The volume collects the Gifford Lectures given by Bidez in April 1939; these are based on material and studies that had already appeared separately in the Bulletins de la Classe des Lettres de l’Académie Royale de Belgique.
The author offers a non-systematic reconstruction of the influences of Eastern myths and cosmological and religious traditions, mostly tracing back to the teachings of Zoroaster as the founder of the Persian religion, on Plato’s writings and on the intellectual environment of the Academy. He offers a two-sided investigation. On one hand, he detects direct and indirect references in Plato’s texts to the religion of the Persian Magi and to ancient Caldean cosmological (and, to a lesser extent, astrological) traditions, or to myths and beliefs inspired by them; on the other, Bidez reconstructs the links between the Academy in Athens and the Eastern world in biographical and geographical terms, with special reference to the trips of Plato and other members of the Academy (e.g., Eudoxus) to Egypt, and to the mediation provided by Pythagorism and archaic cosmology.
The book presents evidence for the thesis that only part of the influence of Eastern doctrines on the Academy must be traced back to the latter mediation, and that direct links with these doctrines played a role which is at least as important. It also provides a tentative answer to the specific questions: How do we have to understand the direct and indirect references to the Iranian Magi in Plato’s Dialogues? How does the influence of Eastern beliefs affect Plato’s treatment of themes such as metempsychosis and reminiscence, dreaming and memory?
The first four chapters are devoted to the general framework in which such an influence has to be understood. They analyse indirect evidence such as the early works of Aristotle, the writings of Philip of Oponte, Thermodore of Syracuse, as well as the importance of Pythagorean mediations in Plato’s acquaintance with Eastern doctrines and, most importantly, the role played by Eudoxus of Cnidus in the cultural mediation between the Academy on one side and Caldean astrology and Zoroastrian doctrines on the other.
Chapters V–XIV analyse Plato’s dialogues in detail, isolating the themes where the influence of Eastern cosmology, and even astrology, is more strongly detectable. The focus is here on the presentation of the myth of Er in the Republic; on the allegoric table of the Phaedrus, with its idea of the zodiac’s signs governing the world as archontes; on the account of the different phases of the world’s existence presented in the Statesman; on the account of the stars and planets as eternally animated entities, intended by Kronos to be the guardians of the world’s laws, in the Timaeus; and on the metaphysical dualism endorsed by Plato in the Laws.
The last chapter is devoted to the influence of Democritus’s philosophy on Plato’s works.