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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.

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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.

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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

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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.; English translation, 1793) continues the conversation by giving Critias his turn in the historical-philosophical account of humanity’s origin and progress.

After invoking the gods Timaeus asks the fascinating, complex question: “What is that which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is?” The answer is thoroughly Platonic (although it is also consistently Pythagorean): “That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is.” This answer—that idea (whatever is apprehended by intelligence) is constant, while what is sensed is inconstant and consequently unreal—is Platonic in its giving priority to idea and in its identification of reality with whatever is constant and prior.

The World

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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. The one circle became the circle of the same and was, consequently, undivided; the other, the circle of the other, was divided into seven circles (the seven planets) having different orbits.

The soul and the corporeal universe were joined together. Because the soul partakes of the essences of the same, the other, and the intermediate, it alone knows the characters of the sensible world and attains to perfect knowledge of the rational.

God wanted the world to be everlasting, but eternity is not possible for a corporeal being. Hence, he created time as the image of eternity. Stars were placed in the seven orbits to make time possible. God then made a great fire, the sun, to light up the heavens so that animals (people) might learn arithmetic by observing the stars in their courses.

The created animal was then made to have four species corresponding to the four kinds of ideas involved in the original: heavenly bodies (creatures of fire), birds (creatures of the air), creatures of the water, and creatures of the earth. Knowledge of the gods comes by tradition from those who were the children of the gods. From Earth and Heaven were born Oceanus and Tethys, whose children were Phorcys, Cronus, and Rhea, and from Cronus and Rhea were generated Zeus and Herè.

God then used a dilution of the essence of the universe soul to prepare the souls of living things. Souls that lived properly were destined to return to their native stars, but others would be forced to reside in women or brute animals. Human beings had their bodies fashioned by those gods who were the children of the father of the gods, and the bodies were made of the four elements welded together with tiny invisible pegs. Motions within the body or on it from external motions were carried to the soul, and the motions came to be called “sensations.” Only when the soul is able to free itself from the influence of bodily motions can it begin to revolve as it should, acquiring knowledge.

The courses of the soul are contained in the head, which is a spherical body emulating the spherical body of the universe. All the other appendages of the human being are instrumental to the soul’s functioning within the head. Light is a gentle fire that merges in the eye with the fire within the body, finally affecting the soul in an act of perception. The causes of sight must be distinguished from the purpose of sight. Sight exists to make knowledge possible: By observing heavenly bodies, people acquire knowledge of time, then of numbers and of philosophy. People learn by analogy, identifying the courses of heavenly bodies with the courses of individual souls.

The Four Elements

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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, and that one of the scalene forms that is such that, doubled, an equilateral triangle is formed, must have been used by God in the creation of the elements.

Timaeus retracts his earlier statement that the elements can all pass into one another. Earth can never become anything but earth. The other three, however, can pass into one another. Because earth is the most immovable of the four elements, it must be composed of cubical forms. Water is harder to move than either fire or air; hence, it must be composed of icosahedron forms (“made up of 120 triangular elements, forming twelve solid angles, each of them included in five plane equilateral triangles, having altogether twenty bases, each of which is an equilateral triangle”). Fire is made up of the smallest and most acute bodies, pyramids, while air is composed of octahedron solids. It can now be understood why earth cannot become something other than earth: Its solids cannot assume the forms necessary to the other elements.

After a discussion of the kinds of fire (flaming fire, light, and glow), the kinds of water (liquid and fusile, the latter divisible into gold, adamant, and copper; and the former into such various liquids as wine, oil, honey, and the like), and the kinds of earth (rock, stones, chemicals), Timaeus considers the effects of the elements on bodies and souls. Fire is sharp and cutting in its heat because it is made up of sharp pointed solids (pyramids: tetrahedra). Other sensations are accounted for by reference to contraction, compression, expansion, and so forth, caused by the impingement of various bodies on the sensing body. Pain is the result of a sudden change that disturbs the particles of the body; pleasure is the effect of the body’s return to its natural condition.

The sensations resulting from the stimulation of the sense organs are explained as affectations caused by contractions and dilations, or by moistening or drying up, or by smothering or roughening of parts caused by the entrance of the particles of exterior objects. Sounds are blows that are transmitted to the soul, and hearing is a vibration that begins in the head and ends in the liver. Colors are flames coming from things that join with the streams of light within the body. With great care, Timaeus explains how various colors are formed by the combinations of fires.

Body and Soul

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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 soul, “obtaining a natural release, flies away with joy.”

The diseases of the mind are of two kinds: madness and ignorance. If anyone is bad, he or she is so involuntarily as the result of an indisposition of the body, and indisposition is simply the lack of that fair and good proportion that means health and sanity. To achieve a proper harmony of body and soul, exercise is necessary: gymnastic for the body, music and philosophy for the soul. Human beings need the food and motion that will encourage the growth and harmony of body and soul, and the motions most worth studying and emulating are the motions of the universe as revealed in the revolutions of the heavenly bodies. Intellect is supposed to be superior to desire, and thus one must give particular attention to the exercise of that divine part of his soul.

Cowardly men change into women in the second generation; simple, light-minded men give rise to the race of birds; and those without philosophy, who allow the breast to rule the head, become beasts. Those who become foolish are made to crawl on the ground, devoid of feet, while the senseless and ignorant become animals of the sea.

The generation of animals is the result of desire resulting from the respiration of the seed of life rising in the marrow. When the desire of man and woman is satisfied, unseen animals pass from the man to the woman, and they mature in her.

Timaeus concludes his account by summarizing in the following manner: “The world has received animals, mortal and immortal, and is fulfilled with them, and has become a visible animal containing the visible—the sensible God who is the image of the intellectual, the greatest, best, fairest, most perfect—the one only-begotten heaven.”

Thus, by giving the center of the stage to a Pythagorean, Plato sketched out a conception of the origin of the universe. Perhaps he found the analysis of things in terms of triangles a reasonable, even probable, anatomy of nature; perhaps he was intrigued, but not convinced. In any case, Plato gave full allegiance to the theory of forms, or eternal essences, and he never wavered in his endorsement of the rational mode of life. Despite the bizarre character of the philosophy contained in Timaeus, the Greek love of wisdom makes itself felt and gives to the whole an enduring charm.


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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.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Jones, W. T. The Classical Mind. Vol. 1 in A History of Western Philosophy. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969. A reliable introduction to the main themes and issues on which Plato focused.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Bibliography.

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