(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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The World

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The next important question to be settled is whether the world did or did not have a beginning. The answer by now is obvious: If whatever can be sensed is not eternal, but comes into being or is destroyed, and if the world is sensible, then it must have come into being. However, whatever comes into being must have a cause. Furthermore, because the world is fair and the maker of it must have been the best of causes, the pattern to which the artificer referred in making the copy that is the world must have been the pattern of the unchangeable—the ideas (although the word is not used here).

Timaeus continues by stating that the world must have been patterned after a perfect, intelligent animal (an idea), for the Deity could not have been satisfied with the imperfect, the unintelligent, or the inanimate. The world, then, became a living creature “endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of God.” In order to make the world visible, God had to use fire; in order to make it tangible, he had to use earth. Then, in order to supply two means by which a union of elements could be achieved and a world of solidity created, God introduced the elements of water and air. Because the world had to have a shape that would comprehend all others, God made the world (the living animal) in the form of a globe. The world is one, for it is a copy of the eternal form, which is one. It has no hands or feet, but revolves in a circle.

The soul of the world was made by God to be prior in existence and excellence to the body. The soul’s function is to rule the body. To compose the soul, God made an essence in between the indivisible and the divisible. He then mixed this intermediate essence with the indivisible (the same) and the divisible (the other), and then divided the compound into parts, each of which contained each of the three essences. The division was very complicated, but orderly. The material was then made into strips, and an outer and an inner circle were formed that joined to form X’s....

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The Four Elements

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Having given an account of the genesis and development of the soul and of mind in terms of the soul’s activity, Timaeus considers the consequences of the presence of the four elements (earth, water, air, fire) in the universe.

In addition to the changeless, eternal pattern of things and the copies of the pattern, there is the “receptacle” and “nurse” of all generation. Because the elements can pass into each other—water, for example, changing into a vapor, or air—no element is primary; in fact, one should not refer to fire, or water, or any element as “that” that is; but one should say of that which is that it is of “such” a nature, for example, fire. The universal nature, which receives all things without changing its own nature, is alone truly designated as “that” which is; it is formless; it is eternal space. Thus, there are three kinds of natures: the uncreated, indestructible kind of being (the eternal ideas); the sensible copies of the eternal (the objects of opinion and sense); and space, the “home of all created things.” These are called, respectively, being, generation, and space.

Originally the four elements were tossed about in space, and they were neither fair nor good, but God, by the use of form and number, brought order and goodness. The elements were made up of triangles, for they are solids, and all solids are made up of planes that are, in turn, composed of triangles. Triangles are either isosceles or scalene (with unequal sides); of these, the most beautiful is that which is such that its double is an equilateral triangle. To achieve the most beauty, the isosceles, which has but a single form,...

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Body and Soul

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Returning to the account of humanity’s origin, Timaeus argues that a person’s immortal soul comes from God, but one has another, mortal soul given by the gods who fashioned one’s body. One’s mortal soul is subject to various destructive passions, among which are the love of pleasure and rashness and fear. The immortal soul is in the head, but the mortal soul is in the breast and thorax and is so divided that the part that has courage and passion is nearer the head, so that it might be better subject to reason.

The heart was designed by the gods to be a guard in the service of reason, sending the fire of passion to all parts of the body; and the lungs were designed to enclose the heart, thus cushioning its exertions and cooling it. The liver, solid and smooth like a mirror, was intended to distort the images of things of unworthy nature, giving them the distressing color of bile, while it also suffuses the images of worthy things with its natural sweetness. The spleen was made to keep the liver clean in order that it might function properly as the seat of divination. All parts of the body—the bowels, the bones, the marrow of the bones (which unites the soul with the body), the joints and flesh—were fashioned in such a manner as to encourage a person to be a creature of reason, not appetite. Fire travels through the body, giving the red color to blood and performing such necessary tasks as the digestion of food by cutting the food with the pyramidal solids that are the material of fire. Eventually, however, as the body grows older, the triangles are blunted, and digestion becomes more difficult. Disease and death are the results of the loosening or dissolving of the bonds by which the marrow holds the body and soul together. When death results the...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Brumbaugh, Robert S. Plato for the Modern Age. New York: Crowell-Collier, 1962. A good introduction to Plato’s thought and the Greek world in which he developed it.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969. Copleston devotes several clear chapters to a discussion of the full range of Plato’s view.

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature with attention to his political theories.


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