Plato’s Timaeus

The Timaeus has been characterized as Plato’s case for Intelligent Design. And this is not far off the mark. It represents his mature thought and was among his last works published during his 50 years or so of literary output. The Barnes & Noble edition version which I recommend (Benjamin Jowett translation) is only 85 pages and can be read in half a day if you are serious and not-distracted.

As a Christian I could not help but constantly compare Plato’s cosmogony with that of Genesis – and you will do the same, with much pleasure. Man’s fascination with the creation of the universe is not a modern idea. It is a subject as old as recorded history and Plato takes his turn in the history of ideas. It is yet another reminder to us that Western philosophy is simply a series of footnotes to Plato.

After a short dialogue among Timaeus, Socrates, Critias and Hermocrates, Timaeus sets out an extended monologue of his account of the creation of the universe and man. He begins by posing this significant question:

“Was the heaven then or the world, whether called by this or any other more appropriate name – the question which I am going to ask has to be asked about the beginning of everything – was the world, I say, in existence and without beginning? Or created and having a beginning?” (section 28)

Plato’s answer: “Created, I reply”. It is a matter of common sense to Plato that created things have a cause. This not only applies to individual instantiations of things but to our world as a whole. However, in contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Plato’s world was not created ex-nihilo. There existed first a primordial chaos, from which the Creator fashioned an orderly world. The origin of this chaos is not explained, just assumed. And Plato’s Creator is thus referred to as the Demiurge (a transliteration of the greek ‘demiourgos’ – best translated as “Craftsman”). The Craftsman fashions his world after the pattern of a perfect form – in the manner an architect would refer to a blueprint.

Another interesting question Plato addresses is one that anticipates modern theories of the universe/multiverse. Timaeus asks:

“Are we right in saying that there is one heaven, or shall we rather say that they are many and infinite? There is one, if the created heaven is to accord with the pattern.” (section 31)

Christian theology throughout the early and medieval period settled on a universe – Giordano Bruno notwithstanding. But it is a subject in the forefront of apologetics because the modern proponents of the multiverse have found, so it seems to them, a convenient way out of creatio ex-nihilo which is the logical outcome of the Big Bang theory. Of course, a multiverse simply pushes the question of origins further back, but that is another story.

Another conclusion that Plato reaches is that time was created with the Universe – a conclusion also reached by Augustine and consonant with the modern Big Bang theory, where all matter and energy was focused into a singularity that exploded and became our universe. Timaeus says:

“Time then, was created with the heaven, in order that being produced together they may be dissolved together…” (section 38).

Timaeus provides some considerable detail on the creation of the heavenly bodies, animals and man in Sections 38-42, passages which can be read with great interest with its obvious comparisons of the creation account in Genesis. Plato’s Creator creates the world but he left it up to the various lesser gods to create man. And what of the creation of woman? Well, if you thought being created from man’s rib was a setback, Plato can beat that. According to Plato, woman was created when man, having lived an unrighteous life, would pass into another, lesser life and return as a woman. Maybe Genesis wasn’t so backwards after all?

There is much more to his story. He tells of the creation of our body parts, the elemental forces of the universe (fire, air, earth and water), and the perfect forms of the universe (the five perfect solids – an inspiration to Kepler a thousand years later). But as you can see, there is much in his account that Christians in later years would come to appreciate and accommodate. A fascinating read that carried great weight with the ancient world.

Now go, read, and learn.

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