In most of the Socratic dialogues, Socrates is either the central figure or one of the central figures. For all of his assumed deference, Socrates knew himself to be the superior of his contemporaries in the art of philosophical elucidation and debate, and Plato honored him by making him the consistently victorious examiner of the pretenders to wisdom. However, Timaeus is one of the dialogues in which Socrates assumes a minor role; his personality is off to the side, glowing as usual, but only by grace of earlier dialogues in which he figures as an intellectual hero. Timaeus is not so much a dialogue—although there is some conversation—as it is a solo display of Pythagorean ideas about the origin and character of the universe by Timaeus, an enthusiastic Pythagorean astronomer.
Timaeus is interesting as an exhibition of the lengths to which imagination can go in the attempt to understand this mysterious universe. It is a characteristically curious mixture of immature science and mature invention—and it has almost no relevance to modern scientific and philosophical problems. Nevertheless, as part of the portrait of Greek thought, as a facet in the complex entity that was Plato’s realm of ideas, and as the one dialogue that—thanks to a translation by Cicero—was influential in the Middle Ages, Timaeus continues to hold a place in the significant literature of philosophy.
As the dialogue begins, Socrates reminds Timaeus of a conversation on the previous day concerning the various kinds of citizens required in an ideal state. The main points of Politeia (middle period, 388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) are reviewed: The citizens will be husbandmen or artisans or defenders of the state. The defenders will be warriors or political leaders, “guardians” of the state. The guardians are to be passionately dedicated to their tasks and philosophical by temperament and training. Gymnastics and music will play important parts in their education. There will be no private wives or children, but all will work together and live together in a communal way. An effort will be made, by contrived lots, to mate the good with the good, the bad with the bad; and only the good children, morally and intellectually superior, are to be educated.
A Portrait of the Ideal State
Socrates, having reviewed the principal points, then invites Timaeus, Critias, and Hermocrates, as persons with practical experience in the art of politics, to tell something of their adventures so that the portrait of the ideal state can begin to take on living character.
Critias begins by telling a story about ancient Athens, a tale told to him by his great-grandfather, Dropides, who heard it from Solon, the lawgiver. Solon told of hearing from a priest of Sais that Athens was a thousand years older than Sais, which had been founded eight thousand years before the time of Solon. Both Sais and Athens were founded by Athene, the goddess, so that, both in the division of classes and in laws, the two were alike. Athens became the leader of the Hellenes against the threatening forces from the great island of Atlantis, a powerful empire larger than Libya and Asia combined. Athens defeated Atlantis, but soon afterward both empires were utterly destroyed and hidden by earthquakes and floods. Critias suggests that Socrates regard the citizens of the imaginary city (as outlined in the Republic) as being, not imaginary, but the citizens of the actual city of ancient Athens. The justification for this would be that the ancient city and the imagined one agree in their general features.
Socrates is charmed by the idea, and it is agreed that Timaeus will give an account commencing with the generation of the world and ending with the creation of humanity. Critias is then to continue the account in order to complete the process of making actual the state that has so far figured in their conversation as an imaginary one.
The remainder of the dialogue is devoted to Timaeus’s account. The dialogue Critias (last period, 360-347 b.c.e. ;...
(The entire section is 3,481 words.)