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Topic #D38


Plato , Timaeus 17-41a


5 December 2001
Scribe: Barton Wong


These minutes were spoken on 7 December; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



Professor Hutchinson said that he thought the basic theme of the Timaeus was the passage of time and that though the dialogue had many sub-themes, its most general concerns were with temporality and how human beings live in time.  Therefore, the Timaeus then is a meditation on historicity. 


             In the dialogue, Plato distinguishes between two types of sciences: historical and permanent.  An example of a historical science would be history.  These sciences deal with the human world, which is governed by complexity, change, contingency, and the seeming randomness of events.  Mathematics is an example of a permanent science.  Permanent sciences are called that because their subject matter is permanent, their methods are permanent (e.g.  mathematical operations such as adding and subtracting remain valid and accurate ways of doing sums whenever and wherever a person is), and gains in research are permanent (e.g.  the equation for finding pi is always valid). 


             The Timaeus is a kind of pseudo-sequel to the Republic in so far as Socrates, Timaeus, and the rest of the interlocutors refer to that dialogue having occurred on the previous day and several of the same themes are revisited.  In the Timaeus, Socrates gives us a moving, almost cinematic portrayal of what his ideal city (as first shown in the Republic) would be like.  Here at 19b, Socrates shows the citizens of his city in action doing great and wonderful things.  This is perhaps a revision of the ideal city of the Republic.  Socrates now recognizes that in real life, the dynamism of human society demands that the society of an ideal city also be dynamic and not eternal and never-changing like the society he portrays in the Republic.  This same contrast works when we compare the Republic and Plato‚s last unfinished masterpiece, the Laws.  Whereas to many people, the polis in the Republic is idealistic and fantastic, in comparison, the ideal polis of the Laws appears to be far more realistic, a place that is shaped by history and geography.  This realism is further emphasized by the resemblance the city has to a real Greek city, Cyrene. 


             But instead of going to discuss the Timaeus in detail, Professor Hutchinson then switched focus to a closely-related dialogue, the Critias.  The Critias is interesting to us today mainly as the source of the Atlantis story and the fact that so many people seem to take the story on a purely literal level, pays tribute to Plato‚s considerable powers of invention.  One theory about the source of the Atlantis story is that its seed lies in the destruction by volcano of the island of Santorini and neigbouring Minoan cities around the middle of the second millenium BCE.  Professor Hutchinson feels that a more likely theory is that the seed of the Atlantis story lies in a myth about a great westward migration to places beyond the Strait of Gibraltar like the Azores and the Canary Islands where people of unknown ethnic origin reside to this very day.  Plato simply made up all the details, which he then appended on to the seed of this myth.


             The traditional scholarly view of the Timaeus is that it is part of an incomplete trilogy of dialogues.  The Timaeus was to be the first part of the trilogy, the seemingly incomplete Critias was to be the second part of the trilogy, and the missing speech by Hermocrates, which is anticipated in the preceding dialogue, the final part of the trilogy.  Professor Hutchinson feels that this view is ridiculous since Plato never left any other dialogue either in an incomplete or unpolished form.  Instead, Professor Hutchinson notes that the breaking-off of the Critias in mid-sentence at the end parallels the breaking-off in mid-sentence at the end of Thucydides‚ History of the Peloponnesian War.  The completion of the Critias would also be an account of a war, the war between Atlantis and Athens, a sort of Iliad where the virtuous deeds of the citizens of Athens would be shown off in the best light.  This history cannot be written because of the length involved in its retelling.  Herodotus‚ enormous account of the Persian Wars is a mere sketch compared to what Critias has promised for his account. 


Professor Hutchinson also thinks that the traditional scholarly view of a trilogy of dialogues is wrong because of the seamless transition we have between the Timaeus and the Critias.  The Critias is simply a continuation of the preceding Timaeus.  That and the fact that the dialogue between them is clearly spurious prompts Professor Hutchinson to think that originally the Timaeus and the Critias were one dialogue that was later split into two and that this resulting curious literary structure for both dialogues has been misunderstood for millennia as a result. 


             The Timaeus has been very closely studied at two times in history: in the fourth century AD, where the dialogue was treated almost like an encyclopedia of knowledge and in the Middle Ages from the tenth century onwards when it became well-known, where it was second behind the Bible in influence.  The dialogue also influenced some earlier classical philosophers, the Stoics, who emerged in Athens as a philosophical school around 330 BCE.  They updated Socratic philosophy with the latest developments in astronomy, mathematics, and science, and were quite interested in this dialogue because of its concern with such permanent sciences. 


             Unfortunately, since the sixteenth century onwards, an increasing number of the theses posited in the Timaeus have proven false, giving the dialogue an odd obsolete and antique feel.  However, three permanent truths discussed in the dialogue remain relevant to this very day.  The first is that some natural sciences such as geology are not in fact permanent sciences, but historical sciences since they are intimately bound up in how the passage of time affect natural phenomenon and how these phenomenon exist historically.  Even physics can be defined as a historical science since the basis of its laws, the Big Bang Theory, requires a starting point in time and the continuity of time, and since its laws are not even universal in certain places in the universe and at certain times in history.  The second permanent truth is that all the sciences are related in some way to other sciences; there is a sort of lateral integration to the sciences because each discovery in one field inevitably influences other fields of research.  The third and final permanent truth to be found in the dialogue is the insight derived ultimately from the Pythagorean tradition that all elements, on one level or another, can and must be explained using mathematics; that the materiality of physical things can be reduced to mere numbers and mathematical equations.  Unfortunately, Plato did not translate these startling general insights into specific scientific discoveries.  This perhaps should not surprise any of us since in the dialogue itself, it is said that no knowledge is certain and that the state of our knowledge is never settled. 


             The Timaeus thus offers us, in its own unique Socratic/Platonic way, an entire general scientific worldview.  It is also has an answer to that question which plagues philosophy students eternally: what has philosophy taught you recently? The dialogue tells us the useful fact of why human beings have necks.  Since the body is a mobile vehicle to convey the head wherever it wants to go, human beings have necks in order that when we walk around, our heads do not get stuck in holes.  Now you know.