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A Classic Rediscovered

The Timaeus—the most influential book you’ve never heard of.

Illustration for Timaeus

There’s a good chance you haven’t read the Timaeus. But there’s an even better chance you know some of it. The dialogue is Plato’s account of the creation of the universe, the nature of the physical world, and humanity’s place in the cosmos.

You get a hint of it every time you hear a retelling of the story of the lost continent of Atlantis. You hear echoes of the Timaeus’s ideas in the Gospel of John, and even more in the traditions of the Christian church. It was the vehicle through which the Early Church Fathers fused the ethics of the New Testament with the metaphysics of ancient Greece. When early Renaissance thinkers were creating the modern world, it was the only book written by the philosopher Plato that they knew.

Although it was written 2,300 years ago, even a Nobel Prize-winning physicist like Anthony Leggett can and has gained insights from it about the newest thinking in physics and astronomy. Leggett, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor and Center for Advanced Study professor of physics at U of I, says what is wonderful about the Timaeus is “its timelessness—its ideas that seem both eternal and entirely new—its wealth of ideas, which in turn suggest new ideas.”

This timeless quality is behind a resurgence in interest in the classic and the reason that LAS hosted a conference last fall devoted solely to the book, says Richard Mohr, an LAS professor of philosophy and classics. His 1985 book about The Platonic Cosmology was one of the first in a spate of new works published about the Timaeus, which Mohr says has influenced everything from Euclid’s compendium of geometry to the philosophy of St. Augustine to modern environmentalists who view the Earth as a living and evolving entity, Gaia.

Richard Mohr

“People are hankering for substance and connections,” says Mohr, “and the Timaeus provides an ultimately connected universe: in it, all modes of thought and ways of being make sense within a single rational frame.”

Classics and philosophy professor Barbara Sattler, on first reading the Timaeus as a young philosophy student, was astonished by its sheer volume of ideas.

“I thought it was totally crazy,” she says. “But it contains everything you would ever want to discuss in philosophy.”

Written in the 4th century B.C., the Timaeus represents the mature thought of Plato expressed through his chosen mouthpieces: Socrates, his hero; Critias, his great-grandfather; and the lesser-known and possibly fictional Timaeus. A consensus of classical scholars has recently returned the Timaeus to the late Platonic group of dialogues, requiring its being rethought in relation to the whole course of ancient philosophy, Mohr says.

Sattler says it is clear from the Greek that this is Plato near the end of his life. It is a brave and bold rethinking of Plato’s philosophies already famous in the ancient world through works like The Parmenides and The Republic. They are brave even for a philosopher today. The Timaeus is full of a startling variety of thoughts, Leggett points out, beginning with an exposition of an ideal state similar to the one Plato discussed in his Republic. It’s a conservative ideal in some ways, but Mohr notes that the philosopher is full of surprises—he’s a feminist in counting women among the philosopher-kings of his ideal Republic, where the wisest rule.

The section that follows contains the most quoted lines from Plato. Socrates’s friend Critias relates the myth of the island-continent Atlantis. The culture is technologically advanced, but not the philosophical equal of Athens. Mohr says Plato is the first to write of the myth, and almost certainly invented it.

And the myth endures. Mohr notes, “The dialogue is the basis of the Walt Disney movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire and is the source of the yuppies-with-children Caribbean resort, Atlantis, which advertises itself with the slogan, ‘Change worlds,’” Mohr notes among other influences.

As Critias tells the story, in Benjamin Jowett’s translation:

“For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city (Athens) put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than (Africa) and Asia put together.... Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia.”

Atlantis then went after Athens in war, Critias relates, an idealized Athens. Plato is far less satisfied with the Athens of his own times, the city that forced Socrates to commit suicide, among other sins which forever darkened Plato’s vision, Mohr says. “Afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”

Plato’s purpose for the myth could be one of many, Mohr says. Socrates, Plato’s teacher, advocates building the minds of young leaders upon the proper myths of the Republic. These are myths, not of adulterous and warring gods and goddesses, but myths that teach noble and virtuous thoughts. Plato may also be making a point about Greek-centered historians who conceive of history beginning with the Trojan War.

“Plato had a nostalgia for an idealized, conservative past of Athens,” Mohr says. The bulk of Timaeus is about the creation of the world from chaos, then humanity, finally animals and plants. The creator is called the Demiurge, or craftsman, a single powerful god whose handiwork is limited only by the materials he must make the world from. Plato’s notion of world-strips brings to mind String Theory, the now-popular idea that space and time and matter are built of units that are one-dimensional extended strings, rather than the zero-dimensional points of the older particle-theory of physics.

“The world-material was chaos with a certain cussedness to it,” Mohr says. Plato reverts to a more conventional polytheism in assigning lesser tasks to lesser gods. But overall his description of the creator is monotheistic, and, as Sattler points out, something the Early Church Fathers could relate to the account given in the first book of the Bible, Genesis.

St. Augustine, the author of the Confessions, created the masterpiece synthesis of Plato and the Bible. Then, in the Middle Ages, Mohr notes, the Timaeus was the only work of Plato known to Western thinkers. The Greek language was lost to the West, but the Timaeus had been translated into Latin, the lingua franca of the time, first by Cicero and then by Calcidius, whose version survives.

Thus, in the early Renaissance, all that Western philosophers knew about physics came from the Timaeus and a few works of Aristotle, Mohr points out.

The reason most people today haven’t heard of the Timaeus, explains Mohr, is that Plato’s Republic has been the “in” thing to teach in introductory philosophy and political science courses during the past few decades because of its emphasis on ethics and politics. “But now, with God-talk much in the air, publishers are bringing out student-oriented editions of the Timaeus.”

“The Timaeus is a theory of everything, like String theory. I have a suspicion that Plato is not as good a mathematician as he’s made out to be,” says George Francis, an LAS mathematics professor who is contacting mathematicians worldwide for their opinions. Leggett says that even if Plato didn’t have all the answers about the physical world, he knew the right questions:

“What are the relationships of the laws of nature one would like to regard as eternal and unvarying? It’s obvious from the start, he didn’t have the kinds of experimental tools, or background knowledge we have today. So I think it would be rather pointless to look in Plato for specific amounts of dark matter in the universe. He asks questions that are very general, some of which we haven’t answered today.”

By Paul Wood
Winter 2008