Friday, October 5, 2012

Timaeus (Book)

So, as I was reading through the Phil. of Understanding Theo., I realized that I had never read too much of Plato's Timaeus before. Honestly, all that I had read was the minor exert in Baird's Classical Philosophy compilation. I'm probably (but, hopefully not) the only one in the world who would have actually become intrigued by this fact enough to delve into the Timaeus itself, taking a brief break from Phil. of Understanding Theo.

Instead of just printing off a copy of the Timaeus, like any practical seminarian would do, I actually went and ordered my own copy off of Amazon. There's just something different about having the actual book. And, the both the introduction and the detail that Peter Kalkavage has put into translating were definitely worth the couple bucks.

Kalkvage's Preface points out that this work was the one that Aristotle most referred to and criticized. He reemphasizes what Allen had said, that  this was "the only Platonic dialogue known to the medieval western world." p ix, Timaeus.

Sadly, this work has been preserved as an "antique" and often disregarded due to an absence of "enduring philosophical value." p ix, Timaeus. Due to the wild tales, jovial feeling of the play, and apathy towards ramified theology, Timaeus is often found neglected in serious Philosophy.

Kalkvage seems to stand against this train of thought. Like myself, he must assume that even the Timaeus has a purpose. It can help us dig deeper into Plato's mind. We can ponder the same issues that the philosophers had entertained over 2,000 years ago. And, if nothing else, it can teach us about the cosmologies of Ancient Hellenistic times.

I find the Preface's warning refreshing and unique. Critias, one of the men in attendance during Republic and Timaeus, refers to the Egyptians as experts of history during part of this dialogue. The translator draws out this comparison of us to them, "They reduce the life of the whole to an infinite set of meaningless facts that are recorded--or rather, mummified--in the Egyptian archives. In this... Plato indirectly warns the reader not to become an Egyptian priest.... My hope for this edition is that it will help bring the Timaeus out of its Egyptian bondage to merely historical curiosity.... I hope that readers will be encouraged to find in the Timaeus not merely a repository of Greek science but an occasion for their own thinking about the power of myth, the nature of the soul, history and politics, wholeness and the love of beauty, the human fascination with origins, the will to order, and the prospects of physical science for giving an adequate account of the world and man's place in the world." p x.


I'll probably be jumping forth between the Introduction and the work as we get going. But, to start off, Kalkavage's Introduction does an excellent job of explaining some of Plato's ideas that any reader of his works would be lost without. Kalkavage begins by pointing out the importance of a dialogue. "Only when we combine speech and deed--logos and ergon [in the original Greek]--are we really reading a Platonic drama." p 2. He emphasizes the need to not only hear what Plato is discussing, but also to be able to visualize it.

In defending the importance of the Timaeus, as opposed to the more-popular disregard, Kalkavage points out that the average reader will reap what he sows. "The Platonic dialogues help us gain access to our own souls. They hold up a mirror. What we see in that mirror depends ultimately on what we are open to seeing. In reading a dialogue, we do well to recall the warning of Heraclitus [a Pre-Socratic (before Socrates) philosopher]: 'If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not discover it.'" p 3.

It is also important to point out that Plato is not among his friends as a character. Neither is he depicted under another name or as another person. But, his ideas and his aspects are shown through various different characters at different times.


"Socrates: One, two, three... but now where's our fourth..." p 47.

The same characters who were in the Republic are back, a good amount of years later. But, this account of the Timaeus is set up as if it had happened the very next day. Only one character is missing. I'd beg to say that the "fourth" is us, the readers. Although we are joining the festival 2,000 years later, we are still an active member as a witness and in its thoughts. As we read the Timaeus, it is as if we are there. And, it makes sense that Plato would have known someone else would be reading his work and willing to join in.

Plato picks up right where the Republic left off. In fact, the characters are in a somewhat hung over state from the discussion the night before (which had been the story of the Republic). As they try to remember what they had discussed, the reader is provided with a brief summary of what the Republic had been all about.

In short, the Republic is what Plato thought the perfect civilization would entail. It has philosopher kings and people (eerily) seem to be bred for their occupations ensuring that they would do the best at their given careers. They have every station accounted for and everyone does their best at their work. They live in a harmonic utopia.

What Plato tried to do in the Republic was to imagine what the form would be for the perfect society and the perfect order. This philosophy of Plato's forms is crucial to understanding a lot of his works. His idea is that there are, well, ideas that things like chairs, computers, dogs, rainbows, and people have in common. These ideas/forms are what defines a chair as a chair, a computer as a computer, a dog as a dog, a rainbow as a rainbow, or a person as a person. The form is not directly made so that every chair is identical. But, the same essence and function of a chair applies to every chair (that is how you recognize what a chair is instead of confusing it with a different form such as an elephant's).

By beginning with a reflection on the Republic, "Plato invites the reader to wonder what the connection might be between cosmic order and political order." p 4. I would say that what Plato is really getting to is the form of order.

Kalkavage asks the question, "Why should politics and cosmology be connected in the first place? Why is the greatest philosophic work on the cosmos framed by politics?" p 4. I believe that this question is phrased backwards. Although Plato had already founded his idea political spectrum and society, he now has decided to take a step back. Seeing the idea of his utopia as a form of order, he begins to see the whole picture and ponders at where the idea for his form had originally come from. This points him towards the cosmos. Man's order of civilization had been formed long after a god must have formed the world. Naturally, the form that man used had already been used while creating the universe. Perhaps they had both been created with similar forms of order. (In the section that I had already quoted, the god uses the forms to make the world in their image. This is a little off, but Plato was a heathen, a heathen who had been blessed by God with a surmountable gift of Reason.)

Plato, in a manner of speaking, begins to point up. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Back to the story:

This second day of partying was customary. Instead of giving freely (agape), ancient cultures only knew mutual giving (caritas). In other words, instead of being selflessly generous, they only knew "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." So, after the meeting that was the Republic, Socrates' was due to be given a banquet in his honor (the Timaeus). He says, "I, in exchange for my speeches of yesterday, must keep my peace and listen in turn." "Perfect and brilliant too, it seems, is the feast of speeches I'm going to get in return!"p 57. (For more information about agape vs. caritas check out chapter five of Alvin J. Schmidt's book.)

Once, the other characters had the summary of the Republic out of the way. They realized how marvelous it would have been to see the form of this city come to life. Socrates says, "With pleasure would I hear someone giving a full account of her [the city] struggling against other cities in those contests in which cities contend--how she made a fitting entrance into war... by the way she acted in her deeds and negotiated in her speeches." p 49.

This leads Critias into sharing a grand tale. He says, well, I didn't want to say this until I remembered it correctly. But, yesterday when you were talking about the perfect city, the Republic, I remembered a story from my grandpa, Solon, who had traveled to Egypt.

While he was there, the Egyptians explained how much more they knew of history than us Greeks do. Although we can remember the time since "the flood." (This is a great source for supporting the history of The Flood. It seemed as if everyone back then knew that "the gods purify the earth by flooding it with waters." p 53.) They could remember the time long before then.

The Egyptians literally had said to him, "You Greeks are always children, and there's no such thing as an old Greek!" "You're young... young in soul, all of you; for in those souls you don't have a single old opinion derived from ancient hearsay or any study hoary with time." p 53. The Egyptians bring this up not only because the Greeks haven't recorded a lot of their history, but also because Hellenistic thinking asks many questions (such as "Why?," "How?," "Who?," and etc.) which is something Allen also brings up in his Introduction.

Critias continues with the story of his grandfather:

The Egyptians knew of other, smaller floods. And, both the rising and falling of many other nations.

They explained to Solon that "the most beautiful and best race among men was born in the place where you live [Athens], from whose little bit of seed that was left over, there exists both you and the entire city that is now yours; but you've forgotten all this because for many generations the survivors met their end without giving voice to themselves in writing." p 54. In fact, the Athenians were so great that they had defeated the mighty empire of Atlantis which had been a threat to the rest of the world. After the goddess Athena had delivered Athens a victory over Atlantis, it had sunk. (It is interesting to note that the other floods and sinking of Atlantis that the Egyptians were speaking of could be related to continental plate shifts.)

Critias continues, "Now, then, to get to the very purpose for which all this has been said... as for the citizens and the city you went through for us yesterday as though in a story [the Republic], we, having now carried them here into the truth, shall set down that city as being this very one I was talking about [Athens]; and we shall declare that the citizens you had in mind are those true ancestors of ours about whom the [Egyptian] priest was speaking. In all ways will they fit one another, and we will not sing out of tune in saying that they are the very ones who existed at that time." p 57.

Timaeus' Cosmology:

After these men and discovered the perfect city (the Republic) and the perfect culture (Critias), they decided to take yet another step back to examine the world and all of creation.... the cosmos.

Critias: "It seemed good to us that Timaeus here--since he's the most astronomical of us and the one who's made it his main job to know about the nature of all--should speak first, beginning from the birth of the cosmos and ending in the nature of mankind." p 57.

Socrates: "So, Timaeus, it seems it would be your task to speak next--that is, after you've called upon gods in accordance with custom." p 57.

Timaeus: "Why, Socrates, on that point at least, all men who partake of even a bit of sound-mindedness always call on a god, I suppose, at the onset of any affair be it small or great. And for us who somehow intend to make speeches about the all--telling in what way it was born, or even whether it was without birth--it's a necessity, unless we're utterly deranged, after we've called upon both gods and goddesses, to pray that all we say be to their mind above all and, following that, to our own. And let that be our invocation as it relates to gods; but we must also invoke what has to do with ourselves, so that all of you might most easily learn and I, for my part, most clearly display what I have in mind about the topics that lie before us." p 57-58.

Timeaus continues with the section that I have quoted here.

I shall continue Timaeus at a later date.

Phil. of Theo.

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