PLATO’S TIMAEUS AND THE LATIN TRADITION

Christina Hoenig

CUP (2018) h/b 331pp £75 (ISBN 9781108415804)

‘Of all the more important Platonic writings, probably none has less engaged the attention of modern scholars than the Timaeus’ complained Archer-Hind in 1888, blaming inter alia ‘the exceeding abstruseness of its metaphysical content.’ He could not have said that in late antiquity—and he could not say that in 2018. In this useful and thought-provoking book H. looks at the ways in which Plato’s text was read and used by a succession of Latin-speaking intellects—Cicero, Apuleius, Calcidius and Augustine—who each give us a different slant on the original. In doing so, H. shows us cumulative reception at work in the field of philosophical theology, and her work constantly shows us where these writers were consciously reacting to the work of their predecessors. 

H. begins (14-18) with a short summary of the dialogue—a summary which is no substitute for reading the text itself; I more than once had to check with Plato what H. meant. Not that there is anything simple here: the Timaean creation account is somewhere between a λόγος and a μῦθος (Timaeus [e.g. 29c, 30b] himself refers to it as an εἰκὼς λόγος) and its truth-value has to be highly debatable, resting as it does on the assumed dichotomy of the intelligible world of being and the sensible world of becoming (well discussed pp. 32-4) which is itself highly problematic. The assertion that the demiurge created the world-soul before imparting it into the world’s ‘physical body’ can only be read as speculative metaphysics, although the debate in Plato is curiously modern in its mathematical approach to cosmology. 

Questions abound. What came first, time or soul? How does the intelligent divinity act upon the mechanical world? Did the demiurge create ex nihilo or did he simply structure and separate out the pre-existing cosmic mess into an intelligible world? Was the demiurge’s motivation for doing so goodness (29d7-e3)? Was the creator of the world himself ensouled, and if so is he identical with the cosmic soul with which it was endowed? Is the universe immortal—and did it ever have a beginning? What does it mean to say that the world is a blessed god (34b10-11)? What is the relationship of the demiurge/cosmic soul with the forms? Is the world of Being the eternal παράδειγμα? Timaeus is a wonderful text, but nobody said it was going to be simple, and this book shows just how much room it left to later writers with their own axes to grind and sometimes their own answers too. Cicero the disputatious lawyer and philosopher saw Timaeus as a good place to start a logical fight, while Apuleius, the rhetorical fabulist of the Metamorphoses, used it as the spur to his own imaginative thinking. Calcidius the fourth-century philosopher translated part of this dialogue and added a commentary showing us his view of how to read Plato, while Augustine saw it all as a precursor to his own view of revealed theology.

Chapter Two looks in detail at Cicero, whose translation was used by Augustine (and later on by Kepler). Cicero, H. speculates, chose this text as a convenient focus for a major disputatio between Stoics, Peripatetics and Epicureans on the matter of how the world came to be. Stoics would love the providential teleology of the world soul, Epicureans would scoff at the pretentious dressing up of what is just random atomic movement, while Peripatetics would sniff that their unmoved mover keeps things going but does not get involved. Cicero himself was a Sceptic in the Platonist tradition, and H. asserts (55) that ‘Timaeus’ creation account would have been adopted by the sceptical Academy as the most probable position’. Cicero writes like an orator in elevating the role of what is veri simile as the ‘best fit’ explanation, a form of argument which he also used to such good effect in the courts. 

When we get to Apuleius and the Second Sophistic we find a writer tailoring his Platonism to a new world of ‘philosophical rhetoric’. The Second Sophistic is a period now stigmatised as one of style rather than of original thought (‘Active philosophical investigation appeared to have come to a standstill’ [104]) and so, where Cicero had in his translation brought out the differences between the various attitudes to the creation account, Apuleius shows himself keen to harmonise the Platonist and the Peripatetic schools in the interests of promoting a coherent and pleasing view of the cosmos. The issue of who-calls-the-shots in the cosmos is answered by Apuleius in his wonderful array of divinities: the highest god has caelicolae below him such as the heavenly bodies, and then below them the medioximi who stand just above humans in the celestial hierarchy. This array of powers goes some way to answering the question of how the transcendent can interact providentially with the corporeal world, and H. explains the ‘demonology’ thoroughly and convincingly. 

Calcidius is an enigmatic fourth-century figure whose translation of, and commentary on, part of the Timaeus clearly had a pedagogical purpose. Like Apuleius before him, he goes beyond the Platonic text and offers his own thoughts on ‘fate, demons and [the] triadic metaphysical system of hypostases’ (214) which are merged together into a coherent doctrinal line. Of the four authors analysed in this book, Calcidius seems to be the least inclined to misread Plato for his own purposes; if he has an ulterior motive it is simply to get us to read Plato and understand it properly. 

Augustine read the Timaeus as being Christian avant la lettre and even equated Plato’s intelligible τὸ ὂν with God, invoking God’s ‘I am who am’ at Exodus 3.14 as parallel and as proof. For him the intermediary role which Calcidius and Apuleius had ascribed to ‘demons’ was in fact taken by Christ, and Augustine uses Plato where he can to correct the ‘errors’ of the Middle Platonists and Neoplatonists. By the time he has finished with the Timaeus, Augustine has all but baptised Plato into his version of the Christian faith. H. shows us Augustine at work, bringing in his discussions of Genesis for instance to see how he could rewrite Plato without ducking the serious metaphysical problems of (e.g.) time and creation, and her final section on this author acts as a satisfying conspectus of the whole tradition since Plato himself.

This is probably not a book for those new to the subject. Greek and Latin are (mostly) translated into decent English, although H. has a slightly inconsistent attitude to quotation—she sometimes translates, quotes and transliterates (e.g. ‘an intelligible realm of being, to on τὸ ὄν’ p. 15) but in other places does not explore the full meaning of terminology which is central to the argument of the text (e.g. παράδειγμα at 28A). Errors are rare and do not impede understanding (p.24 ‘constructred’ for ‘constructed’, p.45n31 insert [are], Bury (1960) at p.172n.47 should probably be Bury (1966)). There is a good bibliography and four indexes. 

Immense care has been taken with the presentation of this handsome volume, and it is a massive achievement to have turned this very specialised line of research into a book which sheds such clear light on questions of philosophical and cosmological metaphysics which are no more settled now than they were when Socrates, Critias, Hermocrates and Timaeus all first gathered together to discuss them. 

John Godwin

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