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KRONOS Vol VI, No. 2
Plato And The Catastrophist Tradition
SHANE H. MAGE
The Western philosophical tradition was characterized by one of its greatest exponents, Alfred North Whitehead, as a series of footnotes to Plato. It was no understatement. Of all the thinkers of antiquity, Plato alone had his writings preserved virtually intact. Those works have conveyed to us, in a form of surpassing literary excellence, the central problems and essential concepts of the sub-disciplines which soon came to be categorized as cosmology, epistemology, ethics, politics, metaphysics, and theology. Yet the purpose and meaning of this vast work, despite its easy accessibility and the innumerable scholarly commentaries upon it, remain even today obscure, controversial, and often wildly misunderstood.
In Worlds in Collision, Plato is cited on numerous, usually crucial, topics. The passages cited are overtly catastrophist, but in context they also appear highly allegorical, and subject to uniformitarian as well as catastrophist interpretation. Was Velikovsky justified in relying on the authority of the founder and fountainhead of modern thought?
Before examining this question, it is well to put ourselves on guard against that most common source of misunderstanding, the automatic tendency to read Plato dogmatically as the proponent of a fixed doctrinal system in the way customary and indeed appropriate for almost all his successors, treating the dialogue form as a mere literary device and taking all the words of the protagonist, usually Socrates, as the direct prosaic expression of some so-called "Platonic doctrine". This approach, of course, is basic to the usual lazy text bookish practice of holding out selected quotations for praise or blame according to contemporary prejudices and preconceptions. But even a serious scholarly attempt to understand the Platonic writings in their historical and cultural context cannot succeed without recognition that the dialogues were dramatic works written for public performance(1) as well as to provide the starting point for dialectical elaboration within the Academy.
This difficulty is emphasized by Plato's repeated warnings that any written text is, as such, inherently incapable of expressing adequately the most important philosophical conceptions, and against any simplistic or literal approach to his writings. A book, Socrates tells Protagoras (329A)(2), is like a brazen pot which goes on resounding long after it is struck, but can never sound a new note to explain itself or answer a challenging question. And to Phaedrus (275C) Socrates says that anyone who thinks that he has left any substantial knowledge behind him in writing, or anyone who receives a document of that sort in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be a simpleton for thinking written words to be of any use except as a reminder to one who already knows the matter about which they are written.
Finally, near the close of his life, Plato, speaking directly for himself, wrote in the manifesto "To the Friends and Followers of Dion" (Ep. VII): "There is no writing of mine about these matters, nor will there ever be one" (341C), and "no sensible man will venture to express his deepest thoughts in words, especially in a form which is unchangeable, as is the case with anything written" (343A), and, lastly, "every serious man in dealing with really serious subjects carefully avoids writing, lest he might thereby cast them as prey to the envy and stupidity of the public. Whenever we see a book, whether the laws of a legislator or a composition on any other subject, we can be sure that if the author is really serious this book does not contain his best thoughts; they are stored away with the fairest of his possessions" (344C).
In the face of all this, how then can we claim to establish definite propositions as stating Plato's real views on this most serious of questions? The possibility is provided by the fact that Plato consistently advances important propositions through the complementary juxtaposition of two modes of presentation; as logical conclusion or necessary implication of the dialectical argument from explicit and critically clarified premises (the logos of the dialogue); and as the essential purport of that "mixture of untruth and truth" (Rep. 337A) known as myth and which plays a vital role in nearly all the dialogues. Thus, as truth is to be apprehended by a process combining reason and intuition, so its Platonic expression takes a form that does make it accessible, but only as the combination of Logos and Mythos.
Of the explicitly catastrophist references in Plato, by far the most notorious is the myth of Atlantis, adumbrated at the outset of the Timaeus and told at length in the unfinished dialogue Critias. Some 9,000 years before Plato's time, the story goes, the greatest world power was Atlantis, an island kingdom in the west beyond the Pillars of Herakles, founded and designed by the god Poseidon and ruled collectively by ten kings, his descendants. Over the ages of its existence the Atlantean polity had gradually become corrupted by desire for the fruits of material power, to the point that it undertook the conquest of the entire Mediterranean world. This aggression all but succeeded before being defeated in extremis by the warriors of Athens, whose state at the time was organized along the lines laid down in the Republic. The Athenian victory, however, was closely followed by a day and a night of great floods and earthquakes in which the island sank forever beneath the Atlantic and a previous epoch of trans-oceanic navigation came to an end. At the same time "the whole body of [Athenian] warriors was swallowed up by the earth" (Tim. 25D) and most of the fertile topsoil of Attica was washed into the Aegean by the deluge as "the action of a single night of extraordinary rain crumbled it away and made [the Acropolis] bare of soil, when earthquakes occurred simultaneously with the third of the disastrous floods which preceded the destructive deluge in the time of Deucalion" (Crit. 112A).(3)
The many attempts to interpret this story have tended to follow three main lines. Most common, of course, has been the naive acceptance of a great submerged island somewhere in the Atlantic. Despite the failure of all attempts to locate the sunken island, the non-existence of any version of the story except those derived from Plato, and Edgar Cayce's false prediction that Atlantis would reemerge during the 1970's decade, it is safe to say that this opinion remains far and away the most widespread among the general public.
A modified version of this view, however has recently gained respectability among the scientifically orthodox. Plato's story now is taken as referring to the volcanic explosion that devastated the Minoan island of Thera and submerged its seaport.(4) To conform with the supposed 15th Century date of this eruption a suggestion originally made by Velikovsky is appropriated (as usual without acknowledgment), and Plato's dating, 9,000 years before the time of Solon, reduced by a factor of ten.(5) The identification of Thera with Plato's Atlantis, however, fails on all counts: the alleged date rests on the false conventional Egyptian chronology and on radiocarbon dating of wood buried in volcanic ash and thus contaminated with inorganic carbon; Atlantis was beyond the Pillars of Herakles, not offshore mainland Greece; Atlantis was a barbarian empire, not part of the Minoan-Mykenaean world; no volcanic eruption figures in Plato's account of the catastrophe; and most of Thera was not in fact submerged.
An alternative approach would treat Plato's story as political allegory. This has prima facie justification, inasmuch as the tale is indeed explicitly introduced as an illustration in life of the Republic's political teachings. There was also a much more immediate political import to the myth. It has been argued persuasively that Timaeus and Kritias (Critias) were originally written for performance in Syracuse on the occasion of Plato's second visit in 366 BCE, and that the projected trilogy was broken off half-completed after the sudden death of Dionysius I and consequent cancellation of the Drama Festival for which they were being prepared.
As we know from the Seventh and Eighth letters, Plato's political purpose in Syracuse was to persuade Dionysius to reform his tyranny into a constitutional monarchy ruling according to law and able to unite the Hellenic world and lead a victorious war against Carthage. Plato's intended Syracusan audience (Dionysius I, his brother-in-law Dion, and his son Dionysius) would immediately recognize the proposed constitutional reforms in the institutions of archaic Athens, and in Atlantis would recognize such obviously Carthaginian features as the elephants, the inner harbor surrounded by concentric channels (cothons), the oligarchical constitution, and the power derived from Poseidon (sea power). To this extent, and on this level, the political interpretation of the myth must be granted validity .
It is, however an incomplete interpretation at best. Myth conveys meaning at multiple levels our choice among interpretations should never be limited to either/or, but must include the option of both/ and. Political analysis, albeit necessary, leaves out entirely the level of meaning emphasized by Plato and crucial to our contemporary concern: that of astronomical catastrophism.
The story of Atlantis is preceded by an introduction supposedly, like the story itself, in the words of an Egyptian priest of the temple of Neith/Athene at Sais. This prolegomenon is uniquely precious because it sets out explicit guidelines for the interpretation of catastrophist myth not, indeed, in the context of the destruction by water of Atlantis, but rather in reference to the prototypical universal legend of destruction by fire, the "Great and Official Myth"(6) of Phaethon.
"There have been," the old priest declares, "and will be hereafter, many and various destructions of mankind, of which the greatest are by fire and water, and lesser ones by countless other means. Thus the story current also in your part of the world that Phaethon, son of Helios, once harnessed his father's chariot but could not guide it on his father's course and so burnt up everything on the face of the earth and was himself destroyed by a thunderbolt - that story as it is told seems like a fable; but the truth behind it is a shifting of the bodies that move in the heavens around the earth and a destruction, occurring at long intervals, of things on earth by fierce fire" (Tim. 22 C-D).
If there is one question crucial above all others it is the meaning of this oracular passage. Before we can follow Velikovsky in claiming Plato as an avowed catastrophist we must deal with the challenge posed by von Dechend and de Santillana in that brilliant and far ranging study of astro-mythology, Hamlet's Mill.
Stated as simply as possible, the essential thesis of Hamlet's Mill is that the great myths are a worldwide storehouse of symbols and motifs that once constituted the coherent astronomical-astrological science of our pre-literate ancestors in all parts of the world. The events of myth, and especially the great mythic catastrophes of devastation by fire and flood, are seen as a mapping of major changes in the celestial order onto the familiar dimensions of terrestrial society and geography. These changes are those brought about by the Precession, the gradual, inexorable, revolution of the Earth's axial direction, represented by the celestial North Pole, around the Pole of the Ecliptic, the famous "empty place" from which, according to the Book of Job, the world is suspended.
This Precession causes a complete change, roughly every 2,200 years, in the zodiacal constellations rising just before dawn on the equinoxes and solstices, and a corresponding shift of all the "fixed" stars. The slow precessional turning of the Zodiac constitutes the Frame of Time, the revolutions of the planets are the subdivisions by which Time is measured, and the terms of mythology are the scientific language in which the ancients formulated the "geography," the "history," and above all the meaning of the heavens.
It should be immediately apparent that this approach to mythology poses a severe twofold challenge to the Velikovskian use of myth. If the mythic catastrophes can be plausibly interpreted as description of the Precession, the uniformitarian process par excellence, this would certainly undercut a significant part of the evidence supporting the argument of Worlds in Collision. Still worse is the major implication of a precessional astrology: if preliterate people, over millennia of patient observation, did formulate a coherent account of celestial processes in full continuity to the present order of the heavens, how can we continue to maintain that the Earth's orbit, its rotation, its axial inclination, and the poles themselves all underwent repeated catastrophic disruption in historic times?
Since both sides of this case cite Timaeus as a principal witness, we can appeal for judgment to no other oracle than Plato himself. His authority on the whole matter cannot be gainsaid. As the authors of Hamlet's Mill put it: "Creating the language of the philosophy of the future, Plato still spoke the ancient tongue, representing, as it were, a living 'Rosetta stone'."(7)
Like any true oracle, this one never speaks unambiguously. Throughout history virtually all interpreters of Plato have claimed, surely not without plausible grounds, that his astronomical doctrine taught an eternal pre-ordained harmony of the heavens. But what is there harmonious about planets burning and flooding the Earth by their "shiftings," allegorical or not? Put another way, what is it about Plato that led such a scholar as Prof. Stecchini to commit himself to catastrophist and uniformitarian interpretations in consecutive chapters of The Velikovsky Affair?
The answer must start with Timaeus, the dialogue that to the pre-Renaissance West was Plato.
THE DEMIURGIC COSMOGONY
The first thing to understand about the discourse of Timaeus is that this account, "beginning with the birth of the world and ending with the nature of man" (27A), is presented as itself a myth told for the entertainment of Socrates - not a logos claiming either full self consistency or full exactness, but a plausible depiction of nature, a "likely story". "If we can furnish accounts no less likely than any other, we must be content" (29C).
The "probable account," however, is itself framed within certain logical principles that throughout the Platonic dialogues are treated with complete seriousness. Timaeus starts with the three Forms that in the Sophist are declared to be fundamental to the structure of reality: Sameness, Difference, and Existence. In the myth of Timaeus these are the basis on which the cosmic artisan, the demiourgos, forms the material world as an animate image of the eternal reality. The "raw material" of creation is termed by Timaeus the "receptacle," a matrix totally devoid of qualities except for its inherent chaotic motion. By introducing reason – motion ordered by geometric form and numerical ratio into the receptacle, the demiourgos enables it to manifest the "qualities" which common sense calls "things," but which are really only transitory orderings, nodes within an all-pervasive field. Because of its total mutability, the material world is called the world of "Becoming" in contrast to the unchangeable Forms that make up the world of "Being". As an image of the world of Being impressed on an inherently chaotic medium, this material world is subject to a twofold causality: the "intelligent cause" also termed "Reason" and the "errant cause" also termed "Necessity".
"For the generation of this cosmos was a mixed result of the combination of Reason and Necessity. Reason overruled Necessity by persuading her to guide the greatest part of the things that become towards what is best" (48A).
On this foundation, Timaeus erects a cosmological model whose essential attributes are motion and time: the cosmos as a whole is characterized as "the moving image of eternity". Sun, Moon, the other five planets, and Earth are called "the instruments of time". Stars, planets, and Earth alike are "gods": that is, animate beings, bodies having a source of rational motion within themselves. The characteristic motion of each "god" is axial rotation in a single place! which Timaeus calls "the most perfect motion".
The cosmos is portrayed as geocentric. The Earth is surrounded by the seven planetary orbits, and the solar system is surrounded by the spherical aetherial field of fixed stars, itself a "god". All the celestial bodies revolve around the Earth with a motion that is actually a compound of two motions, "the Same" and "the Different," joined together at the outside of the cosmos, but not at its center (36C).
By the "Motion of the Same," Timaeus denotes revolution from East to West parallel to the plane of the Equator. This motion, the Same, has the same effect upon all bodies, Earth, planets, and aetherial sphere alike.
The second motion, that called "The Different," denotes revolution from West to East in the plane of the Ecliptic: that is, the apparent course of the Sun through the constellations of the Zodiac. The planets and the sphere of stars follow this motion at differing angular velocities so that "the slowest appear to be moving fastest and the fastest most slowly": the Moon, which appears to move most slowly across the sky actually revolves through the Zodiac most rapidly, and the fixed stars whose diurnal revolution appears the fastest really move at by far the slowest rate.(8)
The Earth does not participate in the Motion of the Different. Her mission is to be "the guardian and maker of day and night" by her own motion "winding around the axis that stretches right through": that is, the Earth is kept effectively motionless, because she completely cancels the Motion of the Same by her own rotation from West to East at an angular velocity equal and opposite to the Same, "the period of the single and most intelligent revolution" (39C).(9)
A fourth motion is present in the planetary system described by Timaeus. The inner planets, Venus and Mercury, move "in circles revolving so as in point of speed to run their race with the Sun, but possessing the power contrary to his; whereby the Sun and the star of Hermes and the Morning Star alike overtake and are overtaken by one another" (38D). The nature of this "contrary power" is not specified by Timaeus, but there is no good reason not to follow that great Academic, Herakleides of Pontus, in interpreting it as revolution of Mercury and Venus around the Sun, while following the Sun around the Earth.(10)
THE PRESENT ORDER OF THE UNIVERSE
This, then, is the "likely story" about the celestial motions offered by Timaeus. We would, however, fall into the greatest and most frequent of interpretive errors if we were to take this account as it stands as defining Plato's own cosmology. For Timaeus purports only to describe the cosmos as it was originally shaped by the demiourgos. But Plato maintains that the cosmic order as we observe it today has been fundamentally altered from its "original" condition
This crucial difference was articulated by Plato in one of the last and most profound of the dialogues, the Statesman. There, to the myth of Timaeus, Plato adds a second myth, told by yet another representative of the Italian neo-Pythagorean community, the "Guest from Elea".
According to this myth, "There is an era in which the god himself guides the universe on its way and helps it in its rotation. There is also an era [our own] in which he releases his control. . . Thereupon it begins to revolve in the contrary sense under its own impulse - for it is a living creature and has been endowed with reason by him who framed it in the beginning. . . Now that which we call heaven and cosmos, participates in the nature of the bodily, so that it cannot be tree from change. Yet, as far as may be, its movement is uniform, invariable, and in one place; thus it is that it has been endowed with a rotation in reverse, because that involves the least deviation from its own motion. . . In the one era the cosmos is guided on its way by the divine cause, receiving a renewal of life from the demiourgos. In the other era, when it has been released, it moves by its innate force backwards through countless revolutions" (269D).
Velikovsky cites this passage in reference to the catastrophes in which the direction of the Earth's axial rotation was reversed, and this is legitimate insofar as the Statesman myth is introduced by a reference to the myth of Atreus just as the Atlantis myth is introduced by the reference to Phaethon. But in terms of cosmological myth, this story has a crucial significance of its own.
The point is that as the Guest describes it the releasing of the cosmos by the demiourgos amounts to a cessation of the Revolution of the Same.(11) Left to the universe are only the axial rotation of the "gods," the Revolution of the Different carrying planets and starry sphere eastward along the Ecliptic, and the motion "possessing the contrary power" whereby Venus and Mercury orbit the Sun. Since the Revolution of the Same has by definition identical effect on all parts of the universe, no observable phenomena can be altered by its cessation (the catastrophic upheaval which the Guest describes as accompanying the reversal is said to be temporary, though nothing excludes relying on it to "explain" the different inclinations to the Ecliptic of the various planetary orbits within the overall cosmological model). What is altered, however, as Herakleides understood, is that now, instead of remaining motionless, the Earth completes a full rotation on its axis every twenty-four hours, while the planets and stars revolve around it.
Before we consider the implications of the combined myth for catastrophism, we must recognize a crucial problem remaining in the astronomical model. One purpose of a "probable account" is, in the phrase traditionally attributed to Plato, to "save the phenomena" that is, to formulate a system of simple uninterrupted motions adequately corresponding to the observed behavior of the celestial bodies. But if the outer planets move continuously in geocentric orbit two major phenomena cannot possibly be saved. their retrograde movement when approaching and leaving opposition to the Sun, and their greater brightness, spectacular in the case of Mars, at opposition.
To save these phenomena without resorting to arbitrary and center-less epicycles there are only two ways: to follow Herakleides one step further and allow the orbits of the outer planets the same "contrary power" ascribed to those of Mercury and Venus, so that all five would orbit the Sun while Sun and Moon continue to orbit the Earth; or else to go with Aristarchus to a forthright heliocentrism. Which approach was preferred by Plato in his oral teaching remains indeterminable. On the one hand we have the exalted rank given the Sun in the Republic as "visible representative and image of the Good," and also the statement by the great Peripatetic Theophrastus, that "Plato, when he had grown old, repented of having assigned to the earth the central position, which did not properly belong to it".(12) On the other is the phenomenon of precession, which poses no problem for the geocentric model, but can be saved heliocentrically only by ascribing a new and very complex gyroscopic motion to the Earth itself, while depriving the aetherial sphere of its remaining self-motion and thereby depriving it of its rank as an "animate being".
THE VALIDITY OF CATASTROPHISM
This latter consideration might well have been given the greatest weight by Plato but for us it is at least the key to Plato's answer to our question: Is the Great and Official myth of Phaethon the historic record of the encounter of our Earth with a blazing star or is it the astrological record of a major centuries-long event in the millennial precession?
The latter it cannot be, because the precession is right there in the Statesman/Timaeus myth as the proper movement of the starry heaven, whereas our oracle said that the catastrophe-myth signified "a shifting of the bodies which move in the heavens around the earth": the planets in our vicinity (*!* greek text) not the unimaginably distant stars.
That is half the answer. The other half depends on showing recognition by Plato of a causality present in the universe capable of subjecting the Earth to real, not symbolic, celestial catastrophes.
We recall that in the very matrix of the cosmos is present the "errant cause", that inherent disorderly motion called "Necessity," and that Reason persuaded Necessity to guide "the greatest part of the things that become" but by no means all "toward what is best". Thus our present universe: "It is from him who composed it that it has received all the virtues it possesses, while from its primal chaotic condition it retains in itself the elements of harshness and injustice which have their origin in the heavens" (Statesman, 273C).
Here Plato's cosmology comes back to the moral center of all the dialogues, the nature of the Good. The World-Soul is by nature good the guardian of all the order, stability, harmony, and rationality present in the cosmos. But their opposites – excess, disorder, arbitrariness, disharmony are themselves integral to all that Becomes, in the movement of the heavens as in the human soul.
"Must not we then necessarily agree," asks the Athenian Guest in the Laws (896D), "that soul is the cause of things good and bad, fair and foul, just and unjust, and all the opposites, if we are to assume it to be the cause of all things? And as soul thus controls and indwells in all things everywhere that are moved, must we not necessarily affirm that it controls the heavens also?
"One soul, is it, or several? I will answer for you more than one. Anyhow, let us assume not less than two the beneficent soul and that which is capable of effecting results of the opposite kind.
"Which kind of soul, then, shall we say is in control of heaven and earth and the whole circle? That which is wise and full of goodness, or that which has neither quality? To this let us make reply as follows: If we are to assert that the whole course and motion of the heaven and of all it contains have a motion like to the motion and revolution and reckonings of reason, and proceed in a kindred manner, then clearly we must assert that the best soul regulates the whole cosmos and drives it on its course; but that it is the bad soul, if it proceeds in a mad and disorderly way."
If we must choose which to call sole governor of the universe, Plato leaves the choice in no doubt. But we have learned from Timaeus and the Eleatic Guest that this choice is most emphatically not imposed on us. The logos of the Timaeus insists that the Errant Cause is a constituent factor in material reality. The Statesman and Atlantis myths both describe the universe as proceeding in a mad and disorderly way precisely at the moments when the greatest catastrophes befall the inhabitants of this Earth.
What mattered above all to Plato, as it did to Socrates before him, was the question How to Live? The ever-recurring fear of cosmic catastrophe would be unbearably subversive of the free and ordered social existence within which the good life can alone be lived. The disasters were in his day so recent that the benign side of the process of collective amnesia was clearly predominant. What had to be emphasized was the restored stability of the solar system, so that the generations of mankind could proceed free from the terror of global cataclysm and order their lives in confidence of the Sovereignty of the Good. The last word might well be left to Agathon (Symposium, 195C): "Those ancient troubles among the gods, which Hesiod and Parmenides relate, I take to have been the work of Necessity, not of Love. For there would have been none of those mutilations and fetterings or of all those other acts of violence, if Love had been amongst them; rather only amity and peace such as now subsist ever since Love has reigned over the gods."
NOTES1. Cf. G. Ryle, Plato's Progress. While Ryle convincingly substantiates both this aspect of the dialogues' public status in a society where "publication" in the modern sense had yet to be invented and the connection of Timaeus and Critias with Plato's attempted intervention in Sicilian politics, I regard his other biographical speculations as, at best, highly improbable.
2. Citations of Plato throughout are based on the text and translations of the Loeb Classical Library edition (London and Cambridge, 1951) with additional reference to the translations of Cornford, Robin. Skemp, Taylor, Morrow, Hamilton and Helmbold.
3. That the Athenians re-entered the Earth suggests, in the context of Statesman 270E, that the Atlantis catastrophe was associated with a reversal of the terrestrial rotation from Westward to Eastward. In any case, it is clear that Plato places this catastrophe before the Flood of Deucalion, which Velikovsky synchronizes with the Exodus (W. in C. Part I Chapter 7, "The Floods of Deucalion and Ogyges").
4. Cf. E. Ramage, ed., Atlantis: Fact or Fiction? (London, 1978).
5. It is difficult to accept Velikovsky's suggested emendation, not only because Plato puts the submergence of Atlantis before Deucalion, but above all because in Plato's account the event is said by the Saitic priest to have occurred 1,000 years before the beginning of Egyptian civilization (Tim. 23E). If this is taken seriously, as it probably should not be, the Atlantean epoch would be around 3,500-4,000 BCE. [Also see KRONOS I:2, pp. 93-99. LMG]
6. H. von Dechend and G. de Santillana, Hamlet's Mill (Boston, 1969), p. 250.
7. Ibid., P. 311
8. Most commentators, following the orthodox view according to which Hipparchus (c. 127 BCE) was the first to discover the precession, assume that the sphere of fixed stars is totally unaffected by the Motion of the Different. Although this view contradicts the most obvious mechanical implication of Tjm. 36 B-C ("Next, He split all this that He had put together into two parts lengthwise; and then He laid the twain one against the other, the middle of one to the middle of the other, like a great cross; and bent each of them into a circle, and joined them, each to itself and also to the other, at a point opposite to where they had first been laid together. And He compassed them about with the motion that revolves in the same spot continually, and He made the one circle outer and the other inner. And the outer motion He ordained to be the Motion of the Same, and the inner motion the Motion of the Different. And He made the motion of the Same to be toward the right along the side, and the Motion of the Different to be toward the left along the diagonal; and He gave the sovereignty to the Revolution of the Same and Uniform."), it does receive surface plausibility from Tim. 40B: "And each member of this class [of fixed stars] He endowed with two motions, whereof the one is uniform motion in the same spot, whereby it conceives always identical thoughts about the same objects, and the other is a forward motion due to its being dominated by the revolution of the Same and Similar; but in respect of the other five motions they are at rest and move not, so that each of them may attain the greatest possible perfection" - provided that one does not notice that the next sentence, "From this cause, then, came into existence all those unwandering stars which are living creatures divine and eternal and abide for ever revolving uniformly in the same spot" withdraws even the "forward motion" just granted them: giving, at any rate, a good example of what Timaeus says at 29C, "Wherefore, Socrates, if in our treatment of a great host of matters regarding the Gods and the generation of the Universe we prove unable to give accounts that are at all points entirely consistent and perfectly exact, do not be surprised."
The strongest textual basis for the admittedly heterodox interpretation here advanced is provided by Tim. 39 A-D: "And because of the motion of the Same, the stars which revolved most quickly appeared to be overtaken by those which moved most slowly, although in truth they overtook them; for, because of their simultaneous progress in two opposite directions, the motion of the Same, which is the swiftest of all motions, twisted all their circles into spirals and thus caused the body which moves away from it most slowly to appear the nearest." That "all" here includes the all-encompassing sphere of fixed stars is emphasized by the discussion in the next sentence of "a clear measure of the relative speeds, slow and quick, with which they travelled round their eight orbits," and the conclusion that "the complete number of Time fulfils the Complete Year when all the eight circuits, with their relative speeds, finish together and come to a head, when measured by the revolution of the Same and Similarly Moving" likewise confirms the reading that the "eighth circuit," like the other seven, possesses a relative speed in the "direction of the diagonal" to be measured by the speed of the Revolution of the Same which, as a unit of measure, must be conceptually distinct from any of the things it measures.
Could Plato have known of the precession? He flourished more than three centuries after the last disruption of
the Earth's rotation by Mars, much more than sufficient time for the observatories of Babylonia and Egypt to
confirm that precession continued and to form a rough estimate of its rate (which, immediately following the
repeated destabilizations of the Earth's rotation in the eighth century, might well have been faster than the
present 3 degrees per two centuries). It would seem rather to be the proposition that Plato was ignorant of the
most majestic of celestial processes that is in need of substantiation. In any case, the safest as well as the most
fruitful approach to the writings of a thinker of Plato's stature is to assume wherever possible that knowledge,
not ignorance, underlies a surface ambiguity or absurdity.