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Topic #D39


Plato , Timaeus 41a ++


7 December 2001
Scribe: Nikola Danaylov


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


We started last year’s last lecture by a few comments made by Prof. Hutchinson on the dialogue Critias.  Critias, said the professor, was meant to look unfinished.  It is a sort of position paper on the passage of time.  In it, we can see the idea that Past and Future are just forms of time and therefore we shouldn’t use them to describe permanent things that are always there.  In the dialogue Critias agrees with Timaeus that the Present is a slippery concept.  Then he needs a context to let us know how wide a Present is being referred to by him.  The professor asked: “What is the philosophical context?”  For the author, now is a gate between Past and Present – vanishingly present.  We are neither in the Present nor the Past or the Future.  There is something wrong with knowing things in mutating time – knowledge is flicking in and out of validity. 


In Parmenides and Protagoras Plato argues that true reality is timeless.  Thus being in time creates a number of paradoxes.  In some of the discussing passages Plato looks forward to Aristotle and backward to the Pre-Socratics. 


Then Prof. Hutchinson turned our attention to the dialogue Timaeus.  This dialogue is a creation story but it is different from Jewish or Christian tradition.  In Timaeus a Creator creates Gods and the Universe.  Here, Hutchinson remarked that this is an unstable position because it consists of a paradox: the gods are neither eternal nor mortal; yet surely  things are either eternal or they come and go.  Thus Plato’s position is somewhat unclear and unstable.  For Plato the world came and will be forever.  It (the world) is one living God.  This is a leading thought in Stoic Philosophy.  Aristotle however rejects it and says that the world is divine and since we participate in it we should celebrate that we live, an idea developed further by the cyreneaic and epicurean schools of philosophy. 


In 33a-b Plato depicts the whole creation of the universe.  He claims that the world is round like a sphere and has no eyes, no ears, no hands or any other organs.  It needs no legs to follow its circular motion and it is perfectly self-sufficient.  Further on, in 36a, we reach some of the hardest passages in the text.  There we see a group of strange numbers such as 3/2; 4/3 and 9/8 that are intervals or proportions of spheres.  For Plato, spheres make music but we just do not hear it.  This idea is based on traditional Pythagorean harmonic theory within which Same/Different/Being are main concepts. 


Plato’s model for the universe is one that allows for the possibility of cognition or knowledge.  This is radically different from Christianity, Islam and other religions.  Then Hutchinson said that Xenophanes argued that all around us is one God who knows and feels all things.  However, more relevant perhaps to us is how we come to know things or how the universe comes to know things -- and there are similarities between macro and microcosm. Our cognitive understanding is principally analogous to that of the universe.  This is the similarity between us and the universe. 


The difference is the following: 1. We are not created by the creator.  2. We were created by the leftovers.  Therefore we are less perfect.  A student then asked how we can aspire to perfection if we are built imperfect.  Prof. Hutchinson answered that Plato believed that it is possible to do so but only up to a certain point – there is a limit of our reach to perfection.  The idea that we are imperfect may be found in Christianity.  However, for Plato the reason is flow in the original construction whereas in the bible it is the original sin. 


Then another student asked how it is possible that a perfect creator can create imperfect beings such as us.  Prof. Hutchinson repeated the two above mentioned reasons that: First, we were made of inferior materials. Second, the creator assigned this job to his subsidiary body.  References to support this claim may be found in 41d.  The story is that the subsidiary Gods are the creators of our body and soul and thus created humans as compound persons.  This has serious consequences and is the main reason for most things that are wrong with us.


Then a student asked if the creator told the other Gods to create us and Prof. Hutchinson replied “Yes” and quoted from 41 d:


“The rest of the task is yours.  Weave what is mortal to what is immortal, fashion and beget living things.  Give them food, cause them to grow, and when they perish, receive them back again.” 


According to Plato after death the human soul is reborn again.  It can be reincarnated in a number of different species.  Male and female, and all the brute animals are all just classes or stations – shapes that our soul may attain after it is reborn.  But since this system is unjust and unreasonable Plato has to find a way to make it possible for people to deserve to descend to lower states of existence and that is why he says that it is up to them and depends on their own actions.  Therefore creating human misery is a result of human failure and not Gods’ failure.  Thus Plato believes that human souls may occupy other bodies and reincarnate. Prof. Hutchinson said that for more reference to that idea we may look at 37+; 41+.


Then Hutchinson turned our attention to the question of foolishness of children.  Plato argues that when a child is born it has a bad gyroscope.  In time, that gyroscope is gradually tuned up and the person gets more and more knowledgeable.  Prof. Hutchinson remarked that the gyroscope is a fourth century invention.  Thus Plato utilizes the latest scientific invention of his time and applies it as an analogy of the human mind.  This happens even today with the only difference that the model is different – today our Mind is compared to a personal computer with its chips, circuits and so on.


After skipping a great chunk of the ideas in the dialogue Prof. Hutchinson went to examine paragraph 69 and on that deals with the shape of the body, the bones, sexual desire, well being of the person, etc.  The professor noted that at the end of the dialogue Plato writes one of the strangest remarks.  At 90e he says that if one fails one’s life as a man one will be reborn as a woman.  The degradation then continues through consequent stages of birds, land creatures, sea creatures and shellfish, which, for Plato, is the lowest one. 


Then Prof. Hutchinson read a part of a student’s position paper in which she remarked that Plato’s theory is offensive for women and betrays a bias that women’s souls are doomed to fail.  However, she said that, in contrast to Plato, she will be able to control herself and will not attack Plato’s theory.


The professor then concluded the lecture by quoting from 90c:


“Now there is but one way to care for anything, and that is to provide the nourishment and the motions that are proper to it.  And the motions that have an affinity to the divine part within us are the thoughts and revolutions of the universe.  These, surely, are the ones which each of us should follow.  We should redirect the revolutions in our heads that were thrown off course at our birth, by coming to learn the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, and so bring into conformity with its objects our faculty of understanding, as it was in its original condition.  And when this conformity is complete, we shall have achieved our goal: that most excellent life offered to humankind by the gods, both now and forevermore.”