30 - A Likely Story: Plato's Timaeus

Posted on 23 April 2011

Peter looks at Plato's Timaeus, focusing on the divine craftsman or demiurge, the receptacle, and the geometrical atomism of Plato's elemental theory.

Further Reading

• S. Broadie, Nature and Divinity in Plato's Timaeus (Cambridge: 2012).

• M.F. Burnyeat, “Eikôs Mythos,” Rhizai 2 (2005), 143-165.

• M.F. Burnyeat, “Plato on Why Mathematics is Good for the Soul,” in T. Smiley (ed.), Mathematics and Necessity: Essays in the History of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

• A. Gregory, Plato's Philosophy of Science (London: Duckworth, 2000).

• T.K. Johansen, Plato's Natural Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

• S. Menn, Plato on God as Nous (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995).

• G. Reydams-Schils, Plato's Timaeus as Cultural Icon (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003).

• A. Silverman, “Timaean Particulars,” Classical Quarterly 42 (1992), 87-113.

• S.K. Strange, “The Double Explanation in the Timaeus,” in G. Fine (ed.), Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Stanford Encyclopedia: Plato's Timaeus


Matt 29 April 2011

Have you heard of the theory of Jay Kennedy (University of Manchester) that Plato's works have a hidden musical/mathematical message?  If so, do you think he's on to something or not?  Is there some connection between the mathematics in the Timaeus and hidden meaning in Plato's works?

Hi -- Yes, in fact, Prof Kennedy gave a paper on this to us in London last year. My feeling is that Plato may well have sought to structure his dialogues in a mathematical, even musical way. That makes sense given what we know about him. I'm skeptical though that this would radically revise what we know about Plato already: after all the Timaeus, among other dialogues, already shows his intense interest in (Pythagorean) music and mathematics. So I'm extremely skeptical about the more "subversive" aspects of Kennedy's reading (e.g. that Plato had "reserved doctrine" that he needed to keep secret because of supposed persecution of Pythagoreans -- this part is clearly hogwash). Rather I think it would confirm what we already know from the "surface" of the dialogues, by and large. However Kennedy's book on this is not yet out so I only know his position so far from one article and his presentation to us.

Ewen 10 November 2017

Hi Peter - love the show !  I have a question about the ontological status of the receptacle; clearly the Forms are immaterial, whereas their copy the perceptible world is material - but what then of the receptacle ? Sometimes it sounds like a kind of amorphous matter just awaiting the impression of the Forms in order to produce individual objects, but elsewhere it sounds as though, in the creation of the physical world, matter itself also comes into being and so the receptacle too, as prior to this, must be immaterial.  Any thoughts ?

Now that is a hard question. It's extremely difficult to say what is going on with the Receptacle, as Plato himself stresses (it can be grasped only with "bastard reasoning"). Whether it should be understood as "matter" will depend a bit on what we mean by that. The Receptacle seems to have some traits we associate with matter e.g. it apparently occupies space and is receptive of determination, but since it is in itself indeterminate it isn't like "materials" out of which you can immediately build something. For that you need to impose geometrical form, i.e. the triangles brought together to form the particles of the elements. So your "amorphous matter" comes pretty close to that, perhaps. I don't in any case think that the Demiurge has made the Receptacle: it seems clear from the dialogue that it was already there, and it is only determinate matter (the triangles/elements) that the Demiurge makes.

Demetrios 8 December 2017

First, thank you very much for the amazing podcast; I deeply appreciate it and all I've learned.

In your introduction to Timaeus in this episode, you juxtapose the theology of the revealed religions with the concept of the demiurge. I heard this and immediately thought of the opening chapter of Genesis Rabbah (בראשית רבה), a sixth c. rabbinic work, which begins with the following [you're probably familiar with it, but nonetheless, here's the relevant section with some explanatory notes]:

The great Rabbi Hoshaya opened [with the verse], "I [the Torah] was an amon to Him..." (Proverbs 8:30) ...

The text then goes on to propose a number of different possible meanings to the Hebrew word, "amon," concluding with:

... Alternatively, amon means "artisan." The Torah says, "I was the artisan's tool of The Holy One." In the way of the world, a king of flesh and blood who builds a castle does not do so from his own knowledge, but rather from the knowledge of an architect, and the architect does not build it from his own knowledge, but rather he has scrolls and books in order to know how to make rooms and doorways. So too The Holy One gazed into the Torah and created the world.

The midrash continues with an interpretation of the first three words of Torah in Hebrew: "Bereishit bara Elohim." The first of those words, separated into prefix and word, is typically translated as: Be=in the, reishit=beginning. As the text continues, the meanings of the prefix and word are explored:

The Torah begins, "Through the reishit God created...," and reishit means Torah, as in "God made me [the Torah] the beginning (reishit) of His way" (Proverbs 8:22).

The divine as demiurge is represented here, explicitly compared to an architect, and the tool of the demiurge is that which is revealed (and of course it's well-trod territory to wonder why God is compared to the architect and not king in the allegory). Since I knew Genesis rabbah long before learning about Timaeus, I noticed when in your opening you referenced Judaism in contradistinction to demiurgic theology [I understand, of course, that you can only include so much, and were speaking in a reasonable generality], and wanted to share this text.

In general, many rabbinic ideas and elements later found in texts of kabbalistic thought have resonated with platonic and neoplatonic concepts you've raised, though I don't know if that's too much of a stretch. I'm looking forward to getting to the episodes on Islamic-world philosophy, and the subjects you cover there!

Thank you again.

Thanks, that's very interesting - I think actually of all the episodes that come along later the most important for what you are saying here is the one on Philo of Alexandria (episode 79) who makes a concerted effort to interpret Genesis along the lines of the Timaeus, or perhaps vice-versa. Also it's worth noting that, as you'll see in the episodes on medieval Jewish thought, there were numerous Jewish thinkers (including Kabbalistic ones as you say) who agreed with what was typically seen as the position of Plato, namely that God made the world from pre-existing matter.

Chico 4 October 2018

Thank you so much for the incredible podcasts!

What do you think makes the bastard reasoning any different from the reasoning done to get to the Forms? Is it that we have previously had a direct intuition of the Forms, so reasoning to their existence isn't bastardized? Is there any more information, speculative or otherwise, about this kind of reasoning?

Great question - much ink has been spilled over this. One relevant consideration is that in the Timaeus itself the intelligible world (Forms and Demiurge) are said to be the target of knowledge, whereas the sensory world is the target of mere opinion (a distinction we know from other dialogues like the Meno, Republic, and Theaetetus). Perhaps the Receptacle is even lower than that insofar as it is less determinate than concrete sensible objects. It is in fact this, I believe, that causes the problem: since the Receptacle is nothing but the potential or undifferentiated matrix in which determinate things can be made to exist, there is no way of describing it directly and we have to use metaphors for it (mirror, wetnurse, etc). But as I say there is a lot of debate about this in the literature so I can't really give you a quick, definitive answer (appropriately enough!).

Peter Williams 21 November 2020

Hello Peter.  Do you have any theory as to why Plato put the fanciful account of the island of Atlantis into the mouth of the dramatic character of Critias?  I understand there was some family connection between the real Critias and Solon, but was there something more appropriate to make him the mouthpiece.  I was wondering if you know whether the historical Critias was infamous for his fanciful rhetoric. I have also heard that this particular Critias might well have been the grandfather of the tyrant, but since many people adhere to the maxim of ab uno disce omnes, all the family of Critias might well have been judged in the same light.  I am just curious as to your opinion.  Thank you.

Peter Williams 22 November 2020

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thanks for the link. I will endeavour to apply it to the Timaeus-Critias account.

Olle 12 March 2021

Hello professor. Here is another puzzle that i have been trying solve. Im sorry i know it is all over the place! 

I have read Timeus by Plato and was struck by how opaque it was and especially how different some of the ideas seemed compared to Plotinus and the neoplatonist philosophers who i was previously more familiar with. 

There is a particular issue which i wanted to raise with you, which to me seemed like both the major divergence compared to Aristotle and the later neoplatonists, but also perhaps somewhat of a contradiction or paradox in Platos philosophy. It concerns the Forms, The Receptacle, and the Platonic Solids.

A very common interpretation seems to be that with the idea of the receptacle, Plato introduces a clear precursor to the concept that later Hellenic philosophers refers to as Matter, the second concept along with the Forms that make up the Aristotlean Hylomorphic system. 

This is all well and good, but the introduction of the Platonic Solids shakes everything up and makes it harder to interpret Platos metaphysical system as a neat form of proto Neoplatonism where forms are reflected or "instantiated" in the formless and propertyless "potentiality" of matter. 

With the Platonic Solids, it appears like Plato now wants to introduce his version of Atomism, with its philosophical implications, namely a kind of naturalistic material, realist causality. But this clashes with the famous high idealist Plato we all know and love!

Let me illustrate the contradiction/problem like this:

If we were to ask Plotinus why fire burns, i think its safe to assume that his response would be that it burns because it participates in the attributes bestowed upon it by its form. This is also how the popular characterization of Platos philosophy would seem to explain it. Aristotle, although he certainly believes in a "material cause", ultimately would agree that there is no pure MATERIAL substance with inherent natural causality, material cause for him is just a reference to another form on a different ontological level (i.e the material cause of a body is the organs who derive their properties from their respective form)

But in the Timaeus, we get a different answer. Fire, here, does not burn because it participates in some idealist form of Fire nor "Hotness", but rather because of the inherent qualities in the pre-existent, 3 dimensional quasi-atomic bodies Plato calls the solids that makes up the elements material structure. Fire burns because its made of tiny sharp tetrahedrons that "cut" things.  Although the solids, like atoms, can be combined and divided to make up different elemental bodies with different properties, unlike Aristotles "matter" which simply morphs from one shape to another by its form,  they maintain their inherent "geometrical causality" and the cube which makes up earth can never combine or be divided. 

To preemptively refute the interpretation that the solids might just be another way of talking about hylomorphic form and matter, there are two definite proofs that what Plato is talking about here is really different from Aristotle/Neoplatonists. First of all he does not accept that platonic solids, at certain levels, can be divided or destroyed. The cube that makes up earth cannot change or be destroyed. This is a clear divergence from the Aristotlean/neoplatonic notion that matter can be infinitely divided into smaller parts!

The second is that although the demiurge builds everything in nature in the image of the forms, he is restricted to using the pre-existing blocks that are the solids that precede his Idealist Project. The Demiurge doesn't make the solids by taking some lower level matter and shaping them in the image of the Forms of the Solids. There doesn't appear to be any such forms nor do the solids appear to "participate" in anything beyond themselves.

The questions im grappling with here are two:
1. How do we square this with the more high-idealist Plato we find in lets say The Republic and Parmenides. Do we really need the forms to explain anything if everything can be reduced to elemental chemistry with a materialistic, pseudo-atomist causality?

2. Can The Timaeus be reconciled with "orthodox" hylomorphic metaphysics by reinterpreting the solids in a way that is less naturalistic/atomist? what does the scholarship say on this issue?

3. Just what is the receptacle? It cannot be the the kind of Aristotlean kind of matter as "infinite potentiality without any properties that is infinitely divisible" as we have shown this to clash with the Platonic Solids. 


Ok, good questions and you are not the only person who finds this stuff puzzling. A few thoughts:

(a) Actually Aristotle already draws the comparison between his idea of matter and the Receptacle from the Timaeus, that is not only a late antique interpretation. I would say that the Receptacle has some features of matter but not others, e.g. it does receive form or determination; but it is not theorized as a potential for the actuality of form, as in Aristotle. It seems to be more like a framework or space in which shapes can occur.

(b) I would also not be so quick to assume that the "matter" like aspects of the Receptacle are undercut (no pun intended) by his atomism: one could have a broadly Aristotelian view of matter as a receptive principle without assuming that infinite division is possible.

(c) As for the idealism, I take it that there is a Form of Fire and that the pyramid solids are just the way that this Form is instantiated in the physical realm. Quite possibly, at this stage of his career Plato is thinking that Forms relate closely to mathematical objects which could help explain this; or it could just be that to get a sensible copy of the Form of Fire the best way to do it is make it out of pyramids (but there would be nothing geometrical about the Form itself).

Olle Koort 12 March 2021

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Those are pretty neat solutions. As for B, one might defend the limited divisibility of Matter within the Aristotlean paradigm by arguing that because Matter always exists as an instantiation of Forms, Matter in actuality is only divisible to the extent that the forms are. While Matter might be theoretically infinitely divisible, the indivisibility of certain Solids may he derived from their formal attributes. A kind of formal atomism.

Peter Adamson 12 March 2021

In reply to by Olle Koort

Yes, nice thought. Actually in some medieval philosophers - Avicenna for instance - there is a theory of "minima" which are non-atomic, the idea being that if you divide smaller than a certain size the form of whatever substance is in question would be lost. So for example there might be a smallest possible piece of flesh or bone, and if you divide it, then you will get smaller parts but the parts will not be flesh or bone. That is pretty close to what you're suggesting I think.

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