Plato & Peter Kingsley- Heavenly & Terrestrial Earths

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Engraving XLV from Michael Maier’s ‘Atalanta Fugiens’, published in 1617 by Theodore de Bry. Artwork by Matthias Merian.


Another sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA to start the weekend in style and in good company, two extracts: The first extract echoes Damascius’ ‘Commentaries upon the Phaedo’ we published yesterday, about Gaia-The Mother Goddess, referring and commenting upon the paragraphs in Plato’s ‘Phaedo’ we publish today, here in the Loeb Classical Library edition of 1914 (1966) and translated from the original Greek by Harold North Fowler (1859-1955), digitized by the Perseus Project with support from the Annenberg CPB/Project and shared under a Creative Commons 3.0 License 🌿 The second extract is from Peter Kingsley’s impressive study, ‘Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic’-Oxford University Press-1995, pages 90 to 93, and is a commentary upon the same paragraphs in Phaedo, 109a-113c, about the subject of Heavenly and terrestrial Earths. The loop is thereby closed 🙂


I-Plato-Phaedo 109-112

‘I believe that the earth is very large and that we who dwell between the pillars of Hercules and the river Phasis live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond, and that many other people live in many other such regions. For I believe there are in all directions on the earth many hollows of very various forms and sizes, into which the water and mist and air have run together; but the earth itself is pure and is situated in the pure heaven in which the stars are, the heaven which those who discourse about such matters call the ether; the water, mist and air are the sediment of this and flow together into the hollows of the earth. Now we do not perceive that we live in the hollows, but think we live on the upper surface of the earth, just as if someone who lives in the depth of the ocean should think he lived on the surface of the sea, and, seeing the sun and the stars through the water, should think the sea was the sky, and should, by reason of sluggishness or feebleness, never have reached the surface of the sea, and should never have seen, by rising and lifting his head out of the sea into our upper world, and should never have heard from anyone who had seen, how much purer and fairer it is than the world he lived in.

I believe this is just the case with us; for we dwell in a hollow of the earth and think we dwell on its upper surface; and the air we call the heaven, and think that is the heaven in which the stars move.
But the fact is the same, that by reason of feebleness and sluggishness, we are unable to attain to the upper surface of the air; for if anyone should come to the top of the air or should get wings and fly up, he could lift his head above it and see, as fishes lift their heads out of the water and see the things in our world, so he would see things in that upper world; and, if his nature were strong enough to bear the sight, he would recognize that that is the real heaven and the real light and the real earth. For this earth of ours, and the stones and the whole region where we live, are injured and corroded, as in the sea things are injured by the brine, and nothing of any account grows in the sea, and there is, one might say, nothing perfect there, but caverns and sand and endless mud and mire, where there is earth also, and there is nothing at all worthy to be compared with the beautiful things of our world. But the things in that world above would be seen to be even more superior to those in this world of ours. If I may tell a story, Simmias, about the things on the earth that is below the heaven, and what they are like, it is well worth hearing.”

“By all means, Socrates,” said Simmias; “we should be glad to hear this story.”

“Well then, my friend,” said he, “to begin with, the earth when seen from above is said to look like those balls that are covered with twelve pieces of leather; it is divided into patches of various colors, of which the colors which we see here may be regarded as samples, such as painters use. But there the whole earth is of such colors, and they are much brighter and purer than ours; for one part is purple of wonderful beauty, and one is golden, and one is white, whiter than chalk or snow, and the earth is made up of the other colors likewise, and they are more in number and more beautiful than those which we see here. For those very hollows of the earth which are full of water and air, present an appearance of color as they glisten amid the variety of the other colors, so that the whole produces one continuous effect of variety.

And in this fair earth the things that grow, the trees, and flowers and fruits, are correspondingly beautiful; and so too the mountains and the stones are smoother, and more transparent and more lovely in color than ours. In fact, our highly prized stones, sards and jaspers, and emeralds, and other gems, are fragments of those there, but there everything is like these or still more beautiful. And the reason of this is that there the stones are pure, and not corroded or defiled, as ours are, with filth and brine by the vapors and liquids which flow together here and which cause ugliness and disease in earth and stones and animals and plants. And the earth there is adorned with all the jewels and also with gold and silver and everything of the sort. For there they are in plain sight, abundant and large and in many places, so that the earth is a sight to make those blessed who look upon it. And there are many animals upon it, and men also, some dwelling inland, others on the coasts of the air, as we dwell about the sea, and others on islands, which the air flows around, near the mainland; and in short, what water and the sea are in our lives, air is in theirs, and what the air is to us, ether is to them. And the seasons are so tempered that people there have no diseases and live much longer than we, and in sight and hearing and wisdom and all such things are as much superior to us as air is purer than water or the ether than air.

And they have sacred groves and temples of the gods, in which the gods really dwell, and they have intercourse with the gods by speech and prophecies and visions, and they see the sun and moon and stars as they really are, and in all other ways their blessedness is in accord with this. Such then is the nature of the earth as a whole, and of the things around it. But round about the whole earth, in the hollows of it, are many regions, some deeper and wider than that in which we live, some deeper but with a narrower opening than ours, and some also less in depth and wider.

Now all these are connected with one another by many subterranean channels, some larger and some smaller, which are bored in all of them, and there are passages through which much water flows from one to another as into mixing bowls; and there are everlasting rivers of huge size under the earth, flowing with hot and cold water; and there is much fire, and great rivers of fire, and many streams of mud, some thinner and some thicker, like the rivers of mud that flow before the lava in Sicily, and the lava itself. These fill the various regions as they happen to flow to one or another at any time. Now a kind of oscillation within the earth moves all these up and down. And the nature of the oscillation is as follows: One of the chasms of the earth is greater than the rest, and is bored right through the whole earth; this is the one which Homer means when he says: “Far off, the lowest abyss beneath the earth;” and which elsewhere he and many other poets have called Tartarus.’

Original Greek here


Detail from Andrian von Mynsicht’s ‘Thesaurus et Armentarium Medico-Chymicum’, Frankfurt, Balthazar Christoph Wustii, 1675.


II-Peter Kingsley: Commentary upon Phaedo 109a-113c.

So, we come to the remaining section of the myth (109a-113c). This is the part taken up with the idea of the ‘true earth’ and its vast geography of rivers and hollows: a geography which, as we have seen, derives from Sicily. The first point to note here is that Plato cites as authority for this section the same ‘someone’ whom he has already appealed to for the theory that the earth is a sphere. This is perfectly clear in the Greek, although translators and commentators have gone a long way to obscure the fact-in line, once again, with the spoken and unspoken dogma that Plato distinguished radically between the categories of science (in this case the sphericity of the earth) and myth (the strange mythical geography). In fact, when this passage as a whole is understood as it should be it has the interesting implication that Plato placed the idea of a spherical earth firmly in the category of myth. The implication is significant enough in itself, because of what it tells us about Plato’s own attitude to the relation between science and myth.

However, for our immediate purposes there is an even more important conclusion to be drawn from Plato’s appeal here to the same ‘someone’ whom he has already cited as authority for the theory of the earth as a sphere. That conclusion is that for the source of this Sicilian geography we must look once again in the direction of Italian and Sicilian Pythagoreanism.

Then there is the very idea here of a ‘true earth’: the idea that the world we appear to live on is only a dismal replica of another earth of cosmic dimensions. Almost without exception scholars have slid over this idea of a true earth on the assumption that it is a concept invented by Plato himself. But even if we were not obliged-as we plainly are-to view the details of the Phaedo myth against the historical backdrop of Pythagoreanism, things would still not be so simple. We can hardly draw any dividing line between Plato’s notion here of another, aitherial earth-purer and more beautiful than our own, to which purified souls go to live when they die (1o9b-e, 114b-c)-and the various Pythagorean ideas of ‘another’ or ‘aitherial’ earth, a ‘celestial’ or ‘Olympian’ earth, inhabited as well.

We know that in antiquity there were a number of different ways of identifying this other earth: as an invisible planet, or the moon, or the stars, or heaven itself. But what is significant about all these explanations, and makes them comprehensible, is their common denominator. That, although it may not be immediately apparent, is eschatological: behind the various identifications lies the one fundamental idea of a place where the souls of the dead go to dwell. Any attempt to organize these explanations into a chronological sequence-some earlier than Plato, others later-is tempting, but doomed: all of them would seem already to have been in existence by Plato’s time. So, for example, the Pythagorean Philolaus is held to have originated the idea of a celestial ‘counter-earth’ in the form of an invisible although inhabited planet, but he is also said to have propounded the mythical idea of the moon as an inhabited earth; and according to Heraclides Ponticus, one of Plato’s companions, Pythagoreans spoke of the stars as heavenly ‘earths’, doubtless inhabited as well.

This proliferation of different but related theories is almost certainly to be explained not in terms of some linear development in Pythagorean dogma, but as one more sign of the creative freedom with which individual Pythagoreans were allowed to develop and elaborate certain ideas as the spirit moved them. With regard to the basic idea of another earth, Burkert has pointed out that instead of focusing on any one of the various astronomical interpretations of it to the exclusion of any other we need in the first instance to view them all together against the background of the mythical, and above all eschatological, matrix out of which they arose. Where the Phaedo myth is concerned, this background of eschatology points us back once again to Pythagoreanism.

Here too, there is no lack of additional details to corroborate Plato’s indebtedness at this particular point in the myth to Pythagorean ideas. When he comes to describe the all important shape of his ‘true earth’, he presents it as an enormous twelve-sided ball: evidently a reference to the dodecahedron. The special place which he reserves for this figure both here and in the ‘Timaeus’-is one of the most obvious signs in either dialogue of his debt to Pythagoreanism.

Da Vinci’s illustration of the Dodecahedron from the beautiful facsimile of Pacioli’s De divina proportione published by Silvana Editoriale, Milan, Italy, 1982. This facsimile is of the manuscript copy of Pacioli’s Divina held by the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, one of only three Pacioli made. Source: Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), “Leonardo da Vinci’s Geometric Sketches – Dodecahedron,” published in ‘Convergence’ magazine (June 2010).


About Plato’s ‘Complete Works’ Edition, we recommend:🌿 About Peter Kingsley:
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