Table of Contents
Previous Book | Next section


     LET us explain the nature of the sea and the reason why such a large mass of water is salt and the way in which it originally came to be.

     The old writers who invented theogonies say that the sea has springs, for they want and sea to have foundations and roots of their own. Presumably they thought that this view was grander and more impressive as implying that our earth was an important part of the universe. For they believed that the whole world had been built up round our earth and for its sake, and that the earth was the most important and primary part of it. Others, wiser in human knowledge, give an account of its origin. At first, they say, the earth was surrounded by moisture. Then the sun began to dry it up, part of it evaporated and is the cause of winds and the turnings back of the sun and the moon, while the remainder forms the sea. So the sea is being dried up and is growing less, and will end by being some day entirely dried up. Others say that the sea is a kind of sweat exuded by the earth when the sun heats it, and that this explains its saltness: for all sweat is salt. Others say that the saltness is due to the earth. Just as water strained through ashes becomes salt, so the sea owes its saltness to the admixture of earth with similar properties.

     We must now consider the facts which prove that the sea cannot possibly have springs. The waters we find on the earth either flow or are stationary. All flowing water has springs. (By a spring, as we have explained above, we must not understand a source from which waters are ladled as it were from a vessel, but a first point at which the water which is continually forming and percolating gathers.) Stationary water is either that which has collected and has been left standing, marshy pools, for instance, and lakes, which differ merely in size, or else it comes from springs. In this case it is always artificial, I mean as in the case of wells, otherwise the spring would have to be above the outlet. Hence the water from fountains and rivers flows of itself, whereas wells need to be worked artificially. All the waters that exist belong to one or other of these classes.

     On the basis of this division we can sec that the sea cannot have springs. For it falls under neither of the two classes; it does not flow and it is not artificial; whereas all water from springs must belong to one or other of them. Natural standing water from springs is never found on such a large scale.

     Again, there are several seas that have no communication with one another at all. The Red Sea, for instance, communicates but slightly with the ocean outside the straits, and the Hyrcanian and Caspian seas are distinct from this ocean and people dwell all round them. Hence, if these seas had had any springs anywhere they must have been discovered.

     It is true that in straits, where the land on either side contracts an open sea into a small space, the sea appears to flow. But this is because it is swinging to and fro. In the open sea this motion is not observed, but where the land narrows and contracts the sea the motion that was imperceptible in the open necessarily strikes the attention.

     The whole of the Mediterranean does actually flow. The direction of this flow is determined by the depth of the basins and by the number of rivers. Maeotis flows into and Pontus into the Aegean. After that the flow of the remaining seas is not so easy to observe. The current of Maeotis and Pontus is due to the number of rivers (more rivers flow into the Euxine and Maeotis than into the whole Mediterranean with its much larger basin), and to their own shallowness. For we find the sea getting deeper and deeper. Pontus is deeper than Maeotis, the Aegean than Pontus, the Sicilian sea than the Aegean; the Sardinian and Tyrrhenic being the deepest of all. (Outside the pillars of Heracles the sea is shallow owing to the mud, but calm, for it lies in a hollow.) We see, then, that just as single rivers flow from mountains, so it is with the earth as a whole: the greatest volume of water flows from the higher regions in the north. Their alluvium makes the northern seas shallow, while the outer seas are deeper. Some further evidence of the height of the northern regions of the earth is afforded by the view of many of the ancient meteorologists. They believed that the sun did not pass below the earth, but round its northern part, and that it was the height of this which obscured the sun and caused night.

     So much to prove that there cannot be sources of the sea and to explain its observed flow.


     We must now discuss the origin of the sea, if it has an origin, and the cause of its salt and bitter taste.

     What made earlier writers consider the sea to be the original and main body of water is this. It seems reasonable to suppose that to be the case on the analogy of the other elements. Each of them has a main bulk which by reason of its mass is the origin of that element, and any parts which change and mix with the other elements come from it. Thus the main body of fire is in the upper region; that of air occupies the place next inside the region of fire; while the mass of the earth is that round which the rest of the elements are seen to lie. So we must clearly look for something analogous in the case of water. But here we can find no such single mass, as in the case of the other elements, except the sea. River water is not a unity, nor is it stable, but is seen to be in a continuous process of becoming from day to day. It was this difficulty which made people regard the sea as the origin and source of moisture and of all water. And so we find it maintained that rivers not only flow into the sea but originate from it, the salt water becoming sweet by filtration.

     But this view involves another difficulty. If this body of water is the origin and source of all water, why is it salt and not sweet? The reason for this, besides answering this question, will ensure our having a right first conception of the nature of the sea.

     The earth is surrounded by water, just as that is by the sphere of air, and that again by the sphere called that of fire (which is the outermost both on the common view and on ours). Now the sun, moving as it does, sets up processes of change and becoming and decay, and by its agency the finest and sweetest water is every day carried up and is dissolved into vapour and rises to the upper region, where it is condensed again by the cold and so returns to the earth. This, as we have said before, is the regular course of nature.

     Hence all my predecessors who supposed that the sun was nourished by moisture are absurdly mistaken. Some go on to say that the solstices are due to this, the reason being that the same places cannot always supply the sun with nourishment and that without it he must perish. For the fire we are familiar with lives as long as it is fed, and the only food for fire is moisture. As if the moisture that is raised could reach the sun! or this ascent were really like that performed by flame as it comes into being, and to which they supposed the case of the sun to be analogous! Really there is no similarity. A flame is a process of becoming, involving a constant interchange of moist and dry. It cannot be said to be nourished since it scarcely persists as one and the same for a moment. This cannot be true of the sun; for if it were nourished like that, as they say it is, we should obviously not only have a new sun every day, as Heraclitus says, but a new sun every moment. Again, when the sun causes the moisture to rise, this is like fire heating water. So, as the fire is not fed by the water above it, it is absurd to suppose that the sun feeds on that moisture, even if its heat made all the water in the world evaporate. Again, it is absurd, considering the number and size of the stars, that these thinkers should consider the sun only and overlook the question how the rest of the heavenly bodies subsist. Again, they are met by the same difficulty as those who say that at first the earth itself was moist and the world round the earth was warmed by the sun, and so air was generated and the whole firmament grew, and the air caused winds and solstices. The objection is that we always plainly see the water that has been carried up coming down again. Even if the same amount does not come back in a year or in a given country, yet in a certain period all that has been carried up is returned. This implies that the celestial bodies do not feed on it, and that we cannot distinguish between some air which preserves its character once it is generated and some other which is generated but becomes water again and so perishes; on the contrary, all the moisture alike is dissolved and all of it condensed back into water.

     The drinkable, sweet water, then, is light and is all of it drawn up: the salt water is heavy and remains behind, but not in its natural place. For this is a question which has been sufficiently discussed (I mean about the natural place that water, like the other elements, must in reason have), and the answer is this. The place which we see the sea filling is not its natural place but that of water. It seems to belong to the sea because the weight of the salt water makes it remain there, while the sweet, drinkable water which is light is carried up. The same thing happens in animal bodies. Here, too, the food when it enters the body is sweet, yet the residuum and dregs of liquid food are found to be bitter and salt. This is because the sweet and drinkable part of it has been drawn away by the natural animal heat and has passed into the flesh and the other parts of the body according to their several natures. Now just as here it would be wrong for any one to refuse to call the belly the place of liquid food because that disappears from it soon, and to call it the place of the residuum because this is seen to remain, so in the case of our present subject. This place, we say, is the place of water. Hence all rivers and all the water that is generated flow into it: for water flows into the deepest place, and the deepest part of the earth is filled by the sea. Only all the light and sweet part of it is quickly carried off by the sun, while herest remains for the reason we have explained. It is quite natural that some people should have been puzzled by the old question why such a mass of water leaves no trace anywhere (for the sea does not increase though innumerable and vast rivers are flowing into it every day.) But if one considers the matter the solution is easy. The same amount of water does not take as long to dry up when it is spread out as when it is gathered in a body, and indeed the difference is so great that in the one case it might persist the whole day long while in the other it might all disappear in a moment-as for instance if one were to spread out a cup of water over a large table. This is the case with the rivers: all the time they are flowing their water forms a compact mass, but when it arrives at a vast wide place it quickly and imperceptibly evaporates.

     But the theory of the Phaedo about rivers and the sea is impossible. There it is said that the earth is pierced by intercommunicating channels and that the original head and source of all waters is what is called Tartarus-a mass of water about the centre, from which all waters, flowing and standing, are derived. This primary and original water is always surging to and fro, and so it causes the rivers to flow on this side of the earth's centre and on that; for it has no fixed seat but is always oscillating about the centre. Its motion up and down is what fills rivers. Many of these form lakes in various places (our sea is an instance of one of these), but all of them come round again in a circle to the original source of their flow, many at the same point, but some at a point opposite to that from which they issued; for instance, if they started from the other side of the earth's centre, they might return from this side of it. They descend only as far as the centre, for after that all motion is upwards. Water gets its tastes and colours from the kind of earth the rivers happened to flow through.

     But on this theory rivers do not always flow in the same sense. For since they flow to the centre from which they issue forth they will not be flowing down any more than up, but in whatever direction the surging of Tartarus inclines to. But at this rate we shall get the proverbial rivers flowing upwards, which is impossible. Again, where is the water that is generated and what goes up again as vapour to come from? For this must all of it simply be ignored, since the quantity of water is always the same and all the water that flows out from the original source flows back to it again. This itself is not true, since all rivers are seen to end in the sea except where one flows into another. Not one of them ends in the earth, but even when one is swallowed up it comes to the surface again. And those rivers are large which flow for a long distance through a lowying country, for by their situation and length they cut off the course of many others and swallow them up. This is why the Istrus and the Nile are the greatest of the rivers which flow into our sea. Indeed, so many rivers fall into them that there is disagreement as to the sources of them both. All of which is plainly impossible on the theory, and the more so as it derives the sea from Tartarus.

     Enough has been said to prove that this is the natural place of water and not of the sea, and to explain why sweet water is only found in rivers, while salt water is stationary, and to show that the sea is the end rather than the source of water, analogous to the residual matter of all food, and especially liquid food, in animal bodies.

Table of Contents
Previous Book | Next section

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.