Timaeus and Critias (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

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Plato’s ambitious dialogue Timaeus and the unfinished Critias were meant to be part of a trilogy that would outline a proper and sufficiently detailed natural philosophy and cosmology. The Timaeus is Plato’s spirited response to the cosmogony and physics of the “atheist” Atomist philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. The Critias presents what might be a famous Platonic fiction: the story of Atlantis, recounted as a moral metaphor for the cycles of human history. In Plato’s philosophy, history and nature are ...
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Timaeus and Critias (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview



Plato’s ambitious dialogue Timaeus and the unfinished Critias were meant to be part of a trilogy that would outline a proper and sufficiently detailed natural philosophy and cosmology. The Timaeus is Plato’s spirited response to the cosmogony and physics of the “atheist” Atomist philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. The Critias presents what might be a famous Platonic fiction: the story of Atlantis, recounted as a moral metaphor for the cycles of human history. In Plato’s philosophy, history and nature are both governed by the order that Reason imposes on an initially chaotic and recalcitrant material universe. Both natural philosophy and philosophic history are, in this view, imbued with rational meaning; the serious reader is expected to gain a proper understanding of moral values in addition to grasping the mechanisms of the material universe and human history. Conversely, according to Plato, the failure to study philosophy properly is dangerous for morality and would allow the ordered to return to chaos.
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The history of Western philosophy can be recast as a series of footnotes to Plato’s work, according to some. Plato (427–347 BCE) was born into an aristocratic family of Athens and was destined for an ambitious political career. As an obscure and reticent youngster, he followed Socrates. A sworn enemy of the materialist and relativistic philosophers of his times, Plato transcended his early debt to Socratic views and developed his own transcendentalist mystical theory of Forms.
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Introduction

 

Plato’s ambitious dialogue Timaeus and the unfinished Critias were meant to be part of a trilogy which, along with the projected Hermocrates, would outline a proper and sufficiently detailed natural philosophy and cosmology. The Timaeus is Plato’s spirited response to the cosmogony and physics of the “atheist” Atomist philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. The Critias, which is incomplete, presents what might be a famous Platonic fiction: the story of Atlantis, recounted as a moral metaphor for the cycles of human history. In Plato’s philosophy history and nature are both governed by the order which Reason imposes on an initially chaotic and recalcitrant material universe. Both natural philosophy and philosophic history are, in this view, imbued with rational meaning; the serious reader is expected to gain a proper understanding of moral values in addition to grasping the mechanisms of the material universe and human history. Conversely, failure to study philosophy properly is dangerous for morality, according to Plato.

           

Following the account of natural philosophy and moral history, the third dialogue Hermocrates, which was never written, would probably provide a capstone by laying out principles of political legislation. It is anyone’s guess why the Critias breaks off unfinished and why the Hermocrates was never composed. One explanation is that Plato might have died before he could complete the work. This would mean that this ill-fated trilogy was the last work Plato ever undertook before he passed on, in 347 BCE at the advanced age of eighty-two. It has also been suggested, however, that Plato gave up on the project of a trilogy and, instead, pursued a grand synthesis of natural theology and political legislation in his indisputably later work, the Laws. Be that as it may, the general impression is that the Timaeus is a work composed late in Plato’s life. This has been disputed mainly on the ground that certain philosophical problems are presumably picked up and resolved in another dialogue, the Parmenides.[i] An erudite response was later offered to this conjecture.[ii] It is worth pointing out, on the testimony of late antiquity, that Plato had the habit of revisiting and revising earlier dialogues throughout his life, which makes many a question about dating Platonic dialogues moot.

           

It has been said of Plato (427–347 BCE) that the history of Western philosophy can be recast as a series of footnotes to his work. This is even more impressive when we take into account that the solutions Plato gives to perennial problems of philosophy are rather outlandish. Even in our times, in the aftermath of Wittgenstein’s revolutionary impact on philosophical method, Plato’s insights demand serious attention and study by the dedicated student of Western thought. Plato was born into an aristocratic family of Athens and was destined for an ambitious political career. He had been preparing himself through the study of rhetoric and by cultivating his athletic prowess, since good looks counted a great deal in Athens. And then he met Socrates, whom he followed as an obscure and reticent youngster. The rest is history. Plato burned the tokens of his fledgling poetic career and developed a healthy disdain for political oratory. He dedicated the rest of his life to pursuing the life of philosophic investigation, which Socrates taught him to see as the most blessed and highest peak of human achievement. A sworn enemy of the materialist and relativistic philosophers of his times, Plato transcended his early debt to Socratic views and developed his own transcendentalist mystical theory of Forms. In the domain of political thought, Plato is identified with the aristocratic school, having penned a utopia in which the most gifted human natures, who are of course philosophers, are the rulers. Plato’s influence survived into the neoplatonic schools of Roman times and exercised decisive influence on the formative years of Christian dogma, which even owns its claims about immortality of the soul to a teaching Plato had inherited from cultic mysteries and, ultimately, from Egypt.

           

The Timaeus is Plato’s story of intelligent design. Vastly influential in the history of Western thought until the advent of the modern scientific era, it raises and speculates on philosophical questions about the nature of the universe, the place of humanity in the cosmos, the methods of scientific investigation, and the ultimate purposes of existence. The questions Plato tries to answer in the Timaeus are still with us. Why is there a universe rather than mere chaos? How should we explain the presence of life-sustaining processes in a silent and presumably chance-driven universe? Why are the measurable constants of the universe, from gravity and electron charge to the electromagnetic constant and the speed of light, what they are, considering that any deviation would have resulted in a universe that cannot sustain life? How should we account for the apparent goal-oriented behavior of organisms? Can we dispense altogether with teleological explanations in science? What if assuming such explanations helps us in our studies? Is there a natural foundation for moral claims? What social consequences are likely to follow from widespread belief in the accidental and desultory nature of material processes? These are the questions encompassed by Plato’s ambitious agenda and, regardless of the responses, the challenge is as poignant today as it was in Plato’s times.

           

The action of the Timaeus takes place in Athens, in late August, on the day of the greatest panathenean, holiday of the city honoring Athen’s patron godess Athena. It is supposed to be happening on the day following the action of the Platonic dialogue Republic, a brief summary of whose discussion is given. The participants include: Socrates, who in this arguably late dialogue is relegated to a subordinate position; Timaeus of Locri, an adherent of the Pythagorean school of philosophy, of whom nothing is known and who may well be Plato’s invention; Hermocrates, possibly the historic leader who led Syracuse into victory against Athenian forces in the Peloponnesian war; and Critias, who was Plato’s great-grandfather. It is mysteriously claimed that an unnamed person, who had been present on the previous day, is absent today.

           

The Timaeus has exercised a pervasive influence on Western thought. This was the only Platonic dialogue known to the Middle Ages in the form of a Latin translation by Cicero, which is now for the most part lost. Since Plato had presented the Timaeus as a response to the Atomists, the Christian Fathers who held sway throughout the Middle Ages found in Plato’s work an assault on atheistic claims. Nevertheless, there are irreconcilable differences between monotheistic religious dogma and Plato’s cosmology, the most notable being that Plato’s divine Craftsman is not omnipotent and the material of the universe is eternal and ungenerated. However, the differences were hushed over by the Christian commentators.

           

Unsympathetic critics might charge that Plato’s influence throughout the Middle Ages retarded the onset of modern science. If only teleological explanations are accepted and all other explanations are rejected, the open-ended, unprejudiced, systematic query into natural causes cannot be pursued. Indeed, the Timaeus denounces experiment, which it explains away as a failure to accept the limits of human understanding. On the other hand, the Timaeus is not a doctrinaire tract but an instigation to deeper thinking about natural mechanisms and the meaning of human existence, which is guided by the same kind of inquisitive drive that animates not only mystics but also famous scientists. Modern science has proceeded apace in our times, but cannot avoid giving merely peremptory rejoinders to deeper human concerns. It is those concerns that ensure the enduring popularity and relevance of the Timaeus.

           

An ancient controversy, still very much alive, concerns the proper method for reading this seminal Platonic dialogue. Aristotle suggested that a great deal of what is in the Timaeus ought to be read metaphorically rather than literally. The camp of the literalists has its own adherents, though, counting such names as the Hellenistic thinker Plutarch among its ranks. In modern times, the metaphorical interpretation has become the preferred approach but it is not so easy to discern Plato’s own intentions. A lot depends on how we are to understand Plato’s repeated declaration that the account of the dialogue is a “likely account.” The word translated as “likely” might have emphatic rather than deflating connotations in the original text, meaning “plausible” or “strongly likely” instead of “merely likely.”

           

Plato’s intention is to present an alternative, perhaps the true alternative, to the Atomists. In so doing, Plato is bent on showing how the structured universe itself is the result of Reason’s persuasion of blind Necessity. Even if read as a vast metaphor, the dialogue is certainly supposed to elicit the conviction that the best and healthiest state of affairs comes about when and only when we use our intelligence to rule over an intransigent material body. This is what the Demiurge or Craftsman of the dialogue did himself to fashion the ordered and beautiful universe, the cosmos, out of primeval chaos.

           

The Craftsman has to work with chaotic matter much as a carpenter works with an already given material of wood; he cannot create the right kind of wood out of nothing to fit his fancy or serve his purposes. Plato’s Craftsman is like a carpenter who applies a rational plan and reaches ingenuous compromises with the material, turning the material’s own properties to good advantage and sometimes, but not always, managing to bypass its resistance. Nevertheless, many of the undesirable attributes of the material will forever continue to plague the product. Accordingly, our bodily nature reminds us of the insurmountable intransingence of matter, over which even the Craftsman has been unable to prevail completely. Still, the Craftsman’s work is the best possible state of affair under the existing material constraints.

           

The key to the Timaeus is what is known as teleology. According to this view, every natural entity has a rational purpose; if normal and healthy, each entity functions to promote its naturally assigned purposes. It follows from this that every satisfactory explanation of biophysiological mechanisms and human action is an explanation in terms of natural purposes or goals. Whatever falls short of the proper natural purposes is to be denounced as defective.

           

Plato considers the universe to be a living, moving animal (37D). The fashioning of perishable things, including the mortal part of human beings, the Craftsman relegated to lesser divinities. References to those deities are not consistent throughout the dialogue and should not be pressed too far.

           

The Craftsman has an eternal pattern or model after which he fashions the universe. We are reminded here of Plato’s theory of Ideas or Forms, with which we are familiar from other dialogues and which is assumed as known to the audience of the Timaeus. A Platonic Form is a self-subsisting, eternal, immobile, and unchanging entity that does not exist in natural space or time but in a transcendental realm, aloof from the flux of becoming. It is to a model of this nature that the Craftsman looks up, as it were, in order to fashion the universe, just as an architect, to use yet another metaphor, would apply a blueprint to an initial scattered collection of bricks and mortar.

           

Two metaphors can be applied to what the Craftsman does: He fashions the discordant matter as one would mold marble to make statues; or, he makes the chaotic universe somehow begin to reflect, appropriately, the corresponding originals or Forms in the way a mirror or surface of a lake can be compelled to reflect images of actual things. The former way of thinking is preferred in the Timaeus although traces of the latter can also be found.

           

Plato claims that there is only one universe, or possible world, and that our universe is the best one that is possible under the persistent constraints of material necessity. Plato tries to prove this as follows: Since the model itself is the best, one of the model’s properties must be uniqueness. The copy of the model, the existing universe, must similarly have this property. Therefore, the universe must be not simply one of the better ones but the best possible even if it cannot be, like its original, the best without qualification. It also follows from this that only one structured universe, the best, can be in existence, against the claims of the Atomists who spoke of an infinity of emerging and dissolving local universes. It has been pointed out, however, that the Craftsman would have to be “mad” if he were to try and replicate the property of uniqueness.[iii] Certain properties of the Forms, like those that pertain to their privileged status of immutability and timelessness, are proper to the Forms only; they cannot be replicated. The property of uniqueness of the model is one of those properties and the Craftsman should know better than to attempt to copy this property.

           

The motive of the Craftsman in performing so beneficial an operation is explained. Plato does not refer to a notion of overflowing charitable love, as later Christian thinkers were to do. Instead, Plato points out that the Craftsman is free of envy, as all superior and self-sufficient creatures are; being above envy, the Craftsman desires that everything should come as close as possible to being like himself.

           

The Craftsman’s operation is described as an act of persuasion of Necessity by superior Reason. Plato exhorts us not to be discouraged on account of the negative tug exercised by matter and to always seek the traces of purposeful, rational, divine action in everything.

           

The structure of the dialogue reflects the adage of the persuasion of Necessity by Reason. The first part of the dialogue, following a prologue, discusses those things that have been fashioned by Reason. The second part covers the things that come about as a result of the inexorable operation of Necessity. The culmination of the dialogue centers on the monumental work that flows from the cooperation of Reason and Necessity. The conclusion is brief and takes the form of a recapitulation of the main point and exhortation, which can almost be memorized and retained even when memory of the specific arguments has faded.

           

A number of interesting philosophical problems surround Plato’s claim that an intelligent Craftsman, the Demiurge, fashioned our universe out of primordial chaos. How was the initial blind and disordered state susceptible of, what Plato calls, rational persuasion? Were there natural laws already at work before the Craftsman’s intervention? But how can there be natural laws in a presumably chaotic and disordered medley which has not yet been “persuaded”? On the other hand, however, how can matter be amenable to any organization if it does not demonstrate any regularities in the chaotic state? At a minimum, the properties of the materials used by the Craftsman must be reliable, which means that those properties must be systematically recurring in the original chaotic situation. But, then, how can Plato claim that there was absolute chaos in the original state?

           

There is also a problem involving the World-Soul. As mentioned above, Plato sees the universe as a living entity. He speaks of a World-Soul, to which the individual souls are kindred. Is the World-Soul fully rational? Was it rational even before the divine Craftsman intervened? For Plato, rational operations are actually cyclical motions that happen on the same spot. This kind of motion is, for Plato, self-subsistent and self-enabling. Reason and soul do not depend on things outside of themselves and, as such, they are on-the-spot cyclical or rotatory motions. As self-moving, soul is the ultimate source of motion; soul animates and moves everything else. Cyclical motion also stands for Sameness whereas other kinds of motion stand for Difference. Rectilinear motions characterize Difference and are symptomatic of imperfect, alterable, ever-in-flux, and unstable situations. Contemplation involves Sameness but perception depends on Difference. To be sure, the persistence of rectilinear motions in the universe even after the Craftsman has fashioned it as an ordered entity indicates that Reason cannot succeed completely in its persuasion of material Necessity.

           

Here is the problem involving the World-Soul: Did the chaotic world, before the fashioning of the universe, have a World-Soul? Or did it not? Both answers are unsatisfactory. If there was no World-Soul, then how was any motion possible? We should remember here that the soul is the origin of all motion. If, on the other hand, the chaotic world did possess a soul of sorts, this soul could not possibly be rational or fully rational. But does this mean that an irrational World-Soul can and has existed? These problems have occupied the attention of Plato’s students since the days of his Academy in ancient Athens.

           

Aristotle himself commented on the difficulties of the Timaeus. Aristotle accused Plato of seeking naturalistic explanations for the soul itself. The reason Plato cannot exclude the soul even from the chaotic collection of particles is that Plato takes the soul to be the origin of motion. This, however, means that the difference between Plato and his enemies, the Atomists, shrinks since the Atomists also admit a self-sustaining motion of particles in this universe. This is what bothered Aristotle. Moreover, if the soul is a cause of motion, as Plato argues sometimes, then how can the rational soul be generated, as it is in the Timaeus? Things that do not owe their motion to anything else do not need anything external to bring them about. (Of course, in our experience, we never come across any such thing.)

A related problem concerns Plato’s view of time, on which more follows.

           

We do not need let the difficulty about the soul detain us but it should be pointed out that several attempted solutions have been proffered. One of the oldest patches was ventured by Plutarch who distinguished between an irrational, and preexisting, soul and the rational, created, soul.

           

After centuries of speculation, the concepts of space and time still remain

mysterious today. Einstein's theory has an odd and ill-defined view of reality, according to which something called spacetime exists, from which positions in space and time can be “decomposed” or computed under specified mathematical procedures.

What has happened to traditional or Newtonian space and time is not clear. But Newton's concepts of space and time, although presumably commonsensical, are themselves plagued by many problems as Newton’s critics, like the philosopher Leibniz, obliged to point out right after Newton’s physics became publicized.

           

In the Timaeus, Plato is dealing with some of the same problems regarding space and time. It is only because the philosophy, and the physics, of space and time are not studied widely that many readers of Plato's dialogue, including otherwise well-educated people, might be tempted to a sense of smug superiority. If one were to return to Plato's cosmology after careful acquaintance with the bibliography of this abstruse subject, one would have to admire Plato's insight and even his anticipation of subsequent debates.

           

There are roughly two possible metaphysical positions about space and time.

Either space and, more curiously, time are some kinds of real things, no

matter how mysterious and elusive they remain; or space and time do not exist,

in which case we can talk about them as if they existed because and insofar as

human intelligence allows us to do so. More ambitiously, one could argue that

space and time do not exist and that relations between different objects or between

objects and parts of objects suffice for explaining and accounting for the phenomena we locate in space and time. This latter view is known as Relationism. It had been

unpopular until Einstein claimed, partly erroneously, that his theory falls

under this category. (In Einstein's theory, the mysterious spacetime manifold

is presumably a real entity, albeit a very strange one.) On the other hand, the commonsensical or Newtonian view, according to which space and time are real things, is known as Substantivalism.

           

Plato is a substantivalist about space, which he calls Chora, the Receptacle. Plato's view of time, on the other hand, is not Substantivalist in the Newtonian way insofar as Plato allows for certain relational elements. Let us turn to the details.

           

Plato's view of the Receptacle is no more primitive or less problematic

than Newton's. A difference is that Plato's Receptacle is the medium on which

the true beings of Platonic metaphysics, the Forms, are expressed: the

Receptacle is like a mirror on which the copies of the Forms become

Possible, or like a material which can be molded to resemble the Forms. The transcendental Forms themselves are not in the space of phenomenal experience. It is not clear if we should say that they are in a space of their own or in no space at all.

           

According to Plato, the things we know through experience are copies of the Forms; therefore, a medium must exist on which copies can come into (a lesser-degree and borrowed) existence. The Space or Receptacle is this medium. Plato's Receptacle is somewhat like Newton's: the Receptacle is eternal and everlasting, which means that the Receptacle has no origin.

 

Plato's Receptacle, like Newton's space, does not have any characteristics of its own. Plato tries to prove this. If we assume that the Receptacle does have characteristics of its own, then, at some point, the Receptacle would inevitably try to express properties contrary to the ones it has (because, keep in mind, the Receptacle is the only medium and it is the medium for the expression of all properties.) When that happened, the medium would be unable to express those properties which are contrary to its own. But—and

Plato does not try to prove this point—the Receptacle is capable of

expressing every property. Therefore, it is impossible that the Receptacle has

any properties of its own.

          

The Receptacle inflates Plato’s metaphysics: in addition to Platonic Forms and their perceptible copies, we are told now that there is a third and rather nondescript kind of thing: the Receptacle. This third thing is strange in that it is infinite and omnipresent and yet cannot be perceived or experienced directly. This objection has also been raised against Newton's concept of space. If anything, Plato's Receptacle is not passive like Newton's space: Plato thinks that the Receptacle is actually

amenable to molding and has an ability to constrict and agitate the matter that is located in it.

           

Of course, there is no Form or original of the Receptacle. In terms of Plato's

metaphysics, this means that the Receptacle is a privileged kind of thing. The objects

of our phenomenal experience all have a borrowed existence and only the Forms are true beings or beings in the full sense of the word. And yet, Plato must accept that there is one thing, the Receptacle, that, although not itself a Form, does not have an extraneous principle of existence.

           

Plato's view of time is famous and has exercised influence on scores of thinkers.

For instance, Plato's concept of time had a profound influence on Augustine's well-known meditation on the problem of the beginning of time, about which Einstein remarked that it is still the limit of our speculative understanding of the subject. Plato also

anticipates both Newton's and Einstein's views of time in interesting ways. Plato defines time as the measurable projection of eternity. In eternity everything is static; nothing happens. It is also the case that everything that happens in the dynamic time we experience is in some way a projection of that frozen collection of objects or events that exist in “eternity.” As a corollary to Einstein's theory of relativity, modern speculation has also come to see time, in a mysterious union with space, as a block-like entity: in the same way New York is there whether we happen to be visiting or not, the past and the future are also present in an eternal and static “now.” The projection of this eternal now constitutes the dynamic flow with which we are familiar in our earthly experience.

           

A problem that has been briefly mentioned already refers to the generation of time. Plato claims that time begins with the Craftsman’s work of ordering the universe. But how can time begin? Doesn’t the generation of time presuppose that there is already time so that there is a beginning, or a moment when . . . time begins? Augustine was perplexed by this problem. Moreover, Plato’s primordial chaos contains matter tossing about haphazardly; even if the whole motion is disorderly, changes still occur in the chaos and it should be meaningful to speak of the chaotic events as happening in time. So, even in the chaotic world, events happen before or after other events, which means that already time is ticking.

           

A solution has been proposed.[iv] We could distinguish two concepts of time in Plato’s thought. A) The irreversible temporal succession of moments, which is also, characteristically, the Newtonian concept of time, has no beginning and antedates the imposition of order on the primordial chaos. B) A second concept corresponds to what Aristotle took to be the proper concept of time: uniform flow which can be measured with precision (Aristotle, Metaphysics 223a33). Time in the second sense is introduced with the Craftsman’s work because only after that point does it become possible to measure the flow of temporal succession in a precise and systematic way. Plato thinks that the underlying foundation of time’s measurability is the cyclical or “perfect” motion. Such motions are imposed on matter by the Craftsman and make measurement of temporal succession possible.

           

To explain the composition of material objects, Plato borrows the particles or indivisible atoms from his theoretical adversaries, the Atomists, and the view that four basic elements exist from the Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles. He denies that the particles or atoms are fundamental in nature and tries to explain how Empedocles’ four elements (fire, air, water, and earth) come to acquire the specific composition and properties they have. According to Plato, the Craftsman imposed regular geometric shapes on the chaotic primordial matter. Plato thinks that certain geometric figures are “perfect,” which is not how today’s mathematicians think, of course. Plato tried to solve his own Euclidean geometry theorems in the effort to figure out what geometrical figures are needed: the desideratum is that the figures in question must be inter-transformable, so that changes from one element to the other can be explained. (The only exception Plato makes is for earth, which, he thinks, does not change to anything else.)

           

Plato settled for the “perfect” geometric shapes of pyramid (tetrahedron), octahedron, dodecahedron, icosahedron, and cube. The regularity of these shapes consists in that they are the only three-dimensional figures that have all their surfaces congruent and all their angles equal. The ancient Greeks knew that these solid figures can be inscribed, or fit perfectly, within a sphere—a property which Kepler later utilized to great effect in charting the movements of planets. In Plato’s theory, the earth is composed of cubes, water of icosahedrons, air of octahedrons, and fire of tetrahedrons. The one remaining regular solid figure, dodecahedron, is supposed by Plato to correspond to the universe as a whole.

           

The fundamental constitutive triangles for the composition of the elements are obtained from halving an equilateral triangle and a square: they are, respectively, a half-equilateral triangle and a right-angle isosceles triangle. The recombinations which explain the chemical interactions in the universe are, according to Plato, breakdowns of the three-dimensional figures to the basic two-dimensional triangles and recombinations of the latter back into the former. Basic properties of material objects are explained by reference to sharpness of angles, fineness of edges, movement, and size. Fire and air penetrate everything with their sharp edges and obtuse angles. In addition, larger bodies have larger gaps in their structures and this causes smaller bodies to combine and act to disintegrate the larger bodies. These processes guarantee perpetual motion of particles.

           

Plato defines pleasure as the sudden restoration of the natural or normal state and pain as the violent or abrupt disruption of the normal state. Additional principles are assumed: Sensation is the result of motion; and, motion is transferable from a material body to a contiguous one.

           

Corollaries that follow from Plato’s view of pain and pleasure are the following: Gradual transition from and to normal states are imperceptible. If the transitions are facile but not gradual, the changes are perceptible but neither painful nor pleasurable. (This can help Plato explain why sensations like, for instance, sight, are not painful.) Sudden restoration of the normal state is intensely pleasurable and abrupt departure from the normal state is intensely painful.

           

The body has been fashioned by the auxiliary gods for the sake of providing a “vehicle” for the soul. The rational part of the soul is lodged in the head and, for its protection, the skull is provided. The neck is like a fortification, separating the more noble head from the less dignified trunk and lower body. Again, the mid-section is relatively superior to the lower body. The irrational but potentially cooperative senses, which came into existence after the incorporation of the soul, are housed in the mid-section. These are emotions like fear, anger, courage, and hope. They can be subverted, as when, for instance, hope strives after obtaining gross and hedonistic experiences or anger is wrongly directed against one’s educators. But these spirited passions can also be conscripted to the service of reason, as when, for instance, indignation is vented at a palpable injustice or fear is used to overawe the carnal desires. Indeed, Plato takes mid-body organs like the liver to serve purposes of restraint and discipline. Probably on account of the liver’s glossy surface, Plato thinks that this organ operates as a mirror, reflecting the thoughts of reason, and in this way offering images which might intimidate the lower or carnal impulses of the lower body. Additionally, the liver has a bitter-sweet taste, exercising the bitterness to threaten carnality and the sweetness to encourage self-restraint. Lastly, the liver can constrict other organs in order to impose discipline.

           

The stomach is said to be the manger of the carnal desires. The intestines are elongated in order to serve as a capacious receptacle of food, in this way slowing down the voracious, and potentially destructive, human appetite for indulgence. Discussion of the reproductive organs is oddly postponed, to be taken up near the end of the dialogue in a context in which Plato provides his most extreme, and infamous, misogynist statement—that women came into existence for the first time only in the second generation, as reincarnations of evil-doing men.

           

 Even the basest parts, Plato points out, are in the “right path,” having been fashioned by deities and according to the best model. The success is vitiated by the ineluctable operation of the characteristics of a material body: Necessity has been “persuaded” to serve Reason but the truce is one of halting cooperation rather than a triumph for Reason. An interesting example of a second-best compromise is this: For the protection of the brain, thickness of skin is mandated, and has been provided to some extent. But the brain also needs mobility so that it can receive transmitted motion, which is needed for keen perception. Human beings would have longer lives and be much better protected from harm if the skull had been impregnable, but then human life would be impoverished since perception would be severely impaired. A compromise between the best possible state of affairs and what is necessary has been reached in making the skull of medium rather than extreme thickness.

           

Plato’s psychology in the Timaeus, as in the earlier dialogue Republic, violates the principle defended in the early dialogue Phaedo, according to which the soul is a simple, uncompounded entity. Now the soul is assumed to have parts, most notably a rational part and two others, the spirited and the lowest one which contains the carnal appetites and desires. The Timaeus reiterates this tripartition of the soul and adds a new twist: only the rational part of the soul is immortal whereas the other two perish when soul is severed from body in death.

           

The unfinished dialogue Critias, which follows the Timaeus, highlights Plato’s intention to provide a moral lesson to his audience or readers. The famous Atlantis story, probably invented by Plato, records the vicissitudes of a powerful island nation somewhere in the Atlantic, whose inhabitants lapsed into insolence and decadence. In the Atlantis story, Plato casts Athens in the role of righteous punisher of the Atlantis. Plato’s point, however, is not to celebrate Athenian imperialism, which would only repeat the Atlantic predicament of arrogant power, but to remind his readers that there was a time when the Athenians were leading a life of justice and proper measure. The story of how the structured universe itself came into existence adds credence to this urgent Platonic message: we should live our lives always following the guidance of reason and prevailing over the indulgent and destructive tendencies of our material bodies.

           

NOTES

 

[i]  Owen, G. E. L. “The Place of the Timaeus in Plato’s Dialogues,” Classical Quarterly

(1953).

[ii]  Cherniss, H. F. “The Relation of the Timaeus to Plato’s Later Dialogues,” Journal of

Hellenic Studies (1957).

[iii]  Keyt, D. “The Mad Craftsman of the Timaeus,” Philosophical Review 80 (1971): 230–

235.

[iv]  Vlastos, G. “The Disorderly Motion in the Timaeus,” and “Creation in the Timaeus: Is It a Fiction?” in R. E.Allen, ed., Studies in Plato’s Metaphysics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965).

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Introduction

Introduction

 

Plato’s ambitious dialogue Timaeus and the unfinished Critias were meant to be part of a trilogy which, along with the projected Hermocrates, would outline a proper and sufficiently detailed natural philosophy and cosmology. The Timaeus is Plato’s spirited response to the cosmogony and physics of the “atheist” Atomist philosophers Leucippus and Democritus. The Critias, which is incomplete, presents what might be a famous Platonic fiction: the story of Atlantis, recounted as a moral metaphor for the cycles of human history. In Plato’s philosophy history and nature are both governed by the order which Reason imposes on an initially chaotic and recalcitrant material universe. Both natural philosophy and philosophic history are, in this view, imbued with rational meaning; the serious reader is expected to gain a proper understanding of moral values in addition to grasping the mechanisms of the material universe and human history. Conversely, failure to study philosophy properly is dangerous for morality, according to Plato.

           

Following the account of natural philosophy and moral history, the third dialogue Hermocrates, which was never written, would probably provide a capstone by laying out principles of political legislation. It is anyone’s guess why the Critias breaks off unfinished and why the Hermocrates was never composed. One explanation is that Plato might have died before he could complete the work. This would mean that this ill-fated trilogy was the last work Plato ever undertookbefore he passed on, in 347 BCE at the advanced age of eighty-two. It has also been suggested, however, that Plato gave up on the project of a trilogy and, instead, pursued a grand synthesis of natural theology and political legislation in his indisputably later work, the Laws. Be that as it may, the general impression is that the Timaeus is a work composed late in Plato’s life. This has been disputed mainly on the ground that certain philosophical problems are presumably picked up and resolved in another dialogue, the Parmenides.[i] An erudite response was later offered to this conjecture.[ii] It is worth pointing out, on the testimony of late antiquity, that Plato had the habit of revisiting and revising earlier dialogues throughout his life, which makes many a question about dating Platonic dialogues moot.

           

It has been said of Plato (427–347 BCE) that the history of Western philosophy can be recast as a series of footnotes to his work. This is even more impressive when we take into account that the solutions Plato gives to perennial problems of philosophy are rather outlandish. Even in our times, in the aftermath of Wittgenstein’s revolutionary impact on philosophical method, Plato’s insights demand serious attention and study by the dedicated student of Western thought. Plato was born into an aristocratic family of Athens and was destined for an ambitious political career. He had been preparing himself through the study of rhetoric and by cultivating his athletic prowess, since good looks counted a great deal in Athens. And then he met Socrates, whom he followed as an obscure and reticent youngster. The rest is history. Plato burned the tokens of his fledgling poetic career and developed a healthy disdain for political oratory. He dedicated the rest of his life to pursuing the life of philosophic investigation, which Socrates taught him to see as the most blessed and highest peak of human achievement. A sworn enemy of the materialist and relativistic philosophers of his times, Plato transcended his early debt to Socratic views and developed his own transcendentalist mystical theory of Forms. In the domain of political thought, Plato is identified with the aristocratic school, having penned a utopia in which the most gifted human natures, who are of course philosophers, are the rulers. Plato’s influence survived into the neoplatonic schools of Roman times and exercised decisive influence on the formative years of Christian dogma, which even owns its claims about immortality of the soul to a teaching Plato had inherited from cultic mysteries and, ultimately, from Egypt.

           

The Timaeus is Plato’s story of intelligent design. Vastly influential in the history of Western thought until the advent of the modern scientific era, it raises and speculates on philosophical questions about the nature of the universe, the place of humanity in the cosmos, the methods of scientific investigation, and the ultimate purposes of existence. The questions Plato tries to answer in the Timaeus are still with us. Why is there a universe rather than mere chaos? How should we explain the presence of life-sustaining processes in a silent and presumably chance-driven universe? Why are the measurable constants of the universe, from gravity and electron charge to the electromagnetic constant and the speed of light, what they are, considering that any deviation would have resulted in a universe that cannot sustain life? How should we account for the apparent goal-oriented behavior of organisms? Can we dispense altogether with teleological explanations in science? What if assuming such explanations helps us in our studies? Is there a natural foundation for moral claims? What social consequences are likely to follow from widespread belief in the accidental and desultory nature of material processes? These are the questions encompassed by Plato’s ambitious agenda and, regardless of the responses, the challenge is as poignant today as it was in Plato’s times.

           

The action of the Timaeus takes place in Athens, in late August, on the day of the greatest panathenean, holiday of the city honoring Athen’s patron godess Athena. It is supposed to be happening on the day following the action of the Platonic dialogue Republic, a brief summary of whose discussion is given. The participants include: Socrates, who in this arguably late dialogue is relegated to a subordinate position; Timaeus of Locri, an adherent of the Pythagorean school of philosophy, of whom nothing is known and who may well be Plato’s invention; Hermocrates, possibly the historic leader who led Syracuse into victory against Athenian forces in the Peloponnesian war; and Critias, who was Plato’s great-grandfather. It is mysteriously claimed that an unnamed person, who had been present on the previous day, is absent today.

           

The Timaeus has exercised a pervasive influence on Western thought. This was the only Platonic dialogue known to the Middle Ages in the form of a Latin translation by Cicero, which is now for the most part lost. Since Plato had presented the Timaeus as a response to the Atomists, the Christian Fathers who held sway throughout the Middle Ages found in Plato’s work an assault on atheistic claims. Nevertheless, there are irreconcilable differences between monotheistic religious dogma and Plato’s cosmology, the most notable being that Plato’s divine Craftsman is not omnipotent and the material of the universe is eternal and ungenerated. However, the differences were hushed over by the Christian commentators.

           

Unsympathetic critics might charge that Plato’s influence throughout the Middle Ages retarded the onset of modern science. If only teleological explanations are accepted and all other explanations are rejected, the open-ended, unprejudiced, systematic query into natural causes cannot be pursued. Indeed, the Timaeus denounces experiment, which it explains away as a failure to accept the limits of human understanding. On the other hand, the Timaeus is not a doctrinaire tract but an instigation to deeper thinking about natural mechanisms and the meaning of human existence, which is guided by the same kind of inquisitive drive that animates not only mystics but also famous scientists. Modern science has proceeded apace in our times, but cannot avoid giving merely peremptory rejoinders to deeper human concerns. It is those concerns that ensure the enduring popularity and relevance of the Timaeus.

           

An ancient controversy, still very much alive, concerns the proper method for reading this seminal Platonic dialogue. Aristotle suggested that a great deal of what is in the Timaeus ought to be read metaphorically rather than literally. The camp of the literalists has its own adherents, though, counting such names as the Hellenistic thinker Plutarch among its ranks. In modern times, the metaphorical interpretation has become the preferred approach but it is not so easy to discern Plato’s own intentions. A lot depends on how we are to understand Plato’s repeated declaration that the account of the dialogue is a “likely account.” The word translated as “likely” might have emphatic rather than deflating connotations in the original text, meaning “plausible” or “strongly likely” instead of “merely likely.”

           

Plato’s intention is to present an alternative, perhaps the true alternative, to the Atomists. In so doing, Plato is bent on showing how the structured universe itself is the result of Reason’s persuasion of blind Necessity. Even if read as a vast metaphor, the dialogue is certainly supposed to elicit the conviction that the best and healthiest state of affairs comes about when and only when we use our intelligence to rule over an intransigent material body. This is what the Demiurge or Craftsman of the dialogue did himself to fashion the ordered and beautiful universe, the cosmos, out of primeval chaos.

           

The Craftsman has to work with chaotic matter much as a carpenter works with an already given material of wood; he cannot create the right kind of wood out of nothing to fit his fancy or serve his purposes. Plato’s Craftsman is like a carpenter who applies a rational plan and reaches ingenuous compromises with the material, turning the material’s own properties to good advantage and sometimes, but not always, managing to bypass its resistance. Nevertheless, many of the undesirable attributes of the material will forever continue to plague the product. Accordingly, our bodily nature reminds us of the insurmountable intransingence of matter, over which even the Craftsman has been unable to prevail completely. Still, the Craftsman’s work is the best possible state of affair under the existing material constraints.

           

The key to the Timaeus is what is known as teleology. According to this view, every natural entity has a rational purpose; if normal and healthy, each entity functions to promote its naturally assigned purposes. It follows from this that every satisfactory explanation of biophysiological mechanisms and human action is an explanation in terms of natural purposes or goals. Whatever falls short of the proper natural purposes is to be denounced as defective.

           

Plato considers the universe to be a living, moving animal (37D). The fashioning of perishable things, including the mortal part of human beings, the Craftsman relegated to lesser divinities. References to those deities are not consistent throughout the dialogue and should not be pressed too far.

           

The Craftsman has an eternal pattern or model after which he fashions the universe. We are reminded here of Plato’s theory of Ideas or Forms, with which we are familiar from other dialogues and which is assumed as known to the audience of the Timaeus. A Platonic Form is a self-subsisting, eternal, immobile, and unchanging entity that does not exist in natural space or time but in a transcendental realm, aloof from the flux of becoming. It is to a model of this nature that the Craftsman looks up, as it were, in order to fashion the universe, just as an architect, to use yet another metaphor, would apply a blueprint to an initial scattered collection of bricks and mortar.

           

Two metaphors can be applied to what the Craftsman does: He fashions the discordant matter as one would mold marble to make statues; or, he makes the chaotic universe somehow begin to reflect, appropriately, the corresponding originals or Forms in the way a mirror or surface of a lake can be compelled to reflect images of actual things. The former way of thinking is preferred in the Timaeus although traces of the latter can also be found.

           

Plato claims that there is only one universe, or possible world, and that our universe is the best one that is possible under the persistent constraints of material necessity. Plato tries to prove this as follows: Since the model itself is the best, one of the model’s properties must be uniqueness. The copy of the model, the existing universe, must similarly have this property. Therefore, the universe must be not simply one of the better ones but the best possible even if it cannot be, like its original, the best without qualification. It also follows from this that only one structured universe, the best, can be in existence, against the claims of the Atomists who spoke of an infinity of emerging and dissolving local universes. It has been pointed out, however, that the Craftsman would have to be “mad” if he were to try and replicate the property of uniqueness.[iii] Certain properties of the Forms, like those that pertain to their privileged status of immutability and timelessness, are proper to the Forms only; they cannot be replicated. The property of uniqueness of the model is one of those properties and the Craftsman should know better than to attempt to copy this property.

           

The motive of the Craftsman in performing so beneficial an operation is explained. Plato does not refer to a notion of overflowing charitable love, as later Christian thinkers were to do. Instead, Plato points out that the Craftsman is free of envy, as all superior and self-sufficient creatures are; being above envy, the Craftsman desires that everything should come as close as possible to being like himself.

           

The Craftsman’s operation is described as an act of persuasion of Necessity by superior Reason. Plato exhorts us not to be discouraged on account of the negative tug exercised by matter and to always seek the traces of purposeful, rational, divine action in everything.

           

The structure of the dialogue reflects the adage of the persuasion of Necessity by Reason. The first part of the dialogue, following a prologue, discusses those things that have been fashioned by Reason. The second part covers the things that come about as a result of the inexorable operation of Necessity. The culmination of the dialogue centers on the monumental work that flows from the cooperation of Reason and Necessity. The conclusion is brief and takes the form of a recapitulation of the main point and exhortation, which can almost be memorized and retained even when memory of the specific arguments has faded.

           

A number of interesting philosophical problems surround Plato’s claim that an intelligent Craftsman, the Demiurge, fashioned our universe out of primordial chaos. How was the initial blind and disordered state susceptible of, what Plato calls, rational persuasion? Were there natural laws already at work before the Craftsman’s intervention? But how can there be natural laws in a presumably chaotic and disordered medley which has not yet been “persuaded”? On the other hand, however, how can matter be amenable to any organization if it does not demonstrate any regularities in the chaotic state? At a minimum, the properties of the materials used by the Craftsman must be reliable, which means that those properties must be systematically recurring in the original chaotic situation. But, then, how can Plato claim that there was absolute chaos in the original state?

           

There is also a problem involving the World-Soul. As mentioned above, Plato sees the universe as a living entity. He speaks of a World-Soul, to which the individual souls are kindred. Is the World-Soul fully rational? Was it rational even before the divine Craftsman intervened? For Plato, rational operations are actually cyclical motions that happen on the same spot. This kind of motion is, for Plato, self-subsistent and self-enabling. Reason and soul do not depend on things outside of themselves and, as such, they are on-the-spot cyclical or rotatory motions. As self-moving, soul is the ultimate source of motion; soul animates and moves everything else. Cyclical motion also stands for Sameness whereas other kinds of motion stand for Difference. Rectilinear motions characterize Difference and are symptomatic of imperfect, alterable, ever-in-flux, and unstable situations. Contemplation involves Sameness but perception depends on Difference. To be sure, the persistence of rectilinear motions in the universe even after the Craftsman has fashioned it as an ordered entity indicates that Reason cannot succeed completely in its persuasion of material Necessity.

           

Here is the problem involving the World-Soul: Did the chaotic world, before the fashioning of the universe, have a World-Soul? Or did it not? Both answers are unsatisfactory. If there was no World-Soul, then how was any motion possible? We should remember here that the soul is the origin of all motion. If, on the other hand, the chaotic world did possess a soul of sorts, this soul could not possibly be rational or fully rational. But does this mean that an irrational World-Soul can and has existed? These problems have occupied the attention of Plato’s students since the days of his Academy in ancient Athens.

           

Aristotle himself commented on the difficulties of the Timaeus. Aristotle accused Plato of seeking naturalistic explanations for the soul itself. The reason Plato cannot exclude the soul even from the chaotic collection of particles is that Plato takes the soul to be the origin of motion. This, however, means that the difference between Plato and his enemies, the Atomists, shrinks since the Atomists also admit a self-sustaining motion of particles in this universe. This is what bothered Aristotle. Moreover, if the soul is a cause of motion, as Plato argues sometimes, then how can the rational soul be generated, as it is in the Timaeus? Things that do not owe their motion to anything else do not need anything external to bring them about. (Of course, in our experience, we never come across any such thing.)

A related problem concerns Plato’s view of time, on which more follows.

           

We do not need let the difficulty about the soul detain us but it should be pointed out that several attempted solutions have been proffered. One of the oldest patches was ventured by Plutarch who distinguished between an irrational, and preexisting, soul and the rational, created, soul.

           

After centuries of speculation, the concepts of space and time still remain

mysterious today. Einstein's theory has an odd and ill-defined view of reality, according to which something called spacetime exists, from which positions in space and time can be “decomposed” or computed under specified mathematical procedures.

What has happened to traditional or Newtonian space and time is not clear. But Newton's concepts of space and time, although presumably commonsensical, are themselves plagued by many problems as Newton’s critics, like the philosopher Leibniz, obliged to point out right after Newton’s physics became publicized.

           

In the Timaeus, Plato is dealing with some of the same problems regarding space and time. It is only because the philosophy, and the physics, of space and time are not studied widely that many readers of Plato's dialogue, including otherwise well-educated people, might be tempted to a sense of smug superiority. If one were to return to Plato's cosmology after careful acquaintance with the bibliography of this abstruse subject, one would have to admire Plato's insight and even his anticipation of subsequent debates.

           

There are roughly two possible metaphysical positions about space and time.

Either space and, more curiously, time are some kinds of real things, no

matter how mysterious and elusive they remain; or space and time do not exist,

in which case we can talk about them as if they existed because and insofar as

human intelligence allows us to do so. More ambitiously, one could argue that

space and time do not exist and that relations between different objects or between

objects and parts of objects suffice for explaining and accounting for the phenomena we locate in space and time. This latter view is known as Relationism. It had been

unpopular until Einstein claimed, partly erroneously, that his theory falls

under this category. (In Einstein's theory, the mysterious spacetime manifold

is presumably a real entity, albeit a very strange one.) On the other hand, the commonsensical or Newtonian view, according to which space and time are real things, is known as Substantivalism.

           

Plato is a substantivalist about space, which he calls Chora, the Receptacle. Plato's view of time, on the other hand, is not Substantivalist in the Newtonian way insofar as Plato allows for certain relational elements. Let us turn to the details.

           

Plato's view of the Receptacle is no more primitive or less problematic

than Newton's. A difference is that Plato's Receptacle is the medium on which

the true beings of Platonic metaphysics, the Forms, are expressed: the

Receptacle is like a mirror on which the copies of the Forms become

Possible, or like a material which can be molded to resemble the Forms. The transcendental Forms themselves are not in the space of phenomenal experience. It is not clear if we should say that they are in a space of their own or in no space at all.

           

According to Plato, the things we know through experience are copies of the Forms; therefore, a medium must exist on which copies can come into (a lesser-degree and borrowed) existence. The Space or Receptacle is this medium. Plato's Receptacle is somewhat like Newton's: the Receptacle is eternal and everlasting, which means that the Receptacle has no origin.

 

Plato's Receptacle, like Newton's space, does not have any characteristics of its own. Plato tries to prove this. If we assume that the Receptacle does have characteristics of its own, then, at some point, the Receptacle would inevitably try to express properties contrary to the ones it has (because, keep in mind, the Receptacle is the only medium and it is the medium for the expression of all properties.) When that happened, the medium would be unable to express those properties which are contrary to its own. But—and

Plato does not try to prove this point—the Receptacle is capable of

expressing every property. Therefore, it is impossible that the Receptacle has

any properties of its own.

          

The Receptacle inflates Plato’s metaphysics: in addition to Platonic Forms and their perceptible copies, we are told now that there is a third and rather nondescript kind of thing: the Receptacle. This third thing is strange in that it is infinite and omnipresent and yet cannot be perceived or experienced directly. This objection has also been raised against Newton's concept of space. If anything, Plato's Receptacle is not passive like Newton's space: Plato thinks that the Receptacle is actually

amenable to molding and has an ability to constrict and agitate the matter that is located in it.

           

Of course, there is no Form or original of the Receptacle. In terms of Plato's

metaphysics, this means that the Receptacle is a privileged kind of thing. The objects

of our phenomenal experience all have a borrowed existence and only the Forms are true beings or beings in the full sense of the word. And yet, Plato must accept that there is one thing, the Receptacle, that, although not itself a Form, does not have an extraneous principle of existence.

           

Plato's view of time is famous and has exercised influence on scores of thinkers.

For instance, Plato's concept of time had a profound influence on Augustine's well-known meditation on the problem of the beginning of time, about which Einstein remarked that it is still the limit of our speculative understanding of the subject. Plato also

anticipates both Newton's and Einstein's views of time in interesting ways. Plato defines time as the measurable projection of eternity. In eternity everything is static; nothing happens. It is also the case that everything that happens in the dynamic time we experience is in some way a projection of that frozen collection of objects or events that exist in “eternity.” As a corollary to Einstein's theory of relativity, modern speculation has also come to see time, in a mysterious union with space, as a block-like entity: in the same way New York is there whether we happen to be visiting or not, the past and the future are also present in an eternal and static “now.” The projection of this eternal now constitutes the dynamic flow with which we are familiar in our earthly experience.

           

A problem that has been briefly mentioned already refers to the generation of time. Plato claims that time begins with the Craftsman’s work of ordering the universe. But how can time begin? Doesn’t the generation of time presuppose that there is already time so that there is a beginning, or a moment when . . . time begins? Augustine was perplexed by this problem. Moreover, Plato’s primordial chaos contains matter tossing about haphazardly; even if the whole motion is disorderly, changes still occur in the chaos and it should be meaningful to speak of the chaotic events as happening in time. So, even in the chaotic world, events happen before or after other events, which means that already time is ticking.

           

A solution has been proposed.[iv] We could distinguish two concepts of time in Plato’s thought. A) The irreversible temporal succession of moments, which is also, characteristically, the Newtonian concept of time, has no beginning and antedates the imposition of order on the primordial chaos. B) A second concept corresponds to what Aristotle took to be the proper concept of time: uniform flow which can be measured with precision (Aristotle, Metaphysics 223a33). Time in the second sense is introduced with the Craftsman’s work because only after that point does it become possible to measure the flow of temporal succession in a precise and systematic way. Plato thinks that the underlying foundation of time’s measurability is the cyclical or “perfect” motion. Such motions are imposed on matter by the Craftsman and make measurement of temporal succession possible.

           

To explain the composition of material objects, Plato borrows the particles or indivisible atoms from his theoretical adversaries, the Atomists, and the view that four basic elements exist from the Pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles. He denies that the particles or atoms are fundamental in nature and tries to explain how Empedocles’ four elements (fire, air, water, and earth) come to acquire the specific composition and properties they have. According to Plato, the Craftsman imposed regular geometric shapes on the chaotic primordial matter. Plato thinks that certain geometric figures are “perfect,” which is not how today’s mathematicians think, of course. Plato tried to solve his own Euclidean geometry theorems in the effort to figure out what geometrical figures are needed: the desideratum is that the figures in question must be inter-transformable, so that changes from one element to the other can be explained. (The only exception Plato makes is for earth, which, he thinks, does not change to anything else.)

           

Plato settled for the “perfect” geometric shapes of pyramid (tetrahedron), octahedron, dodecahedron, icosahedron, and cube. The regularity of these shapes consists in that they are the only three-dimensional figures that have all their surfaces congruent and all their angles equal. The ancient Greeks knew that these solid figures can be inscribed, or fit perfectly, within a sphere—a property which Kepler later utilized to great effect in charting the movements of planets. In Plato’s theory, the earth is composed of cubes, water of icosahedrons, air of octahedrons, and fire of tetrahedrons. The one remaining regular solid figure, dodecahedron, is supposed by Plato to correspond to the universe as a whole.

           

The fundamental constitutive triangles for the composition of the elements are obtained from halving an equilateral triangle and a square: they are, respectively, a half-equilateral triangle and a right-angle isosceles triangle. The recombinations which explain the chemical interactions in the universe are, according to Plato, breakdowns of the three-dimensional figures to the basic two-dimensional triangles and recombinations of the latter back into the former. Basic properties of material objects are explained by reference to sharpness of angles, fineness of edges, movement, and size. Fire and air penetrate everything with their sharp edges and obtuse angles. In addition, larger bodies have larger gaps in their structures and this causes smaller bodies to combine and act to disintegrate the larger bodies. These processes guarantee perpetual motion of particles.

           

Plato defines pleasure as the sudden restoration of the natural or normal state and pain as the violent or abrupt disruption of the normal state. Additional principles are assumed: Sensation is the result of motion; and, motion is transferable from a material body to a contiguous one.

            

Corollaries that follow from Plato’s view of pain and pleasure are the following: Gradual transition from and to normal states are imperceptible. If the transitions are facile but not gradual, the changes are perceptible but neither painful nor pleasurable. (This can help Plato explain why sensations like, for instance, sight, are not painful.) Sudden restoration of the normal state is intensely pleasurable and abrupt departure from the normal state is intensely painful.

           

The body has been fashioned by the auxiliary gods for the sake of providing a “vehicle” for the soul. The rational part of the soul is lodged in the head and, for its protection, the skull is provided. The neck is like a fortification, separating the more noble head from the less dignified trunk and lower body. Again, the mid-section is relatively superior to the lower body. The irrational but potentially cooperative senses, which came into existence after the incorporation of the soul, are housed in the mid-section. These are emotions like fear, anger, courage, and hope. They can be subverted, as when, for instance, hope strives after obtaining gross and hedonistic experiences or anger is wrongly directed against one’s educators. But these spirited passions can also be conscripted to the service of reason, as when, for instance, indignation is vented at a palpable injustice or fear is used to overawe the carnal desires. Indeed, Plato takes mid-body organs like the liver to serve purposes of restraint and discipline. Probably on account of the liver’s glossy surface, Plato thinks that this organ operates as a mirror, reflecting the thoughts of reason, and in this way offering images which might intimidate the lower or carnal impulses of the lower body. Additionally, the liver has a bitter-sweet taste, exercising the bitterness to threaten carnality and the sweetness to encourage self-restraint. Lastly, the liver can constrict other organs in order to impose discipline.

           

The stomach is said to be the manger of the carnal desires. The intestines are elongated in order to serve as a capacious receptacle of food, in this way slowing down the voracious, and potentially destructive, human appetite for indulgence. Discussion of the reproductive organs is oddly postponed, to be taken up near the end of the dialogue in a context in which Plato provides his most extreme, and infamous, misogynist statement—that women came into existence for the first time only in the second generation, as reincarnations of evil-doing men.

           

 Even the basest parts, Plato points out, are in the “right path,” having been fashioned by deities and according to the best model. The success is vitiated by the ineluctable operation of the characteristics of a material body: Necessity has been “persuaded” to serve Reason but the truce is one of halting cooperation rather than a triumph for Reason. An interesting example of a second-best compromise is this: For the protection of the brain, thickness of skin is mandated, and has been provided to some extent. But the brain also needs mobility so that it can receive transmitted motion, which is needed for keen perception. Human beings would have longer lives and be much better protected from harm if the skull had been impregnable, but then human life would be impoverished since perception would be severely impaired. A compromise between the best possible state of affairs and what is necessary has been reached in making the skull of medium rather than extreme thickness.

           

Plato’s psychology in the Timaeus, as in the earlier dialogue Republic, violates the principle defended in the early dialogue Phaedo, according to which the soul is a simple, uncompounded entity. Now the soul is assumed to have parts, most notably a rational part and two others, the spirited and the lowest one which contains the carnal appetites and desires. The Timaeus reiterates this tripartition of the soul and adds a new twist: only the rational part of the soul is immortal whereas the other two perish when soul is severed from body in death.

           

The unfinished dialogue Critias, which follows the Timaeus, highlights Plato’s intention to provide a moral lesson to his audience or readers. The famous Atlantis story, probably invented by Plato, records the vicissitudes of a powerful island nation somewhere in the Atlantic, whose inhabitants lapsed into insolence and decadence. In the Atlantis story, Plato casts Athens in the role of righteous punisher of the Atlantis. Plato’s point, however, is not to celebrate Athenian imperialism, which would only repeat the Atlantic predicament of arrogant power, but to remind his readers that there was a time when the Athenians were leading a life of justice and proper measure. The story of how the structured universe itself came into existence adds credence to this urgent Platonic message: we should live our lives always following the guidance of reason and prevailing over the indulgent and destructive tendencies of our material bodies.

           

NOTES

 

[i]  Owen, G. E. L. “The Place of the Timaeus in Plato’s Dialogues,” Classical Quarterly

(1953).

[ii]  Cherniss, H. F. “The Relation of the Timaeus to Plato’s Later Dialogues,” Journal of

Hellenic Studies (1957).

[iii]  Keyt, D. “The Mad Craftsman of the Timaeus,” Philosophical Review 80 (1971): 230–

235.

[iv]  Vlastos, G. “The Disorderly Motion in the Timaeus,” and “Creation in the Timaeus: Is It a Fiction?” in R. E.Allen, ed., Studies in Plato’s Metaphysics (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965).

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 27, 2009

    Highly recommended

    These are two dialogues which have literally changed the world and how we view the world. Insightful and brilliantly translated.

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    Posted June 3, 2011

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    Posted November 29, 2008

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