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Plato's Timaeus

Plato's Timaeus

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by Plato

Translated by Benjamin Jowett


Of all the writings of Plato the Timaeus is the most obscure and repulsive
to the modern reader, and has nevertheless had the greatest influence over
the ancient and mediaeval world. The obscurity arises in the infancy of
physical science, out of the confusion of theological, mathematical, and
physiological notions, out of the desire to conceive the whole of nature
without any adequate knowledge of the parts, and from a greater perception
of similarities which lie on the surface than of differences which are
hidden from view. To bring sense under the control of reason; to find some
way through the mist or labyrinth of appearances, either the highway of
mathematics, or more devious paths suggested by the analogy of man with the
world, and of the world with man; to see that all things have a cause and
are tending towards an end--this is the spirit of the ancient physical
philosopher. He has no notion of trying an experiment and is hardly
capable of observing the curiosities of nature which are 'tumbling out at
his feet,' or of interpreting even the most obvious of them. He is driven
back from the nearer to the more distant, from particulars to generalities,
from the earth to the stars. He lifts up his eyes to the heavens and seeks
to guide by their motions his erring footsteps. But we neither appreciate
the conditions of knowledge to which he was subjected, nor have the ideas
which fastened upon his imagination the same hold upon us. For he is
hanging between matter and mind; he is under the dominion at the same time
both of sense and of abstractions; his impressions are taken almost at
random from the outside of nature; he sees the light, but not the objects
which are revealed by the light; and he brings into juxtaposition things
which to us appear wide as the poles asunder, because he finds nothing
between them. He passes abruptly from persons to ideas and numbers, and
from ideas and numbers to persons,--from the heavens to man, from astronomy
to physiology; he confuses, or rather does not distinguish, subject and
object, first and final causes, and is dreaming of geometrical figures lost
in a flux of sense. He contrasts the perfect movements of the heavenly
bodies with the imperfect representation of them (Rep.), and he does not
always require strict accuracy even in applications of number and figure
(Rep.). His mind lingers around the forms of mythology, which he uses as
symbols or translates into figures of speech. He has no implements of
observation, such as the telescope or microscope; the great science of
chemistry is a blank to him. It is only by an effort that the modern
thinker can breathe the atmosphere of the ancient philosopher, or
understand how, under such unequal conditions, he seems in many instances,
by a sort of inspiration, to have anticipated the truth.

The influence with the Timaeus has exercised upon posterity is due partly
to a misunderstanding. In the supposed depths of this dialogue the Neo-
Platonists found hidden meanings and connections with the Jewish and
Christian Scriptures, and out of them they elicited doctrines quite at
variance with the spirit of Plato. Believing that he was inspired by the
Holy Ghost, or had received his wisdom from Moses, they seemed to find in
his writings the Christian Trinity, the Word, the Church, the creation of
the world in a Jewish sense, as they really found the personality of God or
of mind, and the immortality of the soul. All religions and philosophies
met and mingled in the schools of Alexandria, and the Neo-Platonists had a
method of interpretation which could elicit any meaning out of any words.
They were really incapable of distinguishing between the opinions of one
philosopher and another--between Aristotle and Plato, or between the
serious thoughts of Plato and his passing fancies. They were absorbed in
his theology and were under the dominion of his name, while that which was
truly great and truly characteristic in him, his effort to realize and
connect abstractions, was not understood by them at all. Yet the genius of
Plato and Greek philosophy reacted upon the East, and a Greek element of
thought and language overlaid and partly reduced to order the chaos of
Orientalism. And kindred spirits, like St. Augustine, even though they
were acquainted with his writings only through the medium of a Latin
translation, were profoundly affected by them, seeming to find 'God and his
word everywhere insinuated' in them (August. Confess.)

There is no danger of the modern commentators on the Timaeus falling into
the absurdities of the Neo-Platonists. In the present day we are well
aware that an ancient philosopher is to be interpreted from himself and by
the contemporary history of thought. We know that mysticism is not
criticism. The fancies of the Neo-Platonists are only interesting to us
because they exhibit a phase of the human mind which prevailed widely in
the first centuries of the Christian era, and is not wholly extinct in our
own day. But they have nothing to do with the interpretation of Plato, and
in spirit they are opposed to him. They are the feeble expression of an
age which has lost the power not only of creating great works, but of
understanding them. They are the spurious birth of a marriage between
philosophy and tradition, between Hellas and the East--(Greek) (Rep.).
Whereas the so-called mysticism of Plato is purely Greek, arising out of
his imperfect knowledge and high aspirations, and is the growth of an age
in which philosophy is not wholly separated from poetry and mythology.

A greater danger with modern interpreters of Plato is the tendency to
regard the Timaeus as the centre of his system. We do not know how Plato
would have arranged his own dialogues, or whether the thought of arranging
any of them, besides the two 'Trilogies' which he has expressly connected;
was ever present to his mind. But, if he had arranged them, there are many
indications that this is not the place which he would have assigned to the
Timaeus. We observe, first of all, that the dialogue is put into the mouth
of a Pythagorean philosopher, and not of Socrates. And this is required by
dramatic propriety; for the investigation of nature was expressly renounced
by Socrates in the Phaedo. Nor does Plato himself attribute any importance
to his guesses at science. He is not at all absorbed by them, as he is by
the IDEA of good. He is modest and hesitating, and confesses that his
words partake of the uncertainty of the subject (Tim.). The dialogue is
primarily concerned with the animal creation, including under this term the
heavenly bodies, and with man only as one among the animals. But we can
hardly suppose that Plato would have preferred the study of nature to man,
or that he would have deemed the formation of the world and the human frame
to have the same interest which he ascribes to the mystery of being and
not-being, or to the great political problems which he discusses in the
Republic and the Laws. There are no speculations on physics in the other
dialogues of Plato, and he himself regards the consideration of them as a
rational pastime only. He is beginning to feel the need of further
divisions of knowledge; and is becoming aware that besides dialectic,
mathematics, and the arts, there is another field which has been hitherto
unexplored by him. But he has not as yet defined this intermediate
territory which lies somewhere between medicine and mathematics, and he
would have felt that there was as great an impeity in ranking theories of
physics first in the order of knowledge, as in placing the body before the

It is true, however, that the Timaeus is by no means confined to
speculations on physics. The deeper foundations of the Platonic
philosophy, such as the nature of God, the distinction of the sensible and
intellectual, the great original conceptions of time and space, also appear
in it. They are found principally in the first half of the dialogue. The
construction of the heavens is for the most part ideal; the cyclic year
serves as the connection between the world of absolute being and of
generation, just as the number of population in the Republic is the
expression or symbol of the transition from the ideal to the actual state.
In some passages we are uncertain whether we are reading a description of
astronomical facts or contemplating processes of the human mind, or of that
divine mind (Phil.) which in Plato is hardly separable from it. The
characteristics of man are transferred to the world-animal, as for example
when intelligence and knowledge are said to be perfected by the circle of
the Same, and true opinion by the circle of the Other; and conversely the
motions of the world-animal reappear in man; its amorphous state continues
in the child, and in both disorder and chaos are gradually succeeded by
stability and order. It is not however to passages like these that Plato
is referring when he speaks of the uncertainty of his subject, but rather
to the composition of bodies, to the relations of colours, the nature of
diseases, and the like, about which he truly feels the lamentable ignorance
prevailing in his own age.

We are led by Plato himself to regard the Timaeus, not as the centre or
inmost shrine of the edifice, but as a detached building in a different
style, framed, not after the Socratic, but after some Pythagorean model.
As in the Cratylus and Parmenides, we are uncertain whether Plato is
expressing his own opinions, or appropriating and perhaps improving the
philosophical speculations of others. In all three dialogues he is
exerting his dramatic and imitative power; in the Cratylus mingling a
satirical and humorous purpose with true principles of language; in the
Parmenides overthrowing Megarianism by a sort of ultra-Megarianism, which
discovers contradictions in the one as great as those which have been
previously shown to exist in the ideas. There is a similar uncertainty
about the Timaeus; in the first part he scales the heights of
transcendentalism, in the latter part he treats in a bald and superficial
manner of the functions and diseases of the human frame. He uses the
thoughts and almost the words of Parmenides when he discourses of being and
of essence, adopting from old religion into philosophy the conception of
God, and from the Megarians the IDEA of good. He agrees with Empedocles
and the Atomists in attributing the greater differences of kinds to the
figures of the elements and their movements into and out of one another.
With Heracleitus, he acknowledges the perpetual flux; like Anaxagoras, he
asserts the predominance of mind, although admitting an element of
necessity which reason is incapable of subduing; like the Pythagoreans he
supposes the mystery of the world to be contained in number. Many, if not
all the elements of the Pre-Socratic philosophy are included in the
Timaeus. It is a composite or eclectic work of imagination, in which
Plato, without naming them, gathers up into a kind of system the various
elements of philosophy which preceded him.

If we allow for the difference of subject, and for some growth in Plato's
own mind, the discrepancy between the Timaeus and the other dialogues will
not appear to be great. It is probable that the relation of the ideas to
God or of God to the world was differently conceived by him at different
times of his life. In all his later dialogues we observe a tendency in him
to personify mind or God, and he therefore naturally inclines to view
creation as the work of design. The creator is like a human artist who
frames in his mind a plan which he executes by the help of his servants.
Thus the language of philosophy which speaks of first and second causes is
crossed by another sort of phraseology: 'God made the world because he was
good, and the demons ministered to him.' The Timaeus is cast in a more
theological and less philosophical mould than the other dialogues, but the
same general spirit is apparent; there is the same dualism or opposition
between the ideal and actual--the soul is prior to the body, the
intelligible and unseen to the visible and corporeal. There is the same
distinction between knowledge and opinion which occurs in the Theaetetus
and Republic, the same enmity to the poets, the same combination of music
and gymnastics. The doctrine of transmigration is still held by him, as in
the Phaedrus and Republic; and the soul has a view of the heavens in a
prior state of being. The ideas also remain, but they have become types in
nature, forms of men, animals, birds, fishes. And the attribution of evil
to physical causes accords with the doctrine which he maintains in the Laws
respecting the involuntariness of vice.

The style and plan of the Timaeus differ greatly from that of any other of
the Platonic dialogues. The language is weighty, abrupt, and in some
passages sublime. But Plato has not the same mastery over his instrument
which he exhibits in the Phaedrus or Symposium. Nothing can exceed the
beauty or art of the introduction, in which he is using words after his
accustomed manner. But in the rest of the work the power of language seems
to fail him, and the dramatic form is wholly given up. He could write in
one style, but not in another, and the Greek language had not as yet been
fashioned by any poet or philosopher to describe physical phenomena. The
early physiologists had generally written in verse; the prose writers, like
Democritus and Anaxagoras, as far as we can judge from their fragments,
never attained to a periodic style. And hence we find the same sort of
clumsiness in the Timaeus of Plato which characterizes the philosophical
poem of Lucretius. There is a want of flow and often a defect of rhythm;
the meaning is sometimes obscure, and there is a greater use of apposition
and more of repetition than occurs in Plato's earlier writings. The
sentences are less closely connected and also more involved; the
antecedents of demonstrative and relative pronouns are in some cases remote
and perplexing. The greater frequency of participles and of absolute
constructions gives the effect of heaviness. The descriptive portion of
the Timaeus retains traces of the first Greek prose composition; for the
great master of language was speaking on a theme with which he was
imperfectly acquainted, and had no words in which to express his meaning.
The rugged grandeur of the opening discourse of Timaeus may be compared
with the more harmonious beauty of a similar passage in the Phaedrus.

To the same cause we may attribute the want of plan. Plato had not the
command of his materials which would have enabled him to produce a perfect
work of art. Hence there are several new beginnings and resumptions and
formal or artificial connections; we miss the 'callida junctura' of the
earlier dialogues. His speculations about the Eternal, his theories of
creation, his mathematical anticipations, are supplemented by desultory
remarks on the one immortal and the two mortal souls of man, on the
functions of the bodily organs in health and disease, on sight, hearing,
smell, taste, and touch. He soars into the heavens, and then, as if his
wings were suddenly clipped, he walks ungracefully and with difficulty upon
the earth. The greatest things in the world, and the least things in man,
are brought within the compass of a short treatise. But the intermediate
links are missing, and we cannot be surprised that there should be a want
of unity in a work which embraces astronomy, theology, physiology, and
natural philosophy in a few pages.

It is not easy to determine how Plato's cosmos may be presented to the
reader in a clearer and shorter form; or how we may supply a thread of
connexion to his ideas without giving greater consistency to them than they
possessed in his mind, or adding on consequences which would never have
occurred to him. For he has glimpses of the truth, but no comprehensive or
perfect vision. There are isolated expressions about the nature of God
which have a wonderful depth and power; but we are not justified in
assuming that these had any greater significance to the mind of Plato than
language of a neutral and impersonal character...With a view to the
illustration of the Timaeus I propose to divide this Introduction into
sections, of which
the first will contain an outline of the dialogue: (2)
I shall consider the aspects of nature which presented themselves to Plato
and his age, and the elements of philosophy which entered into the
conception of them:
(3) the theology and physics of the Timaeus, including
the soul of the world, the conception of time and space, and the
composition of the elements:
(4) in the fourth section I shall consider
the Platonic astronomy, and the position of the earth. There will remain,
(5) the psychology, (6) the physiology of Plato, and (7) his analysis of
the senses to be briefly commented upon:
(8) lastly, we may examine in
what points Plato approaches or anticipates the discoveries of modern





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