Timaeus and the Likely Story

The Timaeus is the strangest dialogue in the Platonic corpus. It begins, appropriately, in counting. Socrates counts “one, two, three…” but notes there is a missing fourth person. Timaeus informs Socrates that the missing fourth person has fallen ill but otherwise would be there. Yesterday, Socrates had treated four men to an account of his conversation in the Piraeus, as told in the Republic. The activity in the Republic takes place during the festival of Bendis, while the activity in the Timaeus takes place during the Panathenaea, a birthday celebration for Athena taking place every four years. The main event was the adorning of the goddess’s statue in the Acropolis with a colorful robe. Eleven months stand in between the two festivals. At any rate, the three remaining men are Timaeus, a fabrication of Plato’s imagination from the Italian city of Locri who is well-born and whose name bears the mark of honor, time. Socrates praises him for his “success with philosophy” for Timaeus is a harmonizer, one who has successfully lived with philosophy in the city. Unlike the gadfly of Socrates, Timaeus does not sting his city into knowledge of its own ignorance. Next, Critias is an Athenian and may or may not be the tyrant suggested by reference to the Thirty in Athens. He is something of a pain-loving antiquaraian, longing for the “good old days” of Athens. Lastly, we meet Hermocrates of Syracuse, a rhetorician and statesman praised by Thucydides for his courage which led to the defeat of Athens in the Sicilian expedition. He is largely silent, save for his role to goad Critias into speaking. Timaeus and Hermocrates are foreign guests in the home of Critias.

The accounts of the Timaeus are delivered to Socrates as repayment of a debt. The men are called on by Socrates to gratify him for the “feast” he had given yesterday. The day prior, Socrates had given an account of the “city in speech” including the castes, the guardians, and the communism and rearing of women and children, while excluding key details, such as the philosopher-kings and the account of the demise of the city, as detailed in the Republic. Socrates longs to see an account of this city be brought into motion, the same way someone who looks at a beautiful animal, either true or painted, longs to see them move and contend with some struggle fitting for their body. What does the city in motion look like? The city in motion is a city at war. Hermocrates calls on Critias to give such an account, as they had discussed the prior evening.

Critias delivers an account most “strange”, literally “nowhere” or “no place”. Solon, the famous lawgiver, was friends with Critias’s great grandfather, who relayed the story to his son (Critias’s grandfather), who passed it down to Critias during the Apaturia, an Athenian celebration known for a youth initiation in celebration of Dionysus. Solon traveled to Egypt to the city of Sais, a decaying museum-like city in which ancient stories are preserved like mummies, and the city never forgets anything and never loses its libraries, the way ancient Athens has in the great floods. The old Egyptian priest tells Solon of a mighty ancient Athens, nine thousand years prior. Like the “city in speech”, ancient Athens is a city whose laws are meant to reflect nature. At the time an island nation called Atlantis arose, located near the mouth of the “Pillars of Hercules”, or the Strait of Gibraltar. Ancient Athens defended the rest of the world against enslavement by Atlantis, but then one day the earthquakes and floods came and the Athenian warriors sank into the earth and Atlantis likewise sank into the sea. Much fruitless speculation and latter-day imagination has been sparked by the myth of Atlantis. At any rate, the puzzling conclusion of Critias’s story is that the ultimate demise of the city is not due to war, but rather “physis”, or nature. What destroyed Atlantis? Earthquakes and floods. The same was true of Ancient Athens. For Critias, the flux of the natural world supersedes the political and is thus the ultimate victor. He is concerned primarily with the genealogical and also the geological. In Aristotelian terms, Critias is obsessed with first causes. It is no wonder that Socrates is dissatisfied. Critias has failed to bring the “city in speech” to life. Critias calls on the astronomical Timaeus to give an account of “the all” from the birth of the cosmos to the nature of mankind, and from this point, as if on trial, Critias will bring mankind as citizens into the city. The problem for Critias is that truth must be hard fact, and hard fact must be concrete like paleontology, however humans cannot venture backward to the oldest of things without recourse to myth. Mere historical reports and timelines cannot address this problem. The account of Critias is a preserved but lifeless cosmos filled with senseless natural cycles of death and rebirth. Similarly on account of lifelessness, the control of eros seems to be one of the central problems of the Republic. The image of Ancient Athens from Critias is a dubious story filled with self-love; it is a flattering, albeit bleak tale. Critias later returns to the question of Atlantis in the short and unfinished dialogue, Critias.

Before delivering his grand account of the cosmos Timaeus delivers an apology, a defense before the fact. In it, he introduces four important concepts: the distinction between Being and Becoming, the causes or aition, the demiurge (literally “one who works for the demos) who is merely postulated along with a changeless model of the cosmos on the grounds that it would blasphemous otherwise, and lastly the fact that Timaeus’s account will be nothing more than a “likely story” (ton eikota mython). Perhaps there is good reason to doubt a likely story. Timaeus’s account constructs the best of all possible cosmos, a divinely realized musically harmonized world of which we are all cosmopolitan citizens. His goal is not for man to transcend the world of opinion, but to gaze up into the heavens and find his place in the order. As Peter Kalkavage notes, “Timaeus is exhorting us not to transcend the cave of body, change and opinion but rather to beautify it with mathematical adornments, to make the cave more enlightened in its opinions and more livable.” Timaeus makes use of mathematics to tell a beautiful story and to turn the soul’s attention toward the nature Becoming, as it reminds the soul of its ordered place.

The “likely story” is a descent from the divine. The famous demiurge is a poet-mathematician and he creates a likeness of Being via poiesis. He creates a changeless model to ensure stability. First, he makes a cosmic soul and body, next comes time and the star gods. Note: space curiously comes before time, but time is brought into being at once with the star gods. Time is the ever-present reminder of the imitation of eternity, reminding the star gods of death and the eventual dissolution of the cosmos. Lastly, and most importantly, the star gods are called upon to imitate their father and create the animal below them: man. The stars are the origin of man. The stars, not the demiurge create man. They reluctantly place the divine gift of intellect into the troubled sea of Becoming, into the body of man, thus bringing certain chaos to the ordered cosmos. Socrates notably dubs this “likely story” as nomos, a law or song or custom, rather than mythos. The story of Timaeus is musically arranged, that is, it is more musical than theoretical. It is a kind of hymn to honor the cosmic fatherland, perhaps even a corrective to the Panathenaea. The curious aspect of the cosmos is that it is a living animal, spherically shaped and spun into existence, and the soul is made out of music – four octaves and a major sixth according to Pythagorean tuning. This harmonia is the image for all of his creation including the “dancing” paths of the Planetas or “wanderers”, and it is the antithesis of the lifeless Egyptian cosmic order, inspiring Kepler’s later work on the Harmonies of the World. The mathematical and musical order does not enforce order, but rather it inspires order. Music overcomes the soul and bridges a connection between the inner and the outer. It deeply inspires feelings of thymos, or “spiritedness”, and awakens the passions of fraternity, love of country and brotherhood, patriotism. Music is inspired order. It is a useful tool for the lawgiver.

Timaeus runs into a problem in his account when the cosmos is found to be governed by only two principles: chance and necessity, though he introduces a look of the divine. His second founding of the cosmos, as forced by the seemingly incompatibility of causality and chaos. Necessity, is revealed by Timeaus to be the necessary causes required for the demiurge to create, like cooling and heating -it is also associated with the wandering cause (chaos) and the ground for cosmic imagining, among others. In this second founding, Timaeus moves from the cosmos to biology, from astronomy to biology, and he adorns the elements with mathematics, specifically geometry “earth measurement”. Recall the Greek word for mathematics: ta mathemata or the “knowable things”. Timaeus uses geometry to deliver the so-called “Platonic solids”, shapes used to preserve form. They are the elements. It harmonizes Pythagoras (number and geometric shape)n and Empedocles (process and flux). Timaeus’s paradigm is of making the world of Becoming, of flux, intelligible by means of mathematics. Nevertheless, in Timaeus’s brief excursion into the question of What is Becoming? the problem of necessary causes still persists.

At last, man is created to complete the cosmos, as the fourth part of the universe from the four elements of body (note: four is the mystic and final number for Timaeus, as alluded to in the opening of the dialogue, which indicates that perhaps the Timaeus is also incomplete). The star gods create man, as an imitation of the activity of the demiurge, and they create each organ of the body with reason beginning with the head, the seat of intellect, and with special attention to the liver. All parts of the body have cause. And thus, Timaeus has completed his task as assigned by Critias at the demand of Socrates. Unlike other Platonic dialogues, the Timaeus does not end on a satisfactory note, unless one is perhaps persuaded by the “likely story”. Socrates does not ever witness his city come into being in motion in a state of war. Instead, he is feasted to an account of cosmic origins. The project of Timaeus is to present the qualities of decency, prudence, and moderation essential for the student of the natural world. However this moral exploration of the natural world of flux should not discourage us, for as Galileo put it, the book of nature is written in mathematical symbols; it is composed of the conflict between the Good and the Necessary; and we must content ourselves, when inquiring into Becoming, to being satisfied with merely probable accounts. A true inquiry into the natural world should not be deficient or neglectful of the Good, or what is best in us. For these reasons the Timaeus has served as a refuge for thinkers down the ages, from a chaotic and seemingly godless world. The Timaeus was, after all, one of the few Platonic dialogues present in many parts of Medieval Europe, and was a safe haven for Christian theologians looking to harmonize Christian theology with Athenian political philosophy. Whereas Socrates represents a love of wisdom, Timaeus represents a “will to order”, or what Wallace Stevens once called the “rage for order” in his Idea of Order at Key West. The danger for the philosopher is in being easily flattered by accounts of origins like those of Critias, or in being easily compelled by and adorned with beautiful tales of order, like those told by Timaeus.

For this reading I used Peter Kalkavage’s translation of Plato’s Timaeus.

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