on December 24, 2003
Plato is deep. That can't be emphasized enough. He deals more with physics in "Timaeus" than in any other extant work. This is not so much a belief system, or paradigm, presented, so much as ideas. Nowhere does Plato actually endorse these views (although they are well worth learning). He sort of asks the reader to listen with an open mind, and THEN be critical. I found something interesting in one of the parts on geometric physics that seems to have excaped every commentater I am aware of,so who knows what else is still hidden after more than 2,000 years?
You get Atlantis stories, flood myths, the Atomic theory, evolution/reincarnation, medical/biological theory, and creation myth. Running through some parts is some very interesting (to me, at least) mathematics. All from one of (if not the) clearest mind(s) I have ever read. Not to mention an excellent writer.
"Critias" is unfinished, whether it was left that way, or the ending has been lost. It's the earliest tale of Atlantis we have (Atlantis is only discussed very briefly in "Timaeus"). It can be taken as a morality parable. On the other hand, it may also be a myth that found it's way to Plato...or even a relatively accurate historical account. Or all of the above. Because, like I said: Plato is deep.
on April 13, 2003
Desmond Lee, the translator of the Penguin edition of Timaeus and
Critias, claims his goal is an accurate representation of Plato's
thought, as opposed to maintaining style or convention. Indeed,
despite the purported obscurity of the original Greek, his work
plainly reveals Plato's ideas. Timaeus presents some of Plato's
clearest statements on issues related to science and psychology,
the focus of this review. Lee provides a good introduction, section
summaries, and helpful diagrams of Plato's ideas, but few footnotes
and no index. Incidentally, Timaeus and Critias introduce astrology
and the famous story of Atlantis, one of the most intriguing
mysteries in literature. Lee writes an appendix on Atlantis, pointing
out its mythical qualities, clarifying Plato's descriptions with maps,
and outlining the case for its historical origins. This edition would
be a good choice for readers interested in the source material for the
Atlantis legend and a summary of its ramifications, with a short
bibliography. The importance of Timaeus, however, is its presentation
of Plato's philosophy in its maturity, one relevant to science.
Materialism dominates Western culture today. Briefly, materialism
identifies reality as the objects that people perceive and manipulate
in their environment, or the particles that comprise them. The following
concepts fit nicely with this outlook: causality as a product of lawful
interactions among objects, reductionism where the events we perceive can
ultimately be attributed to universal laws and material particles, and
an evolutionary theory that explains the development of the universe
through natural laws from elementary particles. These materialist
meta-theories are the foundation of today's science.
Plato's philosophy denies that reality is only material objects, because
they merely reflect an underlying perfect, good, and beautiful reality.
In the Republic, Plato provides a memorable metaphor for our illusion of
reality in his depiction of cave dwellers who are constrained to see
only flickering shadows cast by firelight on the cave wall, oddly shaping
their conceptions. Plato's depiction of the world as image resembles
religious doctrines, such as the Hindu concept of maya. In the Gospels,
John's portrayal of Jesus as the manifestation of God's plan (logos - the
Word) resembles Plato's perfect eternal template from which earthly
objects manifest themselves. Unlike religous doctrines, however, that
ascribe natural phenomena such as diseases or psychological disturbances
to the will of gods, Plato sets out to explain the processes underlying
these disturbances, implying the possibility of establishing relations
between the ideal and its image through a rational investigation, and of
manipulating these relations, which might be called Platonic science.
Plato's model consists of a perfect eternity of Being having ideal
forms that only the most gifted in this mortal life can, with effort,
vaguely glimpse via thought, versus our ordinary, sensible, protean
world of Becoming which is constructed based on the ideal forms with the
four elements: fire, earth, water, and air. Timaeus distinguishes these
two realities as "that which always is and never becomes from that which
is always becoming but never is." The world's creator used the eternally
unchanging forms of Being as "his pattern for the form and function of
his product." First, the creator god made the heavens and the gods that
inhabit it, then set the conditions for making the inhabitants of earth,
but left to other gods actual implementation of these creatures. The gods
made humans with both immortal (intellectual soul) and mortal (body) parts,
the immortal part sharing much in common with that of the gods and the
whole universe, including its motions of Same and Different. Timaeus
provides all the preposterous details for this creation, including how
the soul is bonded to the body, the geometrical shapes corresponding to
the four elements, etc. Besides Being and Becoming, Timaeus describes
the third aspect of reality, the Receptacle, an unchanging plastic substance,
without attributes of its own, in which the perfect forms are impressed and
which provides the space for the position of objects in our world.
Plato casts his psychology as the workings of the soul. Timaeus refines
the concept of a tripartite soul from prior dialogs into a rational,
immortal executive that resides in the head; a good, mortal part in the
chest that governs passion, courage, etc.; and an inferior, unruly, mortal
part below the diaphram that exercises the appetites. Each of these soul
parts has a motion copied from the cosmos, which must be exercised for
proper mental health, and balanced with the exercise of the body for overall
health. Human inability to control such motions is the original cause of
irrationality and conflict. Timaeus mentions only in passing the theory
developed in the dialog Phaedrus, which describes motivation as the memory
of an ideal form, as when love results from the beauty of a person who
mediates recall of divine beauty. Timaeus describes sensations as the
product of motions of objects that are transmitted to the soul by particles
that pass through sensory organs, causing pain or pleasure, heat or cold,
hard or soft, etc., depending on their characteristics (e.g., size, speed,
strength). He formulates the basis of pain as a sudden departure from the
normal state and pleasure as a return to it. Thus, Plato presents theories
about mental structures, sensations, emotions, motivation, space and object
perception, and abnormal psychology.
Today, Plato's descriptions of creation, physical and biological processes,
human anatomy, and psychological functions are so erroneous as to be
humorously entertaining. Rather than dismissing too facilely his more
general philosophy and its relevance to psychology, however, we might
consider his account as symbolic and his specifics as suggestive. Stripped
of such unverifiable concepts as soul and divinity, could his work outline
a psychology that has value over that of materialist approaches? Alternately,
will ever more closer examination of the brain, for example, eventually yield
full understanding of self-awareness, thought, and consciousness, just as
expected when one has the circuit diagram of any machine? Plato had, at times,
an uncanny ability to see truth. Observed motions of stars do actually result
from different motions. Humans really are made of star stuff. Could Plato
genuinely have glimpsed eternal truths? Before you make up your mind on such
questions, you will have to study Plato's Timaeus.
on August 22, 2000
There are a plethora of disciplines (disciples) who would wish to claim the Timaeus as their own (or at least one part or another). Plato's cosmogony seems to hold something for everyone. Even to this day zealous mathematicians and geometricians have to vie with crystal worshippers and spirit channelers to proclaim Plato's take on the Pythagorean 'sacred geometry' idea relating to the make up of the universe (a bunch of triangles, apparently (p. 54-56)) as plausible and still worthy of serious study. Others search for clues within a small section of what would seem to be nothing more than a literary device (p.25)- for the secrets of the lost city of Atlantis, the story of which is related to the gathered characters by Critias as an illustration of what Plato's Republic could be, or could have been. Yet others see it as a handbook of ancient astrology (1).
Although described as a 'dialogue', it really isn't. In fact Hermocrates gets to exchange social pleasantries once or twice at the beginning and is thereafter mute throughout. Critias gets a reputable monologue recounting the fate of Atlantis (p.20) before handing off to Timaeus (perhaps Timaios, a Pythagoran), the astronomy expert, who handles, with a line or two of encouragement from Socrates (p.29), the entire piece to its end.
Perhaps it was living in the shadows of the persecution, trial, and subsequent execution of Socrates that allowed Plato to lift his eyes to focus on 'The Forms'.
This was his theory put forward in the 'Republic' and repeated again in the 'Timaeus' (p.40), that a divine craftsman created our universe. This demiurge modeled our close approximation on some original Divine set of 'Forms' which we can, through application of philosophy strive toward, but never see (sense) or 'know' (have intellectual certainty of). This Demiurge created the pantheon of Gods and gave to them the task of creating all living creatures from the elements of fire, earth, air and water (p.49). Each 'bit' of each element possessed a particular geometric shape, too small to be seen by the human eye, which mingles with others - or doesn't - according to a set of mathematical rules.
After the planets (spherical, thus perfect (p.33)), man was created next closest to perfection (after a somewhat disastrous beta cycle (p.43)). Woman came into existence as the transmigrated soul of men who didn't cut the mustard the first time around (p.42) and were made into something less than a man, that is, a woman. The scale of incompetence declined steeply from there. Next were animals that dragged their four limbs across the ground, birds, then fish and last of all oysters.
The known planets, Mercury (Hermes), Venus (Aphrodite), Jupiter (Zeus) and Mars (Apollo), along with the moon and the sun where put into motion in their allotted orbits around 'Mother' Earth. By virtue of Platonic decree, the heavenly bodies were set in their sophisticated motion by the souls that inhabited them, for they were living beings, too. Fixed stars, being fixed, were hooks to hang each soul on between incarnations (p.38).
But it seemed something was missing in Plato's unifying theory. It seemed for this universe of close approximation to exist, it had to be held in, perhaps nurtured by, framed by,'The Nurse Of Becoming', or the more ominous sounding 'receptacle of becoming' (p.48)'.
What Desmond Lee's translation does not convey about this Receptacle (Greek: Khora) is that within the text of the Timaeus, the Receptacle is a 'she' (2). When read within the context of the female genitive, the sexual politics give a much clearer picture of what both Plato and Desmond Lee seem to be struggling with when they discuss her blank void and her inability to give form or function to that which she holds within her. That it is the 'he' that attributes the form and the function.
Being denied one such omission, one wonders what other oversights one is unaware of.
Plato's Anatomy and Physiology lesson (expounded by Timaeus) is, in all respects, somewhat wide of the mark. Still, however, an interesting read (the description of the function of the liver is particularly fascinating), and at times (unintentionally) humorous - and at others it is thought provoking and insightful in a mythic sort of way. Here he touches on the metaphysical once again, setting up road signs back to the extispicy practices of the Akkadians (3) and forward to the Greco-Roman mystery religions of the first few centuries AD.
I have a thing or two to say about the Penguin Classic edition, also. The paper is yellowed and cheap and acts like blotting paper when one takes a hi-liter to it. I would much prefer nice shiny white paper, with plenty of white space for marginalia and esthetics.
The Timaeus is hard. The translator, Desmond Lee says so. Plato says so. Who am I to differ? Mr. Lee's notes were of great help, but I sometimes got the impression that he was as lost as I - which I found strangely comforting. At times he defers to the 'Cornford' translation (also available from Amazon), perhaps this tells us something.
This is essential reading for anyone who has an interest in math, comparative cosmogony, myth, astrology, archeoastronomy or philosophy. I advise all medical students to stay away.
(1) See "Hamlet's Mill', pp. 305-309, De Santillana, Giorgio, David R Godine, Publisher, Inc. Jaffery, New Hampshire (2) See 'Space & Timaeus', Bigelow, John, Monash University. URL [...] (3) See 'Ancient Mesopotamia', p.213, Oppenheim, A. Leo, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977