BMCR 1998.08.15

Die Allseele in Platons Timaios


This monograph is a revised version of a doctoral dissertation done in Munich in 1993 under the direction of Werner Beierwaltes. It focuses largely on the enormously complex and provocative passage in Plato’s Timaeus in which the “construction” of the “world-soul” is described (33b-37c). Narrowly, the interpretative issues surrounding this passage regard the nature of the world-soul’s composition out of a mixture of divisible and indivisible elements. More broadly, at stake is our understanding of Plato’s mature account of the soul in relation to the body and cognition in relation to plainly physical events.

The first major part of this work (25-124) is devoted to a close analysis of the above passage. This is followed by a discussion of other relevant parts of the Timaeus (127-148) and a related passage in the Laws (149-164). The second major part of the work (169-224) contains a discussion of Aristotle’s criticism of the account of the world-soul in De Anima (404b7ff). The book concludes with an interesting speculative discussion between “Timaeus” and “Eudemus” in which the former attempts a Platonic response to the sort of criticisms raised by Aristotle and an appendix which criticizes the interpretation of the Timaeus passage by H.J. Krämer according to which that dialogue provides evidence for Plato’s “unwritten teachings”.

The idea that the universe or kosmos is a living entity is implicit in the organic metaphor of growth in the term physis employed by the Pre-Socratics. It seems, however, that Plato was the first philosopher to thematize and explore the implication that if the universe is a living thing it must have a soul to go along with its body. The issue is addressed several times in the dialogues of Plato that are usually accounted “late”. Apart from the Timaeus, it appears in the Statesman (268d-275c), the Philebus (29e-30d), and the Laws (891b-899d). Despite this substantial body of material, discussions of Plato’s account of soul in the later dialogues typically ignore the question of the world-soul and focus exclusively on the souls of individuals. This fact is not altogether surprising, since the texts in which the composition and function of the world-soul are discussed are among the most obscure in the Platonic corpus. Nevertheless, given that Plato explicitly claims in several places that the human soul is essentially the same in kind as the world-soul, a close study of the latter is well worth undertaking. In particular, the vexed philosophical issue of the relation of soul to body in individual human beings might well be expected to receive some illumination from an analysis of the “pure” case of the world-soul much as the picture of justice in the state in the Republic is intended to illuminate the nature of justice in the soul.

The central thesis of this book is that when Timaeus describes the world-soul in materialistic terms, he is to be taken as a representative of Plato’s own serious view. The author lays down three principles of interpretation (36-8): (1) Myth is not to be rationalized. That is, we must not assume that what is said about the soul of the universe is simply metaphor. Nor must we assume that the dialogue’s explicit limitation on the accuracy of the account of the created universe should oblige us to dismiss all specific claims made about soul. (2) There should be no conflation or reduction of the elements of the account. Specifically, it should not be assumed that the maker of the universe and the soul of the universe are actually one and the same thing. (3) There should be no “marginalization” of the idea of a soul of the universe. That is, any modern assumption of the absurdity of such an idea should be kept from contaminating the interpretation of the text. There is one further crucial principle that von Perger employs, though it is not here made explicit. Since Plato says things about soul elsewhere (e.g., Phaedrus) that are apparently incompatible with a literal reading of the Timaeus, the author assumes a developmentalist view of Plato’s thought that places that dialogue in its ultimate, critical period. Laudable as these principles of interpretation may be if taken broadly as a resolve not to push aside difficult issues, it is not clear to me that they do not altogether constitute some of the elements of an interpretation of the Timaeus which requires argument rather than pristine principles in no need of argument.

In any case, with these principles in place, von Perger turns to a close analysis of the relevant passages in the Timaeus. The central points regarding the soul of the universe in Plato’s account are: (1) The Demiurge wished that the world be the best possible and to this end he decided that a world with intelligence was better than one without. But there is nothing with intelligence that is without soul. So, the Demiurge decreed that the world should have a soul (29d7-30c1). (2) The soul of the universe is located in the center of the body of the universe and extends throughout the body and wraps around outside it (34a8-b9). (3) Soul is prior to body in birth and excellence, and its ruler (34b10-35a1). (4) The soul of the universe is composed of a mixture of indivisible Existence, Sameness, and Difference and divisible Existence, Sameness, and Difference (35a1-b3). (5) The soul is then divided or marked according to harmonic intervals (35b1-36b6). (6) The soul is then torn lengthwise into two strips which are connected to form two circles, an outer and an inner, the former comprising movement of Sameness, the latter movement of Difference (36b6-d7).

Among the many, many puzzling thoughts contained within these claims, one is this. If soul is prior to body in its generation, what are “divisible Existence, Sameness, and Difference” supposed to represent if not bodily properties? According to von Perger, the divisible elements of the soul of the universe must originate in the pre-cosmic receptacle or “nurse of becoming”. The particular importance of the claim that the universal soul is such a mixture is that Plato seems thereby to be repudiating the sort of argument found in the Phaedo’s so-called “affinity argument”. There it is argued that the soul must be like “invisible” entities in order to cognize them. But if the soul is compounded in part of pre-cosmic or chaotic material, what becomes of its power to cognize immaterial entities? Oddly, Aristotle later criticized Plato for making the soul materialistic in order to observe the principle that “like knows like”.

The position taken by the author on the composition of the soul of the universe is essentially that of Plutarch in his work On the Generation of the Soul in the Timaeus. He stresses the functional parallelism of the soul and the receptacle: soul is to body as the receptacle is to the proto-elements in it (142). Thus, he makes the soul of the universe responsible for the chaotic pre-cosmic motion (147), thereby rejecting the interpretation which requires that there be another “evil soul” solely responsible for disorderly motion, as the Laws seems to claim (896e).

The puzzling composition of the soul of the universe is addressed by the author in the light of the analysis of motion in Laws X, 893a2-894e2. In that important text, the Athenian Stranger distinguishes between that which moves other things but does not move itself and that which is both capable of moving itself and other things. The latter refers exclusively to soul. The capacity for moving other things is called by the author “transitive Bewegung” (149ff). In doing this, he in effect attempts to commensurate psychic and bodily motion. Thus, when an ensouled body moves other things, such motion is indifferently described as transitive psychic or bodily motion. But the text does not actually say that the capacity for moving other things that soul possess is exactly the same capacity that bodies have for moving other things. The text in the Laws seems rather more devoted to an analysis of the phenomenology of motion than to its explanation.

In the first book of De Anima, Aristotle offers a wide-ranging critique of what his predecessors have had to say on the nature and function of the soul. Included in this historical survey are explicit references to the Timaeus as well as a number of passages which seem to criticize a doctrine that is reasonably taken to be found therein. The gist of Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s account of the soul is that Plato was wrong both to make the soul a magnitude and to make it a self-mover. A detailed analysis of this criticism leads von Perger to conclude that, contrary to scholars like Harold Cherniss, Aristotle’s account of what Plato in fact held is correct, even if his arguments against Plato may be effectively countered (206-210). Against Cherniss, the author argues that with respect to magnitude and (circular) self-motion, Aristotle could not have arrived at a fairer account of Plato’s view of the soul from the Laws because that dialogue holds essentially the same thing.

The principal virtues of this book are a serious attention to the texts and to the dialectical interchanges within the Academy regarding the nature and function of soul. The author is neither a diehard defender of Plato nor a jaded critic secure in the notion that Platonic psychology much less Platonic cosmological psychology hold little philosophical interest. But it is clear from the introduction that he is sympathetic to a physicalist or materialist psychology. The precise focus of this book evidently precluded consideration of some relevant psychological issues, particularly the relation between the discarnate and the incarnate soul. Unfortunately, the book appeared to late for the author to have taken into account the valuable volume containing the proceedings of the IV Symposium Platonicum, Interpreting the Timaeus-Critias (edited by Tomás Calvo and Luc Brisson), which contains several illuminating studies of the world-soul, especially one by Francisco Lisi, “La construcción del alma del mundo in el Timeo (35A-B) y la tradición indirecta” which takes a somewhat different approach. This is not a book that can be recommended to the general reader or even to the scholar who does not have a serious interest in the Timaeus. It is, however, a thoughtful and at times challenging work.