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Plato's Astronomy Author(s): Ivor Bulmer-Thomas Source: The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 34, No. 1
Plato's Astronomy Author(s): Ivor Bulmer-Thomas Source: The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 34, No. 1

Plato's Astronomy Author(s): Ivor Bulmer-Thomas Source: The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 34, No. 1 (1984), pp. 107-112

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Classical Quarterly 34 (i) 107-112 (1984) PrintedinGreatBritain




In one of the most disputed passages of Greek literature Plato in the Republic, 7. 528e-530c prescribes astronomy as the fourth study in the education of the Guardians. But what sort of astronomy? According to one school of thought it is a purely speculative study of bodies in motion having no relation to the celestial objects that we see. While this interpretation has rejoiced the hearts of Plato's detractors, who regard him as an obstacle to the progress of science, it has dismayed his admirers. Another school of thought holds that what Plato meant was that astronomers must get to know the real motions of the heavenly bodies as opposed to their apparent motions as seen by us on earth. The opposed interpretations may be set out in the following representative citations from Sir Thomas Heath and John Burnet.

Wehave here,expressed inhisown words, Plato's point of view, andit is

not to

sciences concerned, not with material things, but withmathematical numbers, mathematical



saystartling. Wefollowhim easily

in hisaccountof arithmeticand geometry as abstract


surely, onewould say, the


as objects of purethought


casewouldbe differentwith astronomy, a science dealing withthemovementsof the

bodieswhichwe see.Not at all,

scienceof astronomy untilwehave


Platowith a fine audacity, we do not attainto the real

'dispensed withthe starryheavens',i.e., eliminatedthevisible

(SirThomasHeath,Aristarchusof Samos[1913],pp. 137-8)

This sentenceis easily misunderstoodand requires elucidation.In the first place, the visible

apparentmotions, whichare of great

complexity and at first sight

motionsof the heavenly bodiesarewhatwe call their


quiteirregular. The

planets move at one timefromeast to

west among the stars, atanotherfromwestto

Thatis the 'problem' we haveto solve.The'real

as opposed to the apparentvelocity

whichwillexhibitthe truemotionsof the heavenly bodiesandnot


east, andsometimes they are stationaryaltogether.

velocity' (rT- 3v riXO9) is spoken of simply

Whatis meant,then, is simply thatwemusthavea science

themotions theyappear to

(JohnBurnet,GreekPhilosophy:Thalesto Plato [1914,reprinted1968],pp. 184-5)

Among the many distinguished scholars who have supported the former interpre- tation (a purely speculative science) are James Adam, The Republicof Plato 2 (1902, 2nd edition 1963), p. 131 n., Otto Neugebauer, TheExact Sciences in Antiquity(1951, 2nd edition 1958), p. 152, and J. Mittelstrass, Die Rettung der Phdinomene(1962), pp. 117, 122. Among those who believe Plato was exhorting astronomers to study the

real as opposed to the apparent motions are Richard Lewis Nettleship, Philosophical

Lectures and Remains

Republic(1893), pp. 292-3, Paul Shorey, Plato: The Republic, Vol.11 (1935), pp. 180-9, D. R. Dicks, Early Greek Astronomy to Aristotle (1970), pp. 103-6. A via media has recently been taken by Gregory Vlastos, 'The rrle of observation in Plato's conception of astronomy' in John P. Anton (ed.), ScienceandtheSciencesinPlato (1981), pp. 1-31, who writes: 'I hope to show that this passage, properly understood, permits us to recognize the positive impetus Plato gave to mathematical astronomy without requiring us to whitewash the anti-empirical strain in his whole philosophy which shows up as strongly in this passage as anywhere in his work' (p. 1). 'Who am I', as the Oxford undergraduate replied when asked to distinguish between the major and the minor prophets, 'to choose between such great men?' In fact, it is not necessary to choose. There is a simple and convincing explanation of the passage, according with both the internal and the external evidence, though it does not appear to have occurred to any of the commentators.

2 (1897),

p. 275, Bernard Bosanquet, A Companion to Plato's

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The keywords, as everyoneagrees, arein 530b,1ra 8' 4v


in 530b are synonymous with Tr 'v r^

point, again, there is no disagreement. It is on the

obpavw~dAopEvE, 'We

shall let the things in the heaven alone'. There is no serious disagreement about the




the translators and commentators have gone astray. Even Shorey, whose translation and notes are usually so reliable, and who sees clearly that Plato is not dismissing

observational astronomy, errsat this point. He translates rd v iT

as 'those sparks that paint the sky'.

supporting quotations that Shorey gives (Plato,

Critias, Sisyphus apud Diels, Vorsokratiker) bear out this interpretation. Shorey should perhaps have realized that he was on the wrong tack when he lost the

connection between

What, then, does 7roLKdApara mean? The basic word is the adjective rOLKudAOS, for

which Liddell-Scott-Jones gives the primary sense 'many-coloured, spotted, pied, dappled', with the secondary meaning, 'wrought in various colours, of woven or embroideredstuffs'. The same authority rendersthe verb TroLKuAAow as 'work in various

colours, work in embroidery', and it gives the primary meaning of orrolKtALa as 'broidered stuff, brocade, 2. embroidery'. It is clear that if we render the word in its normal sense in Greek authors rda v SW obpav r'roLKlda7ashould be translated, 'the embroideriesin the heavens', 'the patterns in the heavens'. And what can these patterns in the sky be but the fanciful grouping of stars into constellations which, as we shall see, was taking place at that time? Strong confirmation of this interpretationmay be found in another work which is Platonic even if not from the hand of Plato himself - Hippias Major, 298 a, where

only about its meaning. And what is the meaning? Clearly rA 86' v Tw


7 roLKd1xara in 529c. On

meaning of 7roLKdAttara that

obpavy 7rrOLKiAara

'spark', nor do the

But TrolrLApta does not mean

Timaeus40 a, Euripides, Helena 1096,

roLKlAtara and 7rr~7oKcLAra only four words farther on.



'For surely handsome imen,Hippias, and all embroideries and pictures and sculptures

which are beautiful delight us when we look at them'. Here 7rrOLK,•Aara are put on

the same footing as

is made to say, o' 7-r y

Tnov KaAol vOpWTrrOL,

J 'Iro7Ta,

Kal 7t%

a%IwypaqLa-i-aiKat ia ?rriraora

7r7plrEL LagSOpCvOaSV, &



KaAi ,

owypaoq'tzara and 7rrTAdaara.

Arthur Hugh Clough got

Plato's meaning right when he wrote in Uranus:

ThenPlatoin me said


figuredceiling overhead

With cunningdiagrams bestarred. It has been said above that the fanciful grouping of stars into constellations was taking place in Plato's time. There can be little doubt that the earliest groupings of

stars into constellations were made by shepherds and sailors, farmers and hunters, whose daily work made them frequent observers of the stars. This is a main argument in the posthumous work of E. J. Webb, The Names of the Stars (1952), and he proves it conclusively. Some of the names of these constellations, such as the Pleiades and the Hyades, the Bear or Plough and Orion, are very ancient, being used by Homer and Hesiod. But the groupings of these primitive stargazers did not exhaust the sky, and as time went on the heavens were peopled with mythological and historical characters, and learned men joined the shepherds and sailors in framing such groups. They had a scientific value in enabling the positions of stars to be identified before location by means of latitude and longitude, declination and right ascension had been fully developed. The process was well advanced when Aratus wrote his extant poem Phaenomena,ed. E. Maass (1893), in the first half of the third century B.c. But Aratus was a poet, not an astronomer, and the astronomical details in the poems are not original. What Aratus did - and this is the important point for our purpose - was to

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put into metre (at least from verses 19 to 732) a work of the same title by Eudoxus

of Cnidus, c. 390-c. 340 B.C., the distinguished pupil of Plato. The work of Eudoxus has not survived, any more than his similar Mirror (of the heavens), but Hipparchus

an extant Commentary on the Phaenomena of Aratus and

(second century B.C.) wrote

Eudoxus, ed. C. Manitius (1894), from which we know its character. It gave a description of the constellations along with notices of risings and settings for the

purposes of the calendar; and it was the first work to provide such a systematic description. This work, even if not actually going on in the Academy under the eyes of Plato, must have been well known to him. And when Glaucon is made to say (Republic,529c),




ESEv arpovo/LLav

/LavOavELvraph & virv

'But how

thendid you say thatit is necessary to

they now study?', thereis a highprobability thatit is thisconcentrationon grouping starsintofanciful patterns thatPlatohasin mind.Thiswecan certainlysay was going on at the time, and thereis nothing else distinctivein the teaching of astronomy at

thattimeof whichwe areaware. This grouping of starsintofancifulconstellationsdidhavea scientificvaluein those days as we have seen, and as Eudoxuswouldhave recognized. But Plato may well be forgiven for thinking that astronomy studiedin this way wasa looking downrather than upwards, even though the studentwereto pursue it lying flaton his back; and we canwell imagine his dismay whenhe foundthathis brilliant pupil, whose genius hecould recognize evenwhenhecouldnot wholly follow it, shouldbe giving hismind to such trivialities, as he wouldhave thought, whenit was capable of much greater things. How,then, didPlatowish astronomy to bestudied?Hehastoldus himself through

studyastronomydifferently fromthe things


the mouth

IKalT 7rL

of Socrates -





rTXOS Ka1'q Oua







7X?7aUaL f


TE 7Tp6 5AAira


pETraL KaL T av6vra


'the motions with which the real speed and the real slowness move in relation to one another, carrying their contents with them, in the true numerical relation and in all the true forms'. These are matters that can be grasped only by reason and



This programme is remarkably similar to one that is attributed to Plato by Simplicius, and which is particularly mentioned in connection with Eudoxus. Sim- plicius, living in the sixth century A.D., would not by himself be the best authority for what Plato said in the fourth century B.C., but he claims Eudemus as his authority - though whether it is by direct knowledge or through citation by Sosigenes (the Peripatetic philosopher living in the second century A.D. and teacher of Alexander Aphrodisiensis, not Julius Caesar's astronomical advisor) is a matter of some uncertainty; and Eudemus of Rhodes, living in the same century as Plato, and the author of histories of geometry and astronomy (no longer, alas, extant) which are invaluable source books on many points through citation, is not likely to have erred. The references are in two passages, which have always been obstacles for those who attribute to Plato a purely speculative astronomy. They read:

KaL 7rpoT09 Trv 'EAA'ivwv EiSco~o06'KviG&oW, UW


by sight,



Kait 6tavo


Ar7&Tr, O~ELS 8' o0








"roi'ro Aaf;v,


-rE-rayt/Lvwv Aristotelis


ibauOat yhEraLA














avw OitVC/V





oWaLyEv7•q, 7rrporflCta


rITEpt -rau"ra

Epl raS

UIOTEO•OEtado 6tLzaAdv

Q/a toLEva.


Caelo Commentaria,2. 12, ed. Heiberg 488. 18-24)

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Andfirstof theGreeksEudoxusof Cnidus- asEudemusrelatedinthesecondbookofhis

of astronomy and also Sosigenes,taking this from Eudemus- is said to have pursuedsuch


Sosigenessays,having set as a problem for those seriouslystudyingsuch

questions,by what hypothetical uniformand orderedmovementsthe appearances of the

movementsof the planetsmight be explained(literally, 'the phenomenamight be saved').



Kat ELpO)-qra


OT-L 0

-ldErwgv rats





TrEpLros ir,7avWoPtEvoVs-U

rTETay/IEVOVavEvSoLarTOqa7r TOSL80oS 7TP5gA/itqa rTO•I aOTLqaTLrKoLITpo•TELvE, TLIWV





r•O L 7TP T pro


KvL8Los&r9/a E

r-t raTs SLi r-Ov



/aLpuWv 7TOO'EOUL.

(Ibid. 492. 31-493. 5).


IthasbeenmentionedearlierthatPlato,havingunhesitatingly ascribedtothe heavenly bodies

circularanduniformandordered motion, setthis

hypotheses of uniformandcircularandorderedmovementsthe

planets canbe saved, andthatEudoxusof Cniduswasthefirstto

by theso-called counteractingspheres.

In the formerof these passages it is not madeclearthat the movementsmustbe

explicitly statedin the


Platoin Eudemus, but only in Sosigenes. Whetherit was due to the prompting of Plato or not - and thereis no reasonto

former passagesuggests that Simplicius did not findthe problem set by

circular, but the contextshowsthat this is

mathematicians,by what

problem to the

phenomenaconcerning the

engage in such hypotheses

implied, and it is

doubtwhat Simpliciussays - Eudoxuscarriedout

workentitled TIpt

spherescarrying the sphere of

for the apparent motionsof the

stationarypoints of the planets. The workhas been lost, but a brief descriptionby

Aristotle,Metaphysics A 8 1073b17-1074a14(with

Callippus and by himself) and

Aristotle, De caelo, Book 2, ed. Heiberg,pp. to be reconstructed.Thishas beendonemost

elaboratelyby G. V. Schiaparelli, 'Le

488. 18-24and493.4-506. 18enableit

a fulleraccount by Simplicius in his commentary on


heavenlybodies,including the retrogradations and

precisely whatwas enjoined. In a

rTaXcov, On Speeds, hedevisedan ingenioussystem of homocentric

the fixed stars, the sun, moon and planets to account

sfereomocentrichedi Eudosso,

OsservatoriodiBrerain Milano, 9

in Eudoxus'Homocentric Spheres' in CommentationesHumanarumLitterarum50

(1974). Modern critics have found flaws in the

system and particularly in the

di Callippo e di Aristotele'in Pubblicazionidel R.

(1875), andmost recentlyby Erkka Maula, 'Studies

Oxford Classical Dictionary

observational data,e.g. G. J. Toomer,'Eudoxus', in the

first attempt

it did so correctly to a pursued - to find what

combinationof uniformcircularmotionswould'save the phenomena' - reachedits


for the phenomena to an astonishing extent and dominatedthe world until the

sixteenth centuryA.D.If this interpretation is correct, Plato's influenceon the development of astronomy, far from beingnegligible or baneful, was immenseand beneficial.It is idle to say that his postulate of uniformcircularmotionsset backa

true explanation, for this is the naturalfirst hypothesis, and untilit had workedout it is improbable thatastronomerswouldhaverealizedthatthe

been fully

Ptolemy'ssystem of epicycles andeccentric circles, whichdidaccount

to give a mathematical theory of the celestial motions, that remarkableextentfor a first venture, and that the method

(2ndedition,1970), but thesecannot outweigh the factsthatit was the


orbitsare ellipses in whichthe planets movewith varyingspeedsaccording to their distancefromthe sun.And if Plato,throughEudoxus,did havethisinfluenceupon

astronomy,the notionthathe prescribedin the Republica purelyspeculativestudy of bodiesin motionmustbe rejected. The subjectof Plato'sotherastronomicalreferencescannotbe pursuedhere,but it is worthnotingthatin none of them- and theyareboth numerousand long - is

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there any suggestion that astronomy should be pursued as a theoretical study of bodies in motion having no relation with the actual heavens. These other passages are often fanciful, but the celestial bodies to which they refer are always the celestial bodies we see. What has been said above about Plato's role accords with one of the earliest testimonies to his influence on the exact sciences, namely, that of Dicaearchus, a pupil of Aristotle, as cited by Philodemus in a papyrus roll found among the ruins of a villa at Herculaneum, P. Herc. 1021. It was edited in 1902 by S. Mekler in Academicorum philosophorum index Herculanensis, but Konrad Gaiser, who has recently drawn attention to its importance in an article in the Neue ZiircherZeitung (7-8 November 1981), states that a new edition is planned and this will no doubt be more interpretive. In one of the passages cited Dicaearchus aptly compares Plato with an architect, who laid down tasks that the mathematicians zealously sought to fulfil. An attempt has been made in this paper to show that the theory of a purely speculative astronomy has arisen through a misunderstanding of what Plato meant by saying that we must discard the things in the heavens. Two more questions need to be examined before we can leave it. Immediately before these disputed words in 530b, Plato lays down that the Guardians must pursueastronomy as he had laid down that they must pursue geometry, by using problems - rpoflAcaatLv &pa, v 8' Ey,


woaEp yEw•ETrplav o0it

AETLALEnv. Some have taken this

heavenly bodies are only approximations to the true objects of

Kat a•7povolUav

to mean that the

astronomy, just as the line drawnon paper is only an approximation to the geometrical line existing in thought alone. Some have postulated astronomical intermediates

between the objects of sense perception and the Forms, a belief that Aristotle, Metaphysics B 2, 997b 12-18, indeed attributed to Plato, though it led, as he pointed out, to many difficulties. Neither of these interpretations seems to be required or justified by the Greek. The natural meaning of the words is that in astronomy we must use the same method of deductive reasoning that was already employed in geometry

in Plato's day, was to reach perfection in Euclid's works shortly after his death and, if Arpad Szabo is to be believed (The Beginnings of Greek Mathematics [1978], pp. 250-3), had its origin with Parmenides and the Eleatic school. After astronomy Plato posits harmonics as the next study in the education of the Guardians, and he censures those who measure audible concords and sounds against one another as labouring ineffectually like the astronomers who have just been

rebuked - ia yap &Kovo[Livas av avtkwvLas


o0 1CaTrpOV6ptOL, av-vvra

To thosewhobelievethatPlato




(531 a 1-3).

advocated a speculative astronomy this has seemed strong confirmation of theirviews. Plato, they say, sought a purely a priori science of acoustics having no relation with practical music as, for example, W. Burkert, LoreandScienceinAncient Pythagoreanism (1972), p. 872. Certainly the two interpretations hang together, and those who would exculpate Plato from the charge of a priori astronomy must also look for a different interpretation of what he says about harmonics. It is not difficult to do so. We could, with Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, remind ourselves that

Heardmelodiesare sweet,butthoseunheard Aresweeter,

that the composer must necessarily 'hear' the notes in his head before he commits them to paper, and that Beethoven still composed when he was deaf; but this is not what Plato has in mind. Gregory Vlastos, loc. cit. pp. 11, 17-18, usefully points to a passage in the Phaedrus, 268d-e, where Socrates tells a practising musician that

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becausehe knowshow to get varying notesfroma string he mustnot thinkthathe is a masterof harmonics; he knowswhatit is necessary to knowbeforeharmonics

butnot harmonicsitself-

-r& ydp irp ap/povias avayKaGa

oi, KatS

8ta 7





o0 rd pptOVLwKd.



qroiaUtV, &AA'

And what then


is this true science of harmonics? [za6, The answer lies


av/Lowvwats "raisdKovotivaLs aptOfLo

(that word again!) aviaatv, EmLKorrLVrTLV


seekthenumbersin these


problems,examining whichnumbers

yd&p v r7aratsra'

oVbK Ed rrpoflA"zaTa

a6b4 wvat aptO0tpo

heard concords, butdo not apply themselvesto

areconcordantandwhich not, andforwhatreasonin eachcase.'The Pythagoreans knewthatthe octave, fourthandfifthwere concordant, butwhatPlatowantsto know is whythey areconcordant.His requirement could hardly bemetuntilthewave theory

of soundwasestablished.Wenowknowthatif a string is tunedto MiddleC it vibrates

at 256 cycles a second, and the ear hearsnot only the fundamentalnote but

harmonicsor overtonesat multiples of the frequency of thefundamental pitch. I am not aware that a scientific theory to account for concordancehas ever been propounded, butI would guess thatthe explanation mustlieinthenumberandnature of thewaves reaching theeardrumswhena string is struckor bowedor plucked, and in particular whether they reinforceor interferewitheachother.In the case of the

fifth, the ratio of the frequency of the fundamentalnotes is 1:1-5, and the second

harmonicof the lowernote vibratesat

the upper note. The kind of considerationthat

reasoning thatledJ. S. Bachto devisethe equal-temperamentscale, stillin universal use, in whichtheratiobetween adjacentsemitonesin thescaleis constant (the twelfth root of 2). Plato can havehad no inkling of whathe was demanding, but it was a naturaldemandto makeand entirely inlinewiththedemandhemadeof astronomers. Thosewho pursue thesesister sciences, as the Pythagoreans calledthem (530d3-4),

must apply themselvesto 'problems' andthedeductive reasoningimplied inthatterm. Themain object of this paper hasbeento argue thatwhatPlatomeant by 'leaving the things in theheavenalone'wasto drop the grouping of starsinto fanciful figures andto concentrateonamathematical explanation of celestialmotions.This suggestion wasfirstmadein thebrieffinal paragraph of a reviewof JohnP. Anton (ed.), Science

andthe Sciencesin Plato, in CR n.s. 32 (1982), 197.But as the

it seemsdesirableto elaborateit. This paper retractswhat I wrote in Selections

Illustrating the Historyof GreekMathematicsi

E. J. Webb, TheNames of theStars (1952) that set me on the righttrack, as I now believe, andI wouldend by expressingmy beliefthatthe question how thestarsand constellationsreceivedtheirnameshasnot receivedfromclassicalscholars nearly as muchattentionas it deserves.



the same frequency as the firstharmonicof

Plato had in mind is the kind of

suggestion is novel

(1939),p. 14n. It was the editing of


Note: Sincethe proofs of thisarticlewere passed I havelearntthata theory of concordancewas

propoundedby the great German physicist, Hermannvon Helmholtz, in his Tonempfindungen

(1862), of

whichthe English translation by A. J.EllisOntheSensations of Tonehasbeen reprinted

theory was propounded earlier

especially pp.

in the Dover series (1954); see pp. 192-3. I see also that the


in a lecturehe gave at Bonn in 1857, 'On the physiological causes of harmony in music', included


2nd edition 1881); see

in a 'roughness of tone' explained much as I guessed in the penultimate paragraph above. This strengthens my belief that I have correctly interpreted Plato's meaning.

88-9. He finds the essential character of dissonance to lie

his Populdre Vortriige, translatedas Popular Lectureson ScientificSubjects, First Series (1873,

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