In Plato's explanation of sensation we are struck by the fact that he has not the same distinct conception of organs of sense which is familiar to ourselves. The senses are not instruments, but rather passages, through which external objects strike upon the mind. The eye is the aperture through which the stream of vision passes, the ear is the aperture through which the vibrations of sound pass. But that the complex structure of the eye or the ear is in any sense the cause of sight and hearing he seems hardly to be aware.
The process of sight is the most complicated (Rep.), and consists of three elements—the light which is supposed to reside within the eye, the light of the sun, and the light emitted from external objects. When the light of the eye meets the light of the sun, and both together meet the light issuing from an external object, this is the simple act of sight. When the particles of light which proceed from the object are exactly equal to the particles of the visual ray which meet them from within, then the body is transparent. If they are larger and contract the visual ray, a black colour is produced; if they are smaller and dilate it, a white. Other phenomena are produced by the variety and motion of light. A sudden flash of fire at once elicits light and moisture from the eye, and causes a bright colour. A more subdued light, on mingling with the moisture of the eye, produces a red colour. Out of these elements all other colours are derived. All of them are combinations of bright and red with white and black. Plato himself tells us that he does not know in what proportions they combine, and he is of opinion that such knowledge is granted to the gods only. To have seen the affinity of them to each other and their connection with light, is not a bad basis for a theory of colours. We must remember that they were not distinctly defined to his, as they are to our eyes; he saw them, not as they are divided in the prism, or artificially manufactured for the painter's use, but as they exist in nature, blended and confused with one another.
We can hardly agree with him when he tells us that smells do not admit of kinds. He seems to think that no definite qualities can attach to bodies which are in a state of transition or evaporation; he also makes the subtle observation that smells must be denser than air, though thinner than water, because when there is an obstruction to the breathing, air can penetrate, but not smell.
The affections peculiar to the tongue are of various kinds, and, like many other affections, are caused by contraction and dilation. Some of them are produced by rough, others by abstergent, others by inflammatory substances,—these act upon the testing instruments of the tongue, and produce a more or less disagreeable sensation, while other particles congenial to the tongue soften and harmonize them. The instruments of taste reach from the tongue to the heart. Plato has a lively sense of the manner in which sensation and motion are communicated from one part of the body to the other, though he confuses the affections with the organs. Hearing is a blow which passes through the ear and ends in the region of the liver, being transmitted by means of the air, the brain, and the blood to the soul. The swifter sound is acute, the sound which moves slowly is grave. A great body of sound is loud, the opposite is low. Discord is produced by the swifter and slower motions of two sounds, and is converted into harmony when the swifter motions begin to pause and are overtaken by the slower.
The general phenomena of sensation are partly internal, but the more violent are caused by conflict with external objects. Proceeding by a method of superficial observation, Plato remarks that the more sensitive parts of the human frame are those which are least covered by flesh, as is the case with the head and the elbows. Man, if his head had been covered with a thicker pulp of flesh, might have been a longer-lived animal than he is, but could not have had as quick perceptions. On the other hand, the tongue is one of the most sensitive of organs; but then this is made, not to be a covering to the bones which contain the marrow or source of life, but with an express purpose, and in a separate mass.