Plato's Timaeus....

When the father creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal (aidos: imperceptible) gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this was eternal (aidios: imperceptible), he sought to make the universe eternal (aionios: age-enduring/pertaining to ages), so far as might be. Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting (aionios: age-enduring/pertaining to ages), but to bestow this attribute in its fulness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity (aion: the ages), and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal (aion: ages), but moving according to number, while eternity (aionios: pertaining to the ages/the ages as a whole) itself rests in unity; and this image we call time. For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also. They are all parts of time, and the past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal (aidios: imperceptible) essence; for we say that he "was," he "is," he "will be," but the truth is that "is" alone is properly attributed to him, and that "was" and "will be" only to be spoken of becoming in time, for they are motions, but that which is immovably the same cannot become older or younger by time, nor ever did or has become, or hereafter will be, older or younger, nor is subject at all to any of those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause. These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity (aion: the ages) and revolves according to a law of number. Moreover, when we say that what has become is become and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent- all these are inaccurate modes of expression. But perhaps this whole subject will be more suitably discussed on some other occasion."

https://books.google.com/books?id=i...father saw what he had created moving&f=false


According to the theologians, Plato used aidios, aionios, and aion to all mean eternal. I believe what Plato is actually saying already contradicts itself (which Timaeus admits in his dialogue), but I have to give him at least a little credit. If all these words mean eternal, this is incomprehensible and the dumbest thing Plato ever wrote.

Plato is saying the creator is aidios (which means imperceptible, but is probably the closest word Plato could use to mean eternal), and he wanted to make an image of the imperceptible gods. Time began when the creator created the heavens, so he was happy when he saw his creation moving, because he himself was unable to move. The ideal creature was aionios (age-enduring/pertaining to the ages), but this was impossible. So the creator made an image of the ages. The ages move according to number, but aionios (pertaining to the ages/the ages as a whole) rest in unity (they are set and determined).

He then says aionios and the aions are parts of time, but we unconsciously and incorrectly attribute these words to the aidios (imperceptible) creator. We say things like "he was" or "he will be", but the correct attribute should be "he is", because "was" and "will be" can only be attributed to that which moves. Plato literally says that aionios and aion do not mean aidios because they are parts of time and movement!

If this is not the correct interpretation, and Plato meant eternal for every aion, aionios, and aidios, then he is saying we wrongly transfer the "eternal which moves and is a part of time" with the "eternal that is unmovable and exists outside of time".

He would also be saying that the creator, who is eternal, sought to make his creation eternal, "but this is impossible". So the creator made an image of eternity, and when he set everything in order, he made the image eternal. How? Plato just said this was impossible even for the creator to do.

I asked a similar question at Biblical Hermeneutics and it was suggested I ask it here. So I have a few questions:

If Plato understood aion, aionios, and aidios to all mean eternal, then how is this not a contradiction?

If he did not understand aion, aionios, and aidios to mean eternal, how can the word "when" be applied to the unmovable creator, and how can this unmovable/unchangeable creator be in a state where he doesn't desire to create, and then change to have a desire to create?

Thank you.

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    You can see a detailed comment into: Francis Macdonald Cornford, Plato's Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato (1935), page 98: "Even here, where he is contrasting eternal duration (aion) with everlastingness in time, Plato will not reserve aionios for 'eternal' and aidios for 'everlasting'. aidios is applied both to the model and to the everlasting gods." Jul 14, 2016 at 16:44
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    For an authoritative "cosmological" reading, see Aristotle, On the Heavens, I,280a24-280a33: "For there are some who think it possible both for the ungenerated to be destroyed and for the generated to persist undestroyed. (This is held in the Timaeus, where Plato says that the heaven, though it was generated, will none the less exist for the rest of time.)" Jul 14, 2016 at 20:01
  • Is there any way we can make the headline a little more specific here?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jul 16, 2016 at 1:55
  • @Mauro thank you for the comments. I'm not sure I can agree with Cornford. Unless there is a different section that I haven't quoted, Plato seems to only apply aidios to the imperceptible gods. I get the impression that he is calling the gods an "actual infinite" (which is impossible). The first model is aionios, which means "pertaining to the ages", so Plato seems to be using this term as a "potential" infinite, in that it doesn't exist as a complete infinite, but has the potential to continue forever. Aion is definitely temporal, so I don't understand why it is always translated "eternal".
    – Cannabijoy
    Jul 16, 2016 at 4:18
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    Hey @JosephWeissman I edited the headline. Do you think this is better, or do you have any suggestions? Thank you.
    – Cannabijoy
    Jul 16, 2016 at 4:24

3 Answers 3


I think a major source of confusion here is that you're (quite naturally) associating the creator with a Neo-Platonic image of the One God as the unity of all perfections. However, although this passage definitely refers to a version of the "One" (which Plato here calls the "Eternal Essence") Plato isn't calling it the creator. The creator is just a craftsperson who makes the world in imitation of the Eternal Essence (just as, in Ion, poets make poems, or in The Republic, statesmen make city governments, in imitation of that same Essence, imitations which inevitably fall short). There's no strong suggestion that Plato actually believes this creator/demiurge even exists, it just appears in the story as a tool to help people interested in accounts of creation reinterpret the appearances of the universe as reflections of the Eternal Essence. To compound the confusion, some places where Plato appears to be talking about the creator ("he was" versus "he is") only make sense if we take them as solely referring to the Eternal Essence instead (even though the Essence is not otherwise personalized here).

As far as the terms, I'm not a Greek scholar, but Plato always uses words in an idiosyncratic way in any case, so an exact translation of any word can only be at best a starting point. I follow an approach to interpreting Plato that takes everything he writes as an attempt to explain his concept of the Eternal Essence (more often called the Ideal of Good) as explained through innumerable metaphors aimed at different audiences. The core belief is that there is a perfect, eternal godlike ideal in a kind of conceptual heaven. That core ideal is surrounded by increasingly imperfect copies. In what, if nothing else, is a wonderful example of form matching function, this leads him to a certain sloppiness in language that can be perplexing to those used to philosophical precision. Since Plato believes the perceptible surface expression is always an imperfect attempt to point to the perfect but imperceptible meaning, he's quite willing to play fast and loose with the superficial details. Thus, each time he uses a term meaning eternal here, it has a slightly different connotation, which we have to glean from context, not from the actual word choice.

This particular dialogue is an original creation myth, presumably aimed at an audience of mystical theologians, and using terms and concepts that would have been familiar to them. As always, however, Plato tweaks those terms to support his own unique vision of Ultimate Reality. As I understand this passage, the general idea is that the Eternal Essence is both everlasting and not directly perceptible --transcendent, if you will. It lasts forever and never changes. The heavens are a higher order copy of that ideal, they last forever, but they are not perfectly unchanging. Humanity is a lower order copy of the ideal, we are neither eternal nor unchanging. When we see the heavens, they are a bridge between ourselves and the imperceptibly transcendent Eternal Essence. The heavens are an image of perfection, but are not themselves perfect, because no image is perfect (every image is an imperfect copy). Where the Eternal Essence is everlasting because it is entirely outside time, and therefore never changes, the heavens are everlasting within time. They are cyclical ("revolves according to a law of number"), which is what everlasting looks like when you combine it with change. They are therefore not eternal "in its fullness," which is necessarily static. The reason for creating the heavens is so we can see what something eternal looks like, but in a form that changes like we change, so we can identify with it. That helps us understand that we too are formed in imitation of the Eternal Essence.

  • I think I understand what you're saying. I know Plato didn't really believe most of the things he wrote about, but all these "eternities" seem ridiculous. I think what you're saying is: Good is eternal, God crafted the universe to last forever (and both God and the universe had a starting point and are able to move), and humanity lasts for an "age"; so that you would translate aidios as "eternal", aionios as "everlasting" and aion as "age". Is this correct?
    – Cannabijoy
    Jul 14, 2016 at 17:47
  • Basically. Plato deliberately abused terminology, so it's hard to exactly define his terms. You might find the Cornfold perspective Mauro cited useful --it's basically that Good is eternal because it's outside time, but the universe and the heavens are eternal within time, or as you said, "everlasting." Thus, time is an image of eternity, it is everlasting and cyclical, but true eternity is outside time. (Also, be careful about identifying the demiurge as God and reading too much into "his" traits, I'm pretty sure a number of those statements are actually referencing the Good.) Jul 14, 2016 at 18:43
  • What you're saying seems reasonable, but I'm having trouble reconciling this with what Plato said. I don't mean any offence, but you seem to be saying "who knows what Plato was talking about; this is what I think he 'meant' to say". Your interpretation seems much more logical than what I'm reading from Plato. I'm not sure about time being cyclical though, so I think I might ask about that when I get a chance. However, I think I do have a better understanding of what Plato means by "aionios". It seems he understood aionios to mean a "potential" infinite, but definitely not an "actual" infinite.
    – Cannabijoy
    Jul 15, 2016 at 8:01
  • @anonymouswho I've rewritten to make it more clear why I don't think this is an arbitrary interpretation, even though I certainly understand why it might seem that way. I think you always have to take Plato in the context of the great span of his entire canon --he's only consistent on the larger level, never with the details. Jul 15, 2016 at 13:52
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I'm writing a thesis on this topic and got confused by your comment that "Plato literally says that aionios and aion do not mean aidios because they are parts of time and movement!" You should go back and read it more closely - days, months and years are "parts of time", not aion.

When researching the actual meaning of the word within Plato, which was in all his works used when referring to or quoting the poets, always about something in which duration is an inevitable interpretation, but not motion per se, or if we look at language of his time or Homer's or Heraclitus' we can see that aion and its congates meant Life or Life/span, were associated with zoe and bios and psyche. I'd say that those english translations are influenced by neoplatonist and christian version of transcendent timelessness and not by the actual text/


This may be a small thing, but could some of the ambiguity in meaning be coming from our western, cosmos-only-lives-once perspective where among those in Plato's audience, many believed that the current cosmos' aeon (life) was one of several at least? Thus, as someone already mentioned above, eternality is one way of referring to transcendence. So the creator/demiurge was unable to create an extra-this-aeon thing but was able to create an in-this-aeon replica of it. In this way the temporal aspect of being outside this aeon is only one of the attributes that are incompatible with reality inside it. Possibly it was easier to refer to this reality's boundaries in terms of its temporal limitations than coming up with a Greek word for transcendence?

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