Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.14

Carlo Natali, Stefano Maso, Plato Physicus. Cosmologia e antropologia nel Timeo.   Amsterdam:  Adolf Hakkert, 2003.  Pp. 344.  ISBN 90-256-1173-7.  €85.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Lautner, Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Budapest-Piliscsaba (
Word count: 1987 words

The volume is a result of a month-long seminar and the concluding conference on the Timaeus, held in 2000-2001 in Venice. It has been furnished with a short introduction by the editors, and with three indices, of names, Greek and modern, and of subject.

In discussing the status of mythological narratives Christopher Rowe points out that in the interpretive tradition the contrast between myth and account (λόγος) has been regarded more sharply than on occasions may prove to be the case. In particular, a careful examination of the relation of plausible myth in Timaeus 29D2 to plausible account leads to three conclusions. (i) The emphasis falls on plausibility, not on myth as such, (ii) the latter term being used as a substitute for account. (iii) An account is plausible simply because it is of an image (εἰκών); thus it is plausible as an account of the truth itself, not a plausible account of its immediate object, the physical world. Thus we have an account of physical things that itself looks no further than images, which is to say that it does not look to the model of those copies. Taken in this sense, it is a reliable account of the structure of the physical universe.1

Giovanni Casertano examines the notions of cause and auxiliary cause (συναίτια - συμμεταίτια (46E6)). There is no question that the Demiurge is the cause of causes. But the author also assumes that Plato's remarks on the role of intellect and necessity (47E-48B) are to be interpreted in causal terms. Necessity is not a cause of evil, rather it can only be an auxiliary cause serving the purposes of the intellect. Plato introduced the term "persuasion" to illustrate how the intellect as cause can affect necessity as an auxiliary cause.2

Thomas K. Johansen sets the Demiurge in the context of Plato's teleology. He uses a distinction between kinds of teleology, the one a result of intentional agency, the other referring to goals without involving thoughts and other intentional states. The Timaeus accounts for the first kind, with an argument that allows for causes other than the Demiurge. There is also a clear distinction between the causal role of the god who brings order to the precosmic stuff, and the unintelligent causes that are "not proportionality-producing causes" since they can bring about order at random only. By denying that the Demiurge can be in the created world the author draws a sharp dividing line between the Timaeus and Aristotle's view on nature as the inner principle of change. On his view the Demiurge can be assimilated to craftmanship. The reason for depersonalizing the Demiurge is to avoid certain problems about the act of creation.3

Johansen criticizes Franco Ferrari, the author of the next paper, who argues that the Demiurge is the eternal model. On Ferrari's view, the Demiurge is not an ontologically autonomous subject insofar as the different causes can be unified. There is evidence in 29D7-30A2 for the assumption that the model to which the cosmos must be similar is not external to the Demiurge. The phrase παραπλήσια ἑαυτῷ may support the conclusion that the Demiurge is the whole model, the unified and active totality of the world of ideas. It is thus both the paradigmatic and the efficient cause of generation.

Maurizio Migliori discusses the problem of generation and aims at unifying the different schemes Plato works with. There are hints in the dialogue that Plato accepts the notion of cosmic cycles, which in turn raises the problem of how to understand the narrative of the generation of the cosmos. The ordered universe is well-construed and stable. It cannot be destroyed unless by the one who constructed it (32C1-4; 41B). But the stability is due to the strength of the bond between material constituents alone. The receptacle possesses a disordered motion which may be due to the errant cause. Consequently, time must exist before the existence of the cosmos.4 The author lists many differences between space and receptacle, the most important being that the former is where everything has been gathered whereas the latter is the prime matter, a matter without forms. One might get the impression that his interpretation follows certain patterns represented, to name but one commentator, by Plutarch.5

Denis O'Brien concentrates on two problems. The first concerns space. There is nothing left outside the cosmos in the course of generation for the Demiurge used up all the material available to him. But then we learn that the soul covers the world in a circle on the outside. The second problem concerns the origin of movement. If every motion is due to soul, then disordered motion should also imply the existence of a soul, presumably a disordered one, which was however rejected by Plato (53B3-4). The solution to both problems is to be sought in Plutarch's reference to Empedocles' notion of cosmic cycles.6 Plato's cosmic geography serves to eliminate the evil power of Strife. There is only one psychic power at work in the universe. Precosmic disorder is thus not due to an evil soul, rather it is the result of the autonomous zig-zag of the elements. Evil arises from the random movements of the receptacle. The solution implies the existence of a space that is devoid of matter and occupied by soul. O'Brien appends useful notes on the term περικαλύπτω, finding the root of the misunderstanding in the recent editions of LSJ concerning the verb in Cicero and Stephanus.

Alberto Peratoner discusses two passages (29C-34B; 40A-41A) to shed light on important points concerning the arrangement of the ordered universe. The unity of the cosmos is explained in terms of the mutual attraction or friendship (φιλία) of the elements, which is also tied to order. Thus mutual attraction seems to be the result of divine intervention, and not something inherent in matter.7 Earth has a double status. It is the lowest of the elements, but it is located in the center of the cosmos, thus having a dignified position. The paper ends with a survey of these problems in ancient and medieval thinking on the heavens.

Barbara Botter takes up the issue discussed by Migliori and examines the relation between matter and space, with a particular emphasis on the notion of receptacle. There is no evidence that the receptacle is an absolute space in which the motions of physical bodies can take place. Her analysis draws heavily on Aristotle's distinction between the various meanings of "to be in". Accordingly, we do not have to take the expression in a strictly spatial sense. Rather, the expression used to qualify the receptacle (ἐν ᾧ) seems to allude to inherence. The consequence seems to be that the receptacle cannot be free from the bodies. Plato himself rules out the existence of the void in the ordered universe (58A, 79B).

Luc Brisson examines the account of the constitution of the physical world. The ultimate reduction of all sensible things to four regular polyhedra may give some explanation of the apparent contradiction between the existence of interstices (61A) and the absence of the void from the cosmos. The khôra not only has a spatial aspect, it is also constitutive of the sensible things. The paradox is that, while formless by nature, the khôra must adopt the form of the sphere for there is nothing outside the cosmos. Necessity refers to the state of the sensible things when they lack order and proportion.8 The author points out that we cannot exclude that there may remain some clusters in the universe where necessity rules. In this sense, all cosmological explanations will be partial.

Christina Viano turns to the "meteorological" section of the dialogue (58C-61C) and discusses the formation of metals, comparing Plato's doctrine to the accounts in Aristotle and Olympiodorus. We can have only a plausible account (57D) of bodies composed of elementary polyhedra. The distribution of the varieties of the water-element into liquids and fusible thing (including metals) in 58D-E may serve to stress that metals are made of water only. On the other hand, the different kinds of earth are always mixed (60B-61C), and metals are made of water condensed under the earth. Aristotle seems to take over this approach along with the emphasis that such phenomena cannot be discussed in a strictly scientific/geometrical way.9

Carlo Natali asks whether we can find any internal connection between the prologue and Timaeus' account of the formation of the cosmos. There is an ancient tradition of neglecting the introductory part in the discussion of problems in cosmogony, or treat it as an exposition of the formation of the cosmos in symbolic terms. By contrast, Natali shows that the two sections contains similar issues. Following the account in the Republic Socrates says that men and women are of the same nature and qualities (18C1-4), while Timaeus insists that women are inferior and those who failed to live properly must be reborn as women (42B5-C1; 90E6-91A1). More importantly, the activity of the Demiurge is frequently treated in terms of justice, and humans born in this way are the adequate citizens of the polis described by Critias.

Stefano Maso studies the concepts of harmony and uniformity. Life and rest are explained as harmonic states whereas motion is linked to irregularity and inequality. This account reminds us of the description of the age of Cronus in Politicus 269C ff., an age characterized by the constant presence of the god. As for the link between the states of division and unity, the author lays weight on the moment of mediation that makes any intervention from without unnecessary. The primary means of mediation are harmony and order.

Marta Cristiani connects the order of coming to be to the generation of time in such a way as to include an examination of the prologue too. By projecting the analogous relations in Timaeus' narrative back to Critias' report she aims to establish a certain link between youth and old age. The assumption is, then, that this link helps us explain the relation between time and eternity. To get further support for the explanation, the author refers to Plotinus, although one may have some doubts whether that device proves to be helpful.

Monique Dixsaut analyses the passage on divination (71A-72D) and concludes that Plato distinguished here between divination and prophecy. As divination relates to appetite, the whole matter is treated in the context of the relationship between the mortal and the immortal parts of the human soul. The intellect uses the appetite to terrify the appetitive soul while dreaming. On the other hand, to calm down the appetite, it also uses the sweetness appropriate to the liver. In this way, the intellect is able to bring about two contrary kinds of images. A parallel text from the Republic (IX, 571C3-572A9) corroborates the interpretation. Dixsaut thinks it more than probable that Plato relied heavily on Aeschylus' notion of the two contrary kinds of prophecy. It is possible to consider the seer a paradigm of the philosopher -- after all, on Timaeus' account, philosophers can regard the cosmos as an image --, although the author rejects it in the end.

Maria Da Ponte Orvieto surveys the references to the Timaeus in Sextus Empiricus. The dialogue was considered dogmatic in nature, which strengthened the skeptic thesis that Plato is one of the dogmatists. Sextus discussed some of the issues, such as the concept of time, but focused on the possibility of our knowledge about the world. As he himself rejected the view that we have already reached the final truth concerning the world around us, he could have found an ally in Plato, who also denied that. But Plato indicated the ways to get closer to it, which was against Sextus' convictions.10

To sum up, this is a good collection, although, as it happens with so many collections, the quality of the papers varies. But whichever papers we may happen to read can offer us some food for further thought.


1.   See Proclus' comments on the passage. On his view, we have to rely on sense-perception and phantasia to gain knowledge of the world (in Tim. I 351.20-353.29). Our knowledge thus cannot be knowledge in the strict sense. By 'plausible account' Plato wanted to characterize this condition. Some of Rowe's results were anticipated by G. Casertano. In discussing 26C5-E1 (Il nome della cosa, Naples 1996, 363-364) he points out that by becoming a discourse the μῦθος narrated by Critias becomes not only a true discourse but a discourse that makes Socrates' myth true. This implies that there is no unbridgeable gap between myth and true account.
2.   Casertano's interpretation is supported by 68E6-69A5 where Plato speaks about two species of cause, divine being and necessity, though the passage does not imply that necessity is an auxiliary cause.
3.   It is beyond doubt that sometimes Plato ascribes action to the craft itself, as Johansen has shown. But I am not sure that his arguments rule out that the Demiurge is the perfect craftsman (not just one among the many fallible artisans) who has all the skills the craft in question (the craft of κοσμοποιία) requires. Furthermore, if we accept -- for good reasons I believe -- that the narrative of the dialogue is nothing but a dramatization of the eternal dependence of the physical world on the world of ideas and(?) the Demiurge, the problem of why the Demiurge arranged the world then and not at another time will no longer be an issue. For a recent and forceful exposition of the view that the narrative is not to be taken literally, see M. Baltes, 'γέγονεν (Platon, Tim 28B7). Ist die Welt real entstanden oder nicht?' in: K. A. Algra, P. W. van der Horst & D. T. Runia (eds.), Polyhistor. Studies in the History and Historiography of Ancient Philosophy, Presented to J. Mansfeld on His Sixtieth Birthday. Leiden 1996, 76-96.
4.   Of course, much hinges on the definition of time. If time is nothing but an image of eternity, not necessarily applicable to the cosmos, and the priority of the soul to the body (34C4-5) is not only ontological but temporal as well, then we may be allowed to say that a certain time must have existed before the cosmos. On the other hand, if time is tied to measurement and regularity (as it seems to be in 38C7-8), it is hard to see how time can be separated from the cosmos. And one could also refer to 38B6 which says that time was generated along with the heavens.
5.   I am not sure if there can be such a difference between space and prime matter. It might be possible to treat prime matter as extension. We can find such approaches in some late Neoplatonist commentators and their followers in the 16th century.
6.   Against Cherniss, O'Brien argues that Plutarch was right in comparing Plato and Empedocles in this matter. Plutarch wrote a work in ten books on Empedocles and thus must have had a fairly thorough knowledge of the theory of cosmic cycles.
7.   This raises the question of the inclinations of the elements. If the earth has an inclination towards the center, does it need friendship as a further condition for getting there?
8.   One might raise the question that if the sensible things are constituted from geometrical solids, themselves displaying proportion and order, then how can they have the same macroscopic properties as the ones they possess in an ordered state? It seems that in the pre-cosmic state of the world things were not identifiable. How could they be visible if sight involves fire, itself an element implying an ordered state? There may be a possibility that they were not sensible at all.
9.   Implicitly, the paper may raise the possibility of the different levels of plausible accounts. Viano shows convincingly that the account of the generation and kinds of metals must lay claim to lesser accuracy than the one on the elementary polyhedra. But, if the whole creation story is nothing but a plausible account, within which the account of the different kinds of things made up of water is, again, a plausible account, then one might attribute different grades of plausibility to different sections in Timaeus' narrative.
10.   She notices that Sextus attributes to Plato the thesis that time is the number of what is prior and posterior in motion (PH III 136). However, it is important to note that Sextus hesitates. What he says is this: "Aristotle (or, as some say, Plato) [says] that it is the number of what is before and after in motion" (trans. by J. Annas and J. Barnes). Sextus' qualification is appropriate, for Plato does not make such a statement in the Timaeus.

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