Plato: Timaeus

November 14, 2022

Timaeus
Plato
(Penguin Classics, 1965) [c.375 BC]
121 p.

A friend who knows a good deal more about Plato than I do suggested that this dialogue could make a nice double-bill with Hesiod’s creation poems, and he was right.

The set-up, dramatically, is that Socrates and several young men have reconvened on the day after Socrates’ great speech on the city (viz. The Republic), but this time it is the turn of the young men to speak, and one of them, Timaeus, has prepared a speech about the origin and order of the universe and of human beings.

After a few preliminaries, involving, among other things, the story of how the Athenian reformer Solon went to Egypt and learned about the antiquity of the world, Timaeus plunges into his chosen theme. Although he does not forsake Hesiod’s mythology entirely (“Earth and Heaven gave birth to Ocean and Tethys,” we learn), most of the discussion is in a quite different key. Timaeus’ approach is rational and systematic, drawing partly on metaphysics but, to a degree that surprised me, partly on nuts-and-bolts physics. A significant chunk of the dialogue, for instance, is devoted to describing the Platonic polyhedra and explaining how their shapes give rise to the properties of fire, air, mud, and everything else.

More interesting, to me, were the forays into metaphysics, ethics, and other topics we more readily associate with Plato. Little of this gets argued or developed at length, and of course we have to keep in mind that we are not hearing Socrates but someone else, but still I thought it was interesting to see how and where familiar Platonic ideas popped up.

Timaeus makes an early distinction, for instance, between “that which always is” and “that which becomes but never is”, and argues that while the latter can be apprehended by the senses, only the former can be grasped by understanding. This distinction provides an opening for a brief discussion of Forms; Timaeus claims that if understanding is something different from opinion, then Forms must exist, for to understand simply means knowing them.

This epistemological point is given a moral spin. The physical world, though restive and not amenable to true understanding, nonetheless reflects or instantiates in some way the unchanging order of the Forms, which are intelligible. Using the metaphor of orbits, Timeaus develops the idea that our senses are given us so that we can apprehend the order of the universe and mirror that order within our own souls:

“The god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed, whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share in the ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god.”

This is such a beautiful idea. It reminds us of the Pythagoreans, and, unless I’m mistaken, Plato repeats the general idea elsewhere, but the main point is the idea itself. The harmony of the world is an aid, through apprehension and understanding, to the harmony of the soul. Modern cosmology has lost the capacity to make any kind of meaningful connection between physics and ethics, so we are striking a vein of pre-modern gold here. We are tempted to shrug such connections off as simply mistaken, but it might be healthy to resist such temptation. As C.S. Lewis argued in his wonderful book The Discarded Image, we are perhaps too little aware of how our own philosophical, or pre-philosophical, commitments condition our cosmology. We can see the all-of-a-piece interdependence of cosmology, theology, anthropology, etc. when we look at other cultures, but think we are immune. And perhaps it is really true that we are the ones who, finally, see things as they are! But love is blind, and that includes self-love.

In any case, it is evident that Timaeus’ belief that there is connaturality between the order of the world outside us and the possibility of order within us points in certain metaphysical and theological directions. And Timaeus himself gestures in some of these directions. He believes that the world is “a work of craft”, and is, as such, intrinsically intelligible. Although at bottom the material world is the realm of Necessity, the cosmos came to be when Necessity was subjugated to “wise persuasion” by Intellect. The agent that created the world (the famous demi-urge) “wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as that was possible”. It is only because the world is good (or as good as possible) that its influence on us can be expected to be beneficial in the way that Timaeus expects.

*

In Plato’s dialogues we see a theology that is fairly rich and sophisticated. Comparing his ideas to, for instance, those of Cicero makes the latter appear awfully rudimentary. Plato — or, I guess, Timaeus — understands that if God is the ultimate source of everything, then he must be quite radically unlike anything else. Timaeus remarks at one point that time was created with the universe, which emphasizes just how bold and thorough his conception of the ultimateness of God is.

The dialogue also includes an argument for the uniqueness of God that is interesting. Timaeus says,

…that which contains all of the intelligible living things couldn’t ever be one of a pair, since that would require there to be yet another Living Thing, the one that contained those two, of which they then would be parts, and then it would be more correct to speak of our universe as made in the likeness, now not of those two, but of that other, the one that contains them.

It’s not quite as clearly put as it might be, but this general form of argument remains a mainstay of the classical theist tradition to this day, and I was pleased and, I admit, a little surprised to find it here.

The last thing I’ll mention in passing is a moral claim that Timaeus makes, also in passing, when he says that moral evil is a result of either sickness or ignorance:

No one is willfully evil. A man becomes evil, rather, as a result of one or another corrupt condition of his body and an uneducated upbringing.

I found its appearance here interesting because I think of it as a characteristically Socratic claim, made here not by Socrates (though by one of his acolytes, so perhaps not all that surprising). Whether the claim be true or not is, of course, a much vexed question that I’ll not delve into today.

*

Reading Timaeus has been a peculiar experience for me. In many ways I found it unlike the other Platonic dialogues I’ve read. Socrates has only a minor role. The subject matter is largely natural philosophy rather than ethics or metaphysics. Much of the content is an odd combination of highly technical and highly fanciful (and Timaeus himself seems aware of this, averring more than once that his account was only “likely” or “as good as another”, and not certain). A reader who maneuvers through the long sections on how the shapes of various polyhedra produce physical properties like softness, wetness, etc. without skimming is more stalwart than me. Yet, at the same time, it is seeded with a number of striking ideas that beckon us into deeper waters.

Many people probably know that for many centuries this was the only complete Platonic dialogue known in the West. It is a little disturbing to see what a one-sided, and wholly inadequate, picture it provides of Plato as an artist and a philosopher. As I was reading, I realized with some dismay that although I know the basic shape of Aristotle’s preservation from antiquity and reintroduction to Western thinkers in the 12th and 13th centuries, I do not know the parallel story for Plato. I don’t think St Thomas knew Plato well at all. Forced to guess, I’d hazard that it was the Fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, and the concomitant migration of scholars westward, that brought about the Platonic revival among Europeans. Everything has a silver lining.

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