Ancient History & Civilisation


This passage has been much discussed, but the following points are generally agreed:

(1) The ‘Spindle of Necessity’ is intended, however imperfectly, to give a picture of the working of the Universe.

(2) Plato thought that the universe was geocentric, with the fixed stars on a sphere or band at the outside, the earth at the centre, and the orbits of the sun, moon, and planets between earth and stars.

(3) The rims of the whorl are intended to represent these orbits, and have the following equivalences:

1. The fixed stars

5. Mercury

2. Saturn

6. Venus

3. Jupiter

7. Sun

4. Mars

8. Moon

Thus, for example, we are told that ‘the fourth (Mars) was reddish’ and ‘the eighth (Moon) was illuminated by the seventh (Sun)’.

(4) The breadth and relative motion of the rims represent the distances and relative speeds of the planets, though it is difficult to be certain about details (cf. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, p. 88).

(5) The singing sirens are Plato’s version of the Pythagorean doctrine of the ‘harmony of the spheres’, which Aristotle describes as follows:

‘It seems to some thinkers that bodies so great must inevitably produce a sound by their movement: even bodies on the earth do so, although they are neither so great in bulk nor moving at so high a speed, and as for the sun and the moon, and the stars, so many in number and enormous in size, all moving at a tremendous speed, it is incredible that they should fail to produce a noise of surpassing loudness. Taking this as their hypothesis, and also that the speeds of the stars, judged by their distances, are in the ratios of the musical consonances, they affirm that the sound of the stars as they revolve is concordant. To meet the difficulty that none of us is aware of this sound, they account for it by saying that the sound is with us right from birth and has thus no contrasting silence to show it up; for voice and silence are perceived by contrast with each other, and so all mankind is undergoing an experience like that of a coppersmith, who becomes by long habit indifferent to the din around him’ (De Caelo, II, 9, trans. Guthrie, Loeb edition).

In the more detailed interpretation of the passage there is much uncertainty, and the Greek itself is far from unambiguous. There are those (e.g. J. S. Morrison, JHS, 1955, p. 59f.; Parmenides and Er ) who prefer to translate the word here rendered ‘through’ by ‘across’, and to suppose that the phrase refers to a straight band of light running across the heavens. This makes it more difficult to understand what is meant by ‘from above’; but in any case it is not easy to see quite where the souls are and what it is they see ‘in the middle of the light’ (or ‘down the middle of the light’).

The ‘pillar’ and ‘rainbow’ do not help much. Though the natural meaning of ‘pillar’ is something standing upright, it could be used to illustrate a straight band of light; the reference to the rainbow appears to be to its colour, but the rainbow is also a band of light running across the sky. We are left with the two other illustrations, the swifter and the spindle.

Morrison and Williams, Greek Oared Ships, pp. 294–8, have shown pretty conclusively what a ‘swifter’ (Greek hypozoōma ) is. It is a rope running longitudinally round a ship, from stem to stern, whose purpose was ‘to subject the outside skin to a constricting tension which would keep the structure from working loose under the stress of navigation under oar and sail’ (p. 298). There is a clear parallel with the light which ‘holds the circumference together’. In addition the ends of the swifter were brought inboard at the stern where there was a device for tightening them. Similarly the ends of the ‘bands of heaven’ are brought in, though exactly where or how is not clear. But the illustration certainly seems, so far, to indicate that there is a band of light running round the heaven, whose ends are brought in and somehow fastened, and which holds the whole heaven together.

But Plato proceeds at once to the second illustration of the spindle. Fig. 1 shows a spindle. Essentially it consists of shaft and weight or whorl. The function of the weight is to keep the thread spinning: the shaft is needed not only as an axis of revolution but also for winding the thread when it has become too long. To hold the thread while the next length is spun there must be something to which to fasten it, the function of the hook in this passage. The primary purpose of the comparison is to illustrate, from a familiar object, a system in which the heavenly bodies go round the earth in rings. The description of the whorl makes this fairly clear, and the main weakness of the comparison is that it makes no provision for the inclination of the axis of the ecliptic, in which sun, moon and planets move, to that of the fixed stars. The armillary sphere in the Timaeus (Plato: Timaeus and Critias (Penguin)) is a more satisfactory illustration. But there are further problems. Nothing is said about the position or shape of the earth. It must be at the centre of the system, with the heavenly bodies revolving round it. Once the heavenly bodies have been thought of as three dimensional, it is a fairly obvious step to think of them as spheres: if the moon is not a disc it must be a ball. And it is plausible therefore to suppose the earth to be spherical, as it undoubtedly is in the Timaeus and as it is commonly supposed to be in the Phaedo (though Mr Morrison has challenged the supposition and holds that the earth is a hemisphere with flat surface in both Phaedo and the Republic: Phronesis IV, 1959, pp. 101–9; Classical

Quarterly lxii, pp. 46 ff.). Granted a central earth of spherical or other shape there remains the problem of the spindle shaft. Does it correspond to anything in the physical universe? If the spindle of Necessity ‘hangs from the ends of the band of heaven’ one would suppose that it does. It is true that the spindle is only a model; but a good model reproduces the main features of its original, and in the Timaeus there is an axis ‘stretched through the whole’ (40 BC). Though this in turn may be a reflection of the more sophisticated model in that dialogue, it is none the less a not unreasonable inference that Plato thought of the universe as turning on some sort of axis.

We are left therefore with a rather unsatisfactory inconsistency between the two illustrations. The swifter suggests a band of light running round the heavens, the spindle an axis round which they pivot. If the ends of the band when brought in could form a pillar of light that was also an axis it would reconcile the two illustrations, but the evidence hardly allows one to speak with certainty. In any event there are still obscurities. If the band (or pillar) of light is a feature of the physical universe, why do we not see it? Or can it be the Milky Way, as some have suggested? Where are the souls when they see and then reach the light, whether it be band or column? There is nothing to suggest that they are ever anywhere but on the surface of the earth. The description of the meadow, with the chasms leading up into heaven and down into earth, beneath which the unjust soul’s journey takes place, leaves no doubt that it is on the earth’s surface, though at some remote point on it (like the grove of Persephone and the Elysian plain, where incidentally Rhadamanthus is, in the Odyssey ). If the earth were spherical then they might well be at a point from which they could see features of the universe which we cannot. But even so, just where and how are the ‘ends’ of the bands brought inboard (to use the nautical metaphor) and tied to the spindle? At a later point we are suddenly told, after a description which appears to relate to the physical universe, that the spindle is on the ‘lap of Necessity’ (617 (b)). But this is an inconsistency that follows the introduction of the Fates and their traditional occupation of spinning; it is good symbolism to put the universe on the lap of Necessity, and so the inconsistency of making her sit within the system on her lap is overlooked. It is, indeed, well to remember that this passage occurs in a myth, that in his myths Plato often gives symbolic meaning precedence over precision of detail, and that there are therefore likely in the detail to be features that are strictly speaking irreconcilable.

Hilda Richardson’s article ‘The Myth of Er’, Classical Quarterly xx, 1926, p. 119, is perhaps still as good a treatment as any of the whole section (Part XI, section 3). Further references are given in the list of References and Sources.

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