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Topic #D39

Plato , Timaeus 41a ++



7 December 2001

Scribe: Stefano Oliverio


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


The lecture began with the mention of ridiculous things that are sometimes found in the dialogues pf Plato.  Moreover, it was also mentioned how the Timaeus/Critias seems to be a deliberately unfinished piece of work by Plato.  Plato had left the Laws accidentally unfinished because of his death and it was then left to colleagues in the Academy to complete, probably Philip of Opus.  It is a theory of Professor Hutchinson that the Critias, another one of Plato’s dialogues, was deliberately unfinished and this, along with the Timaeus, forms one work, with a paradoxical beginning, possibly with Pythagorean connotations: “One, two, three … Where’s number four, Timaeus?”  It also has an apparently truncated or unfinished ending, possibly also with Pythagorean connotations: “To this end he <sc. Zeus> called all the gods to their most honored abode, which stands at the middle of the universe and looks down upon all that has a share in generation.  And when he had gathered them together, he said, … ”   


The focus of the lecture then moved to addressing an issue raised by one of the students in the form of a position paper, the issue of the passage of time.  The concept discussed was that the past and future shouldn’t be used to describe things that are always there, these things must always exist.  Time is slippery and fleeting and one cannot grasp the present because it is always fleeting, now depends on context and is contingent depending on what conditions ones speaks of, such as time of day, or time of year.  The concept of now is, therefore, an indefinite concept, and is always variable according to the process that is used to evaluate it.  Now can be wider or smaller because of its indefinite position and definition.  Some could argue that we are neither in the present, past, or future and if we are not, we are nowhere.  Things mutate in time and must be known in present and if present time is slippery it is difficult to understand the true knowledge of things.


                        The themes in the Timaeus look forward to Aristotle and look back to Plato.  The creation story of Plato is dynamically different from that of the Christian faith.  The most distinct distinguishing feature of the two is that God in the Christian faith is a separate being and his creations are therefore separate from himself.  Plato’s gods are created by a creator and this creator is the world or universe itself, a creator that is eternal and will not pass away, hence the world itself is a living God.  Humans are part of the living god or world, in this spiritual matter and the universe as a whole is divine, humans participate in this.  This is essentially a Stoic thought, where in humans should worship the universe.


                        Human beings have round heads and vehicles for bodies, and this is significantly different in comparison to the universe or supreme god of Plato.  The universe, according to Plato, has a totally round shape and is uniform and consists of an equal distance in all directions.  It has no eyes, ears, or organs of digestion and it does not need hands or feet.  The God of  ?? has only the property of motion, or rotation in space, however the god of Plato also has a soul.  Plato believed that the spinning of spheres made harmony and music.  This thought was not all together his own as he adopted it from the Pythagoreans, who believed that the constructed spheres of the world were in harmony.  This supreme divine being of Plato, one that assumes the form of the universe and consequently the supreme creator, is a difficult concept to understand.  Plato wants to provide a model for the universe, incorporating sun, moon, stars, however a model for the cognition of the universe is difficult to wrap one’s mind around, especially for a Christian who of necessity must believe in a God independent of his creation universe.


                        Plato then describes how his supreme God, the universe, comes to know things and acquire its knowledge.  As an explanation to this Plato asserts that the god understands things the same way humans do, however in a more sophisticated and advanced way than humans.  This is because, even though the universe and human beings are composed of the same matter, human beings are much less perfect than the creator or universe.  This is because humans were not the creation of the supreme creator, but creations of subordinate gods, which are less perfect than the universe, making humans imperfect in nature.  Humans were made of scraps, not constructed perfectly like the universe and its creations, even though human beings were created to emulate the creator.   According to Plato, humans were created by secondary gods that were the creation of the supreme god or creator and therefore they are not perfect, hence their creation humans cannot be perfect either because they lack the skill and ability to create perfection because it is not in their essence.  Therefore, humans can never aspire to be perfect because we are imperfect by nature.  However, it is the duty of every human to aspire to be like the gods even if we can never realistically be perfect.  Original imperfection is compared to original sin and constitutes an initial and original flaw in the construction of human beings, this consequently causes the nature of humans to be imperfect.  Humans were not made of fresh and perfect materials, but leftovers and scraps, the caused their imperfection.  This can be demonstrated in the Timaeus at 41D, in which left over ingredients in a dirty bowl are used to metaphorically represent the imperfect creation of humans with left over ingredients. 


                        Inherent in the nature of human beings is imperfection and therefore, human beings can imitate their creator, but never exactly.  This is the theory of Plato, in which also asserts that the secondary subsidiary gods that are created by the creator are flawed as well, not as much as humans, however not as perfect as the creator, preventing them from emulating the creator exactly.  What constitutes the flaw in human beings is that the soul is submersed in the body.  This constitutes a flaw because the body is imperfect and the soul is perfect and therefore the body acts as a prison of sorts restricting the soul from truly participating in perfection.  The body negatively affects the soul and is the cause of our imperfect actions and perceptions. 


                        In the Republic Plato struggles with the notion that people have different stations in life and receive these stations according to their ability.  On the most part however, men receive higher positions or professions than women.  This whole notion of people receiving positions in society based on their ability seems generally unfair and this is why Plato struggles with it.  Questions arise, such as “Why should someone be poor and unsuccessful and another rich and prosperous”?  Plato attempts to answer this question by suggesting that the fate of every individual is indefinite and based on his own actions.  Moreover, he infers that failure is the effect of ones own cause and failure constitutes the punishment of the wrongful actions performed by human beings.  It is also important to mention that Plato believed in re-incarnation.


                        This story attempts to show how the development of people occurs as they age.  Children are always confused when they are born and as they age their inner gyroscope refines itself and consequently people become smarter and with more accurate ideas as they age.  This gyroscope metaphor is one used by Plato to represent the human mind and with this he takes the model further in asserting that once the gyroscope gets moving in its proper momentum, it is difficult to steer it off coarse.  Plato here essentially uses a model of science and applies it to the human mind, a trend which still occurs presently wherein people use the example of a computer to represent the human mind. 


                        At 69 Plato discusses the shape of the human body and the purpose and function of why it is shaped the way it is.  The head is necessary because it contains and protects the mind.  Further, the shape of the body is as it is in order to be able to sufficiently carry the head around.  The composition of every human being includes two components; the perfect component soul and the other the imperfect component body, which is responsible for such effects as disease, sexual desire, respiration, hunger, fatigue exc.  Moreover, the body also acts as a hindrance on the soul’s ability to participate in perfection.


At the end of this story occurs one of the strangest remarks.  It has already been mentioned that Plato believed in re-incarnation and furthermore this can be used as a punishment to one that lived a wrongful life, in that their next life will be one that is worse than the one they lived previously.  Plato, in accordance with his theory, asserts that a man who has lived a wrongful life will receive as a punishment his next life to be lived out as a woman.  This will happen if a man is cowardly and unjust in his previous life.  He further suggests that a women who lives an unjust live will be a bird in her subsequent life.  To conclude the lecture a position paper, written by one of the students, was discussed by Professor Hutchinson.  This paper was arguing the adequacy of women and how they are just as capable as men in regard to intellectual activity and furthermore, how it is incorrect of Plato to suggest that a man reincarnated as a women in a later life to be a form of punishment for a previous life of vice.