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.

Plato’s Republic, Book X: The Poets and the Myth of Er

The final book of Plato’s Republic begins with Socrates returning to the question of banishing the poets. This question was first addressed in Book III. Book X is perhaps the most vexing and troubling book in the Republic. It serves as a kind of epilogue, an afterward to the main text. The question of justice has been tacitly answered in the opening books, and it has now been sufficiently proven, at least to members of the group, that justice is preferable to injustice and that the kingly or aristocratic regime is best, along with the coupled soul, and that the kingly or aristocratic man is happiest. With Glaucon’s agreement the questions of the Republic have been answered.

However, Socrates returns to the question of the poets and their banishment. He reminds Glaucon of their lies and their lack of knowledge. They paint pictures of things they do not fully understand, and create wayward phantoms that may either help or hurt the regime. They are unregulated and invoke the spirited passions in men, the tragic pity and the comedy. Yet Socrates strikes a much more conciliatory tone at this late hour, just as the sun is presumably beginning to rise. He recalls the ancient quarrel that exists between poetry and philosophy (a la Aristophanes), but notes that if poetry can justify itself by reasons, as well as by meter and verse, then it may be allowed to re-enter the city. This crucial opening of the door for poetry preserves the integrity of philosophy lighted by the way of reason.

Socrates next provides a proof for the immortality of the soul, proceeding from commonly held beliefs. He and Glaucon come to the conclusion that bad things have the power to destroy, like rust on metal for example. Similarly, vice and injustice are bad for the soul. However, they do not destroy the soul, and therefore the soul is immortal.

Lastly, Socrates gives a defense of justice on behalf of the theologians and poets. He gives an unusual account, called the “Myth of Er”, myth meaning mythos, referring to an account or a story. In it, justice is defended on the grounds that individuals will reap the rewards and benefits after life. A summary of the Myth of Er is as follows: Er is a soldier killed in battle from Pamphylis (in modern day Turkey) and his body remains unusually well-preserved on the battle field for ten days. He is brought back and placed on the pyre. Meanwhile, Er is brought to the after-life with many other souls as companions. He comes upon two holes in and out of the heavens, and two holes in and out of the ground. Judges are seated in the middle directing people one way or another. The judges instruct Er to be vigilant as he will be asked to report this information to people upon his return. Wisdom and virtue are rewarded by the judges. People are sent on a 1,000 year journey paying for their actions in life, either in the bliss of the heavens or the tortures under the earth. Only those who choose the philosophic life while alive, like Orpheus, are rewarded. After seven days in this meadow, Er and the other souls travel for four more days until they see a bright rainbow light. After another day of traveling they arrive at the spindle of Necessity with the Sirens. The souls, except for Er, drew lots and each soul came forward one at a time to choose their next life. One chose a fateful life of a tyrant, and was to be punished to eat his own children. Some animals chose human lives, and visa versa. Then each was assigned a demon, or a kind of guardian spirit, and they passed beneath the throne of lady Necessity, across the plane of Oblivion, to the River Lethe (River of Forgetfulness). Each soul, except Er, drank and fell asleep and during the night they were transported while asleep to their new place of birth. Er awoke suddenly on his funeral pyre and recalled the whole story of life after death.

Socrates uses the Myth of Er to bolster the importance of acting justly, and also to further demonstrate the immortality of the soul. It should be noted that Socrates delivers this myth directly to Glaucon. Since Socrates speaks differently to different men, more fruitful inquiry of the Republic might pursue the lines of discussion he engages in with Adeimantus, the most important member of the dialogue whom Socrates engages with.

For this reading I used Allan Bloom’s essential translation of Plato’s Republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s The City and Man and his lectures.

Plato’s Republic, Book IX: The Soul of the Tyrant

In Book IX, Socrates continues the discussion from Book VIII by completing the analysis of the particular character of the Tyrant. Recall in Book VIII, that Socrates outlined the formation of each regime in descending order: Timocracy – Oligarchy – Democracy – Tyranny. Having identified the Tyrannic regime, his next job is to discuss the individual character of the Tyrant, what makes a particular man a Tyrant.

The private Tyrannic man is ruled by his basest passions. He is incapable of loving, only of pursuing pleasures from men and women and engaging in endless revelry. He is incapable of governing himself and setting rules upon which to live, and he loses all of his money by falling into debt and begging from those around him and threatening violence against those who do not give him what he desires. His father is a stingy Oligarch. Among the three parts of the soul, the Tyrant is ruled by the aimless passions (unlike the philosophic type, who is ruled by a love of wisdom). In the middle of this discussion, Glaucon interrupts and overtakes the discussion from Adeimantus.

At this point we recall the closing sections of the Symposium in which Alcibiades bombastically enters the party drunk, and demanding love from Socrates. Perhaps he exemplifies the true Tyrant to Socrates. During his life, he was both loved and hated at different times as a man of the people. However, Socrates clearly maintains an eros for the Tyrant, as the city of Kallipolis founded in the opening chapter of the Politeia is not a society for freemen, though it is ruled by the philosophers. All things are to be owned in common, education is to be severely restricted, and poetry is to be banished. One might have a difficult time drawing a clear line between the Tyrant and the Philosopher-King.

At any rate, all Glaucon agrees that the eros and livelihood of the Tyrant is not desirable. The Tyrant is incapable of following any other voice, neither his father nor mother, save for love which rules him like a king. He lives as a thief and a slave, without true friendship. In addition, it is agreed that the Tyrant is the least happy of men because he is not capable of being captain of his own ship, and finds himself in a prison with many enemies. However, Socrates demonstrates that there is one way of living that is worse than the private Tyrant and that is of the political Tyrant, that is, the Tyrannic man actualized as Tyrant.

Ultimately, Glaucon answers the initial question of which regime is the most just, and also which man is happiest: the kingly or aristocratic regime (580b). However, Book IX continues with a lengthy discussion of the pleasures in the soul. In order to preserve the parallel between the city and the soul of a man, Socrates discusses the threefold pleasures in the soul (just like the caste in the city of workers, guardians, and rulers). On e is that by which the human being learns, the second is that by which the human being becomes spirited, third is biggest and strongest: desires. Correspondingly, the three main classes of human beings are: wisdom-loving, honor-loving, and gain-loving. In this portion of the dialogue, Socrates lays out a case for why the philosopher is superior to the tyrant. The answer lies in the fact that the philosopher is focused on the things which are, or the things have being. He provides this ontological argument in contract to the tyrant which is too busy wandering from pleasure to pleasure that he does not look up to see the things that are.

Socrates ends Book IX by reiterating that the city they have founded cannot be found anywhere on earth, and is a city made only in speeches, however this fact does not matter so long as there is a man who is willing to found this kind of city within himself (592b).

For this reading I used Allan Bloom’s essential translation of Plato’s Republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s The City and Man and his lectures.

Plato’s Republic Book II (Part I): Glaucon and Adeimantus

Glaucon and Adeimantus, both brothers and Athenians (brothers of Plato), make up the bulk of the remainder of the Republic. Both brothers are praised by Socrates for their noble actions as soldiers at Megara and also for their aristocratic lineage, descending from Ariston (meaning “excellence”). The Battle of Megara was a crucial victory for the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta.

Socrates begins the next section thinking he has freed himself from argument, but he acknowledges that the acts of Book I seems to have only been a “prelude” (357a). While Thrasymachus, the foreign tyrant, has been tamed in Book I, his exchange with Socrates has appeared to be little more than a joke that had taken the virtue of justice lightly. Thrasymachus takes his sophisticated art seriously, but not the question of justice.

At any rate, the inquiry into the nature of justice has now passed beyond the three claims of Book I, with each definition falling short, and the discussion has now passed to the more refined Athenian brothers. Together, they both launch an inauthentic attack on justice, in order to hear Socrates make a substantial praise of justice. Glaucon claims that there are three kinds of goods 1) that which is good for its own sake, 2) that which is good for its own sake and for another, 3) and that which is good for another sake. When asked, Socrates supposes that justice is the second kind of good which occurs for its own sake, as well as another sake. Glaucon defends Thrasymachus’s thesis that injustice is preferable to justice, but only in order to receive a proper praise of justice by Socrates.

First, Glaucon gives an account of the origin of justice. According to this argument, people commit justice unwillingly. They are always and everywhere seeking to commit acts of injustice for their own seeming profit, and to minimize their own suffering of injustice. It is the base, or slave, morality of Nietzsche laid out in the Genealogy of Morals. When it cannot be avoided, people look to make compacts with others but not to commit injustice nor to suffer it. The great masses of weak men commit wanton acts of injustice toward one another. Each man commits injustice and fears receiving acts of injustice toward themselves. Therefore, born of fear, men make compacts with one another in attempt to enforce justice. In contradistinction to Thrasymachus, Glaucon claims that justice is the advantage of the weaker. The perfectly just man and the perfectly unjust man are what Glaucon is concerned with. His conception of both is entirely divorced from art and nature, unlike Thrasymachus. However, like Thrasymachus he holds fast to the claim that the good life is fundamentally tyrannical. The paradox of honor and justice is that they both presuppose and also precede life in importance. Once he has completed this account of the origins of justice, Glaucon defers to the poets.

Here, Glaucon is given recourse to recount the famous story of Gyges, the Lydian shepherd. Recall Herodotus’s story of Gyges’s who looks upon the king’s wife at the king’s suggestion and must either kill himself or else kill the king and thereby become king himself, the latter of which he chooses (at the urging of the king’s wife). In Socrates’s tale in the Republic, a great thunderstorm and an earthquake occurs, opening a chasm in the ground which Gyges first sees, wonders at, and then goes “down” (perhaps not unlike the down-going of Socrates to the Piraeus at the start of the Republic). Gyges sees many marvelous things, one of which is a hollow bronze horse with windows and upon looking in he sees a larger than life corpse. It has no clothes, save for a gold ring which Gyges slips off. When it is time for the shepherds to give their regular report of the flocks to the king, Gyges turns the collett of the ring inward towards his hand and he becomes invisible. Using this power, he then becomes a messenger for the king. Upon arriving, he commits adultery with the king’s wife and kills the king in order to become ruler. Socrates’s account differs in unique ways from Herodotus.

Lastly, building on his two prior key points, Glaucon considers the perfectly just and the perfectly unjust man. The former may appear to be just to the masses and so he gains power, while the latter undergoes much suffering in the name of justice. The key distinction Glaucon makes is between seeming to be just, and actually being just. That is, between opinion and truth. Recall that Glaucon is the reason Socrates remains in the Piraeus and he is also responsible for much of the remaining dialogue in the Republic. At any rate, Socrates must defend the just man who leads a mostly miserable life, according to Glaucon.

Before Socrates can respond in “delight,” Adeimantus comes to a strong defense of his brother. He adds that parents extoll the virtues of justice to their children not for its own sake, but for the praise and reputation one receives for being just. For this argument he cites the authority of Homer and Hesiod, the poets. He also adds that Socrates’s genuine praise of justice must exclude divine rewards and punishments, along with not relying upon the authority of the poets. Glaucon’s defense is characterized by his manliness and impetuosity, while Adeimantus is moderate and quiet. Adeimantus is interested in justice as pleasantness and easiness.

The demands from the two brothers on Socrates can be summarized as follows: Socrates must praise justice as choiceworthy for its own sake -that justice is a pleasant option to choose, and also that justice will make a man happy, even in the midst of extreme suffering. According to these demands, we must judge Socrates’s defense of justice throughout the remainder of the Republic and also in light of his treatment of the poets and the gods.

For this reading I used Allan Bloom’s essential translation of Plato’s Republic, as well as Leo Strauss’s The City and Man and his lectures.