Greek Philosophy – Plato’s Timaeus
The Timaeus, which was considered by many early Platonists and Medieval Neoplatonists to be Plato’s most important work, puts forward Plato’s cosmology. Indeed, for many years in Medieval Europe, the Timaeus was the only dialogue of Plato’s available for study in Latin, as well as one of the only texts on cosmology, physics and the workings of nature available to scholars until the Renaissance. In the Republic, Plato used Socrates to put forward his theories on the proper form of the individual and society. In the Timaeus, which is supposed to take place the day after the Republic, Plato uses Timaeus and others to put forward his theories on the form of the cosmos, which corresponds to the proper form of both healthy individual and just society.
Socrates gathers again with fellow aristocrats and says that he would like to hear about how an ideal state discussed the previous day would interact with other societies. While the police, the guardians of the city, protect everyone from enemies, this does not explain how the leaders of the city, the philosophers, would choose to engage in foreign relations. Critias tells Socrates of Solon’s journey to Egypt and what he learned from the priests there. Solon, the famed Athenian lawmaker, was given dictatorial power over Athens because he was wise and capable of good rule at a time when tyrants were seizing power over other Greek city-states. This would mean that the aristocrats came together and elected Solon to dictatorial power so that one of them could not seize power over all the others.
While some ancient sources of later periods say that Solon allowed common people into the assembly for the first time in history, modern scholars are skeptical of this today. Solon’s reforms broadened the availability of positions of authority, but only to those wealthy enough to afford to arm themselves either as cavalry or infantry in times of war, a distinction common people such as farmers and craftspeople would have found quite unaffordable. After Solon had instituted his government reforms, he immediately left Athens for a period of ten years such that he could not be convinced to change anything. It was during this time that he may have gone to Egypt and met with the Pharaoh and discussed philosophy with Egyptian priests, which some sources say was his first stop after leaving Athens.
Critias tells Socrates that, when Solon went to Egypt, he found at the apex of the Nile Delta, where the Nile divides in two, there is a place called Sais, and the priests there say that they have a special bond with the people of Athens and share the same patron goddess (Neith for the Egyptians, Athena for the Athenians). After talking with the priests, Solon realized that the Athenians did not have much understanding of history. One old priest tells Solon that, due to civilizations being eliminated by great floods and firestorms, the Greeks are children, and Greek historians are merely reciting nursery rhymes. Here again, Plato seems quite critical of Homeric traditional culture, and uses the wise old Egyptian priest to mock the verses of Homer and Hesiod.
The priest says that the Athenians do not remember, because they have just become educated and civilized, but the Egyptians know from their history records that nine thousand years ago the Athenians stopped the people of the island of Atlantis, who were threatening to take over the world. Atlantis was thought to be an island in the Atlantic Ocean, outside the mouth of the Mediterranean. Plato’s Timaeus is indeed the first time that Atlantis is mentioned in history. The story, which is now believed to have been an invention by Plato, is very similar to the Battle of Marathon, where the Athenians and Spartans repelled the Persian invasion. We now know that Egypt was not as many thousands of years old as Plato believed, but this does show Plato believed that they were civilized long before Athens. Ironically, the old priest says that the ancient Athenians saved all of Egypt and Greece from slavery.
Plato, through the old Egyptian priest, says that the long ancient Greeks were the greatest warriors, but the Egyptians were the great scholars who kept the records of history. The priest also tells Solon that, in long ancient Egypt and Greece, the common goddess they share taught to separate the scholars from the warriors, and the warriors from the common people. Plato is telling us that the order of the Republic, which is eternal and ideal, was taught by a goddess to Egypt and Greece equally, though the Greeks were too great in being warriors to have the scholars to have recorded this.
Critias tells Socrates that, as he listen to Socrates describe his ideal republic, he was continuously reminded of the story of Solon in Egypt, and found the similarities remarkable. Plato, who believes that the ideal form is known by all of us but forgotten, only to be recollected through wisdom, is telling us through so many characters that through questioning Socrates is able to reconstruct, also recollect, the ideal form of the human being and society, which is thousands of years old and taught by a goddess to humanity. Thus, Socrates’ wish is fulfilled. He wanted to hear about how his ideal city would work in actual practice, and now finds out that it did indeed work as a foreign policy as the ancient Athenians were able to counter the Atlanteans and rescue the Egyptians and fellow Greeks. Socrates tells Critias that he is delighted to learn that his form of the just society was not merely an idea, but history, and that it is quite appropriate that they are speaking of it on the feast day of the goddess Athena.
Critias says that, before he tells the whole history of Atlantis, which he proceeds to do in Plato’s dialogue the Critias, Socrates should hear Timaeus give a history of the cosmos from the beginning up until the birth of humankind. This is somewhat like the ridiculous joke in the movie Airplane, when Johnny of the airport control room is asked to explain what went wrong, and start from the beginning, and he replies, “Well, first the Earth cooled…and then the dinosaurs came”. Critias is suggesting to Socrates that they start with the birth of the cosmos, which has an ideal form that turns out to be very much that of Plato’s Republic, and then they trace the beginning of mankind to Atlantis, and then trace ancient times up to their own day, drawing a straight line from the beginning of the universe to themselves and Socrates’ “discovery” of the cosmic form through wisdom.
Timaeus, a name which means ‘honor’ in ancient Greek, was a Pythagorean who lived and taught in the time of Socrates. Like Pythagoras, and Parmenides, Timaeus begins by distinguishing the temporary world of opinions, the sensory world we can perceive, from the eternal world of knowledge, the ideal form we can remember/understand through reason and wisdom. This is not only similar to Plato’s cave, which has an inside and outside, but also to the Pythagorean Y. Now Socrates becomes the simple-minded ‘yes man’ interlocutor, and agrees each time Timaeus pauses in his monologue to ask if what he has said seems correct.
While the sensory world is made of many things, the eternal and ideal form is a supreme One. This One, often capitalized by modern scholars to distinguish it as supreme, is the point out of which the Pythagorean cosmos unfolded. The world below is constantly changing, is becoming, much as Heraclitus said. The form above is unchanging, is being, much as Pythagoras, Parmenides and now Plato have said. Parmenides argued that the world below is an illusion, and Plato gave the metaphor of the shadows inside the cave which are false images of the real things themselves which are outside the cave. Timaeus says that becoming is to being as opinion is to knowledge. Timaeus also says:
We must, then, in my judgment, first make this distinction: what is that which is always real and has no becoming, and what is that which is always becoming and is never real? That which is apprehensible by thought with a rational account is the thing that is always unchangeably real, whereas that which is the object of belief together with unreasoning sensation is the thing that becomes and passes away, but never has real being.
Note that opinions can be true and then not true, but knowledge is concerned with the eternal and universal, that which is always true and does not change in time or by location. This quotation shows us a very dogmatic position, that there is only one truth that is rational, and it is eternal and universal. Any perspective or relativity must not be genuine knowledge or what is comprehensible by true reason. A more skeptical thinker such as Xenophanes and Heraclitus would say that this rules out all human understandings as irrational, and Zeno might agree.
Timaeus says that there is a hidden father and architect of the universe, who looked at the eternal model when making the temporary and changing world below. While at first many would say that this father, also called ‘the Divine Craftsman’ and ‘the Architect’ is a monotheistic god, it is actually an underling, the Demiurge (Demiurgos, in the Greek). The One sprouts and unfolds into the eternal order and ideal models of things, which we will see is trinitarian like Plato’s republic and constitution of the individual, and the Demiurge, the sky father being that corresponds to the fire at the mouth of Plato’s cave from the Republic, not the Sun itself, then produces copies of the models in the ever changing world of earth below.
The Demiurge is also identified with Logos, the word first mentioned by Heraclitus, and the One is identified with Nous, the mind first mentioned by Anaxagoras. This is parallel with the Republic, as the philosophers are the mind of the city, who come up with the ideal model, while the police are the spirit and courage, the breath of the city, who carry out the orders and impress the model on the population. Plato’s Nous is much like Anaxagoras’ Nous, but as previously mentioned it’s interaction with the world is layered. Nous does not move, but the Demiurge, the Logos, does, looking at the model that unfolds from Nous. Socrates in Plato’s dialogue The Phaedo says that at first he was fascinated by Anaxagoras’ Nous, but then found Anaxagoras did nothing with it, and Aristotle shared Plato’s criticism in labeling Anaxagoras’ Nous a ‘deus ex machina’.
Plato’s Nous does unfold out of itself to become the eternal model, but other than that it does nothing. The Demiurge, the secondary god, does everything after that in the formation of the cosmos. The shadow puppets are like common people, the farmers and workers. They supply temporary things, the shadows on the cave wall being like fleeting temporary opinions and mortal objects of desire, just as desires supply us with temporary opinions and things. For example, I say “I want a sandwich”, and then later after eating the mortal sandwich the desire is no more and the statement no longer true.
The One is the sun outside of Plato’s cave, the philosopher of Plato’s city, and the mind/nous of Plato’s individual, the highest element that is the ideal and the source of everything below it. The Demiurge is the fire at the mouth of Plato’s cave, the police/guardians of Plato’s city, and the spirit and courage of Plato’s individual. The temporary things of our sensible world are the shadow puppets in Plato’s cave, the farmers and craftspeople of Plato’s city, the desires of Plato’s individual. Lastly, the opinions we have, projections of our desires, are the shadows on Plato’s cave wall, temporary beings that are never real.
Early Neoplatonist Christians sometimes identified Plato’s Demiurge with the Holy Spirit of the trinity, the link between God and Jesus, while Medieval Christian Neoplatonists sometimes identified the Demiurge with Jesus, who is the link between God and the Holy Spirit below that dwells on Earth. Neoplatonic Gnostics of the ancient world, who shared much of their thought with the early Christians, saw the Demiurge as a deceiving demon, a fallen god that has trapped human beings in a false world. Descartes, the French philosopher central in the beginning of modern European philosophy, disproved a deceiving demon as his Queen was attempting to rid France of Gnostic heretics whose understandings contradicted Catholic orthodoxy.
Recently, “the Architect” found its way into the Matrix series as a computer program that creates the world but is not its own creator. The Matrix movies follow the Gnostic conception, not the traditional Platonic and Catholic Neoplatonic conception (note the use of ‘Neo’ as central character of the movies as well).
The Slovenian philosopher Zizek, who is critical like Nietzsche of Plato’s simple division between the real and the illusion, puts himself into the original Matrix movie in the beginning of his critical documentary about cinema. Facing Morpheus, he questions whether there is a genuine choice in taking the red pill or the blue pill, in choosing to wake up from the dream or fall back asleep. Like Heraclitus, who says that there is no limit to waking up, Zizek says he wants a third pill, not a pill that shows the reality behind the illusion, but a pill that shows us reality AS illusion, that shows us how we share our projections and socially co-create reality together as shared ideology.
The whole cosmos, for Timaeus (a mask of Plato’s) is a living creature, with the heavens as soul and the Earth as body. Timaeus says that human beings are a plant with their roots in the heavens. The head, the part of us that contains the ideas, is rooted in the One and its ideal model it has conceived, and the rest of us branches downward. The demiurge fashions reason in soul, and soul in body in individuals. The demiurge then moves everything in a circle, bringing about the life and death in cycles of earth beings underneath the cycles of the heavens.
This is all done by the forces of sameness and difference, similar to the love and strife of Empedocles. Sameness has the higher and encompassing role, difference being proportional downward. Note that the supreme One is the ultimate sameness, eternal and universal and the source of all that is eternal and universal, which then becomes the source of all that is temporary and locational. For Plato and later Neoplatonists for thousands of years, things are ordered with trinities within trinities, each thing being one of a group of three, and itself composed of three parts.
While there are four elements, Timaeus describes how this is formed from fire and earth, with a third element air formed between the two. Note that these three correspond to the Nous, Logos and sensory world of the cosmos, the philosophers, police and common people of the city, and the mind, spirit and stomach of the individual. Fire, as it was for Heraclitus and Empedocles, is the highest element and most primary. Timaeus says that a fourth element, water, had to be added to the first three because the world is a solid, not a surface.
This is confusing at first, but not when we remember that the Pythagoreans honored the Tetractys, a pyramid of dots, and said that a point leads to a line which leads to a plane which leads to a solid. A point is singular and most simple, with no dimension. A line is one dimensional between two points. The simplest two dimensional plane is a triangle, between three points. The simplest three dimensional solid is a pyramid, between four points. Note that a triangle with a point on top is absolutely the same at the apex, and spreads into difference at the base. Similarly, a pyramid is a point, absolute similarity at the apex, and is a plane of difference at its base, not to mention a solid through its span.
Plato adopted atomism from philosophers such as Democritus, but gave the atoms Pythagorean shapes, and relates these shapes to us through the mouth of the Pythagorean Timaeus. The highest element, fire, has particles that are shaped like four-sided pyramids, also called tetrahedrons. The pyramid was understood in Egypt to be a representation of light spreading downward onto the earth, as sunlight does in breaks between clouds, as mentioned with Pythagoras, and both Pythagoras and Plato thought very highly of Egyptian cosmology. Fire is the simplest element, with the least sides the least differentiated, and is the most like a point unfolding into the simplest planes as sides and solid as overall shape.
Earth particles are six sided cubes, much as one might see looking at sand closely. Earth is the only element with square sides, each of the other three elements having equilateral triangles as sides. In Indian thought, earth was also represented as a square, and Buddhist temples throughout Asia display a square base at the lowest level representing earth, topped by domes that represent air, then cones to represent fire, displaying the cosmic order of the elements. In the Indian and Asian tradition, fire is triangular, but a cone, not a pyramid, possibly because fire is also pointy in Asia but much farther from the Egyptian Pyramids. Air particles, a mixture of the forms of fire and earth particles, are octahedrons, two four-sided, square-based pyramids stuck together at the base, giving it triangular points with a square-sided middle. It is as if air is fire glued together or congealed in the middle as earthy, much like Thales thought that earth is congealed out of water. Finally, water particles are twenty-sided icosahedrons, twenty triangles together.
Strangely, while the sides of fire, earth, and air particles follow a series of four, six, and eight in their sides, water particles are not ten-sided but twenty-sided. Timaeus gives no reason why this is the case, even though he is concerned with progressing step by step from the simplest to most complex shapes to understand the elements, assuming that the cosmos unfolds in levels of simplicity to complexity. Compared with fire, water is the largest and thus heaviest particle, the least mobile, and fire is the smallest and lightest particle, the most mobile.
As for the human individual, Timaeus says that the Demiurge fashioned the immortal human mind, and then added two mortal parts of the soul, housing the three in the human body. The immortal part of the soul was placed in the head. The mortal parts of the soul, spirit and appetite, are housed in the lower body, and the two parts are separated by the neck. The spirit is housed in the heart, which is involved with the lungs, and the appetite is housed in the stomach, which is involved with the liver and spleen.
After first creating the human form, the Demiurge moved on to fashioning plants and animals, which it did out of the human form. Timaeus explains that plants do have soul, and thus are alive, but they only have appetite, and are thus merely mortal. The animal kingdom came about through reincarnation of human individuals. After creating the human form and then a number of males, those who were too cowardly to do good were reborn for a second time as women. In response, men developed seed out of the marrow of their spines, the basic stuff of life, which explains why the penis behaves as if it has a mind of its own (Timaeus says this…I’m not making it up as a joke). In women, the womb opened and developed an appetite for producing children, which if unfulfilled can cause the womb to wander about the body causing problems.
Birds developed as reincarnations of humans who were foolish enough to trust the eye more than the mind. Land animals developed as reincarnations of people who did not have wisdom (Timaeus says, “who had no use for philosophy and paid no heed to the heavens”) who followed their spirit rather than mind, and so their heads were drawn downward to the earth and their skulls shrank. Lastly, those who had neither wisdom nor spirit were reincarnated as fish, who have no use for air as they have no spirit. Since this time, souls are raised or lowered through reincarnation depending on whether they are wise or foolish. This creates an interesting question: If a clam has no wisdom or spirit, how can it act nobly and raise itself from its station?
If much of this sounds foolish, this is the cosmology of Christianity and Europe well through the middle ages, up to Newton and Leibniz, who read Islamic scholar’s commentaries on the Timaeus as well as inherited the scientific developments of the Islamic world and Asia that slowly increased our understandings. The Medieval Christians had to retranslate Plato, with central interest in the cosmology of the Timaeus, into Latin from Arabic. Muslims were translating Greek texts for hundreds of years before the Europeans were capable of doing so.
Today, there is a pentagonal crater on the moon named after Timaeus. In the Japanese animated show Yugioh, there is a knight from Atlantis named Timaeus (which I found out through Google Image). Of course, Timaeus is not from Atlantis. It is Critias who speaks of Atlantis, and Timaeus speaks of the order of the cosmos, while Atlantis is first mentioned in Plato’s Timaeus.