Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.08.38

M. R. Wright (ed.), Reason and Necessity. Essays on Plato's Timaeus.   London:  Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2000.  Pp. xvi, 191.  ISBN 0-7156-3057-1.  £40.00.  

Contributors: Andrew Barker, Scott Burgess, Gordon Campbell, Christopher Gill, Lesley Dean-Jones, Jan Opsomer, M. R. Wright, Sergio Zedda

Reviewed by Guillaume Dye (
Word count: 4082 words

This collection of essays (hereafter RN) derives initially from a conference on Plato's Timaeus and related works, held in Lampester in August 1998. Four of the papers given then (by Burgess, Campbell, Opsomer and Zedda) are incorporated in RN, with additional original contributions from Barker, Dean-Jones, Gill and Wright. Five papers deal directly with the Tim. (the principles of the mythical narrative, how the world soul and human body are formed, psychic illness, music), three focus on later developments (Aristotle's theory of generation, the commentary of Proclus and evolutionary theory). Accordingly, RN is not an exhaustive commentary on the Tim. (the reader will probably not gain a synoptic view of the dialogue, even though Wright's introduction (ix-xv) and an outline of topics in the Tim. (xvi) give some useful clues), but a succession of well-argued studies, each treating a precise topic. One should note the relative absence of references to the fiercest debates of the secondary literature: except one brief remark,1 there is for example no mention of the place of the Tim. in the chronology of Plato's dialogues. This has its good points and its bad: the reader is spared endless discussions, that can be quite unproductive, but some thoughtful studies are passed over in silence.2 RN is nevertheless an excellent book, which often sheds a new light on the topics it addresses. It deserves therefore a careful reading.

In "Myth, Science and Reason in the Timaeus" (1-22), M. R. Wright attempts to interpret the Tim. in the context of the traditional contrast between truth and myth and in Plato's own treatment of myth in different dialogues. She explores the connections between myth, science and reason in Platonic theory, and their implications for the assessment of mathematical practices and scientific achievements. Her paper is very clear, often judicious, but not groundbreaking: it is rather a good synthesis on a complex and much treated topic.

After some remarks on Plato and myth as an educational tool (2-5), Wright asks the big question: "Why should Plato think that the study of natural science is a myth-making exercise, in which narrative is more appropriate than argument?" (5). A brief study of the epistemological status of Platonic myth (5-9) shows that "the areas in which hard philosophical argument is inappropriate and verification impossible include the origins of the human race, prehistory and what may happen to the soul after death" (9). In face of the description of the origins of universe, man and society, the philosopher and the poet are equally powerless (see for example Hesiod, Theog., v. 115), so that Timaeus can only present a likely myth (εἰκὼς μῦθος) or a likely account (εἰκὼς λόγος). What remains striking is the association of a long, sophisticated account of the universe and its treatment as an entertaining story. Wright doesn't mention the possibility that the dialogue could be ironic, but after some reminders of well-known things (for example the distinction between knowledge and opinion, or becoming and being) (12-14), she makes an interesting remark (15). She notices that εἰκών ("copy", "image") has the same root as the verbs εἰκάζω ("I guess") and ἔοικε ("it resembles", "it seems"), the participle εἰκώς ("suitable") and its neuter plural with the article τὰ εἰκότα ("what is probable"), the abstract noun εἰκασία ("likeness, image", but also "guessing" 3), and the related adverb εἰκῇ ("at random"). According to Wright, it is because of these shifting meanings that we arrive at the apparently surprising conclusion that an account of something has the same epistemological status as its object. Whereas accounts of paradigms can be made irrefutable, "accounts of copies and likenesses are probable at best, for, as being is to becoming, so truth is to convincing guesswork" (15) (cf. Tim.29c-d).

In his highly interesting essay "How to build a world soul--a practical guide" (23-41), Sergio Zedda tackles the difficult passages describing the construction of the world soul (Tim., 34a-40d). He explores "some of the issues arising from the practical actions of blending the ingredients of which the world soul is made, and then of working with the resulting mixture", and focuses "on the practical difficulties involved in describing at the same time a process of cosmogonic generation and the act of building a physical representation of it" (23).

In the passages dealing with the constructions of the world soul (35a1-36d9) and the human soul (41d5), Plato describes the activities of the demiurge by means of a language analogous to that of an ordinary craftsman involved in the making of an object. The most obvious references are to the craft of metalworking (35a1-b4: συνεκεράσατο, ξυναρμόττον, δύσμεικτον, μιγνύς, διένειμεν; 41d4-7: κρατήρ, κατεχεῖτο). Zedda, rightly to my mind, takes Plato at his word: Plato doesn't describe an abstract operation and doesn't simply use the language of the craftsmen. Rather, he describes "the actual, practical series of operations needed in order to construct a model, or representation, of the world soul" (25). Zedda then accounts for the complexities of the construction (blending, hammering, marking according to harmonic proportions, and so on) according to Greek mathematical and metallurgical techniques (26-33).

However, Plato's text is complex. Plato provides an account of a series of practical operations leading to the construction of a visible and tangible object, but he also guides the reader through the abstract steps used by a geometer to describe the subdivision of a regular plane figure. There is thus a tension throughout his description between the purely abstract actions (like the subdivision of the strip into its intervals), and those which are part of the building process. This leads to some inconsistencies (for example between 36b6-7 and 41d4-7).

Zedda takes this tension seriously and emphasizes the differences between the two levels of thought (33-37). He notices that although Plato seems sometimes unaware of this tension, he obviously "makes full use of some of the epistemic possibilities opened by forcing the reader to employ at the same time theoretical descriptions and visual representations of objects" (37). The description provided by Plato (in fact, that of an armillary sphere 4) wavers indeed between a physical object and an abstract model of the cosmos, and Plato has good reasons to do so. At 40c-d, Timaeus tells us that one should not attempt to understand the movements of the planets without a visible model of the universe: a visible representation of the real object is indeed necessary to get some stable information on that object. Zedda can thus account for the tension, unavoidable in a text describing an object of becoming, between the two levels of description: the armillary sphere, which is a visible and tangible representation of the world soul, acts as an intermediate term between objects of becoming and the model that the demiurge has in mind as his inspiration. More precisely, it "must be seen as standing in an analogical relationship both with its model, the world soul, and with the image of the world soul constructed in the mind of the person trying to understand its workings" (38).

Scott Burgess' essay ("How to build a human body: an idealist's guide" (43-58)) aims at giving Plato's biology an integral place in the cosmic system presented in the Tim. (45, 54). He sheds light on the role and function of the sinews within the body, showing their relevance to the main theories of cosmic harmony and the relation of microcosm to macrocosm in the myth of creation (45). He first makes a good synopsis (45-47) of the wide use of νεῦρον (sinew, tendon, nerve, vein, cord, bow-string, string of a lyre, etc.), according to which the neuron is a "tensioned" substance which is both harmonious and the cause of harmony between the bodily opposites of bone and flesh and may also be destroyed by extreme conditions (47). This account, deepened by some remarks on the Phaedo as well as on Homeric and Hippocratic sources, can then usefully be applied to the Tim.. The neura maintain a balance between the natural tendencies of bone and flesh (if this were not the case, the body would be reduced to a rigid board or a shapeless mass) and thus may be compared to the place occupied by the soul in harmonic theory (48). The world soul is the first image of a blended form, whereas the human soul, which may be viewed as a middle term that links the world soul to the human body, is the second, and the human body, which owes its cohesion and movement to the sinews, is the third (54).

In a series of recent studies, Christopher Gill has attempted to study the dialogue form in Plato and the Galenic and Stoic readings of the Tim..5 His paper "The body's fault? Plato's Timaeus on psychic illness" (59-84) belongs to this line of inquiry. Its first part is a subtle methodological reflection on the interpretation of Plato (59-65), while the second and the third parts discuss respectively Galenic (65-70) and Stoic (70-77) considerations linked to Tim. 86a-90d. The three parts are related to each other: the reflections of Galen and the Stoics on the Tim. are used as a basis for making the best sense of the Platonic text, understood in accordance with precise methodological considerations.

At Tim. 86b-87b, Plato makes two puzzling claims: psychic illness (which includes moral and mental failings) is the outcome of bodily defectiveness, and people should not be held responsible for these failings. Plato also develops the idea that psychic therapy should focus on the relationship between the body and the psyche (87c-90d). Problems begin with the first sentence: καὶ τὰ μὲν περὶ τὸ σῶμα νοσήματα ταύτῃ συμβαίνει γιγνόμενα, τὰ δὲ περὶ ψυχὴν διὰ σώματος ἕξιν τῇδε. As Gill notices, the latter part of the sentence might mean "diseases of the psyche arise because of the condition of the body in the following way" (a strong reading: all diseases of the psyche derive from bodily causes), or "the diseases of the psyche that arise from a bodily condition come about in the following way" (a weak reading: some psychic diseases arise this way) (60). The words allow either reading, but Gill argues convincingly for the strong one (60-61). This leads to another problem: although the idea that "no one does wrong willingly" is a recurrent Platonic theme, it is generally not linked with the idea of a bodily basis of the agent's responsibility. This apparently runs counter to other Platonic considerations (at least in the Protagoras, the Gorgias, the Republic and the Phaedo). Following M. M. Mackenzie,6 Gill shows that one should underline the unusual character of the claim that moral and intellectual failings derive from the body and connect this claim with an authentic Platonic line of thought, namely "the idea that when people do wrong it reflects a type of psychological defectiveness which those concerned do not fully understand" (63).

Gill and Mackenzie seem to me completely right when they emphasize the importance of following through the full force of a line of argument in a specific dialogue. It is true that there is here an apparent contrast with other Platonic ideas, but one should take seriously the literary genre of the dialogue, and note, as does Gill (63), that the line of thought conveyed in the Tim. is not without parallels in other dialogues: Plato develops throughout his work the idea that wrongdoing follows from the inability to grasp what virtue and vice are, and does not consider blame a good response to wrongdoing. What is distinctive in Tim. 86a-90d is its explicit character and the bodily basis of wrongdoing. According to Gill, this last idea can be illuminated by reference to the ancient reception of the dialogue, namely in Galen and the Stoics.

This is not the place here to deal extensively with Gill's rigorous and precise exegesis. Accordingly, I will say only a few words on the other two parts of the paper. First (65-70), Gill shows how Galen uses Tim 86b-87b to support his view of the body-psyche relationship. He then asks how far Galen's reading can explain 86b-87b. The idea, especially developed in Galen's That the capacities of the psyche depend on the mixtures of the body, that we are fundamentally bodies, can explain why psychic illness derives directly from bodily defect. But Gill thinks that the Stoics can be more useful. The section "Health as structure: Plato and Stoicism" (70-76) associates, but does not identify, Tim. 86a-90d with the Stoic approach (76-77). There is no evidence that the Stoics paid special attention to this passage (65), but the affinities between Plato and Stoicism are remarkable: the ideas that we are "combinations" of psyche and body, that we can and should be well proportioned structures of psyche and body, that psychic illness is a disruption of the harmonious structure of the body and may also derive from our failure to deploy the good kind of psychophysical therapy, all figure prominently in the Tim. and Stoicism.

As Andrew Barker notices, "there is no single, full-scale discussion of sound and hearing in the Timaeus" (85)--but that doesn't mean there is nothing to say on the subject. In his remarkable essay "Timaeus on music and the liver" (85-99), he considers the processes by which music impinges upon the soul, the way the soul apprehends it, and he identifies the transactions through which music can be therapeutic and help to promote the return of our psychic "revolutions" to their proper order (86). An inquiry about what happens in the soul and the body of someone who listens to music thus ranges over a vast array of questions: the physics of sound, the psychology and physiology of perception, the roles of rational and non-rational parts of the soul in the reception of music.

It is impossible to go here into the details of Barker's dense discussion, which is both a painstaking analysis of the passages of the Tim. related to sound and hearing 7 and credible and skillful speculation where necessary. The phenomenon of hearing a sound starts with a movement in the air, which causes an impulse to enter the ear and makes an impact on the reasoning part of the soul, which is situated in the head. Nothing will count as a sound until it has thus entered the body. Sound itself is the impact made on the brain, the blood and the reasoning part of the soul (86-87). Hearing occurs when this impact is transmitted to the lower part of the soul, concerned with perception, which is located in the liver (87). It seems that the liver "translates" the movements which constitute hearing into patterns of concordant and discordant sounds. These patterns are then reflected on the liver's surface as images and returned to the reasoning part of the soul: the liver receives thoughts as τύποι and emits them again as εἴδωλα (93-95). Music can thus be interpreted within the framework of the divine harmonics of the world soul, and the human soul can thus improve its imitations of the cosmic order (95-97). Barker notes also that perception and reason are more closely tied in the Tim. than generally thought: while later Greek commentators, criticizing exponents of "Pythagorean" harmonics who claim to ground their analysis on reason alone and do not rely on perception, assert that harmonic investigation must begin with sensation,8 Plato thought that musical perception embraces not only the recognition of pitch-relations as concordant or discordant, musical or unmusical, but also encompasses a large and impressionistic realm of imagery and emotional response. Consequently, the intelligent listener must interpret these phantasmata as well as the perceived qualities of objective acoustic relationships (97-98).

The last three papers do not directly deal with the Tim., but study some aspects of its reception. Lesley Dean-Jones' contribution ("Aristotle's understanding of Plato's Receptacle and its significance for Aristotle's theory of familial resemblance" (101-12)) tackles a problem she had already discussed in her Women's Bodies in Classical Greek Science (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), namely Aristotle's theory of familial resemblance. In her short but vigorous paper, she shows how the Tim. can illuminate the conundrum of how, according to Aristotle, a child might resemble its mother (101).

It has sometimes been noticed that Aristotle thought that the Receptacle of the Tim. shared many important characteristics of its prime matter.9 One should also note that Plato uses a biological simile of parents and offspring when he explains the role of the Receptacle and the Forms in producing the world (50d). It is then tempting to use this simile and the discussion of sexual reproduction (91c-d) to shed light on Aristotle's theory of reproduction: "Plato's description of how the Receptacle functions must, for Aristotle, connect with the Role matter plays in the creation of new entities in the world" (101). Consequently, Dean-Jones sets out the role of the Receptacle in the production of particulars, showing why and how, according to Aristotle, it calls for refinement (102-06).

A brief reminder on Aristotle's theory of reproduction may be useful. According to Aristotle, the semen of the male is concocted to a point at which it is able to carry the "movements" of the father's form into the female matter, where it first sets the general form of an animal, and then of the species. If the semen carries enough heat, the species form will take on the "movements" of the male sex, so that the body will develop in such a way as to be able to concoct semen. But if the semen is not so hot, or if there is a large amount of matter to be informed, the species form will be of the female sex: the body will be able to concoct the seminal residue only to the point of potentiality for the species form, but won't be able to pass the species form into its seminal residue. As things do not change randomly, but into their opposites (the "movements" of the male change into the "movements" of the female), it is a female, and not a male, which is then produced. The same reasoning applies to the movements which individuate particular animals with respect to eye color, nose shape, body type and the like: if the father's individual movements are not strong enough, they will revert to their opposite, namely the individual movements of the mother (107).

At first sight, this seems a rather mysterious account of the resemblance of children to their mothers. However, some scholars have tried to make good sense of this theory. Dean-Jones criticizes some previous attempts, including her former treatment of the subject (107-09),10 and expounds her new solution (109-110), which I sketch briefly here. We should keep in mind Aristotle's basic approval of the functioning of the Receptacle and the role Plato assigned to it in his simile of sexual reproduction and should see the mother's form, like the father's, outside the body, in the same way as the truly existing things are outside the Receptacle. The mother's form is in her body, but it cannot shape the menses until they have been concocted by the male heat contained in the semen. Once the menses have been informed and can take on the species and sex movements, the individual movements of the mother and father can try to set their impress on the offspring. According to Aristotle, it is possible for a form in a body to work directly on the female seminal residue without the intermediary tool of semen (GA I, 22, 730b25-32). Aristotle emphasizes that a female's contribution to conception is purely material, but this does not prevent him from giving her individual form a role, provided it remains outside of the seminal residue in her womb (110).

Procession and timeless production in Proclus are not subjects unknown to scholars, but there is no complete study of demiurgy as such and of the problem of making the causal transition from the unmoved One to the perpetual motion of the physical world. In his "Proclus on demiurgy and Procession: a Neoplatonic reading of the Timaeus" (113-43), Jan Opsomer sets out the elements of a promising inquiry into Proclus' Commentary on Plato's Timaeus. Opsomer skillfully clarifies this obscure topic, showing how Proclus wanted to overcome the dichotomy and soften the transition from what is immortal and immobile to the sensible world. It is essential for Proclus to reconcile the productive activity of the demiurge with the Neoplatonic notion of procession, according to which all reality emanates from a supreme principle, the One. Proclus has therefore multiplied the levels of demiurgy by inserting a number of intermediary stages (129), but Opsomer rightly notices that this solution, coupled with proposition 76 of the Elements of Theology ("all that arises from an unmoved cause has an invariable existence, and all that arises from a mobile cause, a variable"), is unsatisfactory (130). Put in a nutshell, the objection is the following: the insertion of intermediaries solves the problem provided we take proposition 76 as implying that it is the same property that is at each stage transmitted from cause to effect, but in that case, each effect would have to be immobile (immortal, eternal) in the same sense as its cause. Of course, Proclus has an answer: a cause transcends its effects and is superior to it (propositions 7 and 75), but he explains neither the exact nature of the transition nor the way a property (immobility, immortality, eternity) can become its contrary. The paper contains also a very useful appendix ("Demiurgy in the Proclean Pantheon" (131-32)) and seems to me a very good way to make the essentials of Proclus' philosophy available to a non-specialist in Neoplatonism.

Gordon Campbell's paper "Zoogony and Evolution in Plato's Timaeus: The Presocratics, Lucretius and Darwin" (145-80) explores the Timaeus in the context of theories of zoogony and evolution, from the Presocratics to Darwin and Lamarck. Campbell's approach is informed by his conviction that ancient ideas should be studied not only as exhibits in a museum of wrong ideas but as living and valuable contributions to a debate still alive today: one may reach a better understanding of ancient and modern ideas if we understand the source of our preconceptions (146). Accordingly, Campbell places the Tim. in an apparently anachronistic context--the Tim. arguing against Lucretius, Darwin and Lamarck interacting with Lucretius and Plato. This method seems perhaps paradoxical, but it is in the end quite sensible: the Tim. can be seen as a reply to the anti-teleological cosmologies of Empedocles and Democritus, which will later influence Lucretius, but Epicureanism is also a reply to the Tim., and our own ideas are so much influenced by Darwin that our approach to ancient texts should take its contribution into account (145-46).

Campbell centers on the mechanisms of the origin of species. He distinguishes between "inter-specific evolution" (the Darwinian model of the origin of species) and "intra-specific evolution" (the accumulation of variation within a species) and argues that whereas the latter is standard in ancient thinking, the former is not found there, except in the Tim. (146).

Campbell studies Lucretius', Empedocles' and other Presocratic zoogonies (146-54), and sketches the main lines of the topic of human evolution in Lucretius, Lamarck and Darwin (154-58). This judicious comparative work leads him to the Tim.. In the section "Zoogony and evolution in Plato's Timaeus" (158-62), he shows how Plato appropriates Presocratic physical ideas, and then subverts them. Campbell gives four examples: the order of creation in the Tim. is unusual (the human created before the animals), animal species are formed by an inter-species evolutionary process of mutation from one to another (this idea is pursued further in the following section, "Metamorphosis and metempsychosis" (163-64)), there are no extinctions of species, and there is no spontaneous generation of life from the earth (158).

Campbell draws also a striking parallel between Plato and Virgil (164): just as Virgil remythologizes the cosmology and aetiology that Lucretius had previously demythologized, Plato remythologizes the cosmology previously appropriated from myth by the Presocratics. It is obviously not a return to before the Presocratics: this process of "remythologization" is rather one aspect of Plato's outstanding style.

In sum, this short volume, sometimes difficult but often rewarding, will be a very useful reading for everyone seriously interested in Plato's philosophy and its influence.


pp. 56, n. 19, Metraux 1995, 10 should be read for Metraux 1999, 10 pp. 57, n. 22, a quotation from C. Joubaud, Le corps humain dans la philosophie platonicienne, Paris, Vrin, 1991, pp. 59: fonctionnement should be read for fonctionnment, and fonctionnant for fonctionant.


1.   By Wright, pp. 20, n. 28.
2.   For example Pierre Hadot, "Physique et poésie dans le Timée de Platon", Revue de théologie et de philosophie 115, 1983, pp. 113-33; Rémi Brague, "The Body of the Speech. A New Hypothesis on the Compositional Structure of Timaeus' Monologue", in D. O'Meara (ed.), Platonic Investigations, Washington, D. C., The Catholic University of America Press, 1985, pp. 53-83; Mischa von Perger, Die Allseele in Platons Timaios, Stuttgart, Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1997 (Opsomer seems to be the only author to take this book into account (134, n. 17)).
3.   Cf. Rep. 511d. The term can also mean "conjecture".
4.   According to Zedda, it is highly probable that Plato had in front of him, as he was writing this passage, a real armillary sphere (35).
5.   "Afterword: dialectic and the dialogue form in late Plato", in Gill and McCabe, Form and Argument in Late Plato, 1996, pp. 283-311; "Galen versus Chrysippus on the tripartite psyche in Timaeus 69-72, in Calvo and Brisson, Interpreting the Timaeus-Critias, 1997, pp. 267-73; "Did Galen understand Platonic and Stoic thinking on emotions?", in Sihvola and Engberg-Pedersen, The Emotions in Hellenistic Philosophy, 1998, pp. 113-48.
6.   Cf. M. M. Mackenzie (now McCabe), Plato on Punishment, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
7.   Cf. for example his remarks on συμφωνία and ἀναρμοσττία (90-92).
8.   See the comments on Ptolemy of Cyrene and Didymus by Porphyry in his Commentary on the Harmonics of Claudius Ptolemaeus (25.10-14, 26.15-25).
9.   Cf. Claghorn, Aristotle's Criticism of Plato's Timaeus, The Hague, 1954, pp. 5-19.
10.   D. Balme, "Aristotle Historia Animalium Book Ten", in J. Wiesner (ed.), Aristoteles und seine Schule, Berlin, 1985, pp. 191-206; John Cooper, "Metaphysics in Aristotle's embryology", Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 214, 1988, pp. 14-41; L. Dean-Jones, op. cit., pp. 196.
11.   165 pages without the introduction, indices, contents, the bibliography of each contribution and a bibliography of main editions, commentaries and translations (181).

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