Maurice Nicoll – From ‘Living Time’: Plato & Harmony’

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The drawing of ‘Apophis in the mystic celestial ocean

between the Goddesses Isis and Nephthys’

is reproduced from the Journal of the

Transactions of the Victoria Institute,

volume VI. 1873


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA is an excerpt from Maurice Nicoll’s ‘Living Time, and the Integration of Life’, Vincent Stuart Publishers, London, 1954. Reprinted by Eureka Editions in 1998. From Chapter III, from page 49 to 53.


At the dawn of our civilisation Pythagoras taught that the universe is a ‘harmony’. The word had distinct meanings. The Pythagoreans connected it with the musical scale. Burnet points out that it had the meaning of octave. In the second place, harmony meant the ‘tension of opposites’ held in balance. ‘The harmonious structure of the world depends on opposite tension, like that of the bow or the lyre’ (Heraklitus). Some thought that the universe could be represented by a scale of numbers. This was a definitely Pythagorean idea. Burnet believed that these numbers signified dimensions, i.e., one meant a point, two a line. Three-a plane, etc.

The harmony of the world was called the soul of the world. Just as musical harmony depends on certain numerical propor­tions in the length of strings, the universe was thought to be constructed so that its various parts were in harmonic relationship. From this point of view the universe is not haphazard, but an established order. For this reason, Pythagoras gave to it the name Cosmos, a word which came to mean order.

The soul of man was also regarded as a ‘harmony’. Plato speaks of the different elements in man as lying in a state of disorder but being capable of reaching a harmony on the principle of scale, as in a musical chord, where the various notes on different levels are brought into accord.

The lowest and most irrational part of man touches the world of the senses. The highest approximates to the world of Ideas and is beyond the level of logical reason. Plato describes these degrees in man as being comparable to four levels of mental development. In his theory of knowledge, they correspond to four forms of knowing. The lowest is little more than a simple consciousness of the images of objects. This lowest state (eikasia) gives the most superficial view of the world and conveys the least knowledge. The mental state is nothing but a series of images and dreams. ‘Shadows, images and dreams are the most obvious types of unreality and the contrast between them and realities is very striking to early thinkers, as it is to a mind which is just beginning to think’ (Richard Lewis Nettleship).

In the well-known analogy, Plato compares the ordinary mental state of man to that of a prisoner chained in a cave with his face to the wall, on which are thrown the shadows of real things outside the cave, of which latter he can begin to have no true idea unless he realises his situation and turns himself round. (This allegory is given in full later, page 189.) This is the state of eikasia, and it is characterised by continual uncertainty and vague­ness, a living, as it were, in a dream world of shadows and fears. In this state of illusion man is simply a dim reflex of the changing world in time, a procession of images caught by the senses.

We are mainly in this internal state of eikasia, for the major part of our lives. This is the state in which the soul lives at the bottom of the scale of reality within us. For while the ‘harmony’ or scale is sometimes called the soul itself, at other times the soul is spoken of as an energy that can be related to the higher or lower gradations in this scale.

The next stage defined by Plato is that of pistis. In this state we get to know by experience some of the tangible facts of life. We feel certain about some things and form definite opinions, or opinions are formed in us by imitation. These opinions may be quite contradictory if we come to examine them. But because each of them gives us a feeling of certainty we do not investigate them deeply, and do not wish to do so. It is sufficient that we have something to hold on to.

This is the stage of pistis, or belief and opinion; and however naïve it may be, it gives some feeling of certainty. So, we find people in different countries with certain similar beliefs in the tangible things of existence and quite different beliefs about the nature of things in general, but having some feeling of certainty in common. While there may be truth in some of these beliefs, as mere belief the inner perception of their truth is hindered.

Both the above states of mind were classed by Plato as opinion (doxa). Belief, and the perception of shadows, are not the waking reality. They are not understanding. One may hold a correct opinion but as long as it is an opinion it is not the perception of truth but only a kind of dream about it, i.e., the mind is not awakened.

When people begin to examine their opinions and find contra­dictions in their various beliefs, they begin to search for principles, or some unity underlying variety. Plato calls this stage of mental development dianoia.

When we reason from hypothesis as in geometry, we use this dianoetic thinking; or when we try to find a law connecting together various perceived phenomena. These two examples are, of course, not similar. Scientific thought is dianoetic in that it endeavours to abstract from the mass of sensible things in order to establish simple laws that explain phenomena descriptively.

Above this he puts the highest level in man, nous (mind). We may perhaps be able to see dimly something of what was meant by this term. If we could see all the relations and affinities that an object has, simultaneously, instead of as a confused collection of separately noticed properties, which often seem to be contra­dictory, we would be on the noetic level of conscious experience. ‘Suppose that different men of science had set themselves to work to exhaust all the properties of an object, and that all these properties came to be understood, we should regard the object as the centre in which a number of laws of nature, or what Plato would call forms, (ideas) converged‘ (Richard Lewis Nettleship).

The separate sensible properties of the object would be merged into its total significance. It would be seen as an expression of the universe, so that while nothing that our senses told us of it would be lost sight of or wrong, it would be invested with a meaning that trans­cended all sensible perception and would become a manifestation of ‘intelligible form’ or idea.

At this noetic level the world would be experienced in a new way, i.e., as regards the interconnection, relation, meaning and significance of everything that we perceive. Noetic experience can only be individually known. The sharing of knowledge by a number of people, who know different sides of the same question, could not possibly give noesis, as Nettleship seems to imply.

Since the noetic level of conscious experience and Plato’s world of forms or ideas are closely related, we must look for a moment at the cosmological theory in which the latter appears.

All visible creation is regarded as an imperfect copy of invisible ideas or forms which can only be apprehended by mind (nous) at its highest level. Our senses reveal to us only copies. These copies exist in passing-time, for everything visible, every sensible object, exists in passing-time. The ideas are apart from time, but they are reflected into objects in time.

Man thus stands between a sensible world of copies and an intelligible (mentally perceptible) world of true forms, of which these copies are representations. This cosmological theory contains three terms: (I) that which becomes, which is the copy in time; (2) that wherein it becomes; (3) the model on which that which becomes-the copy-is based. ‘We may compare the recipient with the mother, the model with the father, and that which arises between them with their child’ (Timaeus 50, D).

Visible creation in time, or nature, therefore, does not exist of itself. It is not the cause of itself, but is an ever-changing copy of something which lies behind appearances. The recipient, or mother, is three-dimensional space, which must be empty of all properties in order to receive the impress of the model. The copy is in time. The model (idea) is outside our space and time.

Since the copy is in time it is always changing, always manifesting itself only partially. The full expression of itself lies in this first pattern or original model, beyond our time. If, then, we ever reached the noetic level of experience, our inward perception of the model would invest the outward copy with intense significance. Our intuition of the model, as direct cognition, would be free from all properties of sense. It would be knowledge apart from sense, but inasmuch as it met the sensible copy in outer space, it would exalt it into its total significance, because its whole form would be internally perceived.

Plato observes that at this level of conscious experience the world presents itself as a scale or series of orders of existence, each connected with the one above it and the one below it. One form of preparation for the reaching of this state is indicated-the exercising of the power of seeing together the relationships that exist between the various branches of available knowledge, i.e., progress in knowledge is progress in the perception of the unity of knowledge. If we imagine that a branch of knowledge can exist separately by itself, we are in error, for everything is connected, in order of scale or ‘harmony’.


Listen to the whole

chapter III read

by Debbie Elliott

(a.k.a. D.J. Elliott)


Wynne, David; Dr. Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953); The Box (Plymouth Museums Galleries Archives);


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