Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.35

Donald J. Zeyl (trans.), Plato's Timaeus.   Indianapolis/Cambridge:  Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.  Pp. xcv + 94.  ISBN 0-87220-447-2.  

Reviewed by Han Baltussen, King's College London (
Word count: 1259 words

Plato's cosmological treatise Timaeus is very much back in the center of attention among classicists, philosophers and historians of science, as a number of recent conferences and publications show.1 It is therefore an opportune moment that the Hackett series has published a new translation of this fascinating work, which has been one of the most influential in the history of philosophy. One minor indication of this is that the later discussions of the text, ranging from Theophrastus in the 4th c. BC up to Proclus and other commentators in the 5th and 6th c. AD, are still important for the understanding and constitution of the text; thus the apparatus criticus mentions late commentators such as Plutarch, Eusebius, Proclus (siglum Pr.) and Simplicius (Simpl.) numerous times.2 The translation was already published in the new collection of Plato's works,3 but now a lengthy introduction is added (95 pp.) in which interpretative issues and certain controversies are dealt with extensively and clearly. I also note the very useful Analytical Table of Contents (xci-xciv, which has the Stephanus pages with line numbers, allowing quick reference to the Greek) and a very up-to-date Bibliography (89-94).

In his introduction Prof. Zeyl (Z.) starts out by discussing two of the puzzles which have dogged interpretation of the work: 1. whether to read the dialogue literally (e.g. Aristotle) or metaphorically (since Xenocrates), and 2. chronology and stylometric studies (since 1960s). Z. is very judiciously working out the details here, setting up the arguments against a literal reading (xxii) and the responses from opponents (xxiiif.).4 They range from looking at how some of the mythical elements cause absurdities (e.g. the mixing bowl in which the World Soul is said to be prepared: to ask what material it is made of is unhelpful) to how explicit statements in the dialogue might be taken to indicate what Plato's intentions are (e.g. the famous passage already discussed by ancient commentators, 28b7, where it is said about the kosmos γέγονεν "it came to be").

Next Z. conveniently summarizes the content of the dialogue and comments on its distinct parts. As to the introductory conversation (17a-27d) Z. places it within the context of the dramatic framework given by Plato: Socrates is asked to rehearse a speech of the day before on a theme of politics, so it is connected with the Republic without necessarily referring to that particular account (in fact, what Socrates here seems to be talking about are things omitted in the Republic [HB]). The tale of Atlantis is offered as example of how the virtues and qualities might be realized in action in a city. This is a puzzling setup, and the story is unique. Z. refers to others for this problem and indicates that the Tim. was meant as a first part of a trilogy (Tim.--Critias--Hermocrates; see 27a-b) presumably dealing with cosmology and politics (though the text give no explicit indication of the subjects of the additional parts of the trilogy).

Closer investigation follows of the important methodological opening statements in Timaeus' speech (27d5-29d6): the subject matter and the method to deal with it. This he divides into what always is, τὸ ̓́ον ̓́αει, and what comes to be, τό γιγνόμενον, indicating also the epistemic counterparts (modes of knowing of these) as "understanding based on reason" versus "opinion based on perception". Timaeus adds that an account should be of the same kind as the topic it deals with, i.e. "accounts of what is unchanging and intelligible should themselves be stable and irrefutable" whereas what is a likeness (this sensible world) cannot be represented with the same rigour. The warning here is that his account should not be expected to be more than likely (in terms of validity) nor less than likely (in terms of feasibility).

Z. goes on to deal with the main parts of the dialogue and their central concerns (I: 29d-47e on the craftsmanship of Intellect; II: 48-69 on the effects of Necessity; III: 69a-91, the co-operation of Intellect and Necessity). Z. elegantly moves through these difficult passages, clarifying the issues and patiently pointing out alternative interpretations. What are some of these issues? Well, for instance the creation of the world (a matter of huge importance in later Greek philosophy when pagans and christians debated it) and its inherent features (the God-Creator made the best possible world); the Body and Soul of the World and how they relate (the Body is in fact in the Soul); the planets etc. Plato is here seen to first build up a picture of the macro-cosmos which incorporates a lot of contemporary science (after all, the protagonist Timaeus is introduced as an accomplished astronomer, 27a). In addition, the whole dialogue constructs a synthesis of cosmological and physiopsychological knowledge up to his day, in which, nonetheless, most parts acquire a new role and meaning thanks to Plato's subtle adaptations as well as implicit criticisms.5

Translation is an interpretive act, so some disagreement is bound to arise among readers, in particular with a text as difficult as this one. This translation is excellent in general, and, in looking for passages where certain choices might be controversial, I have found little that was not sensible. As to very important passages (genesis of the kosmos, World Soul, Receptacle) Z. makes textual decisions (often indicated in a footnote) which indicate his direction of interpretation:

Tim. 28a (p.13, n. 13) he does not accept ἄει (in the sentence "that which becomes [always]"), which was omitted in important manuscripts as well as Simplicius and Proclus. The mss authority should be taken seriously, whereas it is less clear how to take the text versions available to the late commentators (they would discuss different manuscripts and versions but the criteria for selecting one over the other were not commonly accepted rules, rather polemical and individually motivated on the basis of a certain overall interpretation). Here neither the intuition "older thus better (informed)" nor the adage "younger not worse" (recentiores non deteriores) applies in a straightforward way.

Tim. 40b8 (p.27, n.35) regarding the axis of the earth, Z. opts for E)ILOMMENON ("is packed around") adding that ἰλλομενε̂ν ("winds around") cannot be ruled out. The issue had been discussed in the introduction (p. xlix-l).

It is helpful to know these choices, but it is also sometimes wise to be less committed, as in the case of the Receptacle, the elusive 'third factor' introduced by Plato to account for some form of permanency in the physical world where nothing has a permanent character. Z. presents two versions of this passage 9 (Intr. p. liv-v) and a long discussion of how they differ and how both of them might be defended (Z. is basically non-committal, though he states a majority position on "such-things".

On the other hand, Z. comes up with some wonderful colloquialisms which work admirably well, e.g. for ηο δ̀η γέρων ... ἥσθη διαμειδιάσας εἴπε we find "the old man ... was tickled. He smiled broadly and said" (21c2-3); for ηωσπερ νοσήμα ἥκει φερόμενον we find "it sweeps upon you like a plague" (23a7-8).

In short, this is a valuable upgrade from the Cornford translation, while the latter's commentary still remains indispensible for detailed analysis (if sometimes outdated); what is needed now is a revaluation of some important problems in some neglected parts of the work (Tim. 71 ff). Once again, Hackett is to be congratulated for providing another excellent (and affordable) translation, and we should thank Donald Zeyl for his faithful yet modern rendering of such a difficult text, making its lasting interest available to teachers, students and a wider audience.


1.   See e.g. Calvo T.--Brisson L. (1997) (eds) Interpreting the Timaeus-Critias Proceedings of the IV Symposium Platonicum. Selected Papers. (Academia Verlag, Sankt Anton 1999); G. Reydams-Schilts, Demiurge and Providence: Stoic and Platonist readings of Plato's Timaeus (Brepols, Leuven 1999); Andy Gregory, Plato's Theory of Science (Duckworth, London 2000). Another study into the Timaeus is forthcoming by Thomas Johansen (Bristol University). Here in London the Ancient Philosophy seminar at the Institute of Classical Studies (London) has been hosting a seminar on "Plato's Timaeus and the Commentators" from October 2000 until May 2001 (organisers: R. Sharples and A. Sheppard), which has been continued until Dec. 2001.
2.   The importance of the tradition also shines through in that editors consider it important to note the absence of a word or phrase in later authors (e.g. Tim. 41a7 which includes a reference to Cicero having not translated a certain word). Compare also 35a where Zeyl follows the construction of sentence as given by Proclus (p. 19, n. 23). I note that translations and analyses of Proclus' elaborate commentary on the Timaeus are also forthcoming (Opsomer/Steel, Leuven-Belgium; Tarrant, Newcastle-Australia).
3.   Edited by J. Cooper, also published by Hackett Publ. 1997. I note that Hackett also re-published the Cornford translation with commentary in paperback in 1997.
4.   For a more general treatment of how Plato was read in antiquity see now the excellent account by H. Tarrant, Plato's First Interpreters (Duckworth 2000), esp. ch.1.
5.   Empedocles, Anaxagoras and some medical predecessors feed into the narrative of this cosmology. It is a moot point why Plato never mentions Democritus, although some of his statements (e.g. 31a-b, 55c-d on the questions of one or several heavens/worlds) are often taken as a rejection of a Democritean view (cf. Cornford p. 219).

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