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Designing Materialism: Ovid’s Armillary Sphere and the Phaedo

Peter Kelly

University of Oregon and the National University of Ireland, Galway

Ovid in Fasti 6 (269-80) compares the structure of the world to a physical replica of it in the form of the armillary sphere of Archimedes. Ovid’s description of the armillary sphere as a world within a world is arguably his most complex and intricate conception of the structure and workings of the cosmos and one which integrates a series of allusions to contrasting philosophical discourses, namely the divine teleology of the Stoics and the materialism of Lucretian physics. This paper will be the first to argue that the key passage for understanding Ovid’s ‘blurring of’, or ‘crossing between’ the different cosmic models can be found in Plato’s Phaedo, while the pervasive analogy of the craftsman, model and copy from the Timaeus can be used to interrogate the ontological status between Ovid’s replica and its cosmic and textual models.              

Ovid begins the ekphrasis by describing a geocentric universe with the earth at its centre, perfectly suspended with no support and undergoing continuous rotation (6.269-77). The cosmos is organized through the material causes of the earth’s position, shape and stability and their relation to the wider universe. The passage then easily shifts from the description of the universe to an illustration of the armillary sphere of Archimedes (6.278-80). The comparison with the armillary sphere implies that the cosmos is a skilfully designed mechanism, while a demiurgic figure is introduced in the guise of Archimedes. A tension arises between a teleological or divinely created world and a materialist explanation for the structure of the universe, which Ovid expresses through a series of contrastive allusions to Lucretius (e.g. 5.534) and Cicero (Nat.D.2.88.10-89.1; Tusc.1.63.1-5).

The key passage, however, and model for Ovid’s juxtaposition of the cosmos and armillary sphere can be found in Socrates’ account of the teleological universe in Plato’s Phaedo (108e4-109a6), where the earth is likewise said to remain in place at the centre of a spherical universe due to its position and uniformity. Socrates appears to present a materialist schema of the universe, as the cosmos gains its structure due to the equilibrium of the system. Sedley (1989, 370-1), however, demonstrates that the passage encourages a ‘two-tiered reading’: a perfectly coherent and non-teleological ‘surface reading’ of the myth is juxtaposed with the teleological reading which is ‘contrived to lie below the surface’. It will be argued then that Ovid, in a similar manner to Plato, presents a cosmos organized through the causality of its own internal structure, while all the while alluding to the design that lies hidden beneath its surface. The final part of this paper will analyse how Ovid’s juxtaposition of the materialist and teleological worldviews functions as a metaphor for the composition of the text. Ovid uses this extended ekphrasis to question the level of design in the universe and text alike and to map his conception of literary creation onto the philosophical question of whether the world is formed through precise design or material and chaotic causes. The armillary sphere as a carefully designed product of human craftsmanship not only serves to link cosmic and textual composition, but calls into the question whether the text is simply the result of the sum of its parts, or whether the author like the demiurge generates its structure.  

This paper builds upon the works of Volk (2012) and Gee (2000) who discuss the ‘parallelism between verse and universe’ in relation to Aratus and Ovid’s Fasti, and Wheeler (1995) who has demonstrated the link between craftsmanship and demiurgy at the beginning of the Metamorphoses. Volk also highlights the danger that this parallelism be simply seen as a handy postmodern trope, instead of an actual metaphor that the ancient reader would also have identified. This paper will extend this argument by demonstrating that the pervasive metaphor of the craftsman, model and copy from Plato’s Timaeus provides a philosophical basis for reading the cosmic-text metaphor in Ovid.

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The Cosmic-Text: Metapoetics and Philosophy in Latin Literature

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