Plato’s Timaeus: A Pythagorean Creation Myth

Plato’s Timaeus: A Pythagorean Creation Myth

The Timaeus is one of Plato’s most historically influential dialogues, because it, unlike the others, was translated into Latin1 and preserved in the medieval world. Yet it is also one of the hardest to understand. The bulk of this “dialogue” consists of a monologue by Timaeus, a Pythagorean philosopher from Locri, who tells an imaginative story about the creation of the universe. So, instead of the usual argumentative back and forth of Socratic dialectic, we are presented with a long speech from a single mythical point of view.

Timaeus announces his mythological intentions at the very outset of his speech, declaring that he is aiming to provide only “a likely tale on these matters”, rather than an irrefutable argument. He does nonetheless offer a rational argument for why an account of the creation of the universe must be mythological. His argument begins by adopting the principle that “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b trans. Zeyl, ed. Cooper). Timaeus here endorses the familiar Platonic claim, set forth in book VI of the Republic in the illustration of the divided line, that epistemology mirrors ontology. Any epistemically adequate account of eternal Being must be founded on stable rational grounds. As Timaeus observes, “accounts of what is stable and fixed and transparent to understanding are themselves stable and unshifting. We must do our very best to make these accounts as irrefutable and invincible as any account may be” (29b). Yet, our accounts of the changing world of experience should be held to different standards. At best, one can hope to offer a convincing account that is likely to be true. Timaeus thus concedes, “accounts we give of that which has been formed to be like that reality [i.e. the eternal forms], since they are accounts of what is a likeness, are themselves likely, and stand in proportion to the previous accounts, i.e., what being is to becoming, truth is to convincingness” (29c). Reason stands to Myth in the realm of epistemology, in the same relation that Being stands to Becoming in the realm of metaphysics. As a result, Timaeus warns us:

“Don’t be surprised then…if it turns out repeatedly that we won’t be able to produce accounts on a great many subjects—on gods or the coming to be of the universe—that are completely and perfectly consistent and accurate” (29c).

Timaeus is thus not aiming to provide a complete, accurate, or consistent account of the creation of the universe, but to furnish only a likely story about the subject matter.

This principle of epistemic accommodation was adopted later by Aristotle in his famous statement in the Nicomachean Ethics that:

“Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject matter admits of; for precision is not to be sought alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts….We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premises to indicate the truth only roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premises of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each of our statements be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits: it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician demonstrative proofs” (1.3 trans. Ross).

So, before we dismiss Timaeus’s story as a primitive myth, we would do well to remind ourselves of our actual epistemic situation, a situation that requires a good deal of humility. For even Aristotle, the philosopher credited with the discovery of formal logic, admitted to the same limitations acknowledged by Timaeus. Indeed, the need for epistemic humility is further emphasized at the very outset of Timaeus’s speech where he begins with prayer:

“Surely anyone with any sense at all will always call upon a god before setting out on any venture, whatever its importance. In our case, we are about to make speeches about the universe—whether it has an origin or even if it does not—and so if we’re not to go completely astray we have no choice but to call upon the gods and goddesses, and pray that they above all will approve of all we have to say, and that in consequence we will, too” (27c).

Timaeus’s speech concerns the origins of the universe and the creation of man (27a), and therefore qualifies as a creation myth. But Timaeus’s philosophical myth differs from others in that he describes creation as an act of benevolence and artistic creation, rather than as a brutal war between cosmic powers. For example, the Enuma Elish tells of Marduk’s defeat of Tiamat and how he fashioned heaven and earth from her corpse, Hesiod’s Theogony speaks of Saturn’s castration of Uranus and of a war in which Zeus and the Olympian gods battle with Saturn and the old gods for power, and Psalm 89 recounts YHWH’s crushing of the sea monster Rahab. In contrast to such bloody tales, Timaeus’s myth is framed in terms of grace, beauty, and artistic creation.

This can be seen in the very terms Timaeus uses to describe the creator. He calls the architect of the universe as a δημιουργός, a craftsman. God is not here presented as a warrior king crushing his enemies beneath his feet (Psalm 2), but as an artist seeking to fashion a work of beauty to share with the world. Timaeus proclaims that the demiurge is good, and, because he is good, he wants to share his goodness with others. Goodness, then, is the ultimate reason for the universe. Timaeus explains:

“He was good, and one who is good can never become jealous of anything. And so, being free from jealousy, he wanted everything to become as much like himself as was possible. In fact, men and women will tell you (and you couldn’t do much better than to accept their claim) that this, more than anything else, was the preeminent reason for the origin of the world’s coming to be” (29e-30a).

In this manner, Timaeus distinguishes his account of the demiurge from Homeric portrayals of the Olympian gods which depict them as motivated by petty human concerns. For Timaeus, it is a mistake to assert that “God is a jealous God”2, since jealousy conflicts with goodness, and God is good.

The Basic Picture

Timaeus’s myth begins with the Platonic distinction between Being and Becoming (28a) and depicts the creation of the universe as an artist’s attempt to replicate, to the greatest degree possible, the beauty and perfection of the realm of Being within the realm of Becoming.

He argues for the claim that the universe is the artistic creation of a demiurge by applying a causal principle to the world of becoming. According to Timaeus, anything that comes to be, comes to be “by the agency of some cause”, since “it is impossible for anything to come to be without a cause” (28a). And, since the universe is something perceptible, it is something that has come to be, given that perceptible things belong to the realm of becoming (28c). Timaeus thus concludes that the universe is caused, and he goes on to identify the demiurge with its cause. The universe, claims Timaeus, is thus the ultimate artwork, fashioned by a divine craftsman.

Timaeus then argues that the demiurge uses the realm of Being as his model for fashioning the universe. The model for the universe, claims Timaeus, must come either from the realm of Being or from the realm of Becoming. And he argues that if the model was drawn from the realm of becoming, the universe produced would not be beautiful and its craftsman would thus prove to be a bad one. Timaeus argues that this is not the case. Because the universe we observe is exceptionally beautiful, the demiurge must have used a model drawn from the realm of Being. He maintains:

“Well, if this world of ours is beautiful and its craftsman good, then clearly he looked at the eternal model. But if what it’s blasphemous to even say is the case, then he looked at one that has come to be. Now surely it’s clear to all that it was the eternal model he looked at, for, of all things that have come to be, our universe is the most beautiful, and of causes the craftsman is the most excellent. This, then, is how it has come to be: it is a work of craft, modeled after that which is changeless and is grasped by a rational account, that is, by wisdom” (29a).

So, at its most general level, Timaeus’s creation myth is one in which a divine craftsman looks to the eternal world of the forms, and then does his best to create a similar order in the world of becoming (30a). Because this craftsman is good, he must create the best possible universe.3 And, since “order is in every way better than disorder” (30a), he must impose order on the chaos of becoming.

The Universe as a Living Thing

Timaeus then presents a similar argument for the claim that the universe is a living being endowed with intelligence. He observes that intelligence is better than non-intelligence, and, since the creator must make the best possible universe, the universe he creates must be intelligent (30b). And, given that intelligence has to exist in a soul, the demiurge “put intelligence in soul, and soul in body”, so as to “produce a piece of work that would be as excellent and supreme as its nature would allow” (30b-c). The universe, for Timaeus, is thus “a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence” (30c).

Likewise, because the universe is created by looking to an eternal model, Timaeus claims that the eternal model is also alive. Timaeus speculates:

“When the maker made our world, what living thing did he make it resemble? Let us not stoop to think that it was any of those that have the natural character of a part, for nothing that is a likeness of anything incomplete could ever turn out beautiful. Rather, let us lay it down that the universe resembles more closely than anything else that Living Thing of which all other living things are parts, both individually and by kinds. For that Living Thing comprehends within itself all intelligible living things, just as our world is made up of us and all other visible creatures. Since the god wanted nothing more than to make the world like the best of the intelligible things, complete in every way, he made it a single visible thing, which contains within itself all the living things whose nature it is to share its kind” (30c-31a).

This is a puzzling aspect of Timaeus’s myth. For, though it is possible to imagine the universe as a single living thing permeated by a cosmic consciousness, it is harder to imagine what its invisible archetype might be. We are accustomed to think of the realm of the forms as a domain of abstract properties, not living things. What is it for something to be alive in the realm of Being, since it cannot grow or change? And how does the demiurge relate to this ultimate living thing? Is the demiurge himself a part of this larger whole, or does he have a different kind of being altogether? These are questions that would continue to puzzle later Platonists and motivate the development of their various systems and they may also motivate early Christian formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity.

For now, perhaps our best initial approximation of what Timaeus has in mind would be to draw an analogy to Hegel’s doctrine of the Concept (Begriff). Such a view invites us to think about concepts as possessing a living dynamism, entailing some determinations and ruling out others. And, if we think of the total system of concepts as itself grounded in a process of Absolute Thinking that empties itself into a series of finite determinations to grasp itself again as a totality, we might have something resembling Timaeus’s account of the eternal living thing. Or, from a more religious perspective, Timaeus’s eternal living thing could resemble the Wisdom of Proverbs 8 which rejoices with God as he fashions the world. Here, wisdom speaks as follows:

“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him” (Prov 8: 22-30 KJV).

In this passage Wisdom speaks as a living being, one in whom God rejoices and to whom he looked in creating the universe.

The World Body

Timaeus then describes how the body of the universe was fashioned. He notes that the things we encounter in the universe are visible and tangible, and claims that things are made visible by the element of fire and tangible by the element of earth. So, the body of the universe must consist of earth and fire. Yet, he argues that that these two elements can be united only by the presence of another mediating element, and, since the universe is a three dimensional solid, not a two-dimensional plane, it requires two mediating elements: water and air. He explains:

“Hence the god set water and air between fire and earth, and made them as proportionate to one another as was possible, so that what fire is to air, air is to water, and what air is to water, water is to earth. He then bound them together and thus he constructed the visible and tangible universe. This is the reason why these four particular constituents were used to beget the body of the world, making it a symphony of proportion. They bestowed friendship upon it, so that, having come together into a unity with itself, it could not be undone by anyone but the one who had bound it together” (32b-c).

Timaeus thus presents the physical universe as a harmonious combination of the four Empedoclean elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

Furthermore, he claims that the body of the universe is spherical, since this is the most fitting kind of body for a self-sufficient entity. Again, the idea is that the demiurge must create the best possible universe, and, since it is better for the universe to be self-sufficient than to depend on something else (33d), the universe must be self-sufficient. As a result, the body of the universe will not need eyes or hands or feet to interact with something outside of itself (33c). Hence, Timaeus claims:

“He gave it a round shape, the form of a sphere, with its center equidistant from its extremes in all directions. This of all shapes is the most complete and most like itself, which he gave to it because he believed that likeness is incalculably more excellent than unlikeness” (33b).

The demiurge then sets the universe spinning, since such a circular motion is most akin to that of the mind. Timaeus declares:

“He awarded it the movement suited to its body—that one of the seven motions which is especially associated with understanding (nous) and intelligence (phronesis). And so he set it turning continuously in the same place, spinning around upon itself” (34a).

Finally, the demiurge places a soul at its center, spreads it outward, and declares the finished product to be a blessed God.

“Applying this entire train of reasoning to the god that was yet to be, the eternal god made it smooth and even all over, equal from the center, a whole and complete body itself, but also made up of complete bodies. In its center he set a soul, which he exalted throughout the whole body, and with which he then covered the body outside. And he set it to turn in a circle, a single solitary universe, whose very excellence enables it to keep its own company without requiring anything else. For its knowledge of friendship with itself was enough. All this, then, explains why this world which he begat for himself is a blessed God” (34b).

The Creation of the World Soul

Timaeus then goes on to explain how the soul of the universe was made. This is perhaps the most perplexing and controversial part of the Timaeus, and it has generated a myriad of different interpretations. Timaeus claims that the demiurge creates the world soul by mixing “Being that is indivisible and always changeless”, “the same”, with divisible bodily being that comes into being and passes away, “the different.” He then mixes this mixture, the mediating third, with the previous two kinds of being (35a): Eternal Being and Becoming. The demiurge then took this mixture and remixed it in varying proportions (35b). Timaeus explains:

“This is how he began the division: first he took one portion away from the whole, and then he took another, twice as large, followed by a third, one and a half times as large as the second and three times as large as the first. The fourth portion he took was twice as large as the second, the fifth three times as large as the third, and the sixth eight times that of the first, and the seven twenty-seven times that of the first” (35b).

We thus get proportions 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 8, and 27. A.E. Taylor points out the Pythagorean background to this sequence of numbers in his commentary on the Timaeus. He notes, first, that this series grounds a double tetractys, one formed by 2 the first even number and the other by 3 which Pythagoreans considered the first odd number. Each begins with 1, or the monad, which Pythagoreans believed to be a primordial combination of the limit and unlimited, and thus considered to be neither odd nor even. Then, in the first series, we proceed to two, the first even number, and then multiply two by two to get four, then multiply four by two to get eight. In other words, we have 20, 21,22, and 23. The second series also begins with 1, the monad, but then proceeds to 3, the first odd number. Three is multiplied by three to get nine, which is then multiplied by three to get twenty seven. So, our second sequence is 30, 31, 32, 33. We thus have a sequence constituted by a double quaternity of the even and the odd.

Furthermore, Taylor points out that this sequence, and the sequence of ratios in the paragraph that follows it would have been viewed as the construction of a musical scale in Plato’s day. The world soul is thus fashioned as a musical harmony, and the universe itself is rendered inherently musical. We see a similar subsumption of natural order under musical order in the Vedas. For example, the hymn entitled “The Creation of the Sacrifice” declares:

“The sacrifice that is spread out with threads on all sides, drawn tight with a hundred and one divine acts, is woven by these fathers as they come near: ‘Weave forward, weave backward,’ they say as they sit by the loom that is stretched tight.

The Man stretches the warp and draws the weft; the Man has spread it out upon this dome of the sky. These are the pegs, that are fastened in place; they made the melodies into the shuttles for weaving.

What was the original model, and what was the copy, and what was the connection between them? What was the butter, and what the enclosing wood? What was the meter, what was the invocation, and the chant, when all the gods sacrificed the god?

The Gaytri meter was the yoke-mate of Agni; Savitr joined with the Usni meter, and with the Anustubh meter was Soma that reverberates with the chants. The Brhati meter resonated in the voice of Brhaspati.

The Viraj meter was the privilege of Mitra and Varuna; the Tristubh meter was part of the day of Indra. The Jagati entered into all the gods. That was the model for the human sages.

That was the model for the human sages, our fathers, when the primeval sacrifice was born. With the eye that is mind, in thought I see those who were the first to offer this sacrifice.

The ritual repetitions harmonized with the chants and with the meters; the seven divine sages harmonized with the original models. When the wise men looked back along the path of those who went before, they took up the reins like charioteers.” (Trans. Doniger).

In this hymn we thus have an account similar to Timaeus’s; our visible reality is modeled on an unseen reality, and this deeper reality is fundamentally musical.

The associations with the double quaternity and musical harmony explain why Timaeus claimed that the mixtures from which the world soul was composed were given their particular proportions. But why does he claim that the three components of the same, the different, and their mixture, themselves need to be mixed within the world soul? One plausible answer is suggested by Aristotle when he claims that “Plato in the Timaeus fashions soul out of his elements; for like, he holds, is known by like, and things are formed out of the principles or elements, so that the soul must be too” (De Anima, Book I, trans. Ross). Aristotle argues that the various components of the soul are posited on account of the principle that like is known by like. The soul needs to contain something in itself that is akin to the eternal realm of the forms, so that it can grasp the unchanging truths of that realm. Thus, it must partake of the Same and the Individisible. Likewise, if the soul is to grasp the changing world of sensation, it must share a kinship with it, and thus contain within itself The Different and the Divisible. And finally, it must also grasp the empirical world as a world of change that is nonetheless subsumable under rational principles. For, the world of experience is not sheer chaos, but can be perceived as an ordered whole. It thus contains a mixture of both the Same and the Different, and the soul must partake of this mixture as well, if it is to know such a world. Evidence for this reading can be found in Timaeus’s account of how the world soul comes to knowledge and true opinion.

“Because the soul is a mixture of the Same, the Different and Being (the three components we’ve described), because it was divided up and bound together in various proportions, and because it circles round upon itself, then, whenever it comes into contact with something whose being is scatterable or else whose being is indivisible, it is stirred throughout its whole self. It then declares what exactly that thing is the same as, or what it is different from, and in what respect and in what manner, as well as when, it turns out that they are the same or different and are characterized as such. This applies both to the things that come to be, and to those that are always changeless” (37a-b).

Because the world soul is composed of the Same, the Different, and their mixture (which he here calls Being), it is capable of grasping them in the world. When it grasps the same, it has knowledge, and when it grasps the different it has true opinion (37b-c).

After the mixture is complete and the adequate portions are determined, the demiurge slices the compound in two, connects the two lines like an X, and folds each line into a circle (36c). To the outer circle he gives the motion of the Same. It moves to the right by way of the side. To the inner circle he gives the motion of the Different. It moves to the left by way of the diagonal. The outer circle, thus represents the constant diurnal motion of the heavens, while the inner circle represents the zodiacal motion of the planets. Indeed, this can be seen from the fact that the demiurge divides the smaller section into seven smaller circles and assigns each to one of the seven traditional planets (36d) after the world soul has been joined to its body.

The Creation of Time

According to Timaeus, time comes into being with the universe. From the perspective of eternal Being, there is no past or future, only an eternal present. “We say that it was and is and will be, but according to the true account only is is appropriately said of it” (38a). In contrast, time, claims Timaeus, is “the moving image of eternity”. The demiurge thus creates the planets to mark the passing of time. Timaeus explains:

“Such was the reason, then, such the god’s design for the coming to be of time, that he brought into being the Sun, the Moon, and five other stars, for the begetting of time. These are called ‘wanderers,’ and they came to be in order to set limits to and stand guard over the numbers of time” (38c).

The most important of these is the Sun:

“Its chief work would be to shine upon the whole universe and to bestow upon all those living things appropriately endowed and taught by the revolution of the same and uniform, a share in number. In this way and for these reasons night-and-day, the period of a single circling, the wisest one, came to be. A month has passed when the Moon has completed its own cycle and overtaken the Sun; a year when the Sun has competed its own cycle” (39c).

The Creation of Gods

Timaeus then identifies the gods with the fixed stars. He claims that they are mostly composed of fire “to be the brightest and fairest to the eye” (40a). He bestows on them a round form, like the universe itself, and places them in the circle of the same, to follow its diurnal motion. “He spread the gods throughout the whole heaven to be a true adornment [kosmos] for it, an intricately wrought whole” (40a). And he gives them two movements: They follow the circle of the same, being caried along by its motion, and they revolve. They have only these two motions so that they can be as “immobile and stationary” as possible, “in order that each of them may come as close as possible to attaining perfection” (40b). Here again Timaeus presents a vastly different conception of the gods than those offered by the popular mythology of his day. His divinities come as close as possible to perfection as their natures allow, and do not participate in human affects and vices as do the Homeric gods or the god of the Old Testament.

The Creation of Man

Finally, Timaeus concludes the first section of his speech by describing the creation of man. According to Timaeus, the demiurge realizes that there are further kinds of living things required to compelete the universe, but they are beings of a lesser mortal nature. It would thus be unseemly for him to fashion them directly, given their lower quality. He therefore recruits the created gods to take part in creation. The demiurge speaks to them as follows:

“There remain still … mortal beings that have not yet been begotten; and as long as they have not come to be, the universe will be incomplete, for it will still lack within it all the kinds of living things it must have if it is to be sufficiently complete. But if these creatures came to be and came to share in life by my hand, they would rival the gods. It is you, then who must turn yourselves to the task of fashioning these living things, as your name allows. This will assure their mortality, and this whole universe will really be a completed whole” (41c).

The demiurge then announces that he will himself create the immortal souls of men, while the other gods will fashion their mortal bodies:

“To the extent that it is fitting for them to possess something that shares in our name of ‘immortal’, something described as divine and ruling within those of them who always consent to follow after justice and after you, I shall begin by sowing that seed, and then hand it over to you. The rest of the task is yours. Weave what is mortal to what is immortal, fashion and beget living things. Give them food, cause them to grow, and when they perish, receive them back again” (41d).

The human soul is created in the same mixing bowl and with the same ingredients from which the demiurge created the world soul, only with less purity. The demiurge then divides this mixture again, assigns each soul to a star (41d), and personally explains the nature of the universe to them. Timaeus explains:

“He mounted each soul in a carriage, as it were, and showed it the nature of the universe. He described to them the laws that had been foreordained: They would all be assigned one and the same initial birth, so that none would be less well treated by him than any other. Then he would sow each of the souls into the instrument of time suitable to it, where they were to acquire the nature of being the most god-fearing of living things, and, since humans have a twofold nature, the superior kind should be such as would then be called ‘man’” (41e-42a).

He also explained the kinds of passions that they would suffer when tied to a mortal body. These souls would experience sense perceptions, love, pleasure, pain, fear, and anger. If they mastered these passions, they would become just, but if they were mastered by them, they would thereby be rendered unjust (42b). And the demiurge promises that a life of justice will be rewarded:

“If a person lived a good life throughout the due course of his time, he would at the end return to his dwelling place in his companion star, to live a life of happiness that agreed with his character” (42c).

Yet if a person was unjust, he would be reincarnated as a wild animal “that resembled the wicked character he had acquired.” (42c).

“And he would have no rest from these toilsome transformations until he had dragged that massive accretion of fire-water-air-earth into conformity with the revolution of the Same and the uniform within him, and so subdued that turbulent, irrational mass by means of reason. This would return him to his original condition of excellence” (42d).

This creation story allows Timaeus to block the problem of evil in two important ways. First, each individual soul is responsible for its own injustice. Every soul has been personally instructed by the demiurge prior to incarnation and has the power to subordinate its chaotic impulses to reason. Timaeus observes that by setting forth “all these ordinances to them…, he [the demiurge] did exempt himself from the responsibility for any evil they might afterward do” (42d). Second, the demiurge is also free from creating metaphysical evil, since the mortal body is a creation of lessor gods. The demiurge thus cannot be accused of producing shoddy work.

When the lower gods fashion the human body, they bind together the elements of earth, water, air, and fire using small rivets, not the immortal bonds of which their own bodies were fashioned (43a). And Timaues describes the process of incarnation as a kind of trauma. He explains:

“And they went on to invest this body—into and out of which things were to flow—with the orbits of the immortal soul. These orbits, now bound within a mighty river, neither mastered that river nor were mastered by it, but tossed it violently and were violently tossed by it” (43b).

It is not until the body grows that the proper orbits of the soul begin to gain control. It is only through the process of maturation that the soul comes to gain some mastery over the motions of the body.

“They [souls] then correctly identify what is the same and what is different, and render intelligent the persons who possess them. And to be sure, if such a person also gets proper nurture to supplement his education, he’ll turn out perfectly whole and healthy, and he will have escaped the most grievous of illnesses. But if he neglects this, he’ll limp his way through life and return to Hades uninitiated and unintelligent” (44c).

Timaeus claims that the human body was created first as a head, something round like the universe. The rest of the body was then fashioned to serve it, allowing it to travel through its environment and manipulate nearby objects. Since, according to Timaeus, the front is more noble than the back, the body was designed to travel in a forward direction. The eyes were the first organs crafted and were placed in the front of the head, so that man could see the physical world through the element of fire. Yet, Timaeus claims the ultimate purpose of vision is the contemplation of the invisible. He declares:

“The god invented sight and gave it to us so that we might observe the orbits of intelligence in the universe and apply them to the revolutions of our own understanding. For there is a kinship between them, even though our revolutions are disturbed, whereas the universal orbits are undisturbed. So once we have come to know them and to share in the ability to make correct calculations according to nature, we should stabilize revolutions within ourselves by imitating the completely unstraying revolutions of the god” (47c).

Timaeus provides a similar account of sound and hearing. These faculties are given to humans so that they might understand the harmony of the universe and add their voices to the heavenly choir. Timaeus maintains:

“Sound and hearing… are gods’ gifts, given for the same purpose and intended to achieve the same result. Speech was designed for this very purpose—it plays the greatest part in its achievement. And all such composition as lends itself to making audible musical sound is given in order to express harmony, and so serves this purpose well. And harmony, whose movements are akin to the orbits within our souls, is a gift of the Muses…. Rhythm, too, has likewise been given us by the Muses for the same purpose, to assist us. For with most of us our condition is such that we have lost all sense of measure, and are lacking in grace” (47d-e).

With this, Timaeus concludes the first part of his speech. It is interesting to note that, in contrast to other popular creation myths wherein humanity is said to be created to serve the gods, Timaeus claims that we are created to contribute to the perfection of the universe. We are neither the highest nor the lowest kind of created being. And we are not made to take dominion over the earth, but over ourselves, bringing the chaos of our lower natures into alignment with the orderly motions of the world soul. Likewise, for Timaeus, we are not called to blindly obey to a tribal god, but to contemplate the unseen order that surrounds us, remember our soul’s true nature, and bring our lives into alignment with both the starry heavens above and the moral law within. In this manner, Timaeus paints a picture opposite to that of the Old Testament. Whereas in the garden of Eden, man is forbidden to eat of the tree of knowledge and falls under god’s curse by heeding the serpent’s message that such knowledge can deify him, in the Timaeus man is created to know, and by living in alignment with that knowledge, he will one day be restored to his proper place in the cosmos, shining with the gods among the fixed stars.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The Image used in the thumbnail of this essay is from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is in the public domain and can be found here: ].

1 Partially by Cicero and fully by Calcidius.

2 Compare to Exodus 20:5. “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

3 “Now it wasn’t permitted (nor is it now) that one who is supremely good should do anything but what is best” (30b).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *