Notes on Money, Markets, and Economics
What I've Been Reading


Aristotle's Social Science. Salkever. Read Here..

The Goal Of Evolutionary And Neoclassical Economics As A Consequence Of The Changes In Concepts Of Human Nature, Anna Horodecka. Read Here..

Islam and the Economic Challenge, Umer Chapra. Read Here..

An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, Lionel Robbins. Read Here..

Retrospectives: On the Definition of Economics, Backhouse and Medema. Read Here..

Welfare and Welfare Economics: The Early Contribution of Alfred Marshall. Caldari and Nishizawa. Read Here..

Economics Controversies. Rothbard. Read Here..

Economics and its Ethical Assumptions. Long. Read Here..

The Economic Point of View. Kirzner. Read Here..

The Philosophy of Economics. Bowman. Read Here..



A summary of Plato's Timaeus (Jowett translation 4th edition 1953)

Posted By Trevor Newton
February 27, 2017

The dialogue presents a cosmogony as elaborated through Plato’s philosopher character, Timaeus. His creation account is not presented as conclusive, only possible and likely. The arguments of Timaeus provide insight to Plato’s thoughts on the existence of God, at least indirectly, which is part of my research focus.

Timaeus’ discourse doesn’t start until 27d, everything prior is an introductory conversation between Socrates, Timaeus, and the other characters present. The focus of the discourse is the generation of the world and the creation of man (27a).

Timaeus begins with the question/answer:

“What is that which always is and has no becoming, and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state, but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason is always in a process of becoming and perishing and never really is. Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for without a cause nothing can be created” (27d-28a)

Here Plato’s Forms are introduced (“that which always is and has no becoming”) which can only be “apprehended by intelligence and reason” and are “always in the same state.” In contrast are the Particulars (“that which is always becoming and never is”) which are “conceived by opinion with the help of sensation” i.e. the five senses. Forms can only be known by way of the intellect, whereas Particulars are known through our physical senses. Timaeus’ discourse is a product of both types of knowledge.

The foundation of his discourse is that the universe has “become” (i.e. been created) and thus must have become by some cause, “for without a cause nothing can be created.” The Greek word translated as “created” can be confusing because it might better be termed fashioned or made because as we find out, nothing in this cosmogony gets created ex nihilo. Still I will use the word created, as the translation does.

Timaeus goes on to conclude that the universe must have been caused by a creator (28a). I’m using the word creator here rather than the actual word used in the Jowett translation which is God (capital G) which is very confusing, because Timaeus’ creator is definitely not meant to be God as the word is now generally used. Some translations render the word craftsman. Timaeus’ conclusion that there is a creator is also based on his observation that the world is “the fairest of creations” (29a) and therefore could not be the result of anything other than an intelligent cause. The concept that the world is perfect is therefore central to his argument, because anything which is perfect must be patterned after an eternal, unchangeable Form. This is about as far as Timaeus goes in providing any kind of metaphysical proof of there being a creator, much less an omnipotent God.

Timaeus acknowledges that some creatures (animals, man) are not perfect, and concludes that they were patterned after created things - yet they were still created. Thus there are two categories of created things, the perfect, fashioned after eternal Forms, and the imperfect. He also concludes (and it’s not clear why) that the world/universe is a being, with an intellect and soul, and therefore it must have had a created beginning. And, because it is the “fairest of creations” its creator must be the “best of causes” (29a). The universe has thus been patterned after that which is “apprehended by reason and mind and is unchangeable” i.e. an eternal Form.

The creator made the world because he “was good” and “desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be” (29d). Thus he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body (the body is the world). Thus it is not humanity that was made in the likeness of the creator, but rather the world itself, “a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence” (30c). And because it is patterned after a perfect model, there can be only one world, not “many and infinite” (31a). (In the Jowett translation the terms “world” and “universe” seem to be used interchangeably).

Timaeus' universe is not caused out of nothingness, but rather gets transformed from chaos into order. Timaeus supposes that the creator fashioned the universe out of fire, earth, water and air – the four elements (31b-32b) which were themselves primeval in a sense, and that he patterned it in the shape of a globe because that is the most perfect shape for it - since it has no need of eyes, ears, feet etc (33b-33d). He thus made it a self-sufficient god (34b) with a body and soul, the latter ruling over the former because the soul was created first. The universe, to Timaeus, was constructed as “ a single animal comprehending in itself all other animals, mortal and immortal” (69c).

To summarize thus far, the account depicts the primeval universe in a chaotic state. A creator (himself being perfect and good but not omnipotent), because of his own perfection and goodness, brought order to the universe and fashioned it after his own likeness (which in turn must be fashioned after an eternal Form). Thus the theology of Timaeus might be compatible with an Erich von-Daniken style theology, to borrow from Edward Feser, because the creator is less ultimate than the Forms which he patterned the creation after and which he himself instantiates. Feser says elsewhere:

A demiurge or craftsman god (with-a-lower-case-g) takes pre-existing matter and fashions it in light of the eternal Forms. Matter by itself is without form; the Forms by themselves are abstract entities, causally inert. The demiurge creates neither, but he does bring them together, thereby ordering the otherwise chaotic matter and bringing into concrete reality the otherwise remote and ineffectual Forms.

Timaeus then describes a geocentric model (36d) where the creator, after fashioning the world, united its body with its soul, making it a living creature. Then time itself was brought into being by the creator because he wanted the world to, as much as possible, portray the perfect eternal model. Yet because creatures can’t be eternal (why, he doesn’t say) time was fashioned as the closest possible approximation to eternity, being an image of it (37d). The sun, moon and planets were then created to measure time (38c), all positioned in geocentric orbits (the moon for months and the sun for years). They are, together with the stars, living creatures which the creator made predominantly out of the element fire, and they are gods (38e). These gods are, like the world/universe itself, fashioned after the perfect eternal model (39e). The earth ranks highest amongst these created gods in terms of divine hierarchy (40c).

Other than the “heavenly race of the gods” there are three distinct races – the race of birds, the race of water animals, and the race of land animals (which includes humans). The creation of these three races of creatures was delegated (by the creator) to the gods because he didn’t want these races to be at an equal level to the gods (41c). Thus why mortal beings are imperfect – it was by design in a sense. However, the souls (which are immortal) of humans were made by the creator (and not the gods). The souls of man were then implanted into the bodies of the humans which the gods were tasked with making. The function of human bodies is to be a vehicle for the soul (69c).

While human (immortal) souls were fashioned by the creator, and human bodies were fashioned by the gods, a second type of soul (a mortal soul) was also fashioned by the gods, one with a fleshly nature which is subject to “terrible affections” such as pleasure, pain, fear, anger, irrationality, and so on, which was kept separate from the immortal soul (which resides in the head) and was placed in the torso. Thus the inferior mortal soul is different and distinct from the superior immortal soul (69e). The passion of the inferior soul is meant to join with (and be servant to) the reason of the immortal soul.

The gods then, having been told by their creator how to govern men, are given by their creator the task of fashioning human bodies and ruling benevolently over them (42b-42d).

The discourse up to this point has been describing that which has been created by the creator via Intellect or Mind. But there is also something called Necessity which has played a role, constraining the creator to certain parameters. The universe is therefore, to Timaeus, the “combined work of necessity and mind” (48a). Necessity is subordinate to Mind. The concept of Necessity is important to Timaeus’ argument, because the creator is not omnipotent, and is subject to the limitations of the working materials at hand. Such a creator did not create the eternal model (which is in the first realm) upon which he based the world’s design, nor did he create matter (which is in the second realm). Therefore he is subject to constraints, or Necessity.

As an example of the interplay between Intellect and Necessity, Timaeus uses the four elements (fire, earth, air, water), which were associated by the creator with himself at creation (68e), but they themselves are of Necessity. The creator used them to accomplish his work, but he didn’t create them, rather he only brought order to them, being as they were in a disordered state (69c). There are thus two kinds of causes at work: “the one divine and the other necessary” where the divine cause cannot be apprehended through the senses (whereas the Necessary cause can be).

Timaeus earlier had provided some detail about causes, referring to “second and cooperative causes” (such as freezing, heating, etc) as distinct from prime causes because they have no reasoning ability or intellect. But there is a cause and an end (i.e. purpose) to things (which was divinely intended) and Timaeus gives examples. Eyes and sight have the end of leading humans to greater knowledge and truth, as do speech and hearing. Music is given, not for irrational pleasure, but to “correct any discord” in the courses of our souls, and to bring the soul into harmony with itself (47e).

In Timaeus’ cosmogony, there is not just the first (eternal) realm and the second (finite) realm, but also a third realm, which Timaeus calls the Receptacle, which is the spatial substratum of the universe and the link between the eternal and the finite. The Receptacle exists between the eternal realm and the finite realm. The eternal realm is unchanging and is the model upon which the design of the finite realm has been based. But the third realm is, according to Timaeus, resistant to explanation. It can be understood as a gap linking the two other realms, providing the building material for the creation. It can also be understood as a plastic substratum that exists spatially and contains the precursors to the four elements fire, earth, water and air, which themselves are the materials used by the creator to fashion the universe.

The Receptacle existed before the creation (and therefore before time) but in a state of semi-chaos, as did the four elements which were in a turbulent, unsettled state (53a). The Receptacle is a realm of motion, and of shaking. This is in contrast to the first realm which is uniform and at rest. The motion that is in the third realm (and the second realm) only occurs because that which is in these realms can be moved, and because there is a mover to move things. It is the creator that brought order from disorder, and moved things toward goals (ends).

Concepts such as Forms, Particulars, Causes, Ends, and a Mover may be familiar to those who have read Aristotle or Aquinas, but little explanation is provided about them in this dialogue.

The building materials of creation, the four elements, existed before creation/time, and were used by the creator to build the universe (48c). They pervade every part of the universe, meaning there is no void anywhere in creation even though everything in the universe is in motion. The motion is “caused” by inequality in the sizes of things, which themselves consist of the elements, and so the elements are shifting and changing in the universe all the time (58c). Shifting, changing, and motion - all arise from the inequality of the triangles, which are the smallest constituents of matter. They are common amongst the elements, meaning the elements can to an extent each be compounded or transformed into each other (the exception being earth). They change into each other because of motion: dissolution, transition, extinction, and decomposition are terms he uses to describe the process (57a).

The first realm is the realm of Forms. This realm contains the eternal model, which itself is not a structure, but more like “…a set of instructions or schematics. That set is the intelligible, non-material and non-spatial model that prescribes the features of the structure to be built…” (Zeyl, Plato's Timaeus). Timaeus rejects therefore the notion that forms exist only in the mind (51c), and describes them as self-existent ideas “unperceived by sense, and apprehended only by the mind” (51d) and are “always the same, uncreated and indestructible” (52a) and only perceived through the intellect and not the senses. Created things (i.e. things of the second realm) which participate in their forms, are “always in motion, becoming in place and again vanishing out of place” (52a) and are perceived through the senses.

At this point in the discourse, Timaeus is about to go into considerable detail describing the physical senses, the construction of human bodies, the function of various parts of the body as well as their purpose, the processes of the body, and a discussion of the diseases of bodies and souls. Why does Timaeus include such detail of physical nature in what is a metaphysically-focused discourse? It may be he is just further establishing (as he did in 46d-47e) that there is a divine cause and various divinely-intended ends to physical things.

As a prelude to his discussion on the origin of flesh, he describes various “affections which are concerned with sensation” (61d). By this he means subjective qualities of things. Heat, cool; hard, soft; heavy, light; smooth, rough (62b-63c). The “most important of the affections which concern the whole body” are pleasure and pain (64a). These qualities are understood by our physical senses.

He presents pleasure and pain (as experienced in the body) as functions of time to an extent. “Things which experience gradual withdrawals and emptyings of their nature and great and sudden replenishments, fail to perceive the emptying, but are sensible of the replenishment, and so they occasion no pain, but the greatest pleasure…” as in the case of smelling perfume (65a). “But things which changed all of a sudden, and only gradually and with difficulty return to their own nature, have effects in every way opposite to the former…” and are thus experienced as pain (65b).

He next describes the “affections of particular parts” of the body, and the causes of them. For taste, it is the sensations of bitter, salt, pungent, acid, and sweet, and he describes how the sensations are caused (65c). For smell, which he describes as always being either vapor or mist and having limited capacity, sensation is experienced as being either pleasant (soothing, agreeable) or painful (irritating or disturbing) (67a). For hearing, it is a process that begins in the ears and, via the air, is transmitted to the brain, the blood, and the soul. Hearing “begins in the head and ends in the liver” (67b). For sight, it is affected by colors, and Timaeus provides a description of how they are derived. Colors are “a flame which emanates from every sort of body, and has particles corresponding to the sense of sight” (67d).

He then presents the function of the heart, lungs and liver, with the latter also functioning as the seat of divination (71e), giving “prophetic intimations” (72b). The lower belly and bowels function to make our consumption of food and drink more efficient (73a), and offset our tendency to gluttony which itself is rebellion against the divine element within us (73a).

He also describes the creation of bones and flesh, beginning with the marrow, and how its contents unite the soul with the body (73b), in which he says the creator formed the primary triangles (the most perfect of the primary triangles) into the marrow to serve as a “universal seed of every mortal kind” in which he then enclosed the souls (of all things which have souls). Timaeus describes in great detail the process of creating man’s bones, sinews, and flesh, much in the same way as one would describe the work of a sculptor or carpenter (73e to 76e).

He details how the body distributes nourishment to its various parts, and the processes of respiration, temperature regulation, and fluid distribution. He reasons that body growth occurs when more is consumed than expelled, and that when a creature is young its triangles (the primary building blocks of the elements which make up its body) are new and thus more able to process that which is consumed (such as foods, which themselves are comprised of triangles) but over time the “roots of the triangles are loosened” and thus no longer process as easily the incoming triangles (food, etc) and are thus further damaged by the activity of consumption, thus age (81a-81e).

Diseases are the result of irregularities or imbalances in the four elements which make up the body. Timaeus speculates that there are three classes of disease, and offers a theory of diseases of the body, in general (82a-86a). As to diseases of the soul, they are diseases of the mind, which “depend upon the body” and take two forms: madness and ignorance. The common symptom of both is to be “utterly incapable of any participation in reason.” Thus people, when they choose bad actions, are not choosing to be bad, but are manifesting the diseases in their souls, due to “ill disposition of the body and bad education” which themselves are not of the person’s will (86b-86e). Diseases of the soul thus are the fault of others (87b).

Further, when the soul and body are disproportional, as would be the case where a person is stunted in body yet advanced in soul (or vice versa), an imbalance is caused which produces diseases. This can be mitigated if one ensures his soul and body are equally developed, tending to the advancement of both without allowing the one or the other to fall into neglect (88b).

When our mortal bodies are affected by the movement of matter, we experience sensations (43c). These can be overpowering, leading to problems with the soul and causing it to act in ways which are foolish (44a). Since humans have souls, they also have emotions which, if harnessed and brought under control, will result in righteous living, but if not, then unrighteous living (42b). If a human lives righteously then at death he gets to go live on his own star; if unrighteously, he is reincarnated and the rebirth cycle continues.

Education will help steer the soul onto the right course, causing it to avoid continual reincarnation. Specifically, men who are cowards or unrighteous may be reborn as women; “innocent light-minded men” are reborn as birds; unthinking men are reborn as land animals, the most foolish becoming reptiles; and the most ignorant men become sea creatures as punishment (92c).

He therefore urges humans to focus on the attainment of knowledge and wisdom rather than the “cravings of desire and ambitions” so that we may “attain to that best life” (90d). This is the end of the discourse and the ultimate message of Timaeus.