Monday, June 26, 2017

Socrates on the Elements

Regarding Plato's Timaeus, the translator Benjamin Jowett could write, "Of all the writings of Plato the Timaeus is the most obscure and repulsive to the modern reader, and has nevertheless had the greatest influence over the ancient and mediaeval world." Here Socrates explains the composition of the classical elements.

I was wrong in imagining that all the four elements could be generated into and out of one another. For as they are formed, three of them from the triangle which has the sides unequal, the fourth from the triangle which has equal sides, three can be resolved into one another, but the fourth cannot be resolved into them nor they into it. So much for their passage into one another: I must now speak of their construction. From the triangle of which the hypotenuse is twice the lesser side the three first regular solids are formed—first, the equilateral pyramid or tetrahedron; secondly, the octahedron; thirdly, the icosahedron; and from the isosceles triangle is formed the cube. And there is a fifth figure (which is made out of twelve pentagons), the dodecahedron—this God used as a model for the twelvefold division of the Zodiac.

Let us now assign the geometrical forms to their respective elements. The cube is the most stable of them because resting on a quadrangular plane surface, and composed of isosceles triangles. To the earth then, which is the most stable of bodies and the most easily modelled of them, may be assigned the form of a cube; and the remaining forms to the other elements,—to fire the pyramid, to air the octahedron, and to water the icosahedron,—according to their degrees of lightness or heaviness or power, or want of power, of penetration. The single particles of any of the elements are not seen by reason of their smallness; they only become visible when collected. The ratios of their motions, numbers, and other properties, are ordered by the God, who harmonized them as far as necessity permitted...

What makes fire burn? The fineness of the sides, the sharpness of the angles, the smallness of the particles, the quickness of the motion. Moreover, the pyramid, which is the figure of fire, is more cutting than any other. The feeling of cold is produced by the larger particles of moisture outside the body trying to eject the smaller ones in the body which they compress. The struggle which arises between elements thus unnaturally brought together causes shivering. That is hard to which the flesh yields, and soft which yields to the flesh, and these two terms are also relative to one another. The yielding matter is that which has the slenderest base, whereas that which has a rectangular base is compact and repellent...


  1. Intrigued as to where this might be going...I tried over and over in my college days to make something gameable using these concepts, tying the function of our hobby's "funny dice" to their respective Platonic solids, but never did come up with anything useful.

  2. Ok, so fire spells do d4 damage; earth spells d6, air spells d8, and water spells d20. Got it :)

    1. LOL! Also partly intrigued by that. (Maybe lots of d4's, just one d20...)