Plato was concerned with the relationship between the eternal Demiurge as creator of the world and the birth of time. Time as becoming is understood by humans through astronomy and mathematics.
Plato’s Timaeus picks up after the discussion in the Republic regarding the best form of society. It begins by recounting some of the major points of this discussion, beginning (significantly) with the point that each craftsman should be an experienced specialist and not interfere with the work of other craftsmen. In Book VII of the Republic, the education of those who are to guide the society (the guardians) is described; they move from arithmetic through geometry (plane and solid) to astronomy, which will make the soul “look upward”; the beauty of the patterns in the sky will provide a
model for earthly patterns. The maker of the sky (the Demiurge) has provided a beautiful example of order for the earthbound craftsman to emulate. Socrates, content that they developed a good design for the ideal state the previous day, would now like to hear about it in action; this gives rise to a tale of the great island city of Atlantis, which sank beneath the sea. Critias finds remarkable the number of common characteristics between the “city in speech” and Atlantis. They then try to shift the comparison to the living city of Athens.
The first to speak in this endeavor is the astronomer Timaeus who, Critias tells us, will begin with the birth of the world and end with the creation of man. The world does exist, so there must be a reason, a cause for its existence. The world is a world of becoming, of coming-into-being and passing- away, so it cannot be perfect; but it is good. So it must have been fashioned after an eternal model; an account of the model can be (if it can be achieved) the truth, but an account of the sensible world, which is always changing, can be at best a “likely story”—“as being is to becoming, so is truth to belief (Timaeus 29b). The world has a maker (the Demiurge) who, like any good artisan, looks to an ideal model and creates the best copy possible. Some copies are better than others, and copies of copies are inferior (as in Book X of the Republic, Plato tells us how a painting of a bed is inferior to a bed made by a craftsman in imitation of the ideal Form of Bed). And a copy that has life and moves is superior to one that is static (just as Socrates and his companions desire to see the “city in speech” created in the Republic now in motion).
The Demiurge creates an order and harmony, according to mathematical principles and out of geometrical building blocks (the simplest of which are triangles). The created world is a living creature, with a body and a soul, made in the likeness of the ideal Form of Living Creature (the genus containing all the species). And it has a figure—it is spherical, the figure that contains all figures. The world needs a medium in which it comes into being; this medium Plato calls the Receptacle, the Nurse of Becoming. It is something like a room, or a womb; it is the mother to the creative fatherforce (energy) of the Demiurge copying the model. It is something like a mirror that takes on qualities. This space is eternal and “provides a home for all created things” (Timaeus 52b). It cannot be known through the senses (because it has no sensible qualities of its own) but must be apprehended by a kind of “bastard reason”; it seems we infer that it must exist. Qualities appear in the Receptacle, constantly changing, “without reason and measure”; the Demiurge brings order to this chaotic mix, fashioning “by form and number” (53b).
Just as the craftsman (consider a woodcarver) must wrestle with the resistance of the material he works in, the Demiurge is faced with the recalcitrance of his material (which Plato refers to as Necessity). Reason or Mind (represented in the Demiurge) must persuade Necessity to guide things for the best. The Demiurge is assisted in maintaining order by various lesser “gods” (the stars and planets, which are fiery). The need for the gods to bring about order by persuasion is represented in Greek mythology—at the end of the Odyssey, by the need for Zeus and Athena to intervene and wipe clean the memories of the families of the dead suitors, so peace can come to Ithaca; and at the end of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, where Athena must persuade the Furies, who are frustrated because Orestes has been let go free, not to pour venom on the land but to accept a holy sanctuary and friendship mixed with worship. In both cases, the endless cycle of blood-vengeance must be stopped by reason; the analogy to the Demiurge bringing order out of chaos by reason is clear.
For Plato in the Timaeus, Space (the Receptacle) is a precondition of creation; but what of Time? Time is a different case; it comes into existence along with the world (he even refers to the “birth” of Time [39e]). The Demiurge desired to make his creation as much like its ideal model as possible. The model is eternal, and it is impossible for a generated cosmos, which is a realm of becoming, to be eternal as true being is. But he could have “a moving image of eternity” (37d); he made the image (Time) “eternal but moving according to number,” whereas eternity itself “rests in unity.” Thus we have the proportion (analogy)
___T_i_m__e__ :: _N__u_m_b_e_r_
Unity (the One) is the arche (generating principle) of number(s); eternity provides the model of which time is the image. The moving image of the model (eternity) generates time(s). Plato (or Timaeus) suggests that the heavenly bodies that reckon time teach humans to count and develop mathematics, “and from this source we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man” (47b).
Stacey L. Edgar
See also Becoming and Being; Creationism; Eternity; God and Time; God as Creator; Mythology; Plato; Space; Time, Emergence of
Benardete, S. (1971). On Plato’s Timaeus and Timaeus’ science fiction. Interpretation, 2(1), 21-63.
Pagels, E. (1989). The Gnostic gospels. New York: Vintage Books.