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Plato's Timaeus

Plato's Timaeus

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by Plato

Translated by Benjamin Jowett

Section 8.

We have now to consider how far in any of these speculations Plato
approximated to the discoveries of modern science. The modern physical
philosopher is apt to dwell exclusively on the absurdities of ancient ideas
about science, on the haphazard fancies and a priori assumptions of
ancient teachers, on their confusion of facts and ideas, on their
inconsistency and blindness to the most obvious phenomena. He measures
them not by what preceded them, but by what has followed them. He does not
consider that ancient physical philosophy was not a free enquiry, but a
growth, in which the mind was passive rather than active, and was incapable
of resisting the impressions which flowed in upon it. He hardly allows to
the notions of the ancients the merit of being the stepping-stones by which
he has himself risen to a higher knowledge. He never reflects, how great a
thing it was to have formed a conception, however imperfect, either of the
human frame as a whole, or of the world as a whole. According to the view
taken in these volumes the errors of ancient physicists were not separable
from the intellectual conditions under which they lived. Their genius was
their own; and they were not the rash and hasty generalizers which, since
the days of Bacon, we have been apt to suppose them. The thoughts of men
widened to receive experience; at first they seemed to know all things as
in a dream: after a while they look at them closely and hold them in their
hands. They begin to arrange them in classes and to connect causes with
effects. General notions are necessary to the apprehension of particular
facts, the metaphysical to the physical. Before men can observe the world,
they must be able to conceive it.

To do justice to the subject, we should consider the physical philosophy of
the ancients as a whole; we should remember, (1) that the nebular theory
was the received belief of several of the early physicists; (2) that the
development of animals out of fishes who came to land, and of man out of
the animals, was held by Anaximander in the sixth century before Christ
(Plut. Symp. Quaest; Plac. Phil.); (3) that even by Philolaus and the early
Pythagoreans, the earth was held to be a body like the other stars
revolving in space around the sun or a central fire; (4) that the
beginnings of chemistry are discernible in the 'similar particles' of
Anaxagoras. Also they knew or thought (5) that there was a sex in plants
as well as in animals; (6) they were aware that musical notes depended on
the relative length or tension of the strings from which they were emitted,
and were measured by ratios of number; (7) that mathematical laws pervaded
the world; and even qualitative differences were supposed to have their
origin in number and figure; (8) the annihilation of matter was denied by
several of them, and the seeming disappearance of it held to be a
transformation only. For, although one of these discoveries might have
been supposed to be a happy guess, taken together they seem to imply a
great advance and almost maturity of natural knowledge.

We should also remember, when we attribute to the ancients hasty
generalizations and delusions of language, that physical philosophy and
metaphysical too have been guilty of similar fallacies in quite recent
times. We by no means distinguish clearly between mind and body, between
ideas and facts. Have not many discussions arisen about the Atomic theory
in which a point has been confused with a material atom? Have not the
natures of things been explained by imaginary entities, such as life or
phlogiston, which exist in the mind only? Has not disease been regarded,
like sin, sometimes as a negative and necessary, sometimes as a positive or
malignant principle? The 'idols' of Bacon are nearly as common now as
ever; they are inherent in the human mind, and when they have the most
complete dominion over us, we are least able to perceive them. We
recognize them in the ancients, but we fail to see them in ourselves.

Such reflections, although this is not the place in which to dwell upon
them at length, lead us to take a favourable view of the speculations of
the Timaeus. We should consider not how much Plato actually knew, but how
far he has contributed to the general ideas of physics, or supplied the
notions which, whether true or false, have stimulated the minds of later
generations in the path of discovery. Some of them may seem old-fashioned,
but may nevertheless have had a great influence in promoting system and
assisting enquiry, while in others we hear the latest word of physical or
metaphysical philosophy. There is also an intermediate class, in which
Plato falls short of the truths of modern science, though he is not wholly
unacquainted with them. (1) To the first class belongs the teleological
theory of creation. Whether all things in the world can be explained as
the result of natural laws, or whether we must not admit of tendencies and
marks of design also, has been a question much disputed of late years.
Even if all phenomena are the result of natural forces, we must admit that
there are many things in heaven and earth which are as well expressed under
the image of mind or design as under any other. At any rate, the language
of Plato has been the language of natural theology down to our own time,
nor can any description of the world wholly dispense with it. The notion
of first and second or co-operative causes, which originally appears in the
Timaeus, has likewise survived to our own day, and has been a great peace-
maker between theology and science. Plato also approaches very near to our
doctrine of the primary and secondary qualities of matter. (2) Another
popular notion which is found in the Timaeus, is the feebleness of the
human intellect--'God knows the original qualities of things; man can only
hope to attain to probability.' We speak in almost the same words of human
intelligence, but not in the same manner of the uncertainty of our
knowledge of nature. The reason is that the latter is assured to us by
experiment, and is not contrasted with the certainty of ideal or
mathematical knowledge. But the ancient philosopher never experimented:
in the Timaeus Plato seems to have thought that there would be impiety in
making the attempt; he, for example, who tried experiments in colours would
'forget the difference of the human and divine natures.' Their
indefiniteness is probably the reason why he singles them out, as
especially incapable of being tested by experiment. (Compare the saying of
Anaxagoras--Sext. Pyrrh.--that since snow is made of water and water is
black, snow ought to be black.)

The greatest 'divination' of the ancients was the supremacy which they
assigned to mathematics in all the realms of nature; for in all of them
there is a foundation of mechanics. Even physiology partakes of figure and
number; and Plato is not wrong in attributing them to the human frame, but
in the omission to observe how little could be explained by them. Thus we
may remark in passing that the most fanciful of ancient philosophies is
also the most nearly verified in fact. The fortunate guess that the world
is a sum of numbers and figures has been the most fruitful of
anticipations. The 'diatonic' scale of the Pythagoreans and Plato
suggested to Kepler that the secret of the distances of the planets from
one another was to be found in mathematical proportions. The doctrine that
the heavenly bodies all move in a circle is known by us to be erroneous;
but without such an error how could the human mind have comprehended the
heavens? Astronomy, even in modern times, has made far greater progress by
the high a priori road than could have been attained by any other. Yet,
strictly speaking--and the remark applies to ancient physics generally--
this high a priori road was based upon a posteriori grounds. For there
were no facts of which the ancients were so well assured by experience as
facts of number. Having observed that they held good in a few instances,
they applied them everywhere; and in the complexity, of which they were
capable, found the explanation of the equally complex phenomena of the
universe. They seemed to see them in the least things as well as in the
greatest; in atoms, as well as in suns and stars; in the human body as well
as in external nature. And now a favourite speculation of modern chemistry
is the explanation of qualitative difference by quantitative, which is at
present verified to a certain extent and may hereafter be of far more
universal application. What is this but the atoms of Democritus and the
triangles of Plato? The ancients should not be wholly deprived of the
credit of their guesses because they were unable to prove them. May they
not have had, like the animals, an instinct of something more than they

Besides general notions we seem to find in the Timaeus some more precise
approximations to the discoveries of modern physical science. First, the
doctrine of equipoise. Plato affirms, almost in so many words, that nature
abhors a vacuum. Whenever a particle is displaced, the rest push and
thrust one another until equality is restored. We must remember that these
ideas were not derived from any definite experiment, but were the original
reflections of man, fresh from the first observation of nature. The latest
word of modern philosophy is continuity and development, but to Plato this
is the beginning and foundation of science; there is nothing that he is so
strongly persuaded of as that the world is one, and that all the various
existences which are contained in it are only the transformations of the
same soul of the world acting on the same matter. He would have readily
admitted that out of the protoplasm all things were formed by the gradual
process of creation; but he would have insisted that mind and intelligence
--not meaning by this, however, a conscious mind or person--were prior to
them, and could alone have created them. Into the workings of this eternal
mind or intelligence he does not enter further; nor would there have been
any use in attempting to investigate the things which no eye has seen nor
any human language can express.

Lastly, there remain two points in which he seems to touch great
discoveries of modern times--the law of gravitation, and the circulation of
the blood.

(1) The law of gravitation, according to Plato, is a law, not only of the
attraction of lesser bodies to larger ones, but of similar bodies to
similar, having a magnetic power as well as a principle of gravitation. He
observed that earth, water, and air had settled down to their places, and
he imagined fire or the exterior aether to have a place beyond air. When
air seemed to go upwards and fire to pierce through air--when water and
earth fell downward, they were seeking their native elements. He did not
remark that his own explanation did not suit all phenomena; and the simpler
explanation, which assigns to bodies degrees of heaviness and lightness
proportioned to the mass and distance of the bodies which attract them,
never occurred to him. Yet the affinities of similar substances have some
effect upon the composition of the world, and of this Plato may be thought
to have had an anticipation. He may be described as confusing the
attraction of gravitation with the attraction of cohesion. The influence
of such affinities and the chemical action of one body upon another in long
periods of time have become a recognized principle of geology.

(2) Plato is perfectly aware--and he could hardly be ignorant--that blood
is a fluid in constant motion. He also knew that blood is partly a solid
substance consisting of several elements, which, as he might have observed
in the use of 'cupping-glasses', decompose and die, when no longer in
motion. But the specific discovery that the blood flows out on one side of
the heart through the arteries and returns through the veins on the other,
which is commonly called the circulation of the blood, was absolutely
unknown to him.

A further study of the Timaeus suggests some after-thoughts which may be
conveniently brought together in this place. The topics which I propose
briefly to reconsider are (a) the relation of the Timaeus to the other
dialogues of Plato and to the previous philosophy; (b) the nature of God
and of creation (c) the morality of the Timaeus:--

(a) The Timaeus is more imaginative and less scientific than any other of
the Platonic dialogues. It is conjectural astronomy, conjectural natural
philosophy, conjectural medicine. The writer himself is constantly
repeating that he is speaking what is probable only. The dialogue is put
into the mouth of Timaeus, a Pythagorean philosopher, and therefore here,
as in the Parmenides, we are in doubt how far Plato is expressing his own
sentiments. Hence the connexion with the other dialogues is comparatively
slight. We may fill up the lacunae of the Timaeus by the help of the
Republic or Phaedrus: we may identify the same and other with the (Greek)
of the Philebus. We may find in the Laws or in the Statesman parallels
with the account of creation and of the first origin of man. It would be
possible to frame a scheme in which all these various elements might have a
place. But such a mode of proceeding would be unsatisfactory, because we
have no reason to suppose that Plato intended his scattered thoughts to be
collected in a system. There is a common spirit in his writings, and there
are certain general principles, such as the opposition of the sensible and
intellectual, and the priority of mind, which run through all of them; but
he has no definite forms of words in which he consistently expresses
himself. While the determinations of human thought are in process of
creation he is necessarily tentative and uncertain. And there is least of
definiteness, whenever either in describing the beginning or the end of the
world, he has recourse to myths. These are not the fixed modes in which
spiritual truths are revealed to him, but the efforts of imagination, by
which at different times and in various manners he seeks to embody his
conceptions. The clouds of mythology are still resting upon him, and he
has not yet pierced 'to the heaven of the fixed stars' which is beyond
them. It is safer then to admit the inconsistencies of the Timaeus, or to
endeavour to fill up what is wanting from our own imagination, inspired by
a study of the dialogue, than to refer to other Platonic writings,--and
still less should we refer to the successors of Plato,--for the elucidation
of it.

More light is thrown upon the Timaeus by a comparison of the previous
philosophies. For the physical science of the ancients was traditional,
descending through many generations of Ionian and Pythagorean philosophers.
Plato does not look out upon the heavens and describe what he sees in them,
but he builds upon the foundations of others, adding something out of the
'depths of his own self-consciousness.' Socrates had already spoken of God
the creator, who made all things for the best. While he ridiculed the
superficial explanations of phenomena which were current in his age, he
recognised the marks both of benevolence and of design in the frame of man
and in the world. The apparatus of winds and waters is contemptuously
rejected by him in the Phaedo, but he thinks that there is a power greater
than that of any Atlas in the 'Best' (Phaedo; Arist. Met.). Plato,
following his master, affirms this principle of the best, but he
acknowledges that the best is limited by the conditions of matter. In the
generation before Socrates, Anaxagoras had brought together 'Chaos' and
'Mind'; and these are connected by Plato in the Timaeus, but in accordance
with his own mode of thinking he has interposed between them the idea or
pattern according to which mind worked. The circular impulse (Greek) of
the one philosopher answers to the circular movement (Greek) of the other.
But unlike Anaxagoras, Plato made the sun and stars living beings and not
masses of earth or metal. The Pythagoreans again had framed a world out of
numbers, which they constructed into figures. Plato adopted their
speculations and improved upon them by a more exact knowledge of geometry.
The Atomists too made the world, if not out of geometrical figures, at
least out of different forms of atoms, and these atoms resembled the
triangles of Plato in being too small to be visible. But though the
physiology of the Timaeus is partly borrowed from them, they are either
ignored by Plato or referred to with a secret contempt and dislike. He
looks with more favour on the Pythagoreans, whose intervals of number
applied to the distances of the planets reappear in the Timaeus. It is
probable that among the Pythagoreans living in the fourth century B.C.,
there were already some who, like Plato, made the earth their centre.
Whether he obtained his circles of the Same and Other from any previous
thinker is uncertain. The four elements are taken from Empedocles; the
interstices of the Timaeus may also be compared with his (Greek). The
passage of one element into another is common to Heracleitus and several of
the Ionian philosophers. So much of a syncretist is Plato, though not
after the manner of the Neoplatonists. For the elements which he borrows
from others are fused and transformed by his own genius. On the other hand
we find fewer traces in Plato of early Ionic or Eleatic speculation. He
does not imagine the world of sense to be made up of opposites or to be in
a perpetual flux, but to vary within certain limits which are controlled by
what he calls the principle of the same. Unlike the Eleatics, who
relegated the world to the sphere of not-being, he admits creation to have
an existence which is real and even eternal, although dependent on the will
of the creator. Instead of maintaining the doctrine that the void has a
necessary place in the existence of the world, he rather affirms the modern
thesis that nature abhors a vacuum, as in the Sophist he also denies the
reality of not-being (Aristot. Metaph.). But though in these respects he
differs from them, he is deeply penetrated by the spirit of their
philosophy; he differs from them with reluctance, and gladly recognizes the
'generous depth' of Parmenides (Theaet.).

There is a similarity between the Timaeus and the fragments of Philolaus,
which by some has been thought to be so great as to create a suspicion that
they are derived from it. Philolaus is known to us from the Phaedo of
Plato as a Pythagorean philosopher residing at Thebes in the latter half of
the fifth century B.C., after the dispersion of the original Pythagorean
society. He was the teacher of Simmias and Cebes, who became disciples of
Socrates. We have hardly any other information about him. The story that
Plato had purchased three books of his writings from a relation is not
worth repeating; it is only a fanciful way in which an ancient biographer
dresses up the fact that there was supposed to be a resemblance between the
two writers. Similar gossiping stories are told about the sources of the
Republic and the Phaedo. That there really existed in antiquity a work
passing under the name of Philolaus there can be no doubt. Fragments of
this work are preserved to us, chiefly in Stobaeus, a few in Boethius and
other writers. They remind us of the Timaeus, as well as of the Phaedrus
and Philebus. When the writer says (Stob. Eclog.) that all things are
either finite (definite) or infinite (indefinite), or a union of the two,
and that this antithesis and synthesis pervades all art and nature, we are
reminded of the Philebus. When he calls the centre of the world (Greek),
we have a parallel to the Phaedrus. His distinction between the world of
order, to which the sun and moon and the stars belong, and the world of
disorder, which lies in the region between the moon and the earth,
approximates to Plato's sphere of the Same and of the Other. Like Plato
(Tim.), he denied the above and below in space, and said that all things
were the same in relation to a centre. He speaks also of the world as one
and indestructible: 'for neither from within nor from without does it
admit of destruction' (Tim). He mentions ten heavenly bodies, including
the sun and moon, the earth and the counter-earth (Greek), and in the midst
of them all he places the central fire, around which they are moving--this
is hidden from the earth by the counter-earth. Of neither is there any
trace in Plato, who makes the earth the centre of his system. Philolaus
magnifies the virtues of particular numbers, especially of the number 10
(Stob. Eclog.), and descants upon odd and even numbers, after the manner of
the later Pythagoreans. It is worthy of remark that these mystical fancies
are nowhere to be found in the writings of Plato, although the importance
of number as a form and also an instrument of thought is ever present to
his mind. Both Philolaus and Plato agree in making the world move in
certain numerical ratios according to a musical scale: though Bockh is of
opinion that the two scales, of Philolaus and of the Timaeus, do not
correspond...We appear not to be sufficiently acquainted with the early
Pythagoreans to know how far the statements contained in these fragments
corresponded with their doctrines; and we therefore cannot pronounce,
either in favour of the genuineness of the fragments, with Bockh and
Zeller, or, with Valentine Rose and Schaarschmidt, against them. But it is
clear that they throw but little light upon the Timaeus, and that their
resemblance to it has been exaggerated.

That there is a degree of confusion and indistinctness in Plato's account
both of man and of the universe has been already acknowledged. We cannot
tell (nor could Plato himself have told) where the figure or myth ends and
the philosophical truth begins; we cannot explain (nor could Plato himself
have explained to us) the relation of the ideas to appearance, of which one
is the copy of the other, and yet of all things in the world they are the
most opposed and unlike. This opposition is presented to us in many forms,
as the antithesis of the one and many, of the finite and infinite, of the
intelligible and sensible, of the unchangeable and the changing, of the
indivisible and the divisible, of the fixed stars and the planets, of the
creative mind and the primeval chaos. These pairs of opposites are so many
aspects of the great opposition between ideas and phenomena--they easily
pass into one another; and sometimes the two members of the relation differ
in kind, sometimes only in degree. As in Aristotle's matter and form the
connexion between them is really inseparable; for if we attempt to separate
them they become devoid of content and therefore indistinguishable; there
is no difference between the idea of which nothing can be predicated, and
the chaos or matter which has no perceptible qualities--between Being in
the abstract and Nothing. Yet we are frequently told that the one class of
them is the reality and the other appearance; and one is often spoken of as
the double or reflection of the other. For Plato never clearly saw that
both elements had an equal place in mind and in nature; and hence,
especially when we argue from isolated passages in his writings, or attempt
to draw what appear to us to be the natural inferences from them, we are
full of perplexity. There is a similar confusion about necessity and free-
will, and about the state of the soul after death. Also he sometimes
supposes that God is immanent in the world, sometimes that he is
transcendent. And having no distinction of objective and subjective, he
passes imperceptibly from one to the other; from intelligence to soul, from
eternity to time. These contradictions may be softened or concealed by a
judicious use of language, but they cannot be wholly got rid of. That an
age of intellectual transition must also be one of inconsistency; that the
creative is opposed to the critical or defining habit of mind or time, has
been often repeated by us. But, as Plato would say, 'there is no harm in
repeating twice or thrice' (Laws) what is important for the understanding
of a great author.

It has not, however, been observed, that the confusion partly arises out of
the elements of opposing philosophies which are preserved in him. He holds
these in solution, he brings them into relation with one another, but he
does not perfectly harmonize them. They are part of his own mind, and he
is incapable of placing himself outside of them and criticizing them. They
grow as he grows; they are a kind of composition with which his own
philosophy is overlaid. In early life he fancies that he has mastered
them: but he is also mastered by them; and in language (Sophist) which may
be compared with the hesitating tone of the Timaeus, he confesses in his
later years that they are full of obscurity to him. He attributes new
meanings to the words of Parmenides and Heracleitus; but at times the old
Eleatic philosophy appears to go beyond him; then the world of phenomena
disappears, but the doctrine of ideas is also reduced to nothingness. All
of them are nearer to one another than they themselves supposed, and nearer
to him than he supposed. All of them are antagonistic to sense and have an
affinity to number and measure and a presentiment of ideas. Even in Plato
they still retain their contentious or controversial character, which was
developed by the growth of dialectic. He is never able to reconcile the
first causes of the pre-Socratic philosophers with the final causes of
Socrates himself. There is no intelligible account of the relation of
numbers to the universal ideas, or of universals to the idea of good. He
found them all three, in the Pythagorean philosophy and in the teaching of
Socrates and of the Megarians respectively; and, because they all furnished
modes of explaining and arranging phenomena, he is unwilling to give up any
of them, though he is unable to unite them in a consistent whole.

Lastly, Plato, though an idealist philosopher, is Greek and not Oriental in
spirit and feeling. He is no mystic or ascetic; he is not seeking in vain
to get rid of matter or to find absorption in the divine nature, or in the
Soul of the universe. And therefore we are not surprised to find that his
philosophy in the Timaeus returns at last to a worship of the heavens, and
that to him, as to other Greeks, nature, though containing a remnant of
evil, is still glorious and divine. He takes away or drops the veil of
mythology, and presents her to us in what appears to him to be the form-
fairer and truer far--of mathematical figures. It is this element in the
Timaeus, no less than its affinity to certain Pythagorean speculations,
which gives it a character not wholly in accordance with the other
dialogues of Plato.

(b) The Timaeus contains an assertion perhaps more distinct than is found
in any of the other dialogues (Rep.; Laws) of the goodness of God. 'He was
good himself, and he fashioned the good everywhere.' He was not 'a jealous
God,' and therefore he desired that all other things should be equally
good. He is the IDEA of good who has now become a person, and speaks and
is spoken of as God. Yet his personality seems to appear only in the act
of creation. In so far as he works with his eye fixed upon an eternal
pattern he is like the human artificer in the Republic. Here the theory of
Platonic ideas intrudes upon us. God, like man, is supposed to have an
ideal of which Plato is unable to tell us the origin. He may be said, in
the language of modern philosophy, to resolve the divine mind into subject
and object.

The first work of creation is perfected, the second begins under the
direction of inferior ministers. The supreme God is withdrawn from the
world and returns to his own accustomed nature (Tim.). As in the
Statesman, he retires to his place of view. So early did the Epicurean
doctrine take possession of the Greek mind, and so natural is it to the
heart of man, when he has once passed out of the stage of mythology into
that of rational religion. For he sees the marks of design in the world;
but he no longer sees or fancies that he sees God walking in the garden or
haunting stream or mountain. He feels also that he must put God as far as
possible out of the way of evil, and therefore he banishes him from an evil
world. Plato is sensible of the difficulty; and he often shows that he is
desirous of justifying the ways of God to man. Yet on the other hand, in
the Tenth Book of the Laws he passes a censure on those who say that the
Gods have no care of human things.

The creation of the world is the impression of order on a previously
existing chaos. The formula of Anaxagoras--'all things were in chaos or
confusion, and then mind came and disposed them'--is a summary of the first
part of the Timaeus. It is true that of a chaos without differences no
idea could be formed. All was not mixed but one; and therefore it was not
difficult for the later Platonists to draw inferences by which they were
enabled to reconcile the narrative of the Timaeus with the Mosaic account
of the creation. Neither when we speak of mind or intelligence, do we seem
to get much further in our conception than circular motion, which was
deemed to be the most perfect. Plato, like Anaxagoras, while commencing
his theory of the universe with ideas of mind and of the best, is compelled
in the execution of his design to condescend to the crudest physics.

(c) The morality of the Timaeus is singular, and it is difficult to adjust
the balance between the two elements of it. The difficulty which Plato
feels, is that which all of us feel, and which is increased in our own day
by the progress of physical science, how the responsibility of man is to be
reconciled with his dependence on natural causes. And sometimes, like
other men, he is more impressed by one aspect of human life, sometimes by
the other. In the Republic he represents man as freely choosing his own
lot in a state prior to birth--a conception which, if taken literally,
would still leave him subject to the dominion of necessity in his after
life; in the Statesman he supposes the human race to be preserved in the
world only by a divine interposition; while in the Timaeus the supreme God
commissions the inferior deities to avert from him all but self-inflicted
evils--words which imply that all the evils of men are really self-
inflicted. And here, like Plato (the insertion of a note in the text of an
ancient writer is a literary curiosity worthy of remark), we may take
occasion to correct an error. For we too hastily said that Plato in the
Timaeus regarded all 'vices and crimes as involuntary.' But the fact is
that he is inconsistent with himself; in one and the same passage vice is
attributed to the relaxation of the bodily frame, and yet we are exhorted
to avoid it and pursue virtue. It is also admitted that good and evil
conduct are to be attributed respectively to good and evil laws and
institutions. These cannot be given by individuals to themselves; and
therefore human actions, in so far as they are dependent upon them, are
regarded by Plato as involuntary rather than voluntary. Like other writers
on this subject, he is unable to escape from some degree of self-
contradiction. He had learned from Socrates that vice is ignorance, and
suddenly the doctrine seems to him to be confirmed by observing how much of
the good and bad in human character depends on the bodily constitution. So
in modern times the speculative doctrine of necessity has often been
supported by physical facts.

The Timaeus also contains an anticipation of the stoical life according to
nature. Man contemplating the heavens is to regulate his erring life
according to them. He is to partake of the repose of nature and of the
order of nature, to bring the variable principle in himself into harmony
with the principle of the same. The ethics of the Timaeus may be summed up
in the single idea of 'law.' To feel habitually that he is part of the
order of the universe, is one of the highest ethical motives of which man
is capable. Something like this is what Plato means when he speaks of the
soul 'moving about the same in unchanging thought of the same.' He does
not explain how man is acted upon by the lesser influences of custom or of
opinion; or how the commands of the soul watching in the citadel are
conveyed to the bodily organs. But this perhaps, to use once more
expressions of his own, 'is part of another subject' or 'may be more
suitably discussed on some other occasion.'

There is no difficulty, by the help of Aristotle and later writers, in
criticizing the Timaeus of Plato, in pointing out the inconsistencies of
the work, in dwelling on the ignorance of anatomy displayed by the author,
in showing the fancifulness or unmeaningness of some of his reasons. But
the Timaeus still remains the greatest effort of the human mind to conceive
the world as a whole which the genius of antiquity has bequeathed to us.


One more aspect of the Timaeus remains to be considered--the mythological
or geographical. Is it not a wonderful thing that a few pages of one of
Plato's dialogues have grown into a great legend, not confined to Greece
only, but spreading far and wide over the nations of Europe and reaching
even to Egypt and Asia? Like the tale of Troy, or the legend of the Ten
Tribes (Ewald, Hist. of Isr.), which perhaps originated in a few verses of
II Esdras, it has become famous, because it has coincided with a great
historical fact. Like the romance of King Arthur, which has had so great a
charm, it has found a way over the seas from one country and language to
another. It inspired the navigators of the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries; it foreshadowed the discovery of America. It realized the
fiction so natural to the human mind, because it answered the enquiry about
the origin of the arts, that there had somewhere existed an ancient
primitive civilization. It might find a place wherever men chose to look
for it; in North, South, East, or West; in the Islands of the Blest; before
the entrance of the Straits of Gibraltar, in Sweden or in Palestine. It
mattered little whether the description in Plato agreed with the locality
assigned to it or not. It was a legend so adapted to the human mind that
it made a habitation for itself in any country. It was an island in the
clouds, which might be seen anywhere by the eye of faith. It was a subject
especially congenial to the ponderous industry of certain French and
Swedish writers, who delighted in heaping up learning of all sorts but were
incapable of using it.

M. Martin has written a valuable dissertation on the opinions entertained
respecting the Island of Atlantis in ancient and modern times. It is a
curious chapter in the history of the human mind. The tale of Atlantis is
the fabric of a vision, but it has never ceased to interest mankind. It
was variously regarded by the ancients themselves. The stronger heads
among them, like Strabo and Longinus, were as little disposed to believe in
the truth of it as the modern reader in Gulliver or Robinson Crusoe. On
the other hand there is no kind or degree of absurdity or fancy in which
the more foolish writers, both of antiquity and of modern times, have not
indulged respecting it. The Neo-Platonists, loyal to their master, like
some commentators on the Christian Scriptures, sought to give an
allegorical meaning to what they also believed to be an historical fact.
It was as if some one in our own day were to convert the poems of Homer
into an allegory of the Christian religion, at the same time maintaining
them to be an exact and veritable history. In the Middle Ages the legend
seems to have been half-forgotten until revived by the discovery of
America. It helped to form the Utopia of Sir Thomas More and the New
Atlantis of Bacon, although probably neither of those great men were at all
imposed upon by the fiction. It was most prolific in the seventeenth or in
the early part of the eighteenth century, when the human mind, seeking for
Utopias or inventing them, was glad to escape out of the dulness of the
present into the romance of the past or some ideal of the future. The
later forms of such narratives contained features taken from the Edda, as
well as from the Old and New Testament; also from the tales of missionaries
and the experiences of travellers and of colonists.

The various opinions respecting the Island of Atlantis have no interest for
us except in so far as they illustrate the extravagances of which men are
capable. But this is a real interest and a serious lesson, if we remember
that now as formerly the human mind is liable to be imposed upon by the
illusions of the past, which are ever assuming some new form.

When we have shaken off the rubbish of ages, there remain one or two
questions of which the investigation has a permanent value:--

1. Did Plato derive the legend of Atlantis from an Egyptian source? It
may be replied that there is no such legend in any writer previous to
Plato; neither in Homer, nor in Pindar, nor in Herodotus is there any
mention of an Island of Atlantis, nor any reference to it in Aristotle, nor
any citation of an earlier writer by a later one in which it is to be
found. Nor have any traces been discovered hitherto in Egyptian monuments
of a connexion between Greece and Egypt older than the eighth or ninth
century B.C. It is true that Proclus, writing in the fifth century after
Christ, tells us of stones and columns in Egypt on which the history of the
Island of Atlantis was engraved. The statement may be false--there are
similar tales about columns set up 'by the Canaanites whom Joshua drove
out' (Procop.); but even if true, it would only show that the legend, 800
years after the time of Plato, had been transferred to Egypt, and
inscribed, not, like other forgeries, in books, but on stone. Probably in
the Alexandrian age, when Egypt had ceased to have a history and began to
appropriate the legends of other nations, many such monuments were to be
found of events which had become famous in that or other countries. The
oldest witness to the story is said to be Crantor, a Stoic philosopher who
lived a generation later than Plato, and therefore may have borrowed it
from him. The statement is found in Proclus; but we require better
assurance than Proclus can give us before we accept this or any other
statement which he makes.

Secondly, passing from the external to the internal evidence, we may remark
that the story is far more likely to have been invented by Plato than to
have been brought by Solon from Egypt. That is another part of his legend
which Plato also seeks to impose upon us. The verisimilitude which he has
given to the tale is a further reason for suspecting it; for he could
easily 'invent Egyptian or any other tales' (Phaedrus). Are not the words,
'The truth of the story is a great advantage,' if we read between the
lines, an indication of the fiction? It is only a legend that Solon went
to Egypt, and if he did he could not have conversed with Egyptian priests
or have read records in their temples. The truth is that the introduction
is a mosaic work of small touches which, partly by their minuteness, and
also by their seeming probability, win the confidence of the reader. Who
would desire better evidence than that of Critias, who had heard the
narrative in youth when the memory is strongest at the age of ten from his
grandfather Critias, an old man of ninety, who in turn had heard it from
Solon himself? Is not the famous expression--'You Hellenes are ever
children and there is no knowledge among you hoary with age,' really a
compliment to the Athenians who are described in these words as 'ever
young'? And is the thought expressed in them to be attributed to the
learning of the Egyptian priest, and not rather to the genius of Plato? Or
when the Egyptian says--'Hereafter at our leisure we will take up the
written documents and examine in detail the exact truth about these
things'--what is this but a literary trick by which Plato sets off his
narrative? Could any war between Athens and the Island of Atlantis have
really coincided with the struggle between the Greeks and Persians, as is
sufficiently hinted though not expressly stated in the narrative of Plato?
And whence came the tradition to Egypt? or in what does the story consist
except in the war between the two rival powers and the submersion of both
of them? And how was the tale transferred to the poem of Solon? 'It is
not improbable,' says Mr. Grote, 'that Solon did leave an unfinished
Egyptian poem' (Plato). But are probabilities for which there is not a
tittle of evidence, and which are without any parallel, to be deemed worthy
of attention by the critic? How came the poem of Solon to disappear in
antiquity? or why did Plato, if the whole narrative was known to him, break
off almost at the beginning of it?

While therefore admiring the diligence and erudition of M. Martin, we
cannot for a moment suppose that the tale was told to Solon by an Egyptian
priest, nor can we believe that Solon wrote a poem upon the theme which was
thus suggested to him--a poem which disappeared in antiquity; or that the
Island of Atlantis or the antediluvian Athens ever had any existence except
in the imagination of Plato. Martin is of opinion that Plato would have
been terrified if he could have foreseen the endless fancies to which his
Island of Atlantis has given occasion. Rather he would have been
infinitely amused if he could have known that his gift of invention would
have deceived M. Martin himself into the belief that the tradition was
brought from Egypt by Solon and made the subject of a poem by him. M.
Martin may also be gently censured for citing without sufficient
discrimination ancient authors having very different degrees of authority
and value.

2. It is an interesting and not unimportant question which is touched upon
by Martin, whether the Atlantis of Plato in any degree held out a guiding
light to the early navigators. He is inclined to think that there is no
real connexion between them. But surely the discovery of the New World was
preceded by a prophetic anticipation of it, which, like the hope of a
Messiah, was entering into the hearts of men? And this hope was nursed by
ancient tradition, which had found expression from time to time in the
celebrated lines of Seneca and in many other places. This tradition was
sustained by the great authority of Plato, and therefore the legend of the
Island of Atlantis, though not closely connected with the voyages of the
early navigators, may be truly said to have contributed indirectly to the
great discovery.

The Timaeus of Plato, like the Protagoras and several portions of the
Phaedrus and Republic, was translated by Cicero into Latin. About a
fourth, comprehending with lacunae the first portion of the dialogue, is
preserved in several MSS. These generally agree, and therefore may be
supposed to be derived from a single original. The version is very
faithful, and is a remarkable monument of Cicero's skill in managing the
difficult and intractable Greek. In his treatise De Natura Deorum, he also
refers to the Timaeus, which, speaking in the person of Velleius the
Epicurean, he severely criticises.

The commentary of Proclus on the Timaeus is a wonderful monument of the
silliness and prolixity of the Alexandrian Age. It extends to about thirty
pages of the book, and is thirty times the length of the original. It is
surprising that this voluminous work should have found a translator (Thomas
Taylor, a kindred spirit, who was himself a Neo-Platonist, after the
fashion, not of the fifth or sixteenth, but of the nineteenth century
A.D.). The commentary is of little or no value, either in a philosophical
or philological point of view. The writer is unable to explain particular
passages in any precise manner, and he is equally incapable of grasping the
whole. He does not take words in their simple meaning or sentences in
their natural connexion. He is thinking, not of the context in Plato, but
of the contemporary Pythagorean philosophers and their wordy strife. He
finds nothing in the text which he does not bring to it. He is full of
Porphyry, Iamblichus and Plotinus, of misapplied logic, of misunderstood
grammar, and of the Orphic theology.

Although such a work can contribute little or nothing to the understanding
of Plato, it throws an interesting light on the Alexandrian times; it
realizes how a philosophy made up of words only may create a deep and
widespread enthusiasm, how the forms of logic and rhetoric may usurp the
place of reason and truth, how all philosophies grow faded and discoloured,
and are patched and made up again like worn-out garments, and retain only a
second-hand existence. He who would study this degeneracy of philosophy
and of the Greek mind in the original cannot do better than devote a few of
his days and nights to the commentary of Proclus on the Timaeus.

A very different account must be given of the short work entitled 'Timaeus
Locrus,' which is a brief but clear analysis of the Timaeus of Plato,
omitting the introduction or dialogue and making a few small additions. It
does not allude to the original from which it is taken; it is quite free
from mysticism and Neo-Platonism. In length it does not exceed a fifth
part of the Timaeus. It is written in the Doric dialect, and contains
several words which do not occur in classical Greek. No other indication
of its date, except this uncertain one of language, appears in it. In
several places the writer has simplified the language of Plato, in a few
others he has embellished and exaggerated it. He generally preserves the
thought of the original, but does not copy the words. On the whole this
little tract faithfully reflects the meaning and spirit of the Timaeus.

>From the garden of the Timaeus, as from the other dialogues of Plato, we
may still gather a few flowers and present them at parting to the reader.
There is nothing in Plato grander and simpler than the conversation between
Solon and the Egyptian priest, in which the youthfulness of Hellas is
contrasted with the antiquity of Egypt. Here are to be found the famous
words, 'O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are ever young, and there is not an
old man among you'--which may be compared to the lively saying of Hegel,
that 'Greek history began with the youth Achilles and left off with the
youth Alexander.' The numerous arts of verisimilitude by which Plato
insinuates into the mind of the reader the truth of his narrative have been
already referred to. Here occur a sentence or two not wanting in Platonic
irony (Greek--a word to the wise). 'To know or tell the origin of the
other divinities is beyond us, and we must accept the traditions of the men
of old time who affirm themselves to be the offspring of the Gods--that is
what they say--and they must surely have known their own ancestors. How
can we doubt the word of the children of the Gods? Although they give no
probable or certain proofs, still, as they declare that they are speaking
of what took place in their own family, we must conform to custom and
believe them.' 'Our creators well knew that women and other animals would
some day be framed out of men, and they further knew that many animals
would require the use of nails for many purposes; wherefore they fashioned
in men at their first creation the rudiments of nails.' Or once more, let
us reflect on two serious passages in which the order of the world is
supposed to find a place in the human soul and to infuse harmony into it.
'The soul, when touching anything that has essence, whether dispersed in
parts or undivided, is stirred through all her powers to declare the
sameness or difference of that thing and some other; and to what
individuals are related, and by what affected, and in what way and how and
when, both in the world of generation and in the world of immutable being.
And when reason, which works with equal truth, whether she be in the circle
of the diverse or of the same,--in voiceless silence holding her onward
course in the sphere of the self-moved,--when reason, I say, is hovering
around the sensible world, and when the circle of the diverse also moving
truly imparts the intimations of sense to the whole soul, then arise
opinions and beliefs sure and certain. But when reason is concerned with
the rational, and the circle of the same moving smoothly declares it, then
intelligence and knowledge are necessarily perfected;' where, proceeding in
a similar path of contemplation, he supposes the inward and the outer world
mutually to imply each other. 'God invented and gave us sight to the end
that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply
them to the courses of our own intelligence which are akin to them, the
unperturbed to the perturbed; and that we, learning them and partaking of
the natural truth of reason, might imitate the absolutely unerring courses
of God and regulate our own vagaries.' Or let us weigh carefully some
other profound thoughts, such as the following. 'He who neglects education
walks lame to the end of his life, and returns imperfect and good for
nothing to the world below.' 'The father and maker of all this universe is
past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would
be impossible.' 'Let me tell you then why the Creator made this world of
generation. He was good, and the good can never have jealousy of anything.
And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like
himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of
creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the
testimony of wise men: God desired that all things should be good and
nothing bad, so far as this was attainable.' This is the leading thought
in the Timaeus, just as the IDEA of Good is the leading thought of the
Republic, the one expression describing the personal, the other the
impersonal Good or God, differing in form rather than in substance, and
both equally implying to the mind of Plato a divine reality. The slight
touch, perhaps ironical, contained in the words, 'as we shall do well in
believing on the testimony of wise men,' is very characteristic of Plato.





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