Early Christian Sources of Platonic Geometry: the Latin Encyclopedists

In the foregoing sections, it has been shown that the passage of Platonic and Neoplatonic thought from Alexandria to Asia Minor and the Greek Fathers produced writings of sufficient importance that they were immediately to find their way to the West, reaching not only Ambrose in Milan but Rome as well, whence the teachings of Origen were to spread in the translations of Rufinus. In the meantime, however, Neoplatonism had already reached Rome with the arrival of Plotinus in 244.

It was Plotinus’s pupil, Porphyry (233-c.300), a leading Neoplatonist himself, who edited the work of his master and whose own writings included commentaries on Timaeus and apparently the Elementa as well. Writing in Greek though living in Rome, he was to be highly regarded by Augustine as a pagan philosopher, though this was a tribute Augustine was to qualify because of Porphyry’s anti-Christian stance, manifest for example in his treatise Adversus Christianos.

Marius Victorinus, who taught rhetoric in Rome and became a Christian convert in the middle of the fourth century, translated writings of Plotinus and other Neoplatonists into Latin which may have numbered among the works of Victorinus recorded by Alcuin at York. He was in touch with
Simplicianus, the priest in Milan who prepared Ambrose for baptism the year before the latter became bishop of that city in 374.

At about the time of Victorinus’s conversion, Chalcidius was producing his celebrated Timaeus translation and commentary, copies of which, as already stated, were a necessary possession for all medieval libraries of note.
This was in spite of the text ending prematurely at a point which immediately precedes Plato’s treatment of the elements and the regular solids. Nevertheless, the work remained the most important of all Platonic sources for the Latin middle ages.

This was followed by two more Platonic works of hardly less importance, namely the Commentarii in Ciceronis Somnium Scipionis of Macrobius and Martianus’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Macrobius’s Commentarii,
second only to Chalcidius’s, was written late in the fourth century or early in the fifth based on a lost commentary on Timaeus by Porphyry. Yet it is less a commentary than an encyclopedia of Neoplatonism illustrated with diagrams. Its starting-point is Plato’s Republic,
Cicero’s original work also being entitled De republica,
and it is with Scipio’s Dream that he ends it as an obvious counterpart to Plato’s Vision of Er. Martianus’s De nuptiis was approximately contemporary, being written between 410 and 439, and uses the allegorical marriage between Philology and Mercury as a setting for summarizing the seven liberal arts, in which each appears personified as a bridesmaid at the wedding.

Whilst Somnium Scipionis is among the works most frequently referred to in early medieval manuscripts and is itself among the most common manuscripts from that time, so De nuptiis was perhaps the most widely used schoolbook, its popularity during the ninth and tenth centuries being matched by that of Somnium Scipionis possibly from early in the tenth. Their influence in transmitting Plato’s cosmology was second only to Chalcidius partly as a result of expositions of number theory that deal not only with numerical relationships but with their powers as well, the attributes of the Pythagorean decad for example and the discovery of his musical ratios being relayed extensively in medieval literature. This is not to say that the transmission was exact and unvarying since tradition was always open to interpretation and development. For example, Plato’s and Clement’s concept of 7 planets revolving around an eighth, which is Earth, becomes in Somnium Scipionis 7
planets revolving within an eighth which is an all-encompassing celestial sphere. This is composed of 5 zones. Because justice is even-handed, to Clement it was represented by 4, by Martianus 2 and by Macrobius 8. 7, being a virgin number, is identified with Pallas Athene. In De nuptiis, 9 is also a perfect number and signifies the Muses. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that these are additions to, not an undermining of, the basic precepts, for these remained those of Pythagoras and Plato as recognized by Martianus.

Meanwhile the august company of the gods… acknowledged [Arithmetic] herself… to be in very truth the procreator of the gods. And the host of philosophers, too, who stood nearby – in particular, Pythagoras, with all his disciples, and Plato,
expounding the cryptic doctrines of his Timaeus – worshipped the lady with words of mystic praise….

Martianus, De nuptiis 803

According to this whole tradition as transmitted, 1 is confirmed as the monad and the generator of numbers. 2, being the first departure from unity, represents discord and is the female number because it lacks a middle term.
3 is male because it possesses a middle term and is therefore the first number that is wholly odd. In other words, because,

1 + 1 + 1=3,

it is the first number comprising a mean and two extremes; it also stands for the triangle and the three divisions of the soul.
By the same reasoning, 4 is the first number wholly even because it is the first consisting of two means; it is the terminal number of the tetrad as well as that of the geometric elements of point, line, plane and solid; it represents the quadrangle and the
4 elements and seasons.

The pentad comes next, the number assigned to the universe. This identification is reasonable, for after the four elements, the universe is a fifth body of a different nature.

Martianus, De nuptiis 735

To this Macrobius adds that 5,

. . . alone embraces all things that are and seem to be

Macrobius, Commentarii, 1.6.19

Yet in conveying Plato’s association of the macrocosm with the human microcosm, Martianus adds that 5 also stands for marriage, being the sum of the male and female numbers, as well as the sum of the human senses. 6 is a perfect number because it is the sum of its parts. In other words,

1 x 2 x 3 = 1 + 2 + 3 = 6

Moreover, it is the product of the male and female numbers and so signifies creation. Because 7 begets no numbers in the decad,
it is virgin; as the sum of 3 + 4, it is the number by which the World-Soul is generated, according to Timaeus;
and, the Moon being the seventh planet, it also relates to the phases of the Moon measured in 7-day periods and the lunar stages of each month.
8 is the first cube and is perfect because it has 6 surfaces.

(10 is) the highest degree of perfection of all numbers…

Macrobius, Commentarii, 1.6.76

It contains within itself all numbers with their varied attributes and degrees of perfection…

Martianus,
De nuptiis 742

Interestingly, it is important to note that Martianus has Geometry preceding Arithmetic at the wedding. Her Book is the longest in the work and contains more geography than geometry, yet it does incorporate a ten-page summary of Euclid’s Elementa. Here a classification of angles, planes and solids leads to a description of how solids are generated from planes. Having described the basic solids, among which are found the pyramid and cube, Martianus concludes with the ‘noble’ figures of the octahedron, dodecahedron and icosahedron. Not surprisingly, geometric thinking finds its counterpart in arithmetic for, just as the sphere is recognized as containing all other figures, and in particular the regular solids, so 10 contains all numbers. And since geometric solids are recognized as being based upon plane figures, this would explain Macrobius’s allusion to 5 embracing all things.
Because 5 is the first figurate number of the pentagon, which is the plane figure of the dodecahedron which signifies the universe, Macrobius seems clearly to be associating 5 directly with the macrocosm, as indeed does Martianus.

Had Augustine written his text-books on the liberal arts, he would undoubtedly have belonged to the encyclopedic tradition of his near-contemporaries Macrobius and Martianus. As it is, his importance for the present study is arguably even greater, not only for transmitting Platonic thought within a theological framework but also for securing thereby its acceptance by the Church. Consequently, his contribution will be considered next.

Autore: Nigel Hiscock
Pubblicazione:
The Wise Master Builder. Platonic Geometry in Plans of Medieval Abbeys and Cathedralsl
Editore
: Ashgate
Luogo: Aldershot
Anno: 2000
Pagine: 61-64

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