BMCR 2005.01.22

Plato’s Natural Philosophy. A Study of the Timaeus-Critias

, Plato's natural philosophy : a study of the Timaeus-Critias. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. vi, 218 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521790670. $75.00.

In Raphael’s famous “School of Athens” — a painting adorning countless philosophy department brochures — the central figures Plato and Aristotle stroll down a colonnade. The former is holding a copy of his Timaeus and is pointing upward while the latter is holding a copy of his Ethics with his palm pointed downward. Raphael was no philosopher; he was reflecting in his iconography the centuries-old view that in Timaeus was to be found the ultimate or most perfect expression of Platonism. But he was also indicating the view that this work — filled with the most detailed speculations about how what we would today call biology, chemistry, and physics, illuminate human life — reveals that all these matters have to be understood from the “top-down.” By contrast, Aristotle — in fact not, as many suppose, here represented as being in opposition to Plato — wishes to start from the “bottom-up” in understanding human beings, that is from their concrete social existence. The appearance of conflict is thus only in a way perspectival. Plato and Aristotle hold conflicting views on the order of inquiry, but their differing methods lead to harmonious results.

A top-down approach to the knowledge that is supposed to enhance human life is one of the enduring facets of ancient Greek philosophy. The assumption or inference that intelligence or nous must be somehow insinuated into cosmology begins with the Pre-Socratics and, in part no doubt inspired by Timaeus, continues on throughout the entire thousand year period with few notable exceptions. As Socrates points out in Plato’s Phaedo, Anaxagoras’ appeal to intelligence is hollow precisely because, even though it is posited as a fundamental principle, it has no discernible function in explaining anything here below. That is exactly what Timaeus sets out to do. In T.K. Johansen’s lucid and carefully reasoned monograph, the author aims to show how teleology informs every aspect of this work, including its very structure.

In the first chapter, Johansen asks the basic question, “What is the TimaeusCritias about?” His answer is that the work — evidently intended as in some sense a continuation of “yesterday’s” discussion in Republic (and Gorgias as well) — seeks to demonstrate that the account of justice in that work “has a sufficient grip in nature not to be uprooted by the test of war (16).” This test of war is what Critias‘ Atlantis story is intended to show. The Timaeus itself argues that the kosmos is purposefully constructed with a view towards the good, guaranteeing the naturalness of justice. Just as the demiurge, the governor and producer of order in the universe, overcomes necessity, so, we are to conclude, we humans are well supported in our efforts to overcome the obstacles facing the establishment of justice, and virtue in general. These obstacles begin for human beings with the inevitability of embodiment.

In the second chapter, Johansen focuses on the question of whether the Atlantis story was intended by Plato as historical. Johansen argues that the story is “‘history’ only in a special sense: it is a story which is fabricated about the past in order to reflect a general truth about how ideal citizens would fare in war (24).” The story is mimesis, but not of the sort rejected in Republic; rather, it is an informed imitation of and extension of the universal claims made in Timaeus. The key move here, according to Johansen, is the identification of Socrates’ citizens in Republic with ancient Athenians. “In presenting the Atlantis story as the story of Socrates’ ideal citizens Plato redeploys Athenian encomiastic history in the service of a new ideal different from the Athenian (38).” The story of Atlantis is, accordingly, true in the sense of what ought to be, not what actually is (or was).

Chapter three addresses the well-known crux of the status of Timaeus’ “likely account.” In so naming Timaeus’ account of the generation of the kosmos, Plato means to emphasize that the account is a more or less faithful representation of a likeness, namely, a likeness of an eternal model. Its status is not probabilistic. The account shares all the imperfections of the sensible world itself (54-5). Likelihood is in principle the best we can aim for in dealing with a likeness, though, if we had direct knowledge of the eternal model, we could no doubt give a better account. As it is, the best we can aim for is “conviction” ( pistis) not “truth” ( aletheia). This is at bottom why analogous as opposed to demonstrative reasoning is required. That is, we cannot know why the images are made the way they are; this is the prerogative of the demiurge. We can only understand relationally the structure of the kosmos. Thus, for example, “time is the way of being eternal in the mode of coming-to-be (60).” This likely account is, therefore, a muthos as well as a logos, a muthos for humans. From the divine perspective, however, there would undoubtedly be a genuine logos of creation, because from that perspective the purposes of creation would be transparent.

In chapter four, Johansen begins to address directly the philosophical question of the teleology operating in Timaeus. Specifically, he aims to examine the “unnatural” teleological role of the demiurge in relation to the “natural” teleology central to Aristotle’s Physics. Johansen construes the argument for the existence of the demiurge as an inference to the best explanation of the order and beauty of the kosmos. But the demiurge thus reached is extensionally equivalent to the eternal model according to which the kosmos is crafted. Johansen sees Aristotle’s natural teleology as an alternative type of explanation. Roughly, the inference is to nature, an internal cause of order, rather than to the demiurge, an external cause of order. Johansen insists that, based on the text, there are no grounds for assimilating the external cause to an internal one. To do so would be to gainsay the radical distinction made in Timaeus between the orders of being and becoming. Having thus defended the distinctness of the demiurge, the author argues that his virtual co-extensiveness with the eternal model leads to a depersonalized conception of the divine source of order, one that makes of him more craftsmanship itself than a personal craftsman. Thus conceived, neither the benevolence nor the intelligence of the demiurge is gainsaid. And further, interpreting the demiurge in this way closes the gap between the so-called unnatural teleology of Plato and the natural teleology of Aristotle. Finally, with craftsmanship rather than with a craftsman we can interpret apparent temporality of creation as the ongoing process of order production. That is, whenever order is produced or restored, it is owing to craftsmanship. The demiurge becomes in effect the ex post facto explanation for order. This presumably would make a future-directed providential role for the demiurge otiose, a consequence that the author does not clearly reject.

In the fifth chapter, Johansen examines the role of “necessity” ( anagkê) in the economy of creation. He distinguishes between the necessity which is independent of or prior to the intervention of the demiurge, namely, “the wandering cause” ( hê planômenê aitia) and the necessity that belongs to the “contributory cause” ( sunaitia) which is under the aegis of the demiurge. The former Johansen calls “mere necessary conditions” and the latter “necessary conditions.” The distinction — a more nuanced approach to the distinction between causes and condition than is found in Phaedo, according to Johansen — answers to Aristotle’s distinction of absolute or simple necessity and hypothetical necessity. Contributory causes are what the mere necessary conditions become when the demiurge — the true cause of creation — surveys the contents of the receptacle and begins to introduce mathematical order. Thus, when the natural bodies and their parts are constructed, the demiurge selects from the “elements” according to his ultimate purposes within the bounds of hypothetical necessity. He is constrained by the properties of the mathematically ordered elements. For Plato, as for Aristotle, then, final causality is intrinsic to a scientific explanatory framework. Absolute necessity is relegated to the non-intelligible receptacle. Johansen concludes, however, that the final causality of Timaeus contains an irremovable element of intention or purpose or thought that is not necessarily a part of “acting for the good” in Aristotle’s teleology.

In the sixth chapter, Johansen turns to an analysis of the receptacle of creation, arguing that its function is to be understood in the light of Plato’s conception of what coming into being actually is. The receptacle constitutes space (or place) because Plato needs to postulate a condition for something’s coming into or going out of existence. These are construed as “a certain kind of movement in and out of space (122).” Consideration of such movement abstracts from the mathematical conceptualization of nature. Thus coming into existence and going out of existence are really cases of the locomotion of the solid triangles out of which bodies are constructed. This is in contrast to the pre- kosmos where the coming into and going out of existence of the phenomenal bodies does not involve the movement of triangles. Both in the pre- kosmos ands in the kosmos itself, movement is intrinsic to the phenomenal bodies or elements and is only derivatively attributable to the receptacle. Johansen goes on to argue that, in addition to the receptacle’s representing space or place, Aristotle was basically correct to identify it with matter. So, “place and matter coincide in that both are to be understood as the product of abstracting the formal characteristics of a body (133).” Space or place becomes mere extension. The receptacle thus becomes the continuant in change, which in the context of Timaeus is essentially locomotion. By contrast, Aristotle wants to distinguish fundamentally locomotion from other types of change — especially generation and destruction — and so he makes a sharper distinction between space or place and matter than does Plato.

Chapter seven contains a discussion of the teleological role of the human body in relation to the soul. Johansen argues for taking the circular motion of soul literally, not figuratively. Accordingly, the distinction between soul and body in Timaeus is not the Cartesian distinction between two kinds of things, one bodily and one not. Rather, what distinguishes soul and body is that the latter is perceptible whereas the former is not. “Soul stuff does not add to the volume of a body, even whilst it was extended along the body. In this way the soul could be throughout the world body without adding bulk to it (141).” On this interpretation, soul is unlike a body in that it is not three-dimensional and solid, but it is like a body in that it is extended in space. On the one hand, this would seem to make soul like an attribute of a body — for example, its surface — though on the other hand, soul’s causal priority to body suggests otherwise. In the case of the human soul, embodiment involves the experience not only of circular rational motions but also the rectilinear motions of bodies. The “interplay between rationality and irrationality is thus understood in terms of the interaction of circular and rectilinear motions (143).” The affections which are a consequence of embodiment are the product of simple, not hypothetical necessity. Teleology comes into play when the lesser gods, responsible for embodiment, make the affections capable of contributing to our good. The construction of the soul-body complex thus follows along the lines of the basic trifold distinction of the composition of the world — products of simple necessity, hypothetical necessity, and reason. Plato’s tripartite psychology results from the interaction or combination of circular and rectilinear motions in the embodied soul. Harmonious operation of the soul can thus be explained in terms of the ordering of motions. This ordering is the manner in which the good is achieved for human beings. This ordering is explained in a way that is in some respects in contrast to tripartition in Republic, for what was there a conflict of desires is here the “devolved rationality” of the lower two parts (154). This analysis appears to lessen the normative contrast between the ideal life of disembodied existence and the life of a human being. The advance of Timaeus over Republic is the treatment of embodiment from the point of view of cosmic teleology.

The eighth chapter treats of the role of sense-perception and its cooperation with reason in the economy of creation. Johansen argues, mainly against Cornford, that from the teleological point of view Plato does not wish to exclude the deliverances of sense-perception from a contribution to our rational understanding. The question is in effect why the philosopher should be interested in anything other than mathematics. Johansen focuses on the central role of astronomy in philosophical education. He argues that the observable regularities of the heavens were, according to Plato, intended by the demiurge to contribute to the development of our cognitive capacities. Thus, sense-perception changes from being an obstacle to our wellbeing to a contributor to it, owing to the foresight of the demiurge. Johansen considers two basic interpretations of the role of sense-perception in its contribution to reason. According to the first, sense-perception provides the basic mathematical concepts, for example, the idea of number. According to the second, sense-perception does not itself present mathematical information; rather, it provides stimuli to activate reason’s own concepts. After weighing the textual basis for each interpretation, Johansen opts for the second, concluding that the sensible world is intended by the demiurge to contribute to our rational development, not as an empirical view of science would have it, but by providing an appropriate image of eternal reality.

In the last chapter, the author asks the question, “In what sense is the TimaeusCritias a dialogue?” Johansen answers that the principal sense of “dialogue” in a Platonic work is between author and reader. The TimaeusCritias contains numerous clues and directions by the author to direct the reader’s thinking. It is the subject matter of this work that causes the dialogue among characters to be suppressed in favor of a monologue. First, the speakers are presented as experts on their topic, suggesting that the opportunity for them to speak at length uninterruptedly is intentional on Plato’s part. Specifically, Timaeus is given a speech that is as orderly as the kosmos he is describing. Here we have “teleology as a principle of literary composition (193).” The give-and-take and tentativeness of genuine dialogue amongst characters would be inappropriate for a discourse which is intended by Plato genuinely to represent its subject matter. Johansen ends the chapter with some speculation on why Critias’ account is incomplete. He suggest that Critias’ inability to complete the account of the life of ideal citizens in action is perhaps owing either to Critias’ own supposed personal shortcomings (if he is indeed to be identified with the historical tyrant Critias) or the inability of any contemporary Athenian to speak with authority about the lives of ideal citizens.

A recurring theme of this book is the similarity of Timaeus‘ account of the kosmos to Aristotle’s philosophy of nature. Johansen demonstrates again and again how the basic principles of nature presented in Aristotle’s Physics have their origin in Plato’s work. Although the author argues for assimilating the demiurge to nature itself as a principle of change, Aristotle himself seems to acknowledge that nature is only relatively sufficient as a principle of explanation. For in the last chapter of book Lambda of his Metaphysics he compares the unmoved mover to a general of an army upon which, analogous to the members of the army, all natural order depends. This unmoved mover is separate intellect. Aristotle is not content to stop at the craftsmanship of nature ( natura naturans); he argues that all nature depends on an external; principle. (cf. 1072b13-14). Johansen’s claim that Plato’s demiurge is craftsmanship rather than a craftsman makes the demiurge more like an immanent principle, internal to nature. Thus, Johansen’s demiurge cannot be much like Aristotle’s external principle of change, and if Johansen is right on other grounds that Aristotle follows Plato, one wonders whether Johansen’s demiurge is much like Plato’s demiurge, either. Perhaps the author’s tendency to depersonalize the demiurge arises from an anachronistic assumption about what the personality of a divine intellect was supposed by both Plato and Aristotle to be. In any case, my lone serious criticism of this excellent book is the author’s tendency to discount the intelligence (as opposed simply to order or intelligibility) which is evidently viewed by both philosophers as being integral to cosmology. With this discounting, Plato’s interest in such matters as goodness and providence are left in the shadows. The discussion of teleology is thus somewhat diminished.

If I were going to recommend to someone who had just read Timaeus one philosophical monograph on this work I cannot think of a better choice than Johansen’s. Traditional in its exegetical approach, yet properly critical of giants of the past like Taylor and Cornford, Plato’s Natural Philosophy is a solid contribution to what is evidently a renaissance of interest in what is surely one of Plato’s major works.