107. Timaeus by Plato (c.355 BC)

107. Timaeus by Plato (c.355 BC)

Plot:  Following on from his presentation of his model society in The Republic, Socrates now asks those who were present for examples of practical applications of those ideas. Initially Critias tells of a time 9000 years earlier when ancient Athens had such a society (as recorded by the Egyptians, but now forgotten by the Greeks themselves) and fought a war against Atlantis; but before going into detail (which is covered in the next read Critias), Timaeus is asked to set the scene by a description of the creation of the universe and mankind, underlain by divine purpose, which traverses astronomy, atomic physics, psychology and philosophy, anatomy and physiology, and religion. Not bad for an afternoon’s work!

My version is the Penguin Classic translated and introduced by H. D. P. Lee, published 1965.

Key points:  Unlike Plato’s earlier Socratic dialogues, this is more like a long lecture, and Socrates is content to take a back seat and listen. Firstly Timaeus describes the deliberate creation of the universe/world, with its own soul and intelligence, by a God, but notably not the supreme leader of the usual Greek pantheon Zeus. He then describes how this creator used the entirety of all four elements – earth and fire, bound together by air and water, into a perfect physical sphere complete with soul. (The only things which have independent power of movement are living, and living things have souls, therefore heavenly bodies in motion must be living and have souls as there is no evidence of an external force causing them to move)

The distant stars are placed on an outermost ring, (the Same) with the nearer Sun and planets on concentric rings (the Different) closer to the World. All these are gods, the whole creation infused with the Soul – the Same and Different rotating in different directions to allow us a measure of Time – day and night, month and year.

Of living creatures associated with the World, there are four types: gods (those known from traditional Greek mythology, made by the Creator), and birds, water creatures and land creatures. Plants are mentioned later as living, but with souls focused solely on appetite, and the perception of pleasure and pain (!). Mankind are included in the land creatures – made by the lesser gods and with a mixture of mortal (the body) and immortal nature (the soul).

Mankind has a soul placed in a spherical head (modelling the Universe), transported by a body with arms and legs. Daylight combines with the natural fire within the body that shines out of the eyes, to provide a sensation of sight to the soul. At night the lack of daylight renders the visual stream from the eyes ineffective and induces sleep, as the eyelids shut off the flow of the internal fire. And so on… not quite how Professor Orr explained it to us in Biology 100.

This leads to the rudimentary atomic theory using geometric solids formed of various triangles as the particles of the four elements, which can be broken down and transformed into each other or combined with each other e.g. fire and water can be combined in different ways to make wine, honey or acid.

Much of the description of how things work or are composed does make a sort of logical sense, and is often ingenious based on the limited information available at the time. It will be interesting to hear Aristotle’s thoughts on some of this, one generation further on.

The least logical belief is one of “de-evolution” : where the first generation of men who lived weak or cowardly lives were reincarnated as women (Plato’s words, not mine!!) , and then birds or four-legged animals if their thoughts or desires were misplaced, with the basest individuals brought back as sea creatures. Yet it does indicate a belief in every living creature having some fragment of immortal soul.

Favourite lines/passages:

The gods gave mankind sight to allow us to observe the movements of the Heavens, and thereby inquire into the nature of things and become philosophers. Likewise, speech and hearing are for the betterment of the intellect : music is to restore internal harmony, not “irrational pleasure”, while rhythm “was given us from the same heavenly source to help us in the same way, for most of us lack measure and grace”    page 65.

“This we postulate as the origin of fire and the other bodies, our argument combining likelihood and necessity ; their more ultimate origins are known to god and to men whom god loves.”                                                                                                                    page 72

“A man’s genitals are naturally disobedient and self-willed, like a creature that will not listen to reason, and will do anything in their mad lust for possession. Much the same is true of the matrix or womb in women, which is a living creature within them which longs to bear children. And if it is left unfertiised long beyond the normal time, it causes extreme unrest, strays about the body, blocks the channels of the breath and causes in consequence acute distress and disorders of all kinds”                                                                                                                                                                   page 120

Personal rating: Ingenious in its own way. 5/10.

Kimmy’s rating: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz *leg twitch, snort* zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

 Also in that year: Around this time, Rome is busy subduing its neighbours, while Philip II has become King of Macedonia (356 BC). Iron Age technology has reached sub-Saharan Africa.

Next : Critias by Plato.


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