A Day with Socrates

Thanks to his generosity of spirit, I was able to spend a day with Socrates and three of his friends during this year’s Panathenaic Festival in Athens (the festival’s procession, as you perhaps know, was recently sculpted on the frieze of the Parthenon). Socrates being Socrates, the day was spent with his friends in philosophical conversation, and Socrates being Socrates, the conversation – they call it dialogue or dialectic – was both charming and fascinating. I thought to the best of my limited ability I would render an account, with the expectation that you, dear reader, even hearing about it secondhand, might find it as interesting as I did. So just as Socrates and his friends did that day, I begin my account with a prayer for the guidance and approval of the goddess.

As it happened though, this occasion turned out to be more speech making than dialogue. For on the day of my visit, the three friends each delivered a lengthy speech in fulfillment of a homework assignment they had been given by Socrates the previous day. The friends were Timaeus, a well-born and accomplished statesman from Locri in Italy; Socrates’ friend and fellow citizen Critias, now quite advanced in years; and Hermocrates, another visitor from the Greek west, specifically Syracuse in Sicily. On the previous day, the three explained, Socrates had discoursed on one of his favorite topics, the nature of the ideal state and the ideal citizen. One of the elements in Socrates’ ideal constitution was state support for a special class of citizens called Guardians. The sole job of the Guardians was to protect the polis from enemies within and without. The Guardians, Socrates had said, would be equally men and women. These men and women would have no private property of their own and their children would be separated from their parents at birth and raised in common. The soul of the Guardians would need to be at once high-spirited and philosophic, and both to an exceptional degree: The ones deemed most promising would be specially trained in gymnastics, in music, and in other appropriate studies to cultivate temperaments “equally mild with friends and fierce with enemies.” At the end of the day Socrates, with his penchant for vivid imagery, had compared himself to someone who had just gazed upon a beautiful creature at rest in a painting and now desired to see, not the image, but the real creature in motion. Hence the homework assignment. To repay Socrates for his account of the ideal state, the three on their return that evening to Critias’ guest quarters were to come up with an account of a real city, one resembling Socrates’ ideal one as closely as possible, and to return the next day to tell Socrates how this real city, so constituted, fared in war and in affairs of state.

That real city, appropriately for the Panathenaea, ended up being Athens. Not today’s Athens, however, nor yesterday’s. You and I might have guessed the friends would elect to tell how earlier this century Athens led the Greeks in their defeat of Xerxes and the Persians, a story in fact ably told already by Herodotus the Halicarnassian and by Aeschylus. But no, the friends decided, the Athens most resembling Socrates’ ideal state was a far more ancient Athens, an Athens so old that most Athenians today know nothing about it except for a few names that have survived, like Cecrops and Erechtheus and the other predecessors of Theseus. The friends would tell the story of how this ancient and virtuous city defeated the hubristic island empire of Atlantis, the Atlantis subsequently buried by earthquakes beneath the Ocean. How this tale (a true tale, in Critias’ estimation) was passed on to Critias – for it was Critias’ speech that recounted the rise and fall of Atlantis – how Critias himself learned this tale, how it was passed down from Solon and the Egyptians, is itself a fascinating history and will be part of my account. On a personal note: When the gods long ago divided up among themselves the regions of the world, Poseidon was made the founding god of Atlantis, and the contest of Poseidon and Athena is sculpted on the western pediment of the Parthenon looking across to my home village in Salamis.

But the men whose speeches I listened to that day were not historians, like Herodotus, or tragedians, like Aeschylus. They are part of this new breed we are calling these days “philosophers,” lovers of knowledge. And the program they returned with the next day, a program that won Socrates’ enthusiastic approval, was considerably broader and frankly more peculiar in scope. The division of labor was as follows. Timaeus’ philosophical expertise, the group said, was astronomy and natural science, and he was to begin the day’s proceedings by delivering an account of no less than the creation of the Cosmos, from its origins down to the creation of man. It was then Critias, as I said, who was to tell of the war between Atlantis and Athens. Unfortunately, I had to end my visit in the middle of Critias’ speech, and I missed Hermocrates’ speech in its entirety, but the plan as I understood it called for him to speak of the reconstitution of Athens after it too was destroyed in one of the floods that periodically wipe out most of Earth’s population.


Timaeus acquitted himself spectacularly. That said, his speech was extremely dense. I know I only comprehended parts of it, and probably not always correctly. In addition, as old Critias said to Socrates, our memory is a curious thing. Sometimes we remember something from our distant past in greater detail than something we heard yesterday. I find in some cases I can quote Timaeus verbatim, in some cases my memory, perhaps corrupted by my ignorance of the subject matter, is foggy. Nevertheless, with the aid of Athena and with the help of a philosopher friend of mine who is familiar with the doctrines of other Hellenic philosophers and with reports of other dialogues between Socrates and his friends, here is the gist as I recall and understand it.

Metaphysical and mythological foundations

Philosophers study both the physical and the metaphysical. Timaeus began with a premise, that there is a fundamental metaphysical distinction between being and becoming. The objects of the world of becoming are the physical ones we are familiar with in our everyday lives. They are sensible: we can see and touch them. They are in constant motion, always changing. They come into being and vanish again. But there is a world of eternal being. Its objects are immobile and unchanging. They are invisible and intangible, but intelligible by our rational selves. They are what Socrates and his friends sometimes call Forms. Through our senses we can apprehend the things of the world of becoming and form correct or incorrect judgements and beliefs about them. But only judgements and beliefs. The objects of the world of being we can apprehend through reason and reasoned discourse, and when that happens, it constitutes, not mere judgements or beliefs, but true rational understanding and knowledge. Because Timaeus’ account dealt with the creation of the world of becoming, it, he duly cautioned us, could only be a human judgement, though, he confidently added, a most likely one! He asked for and received Socrates’ indulgence on that score.

Logically, as a thing generated the world of becoming must have had a cause. That cause was, according to Timaeus, the Demiurge. The Demiurge is good. Being good, he is without a trace of jealousy. Being without a trace of jealousy, the Demiurge wished all things to come as near as possible to being like himself. Yet he saw that everything visible was in a state of turmoil, moving discordantly and chaotically. He considered order better than chaos, harmony better than disharmony, and so using the perfect world of being as a model, he created the Cosmos, the world of becoming, as a copy, a necessarily imperfect copy, but one whose every detail would be as perfect as he could make it. In its becoming, every detail of it might have a more immediate physical cause, but its ultimate cause was to this end.

The distinction between being and becoming, between model and copy, has a counterpart in the distinction between soul and body. The Demiurge regarded a work that has intelligence as superior to one without it, and nothing can have intelligence unless it has soul. Accordingly, the Demiurge framed the universe by fashioning intelligence within soul and soul within body. And the universe he created (Timaeus, by the way, used the words Cosmos, Heaven, Universe, and World interchangeably) is, literally, a living creature, with a soul and with a body. It is modeled on the true Living Creature. That Living Creature contains within it other living creatures as parts. Since the Demiurge could not make something that was incomplete, the Cosmos he created therefore also contains all the forms of living creatures, immortal and mortal, including ourselves, that we apprehend.

As a final preliminary, Timaeus argued that this Cosmos is one world, not one of many, for that which embraces all the intelligible living creatures cannot be one of a pair.

Now whether Timaeus intended the Demiurge as real or only as mythological, and whether there was actually an act of creation, in time, or perhaps a creation narrative was the only manageable device Timaeus had for explaining something so complex – these things, dear reader, you must decide for yourself.

In any case, with these foundations established, Timaeus proceeded to narrate (as if there was an act of creation, in time) the origins of our Cosmos. The fascination is in the details.

The body of the Cosmos

The Cosmos is a living creature with a body and a soul. Of what was the body made? Timaeus said, as I reported, that before he created the Cosmos, the Demiurge saw everything visible in a state of turmoil. Specifically what was visible? Fire, earth, air, and water, or at least these four things in some sort of primordial state. The Demiurge created the world’s body from this fire, to make its objects visible, and from earth, to make them tangible. Some of you may know that Empedocles in his poems on nature posited these same four primary elements (he called them “roots”). My philosopher friend assures me Timaeus would have been familiar with his fellow Italian Empedocles, who was from the Sicilian town of Akragas. However, Timaeus’ account differs from Empedocles’ in at least one significant way. Timaeus also included air and water among the primary elements, but he used them as bonding agents: Two things cannot be connected without a third of some kind, and the best bond, Timaeus said, is that which creates a unity of itself and the two things it connects. The Demiurge knew that this was accomplished most perfectly in the proportions of a continuous geometric progression, where the bond is, in mathematical terms, the means. And since the body was to be a solid and not a plane surface, two bonds or means were required. So the Deimurge used the four elements in this proportion: as fire is to air, so air is to water, and as air is to water, so water is to earth.

In fact one of the most fascinating aspects for me of Timaeus’ account was the Demiurge’s use of mathematics; in some sense you might say he was a geometer-god. It is possible, my philosopher friend tells me, that this conception was due to the influence of yet another Greek Sicilian from an earlier generation, the famous but somewhat shadowy figure of Pythagoras. For these reasons, in any case, the world’s body acquired its property of – and here Timaeus explicitly used a term borrowed from the poetry of Empedocles – “philia,” or amity. Because of this property, the world’s body is indissoluble by anyone other than the Demiurge.

In making the world’s body, the Demiurge consumed all the fire, earth, air, and water in their entireties, with none left over. This was so the world’s body, unlike ours, would not experience age and sickness, as it might if attacked by the active powers (hot and cold and the like) of additional bodies he might have otherwise created.

After mixing the four elements in these proportions, the Demiurge shaped the mix into a sphere. He judged uniformity to be far superior to its opposite, and the sphere is the most perfect and uniform figure of all, everywhere equidistant from its center. He made the outside perfectly smooth: Since all the material was used and there was nothing left outside this sphere, the world’s body did not require eyes or ears or other organs to sense and to breathe. And he assigned to the sphere only one motion, the uniform rotation about itself. Without any of the so-called rectilinear motions – upwards and downwards, right and left, forwards and backwards – the world’s body also did not require hands or feet or limbs. (Again my philosopher friend recalled a similar thought by Xenophanes, who in his hexameters had said of his non-anthropomorphic deity, “All of him sees, all thinks, and all hears.” Xenophanes, from the generation preceding Timaeus, is said by some to have migrated to Elea in Italy from his birthplace of Colophon in Ionia and to have taught Parmenides there.)

This then was the world’s body. Next in Timaeus’ narration was the Demiurge’s creation of the world’s soul. But I am going to first jump ahead to a subsequent juncture in his speech in which Timaeus revisited the creation of the body. For now just know that, with respect to the soul, Timaeus represented the creative craftsmanship of the Demiurge, in the process of creating the world’s soul, as mind or intelligence or reason. In fact, my philosopher friend believes it would be valid to understand the Demiurge as essentially Reason.

The body of the Cosmos: further metaphysical and mythological foundations

His account of the world’s body up to now, Timaeus said, had only given a half picture. To complete the picture, it would be necessary, not to simply unquestioningly accept the pre-existence of fire, earth, air, and water as the irreducible elements (stoicheia) of all things bodily, but to explain what they really are. To do this, Timaeus introduced a phenomenon I admit I found rather fabulous. The generation of the Universe, he said, was actually not the result of Reason working alone, but of Reason working together with Necessity, in fact of Reason having to persuade Necessity. Reason had to persuade Necessity to allow her to create the properties and objects of the Universe as perfectly as possible – which, you will recall, was the unjealous Demiurge’s purpose in creating the Universe in the first place. (The subject of persuasion reminds us that Socrates is well known for his dialogues with and about another new breed amongst us Greeks, the so-called Sophists.)

We must also understand, Timaeus added, what he called the “wandering cause,” and how it is in this wandering cause’s nature to cause movement and change.

Necessity, Reason “persuading” Necessity, “Wandering Cause”: I admit I find these ideas both intriguing and baffling. I believe I am correct in any case in saying, based on what followed in his speech, that by necessity and “wandering cause” Timaeus meant factors or causes that, while real and having to be contended with, have no purpose or rational design. Be that as it may, Timaeus reminded Socrates and the rest of us that this fresh account of the creation of the world’s body that he was embarking on was again dealing with things in the sphere of becoming, that accordingly it could at best be only the most likely account. And for this fresh start Timaeus once again invoked the aid of the protecting god.

Heretofore, Timaeus proceeded, he had distinguished two things, model, the sphere of real being, the realm of Socrates’ Forms, of things immobile and unchanging, things invisible but intelligible by the rational soul, and copy, the realm of things not real themselves but images or likenesses of the real, things visible and sensible, always becoming and then vanishing. Now he interjected something intermediate between these two realms, a third factor he called the Receptacle, metaphorically the nurse, of all things that become.

Take water. When it is compacted, we see water (or imagine we see it) becoming earth and stones; or, when it is dissolved, wind and air; and air, when it is inflamed, fire. Conversely, fire becomes, when it is condensed and extinguished, air; air, condensing, mist and cloud, and further condensing, water; and from water earth and stones. In this cycle of dissolving and condensing, what is really water? What we think is real and call ‘this’ water we should really call ‘that which has such and such a quality as it perpetually recurs in this cycle.’ (The qualities natural philosophers speak of – they also call them powers — are things like hot and cold and dry and wet, typically conceived of as pairs of opposites.) Only when referring to that in which ‘that which has such and such a quality’ appears and again vanishes may we, properly speaking, apply the words ‘this’ or ‘that.’ And the “in which” of which we may say ‘this’ or ‘that’ is the Receptacle.

The Receptacle itself is permanent but has no qualities of its own; it is a matrix for the things that pass in and out of it as likenesses taken “in some strange fashion that is hard to express” from the eternal Forms. Timaeus compared this to a man molding and constantly remolding figures out of gold: the gold, like the Receptacle, is always the same; it is the gold (the Receptacle) we may call ‘this’; the figures molded from it, like the things passing in and out of the Receptacle, are transient and properly called ‘that of such and such a quality.’ Timaeus also compared the model to a father, the Receptacle to a mother, and the impress of the model in the Receptacle to their offspring.

Granted, then, that what we perceive in the Receptacle and call “fire” should properly speaking be called “that of fiery quality.” But is there nevertheless such a thing as ‘fire just in itself’? This is a favorite question of the philosophers. For Socrates the question is, is there, in the realm of eternal and unchanging being, a Form for fire? As a final step in laying down the foundations for his fresh start on an account of the world’s body, Timaeus expressed his belief that, yes, there are intelligible Forms in the realm of being for fire, earth, air, and water.

In summary then, there are now three factors to consider, he said. Namely, first, the unchanging Form (of fire, for example), ungenerated and indestructible, neither receiving anything else into itself from elsewhere nor itself entering into anything else anywhere, the object of thought. Second, the copy of that model which bears the same name (“fire”), perpetually in motion, coming to be in a certain place and then vanishing, the object of perception and belief. Third, the Receptacle, which Timaeus now called Space. The Receptacle, or Space, is everlasting. It does not admit destruction. It provides a place for all sensible things that come into being. Though that is its function, it itself is not an object of belief but of, as Timaeus put it, “a sort of bastard reasoning.” Space is an independent and externally existing factor confining the operations of the Demiurge within necessary conditions, conditions the Demiurge, or Reason, could only make subservient to his purposes by persuading Necessity.

The body of the Cosmos: digging deeper

At the beginning of his speech Timaeus had said the Demiurge saw everything visible in a state of turmoil. What we can now say is that before the Heaven came into being, fire, earth, air, and water appeared in the Receptacle. They were not really substances but distinct and opposing qualities or powers (hot and cold, dry and wet, etc.). The four elements in this primordial state were buffeted about in the Receptacle discordantly and chaotically (the “wandering cause”); unalike and unevenly balanced, they shook the Receptacle and the Receptacle in turn, itself perpetually in motion, shook them. Since like attracts like, these violent movements had the effect of separating the denser and heavier powers from the rarer and lighter ones, driving each into their own regions. Timaeus compared the effect to that of a winnowing basket. In short, the elements were in the condition “we should expect when deity is absent.”

In this chaos, the elements were without proportion or measure. Regarding proportion, we already learned that the Demiurge distributed the stuff of the world-body in a continuous geometric proportion (we now understand that this required persuading Necessity). With respect to measure, we now learned that the Demiurge gave the elements geometric shapes and numbers. (To shore up my understanding here, I also consulted a mathematician friend of mine.) The Demiurge began with the reasoning that fire, earth, air, and water are bodies, that bodies have depth, that depth must be bounded by surface, and that every rectilinear surface is composed of triangles (my mathematician friend asked me why the Demiurge decided on rectilinear surfaces in particular, but I do not recall Timaeus saying). All triangles in turn are derived from one or the other of two right-angled triangles, the right isosceles triangle or the right scalene triangle. The right isosceles triangle is completely determined, but there are an infinite number of right scalene triangles. Of these latter the Demiurge selected the one whose square on the longer side is three times, whose hypotenuse two times the lesser side.

The Demiurge started with these two triangles. He constructed an equilateral rectangle, that is, a square, out of four right isosceles triangles, and he constructed an equilateral triangle out of six right scalene triangles of the kind he chose. (Technically, it only takes two right isosceles triangles to make a square and only two right scalene triangles to make an equilateral triangle. My mathematician friend believes Timaeus, or the Demiurge, wanted smaller building blocks for greater flexibility when it came to constructing compounds from them, as I shall describe later.)

Finally, from these two plane figures – the square and the equilateral triangle – the Demiurge constructed four of the five known regular solids, that is, the polyhedrons that have congruent polygons as faces. Using the square as face, he constructed the cube. In numbers, this consisted of twenty-four right isosceles triangles making up six squares or faces and eight solid angles each made up of three plane right angles. Using the equilateral triangle as face, he constructed the tetrahedron or pyramid, the octahedron, and the icosahedron, specifying their respective number of right scalene triangles, faces, and solid angles or vertices made up of so many equilateral triangular planes.

He then assigned these four regular solids to be the shapes of the four primary elements, to give them the most perfect bodies possible. The right-angled isosceles triangle, with its equal sides, is by nature more stable than the one with unequal sides (the scalene), and in turn the square constructed from it is necessarily a more stable base than the equilateral triangle. Accordingly, he shaped earth from cubes, making earth the most immobile and plastic of the four primary bodies. Of the three bodies made from the equilateral triangle, the most mobile would be the one with the fewest faces and sharpest cutting edges – this would also be the lightest, being composed of the smallest number of similar parts – and this was the tetrahedron or pyramid. This he made the element and seed of fire. The largest and least angular and hence least mobile of the regular solids is the icosahedron, and this he assigned to water. The octahedron was assigned to air. We can assume, Timaeus concluded, that, regarding their numbers and proportions, the god adjusted these things to be in every detail “as perfect as permitted by Necessity complying with persuasion.”

(There is one other perfect solid, the dodecahedron, whose face is a pentagon. It was probably for the sake of completeness that Timaeus, or the Demiurge, gave this body a function too. According to Timaeus, the Demiurge used it “to decorate the whole.” Neither I nor my mathematician friend know what that refers to. The zodiac?)

The causes of natural phenomena

Based on this understanding about the perfect bodily shapes of fire, earth, air, and water, Timaeus was able to explain the necessary, or physical, causes of a variety of natural phenomena.

First let’s consider the phenomena of rest and motion. In the chaos of the Receptacle prior to the Demiurge’s creation of the world’s body, we spoke of the winnowing-basket effect, how the amorphous qualities of fire, earth, air, and water, shaken in and by the Receptacle and being more or less dense, tended to their own regions. This process, if carried out to its ultimate conclusion, would result in complete stasis; there would be no motion. Why does this not happen in the Demiurge’s world-body? The explanation lies in the geometric shapes. A precondition of motion, Timaeus said, is heterogeneity. The self-contained sphere of the newly created world-body, Timaeus had told us, rotates about its axis. This motion constricts the four elements and tends to allow no room within the sphere to be left empty (some of Timaeus’ theory, according to my philosopher friend, is in antithesis to the school of Leucippus and Democritus and the atomists). In this compression the pyramids of fire, the rarest element, and the octahedra of air, the second rarest element, penetrate the interstices of the larger elements (the greater the number of constituent parts, the more gaps in the structure). The smaller bodies cause the larger ones to expand and the larger bodies cause the smaller ones to contract. As these bodies expand and contract and change their size, they are constantly changing location, and this is the guarantor of heterogeneity and of perpetual motion. (All motion, we know from Timaeus, is ultimately caused by soul, but I have not gotten to the soul yet.)

We spoke before of the processes of dissolution and condensation and the apparent transformation of the elements one into another. Timaeus was now able to elaborate. On the one hand, he explained, though Earth can be dissolved by the sharp angles of fire, because the faces of earth’s cubes are alone built from right isosceles triangles, earth-cubes or their constituent right isosceles triangles can only reassemble as earth. On the other hand, when water is broken down by fire (by boiling, for example), or again by air (when evaporated by air that has been heated by the sun), it is normal that the right scalene triangles of each icosahedron of water are regrouped as one tetrahedron of fire and two octahedra of air. The fragments of fire warm the air, and a fragment of air, when dissolved, can become two particles of fire, so that the upward transformation of water, through air and fire, into nothing but fire is possible. Conversely, when a little fire, enveloped in a large quantity of air or water, struggles for a while but is finally overcome and shattered into fragments, normally two particles of tetrahedra combine to make one of air, and when air is overpowered, two and a half octahedra will be compacted into a single icosahedron of water (this describes, for example, the formation of mist, cloud, and rain).

The primary bodies, according to Timaeus, have several varieties. This is because, when he constructed the half-square and half-equilateral triangles as the bases for the faces of the regular solids, the Demiurge used several sizes of his two elementary triangles, specifically, as many sizes as varieties in each of the four kinds. Fire, for example, exists as flame but also as an effluence from flame which does not burn (this variety of fire is critical to how, in Timaeus’ explanation, vision works), as well as glowing embers when flame is quenched. We see air in a bright and clear variety we call “aether,” and in darker varieties we call “fog” and the like. Water has two primary types, liquid and fusible. From the liquid type the Demiurge made fluids such as oil and wine, and from various other water-based mixtures and processes hail, ice, snow, and frost, and the compounds we see oozing out from plants and to which we give the general name “juices” or “sap.” From the fusible type he made compounds such as gold, adamant, and copper. From different varieties of earth he made substances such as stone, soda, salt, glass, and wax. Timaeus went into much great detail than I am giving here about the properties and processes behind the formation of all these varieties and compounds.

I have alluded previously to the qualities or powers of substances: hot and cold, hard and soft, heavy and light, smooth and rough, black and white, etc. These do not exist except where there is a sentient being. At this point in his speech Timaeus had not yet described the construction of the human body, so he asked us for the time being to assume the existence of sensation. With that, he began by explaining how it is that we call some things “hot,” some “cold,” etc. (he began his discussion of perception with tactile qualities). The phenomena of sensation result from the properties of the different shapes – the fine edges, sharp angles, small-size particles, and swift movement of fire, for example – and from the interaction of two objects composed from these shapes, namely, the object that appears to be hot, for example, and the sense organs of the sentient being.

Sometimes these tactile affections have an element of pleasantness or of painfulness. Pleasure and pain similarly have their explanation in the properties of the primary bodies, in particular, their relative mobility. When something that is naturally mobile is invaded by even a slight affection, it spreads it all around, one particle passing on the same affect to another, until they reach the consciousness and report the quality of the agent. But something that is naturally immobile does not transmit the affection and leaves the subject without sensation. This is the case, for example, with bone and hair and all the other parts in our bodies that are composed chiefly of earth. When the former happens so as to violently disturb the normal state, and if it happens suddenly, it is painful. The sudden restoration of the normal state is pleasant. Unimpeded but non-violent modifications certainly reach the consciousness and cause sensations, but involve no pain or pleasure, as is the case with sight. Again, Timaeus went into much greater detail than I am reporting, and he moved on from tactile sensations to taste, smells, sounds, and colors.

Timaeus concluded his second look at the creation of the world’s body by again reminding us that all the causes of natural phenomena he had just enumerated are causes constituted of necessity; but that, in creating what Timaeus here called “the self-sufficing and most perfect god,” namely, the Cosmos, the Demiurge, or Reason, beginning with the imposition of regular geometrical shapes, made these causes subservient to the true cause, which was his desire to make the most perfect world possible. We must therefore distinguish, Timaeus reasserted, between two kinds of causes, the necessary and the divine. We seek out the necessary causes as the indispensable means for seeking out the divine. The latter is the true source of happiness.

However, you will feel by now, dear reader, that there is a gaping hole in my secondhand account, and that is Timaeus’ account of the creation of the world’s soul. After all, Timaeus said, the Demiurge intended soul to be “the mistress and governor of body.”

Soul: “the mistress and governor of body”

The body was made from fire, earth, air, and water. What is the soul made of? What is the soul-stuff? Answering this requires another dip into the murky waters of metaphysics. The soul is compounded, Timaeus explained, of Existence, Sameness, and Difference. Specifically, the Demiurge created an intermediate Existence between the indivisible Existence of the realm of being and the divisible Existence of the realm of becoming, and then similarly intermediate forms of Sameness and Difference. From these he compounded a mix that is the soul-stuff.

The result for us of this intermediate mixture is that our souls – for, as we shall see, each of us is made from the stuff of the world’s body and the world’s soul – partake in part of the intelligible sphere of Forms and in part of the sensible sphere of things that become. To get ahead of myself, cognition is a function of the soul. Ideally, our soul’s intelligence apprehends and makes correct statements about things in the realm of being, while it makes correct judgements, formulates correct beliefs, about the visible things in the realm of becoming. How do we know what we know, if indeed we can know anything? My philosopher friend believes there is an echo in Timaeus’ speech of particular dialogues he has heard about between Socrates and his friend Theodorus and Theodorus’ young pupil Theaetetus.

After creating the soul-stuff from this mixture, the Demiurge (whom I have called the geometer-god) divided the mixture into harmonic intervals, just as he had proportioned the four elements of the body-stuff in a continuous geometric progression. For the mathematics I again rely on my mathematician friend. The Demiurge first divided the whole into seven portions whose ratios resulted in the number series 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 27. He treated these as a double, 1, 2, 4, 8, and a triple, 1, 3, 9, 27. (He started from 1 because, my friend tells me, the Pythagoreans hold that the unit contains within itself both the even and the odd; the Pythagoreans in fact believe that numbers make up the Universe.) Within the intervals of the the double and the triple he marked off two means, the harmonic means and the arithmetic means. This gave rise within the original double and the original triple of intervals of 3/2, 4/3, and 9/8. Now Timaeus never explicitly referred to music, but a friend of mine conversant in the vibrations of the kithara and lyre and in the theory of music points out that a frequency ratio of 4/3 is a perfect fourth in music, of 3/2 a perfect fifth, of 9/8 a tone. Within each of the 4/3 intervals, in other words, within each tetrachord, the Demiurge marked off intervals of 9/8, which left within the tetrachord an interval of 256/243, or semitone. The series of these tetrachords taken to 27 is the equivalent in our Greek diatonic scale of four octaves plus a perfect fifth plus a tone. In short, the Demiurge divided the mixture of Intermediate Existence, Intermediate Sameness, and Intermediate Difference into this harmonic series.

Next, he split this whole fabric lengthwise into two strips which he crossed at their centers like our letter chi (X). He bent each round into a circle so that the two circles met opposite to where they originally crossed. He comprehended these two circles in the motion that is carried around uniformly in the same place (as distinct again from the rectilinear motions), that is, the same axial rotation the Demiurge, in Timaeus’ account, had imparted to the sphere of the world’s body – the motion is in fact one and the same, or will be, once the world-body and world-soul in the narrative are connected to one another. Then the Demiurge imparted separate motions to each of the two circles or rings. He set the outer ring in motion to the right (“by way of the side”), and he named it the motion or revolution of the Same. He set the inner ring in motion to the left (“by way of the diagonal”), and he named this the motion or revolution of the Different.

“By way of the side” and “by way of the diagonal” refer to a rectangle you must imagine inscribed in the sphere. In this illustration the circuit of the Same is a horizontal plane parallel to the top and bottom sides of the inscribed rectangle. As an astronomer friend of mine clarified for me, this circuit will correspond in the astronomical construction that follows in Timaeus’ account to the sidereal equator, that is, the equator of the sphere of fixed stars. The inner ring’s diagonal circuit is the diagonal of the inscribed rectangle, which inclines to the plane of the horizontal ring and which will correspond to the Zodiac, that is, in the astronomical construction that follows, to the path of the seven planets. This diagonal revolution of the Different intersects the circumference of the enveloping sphere at the corners of the inscribed rectangle, which will be the summer (Cancer) and winter (Capricorn) Tropics, and it intersects the horizontal plane at the two points where the two strips crossed, which will be the Equinoxes.

The Demiurge granted supremacy to the outer revolution of the “Same and uniform” (Timaeus consistently used this phrase). He left it single and undivided. But he split the inner revolution of the Different in six places corresponding to the double and triple intervals (remember that each strip inherited the harmonic intervals). This created a total of seven unequal circles. The Demiurge further ordained that these seven circles would move in opposite directions, and that three of these (which will correspond to the Sun, the Morning Star, and the planet called sacred to Hermes, although we must think for now of the two main circles and the seven smaller circles as only motions) would be similar in speed, while the other four should differ in speed from one another and from the three. As I understand it – and my astronomer friend has a theory about this – the revolution of the Same, to which supremacy was given, will carry with it all the bodies of the Heaven, that is, both the fixed and the wandering stars or planets; the revolution of the Different will carry all seven planets in the opposite direction; and in addition each of the seven planets will have its own distinct and opposing motions. Timaeus was clearly trying to account for the observed motions of all the heavenly bodies, and this gets very complicated. In fact, he conceded at one point that these motions are not really possible to understand without the aid of a visual model, such as the armillary sphere I have seen at the home of my astronomer friend.

In sum, the mix of Intermediate Existence, Sameness, and Difference, portioned into harmonic intervals and split into two intersecting motions moving in opposite directions, with the circle of the Different divided in turn into seven smaller circles with their own opposing motions – that is the world’s soul. The Demiurge then fitted the world-body center to center into the world-soul. This soul, being everywhere interwoven from the center to the outermost heaven and enveloping the heaven all around on the outside, revolving within its own limit, “made,” Timaeus said, “a divine beginning of ceaseless and intelligent life for ever.”

In fact, Timaeus depicted this soul as engaging in solitary discourse, silently making true judgements about that which is sensible, judgements communicated throughout the whole soul by the circle of the Different, and true statements about the invisible but intelligible realm of reason or being, statements declared by the circle of the Same. It is important therefore that we understand — as I did only after reflection on the day’s speeches — that the soul and its motions are the source both of the grid pattern for the astronomical structure of the Cosmos and of cognition.


When the father-creator – Timaeus variously referred to the Demiurge as the Demiurge, the father, the creator, god, or sometimes gods, I suspect not wishing to commit to anything too specific – saw his creation set in motion and alive, he was pleased. And he wished to make this living creature even more like its model, which he did in two fundamental ways. First, the Living Being of the model is eternal. It has no “was” or “will be,” only “is.” It was not possible to confer eternity on a generated thing, so he made of it a moving likeness he called Time, which moves according to number. The Demiurge did not create Space, but he did create Time. He did this simultaneously, Timaeus said, with the Heaven, so that, just as they were brought into being together, they could in theory at least be dissolved together.

And as the instruments of Time, to give the Heaven days and nights, months and years, he created the seven wandering stars (which in Greek we call planets), each a living creature with a spherical body and a soul and a rotation in place, and he set these seven bodies in the seven circuits he had carved out of the revolution of the Different: the Moon in the circle nearest the Earth; the Sun in the second above the Earth; next the Morning Star and the one called sacred to Hermes, and then the remaining three. The Morning Star and the one called sacred to Hermes, Timaeus said, run as it were a race with the Sun, at times overtaking and at times being overtaken by one another. He explicitly declined to characterize the motions of the others.

The celestial gods

Second, to complete the objective of making this copy of the living creature as much like its model as possible, he produced in it all the additional forms of life “that intelligence discerns contained in the Living Creature that truly is.” There are four such kinds of life: the heavenly race of gods, winged things whose path is in the air, all things that dwell in the water, and all things that go by foot on the dry land.

In the sequence of Timaeus’ narrative, the Demiurge had already made the planets as celestial deities. That left Earth and the fixed stars. The Demiurge made the fixed stars mostly from fire. He molded them in spheres like the Heaven. As non-wandering bodies he set them in the revolution of the Same (“in the intelligence of the supreme,” as Timaeus put it). He assigned to each two motions: one uniform in the same place, that is, axial rotation, that each “always thinks the same thoughts about the same things,” and a forward motion, as each is subjected to the revolution of the Same and uniform. He distributed the fixed stars throughout the Heaven, and this firmament indeed afforded the Cosmos an adornment (playing on our Greek word “cosmos”).

And finally, Earth. The Demiurge made the Earth as the “guardian and maker” of night and day and as “the most venerable of all the gods within the Heaven.” One important detail was unclear in Timaeus’ account: whether the Earth, like the wandering and fixed stars, has its own axial rotation. Timaeus’ words were ambiguous, and if the entire Heaven, including the Earth, revolves once a day about the revolution of the Same, but the Earth separately also rotates daily about its own axis, how could it define night and day? My astronomer friend votes that Timaeus regarded the Earth as stationary.

What about Zeus? What, you will be wondering, about our traditional anthropomorphic gods? “Too high a task for me,” Timaeus said with an undoubted touch of irony. He preferred, he said, to trust the old theogonists (referring presumably to, for example, Musaeus and Orpheus). Being themselves descendants of the gods, they should know, even though their poems, Timaeus pointed out, attempt no probable or necessary proofs. Anyway, it is from these, Timaeus said, that we must get an account of the children of Earth and Heaven; and of these Phorkys and Cronos and Rhea; and of Cronos and Rhea Zeus and Hera and their familiar brothers and sisters, and their descendants. While our small circle found this amusing, I should note that there are some Athenian citizens who are put off by what they regard as the philosophers’ impious attacks on the traditional gods.

Assembly of the gods

That left then the remaining three kinds of life, which are the mortal forms of life. For this the Demiurge convened the newly created gods and addressed them. We Greeks of course love to write speeches, and Timaeus reproduced what purported to be the Demiurge’s address. I could not create these forms of life myself, Timaeus quoted the Demiurge as saying, because then they would be equal to gods. Instead, I will create the immortal part of their soul and sow these as seeds, and then you will take over.

So after his address he turned once more to the same mixing bowl and poured into it what remained of the intermediate forms of Existence, Sameness, and Difference. He blended these, in a mix a few degrees less pure than he had for the world’s soul, but in the same harmonic intervals. He divided this mix into as many souls as there are fixed stars, and he allocated each soul to its own star. Mounting these souls “as it were in chariots,” the Demiurge showed them the nature of the Universe and declared to them the laws of Destiny, which were as follows. Each soul would have a first incarnation, one and the same for all, and the god would sow each into the appropriate instrument of time. This first generation of souls would be the most god-fearing of living creatures, and human nature being two-fold, the superior kind would be that which would eventually be called “male.” These souls would of necessity be implanted in bodies, and this would have necessary consequences: first, sensation, due to the violent impressions coming in and out of them; second, desire, blended with pleasure and pain; and third, fear and anger and associated emotions. He who in his allotted time was able to control these passions would return once more to dwell happily on the star with which he had been paired. Otherwise, at his reincarnation he would return as a woman. If he still behaved wickedly, he would return again as an animal of a lower order, one matching the nature of his wickedness. (Timaeus’ speech gave short shrift to the mortal forms of life other than man. Much later in his speech he prefaced his description of the processes of respiration and digestion in man with a description of plants as a form for man of nourishment. And at the very end of the speech, he described animals in a descending order from lesser to greater brutishness. Birds are reincarnations of men who had no badness in them but in their judgements were too lightweight, too attached to the evidence of their senses. Land animals came from men who had no use for philosophy at all, beginning with those land animals who let their forelimbs stretch out and their heads bow down to the earth, thus not even looking up to the heavens. At the very bottom, the most witless of men might reincarnate as snakes.) These reincarnations would be the fate of the soul until by discourse of reason it had drawn its bodily encrustation of fire, water, air, and earth and their irrational turbulence into alignment with the revolution of the Same and uniform within itself (we will see that the individual soul has the same motions as the world’s soul).

Having delivered these ordinances – to the end, Timaeus said, that he might be guiltless of the future wickedness of any one of them – he sowed these first-generation souls, some in the Earth, some in the Moon, some in the other instruments of time. He then left it to the newly created gods to mold their mortal bodies and guide them to the best of their powers.


To craft the individual mortal body, then, the gods borrowed from the world-body portions of fire and earth and water and air (on condition, Timaeus said, that these loans should be repaid!) and fastened together the body with a large number of invisibly small rivets. The circuits of the immortal soul were thus confined within “the flowing and ebbing tide” of the body. In this river, as it were, the soul’s circuits both caused and suffered violent motions. The Demiurge constructed the circuits of the soul, you will remember, with the intervals of the double and triple and the connecting means of the ratios 3/2 and 4/3 and 9/8. As such, they could not be completely dissolved other than by the Demiurge, but initially they were considerably shaken and left the soul without intelligence, just as we see in a new-born baby.

The gods confined the two divine revolutions of the soul in a spherical body that we call the head. To allow this head to travel in an orderly fashion – unlike the world’s body, whose only motion was to rotate in place, the human body was to have all the rectilinear motions – they gave it a trunk and limbs, distinguished a front and a back, and fashioned a face on the front of the head. On this face they affixed “organs for all the forethought of the soul,” beginning with the eyes, to bring us light.

Earlier I described the varieties of fire. The type which does not burn the gods made into daylight (considered by Timaeus as a type of body). The pure fire that is within us is the same type, and the gods caused it to flow out through the eyeball and pupil (they constructed the pupil smooth and close in texture, so as to let nothing pass through it of coarser stuff than this fire). This visual ray coalesces with the daylight and forms with it a single homogeneous body in a direct line between the eyes and whatever the eyes are focused on. This homogeneous body passes on the motions of anything it comes in contact with throughout the whole body and to the soul and thus causes the sensation we call seeing. But when the kindred fire of daylight departs at nightfall, the visual ray is cut off, for when it issues out it finds no fire to coalesce with. This helps induce sleep, and this fire, now confined within, plays a role in the production of images we call dreams.

Timaeus now paused. It was in this context about vision that he introduced the distinction between necessary and divine causes. The causes of vision he had just given us, he said – the formation from fire and the actions of daylight and of the visual ray from within – these are necessary causes, he said, but but they were employed as subservient by the gods. Though the great mass of mankind regards them as the sole causes, these necessary or accessory causes have no plan or intelligence or purpose. As lovers of intelligence and knowledge, he told us, we must seek first for the causation that belongs to the intelligent nature, and only second for that which belongs to things that are moved by others and of necessity set yet others in motion. Without sight, we would have never seen stars, Sun, and sky, and no word of this discourse, Timaeus proclaimed, would have been possible. The sight of day and night, of months and the revolving years, of equinox and solstice – “the circuits of intelligence in the Heaven” – these caused the invention of number and bestowed on us the notion of time and the study of the nature of the world. From that we have derived all philosophy, he told Socrates and the rest of us, and that is the greatest boon to man from heaven. That is the divine cause cause of seeing.

This seemed like a peroration, but it was at this juncture, having introduced the notion of necessity, that Timaeus sprung on us his fresh take on the creation of the world’s body, founded on the metaphysical conception of the Receptacle and the fabulous conception of Necessity being persuaded by Reason, beginning with Reason’s shaping of the four primary bodies as perfect solids. That new account, you may recall, ended by circling back to the necessary or accessory causes of touch, taste, smell, hearing and, finally, seeing.

After his second take on the creation of the world’s body, Timaeus proceeded to “crown his story,” as he put it, by telling in greater detail how the gods, in conjunction with Necessity, completed the task of creating the mortal body. This account began with the creation and housing in the body of two mortal parts of the soul. The first part lies in the heart and is abetted in its functions by the lungs. The gods created the neck to separate it, like an isthmus, from the immortal part of the soul in the head. On the one hand, it might therefore be “within the hearing of the discourse of reason,” and on the other hand this part is the seat of spirit and courage and ambition for victory. Timaeus’ language here left no doubt he was making a reference to the Guardian class of Socrates’ ideal state, whose men and women, Socrates had said the day before, needed to be at once exceptionally high-spirited and exceptionally philosophic.

The second mortal part was separated by and placed in the belly below the midriff. It is the appetitive part and is aided in its functions by the liver and the spleen. Plants have only this kind of soul. It is the seat of irrationality and of the appetites and passions the immortal soul in the head, teamed up with the mortal but “spirited” part of the soul in the heart, must overcome in order to be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation and reunited with its parent star.

After this account of the two mortal parts of the soul, Timaeus moved on to our other bodily organs and processes, to the causes in the mortal body of decay and death and disease, and to measures for the hygiene of both the body and the soul. In this part of the speech, I was especially intrigued by Timaeus’ explanation of the body’s irrigation system, respiration, and the principal of the “circular thrust” (periosis), and for this I took the trouble of consulting with a physician acquaintance from Kos, but I have decided to end my account of Timaeus’ speech here, as it has already stretched out far longer than I intended.


Timaeus ended with a playful prayer to the god he had just created. It was Critias’ turn. As Critias said, he inherited mankind from Timaeus. And with all due respect, he joked, his task was harder because, knowing nothing about the gods, we accept likenesses of them, in a painting or in a speech, less critically than we do likenesses of what we are most familiar with, namely, human beings and human events. With mock modesty Critias therefore asked Socrates for leniency in advance in the judgement he would render of Critias’ speech. Socrates granted this allowance – Hermocrates will ask for it too, he said, and I might as well grant it in advance to him too – but, he warned Critias, alluding to the dramatic competitions in Athens, the playwright that preceded him went down amazingly well with the audience. A little more banter, and then Critias began his speech, invoking all the gods but especially Apollo Paean, as if he were going into battle, and Memory, the deity, he said, responsible for the most important aspects of his account. (Speaking of dramatic competitions, one of the most famous stories that circulates about Socrates even among non-philosophers like myself – if you will pardon a digression – is about the drinking party the playwright Agathon hosted on the occasion of his first victory at the Lenaia – this was before Agathon and his lover Pausanias left Athens for the court at Macedon. That party became an occasion for speech making too. As I understand it – I heard about it from a friend of Apollodorus, the fanatic young devotee of Socrates – the guests decided to compete with eulogies on Eros. No less than Agathon and Pausanias, the physician Eryximachus, and the comic poet Aristophanes – the same Aristophanes who had caricatured Socrates in his play The Clouds! – delivered brilliant speeches only to be topped by a reluctant Socrates, only to be topped in turn by a drunken Alcibiades, who burst in and, learning of the competition, delivered an affectionate encomium on Socrates.)

9,000 years had passed, Critias began, since war was declared between the two powers on each side of the Pillars of Heracles. The gods had divided all the regions of Earth among themselves, and Hephaestus and Athena were given Attica, since its mild climate and rich soil (at that time) were especially suitable for courage and intelligence, as indeed some of our medical writers have said. The first Athenians were autochthonous, and Hephaestus and Athena implanted in their minds the outline of their political system. We remember some of their names, but all account of their achievements except for an occasional obscure rumor has been obliterated, Critias said, and I will come back to the reason for this. Most of the inhabitants were occupied with either the crafts or with agriculture, but a warrior class of men and women – Athena, as Critias reminded us, is often depicted in armor – were set apart in communal accommodations on the northern side of the Acropolis around the temple of Athena and Hephaestus and supported by the state, just like the Guardians of Socrates’ ideal state. The Guardians maintained their numbers at around 20,000. They were the protectors not only of Athens but of all the Greeks, who at that time were their willing subjects. They were renowned, Critias said, throughout Europe and Asia for their physical beauty and for their many outstanding mental qualities.

Poseidon, who had been given Atlantis, spawned the line of kings there by sleeping with Cleito, the daughter of the autochthonous Evenor and his wife Leucippe. For Cleito Poseidon created the citadel around which concentric rings were built out, three of water and two of land, to form the foundation of the island’s capital. Cleito bore to Poseidon five pairs of twins. The eldest was named Atlas, and Poseidon made him king over the others, though the others were also given ample territories under their own royal rule. (I will get to Solon and his role in Critias’ account. The reason that the names of the historical figures in Atlantis sound Greek, Critias explained, is that Solon was planning a poem about the tale of Atlantis, and in his visit to Egypt he took the sense of the Egyptian names the priests there had come up with when they translated from the native language of Atlantis, and Solon in turn translated those Egyptian names into Greek equivalents.) For generations the kingship passed on from eldest son to eldest son, and each strove to outdo his predecessor in building Atlantis into something of astonishing size and beauty.

Critias described in considerable detail the abundant natural resources of the island (including a precious metal called orichalc, then valued second only to gold but existing today in name only), the architecture and adornments of the city and its acropolis, the immense gold- and silver-clad temple to Poseidon (very “non-Greek,” Critias said) at the center of the citadel, the wall about the city, the teeming harbor, and the geography of the remainder of the island.

Critias also had exact figures for the military organization of the royal city (at the time of the great war, the empire of Atlantis extended as far east of the Pillars of Heracles as Egypt and Etruria). With respect to the wielding of power and authority, the authority of each of the ten kings over his own region was more powerful than the laws, Critias said, since the king could punish and kill at whim. Authority and interaction between the ten kings however were governed not only by tradition but by a decree inscribed by the first generation of kings on a stele of orichalc. In accordance with this decree, the kings met periodically, alternating between four and five years so as to privilege neither odd nor even numbers. At this meeting, besides general business, trials were held for anyone charged with infringement of one or another regulation. Critias described in detail the ritual of sacrifice that preceded these trials: they selected one sacrificial bull from among the consecrated bulls maintained in the shrine of Poseidon, cut its throat over the stele so that its blood flowed over the inscription, and so on.

For many years Poseidon’s nature was vigorous in the line of kings descended from Atlas. They were on good terms with the other gods who were their kin, and they reacted “with self-possession and practical intelligence to the vicissitudes of life,” valuing virtue over their immense wealth. But eventually the divine portion within them began to fade and their mortal nature began to predominate. Corruption ensued. Zeus, who reigns by law, saw this. He wished to punish them, and he convened an assembly of the other gods. Athens at this time was also ruled by a king (if Critias said which one, I missed it), but the Guardian class had maintained the courage and intelligence gifted them by Athena and cultivated in their souls by state provision. The remainder of Critias’ speech told of the Athenian victory in the war provoked by Zeus against Atlantis.


Just how Critias learned of this history I found as fascinating as the history itself. I will end my account therefore with a brief history of how that happened.

Solon, Critias said to Socrates at the beginning of the day when the friends outlined the plan for their speeches, Solon, the wisest of the seven Greek sages, was a relative and a close friend of Dropides, as Solon indeed mentions in his poems, and Dropides was my great-grandfather. I was at most ten years old when, on the Koureotis of the Apatouria, my friends and I were inducted into our fathers’ phratry. In the competition for reciting poetry, many of us sang Solon’s verses, which were quite the new thing at that time. And Amynander, one of the clansmen, perhaps trying to impress, volunteered to my grandfather Critias, son of Dropides and about ninety years old by then, how talented a poet he thought Solon was. My grandfather agreed, and only regretted that Solon, when he returned from Egypt, had had to set aside the story he was working on in verse to deal with the political factions in Athens. Though Solon never managed to commit that story to writing, he told it often to my grandfather when visiting Dropides. And what was that story, Amynander begged my grandfather to say.

It was about the greatest achievement ever performed by our beloved city of Athens, the old man told us. And that was the story, Critias told Socrates, that he and Timaeus and Hermocrates had agreed on to satisfy the homework assignment they had been given to find a real city as much like Socrates’ ideal city as possible. Critias the evening before worked at refreshing his memory of this story as recounted to him as a child by his elderly grandfather Critias, and he rendered a summary account of it to Socrates before the day’s speeches began.

In Egypt around that part of the Delta where the Nile forks at its crown, there is a district called the Saitic province, and its largest city Saïs is famous as the birthplace of King Amasis. The founder of this city is the Egyptian deity Neïth, and she is one and the same with Athena, according to the inhabitants there. And so the Athenian Solon, when he visited there during the reign of Amasis, was heaped with honors (the account of Solon’s visit there is also given in the histories of Herodotus). Solon was intrigued by this connection to his own polis, and when he asked the priests about it, he learned from them an ancient history that put our Greek notions of antiquity, with our tales of Phoroneus and Niobe and Deucalion and Pyrrha, to shame. One of the priests, a very old man, explained to Solon the reason for this. The better part of Earth’s human population is periodically destroyed by massive conflagrations or floods. When the gods purge the earth with a flood, the inhabitants of cities are swept into the sea by the rivers, leaving only a small number of illiterate herdsmen and shepherds in the mountains. It takes many generations for the survivors to rebuild their numbers and for letters and other accoutrements of civilization to reappear, only to be lost again in the next flood, along with all the written records. This has happened multiple times to Athens, the priest said. Because of the lack of rainfall in Egypt and because of the way the water rises up from the Nile to irrigate the plains, this catastrophic flooding does not happen there. So the priests in Egypt have preserved written records that go much further back in history than anything remembered or known to the Athenians. And for this reason, the old priest explained to Solon, the Athenians today are unaware that once, before the greatest and most destructive of the periodic floods, the city that is now Athens contained the noblest and most heroic race in human history. They were exceedingly well governed and were unrivaled at warfare.

Solon was astonished by this and begged the priests for a detailed account of these fellow citizens of his from long ago. The priest said Egyptian culture, according to the written records in their temples, goes back 8,000 years, whereas Athena 1,000 years earlier, being a lover of war and of wisdom, took over the seed of Earth and Hephaestus and chose the present site of Athens as her first settlement, a region again whose mild climate would bear men most closely resembling herself. The priest pointed out the close similarity in the laws of modern-day Egypt to those of this ancient Athens: the separation of the citizenry into shepherds, hunters, farmers, and craftsmen, and especially the creation of a special class for the priesthood and a guardian class of soldiers armed with the spear and shield of Athena, and the cultivation of the arts, from the study of the Universe down to the application of its divine principles in the practice of divination and medicine and all the other branches of learning.

The written records in Egypt document many achievements of this early Athens, but one stands out, the priest said, above all others in greatness and courage, and that is how this Athens, first leading the other Greeks and then by herself, defeated Atlantis and prevented the enslavement of the rest of the world by that ever more menacing empire. Afterwards, there was a time of great earthquakes and floods, and in one terrifying day and night Atlantis was buried beneath the Ocean and all your warriors, the priest told Solon, beneath the earth and out to the sea. This is the story Critias told at length in his speech.

As I forewarned at the outset, on this festival day honoring Athena I had to catch the last boat that evening to Salamis and so I unfortunately had to leave in the middle of Critias’ speech, and I missed Hermocrates’ speech altogether. With apologies, I must leave it to your imagination, dear reader, to fill in the gaps. I am told that one of Socrates’ most attentive followers, a young man named Plato, has talked about writing out some of these amazing dialogues with Socrates. If this young man is worthy of that task, it would be a great gift to the world.

Published by Randy Gibbons

I am retired. I have several strong interests, in particular classical studies (Greek and Latin); a lifelong passion for music, especially jazz; and more recently, dabbling in philosophy. For more information about me, click on About Me.

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