Friday, March 31, 2017

Timaeus by Plato

Plato’s theory of everything
This review pertains to the public domain version of Timaeus that is given away as a free ebook by Amazon and Project Gutenberg. The English translation of this edition was done by Benjamin Jowett in the late 19th century. The very first sentence of the introduction states, “Of all the writings of Plato the Timaeus is the most obscure and repulsive to the modern reader.” How’s that for an inauspicious beginning? Jowett then goes onto explain that the reason this dialogue gets little attention and respect is because it is concerned not so much with philosophical discourse as it is with the natural sciences. Not surprisingly, since Plato wrote the work around 360 BC, few if any of his scientific speculations have stood the test of time. Nevertheless, the Timaeus has value for its detailed illumination of Plato’s physical and metaphysical views on the nature of the universe and his admirably ambitious attempt at constructing a unified theory of everything.

Participants in the dialogue include Socrates, Critias, and Hermocrates, but the title character does 90% of the talking. After Critias offers up a brief discussion of the lost continent of Atlantis, Timaeus jumps right into the creation of the universe and then goes on to cover the nature of matter and soul, the structure of the heavens, and the workings of human anatomy and the senses. Plato describes the universe as an intelligent “world-animal” that encompasses all of matter, energy, and space. Building upon the atomism of Leucippus and the mathematical mysticism of Pythagoras, Plato asserts that all matter is made up of triangles which combine to form different geometrical forms for each of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. For a brief moment, this sounds remarkably like a pantheistic system, and the assertion that all matter is created from one universal “mother substance” hints at a materialistic monism. Of course, Plato, the godfather of dualism, soon dispels that notion. He speaks of God as a guiding creator entity clearly outside of this world-animal, and he constantly refers to the soul—in fact, there are three kinds of soul—as an essence not confined by the geometrical structure of matter. God (sometimes plural) is the primary mover who created the universe by bringing order from chaos. Plato finishes the dialogue by imagining the thought process of “the creators” as they constructed the human body.

In the Jowett edition, the Introduction and Analysis takes up more space than the dialogue itself. The analysis includes a nearly unabridged restatement of the entire dialogue, rendered in slightly more accessible vocabulary. So if you read the entire Kindle file, you’re basically reading two different translations of the dialogue. Though the analysis gets quite repetitive, it does offer some fascinating insight into the state of the sciences in the time of ancient Greece.

Perhaps because I’m of a predominantly Aristotelian mindset, I see few lessons of wisdom to take away from Timaeus that might be relevant to modern life. At times there is an underlying message that resembles Stoicism, with Plato suggesting that he who seeks the divine nature in God’s system and lives in accordance with nature will enjoy the healthiest, most pleasurable life. Though philosophically this is not regarded as one of Plato’s stronger dialogues, it does provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of ancient science. Despite the contradictions in his reasoning, Plato’s unified theory of nature is quite ingenious. Even those with a more materialistic mindset, though unlikely to agree with his idealistic vision, can admire his intellectual achievement.
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