Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.20

Gretchen J. Reydams-Schils (ed.), Plato's Timaeus as Cultural Icon.   Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2003.  Pp. 352.  ISBN 0-268-03871-6.  $59.95 (hb).  ISBN 0-268-03872-4.  $29.95 (pb).  

Contributors: Mitchell Miller, Kenneth Sayre, John Dillon, Carlos Lévy, Luc Brisson, David T. Runia, Richard Sorabji, Stephen Gersh, Paul Edward Dutton, Cristina D'Ancona, Michael J.B. Allen, Rhonda Martens, Werner Beierwaltes

Reviewed by Harold Tarrant, University of Newcastle, Australia (
Word count: 2541 words

This volume stems from a conference held at the University of Notre Dame in 2000. It is intended to explore the amazing influence that this work of Plato, currently undergoing a revival, has exercised. The introduction (1) asks what accounts for its cultural and philosophic status, and whether we can understand its intriguing appeal. Presumably the essays are collectively trying to do this. The book begins with the dialogue itself, and explores various phases of its influence, terminating in German idealism. Thirteen high profile contributors promise reasonable coverage, though from the start mainstream Neoplatonism, and even mainstream Middle Platonism, seems to play a diminutive role. The Editor brings the various contributions successfully together in her scholarly and wide-ranging introduction, yet even by the usual criteria for conference-related volumes this reader was left at the end of the book wondering exactly what he had learned of the Timaeus as a cultural icon. This does not mean that the essays had not been useful, and they did build up something of a picture of the different kinds of influence the Timaeus has had over two millennia.

Mitchell Miller starts by trying to give the Timaeus its rightful place in the Platonic corpus. He works within a clear developmentalist framework, but with the necessary refinement that each dialogue does not necessary directly reflect the latest Platonic philosophical research. He argues that the Timaeus is quite clearly not aimed at Plato's philosophic friends, but at a wider public that is as yet 'unturned': yet to be led through mathematical argument to abstract dialectic. Its omission of philosophic education from the early summary of Socrates' state, its willingness to employ the unphilosophic, even uncritical, Critias as an interlocutor, and its presentation of the cosmology in a rhetorical manner are quite unsuited to dealing with pre-cosmic principles and the like. The fact that the Timaeus was intended to be read with the Critias likewise alerts us to the fact that there is plenty here for the unphilosophical reader.

It may seem bizarre that a book that sets out to re-establish the Timaeus in its rightful place of prominence begins with a contribution that relegates it to the status of semi-philosophic literature, but this is far from Miller's intention. Rather he attempts to show how Plato's more philosophical friends would have seen in it the operation of the very metaphysical principles that they were used to hearing the master employ, and which surfaced much more openly in the Parmenides and the Philebus. Without wishing to commit myself to any details of Miller's reading of either of these dialogues (which seem to have as many readings as interpreters), I agree entirely that the Timaeus is intended chiefly for a pre-philosophic audience, and that the Parmenides is a dialogue that is meant to facilitate the turn; I can go further and claim that the Theaetetus is intended for the critical leap from mathematical reasoning to dialectic, which the interlocutor is clearly not yet used to. It may well be that of all 'later' dialogues only the Philebus is intended for a uniformly philosophic market, with Sophist and Statesman occupying stages on the journey since the Theaetetus. The strategy Miller uses to convince us of the application of Plato's mature ontology to aspects of the Timaeus is to show the way that the kinds of physical forms and living creatures have been determined with reference to the god-given method of the Philebus (16c-17a and beyond). There are a few ironies here. First, we are meant to imagine the Academy being particularly appreciative of parts of the dialogues that arouse little philosophic interest today; second, in trying to identify matters of ancient philosophic interest, we have largely forgotten what this dialogue is supposed to constitute for the supposed primary audience. The presence of a few wry smiles and intellectual morsels for the initiated does not explain the principal purpose of the text. And it does not really make it any more philosophic. The paper makes some interesting scratches on the surfaces of the Timaeus, but that it is still preoccupied with what we want to discover in the Timaeus--something that can only obscure its status as cultural icon.

Still less committed to showing us what has given the dialogue its historic stature is Kenneth Sayre's paper 'The Multilayered Incoherence of Timaeus' Receptacle'. Working from precisely the premise that Miller would deny, the premise that the Timaeus has Plato writing up his latest research, Sayre brings out several alleged incoherences in the conflicting ways of describing the Receptacle, the pre-cosmic traces, the relations between shape and quality, and between qualitative change and regrouping triangles. Ultimately he sees the Receptacle as a failed experiment that is replaced by the definitive ontology of the Philebus. The contrast with Miller, who explains these passages in terms of the Philebus' ontology (36-37), is striking, but Sayre does not have available to him an explanation in terms of different readerships. Regardless of readership, it ought to be clear that the Timaeus deliberately sets out to create pictorial images (characteristic of Presocratic communicative strategy) that correspond somehow to some much more abstract background theories. I am inclined to side with Miller (and a number of ancient Platonists) in regarding the Receptacle, associated traces and disorderly motion as being influenced by the same ideas about the continuum that appear in the Philebus' treatment of the indefinite.

Clearly the interpretation of the Timaeus depends crucially on (i) the primary audience, (ii) the extent to which it consciously tries to create images rather than arguments, (iii) the status of Timaeus' discourse as a 'likely myth' (εἰκὼς μῦθος), and (iv) the degree to which Plato intended the whole cosmogony to be taken seriously as a depiction of something that once happened. This last question might also be related to whether or not the accompanying Atlantis myth and account of primeval Athens is seriously intended to depict something that happened. The measured and thoughtful contribution on Old Academic interpretation of the Timaeus that John Dillon offers us is extremely useful in this context because it demonstrates how Plato could be read in a non-literal manner by his immediate followers, presumably writing for an audience who could not be easily duped. I am not suggesting that everything that Speusippus, Xenocrates, and Crantor said about Plato must be true, but rather that in order to be credible it had to be conceivable that somebody like Plato should write in a certain way. Dillon recognises that the rejection of a literal reading of the temporal creation entails that the colourful picture of both the Creator with his paradigmatic exemplar and the pre-cosmic Receptacle are also not to be given credence. Are we today such expert interpreters that we can afford to ignore the testimony of people who must have had some idea of Plato's intentions?

If one combines the evidence of the Old Academy with Miller's theme there are interesting results. Plato's own inner circle see in the dialogue the on-going operation of a set of metaphysical principles which they are used to associating with Plato, while they see the pictorial representation of these operations in a sequential creation story as something intended to enhance his ability to communicate (διδασκαλίας χάριν). Communicate with whom? Not with themselves of course, but with a wider educated public. The intense discussion of the Timaeus in Old Academic times, involving Aristotle, Theophrastus,1 Epicurus, and apparently the Academic Polemo2 is a clear indication that the work was known not only to these philosophers themselves but also to their audiences and known as well as the Republic for instance. What they were expected to believe on the basis of it is unclear, but what harm could be done if they took it literally?3 I am convinced that the Old Academy comes near to confirming that Miller's theory of primary and secondary audiences must be correct.

Carlos Lévy tackles Cicero's translation and other relevant Platonic passages. He places the translation very late, in the context of a projected account of a debate between Nigidius Figulus and Cratippus. Whether such a debate would make the best sense of the Stoicising elements of this translation I doubt, for they would appear to suit the Antiochus-trained Cratippus somewhat better than the Pythagorean. Cicero certainly has a strong interest in the Timaeus, but his commitment to it may be tempered by the feeling that true philosophy does best without voices of authority (Academica 2.60). It would be difficult to place it at the heart of his philosophy.

Luc Brisson turns to the work's place in the Chaldaean Oracles, and produces an interesting essay, somewhat spoiled for me by the treatment of Middle Platonism as a homogeneous whole (112-13), which conceals the important background role of Numenius.4 My other reservation is the degree of debt to the Timaeus in particular. The mix of Platonic influences is similar to that in Plutarch, Numenius, or Plotinus, and it is important to remember how crucial a source for these oracles are two Proclan works, Platonic Theology and In Timaeum. This can seriously skew our impressions. David Runia goes on to tackle Philo and a number of early Christian authors, and their position on principles, in particular on whether matter is a principle or something like it. In Christianity, as in later Platonism, a general tendency to monism is encountered, in the former by ousting what has been called 'monarchic dualism'. The precise role of the Timaeus in all this, except as a widely influential text, is less than clear to me.

Richard Sorabji's piece is 'Plato before, Simplicius behind, and Galen (plus many others) in the middle'. The ability of the soul, including the rational soul, to be affected by the body is an issue naturally arising from the Timaeus; Galen is too enthusiastic in embracing such a relationship, and that eventually provokes something of a Neoplatonist backlash. This reaction involves challenging the spatial relation between soul and body that the Timaeus had seemed to speak of. The essay is learned and entertaining, but are we really talking of the influence of the Timaeus on this debate, or is it rather a question that philosophers were under constant pressure to find a reading of that text that would support their position on these issues? Stephen Gersh's contribution 'Aristides Quintilianus and Marcianus Capella' discusses the content and relation of two musical texts. I do not see the term Timaeus (first occurring in n.17) in the main text, though Symposium does creep in (166), as does discussion of the relationship between Aristides and Platonists from Plutarch to Porphyry.

By contrast Paul Edward Dutton's 'Medieval Approaches to Calcidius' is a direct contribution to the theme. Calcidius' Latin translation was the way many knew the Timaeus, and there is a great deal of fascinating material here, much of it having a direct bearing on the translator himself and his project. The next translation of the Timaeus that was central to the western tradition was that of the celebrated Platonist Ficino, and Michael J.B. Allen offers an interesting discussion of Ficino's approach to the mathematics and science of the work in 'The Ficinian Timaeus and Renaissance Science. This leads naturally on to Rhonda Martens' piece 'A Commentary on Genesis: Plato's Timaeus and Kepler's Astronomy', which takes its title from a remark in Kepler's Harmonice Mundi 301. Naturally this was a time for close comparisons with Christian beliefs, whether for intellectual or political reasons. Together these papers do give some insight into the iconic status of the Timaeus over the western tradition for a millennium.

They are balanced by the contribution of Cristina D'Ancona on the way in which the Timaeus has influenced the Arabic tradition from al-Kindi to Avicenna. In spite of other sources of knowledge of the Timaeus, Plotinus' reading is found to have been central to the dialogue's influence over the development of Arabic philosophy. The well-known Arabic translation of parts of Plotinus known as The Theology of Aristotle is found to have played a critical role in transferring the claims that Plotinus makes for Intellect to the supreme god. Since Plotinus' doctrine of Intellect is scarcely uninfluenced by Aristotelianism in the first place, this makes difficult the job of reconciling what we can still recognise as a Platonic tradition (with debts to the Timaeus) with the key Aristotelian texts on divine intellect. These issues are central to Arabic philosophy, but my question is whether the Arabs would have actually recognised this indirect influence as that of the Timaeus. I note that the al-Farabi work De Platonis Philosophia5 has a rather short entry on the Timaeus and concentrates on the work's role in prescribing sciences beneficial to those with political authority. There appears to be the implication that the natural and divine world remained in need of a great deal of further investigation after Plato. Nor would the availability of Galenic scholarship on the Timaeus (see 229 n.19) have done much to promote the kind of vision of the world and its governance that most appealed to the Arab metaphysicians. In this case I suspect that it was Aristotle who became the cultural icon, with the Timaeus being an important influence that usually went unrecognised.

The collection ends with Werner Beierwaltes' essay 'Plato's Timaeus and German Idealism: Schelling and Windischmann'. Not surprisingly Schelling dominates this study, and in this case there is detailed study of how he interpreted the text of the Timaeus, particularly in relation to the Ideas and to Peras & Apeiron. His periodic doubts about whether the Timaeus is actually an authentic work of Plato, once less than tactfully expressed to Windischmann upon the receipt of his German translation of the work in 1804 (277), do nothing to alter the fact that this is a fine contribution to end the collection on, and one that helps explain a little of German Plato scholarship thereafter.

I have enjoyed reviewing this book. Yet I have been left with the feeling that much of the Timaeus' influence has been in spite of itself, defying its real philosophical importance in the age when it was written, and reflecting rather its accessibility to a variety of learned readers. As it became well known and well respected, it became more important for would-be followers of Plato to develop and use a credible interpretation of it. Some of its enduring attraction might be the seeming hold that it has had over a certain type of Christian intellectual, committed to a good creator-god and yet profoundly puzzled by things less easily reconciled with the dominant European religion. When we finally throw off the shadow cast by centuries of religiously motivated interest in Plato, we may discover that the Timaeus has not after all been so influential. The Parmenides was the supreme dialogue for most Neoplatonists, and Philebus and Phaedrus were also in contention. Symposium has certainly emerged as a cultural icon at various times. In my view we need treatments of the life and afterlife of other dialogues to correct the balance. If Sayre is right Timaeus is a discarded experiment. If Miller is right, as I prefer, the Timaeus cannot communicate the core of Plato's mature philosophy; at best it can remind those already acquainted with it from elsewhere.


1.   On Theophrastus I have benefited from a preview of a paper about to be published by Han Baltussen.
2.   David Sedley claims for Polemo the bulk of the account of Old Academic physics in Cicero, Academica I, 'The Origins of the Stoic God' in D. Frede, A. Laks (eds) Traditions of Theology, Leiden 2002, 41-83. This view is rejected by Lévy (98).
3.   How old is the doctrine of Olympiodorus (In Gorgiam 46.6) that Philosophic myths have the advantage over poetic myths that their surface meaning is harmless? And was it originally related to the Timaeus?
4.   His fr. 21 deserves mention at 114 n5.
5.   Edited by F. Rosenthal and R. Walzer in Plato Arabus II.

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