Volume 25, Issue 2, Spring 2021
Plato and the Problem of Water
Water, hydōr: it is the first word of ancient Greek philosophy, the word used by Thales, the first philosopher, to describe the material principle subtending all things. By the time of Plato, philosophers were proposing other kinds of non-material principles to explain diverse phenomena, principles like soul, mind, or ideas. But Plato would continue to be interested in—even fascinated by—water, water in every imaginable form, at once pure and impure, transparent and troubled, drinkable and undrinkable, flowing and still, fresh and salt, shallow and deep. In this paper, I look at Plato’s fascination with and fundamental ambivalence toward water, his understanding of water as both a political question (in his depiction of the island of Atlantis and the city of Athens) and a philosophical problem (in the myth of the cave and the divided line in the Republic and the myth of the earth in the Phaedo). I suggest by the end of the paper, using the work of Jacques Derrida in “Plato’s Pharmacy” to guide my argument, that, for Plato, water was at once the greatest danger for philosophy and its most powerful resource.