hours swallowed the territory of Athens, and all the great island of Atlantis. This island is now only a vast sea, which the ruins of this ancient world and the slime mixed with its waters rendered unnavigable.

This is what the priest relates to Solon: and such is the manner in which Plato prepares to explain to us subsequently, the formation of the soul, the operations of the “Word,” and his trinity. It is not physically impossible that there might be an island Atlantis, which had not existed for nine thousand years, and which perished by an earthquake, like Herculaneum and so many other cities; but our priest, in adding that the sea which washes Mount Atlas is inaccessible to vessels, renders the history a little suspicious.

It may be, after all, that since Solon — that is to say, in the course of three thousand years — vessels have dispersed the slime of the ancient island Atlantis and rendered the sea navigable; but it is still surprising that he should prepare by this island to speak of the “Word.”

Perhaps in telling this priest’s or old woman’s story, Plato wished to insinuate something contrary to the vicissitudes which have so often changed the face of the globe. Perhaps he would merely say what Pythagoras and Timæus of Locris have said so long before him, and what our eyes tell us every day — that everything in nature perishes and is renewed. The history of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the fall of Phæthon, are fables: but inundations and conflagrations are truths.

Plato departs from his imaginary island, to speak of things which the best of philosophers of our days would not disavow. “That which is produced has necessarily a cause, an author. It is difficult to discover the author of this world; and when he is found it is dangerous to speak of him to the people.”

Nothing is more true, even now, than that if a sage, in passing by our Lady of Loretto, said to another sage, his friend, that our Lady of Loretto, with her little black face, governs not the entire universe, and a good woman overheard these words, and related them to other good women of the march of Ancona, the sage would be stoned like Orpheus. This is precisely the situation in which the first Christians were believed to be, who spoke not well of Cybele and Diana, which alone should attach them to Plato. The unintelligible things which he afterwards treats of, ought not to disgust us with him.

I will not reproach Plato with saying, in his “Timæus,” that the world is an animal; for he no doubt understands that the elements in motion animate the world; and he means not, by animal, a dog or a man, who walks, feels, eats, sleeps, and engenders. An author should always be explained in the most favorable sense; and it is not while we accuse people, or when we denounce their books, that it is right to interpret malignantly and poison all their words; nor is it thus that I shall treat Plato.

According to him there is a kind of trinity which is the soul of matter. These are his words: “From the indivisible substance, always similar to itself, and the divisible substance, a third substance is composed, which partakes of the same and of others.”

Afterwards came the Pythagorean number, which renders the thing still more unintelligible, and consequently more respectable. What ammunition for people commencing a paper war! Friend reader, a little patience and attention, if you please: “When God had formed the soul of the world of these three substances, the soul shot itself into the midst of the universe, to the extremities of being; spreading itself everywhere, and reacting upon itself, it formed at all times a divine origin of eternal wisdom.”

And some lines afterwards: “Thus the nature of the immense animal which we call the world, is eternal.” Plato, following the example of his predecessors, then introduces the Supreme Being, the Creator of the world, forming this world before time; so that God could not exist without the world, nor the world without God; as the sun cannot exist without shedding light into space, nor this light steal into space without the sun.

I pass in silence many Greek, or rather Oriental ideas; as for example — that there are four sorts of animals — celestial gods, birds of the air, fishes, and terrestrial animals, to which last we have the honor to belong.

I hasten to arrive at a second trinity: “the being engendered, the being who engenders, and the being which resembles the engendered and the engenderer.” This trinity is formal enough, and the fathers have found their account in it.

This trinity is followed by a rather singular theory of the four elements. The earth is founded on an equilateral triangle, water on a right-angled triangle, air on a scalene, and fire on an isosceles triangle. After which he demonstratively proves that there can be but five worlds, because there are but five regular solid bodies, and yet that there is but one world which is round.

I confess that no philosopher in Bedlam has ever reasoned so powerfully. Rouse yourself, friend reader, to hear me speak of the other famous trinity of Plato, which his commentators have so much vaunted: it is the Eternal Being, the Eternal Creator of the world; His word, intelligence, or idea; and the good which results from it. I assure you that I have sought for it diligently in this “Timæus,” and I have never found it there; it may be there totidem literis, but it is not totidem verbis, or I am much mistaken.

After reading all Plato with great reluctance, I perceived some shadow of the trinity for which he is so much honored. It is in the sixth book of his “Chimerical Republic,” in which he says: “Let us speak of the Son, the wonderful production of good, and His perfect image.” But unfortunately he discovers this perfect image of God to be the sun. It was therefore the physical sun, which with the Word and the Father composed the platonic trinity. In the “Epinomis” of Plato there are very curious absurdities, one of which I translate as reasonably as I can, for the convenience of the reader:

“Know that there are eight virtues in heaven: I have observed them, which is easy to all the world. The sun is one of its virtues, the moon another; the third is the assemblage of stars; and the five planets, with these three virtues, make the number eight. Be careful of thinking that these virtues, or those which they contain, and which animate them, either move of themselves or are carried in vehicles; be careful, I say, of believing that some may be gods and others not; that some may be adorable, and others such as we should neither adore or invoke. They are all brothers; each has his share; we owe them all the same honors; they fill all the situations which the Word assigned to them, when it formed the visible universe.”

Here is the Word already found: we must now find the three persons. They are in the second letter from Plato to Dionysius, which letters assuredly are not forged; the style is the same as that of his dialogues. He often says to Dionysius and Dion things very difficult to comprehend, and which we might believe to be written in numbers, but he also tells us very clear ones, which have been found true a long time after him. For example, he expresses himself thus in his seventh letter to Dion:

“I have been convinced that all states are very badly governed; there is scarcely any good institution or administration. We see, as it were, day after day, that all follow the path of fortune rather than that of wisdom.” After this short digression on temporal affairs, let us return to spiritual ones, to the Trinity. Plato says to Dionysius:

“The King of the universe is surrounded by His works: all is the effect of His grace. The finest of things have their first cause in Him; the second in perfection have in Him their second cause, and He is further the third cause of works of the third degree.”

The Trinity, such as we acknowledge, could not be recognized in this letter; but it was a great point to have in a Greek author a guaranty of the dogmas of the dawning Church. Every Greek church was therefore Platonic, as every Latin church was peripatetic, from the commencement of the third century. Thus two Greeks whom we have never understood, were the masters of our opinions until the time in which men at the end of two thousand years were obliged to think for themselves.

§ II.
Questions on Plato and Some Other Trifles.

Plato, in saying to the Greeks what so many philosophers of other nations have said before him, in assuring them that there is a Supreme Intelligence which arranged the universe — did he think that this Supreme Intelligence resided in a single place, like a king of the East in his seraglio? Or rather did he believe that this Powerful Intelligence spread itself everywhere like light, or a being still more delicate, prompt, active, and penetrating than light? The God of Plato, in a word, is he in matter, or is he separated from it? Oh, you who have read Plato attentively, that is to say, seven or eight fantastical dreams hidden in some garret in Europe, if ever these questions reach you, I implore you to answer them.

The barbarous island of Cassiterides, in which men lived in the woods in the time of Plato, has finally produced philosophers who are as much beyond him as Plato was beyond those of his contemporaries who reasoned not at all. Among these philosophers, Clarke is perhaps altogether the clearest, the most profound, the most methodical, and the strongest of all those who have spoken of the Supreme Being.

When he gave his excellent book to the public he found a young gentleman of the county of Gloucester who candidly advanced objections as strong as his demonstrations. We can see them at the end of the first volume of Clarke; it was not on the necessary existence of the Supreme Being that he reasoned; it was on His infinity and immensity.

It appears not indeed, that Clarke has proved that there is a being who penetrates intimately all which exists, and that this being whose properties we cannot conceive has the property of extending Himself to the greatest imaginable distance.

The great Newton has demonstrated that there is a void in nature; but what philosopher could demonstrate to me that God is in this void; that He touches it; that He fills it? How, bounded as we are, can we attain to the knowledge of these mysteries? Does it not suffice, that it proves to us that a Supreme Master exists? It is not given to us to know what He is nor how He is.

It seems as if Locke and Clarke had the keys of the intelligible world. Locke has opened all the apartments which can be entered; but has not Clarke wished to penetrate a little above the edifice? How could a philosopher like Samuel Clarke, after so admirable a work on the existence of God, write so pitiable a one on matters of fact?

How could Benedict Spinoza, who had as much profundity of mind as Samuel Clarke, after raising himself to the most sublime metaphysics, how could he not perceive that a Supreme Intelligence presides over works visibly arranged with a supreme intelligence — if it is true after all that such is the system of Spinoza?

How could Newton, the greatest of men, comment upon the Apocalypse, as we have already remarked? How could Locke, after having so well developed the human understanding, degrade his own in another work? I fancy I see eagles, who after darting into a cloud go to rest on a dunghill.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25