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Ultima Cumaei Venit Iam Carminis Aetas

Ultima Cumaei Venit Iam Carminis Aetas

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Published by: MalKukura on Nov 07, 2008
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06/14/2009

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"Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas"
Ficino's Commentary on the Eighth Book of the Republic In the notable nineteenth expostulation in his Devotions , John Donnerefers to God as a metaphorical God; and the Renaissance in general wasenthusiastically attuned to the assumption that the world was itself afigure, a cipher. Necessarily the mathematical structures in the world werepart of the divine figuration, and a sense of this figuration provided thefoundation for both the methods and the goals of such learned disciplinesas arithmology and numerology, astrology, iatromathematics, and musicaltherapy, the mathematical or at least computational arts that the ageregarded as legitimate branches of learning and of proven utility. For theinfluential book of the Apocrypha known as the Wisdom of Solomon hadproclaimed in a much-quoted text that God had made all things "innumber, weight, and measure" (11.20[21]) as the architect of the world, asthe heavenly geometer, as the musical master of a divine harmonics. Andman in the divine image of God the Creator had been designed with abody of geometrical proportions, with a harmoniously balancedtemperament, with a mathematical mind. The supreme ancient authorityof this mathematical view of man as mathematician was Plato, spokesmanfor what was preeminently the Pythagorean tradition in which his ownscientific studies had been nurtured.Renaissance scholars were familiar with the report that the inscrip-― 4 ―tion in the vestibule of the Academy had forbidden anyone unskilled ingeometry to cross the threshold and seek initiation into the sacredmysteries.[1] For geometry was a marvelous art that the Epinomis 990Dhad claimed was of divine not human origin, even though, as the Republichad argued at 6.511B ff. and 7.531D–534E, it was subordinate, like all its"sister" mathematical arts, to the "comprehensive" power of dialectic, "thecoping stone" of the intellectual skills. Scholars were also aware that inthe Timaeus , the dialogue on the Demiurge and his creation and the onemost familiar to and most treasured by the medieval and the RenaissanceWest, Plato had advanced various Pythagorean notions—with what degreeof seriousness it is now virtually impossible to say—on the harmoniesgoverning the soul, and on the structure of the elements and thegeometrical figures that constituted them.[2] Although none of Plato'sdialogues focus primarily on mathematics, several do contain significantloci mathematici . Apart from the Timaeus with its exceptionally importantsections on means and proportions at 34B–36D and on the five regulapolyhedra at 53C–56C, the Meno has two well-known passages on theduplication of the square at 82B–85B and on the measurement of areas a
 
86E–87B, the Theaetetus raises the issue of irrational or incommensurableroots at 147D–148B, and the Epinomis (which the Renaissance consideredauthentic) has an arresting section at 990C–991A on astronomy, geometry,progressions, the mean proportions, and the formation of numbers. Othedialogues contain mathematical references or observations: for instance,the Euthyphro at 12D, the Hippias Major at 303BC, the Philebus at 56D,the Charmides at 166A, the Statesman at 266AB, the Phaedrus at 274C,and the Laws 7 at 817E–820C.[3]― 5 ―More generally, the Parmenides is concerned throughout with themetaphysics of the one and the many, of unity and plurality; and theRepublic 7.521C–531D outlines a mathematics curriculum in five partsbeginning with arithmetic and ratio theory and thence proceeding to planeand solid geometry, and ending with astronomy and music. Finally, thereare the complicated metaphysical issues of Plato's postulation, at leasaccording to Aristotle in his Metaphysics 991b9, 1082b23–24, 1086a10–11,and De Anima 404b24, etc., of numbers as Forms, of the mathematicals asintelligible pluralities.However, the most intractable or mystagogical of all Plato's mathematicalspeculations (depending on one's point of view) occurs in a passagetowards the beginning of the eighth book of the Republic at 546A ff. HereSocrates refers to a mysterious geometric or "fatal" number in order toexplain why it is that even perfectly constituted republics—those that donot contain within themselves the seeds of their own decay and ruin—decline nevertheless after the passage of many years into the first of foudegenerate forms ending in a tyranny: into a contentious timarchygoverned by the passionate pursuit of honor and "a fierce secret longing"for money instead of justice and the good. They are subject, it wouldseem, to some cyclical cosmic pattern, to an inexorable fate thatoverwhelms them despite their innate, their Platonic excellence. In thecourse of this baffling passage on the geometric number Socrates alsoargues for the necessity of state-planned eugenics. Citizens approachingparenthood must be adjusted to each other, like proportionate numbers, inorder that they may breed good, tempered offspring and thus ensure thecontinuance of balance in the state. And the balance can indeed bemaintained for a time: with Platonic planning and Platonic virtue men canwork with Fate to ensure the continuance of their state's life or prosperity,as long, that is, as the fatal cycle of years has not yet been fulfilled. Aftethat, no legislation by the magistrates, however wise and howeverigorously enforced, can prevail against the inevitable, the periodicchange. The eugenic theme is so prominent indeed that Plutarch,Nicomachus of Gerasa, Iamblichus, and Boethius, among others, did nohesitate to identify the fatal geometric number with the notion of a"nuptial" number,[4] presumably because of the sovereign role it plays― 6 ―in determining, for better or for worse, the fertility of a republic and thusthe success of its marriages, begettings, and births.
 
Of particular importance for Platonic commentators is the fact thatAristotle commented upon this passage adversely in his Politics 5 a1316a1–b26 in an arresting discussion and dismissal of Socrates' views onthe causes of change affecting a perfect commonwealth, such as thehypothetical first state. Aristotle objects that Socrates "treats orevolutions, but not well, for he mentions no cause of change whichpeculiarly affects the first or perfect state. He only says that the cause isthat nothing is abiding, but all things change in a certain cycle; and thathe origin of the change consists in those numbers 'of which 4 and 3,married with 5, furnish two harmonies' (he means when the number of this figure becomes solid)."[5] Aristotle is prepared to admit that at timesnature may produce bad men who will not submit to education, "in whichlatter particular he [Socrates] may very likely be not far wrong, for theremay well be some men who cannot be educated and made virtuous."Aristotle, who is insisting on the distinction between the "cause" of change and its actual "onset," then raises various objections, among themthe following five: Why is "such a cause of change peculiar to his[Socrates'] ideal state, and not rather common to all states, or indeed, toeverything which comes into being at all?" Is it merely attributable to theagency of time that "things which did not begin together changetogether?" Why postulate cyclical change and not merely change, sincehistory furnishes us with many examples of one tyranny passing intoanother tyranny, not necessarily into another form of governmententirely? Isn't it foolish to suppose that a state changes for the worse onlybecause the ruling class begins to acquire― 7 ―too much money? The causes of change are numerous, and yet Socratesmentions only one—the gradual impoverishment of the citizens—as if thecitizens had been originally all equally well off. And why speak orevolutions in oligarchies and democracies, as though they each existed inonly one form when in fact they exist in many forms?In short, Aristotle marshals a sequence of powerful objections thacharges Socrates with confusing the notion of a temporal cycle with thatof temporal change and dismisses his conception of a historical cause atoo naive or too simplistic. To anyone who believed in Plato's supremacyover Aristotle, or who was bent upon reconciling the two thinkers, theseobjections presented a formidable challenge, particularly given Aristotle'sbelligerent tone, his taking issue with an indisputably major dialogue, andhis contentious impatience with the way Socrates had elected to presentan important and influential Platonic theme, that of the ideal republic.The mathematical enigmas in Plato's passage—along with Aristotle'sobjections—have occasioned speculative debate and intricate analysissince the fifteenth century when they were first rediscovered by the West.A number of "solutions" have been and are still being suggested, andtranslators have learned to approach Plato's veiled description of thegeometric number with some wariness. In the past some have evendeclined to render it at all. One of the most distinguished of these wasVictor Cousin (1792–1867), who footnoted his omission thus: "Ce qui me

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