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History of Science Ancient Greek

History of Science Online

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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 4: Ancient Greek science; Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle

Plato's Cosmology (from the Timaeus)

Source
Plato, Timeaus, 29e - 34b
Translation
Benjamin Jowett
Web Source
Internet Classics Archive, MIT
Word count
1498
Notes
Passage numbers: Plato's works are divided into passages that are numbered based on the Estienne edition of his complete works. For example, 514a refers to the first five lines on page 514 of the Estienne edition; 514b refers to the sixth through tenth lines on page 514; etc. This system is the standard way to cite Plato.


Background

In this dialogue by Plato, Socrates, Critias, and Timaeus are discussing the creation and character of the universe. Timaeus is the sole speaker throughout this excerpt. Socrates and Critias have asked for his views, because he is regarded as the best astronomer among the three. The Timaeus is perhaps the most difficult dialogue of Plato's to read. Yet it has been called the earliest work of mathematical "particle physics," and the Timaeus remained one of the most influential treatises on cosmology through the middle ages.

What in the world? "World" is a slippery word in translation. In Greek and Latin, as in English, it can refer to "universe," "Earth," "inhabited part of the Earth," "planet," or even just the "land" that was then known (e.g., the Mediterranean basin). Which of these five meanings is intended must be determined by context. Most of the time in this excerpt, "world" means "universe." However, Plato did emphasize the importance of correspondences between the universe and the Earth; for example, he argued that both are spherical.

Study Questions

Consider these questions as you read in order to gauge your understanding of the text. Hint: You may want to print this page and mark the key words and phrases relevant to these questions.

  1. What reason did Plato give to explain why the creator made the universe?
  2. According to Plato, why is the universe said to be a living being?
  3. What did Plato mean by describing the universe as "one visible animal comprehending within itself all other animals of a kindred nature"?
  4. Why did Plato argue against the idea of a "plurality of worlds"?
  5. Why is Plato's description of the relations between the elements and the solids that make up the universe sometimes referred to as "geometrical"? Why is it sometimes referred to as a "geometrical atomism"?
  6. Why did Plato regard the universe as eternal and "indissoluble"?
  7. Why did Plato attribute uniform circular motions to the heavens?

Text

[29e] Let me tell you then why the creator made this world of generation. He was good, and the good can never have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as they could be. This is in the truest sense the origin of creation and of the world, as we shall do well in believing on the testimony of wise men: god desired that all things should be good and nothing bad, so far as this was attainable. Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly fashion, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was in every way better than the other. Now the deeds of the best could never be or have been other than the fairest; and the creator, reflecting on the things which are by nature visible, found that no unintelligent creature taken as a whole was fairer than the intelligent taken as a whole; and that intelligence could not be present in anything which was devoid of soul. For which reason, when he was framing the universe, he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body, that he might be the creator of a work which was by nature fairest and best. Wherefore, using the language of probability, we may say that the world became a living creature truly endowed with soul and intelligence by the providence of god.

[30c] This being supposed, let us proceed to the next stage: In the likeness of what animal did the creator make the world? It would be an unworthy thing to liken it to any nature which exists as a part only; for nothing can be beautiful which is like any imperfect thing; but let us suppose the world to be the very image of that whole of which all other animals both individually and in their tribes are portions. For the original of the universe contains in itself all intelligible beings, just as this world comprehends us and all other visible creatures. For the deity, intending to make this world like the fairest and most perfect of intelligible beings, framed one visible animal comprehending within itself all other animals of a kindred nature. Are we right in saying that there is one world, or that they are many and infinite? There must be one only, if the created copy is to accord with the original. For that which includes all other intelligible creatures cannot have a second or companion; in that case there would be need of another living being which would include both, and of which they would be parts, and the likeness would be more truly said to resemble not them, but that other which included them. In order then that the world might be solitary, like the perfect animal, the creator made not two worlds or an infinite number of them; but there is and ever will be one only-begotten and created heaven.

[31b] Now that which is created is of necessity corporeal, and also visible and tangible. And nothing is visible where there is no fire, or tangible which has no solidity, and nothing is solid without earth. Wherefore also god in the beginning of creation made the body of the universe to consist of fire and earth. But two things cannot be rightly put together without a third; there must be some bond of union between them. And the fairest bond is that which makes the most complete fusion of itself and the things which it combines; and proportion is best adapted to effect such a union. For whenever in any three numbers, whether cube or square, there is a mean, which is to the last term what the first term is to it; and again, when the mean is to the first term as the last term is to the mean-then the mean becoming first and last, and the first and last both becoming means, they will all of them of necessity come to be the same, and having become the same with one another will be all one. If the universal frame had been created a surface only and having no depth, a single mean would have sufficed to bind together itself and the other terms; but now, as the world must be solid, and solid bodies are always compacted not by one mean but by two, god placed water and air in the mean between fire and earth, and made them to have the same proportion so far as was possible (as fire is to air so is air to water, and as air is to water so is water to earth); and thus he bound and put together a visible and tangible heaven. And for these reasons, and out of such elements which are in number four, the body of the world was created, and it was harmonised by proportion, and therefore has the spirit of friendship; and having been reconciled to itself, it was indissoluble by the hand of any other than the framer.

[32d] Now the creation took up the whole of each of the four elements; for the creator compounded the world out of all the fire and all the water and all the air and all the earth, leaving no part of any of them nor any power of them outside. His intention was, in the first place, that the animal should be as far as possible a perfect whole and of perfect parts: secondly, that it should be one, leaving no remnants out of which another such world might be created: and also that it should be free from old age and unaffected by disease. Considering that if heat and cold and other powerful forces which unite bodies surround and attack them from without when they are unprepared, they decompose them, and by bringing diseases and old age upon them, make them waste away-for this cause and on these grounds he made the world one whole, having every part entire, and being therefore perfect and not liable to old age and disease. And he gave to the world the figure which was suitable and also natural. Now to the animal which was to comprehend all animals, that figure was suitable which comprehends within itself all other figures. Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the centre, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures; for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike. This he finished off, making the surface smooth all around for many reasons; in the first place, because the living being had no need of eyes when there was nothing remaining outside him to be seen; nor of ears when there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he was created thus, his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself. For the creator conceived that a being which was self-sufficient would be far more excellent than one which lacked anything; and, as he had no need to take anything or defend himself against any one, the creator did not think it necessary to bestow upon him hands: nor had he any need of feet, nor of the whole apparatus of walking; but the movement suited to his spherical form was assigned to him, being of all the seven that which is most appropriate to mind and intelligence; and he was made to move in the same manner and on the same spot, within his own limits revolving in a circle. All the other six motions were taken away from him, and he was made not to partake of their deviations. And as this circular movement required no feet, the universe was created without legs and without feet.

[34b] Such was the whole plan of the eternal god about the god that was to be, to whom for this reason he gave a body, smooth and even, having a surface in every direction equidistant from the centre, a body entire and perfect, and formed out of perfect bodies. And in the centre he put the soul, which he diffused throughout the body, making it also to be the exterior environment of it; and he made the universe a circle moving in a circle, one and solitary, yet by reason of its excellence able to converse with itself, and needing no other friendship or acquaintance. Having these purposes in view he created the world a blessed god.

 

"The history of philosophy largely consists of footnotes to Plato." John North Whitehead

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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
-14
Brent Purkaple, TA

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