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  • By Peter Kalkavage

Plato’s “Timaeus” and the Will to Order

And whoever thinks another a greater friend than his own fatherland, I say that man is nowhere.

–Sophocles, Antigonê 182-3

The Timaeus is the strangest of Plato’s dialogues. It is so strange that one wonders whether anything in it can be taken seriously. Here conversation and inquiry are suspended, and in their place Plato gives us long speeches that take the form of myths. Socrates for the most part is silent. His silence is like the receptacle we hear about in Timaeus’ speech: it provides the receptive “space” for all the stories and images to come. We hear about Solon among the Egyptians, the lost continent of Atlantis, an Athens grown young and heroic, the musical construction of the soul, and the geometric construction of body. We also hear about ourselves. These are the most bizarre tales the dialogue has to offer—tall tales about our souls and bodies, about how we came to have a sphere-shaped head, a neck and torso, eyes and ears, liver and spleen, bone and flesh, an upright posture; about the manifold diseases that afflict body and soul; about where sex came from, and how birds evolved from feather-brained astronomers. With the Timaeus, even more than with other dialogues, we wonder what in the world Plato is up to. What is the point of all this cosmomania? And why is Socrates silent?

The silence of Socrates in the Timaeus signals the absence and withdrawal of philosophy itself, as Socrates understands it, from the day’s proceedings. In particular, it signals the absence of that erotic striving that draws the philosopher beyond the passing show of mortal opinion to a godlike vision of what eternally is. Plato’s strange drama draws us away from this striving. It directs our attention to a form of thymos or spiritedness that may be called a “will to order.” This will is glorified in the famous likely story of Timaeus. Craftsmanship, rather than contemplation, is the hero of the story. Philosophy in a sense makes an appearance; but it tends to be understood as the mastery of distinct disciplines, the systematic presentation of theories, the building of models, and the solving of problems. It is philosophy made technical and effective—philosophy (if one may call it that) with all the divine madness taken out of it. Plato was so thorough a student of Socrates that he imagined what it would mean to go beyond Socrates—beyond the knowledge of ignorance, the claim not to teach, the treatment of virtue as a perpetual question, and the tension between philosophy and the city. In the Timaeus, Plato seeks to interest us profoundly in one such experiment in going beyond Socrates, an experiment in which the love of wisdom is displaced by the will to order.[1]

The true center of the Timaeus is not its cosmology but the desire of Socrates. This is the motive force behind all the speeches to come. Socrates presents his desire in his longest and most important speech in the dialogue. Yesterday, Socrates gratified the desire of Timaeus, Critias, Hermocrates, and the absent fourth to hear what Socrates thought about the best political order. He did so, he says, because he knew he would then be able to make a demand on them (20B). He knew that those who showed up today would be compelled by justice to pay him back with a “feast of speech”—a feast that would depict the just city in the act of waging war. Socrates expresses his desire through a provocative simile. “My affection,” he says, “seems to be something like this: it’s as if someone who gazed upon beautiful animals somewhere, either produced by the art of painting or truly living but keeping their peace, were to get a desire to gaze upon them moving and contending in some struggle that seemed appropriate to their bodies” (19B-C).

The most striking thing about this desire is its irrationality. Socrates does not say, “And so, now that we’ve looked at the just city at rest, it makes sense to investigate the city in motion.” On the contrary, he portrays himself as a man struck by a passing fancy. It is no thought, no logic that leads to the city in motion but a mere feeling or pathos. The irrationality is heightened by Socrates’ reference to chance: he just happens to feel like this (19B), the way we might just happen to want to go to the movies. Furthermore, the desire for the deeds and words of war seems to spring from thymos or spiritedness, which delights in honor and victory rather than truth. Socrates depicts himself as desiring, not a philosophic account, but an encomium or song of praise. What he seems to want from his hosts is not truth but beautification or flattery. This fits well with the dominant word of the dialogue, kosmos, which means not just order but ornament and beautiful display. It also fits with the name Timaeus, which suggests timê, honor. But why would Socrates, who refuses to put up with the flattery of love in the Symposium, here in the Timaeus compel his hosts to engage in flattery? And how is the cosmology of Timaeus related to such a project?

The Timaeus is the story of a descent into Becoming. It appears to be a sequel to the Republic. In that dialogue, Socrates and Glaucon bring the discussion to its highest point when they take up the question of philosophic education. To reveal the need for such an education, they go down into a cave. Human nature, we are told, dwells in a cavelike condition of ignorance and deception (7.514A). The word for condition in this passage is the same as the one Socrates uses here in the Timaeus to describe himself—pathos, which also means feeling or affection, as well as suffering or affliction. The cave is the place of political orthodoxy or right opinion. The cave dwellers sit in a sort of prenatal position with their gaze forced upon the cave wall. They are enthralled—that is, both fascinated and enslaved—by moving two-dimensional images of three-dimensional artifacts, projected on the wall by the enforcers of the city’s opinions. These projectionists are no doubt the poets, whose art of making deceptive imitations of human excellence binds the souls of the cave-citizens to the city’s beliefs and customs. The prenatal position of the cave people suggests that they are in a kind of womb which paradoxically refuses to give them birth and bring them to light, refuses to let them grow into free and upright beings. To ensure their provincialism, the protective cave-mother keeps them in the dark and charms them with exciting political movies that stir the soul to praise and blame. The potential philosopher seeks freedom from this stultifying, prenatal condition. He is turned around, converted, from Becoming to Being and eventually to the study of the Good. The art of thus turning the soul around, as Socrates describes it, comes from the power of mathematics.[2]

Just as the Republic takes us from Becoming “up” to Being, so the Timaeus brings us back “down”—back to the cave of body, custom, opinion, and change. The dialogue is a grand defense or apologia of Becoming in response to Socrates’ indictment of Becoming in the Republic. The will to plunge from the heights of Being into the depths of Becoming is intimately connected with the will to order, for the turn from Being to Becoming is also the turn from theory or contemplation to practicality and accomplishment. Becoming engages us as practical, productive beings. As children of Becoming, we are caught up in the doing and making of things. We are ambitious, restless beings desirous of both honor and mastery.

Socrates’ hosts, who are praised for their reputation and accomplishment,[3] have an agenda: to make the realm of doing and making look as good as possible. They will try to renovate the cave of Becoming in order to make it more receptive to the intentions and designs of enlightened political craftsmanship. But this political agenda requires a preliminary step: a divine sanction and a basis in the overall scheme of things. The will to order cannot accomplish politically what nature will not let it accomplish in the first place. There must be a predisposition to order. This is where the cosmological myth of Timaeus comes in. Through the power of science and fiction combined, Timaeus will make Becoming stand forth as a kosmos or beautifully ordered Whole. This Whole is not so much discovered by the cosmologist as it is made. Mathematics, here, has a role contrary to the one it had in the Republic. Instead of turning the soul from her fixation with Becoming to the dialectical study of Being, mathematics now supplies the beautifying principles in accordance with which the cave of Becoming can be transformed into an enlightened home for moral correctness, political reform, and scientific research. The adjective kosmios in Greek means decent and well behaved. This is the quality that Timaeus will try to infuse into the world of Becoming. He will try to make the wild world of body and change decent and law-abiding, at least in speech.

The turn from Being to Becoming is, in effect, the undoing of philosophic conversion. This turn is most clearly seen in the character of Critias, the spokesman in the dialogue for nomos or convention. At one point he tells Socrates that the city described on the previous day was in fact a myth, and that he, Critias, will carry over Socrates’ merely theoretical city into what he calls “the truth” (26C7-D3). Critias identifies the truth with Becoming. His extreme vanity regarding his genealogy and his family connections with the great Solon confirms this fact. The ancient Athens Solon hears about from the Egyptian priests is more real than Socrates’ city because it actually existed in a real terrestrial place—so Critias would have us believe. According to the wisdom of Egypt, a wisdom Critias clearly admires, what is older is more real and authoritative than what is younger and more recent. Old ways are best. The oldest things are the most real and true, and the oldest priests are the wisest of all. Truth is a long-standing custom or nomos, and knowledge consists in the oldest hearsay about the oldest things.[4]

The Timaeus is a time machine. It attempts to unearth hidden origins by taking us back to those origins in mythic time. Throughout the dialogue, speech is playfully depicted as generative or originating and, in that sense, thoroughly temporal. Solon’s story takes us back to a forgotten place at a forgotten time. What he hears from the Egyptian priest is about the periodic structure of time itself. Critias, in order to retrieve this story, goes back to the time when he was very young. Timaeus, too, stresses the playfully generative power of speech: he presents the cosmic order, not as it eternally is, but as it came to be “once upon a time.” This temporalization of logos is yet another way in which the Timaeus takes us back to temporal beginnings but not “up” to eternal principles. Instead of recollection, as we hear it described in the Meno, the Timaeus steeps us in the shadow land of memory.

Such is my prelude to the speech of Timaeus. In what follows, we shall explore how this speech embodies the will to order. What is thinking in the likely story? What does it mean to be kosmios, cosmic, in one’s thinking? What is the strength, and the weakness, of such thinking? My attempt to address these questions falls into three parts, which mirror the tripartite order of Timaeus’ speech: The Piety of Physics, Space Dreams, and The Human Condition.

The Piety of Physics

Timaeus introduces the phrase “likely story” in what Socrates calls the prelude or preamble to the speech itself (29D). Socrates reminds Timaeus that he ought to invoke the gods according to nomos or convention. Timaeus agrees that it would be sound-minded or moderate to do so, thereby exhibiting his favorite moral virtue. He adds an invocation that reflects a curious brand of piety. “We must also invoke to hêmeteron,” he says—what comes from, or has to do with, ourselves, our own resources (27D). This self-invocation embodies the will to order that animates the upcoming myth. God, as Timaeus proceeds to say, is a demiurge or craftsman. But a stronger and more daring claim seems to be at work: the claim that productive art, demiurgy, in some sense is our god.

Timaeus begins his prelude by drawing a sharp distinction between Being and Becoming. The strictness of the distinction makes it extremely difficult to understand how a cosmos, as the mixture of Being and Becoming, could ever come about at all. This is typical of Timaeus: he makes hard and fast distinctions and then immediately proceeds to blur them. After thus distinguishing what always is from what always comes to be, Timaeus introduces his famous demiurge. This mythical figure, in whom the will to order is most evident, hovers between the realms of Being and Becoming. The word dêmiourgos means “one who works for the people or dêmos.” It refers to anyone who crafts anything.[5] Now we all delight in a thing well made—a well-made chair, building or piece of music. We love the way everything fits together beautifully, and how a thing well-made is a thing that lasts. In the likely story, Timaeus counts on and seeks to gratify this human delight. He makes the world of nature into a well-made, long-lasting artifact.[6]

The divine craftsman is postulated, willed into being. There is no proof for his existence. The question for Timaeus is not whether there really is such a being but what he was looking at when he made the world: was it a changeable or an unchangeable model? Timaeus at one point expresses skepticism regarding our ability to discover the true poet and father of the world (28C). He makes us suspect that the demiurge is a practical postulate that fills the void of our theological ignorance, that he is not the true god, whom we cannot presume to know, but the god whom decent, intelligent people should believe in if they are to affirm the best of possible worlds. Later we hear that this divine craftsman is good and therefore ungrudging (29E). Unlike the gods of Herodotus, the divine craftsman had no envy: he did not jealously guard his divine prerogative, the flame of artful intelligence, but wished that all things should possess it to the extent that their natures allowed.[7] Artful intelligence, one might say, is always in the mode of generosity. It seeks to bestow itself on the world as a divine gift; it rejoices in seeing itself multiplied, reflected, and embodied. The cosmos comes about, not through chance and necessity, nor through the sex and violence depicted in Hesiod’s Theogony, but through the sober professionalism of technê or art. By presenting god as a generous craftsman, a divine being who works for the common good, Timaeus saves us from making god in the image of a tyrant.

For Timaeus, the world of body and change is made in the likeness of a changeless and purely intelligible archetype or model. Timaeus expresses his preference for a changeless model in pious terms: it would be “not right,” ou themis, that is, blasphemous to say otherwise (29A). Herein lies one reason why the likely story is likely. Likely, eikôs, means “has the character of a likeness.” It also means probable, reasonable, and equitable or fair. Speech for Timaeus imitates the condition of its objects. Accounts of what is abiding and intelligible, he says, “are themselves abiding and unchanging” (29B), while accounts of the nonabiding and changing, accounts of mere likenesses, are afflicted with likelihood. In an echo of the divided line in the Republic, Timaeus says: “just as Being is to Becoming, so is truth to trust” (29C). Likely stories are not put forth for the sake of insight but are a kind of rhetoric. We must be persuaded by them, trust them, and put up with their necessary flaws.

The infirmity of speech about divine origins points to a deeper infirmity—human nature. Timaeus tells Socrates that he must not wonder if many of the things said about the gods and the birth of the All are self-contradictory and imprecise (29C). This is where the phrase “likely story” first appears. Adopting the formal tone of a man accused, Timaeus says:

But if we provide likelihoods inferior to none, one should be well pleased with them, remembering that I who speak as well as you my judges have a human nature, so that it is fitting for us to receive the likely story about these things and not to search further for anything beyond it (29C-D).[8]

This sentence about accepting likely stories points to the connection that physical accounts have, for Timaeus, to both piety and prudence. Timaeus draws a line beyond which prudent human beings should not go in speaking of things divine. But the drawing of this line is not just an admission of infirmity. Rather, it demarcates the realm within which human beings precisely because they are aware of their limitations arid all the contingencies of life, are all the more able to exert their powers of prudent mastery, their will to order. Timaeus’ defense of the inevitable shortcomings of his speech is a not-so-veiled warning against the immoderateness and erotic striving of philosophy. The immoderate questioning of everything, if left to itself, would undermine the controlled play of invention with the unpredictable play of conversation. In the end, it would prevent human nature from being as masterful as it could be. Timaeus thus cautions Socrates against being Socrates, against asking questions and striving to go beyond the boundaries of plausibly established grounds. Socrates must be receptive to, and content with, the likely story about divine origins. If he wants to enjoy his feast, he must mind his manners and act like a gentleman. He must control his striving to be divine and remember that as Timaeus’ harshest judge, he too is, after all, only human.

Socrates is more than happy to accept the terms on which his guest-gift is offered. In the most telling moment of the dialogue, Socrates calls the likely story, not a logos or mythos, not an account or a story, but a nomos (29D). Nomos is both law and song, as well as custom and convention. Timaeus is our singer and legislator for the day. He will entertain us, but he will also lay down the law. His logos is a form of music. It sings of Nature as both a divine Artifact and a divinely established nomos or Convention. It celebrates the prudent founding of the cosmic regime and invites us to join in by following all the mathematical constructions. Long before Critias gives man his Athenian citizenship in the dialogue, the physics of Timaeus will make us dutiful citizens of the world at large—good cosmopolitans.

The world for Timaeus is both image and god.[9] This is his central teaching. Unlike the images put forth by Socrates, the cosmic image does not point beyond itself. If it did so, it would cease to be a god. In the divided line, Socrates revealed the power of what he calls eikasia, imagination. It was at the bottom of the line and served as the foundation for the whole line. This is the power of recognizing images as images, likenesses as likenesses.[10] It is the power by which we are able to make our ascent up the line. In the upper, intelligible portion of the line, eikasia is the power by which we move from hypotheses to non-hypothetical archai or principles. This power is absent in the Timaeus, where we have plenty of image making and imitation but no image recognition as such, at least not the sort of image recognition by which the soul is enabled to move from images to their intelligible originals. To be sure, the world of Timaeus is full of images. But these are all internal to the cosmos, all within the realm of Becoming. Images here do not transcend themselves, even though they are crafted in the likeness of intelligible originals. This seems to be the direct result of the fact that they are artificial: art, whether human or divine, conceals its foundations in order to build on them. The original points “down” to the image; but the image does not point back “up” to the original. Mathematics is no longer the prelude to “the song of dialectic,” as it was in the Republic,[11] and the eidê seem to be necessary only in the way that a lifeless blueprint guides and points ahead to the actual building. Furthermore, when Timaeus first appeals to the intelligible model, he does so for the sake of beauty and stability rather than truth (28A-B). The model is postulated so that the cosmic edifice will be secure and beautifully built—not so that the human soul, by reflecting on the heavens, might be drawn to the super-heavenly beings that are beyond all hypothesis.

The construction of the cosmic soul is the most impressive architectural feat of Timaeus’ first account of origins. The soul is made out of music—a scale that stretches four octaves and a major sixth in Pythagorean tuning. This act of scale building is the most revealing instance of the will to order and of what cosmic thinking means for Timaeus. Cosmic thinking is productive and practical rather than theoretical. It makes sturdy and beautiful wholes out of beautiful parts by negotiating its way through technical difficulties. Here the divine craftsman takes the beautiful ratios of the Pythagoreans and finds a way of fitting them together in a coherent whole. He then bends his diatonic pattern into circles and makes the orbits for the Sun, Moon, and planets. These outwardly appearing circles are then mythically presented as the inward revolutions of discursive thought, dianoia.

But before he does any of this, the craftsman first makes a kind of intelligible dough out of the forms of Being, Same, and Other, and kneads them into “one entire look.” He must use force or violence, since Other is loath to mix with Same (35A-B). Here we have the most obvious example of the will to order in the dialogue. Same and Other, as Timaeus understands them, have no natural togetherness. He denies them the dialectical interweaving and participation in one another’s natures that we hear about in the Sophist (253A). Same and Other are simply separate ingredients, like Being and Becoming. Force is required to get them to mix. The result is not an intelligible unity but a highly useful blur. It is as though Timaeus wanted to convince us of the impossibility of ever understanding the world dialectically so that he could get on with the more productive task of flattering the world with mathematical constructs. He raises a dialectical problem only to bury it with art.

At several pivotal moments in his speech, Timaeus reminds us that the cosmos is a god. The god who made the world, in other words, bestows his divinity on the world. Physical science, especially astronomy, thus becomes the truest form of piety. Strictly speaking, astronomy, like scale building, is not theoretical for Timaeus but is a form of praxis. This praxis supplies medicine and therapy for the human soul. In our heads are housed the divine circuits of Same and Other (44D). These are the circuits of sound judgement of phronêsis, the circuits that govern a morally healthy life. But once they are immersed in the sea of Becoming and given mortal birth, they become deformed and we grow abysmally ignorant and disordered. (Witness the behavior of babies.) Before our birth as mortal beings, we dwelled with the gods, whose happy life consisted in regularity, symmetry, and perpetual health. This divinely healthy life Timaeus calls the form, eidos, of our “first and best condition” (42D). Astronomy is thus the great human homecoming, the happy return to our heavenly origins. It is also the medicine by which we correct and stabilize what Timaeus calls “the wander-stricken circuits in ourselves” (47C).[12]

The piety, moderation, and lawfulness of Timaeus set him at odds with erôs is evident throughout the dialogue. Erôs, as it is described in the Symposium, is a yearning for that which one lacks, and Timaeus cannot abide lack. He is driven to structural perfection, completeness, and mastery. Timaeus is always filling things up. We see him filling up the part of a missing fourth at the very beginning (17A-B), filling up the musical intervals of octave and perfect fourth (35C ff.), rejecting the existence of a void (80C), and filling our ignorant souls with scientific explanations designed to dispel our wonder and cure our perplexity (80B-C). He is careful to make the cosmos into a nonerotic animal, an animal that feels no lack. If the cosmos is to be a “happy god,” as he calls it (34B), then it must be complete and autonomous or self-related. Timaeus bestows on it the shape of a sphere to ensure this result (33A ff.). As a sphere, the god Cosmos neither needs nor fears anything whatsoever outside itself. It has no arms, no legs, no sense organs, none of the things we humans have that remind us of our condition of dependence and vulnerability.[13]

This happy lack in the cosmic body is mirrored in what is said about the cosmic soul—the best of all begotten things (37A). The life of this soul consists in thinking. This is not philosophic contemplation but the condition of unending, unerring sensibleness or right judgement. This judgement is mythically depicted as the inward circling of thought. Happiness, for Timaeus, is really healthiness, and the healthy process and condition of thinking are, in the end, more important than what thinking is ultimately about. If there is any pleasure in the soul’s life of perpetual sensibleness, it must be the pleasure of being constantly busy gathering information. She has no leisure. Soul is the thought-energy of the world—always knowing what is going on everywhere and always reporting to herself what she finds. She is like the Egyptian priests described in Solon’s account, and her truth, like theirs, is really factual correctness. In the complex description that Timaeus gives of the soul’s intellectual activity, he avoids the metaphor of seeing. Seeing suggests the possibility of arousal and the pleasure we take in simply beholding the objects of desire. The dominant metaphor instead is that of touch, which is more amenable to a mechanical and physiological view of thinking. This absence of seeing in the cosmic soul stands in marked contrast with what we hear in the myths of the Phaedo and Phaedrus, where the soul’s ultimate joy consists in the leisured and ecstatic vision of eternal truth.

Seeing is honored in the likely story. Without our vision of the starry motions, we would never have discovered the arts of arithmetic and astronomy (47A-B). But this seeing inspires thoughts of duty rather than of love. Indeed, the stars themselves move in circles for Timaeus not, as Aristotle suggests in the Metaphysics, because they are in love with the divine intellect,[14] but because it is their assigned duty to do so. Their prompting comes from piety toward a father rather than desire for a beloved. In beholding the starry motions, we indeed behold beauty. The function of this beauty, however, is not to entice or arouse but to rectify. The glory of seeing, for Timaeus, is that it leads, ultimately, to the highest form of touch: the being in touch with our better, starry selves. To think cosmically is to align our souls with the authority and will of the heavens, especially with the all-mastering circle of the Same (36C-D). In such a world as this, to think is not to see but to obey—to obey, that is, the masterful motions of our own souls projected onto the starry sky.

Space Dreams

The Timaeus is not just about order; it is also about disorder. Plato makes disorder a rich and interesting topic. It even acquires a certain dignity in the likely story. Disorder comes from chance or what Timaeus also calls “necessity” (47E) and “the wandering cause” (48A). This cause is present from the very beginning of the dialogue when a fourth flied to show up according to plan. Timaeus, in his very first likely story of the dialogue, asks Socrates to believe that the mysterious fourth was absent because he came down with something, that his absence was the work of chance and necessity rather than choice. Chance and necessity are also present in the best city that Socrates summarizes. Try as the city may to vanquish disorder and keep people in their proper classes, the unpredictable sway of erôs and sexual generation messes things up (19A).[15] The city can maintain its good order only by a constant and hard to imagine redistribution of human types.[16]

But necessity is not just the spoiler of the best-laid plans. It is also the other great cause, without which the cosmos could never have been made. This is its dignity. Just as artful intelligence is the cause of the good and the beautiful, so necessity is the cause of power and effectiveness. At a pivotal moment in the likely story, Timaeus says: “For mixed indeed was the birth of this cosmos here, and begotten from a standing-together of necessity and intellect” (47E-48A). He goes on to tell us that the world came about through the persuasion of necessity by intellect. The world, in short, originated in a grand piece of rhetoric. Presumably, this rhetoric goes on continually, as the realm of efficient causes constantly cooperates, for the most part, with that of final causes. It is hard to see what Timaeus means by “persuasion” here. Nevertheless, a direct consequence of the image is that it reminds us that intellect and necessity are two fundamentally different and opposed orders of causality. Even as it yields to thoughtful persuasion, necessity retains its right to do as it pleases. Timaeus thus saves the phenomenon of unpredictability.

In this second founding of the cosmos, Timaeus is at pains to make Becoming sound as perplexing as possible. Becoming is the realm of unstable and illusory appearance.[17] Earth, air, fire, and water all appear to be constantly changing into each other. They cannot be called elements at all, since they lack integrity and steadfastness. To use Timaeus’ language here, you can never accuse fire of being a “this,” since, no sooner do you call it “this,” fire, than it changes into “that,” air. It is always escaping the indictment of stability (49E). The legitimate name for any of the elements is therefore not “this” but “suchlike” or “of this sort” (49B-50A).[18] The assumption of radical flux leads Timaeus to postulate the existence of a mysterious “in which” that is prior to body and is the abiding and underlying substrate of change. In the language of Spinoza, this “in which” is the enduring substance of which earth, air, fire and water (not to mention their composites) are but passing modes. It is not really a thing at all but a force field, the medium not of determinate things but of tensions and resolutions—the field of things happening. Just as the soul seems to be the world’s thought-energy, the receptacle seems to be its body energy, energy that somehow remains self-same and “conserved” even as it assumes a variety of forms.

Timaeus has many names for this field of dynamic qualities that underlies and causes change. He calls it a receptacle and wet nurse (49A, 52D), a mold (50C), and a mother of Becoming (52D). It is simultaneously the unpredictable cause of motion and the indeterminate ground of imaging. Art and nature are continually blended in the likely story. Here this uneasy blend—one of Timaeus’ many blurrings—is especially prominent. On the one hand, Timaeus likens the receptacle to gold, which is constantly being worked into different geometric shapes by a tireless goldsmith (50A-B). The curious image reminds us of Timaeus’ fascination with ornament: even the matter out of which a cosmos is made must be thought of as artistic and golden—a beautiful medium just begging for a craftsman. On the other hand, the receptacle is clearly biological or natural—not an artificial “it” but a living “she,” the cosmic womb and mother who gives birth to the four kinds and keeps them in motion. The elusive receptacle is not a merely passive substrate for form but a never-failing process that somehow differentiates itself spontaneously or from within, like the morphogenesis we witness in living things. If the receptacle is body-energy, it also seems to be life-energy. That is, the receptacle seems to correspond to a certain primordial understanding of soul.

In spite of Timaeus’ attempt to bring space down to earth through humble similes like winnowing baskets (52E) and the manufacture of perfumes (50E), the parts of his account are obscure at best and don’t seem to fit together. The incoherence seems to reflect the elusive character of space itself. For example, space, chôra, not only gives all things place; it also dislodges them from their place (52E-53A). Space, we are told, is like an instrument that causes shaking (53A). It is the underlying cause of all the circulation and turbulence in the mortal realm. It governs everything from vibrating strings to the circulation of the blood to earthquakes. We experience this turbulence in the constant flow of our bodies and in the passion of our souls. We also witness it; or rather hear about it, in the rise and fall, the flowering and ruin, of cities and even whole civilizations. The cycles of birth and death recorded by the Egyptians are all due to the sway of space, and so are the fates of legendary Atlantis and Plato’s contemporary Athens.

But the most interesting thing Timaeus says about space has to do with dreams. Space is neither purely intelligible nor purely sensible. It is “graspable by some bastard reasoning with the aid of insensibility, hardly to be trusted, the very thing we look to when we dream and affirm that it’s somehow necessary for everything that is to be in some region and occupy some space, and that what is neither on earth nor somewhere in heaven, is nothing” (52A-B). This amazing description of space reminds us of Critias, who claimed to make Socrates’ city real by giving it place—Athenian place. If the chôra is, as Timaeus’ description seems to indicate, a seductive Siren who bewitches us into thinking that to be is to be spatial, then Critias appears to be her adoring slave and victim, her “space man.” The dream-inducing power of space reminds us of the cave-mother of the Republic. Space is the cosmic counterpart and ground of our cave-condition. It is the prepolitical, natural ground of our susceptibility to political indoctrination and of our unreflective rootedness in a political place.

Critias first heard the story about Athens and Atlantis during the festival of Apaturia (21A-13). On this day, Athenian boys were initiated into their tribe as a preparation for full-fledged citizenship.[19] The ceremony involved the singing of songs. Critias remembers singing the songs of Solon, which were new at the time. Through the festival that Critias nostalgically recalls, Plato draws our attention to the very moment in time when, through songs that are also laws, young prepolitical souls are planted in the soil and chôra of the motherland. The word Apaturia derives from the word patêr, father. But it also suggests the word apatê, deception, thus suggesting a dark side to this heart-warming event. In being welcomed into the fold of tribe and city, the nascent citizens are nourished on the nomoi. These laws and customs are made sweet through song and are thus magically transformed into sentiments. The laws and customs will, from this moment on, give the children eyes to see with and ears to hear with. As dyed-in-the-wool citizens, they will be incapable of seeing and hearing anything else, anything outside the boundaries of their protective “space.” Convention will be their wisdom.

Earlier, I suggested that eikasia, image recognition, is not present in the Timaeus. Here in the receptacle we have the sort of imagination that is present. The cosmic space that is the ground of body seems, at another level, to be the inner “space” of imagining—the phantasia of our souls. This is the faculty that does not recognize images as images but rather makes images and welcomes them unquestioningly. According to this inner sense, the receptacle is our phantasia writ large and made into a cosmic cause. When Socrates expressed his desire for animals in motion, he seemed to speak from within this very faculty. His irrational receptivity to the speeches of his hosts, the pathos that he seems to have contracted, is a playful imitation of our all-too-human susceptibility to exciting images. It is the susceptibility that allows us to be entertained and kept in the cave.

Timaeus calls attention to the fact that space is like a dream-inducing drug. He also makes it clear that he posits the existence of what he calls “the unsleeping and truly subsisting nature” (52B). Presumably this refers to Being and the realm of the eidê of the four elements. Timaeus at one point “casts his vote” for such beings (51D). But as we saw earlier, it is not Timaeus’ intention to use cosmic images to wake us up from our space dreams so that we might transcend the cosmos through dialectic. Likely stories employ the hypothesis of the forms in order to involve us, safely and entertainingly, in the dangerous realm of body and Becoming. They are the dreams of a sly and healthy soul. Having alerted us to the fact of deception, to the poetic sophistry of space, Timaeus proceeds to manufacture deceptive dreams of his own. These are the beautiful mathematical dreams that invite us to imagine the four elements of body, four beautiful animals in motion, as though they were four regular geometric solids.

Along with the construction of soul out of musical ratios, the construction of body out of geometrical figures is a paradigm of what cosmic thinking means for Timaeus. The demiurge is virtually absent here, and so the ingenious model building arises completely from what has to do with us and our will to order. The whole account is playfully deceptive—a grand piece of poetic sophistry, in which image-making is promiscuously fused with argument, mythos with logos. The sophistry of geometrical physics reminds us of what Timaeus had earlier called bastard or illegitimate reasoning. And the poetry or phantasia that plays the guardian to this reasoning reminds us of what he had called insensibility. Timaeus would have us believe that geometric solidity or three-dimensionality can explain the properties of physically solid bodies. Like Descartes, he attempts to explain body in terms of extension. The questionable nature of this project is underscored by Timaeus himself, who calls on “god the savior to grant us safe passage out of a strange and unusual narration to the decree based on likelihoods” (48D).

Like his mythic goldsmith, Timaeus schematizes space with geometrical shapes. First, he selects the regular solids as archetypes for the four elements of body. He does so on the grounds that they are “the most beautiful bodies” (53D). Truth seems not to be at issue, unless “is true” means nothing more than “beautifully fits the appearances.” Next, he fits together or “harmonizes” the geometric solids by constructing their faces and assembling them through a kind of cut-and-paste method. The construction here is very childlike and unsophisticated. Finally, he assigns each solid to the elemental body or kind that seems to be most like it: the cube to earth, the pyramid to fire, the octahedron to air, and the icosahedron to water. This account of body renovates and beautifies our imagination of change. Change, the drunken spree of appearance, is now the elegant rearrangement of structural parts. Dionysus, it seems, has been persuaded to accept the sober gifts of Apollo. As for the dodecahedron, the god, we are told, used it to make panels for decorating the sky with animals, presumably the animal figures of the zodiac and the various constellations (55C). The apparently off-hand explanation actually reveals the point of all that has gone before: the regular solids are a kind of jewelry that beautifies and flatters the world. The mathematization of body and change makes nature more presentable and more pleasantly thinkable for decent-minded human beings. In his Crisis of European Sciences, Husserl refers to what he calls the “garb of ideas,” with which modern mathematical physics dresses up nature, covers its naked truth, with the formal attire of constructs and symbols.[20] Timaeus is doing consciously and deliberately what Husserl says the modern physicist does for the most part unconsciously. He is covering up nature with a gorgeous dress of ratios and geometric figures.

Through Timaeus’ playful, ceremonial act of dressing up the world, Plato entertains us with a new kind of physics—a mythematical physics. The properties and behavior of fire, for example, are now traced to geometric causes. Why is fire hot? Why does it burn? Why, because it is a pyramid, and pyramids have sharp angles and keenly cutting sides (56E-57A). Why is earth resistant to change and motion? Why, because it is a cube, and the isosceles triangles out of which a cube’s square faces are composed are not capable of being redistributed to form the equilateral triangular faces of the other solids. Furthermore, a triangular base makes an object easy to tip, and a square base makes it harder to budge. Cause here is completely analogical. To explain body, for Timaeus, is to build geometric models for body that function as beguiling analogies. Perhaps it is more correct to call them metaphors, since the noble sophistry at work here consists in identifying physical body with its geometric analogue, that is, in blurring the distinction between the model and that of which it is the model. This is what Critias says he will do with Socrates’ theoretical city: He will establish a beguiling correspondence and harmony between that city and ancient Athens (26C-D)—a correspondence that will be so exact that one would swear that the two cities were one and the same. Socrates’ desire was, at bottom, to be entertained by deceptive, life-like images that blur the distinction between the real and the fabricated: the animals in motion he wanted to see and hear about could be either “truly living” or “produced by the art of painting.” Timaeus and Critias enact a will to order that provides Socrates with just such entertainment.

Like astronomy, physics for Timaeus has a practical function. Becoming is not just something we contemplate and want to get to the bottom of. It is also our life-sustaining world, the cosmic source of our coming to be and passing away. We are the children of Becoming and must speak appropriately about our cosmic mother. In speaking rightly of the cosmos in general, Timaeus attempts to give physical science a moral defense and reason for being. In fact, his physics seems to be a direct response to Socrates’ youthful disenchantment with physics in the Phaedo. Timaeus does what Anaxagoras had failed to do—present the phenomena of change in terms of a best of possible worlds. He re-enchants the world with intelligence, moral purpose, and a kind of piety. Mathematical physics, quite apart from whether or not it reveals nature itself as mathematical, acquires its truest vocation in making us dutiful sons of the cosmic order. In addition, it soothes our serious and turbulent lives with a decorous distraction and provides what Timaeus calls “a pleasure not to be repented of” (59C-D).

The likely story teaches us how to sing noble songs of change. These songs aim at “saving the appearances.” But they offer a form of consolation. They save us from despair over our world and help us to cope with, and even to enjoy, the otherwise meaningless spectacle of instability, violence, decay, and death. Indeed, according to the official report of the likely story, death from old age is geometric in nature and is therefore a pleasure to contemplate: it consists in the collapse of the perpendicular or root that keeps our inner triangles erect. These triangles give way at last after fighting numerous battles with the alien triangles that would invade and destroy us (81D). Structure is power, and Becoming is a war of structures, all battling constantly to preserve the identity of their constitutions or regimes. All mortal things eventually lose in this war—they die. But at least likely stories furnish us human beings with intellectual armor so that we may fight in the noblest and most intelligent way. Armed with what Timaeus calls “the power of likely accounts” (48D), we take on all corners who would disparage our cosmic place and sing a song of despair. As we go off to do battle with unhealthy opinions about the world, we remember the songs of our cosmic Apaturia.

The Human Condition

Timaeus’ role in the dialogue is assigned to him by Critias. “It seemed good to us,” he says, “that Timaeus here—since he’s the most astronomical of us and the one who’s most made it his business to know about the nature of the All—should speak first, beginning from the birth of the cosmos and ending in the nature of mankind” (27A). Man, prepolitical man, is the goal of the likely story. Timaeus achieves this goal in some of the weirdest, and funniest, moments in all the dialogues.

What is human nature for Timaeus, and why were we born in the first place? Let us take the latter question first. Man comes about because the cosmos must be complete. If the world is to be perfectly filled, it must contain all the animal kinds represented in the eternal archetype that Timaeus calls “the intelligible animal” (39E). The various animals derive from the mystic number Four, which is alluded to in the dialogue’s opening. The four animate kinds correspond to the four elements of body (39E ff.). The star gods are mostly made of fire. Then come animals that crawl on the earth, fly through the air and swim in the water. Man is not one of these four kinds. He is rather the generator of the mortal kinds, the means by which the lower kinds come to be. In his head, man lives the life of the gods, the life of circularity and prudence. But in his torso he contains all the lower animal possibilities—the thymos and rage of a lion, and the epithymia or desire of all mortal animals. In the very shape of his body, man thus unites the two cooperating causes of cosmic order. He is the unity-in-opposition of the good and the necessary.

The original humans were in some sense male, although strictly speaking they lacked sexuality. When these “first men” yield to emotionality and vice, when they abuse their divine heritage, they are reborn, first as women, and then as the various subhuman animals they imitated in life (42C-D). The likely story, having begun with the stars, ends with shellfish. These animals devolve from humans who were “the most mindless and ignorant men of all” and whom the gods deemed no longer worthy of “pure breathing” (92B). The cosmos is thus completed by what Timaeus calls dikê or just retribution (92C). And yet blame and punishment seem to have nothing to do with it at all. Vice and ignorance are necessary if the world is to have its full complement of animals. In spite of the fact that they are said to be “punished” by cosmic justice, vice and ignorance are nevertheless useful, indeed necessary, to the cosmic purpose. Man completes the world through his fall from divinity into the various animal forms. Timaeus is so complete in his will to order that he puts even moral evil and ignorance to an artistic use, thereby completing his justification of god’s ways to man. Evil, in a sense, becomes both ornament and demiurge. It is like the dissonance for which a piece of polyphony is all the sweeter.

Such is man’s cosmic function: he perfects and beautifies the world with his evil. But what is man’s nature? Here I return to the word pathos, which occurs frequently in the dialogue. The recurrence of this word and its cognates signals the extent to which necessity rules the dialogue and its conception of a world. The human condition is a continual state of affection and affliction, a continual suffering or “being done to.” Man suffers his birth and all his mortal baggage. His pathêmata or passions are also sufferings, as Timaeus poetically reveals when he catalogues our “affections terrible and necessary.” He cites “pleasure, evil’s greatest lure,” “pains, deserters of goods,” “anger, difficult to appease,” “hope, easy to seduce,” all mixed together with Timaeus’ archenemy, “all-venturing eras” (69C-D). Since he suffers desire, man must have arms, legs, and a digestive system. He must also have a respiratory system and a circulatory system. A reproductive system is grafted onto him only later, after he has suffered his first fall. Timaeus gives a long account of breathing. Breathing is completely mechanical in nature and requires no action of the soul. It is a pathos (79A)—not something we do but something we suffer. The surprisingly long discussion of disease highlights the fact that life is suffering. It is the correlate to Timaeus’ glorification of health. Ignorance, too, is a disease—the greatest of all diseases (88B)—and education is therefore our greatest medicine and therapy. In Timaeus’ case, we would have to say, “A cosmologist looks at the world as a doctor looks at a patient.”

Just as Timaeus reveals the nature of the cosmos in the act of showing the cosmos being made, so too man’s nature is revealed through the artful making of man. The likely story puts us at the scene of our own birth—or rather, manufacture. The gods put us together piece by piece, like benevolent Dr. Frankensteins. Since there is no intelligible model for man, they must make us up as they go along. The work is neither easy nor desirable. In fact, the gods make us only because they were told to do so by their father (41C-D). The making of man, as Timaeus explicitly describes it, is a pious desecration (69D). In obedience to their father and his will to order, the gods must take the good and beautiful principle of intelligence, the principle he most embodies, and defile it with mortal madness and complexity. Their work consists in the delicate and dangerous art of compromise. They must make us capable of unintelligent organic life while at the same time making us as good and intelligent as possible. The art of compromise is most evident when they invent our hair. Hair is a compromise between an unshielded head, which would make us very intelligent but short-lived, and a head protected by lots of flesh, which would make us long-lived but “dense” (75E-76D).

The gods are provident for Timaeus. They make our parts always with an eye to the various falls we are destined to experience. They are always saving us from ourselves. They make flesh as a protective padding (748). They make our neck to keep our intelligent heads both separate from and attached to the lower regions of our being (69D-E). They make our intestines to fend off the constant gluttony that would prevent us from engaging in philosophic research (73A). And they make our liver smooth and shiny so that the intellect can use it as a reflecting medium to frighten and pacify the desirous part of the soul with appropriate moving images, thus bringing about a condition of law and order (71A-D). The point of all this outrageous wit seems to be that there is moral meaning and purpose to how we are built and who we are. Through all his physiological jokes, Timaeus causes our inward nature to appear right at the “surface” of our bodies. We are what we look like, and our being is revealed not through a dialectical inquiry into our nature but through the scientific examination of our prudently designed structures and motions.

Throughout the likely story, Timaeus gives mathematics a moral employment. In his account of man, he mathernaticizes morality itself. At one point, we are told, “all the good is beautiful, and the beautiful is not disproportionate” (87C). Virtue and happiness are a matter of establishing the right ratios and proportions in things. Timaeus does not seem to think that virtue is something we don’t know, something about which human beings most need to ask: what is it? Moral education is like medicine and gymnastics. It is simply a matter of paying attention to the manifest ratios that regulate life and seeing to it that the proper ratios and regimen are established (87C-E). Thinkers should make sure they get some physical exercise, and athletes should make sure they study music and the liberal arts (88B-C). A sound mind in a sound body. Like the cosmos, we must be well rounded. The human good is uncomplicated. It is, like the art of medicine, simply the conscientious application of sensible theory to life. It is the will to order.

As we have seen, Timaeus is driven to filling things up and making them complete. But in at least one respect his cosmos is not complete. It does not contain the philosopher as dialectician. In the opinion of the likely story, Socrates, the erotic troublemaker, must be banished from the cosmos. There is no worldly place, no chôra, for him. One who questions the nomos and the dreams that attach us to place must be left atopos—that is, both placeless and strange.

Concluding Unscientific Postscript

So why is this dialogue taking place? Why has Socrates allowed himself to sit passively by while his hosts entertain him with the flattery of Becoming? It seems that the hêsychia of Socrates, his silence and his peace, is really a form of passive aggression. Socrates has set up his ambitious hosts for a Sicilian expedition in speech—an ambitious project that ends in ruin. He probably knows, in general, what to expect, as he cunningly draws them out by imitating the cave-desire for moving images—a desire that is theirs rather than his. But, being an avid connoisseur as well as judge of human souls, Socrates also wants to see exactly how they will reveal themselves, and how far they will go, in the act of trying to defend Becoming and surpass the city in speech.

In the Timaeus, Socrates has shown up to guard the city in speech from ever coming into being in space and time. He does so to reaffirm what he said about the best city in the Republic, that it is not a blueprint for political actualization but “a model … for the man who wants to see and found a city within himself.”[21] Under the deceptive flag of truce and welcoming receptivity, he draws out his hosts as though onto a field of battle. Their effort is sure to entertain Socrates and perhaps even to instruct him. But I suspect he is still more entertained, and gratified, by their ultimate failure. This failure is represented by Critias. In the dialogue that bears his name, Critias never gets to the war-story he promised Socrates. Plato cuts him off in mid-sentence, just as he is about to give the speech of Zeus that will bring divine retribution upon Atlantians. The promised flattery of Athens is consigned to oblivion, like Atlantis itself. It is as though Critias, who had boasted so mightily of his powers of memory (26B-C),[22] simply and utterly forgot. Through his failure to recover the speech in praise of Athens’ heroism, Plato playfully mimics something deadly serious—the folly of forcing a city back, in deed and not merely in speech, to a purported first and best condition. In his speech to Solon, the old Egyptian priest referred to the myth about Phaethon, son of Helios. Paethon tried to drive his father’s car, the sun-chariot, in order to prove that he too was a god. The result was destruction for him and near destruction for the whole earth (22C). The Egyptian priest tells Solon that the truth of this myth has to do with a periodically recurring alignment of the planets. The priest’s piety for scientific explanation blinds him to the political significance of Phaethon. The insolence of Phaethon is the potential insolence of would-be reformers—reformers like the famous Critias, who tried to force a democratic Athens into an oligarchic mold. The will to order, when infected by the love of honor and the lust for power, easily degenerates into the will to tyranny.

Plato, more than any other philosopher, is constantly reminding us of the dangers of being human as well as the dangers of philosophy. Danger and safety, perhaps the most central terms of the Platonic dramas, become central because of Plato’s care for what we do and what we suffer. Through the drama of the Timaeus-Critias, Plato continues his care for the human condition. In the likely story of Timaeus, he concocts a bizarre yet healthy-minded dream about a world set straight by the will to order, a dream in which the world is saved from disorder and despair. In the vanity and ambition of Critias, he points to the diseases this will itself can contract. Shakespeare’s Ulysses supplies the most fitting last word on the strength and the weakness of the will to order: “O, when degree is shaked,/ Which is the ladder of all high designs,/ The enterprise is sick.”[23]

The Timaeus is available with translation, glossary, notes and an introduction by Dr. Kalkavage. This lecture was originally delivered in Annapolis on March 24, 2000.

This essay was first published here in July 2012.


1. Other experiments in going beyond Socrates include the Eleatic stranger from the Sophist and Statesman, and the Athenian stranger from the Laws.

2. For the “art of conversion or turning around,” see Republic 7. 518D ff. The mathematical arts that pave the way for dialectic are, in order of appearance, arithmetic, plane geometry, solid geometry, astronomy and harmonics. The conversionary art must “draw the soul from Becoming to Being” (7. 521D).

3. The praise of Timaeus is breathtaking (20A). He is rich, powerful, honored, and he comes from an aristocratic family. The city from which he hails is Locri, which Socrates calls “a city with the best laws in Italy.” Furthermore, he has “reached the very peak of all philosophy.”

4. Solon heard the story about ancient Athens in the district of Sais (21E). The word for district here is nomos. (Nomos comes from the verb nemein, which means to apportion or distribute, and districts are areas of distributed land.) Plato thus combines in one word the deep connection between attachment to custom and attachment to place.

5. The dêmiourgoi or craftsmen are central to Socrates’ critique of imitation in Republic 10. After postulating three kinds of couches—the one produced by carpentry, the one produced by the art of painting, and the one that is in nature—Socrates playfully suggest that perhaps the couch that is in nature was also produced by some kind of craftsman, not a dêmiourgos but a phytourgos or “nature-worker” (597B-D). Socrates refers to a “craftsman of heaven” at 7 530A.

6. Sometimes Timaeus makes the cosmos sound as though it were eternal. But there are also indications that, while it is very long-lasting, it is nevertheless mortal. This fits with what Socrates announces in the Republic: “for everything that has come into being there is decay” (8. 546A). For example, time is said to come into being along with the heavens “in order that, having been begotten together, they might also be dissolved together—should some dissolution of them ever arise” (38B). And when the god makes the cosmic body, he saves it from old age and disease but falls short of making it deathless (33A ff.).

7. The ongoing presence of god’s generous artistry in the world is signaled by the fact that things other than the divine craftsman arc called demiurges in the speech, and that the verb dêmiourgein, to craft, sometimes occurs as a synonym for “causes” or “bring: about.” Earth, for example, is called “the guardian and craftsman o( Night and Day” (40C); fire is at one point the craftsman of non-uniformity in air (59A); and again, the color red is “crafted by the cutting and staining action of fire upon moisture” (80E).

8. Timaeus’ use of eti, still or more, seems to echo Socrates’ use of this little word at the end of his political summary. He asked Timaeus whether he was “still yearning for something more in what was said” (19A). Socrates seems to be tempting Timaeus to go beyond the boundaries of his political mentality, beyond the will to order. Timaeus has no yearning to do so. He says, “Not at all.”

9. Timaeus calls the cosmos “the god who was one day to be” (34A-B) and a “happy god” (34B). See also 55D, where Timaeus says that the cosmos is “by nature one god.” In the dialogue’s closing sentence, the cosmos is a “sensed god” (92C).

10. Republic 6. 509C ff. For the definitive account of eikasia in the Republic, see Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato’s Meno, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965, pp. 112-125.

11. Book 7. 532A. Socrates’ language here is very close to the way in which he describes the likely story. He speaks of the “song itself that dialectic performs,” autos… ho nomos hon to dialegesthai perainei.

12 At the beginning of the Critias, Timaeus prays to “the god who has just now been born through speeches” (106A). He identifies the just retribution of this god (dikê) with medicine (pharmakon) and this medicine with knowledge (epistêmê).

13. Timaeus derives his catalogue of happy privations from two fragments by Empedocles (29 and 134). He discretely suppresses what Empedocles in both fragments makes explicit—that the cosmic god lacks organs of reproduction.

14. The final cause of motion moves things, says Aristotle, hôs erômenon, “as the object of erotic love” (Metaphysics 12. 7. 1072B).

15. Sexual generation is the cause of the decay of the best city in the Republic. The rulers will fail to perceive and calculate the marriage number, “and they will at some time beget children when they should not” (8. 546B).

16. This political redistribution of types foreshadows the cosmic reshuffling of the four kinds by what Timaeus later calls the chôra or space. Socrates even uses the word chôra in this part of his summary. This is its first appearance in the dialogue.

17. Necessity, in the form of what Timaeus calls “assistant causes,” first began to assert itself in the likely story just as Timaeus is giving a mechanical account of the reflective, and deceptive, power of mirrors (46C-D).

18. In the simile of the goldsmith, Timaeus has a hypothetical someone ask the question “Whatever is it?” in response to the constant “morphing” of the receptacle. The safest answer, says Timaeus, is that it’s gold (50B). This is the closest Timaeus ever gets to Socrates’ What is it? question. It is very interesting that his concern for safety (which reminds us of Socrates’ similar concern in the Phaedo when he recounts his “second sailing” in search of cause) and the What is it? question lead Timaeus, not to the determinate form whose likeness fleetingly appears in the midst of change, but to that which is itself undergoing change. His answer, in other words, already points “forward” to geometric schematization rather than “backward” and “up” to the eidetic “father” of the spatiotemporal “offspring” (50C-D).

19. For more on the Apaturia, see H. W. Parke, Festivals of the Athenians, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp. 88-92.

20. “In geometrical and natural-scientific mathematization, in the open infinity of possible experiences, we measure the life-world—the world constantly given to us as actual in our concrete world-life—for a well-fitting garb of ideas, that of the so-called objectively scientific truths” (Ibid., p. 51). The drama of the Timaeus takes place during the Greater Panathenaea, the festival in honor of Athena. The central event of this festival was the procession in which an elaborately embroidered peplos or robe depicting the Battle of Gods and Giants was carried to the Acropolis and draped over the statue of the goddess. In his likely story, Timaeus participates in, and corrects, the Greater Panathenaea. His ceremonial “garb of ideas,” paraded before the silent Socrates, replaces the Battle of Gods and Giants with decent gods and the beautiful war of mathematical objects in motion.

21. Republic 9. 592B. The centrality of place in the Timaeus and the man who was gazing upon beautiful animals “somewhere,” pou, contrast Sharply with what Socrates says about the best city in this passage: “It doesn’t make any difference whether it is or will be somewhere (pou).”

22. In the Critias, Critias invokes Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, as the divinity on whom the whole project of gratifying Socrates depends (108D).

23. Troilus and Cressida I. 3. 101-103.

Republished with permission from the author

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Aug 19, 2023


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