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Topic #D38

Plato, Timaeus 17a-41a


5 December 2001
Scribe: Zoë Nudell


These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes


There are many themes in the Timaeus but at the most basic level it is about the passage of time.  We are beings in time; we create and deal with historicity and temporality.  Our sciences express the fundamental ways that we interact with time, the conflict between our desire for and conceptualization of permanence or eternity within a life that is impermanent.  There are permanent and true sciences such as mathematics and there are historical sciences, political and military history for example, which dissolve and change over time. 


Timaeus takes up in detail the reasons why the historical sciences dissolve and reform: historical organisms, that’s us, are working with a degree of absolute contingency – things happened in Sarajevo – change and unpredictability govern the human world.   Math, on the other hand, is not governed by unpredictability.  Its methods, and moreover its objects, are permanent – ‘how nice that must be!’ thinks Plato.  Math changes over time only in a cumulative way.  New contributions are made to the science and it grows but these contributions are permanent; once the laws are set down, we don’t take them back. 


                        The Republic is a snapshot of the perfect society.  Timaeus is a sequel to this, a chat-fest between Socrates, Critias, Timaeus, Hermocrates, and one other who wouldn’t have missed this meeting for the world; but he, ahem … that is, Plato, “came down with something”(Timaeus17a).  The men had spent the previous day talking about the ideal republic sketched in Plato’s Republic but are not satisfied with this still shot they’ve taken of the perfect city; they want to see it figure in a high power action flick.  “My feelings are like those of a man who gazes upon magnificent looking animals … but standing still, and who then finds himself longing to look at them in motion or engaged in some struggle or conflict that seems to show off their distinctive physical qualities” (Timaeus 19b).  Socrates wants to see this city of his doing amazing things, in competition with other cities. 


                        Plato knew that social structures are historical and therefore changing; they involve people and places being in historical time and geographical location.  The difference between the Laws and the Republic is that though they both sketch a society, in the Laws Plato translates the most important aspects of the Republic’s  republic onto a real city which needed to develop and survive over time: a city like Cyrene conditioned by local geographic and other historical factors.  The Republic’s  republic is a locationless, timeless city in the clouds.


                        What is the work we are considering?  It is not, in the professor’s opinion (and he is not completely alone in the wilderness on this one), just the Timaeus but also the Critias: the work seems to have been split accidentally into two chunks and trasmitted in our manuscripts under two different titles.  The Critias is part of, the action flick that Socrates asked for; it tells us about the struggle between Atlantis and Athens, and we see Athens at her best, the perfect city involved in some struggle, showing off her distinctive qualities. 


In the 21st century there are still numerous enthusiastic believers in Atlantis, surfing the web, dreaming up expeditions, still entranced thousands of years later by Plato’s fiction.  Scholars postulate the origin of this myth, the seed of Plato’s invention; perhaps there was an earthquake in the Aegean that destroyed Minoan civilization; or perhaps the myth transmits ancient rumour of what modern pre-historians teach us, that there was a series of migrations across Africa, as a result of which the oldest ethnic groups were successively displaced to the Azores (the evidence for this is that the inhabitants of the Azores displayed a highly mixed ethnic history, some of the strands of which which no longer exist anywhere else).  Regardless of the exact source of the story that served as Plato’s seed, all Plato would have had was the seed; the rest of the story, roots, trunk, branches and leaves were all his creation. 


                        It seems we are missing Hermocrates’ input; we never hear his speech.  Some scholars imagine that the work is an unfinished trilogy.  Is this to say that Plato didn’t know how to finish his story?  Ridiculous!  Plato never wrote any fragmentary or unpolished pieces, claimed Prof. Hutchinson.  Like Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War , which ends in an evidently fragmentary way (<in 411, Tissaphernes> “went first to Ephesus where he sacrificed to Artemis … ”), Plato’s Timaeus/Critias trails off into silence.  Thucydides got stuck at the year 411 because he died before finishing his book; but Plato’s Critias does not end at just any old place or in just any old way.  It ends at the (Pythagorean) centre of the universe, with the greatest deity setting in motion the greatest epic the world has ever known.  The “…” at the end of the Timaeus/Critias is not a mere trailing off of an unfinished work but rather a pregnant introduction to an epic like the Iliad.  Imagine it on the billboards: the Atlantid, an full colour action flick featuring Athens!  Zeus could see his great people of Atlantis becoming corrupt and so he decided to punish them with war, so “he called all the gods to their most honoured abode, which stands at the middle of the universe and looks down upon all that have a share in generation.  And when he had gathered them together, he said … ” (Critias 121c).  Plato does not continue because it would be impossible to finish such an epic in the context of the work which he has started to write.  And that is a general truth about history: it must always remain unfinished. 


Similarly, at 10a Critias promises to study the various peoples of the known world, the enterprise that Herodotus had set himself in his History, and he says he will start with Athens and go through all the other Greek and foreign cities.  This is evidently an impossible task.  Plato leaves the detailed working out of anthropology and ethnology as an exercise for the readers.  His task is to show the fundamental physical and cosmological and theological structures and constraints of the material world, and to make the point that any valid historical science must establish its foundations on theories such as Timaeus offers us, though without complete confidence, it being only a “likely story.”


The Timaeus has a very curious literary structure and is one of the strangest of all Plato’s dialogues, especially in its beginnings and endings: there are mysteries (the case of the missing Plato, the unfinished ending) at beginning and end, and there are invocations to the gods and prayers in the scientific speeches of Timaeus and Critias.  At the end of the speech of Timaeus, we see a rousing conclusion and an implausibly huge claim: “And so now we may say that our account of the universe has reached its conclusion.  This world of ours has received and teems with living things, mortal and immortal.  A visible living thing containging visible ones, perceptible god, image of the intelligible Living Thing, its grandness, goodness, beauty, and perfection are unxcelled.  Our one universe, indeed the only one of its kind, has come to be” (Timaeus 92c). 


In the fourth century Aristotle took up an entire career-long research project based on the Timaeus and in the middle ages, upon rediscovery, it presented the first glimpse of the ancient sciences and started off mediaeval cosmology.  In fact, the Timaeus was the most widely read book of the Middle Ages after the Bible.  (However, the Timaeus did not influence the writing of the bible, as it was written after the Old Testament.)  The influence of Timaeus on the Stoics is also highly important because they worked to re-interpret Plato in view of all of the subsequent advances in 4th century science, from which they were able to profit. 


                        One after another of the theses in the Timaeus has been falsified up to the present when we have decided it’s pretty much all wrong.  We now ‘know’ the truth about these subjects and with such confidence that we teach them to five-year-olds.  This is not to say that Plato was not brilliant.  There are three fundamental ideas that he got right.  First, all science is historical, even physics, if we believe in creation.  Second, all knowledge is part of a universal set; we must know about everything to understand anything because it is all so interconnected.  Third, Plato showed that at the deepest level material substance must be understood through mathematics; there is a level of explanation for which no other science suffices.  (Meanwhile students chuckle because the chalkboard behind the professor’s head is littered with geometrical depictions of molecules.)  Unfortunately, Plato could not translate these ideas into useful theories; he reached further than he could grasp – so what?  His theories are offered with modesty and caution, he stresses that we only grasp things of this sort uncertainly.


                        If your friends ask you whether you learned anything today in philosophy class, answer, ‘have you thought lately about why you have a neck, shoulders and etc.?  If you didn’t have these things, your head would get stuck in all the holes!’  The function of the body is to elevate the head, says Plato. 


The head is a sphere because this is the shape of the soul.  In the words of the writer of last Friday’s minutes, the Epicureans encourage us to “party well before our turntables are unplugged by the icy hand of death.”  Plato might disagree with the partying, but spinning turntables are an apt analogy for the circular motions of life, knowledge and the soul.  Circles, spheres and discs are the only forms and rotations, and revolutions are the only motions, that are both eternal and limited; since they are unchanging and yet self-contained, endless and defined, they connect the world of being and becoming.  The human head is a sphere because it contains the wisest and most highly functioning soul, whereas the head of a fox contains the soul of a twisted human locked, because of some sin in the previous life, into this pointy skull.