One of Plato’s last dialogues, the only one dedicated to the natural world.

Dramatic setting, characters and subject matter of the dialogue

The dialogue presents a discussion that took place in Athens between Socrates, Critias (leader of the Thirty tyrants) and two visitors from Magna Graecia: Hermocrates (Syracusan general and victor in the Athenians’ Sicilian Expedition), and Timaeus of Locri. Timaeus is a fictional character, but the rest are famous people of the late fifth century BCE. The discussion should be placed quite earlier than the Athenians’ great defeat in Syracuse, possibly around 525-520. The group supposedly meets for a second day, in order to repay Socrates “with discourses” for the exposition of his ideal republic that took place on the previous day. The greatest part of the repayment falls on Timaeus’ shoulders, who narrates in monological fashion the formation of the universe and of human beings. The discussion is never concluded; Critias is the next speaker, who in the unfinished homonymous dialogue goes only so far as to present the Atlantis myth, thus leaving as legacy an inexhaustible source for the imaginative speculation of posterity’s readers.

The inclusion of a synopsis of the Platonic Republic and the Atlantis myth in the introduction to the Timaeus leads us to the conclusion that the dialogue is the first part of a trilogy, which would have been completed had the Critias been finished and had the Hermocrates even been written. Otherwise an explanation is lacking for Plato’s choice to begin the Timaeus by bringing up crucial political issues in a dialogue dealing solely with issues of cosmology and naturalism. However, why Plato abandoned this project remains unknown.

Date of composition

There is universal agreement among scholars that the Timaeus belongs to Plato’s last dialogues. This conviction is grounded on its philosophical content, which seems to include an improved ontological account in relation to the middle dialogues, and is also supported by linguistic and stylistic analyses of the Platonic corpus. It displays substantial philosophical affinity with the Philebus and the Laws.

Structure and subject matter of the dialogue

The Timaeus is not, strictly speaking, a dialogue, since it is essentially a monologue delivered by the homonymous character. When Timaeus begins his speech, in a short proem (27d-29d) he makes his main presuppositions clear: (a) he concedes the Platonic ontological separation of Forms and sensibles; (b) he conceives of the world as a work of art, as a product presupposing constructor, matter and model; (c) he realises that the presentation of the formation of the universe does not lay claim to absolute truth, but takes the form of a “likely story” [εικώς μύθος].

As Being is to Becoming, so is Truth to Belief. Hence, Socrates, if in our treatment of many issues regarding the Gods and the generation of the Universe we prove unable to give accounts that are always in all respects self-consistent and perfectly exact, do not be surprised; rather we should be content if we can furnish accounts that are inferior to none in likelihood, remembering that both I who speak and you who judge are but human creatures, and thus ought to accept the likely account [εικότα λόγον] of these matters and seek nothing beyond it. [29c-d]

The protagonist in this mythical narrative is a benevolent Demiurge-God, subjugating “κατά δύναμιν” the disorderly moving matter of the universe according to an ideal Model. The world is presented as the upshot of divine providence, a product of rational purposiveness, a realm where order and mathematical harmony rule. The Demiurge constructs the body and the soul of the world, places the stars and the planets in circular orbits, and sets the universe in motion by instilling “divine beginning to the unceasing and intelligent life lasting throughout all Time” (36e). Moreover he constructs the immortal part of the human soul and then retires to his “proper peace”, leaving the lesser astral gods to carry out the formation of human and other living beings.

Within the framework of the narrative, a second cosmic power, Necessity, is juxtaposed to the Demiurge. Necessity represents the sum of all mechanical reciprocal action in the universe, the movements due to the materiality of sensible objects. It is a complementary factor, but also a counterweight, to the Demiurge’s activity, it works along but also against him; whereas the Demiurge is the carrier of rational purposiveness characterising the universe, Necessity expresses its blind materiality. According to Plato the natural world is teleological, because the inherent mechanical causality of bodies yields to rational divine design.

The Timaeus is divided into three parts.

In the first part (29d-42e) the works of the Demiurge are described; the account provided in this part is exclusively teleological.

In the second part (47e-68d) Timaeus takes us back to a mythical pre-cosmic stage, before the appearance of the Demiurge, and describes the coming-to-be of sensible objects as a mirroring of Forms in the eternal Receptacle (χώρα). The Platonic χώρα is the home or receptacle of becoming and constitutes an ontological innovation of the Timaeus. The properties and interactions of bodies are reduced to their atomic structure, i.e. to the elemental triangles constituting them. The accounts of natural phenomena in the second part are purely mechanistic.

In the third part (69d-92c) the human organism is analysed, with unprecedented thoroughness, as a field of collaboration between Intellect and Necessity. Every feature of anatomy and every human activity is explained by showing on the one hand the purpose they serve and on the other the material factors that are their mechanical causes.

The interpretive horizon

The Timaeus is a manifesto of cosmic teleology. Plato writes this dialogue when he feels capable of providing a complete response to the later Presocratics, especially Democritus, who had rejected every kind of purposiveness in nature. He is also opposed to the moral relativism of the Sophists, since a universe without order and design is evidently more susceptible to their views. Introducing the evocative figure of the divine Demiurge or revealing the World Soul would suffice to demonstrate that there is purposiveness in nature. The persuasiveness of the Timaeus, however, also lies in the fact that it incorporates the latest word of its time’s science. No natural phenomenon is overlooked without explanation, the natural sciences become significant and acquire cognitive validity as “likely accounts [εικότες λόγοι]”, while mathematics is shown to play a key role in deciphering the universe.

The Timaeus also introduces the isomorphism between world and human beings, the analogy of microcosm and macrocosm -- one of the most durable notions in mankind’s intellectual history. The heavens are the realm of rational order and can function as a model for human knowledge and ethics. A path is thus cleared that is accessible to everyone wishing to achieve the most excellent life.

vision of day and night and of months and circling years has created the art of number and has given us not only the notion of Time but also means of research into the nature of the Universe. From these we have procured Philosophy in all its range, than which no greater boon ever has come or will come, by divine bestowal, unto the race of mortals... Familiarisation with the heavenly revolutions allows us to understand the innate correctness of their mathematical relations, so that by imitation of the unvarying and unerring divine revolutions we might correct the error of the variable movements within ourselves. [47a-c]

Finally, the metaphysics of the Timaeus consists in an improved version of the classic Platonic theory of Forms, a richer tripartite ontology that includes the Receptacle, Forms and sensibles; it also familiarises the reader with Plato’s unwritten doctrines.

For the present, then, we must discern three kinds of beings: firstly, that which becomes; secondly, that in which it becomes; thirdly, that of which it [:what becomes] is a naturally derived likeness. Therefore, we can liken the Receptacle to the mother, the Model to the father, and what is engendered between these two to the offspring [50c-d]

Sensible motion and change are completely independent of the Forms and are due to the combination of materiality provided by the Receptacle and the causal activity of the World Soul.

Nonetheless, how is one to interpret the cosmic myth presented in the Timaeus? Does Plato actually believe that the universe was formed by a divine Craftsman at the beginning of time? Or is the formation of the universe a narrative convention simply increasing the charm and persuasiveness of Plato’s project? Diverging interpretations have already been offered by the first generation of Plato’s pupils in the Old Academy -- Aristotle reads the Timaeus literally, whereas Xenocrates reads it figuratively-- and have survived to this day. The dominant approach, assumed here as well, is that Plato never abandoned the established ancient Greek conviction that the world is without beginning and eternal.

The Platonic universe existed and will carry on existing in a state of dynamic equilibrium, which testifies to the prevalence of the rational element over what is irrational and disorderly; of the soul over the body; of purposiveness over contingency. Once one has rejected the literal reading of the world’s creation, the need to decipher the text of the Timaeus is at hand: coming into existence should be read in terms of structure. The mythical pre-cosmic chaos and the following emergence of order and harmony represent the two main tensions of the universe, which are indeed constantly co-present, in collaboration or in conflict. In the heavenly realm the World Soul subjugates bodily disorder and imposes the rule of Intellect; yet in the human realm the World Soul’s champion is the one that is usually defeated in the conflict.

The survival of the Timaeus

The text’s historical course and the influence it has had from antiquity up to the present day is an intricate chapter in the history of philosophy. No other philosophical text was studied or commented upon as much until the seventeenth century CE. For two thousand years the Timaeus essentially stood for all of Platonism: it was the mystic’s gospel when rational thought receded in later antiquity; the strongest link connecting Christianity to ancient Greek thought, given that it is the only major ancient philosophical text dealing with the creation of the world; the inspiration of people who, like Galileo, considered that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics”. The relevance of the Timaeus suffered a major blow by the dominance of the mechanistic world-picture of modern physics during the seventeenth century.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
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