Campbell Corner Language Exchange

--What Students do with Words--

**The following are selected student responses to entries on the WebForum.
To join the dialogue please click here.**

On Plato's Timaeus

Response to the Timaeus: Passages 28 and 35-36b
by Shuba Gopal

Re-collections of Timaesian Teleologies
by Maggie Monroe Richter

Necessity and Chance in the Timaeus
by Greg Seiffert


Response to the Timaeus: Passages 28 and 35-36b
by Shuba Gopal

In the Timaeus, Plato continues the reconciliation of Heraclitean flux with the Parmenidian stasis conceptions of existence that he began in the Sophist. As in the Sophist, Plato shows how such apparently either/or distinctions can in fact become 'either and' distinctions. In the Timaeus, a rich and complex text, this is done at a number of levels across a variety of topics. I have chosen to follow his arguments from two relatively short passages early on in the text, at 28 and 35-36b.

As Plato outlines the argument for an intelligent design for the universe, he begins with a reconciliation between the intellect and the senses, two entities that have been on opposite sides of the fence since Democritus first described their argument. In the fragment from Democritus, the intellect claims that it is only convention which makes a thing sweet or colorful or pleasurable. The senses refute this saying, "…you get your evidence only as we give it to you, and yet you try to overthrow us. That overthrow will be your downfall." In the Sophist, Plato suggests that the sophist, fearful of empirical evidence, will reject all evidence that does not derive from pure reason. As the Stranger says, "He [the sophist] will profess to know nothing about mirrors or water or even eyesight, and will confine his question to what can be gathered from discourse" (239e - 240). It is exactly this sort of rarefied atmosphere of pseudo-intellectualism that Democritus warns against in his dialogue.

In the Timaeus, Plato takes these two apparently irreconcilable entities and brings them together by requiring the presence of the one to allow the other to function. Plato suggests that in order for us to apprehend the concept of nous, or rationality, that underlies the creation and perpetuation of the cosmos, we must be able to sense it. In 28c, Timaeus asks, "Was the world…always in existence and without beginning, or created, and had it a beginning? Created, I reply, being visible and tangible and having a body, and therefore sensible…" (28c). In other words, had the cosmos remained merely the intellectual principle of nous, it would have been eternal, but incomprehensible. This is not the purpose of the cosmos, Plato argues. Rather, the cosmos has been designed in order for us to be able to perceive and learn from it.

This is reflected at every level of the design of the cosmos for Plato, as Marrow notes in his commentary on the Timaeus. Thus, the stars are placed in the heavens that we may understand eternity, while the rhythms of the world - night, day, month and year - are created to give us a sense of time, which is "eternal but moving according to number" (37d - e). Each of the senses is given to us that we may be able to better apprehend the reality and organization of the cosmos. Eyesight for the perception of time and eternity, and hearing, smell, taste and touch to complement this understanding. For each sensory modality, Plato provides an in-depth analysis of the perceptual process, always stressing that the design of the system reflects its intended use.

So much for the intellect and the senses: the one cannot exist in the absence of the other it seems. Plato acknowledges the importance of the senses in the Timaeus, but obviously, the senses exist only that we may better understand the higher realities of the intellect. It is through the senses, Plato suggests, that we may come to understand the abstract intellectual principles which underlie the cosmos.

In order to carry this point through, Plato then carries our sensory perceptions into the realm of the abstract through his metaphysical geometry, what I fancifully call his 'metageometry.' The four elements that we perceive through our senses, fire, air, water and earth, can be reduced to abstract intellectual concepts by correlating each with a side of the triangles Plato discusses. As esoteric and unreal as this discussion sounds, Plato takes great pains to link our sensory experience to this intellectual conception of the universe. Marrow suggests that this allows Plato to provide a feasible explanation for the interconversion of elements from one to other, such as the conversion of water to air when it is boiled. Plato goes further, however, for the whole second half of Timaeus' speech is the empirical (and hence sensory) evidence for the metageometric notions he forwards in the first half of the speech. By making sensory perception a prerequisite of intellectual comprehension, Plato allows the senses to become the hand maidens and companions of the intellect, instead of enemies of the worst sort.

Having resolved the conflict between intellect and the senses, Plato proceeds to show how it is the intellect that can bring order, the cosmos, out of chaos. In 30b, Timaeus argues that the primordial flux is regulated by the principle of nous into a form of order. The flux that pre-exists this ordering appears to resemble the Heraclitean flux, but the ordering of the universe that follows does not lead to the Parmenidian stasis. Rather, it leads to dynamic order. In this view, the cosmos is always "in a process of creation and created" (28c). It is this dynamism that allows for sensory perception and hence intellectual apprehension.

The dynamism of the cosmos is represented at every level of creation, from the universe to the human body. Plato takes great pains to describe these dynamic yet constant processes within the body. Today, biologists refer to this as the capacity of the body to maintain 'homeostasis.' Although the individual components of the body are always changing, the overall state of the body is maintained at about the same level all the time. This is why body temperature, for instance, never strays more than a degree above or below normal in the healthy individual.

The dynamic order of the primordial cosmos can create difference and sameness within itself in a way that neither chaotic flux nor static order could. Thus, Plato describes how the world soul could separate sameness and difference by the formation of a series of concentric circles from an X (36b). As these circles begin to revolve, they create rest and motion (37d - e). Plato thereby details the birth not only of existence, but of the four other Forms he first outlined in the Sophist.

The Timaeus is therefore much more than a grand scheme of creation. It is the philosophical attempt to reconcile apparently irreconcilable opposites, drawing the various separate entities into one unified world soul. The world soul of Plato, however, is neither entirely in flux as Heraclitus thought, nor is it eternally the same, as Parmenides claimed. Rather, it exists in a dynamic eternity. This may be a difficult concept to understand, but it is central to undermining the pernicious tendency to create irreconcilable divisions where none are needed.

Re-collections of Timaesian Teleologies

by Maggie Monroe Richter

***This posting hopes to recollect a few of the ideas that have been passed between us regarding the Timaeus, the nature of being (and becoming), the aim of knowledge, and the authority of conscience.***

Throughout her response to the Timaeus, Shuba brings light to the force of reconciliation that is expressed in Timaeus' cosmology. Shuba writes, "for each sensory modality, Plato provides an in-depth analysis of the perceptual process, always stressing that the design of the system reflects its intended use." In Timaeus' "likely account" of the universe, we are shown an order wherein seeming opposites (i.e., senses and intellect, eternity and time) are joined by both function and purpose. Eyesight, in Timaeus' account, was given to us that we might observe the movements of heavenly bodies, thereby leading to the "idea of time," which "opened the path to inquiry into the nature of the universe" (47b). Philosophy itself ("a gift from the gods...whose value neither has been nor ever will be surpassed" 47b) is made available to us by (and because of) our senses.

Timaeus insists not only that there is kinship between "the orbits of intelligence in the universe...[and] the revolutions of our own understanding" (47c), but that the awareness of this kinship should serve a purpose-- namely, to "stabilize the straying revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god" (47c). In other words, "the human soul ought to take its cues from the world soul" (Elfie, 4/9). If time is a "moving image of eternity" (37d), perhaps it could be said that eternity also resides within the productions of time-- visible even (and especially) to the naked eye. After all, the image (or system) of time was not fashioned only to move in the sky and amuse us with its motions. Rather, eternity is available to our perception that we might chart 'the good life' by its example.

As we have discussed, the teleology of Timaeus' cosmos is reflected in its presentation. Indeed, it is no accident that Timaeus GIVES his likely account of the cosmos as a gift to Socrates (who had given a speech the day before). This is NOT an act of social convention. Rather, the "decorum" surrounding Timaeus' logos enacts the heart of his cosmos (the demiurge)--a good heart that loves justice, truth, and goodness--the very qualities of which it is constituted, and the same principles which it placed in the human soul. Our senses are all shown as gifts from the gods that are not to be taken for granted. For instance, the ears do not perceive harmony and rhythm merely for our amusement (or "irrational pleasure"). Rather, harmony and rhythm have been given to our perception from the muses so that we might "bring order to any orbit in our souls that has become unharmonized, and make it concordant with itself" (47d).

For some time, we have been raising the question, "what is the nature of the gift?" If we follow the Timaeus, realizing that the decorum that constitutes both form and content of Timaeus' cosmos likewise structures the form of Plato's dialogue, I think that conscience would reply to this question, saying, perhaps, that the gift is in our nature, and likewise, that our nature is the gift.

If, as Timaeus insists, "the cosmos has been designed in order for us to be able to perceive and learn from it" (Shuba), then our learning, as well as our techne, must be understood as a re-collection of what already is. With conscience at the helm, then, our purpose could be understood as the remembering (or seeking) of our purpose.

As we have discussed throughout this course (and brought to fruition in our last class), if the universe is to be understood as an educational body, we must follow the lead of the gift in our learning (via Johnny and Walton). We must dare (as Claire points out) to educate each other in the tradition of prudence ("Scrutari veritam causasque latentes"), thereby loving language, coming to know its intracacies (via Leigh and constant discernment in our listening), and affirming the authority of the individual conscience. Additionally, "philosophy is a living thing which can only come forward if one takes responsibility for the development of one's own mind" (Elfie). In light of the idea that the mind seeks its nature through cultural representations, we are reminded that the challenge of a teleological/educational universe extends to all the walks of our interactions in the world. Returning to Elfie's "On the Authority of Conscience," the practice of Socratic inquiry (as it initiates moral philosophy) is invoked as the birthright of all human beings. Considering the social implications of a cosmos wherein each human soul is understood to have an equal measure of divine knowledge within it (knowledge that is "open to any interested student"), it is not surprising that the Socratic principle of free inquiry is first to be exiled from tyrannies of all kinds. Whether conscience will take its rightful place at the helm of consciousness ("whether the soul will learn to walk"), is ours to consider. Timaeus did not make a gift of his cosmology just to be nice to Socrates, and neither did the muses send harmony for the "irrational pleasure" of humankind. Just so, I submit that we are not making such dire considerations for the sake of fulfilling course requirements. Perhaps teleology is contagious? If we agree (even in some latent corner of the mind) that time isn't moving merely to keep us entertained, perhaps we can approach an active understanding of the role of equity in our quest for knowledge.

Necessity and Chance in the Timaeus
by Greg Seiffert

What is the difference, or the relationship, between necessity and chance? Most of us are confused. In the Timaeus, Plato approaches the interplay of chance and necessity by seeing intelligent persuasion as the primary cause in the universe. This, in turn, extends into human affairs, another area in which Plato felt we could use some clarification -- an area which is perhaps more difficult to understand than are the causes operating in the universe. What Plato's cosmetology allows, however -- and this carries into his practical reasoning about human affairs -- is space in which to entertain the possibilities arising from the interplay of determinacy and indeterminacy. It is similar to the openness which allows the Demiurge to fashion the universe intelligently, respecting both chance and necessity.

The relationship between necessity and chance is difficult to think about. Our world seems at times governed by necessity and at other times by chance. The difficulty of these concepts can lead us to settle prematurely on a conclusion about their relationship. As with other important distinctions, Plato encourages us not to oversimplify the relationship. The interplay of necessity and chance is emphasized in the Timaeus. Moreover, Plato elevates intelligent purpose as that which, having learned to see the interplay of necessity and chance, shapes the world.

For the better part of the Timaeus, Plato describes many ways in which necessity operates in the world. Morrow summarizes this, saying that "the world on which the creator sets to work is characterized by necessity in the sense that specific effects follow regularly from specific causes. It is because of this that the creator can use these works of necessity for his purposes" (Morrow 428). But a deterministic universe, in the sense Democritus described, would not account for purpose. Morrow opposes purpose and necessity. We could say equally that a random universe would not account for purpose. If there was no way in which we could understand necessary causes, the creator could not intend anything at all; nor could the creator intend anything if everything was already determined. With sustained inquiry, we realize that necessity and purpose are not exactly opposed; as with many of the distinctions Plato shows to us, "opposition" fails to describe the relationship. Necessity, chance, and purpose exist simultaneously. Most of us, however, lack the patience of the Demiurge, so we tend to dismiss the interplay of necessity, chance and purpose, either by over-simplifying their relationship or by ignoring it. This leads to the "pathetic confusion," identified by Morrow (423); certain assumptions we make about determinacy, indeterminacy, and purpose blatantly contradict other assumptions.

Plato's cosmetology is bound up with a concern for human affairs. Timaeus's explanation extends into the way humans are able to purposefully manipulate their environment. Humans are able to understand the causes of certain situations, and are thus able to encourage certain effects. To take a basic example, the craftsperson uses techne to design something, such as a clay pot. Techne represents the understanding of the causes involved in making the pot. As far as pots are concerned, chance (tyche) has been overcome. Here we may recall Seung's analysis of "the techne/tyche antithesis": "the progress of human civilization can be described as the conquest of tyche by the power of techne, and its motto can be phrased as ‘where tyche rules, techne shall control'" (Seung 16). Of course it would be misleading to believe that chance has disappeared from the universe, just because humans understand certain technical arts. If chance did disappear, there would be no space in which to maneuver and persuade necessity.

What seems a simple case in some areas of human endeavor, such as making pots, is harder to understand in others. Morrow suggests that Democritus was as confused as the rest of us about what connection more important human affairs, such as ethics, might have to the structure of the cosmos. Democritus probably just dodged the issue, according to Morrow, since "as far as we can understand," Democritus's ethical system "has very little connection to his physics" (424). Perhaps in human ethics, progress cannot simply be understood as a matter of techne. Nonetheless, as in his description of the cosmos, Plato wishes to cultivate patient objectivity in his pursuit of ethics.

Elfie has said that Plato is taking the role of the Demiurge in his works. Plato was dissatisfied with previous attempts to explain causal relationships; he thought the explanations erred either on the side of compulsion or on the side of chaos. In both cases, intelligent purpose is not given its due as the primary cause behind events -- the cause that, ideally, takes both necessity and chance into account, the material with which it is working and the possibility that other, unseen agents might also be present. Plato's dialogues maintain a respect for the materials with which he is working, and he attempts to persuade these materials rather than compel them. "The result," writes Morrow, "is the product of intelligence, but certainly not of any constraint by intelligence. Rather, it comes about easily and naturally from the co-operation of all these forces, each of which produces the effects that could be expected from the nature it has" (Morrow 430). Again, we must make a distinction between the potter's clay and the materials with which the craftsman Plato works. We cannot say that, in Plato's dialogues, results come about easily. Plato deals with human and divine affairs; although he aspires to the Demiurge's patience, he cannot hope to accomplish his task with the same ease. What is important is that Plato, daunting as his own task may be, carries on the craftsman's spirit: the interplay of necessity and possibility, in human affairs as in the material world, leaves space for intelligence to work its persuasion.

In his works, Plato's respect for his materials, and for the space between possibility and necessity, is evident both in his refusal to engage in dogmatism, and in his dramatic and self-critical style. Plato respects the materials with which he works, and yet places them under relentless scrutiny. In the Sophist, for example, Plato criticizes the Parmenidean doctrine without discrediting it as though the doctrine is useless now that Plato has arrived. Everything is left open to question, as Elfie has said. Plato pursues his own design, but gives the same care to ideas already set forth that he does to ideas of his own. His respect extends even to the reader, in that Plato's sense of humor is self-critical as well. He puts us in a position to question him, not just those he is questioning.

The Timaeus exhibits this tendency supremely. Timaeus' account is framed as a possibility by the somewhat strange introduction to the dialogue. Plato does not intend Timaeus' account, brilliant as it is, to be taken as dogma. Some commentators go so far as to say that the dialogue is a parody, due to some of the ridiculous premises set fourth, particularly in the dialogue's introduction.(1) Timaeus himself warns that his account is only a "likely tale...It behooves us not to look for any thing beyond this" (29d). But it would be a mistake to repudiate the account of the cosmos as a joke on Plato's part. Plato's genius lies in his ability to be serious while at the same time undermining his own position. If Timaeus' account of the cosmos and it's connection to humanity should be entertained rather than accepted outright, how much more should this be true for scientific accounts which present themselves as dogma, rather than as mere possibility. We can learn from Plato to be entertained by these accounts, while at the same time considering their scientific value. In the Timaeus, Plato sustains a scientific explanation of the cosmos while maintaining a sense of humor, and the ability to maintain this tension recalls the ability of the Demiurge to respect chance and necessity, while at the same time pursuing an intelligent purpose.

(1). See James Arieti, Interpreting Plato: The Dialogues as Drama. His analysis of the Timaeus and other dialogues makes it seem as though Plato was a comedian as much as a philosopher.