The reason I ask is that an overwhelming majority of the book is (understandably) baseless scientific claims about the origin of the universe. Not in the same way that, say, he defines the soul, which even modern science has not done much to prove or disprove.

Something like, say, The Republic is rich with philosophical inquiries about governmental structures, the value of the citizen, the role of groups of people, the soul, etc., things which are naturally philosophical.

But Timaeus stating the numerical relationship of the universe, the shape, the temporal nature of the universe, etc., seems more like a definitively scientific approach.

His understanding of God seems relevant, but a lot of it does not.


3 Answers 3


Depends on whether (a) the principle of non-contradiction (PNC) in its application (b) to the physical world and, independently of that application, (c) the relation of space to time are still of contemporary interest. Insofar as PNC is still a live issue, as is the nature of the physical world, let alone the space/ time relation, the Timaeus retains a degree of philosophical interest. I would not pitch it higher than that. Most of the matters it's concerned with are now the preserve of science but there is a small philosophical residue. I wouldn't attempt a hard sell here.

The following extract from Harold J. Johnson may be of help. There is some discussion of Democritus and Aristotle, brief enough but I have not been able to remove them without rejigging the whole quotation. I have inserted references to the Timaeus in square brackets :

  1. Let us begin with the divergent attitudes of Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle on a question that may at first seem remote from the meanings they attached to the concept of matter - the question of the applicability of the logical principle of non-contradiction to the phenomena of nature. The curious fact is that two of the philosophers, Democritus and Plato, raise serious objection to such application. Both affirm, in defiance of the famous dictum of Parmenides, that in some sense non-being is.' Aristotle, on the other hand, finding this principle of non-contradiction "the most certain of all," makes a strenuous effort to show that no operations of nature are exceptions to it.

The distinction between actuality and potentiality, the elaboration of which occupies so much space in Aristotle's treatises in natural science, is intended to give a non-contradictory account of all species of change. Repeatedly when he seems faced with the necessity of ascribing contradictory predicates to the same subject, Aristotle points out that this will be "in no way paradoxical" if we simply understand, for example, that "the second predicate will attach to it potentially, but the first actually." It is, then, by means of the concept of potentiality that Aristotle purports to avoid the reservations regarding the principle of non-contradiction he finds in his predecessors. And by potentiality Aristotle means matter, the substratum that prior to change was in privation of the characteristic it now possesses. The actual existent thing is a certain potential "matter," in-formed by certain characteristics.

  1. Is there then something in the views of Democritus and Plato that disinclines them from exploiting the concept of matter to the same end? In the case of Democritus the answer is surely that his conception of matter is of particles possessed wholly and exclusively of the primary qualities. The atoms and their quantitative determinations are in all respects eternal and undergo no generation, corruption, alteration, increase, or diminution. The sole change to which they are subject is that of local motion. Though Democritus and Aristotle are in agreement in treating matter as the continuing substratum in change, Democritean matter cannot function as potentiality for the plain reason that it is permanently and uninterruptedly actual in all the respects in which anything for Democritus ever is actual.

In the case of Plato the answer is radically different. "What is that," he asks, "which always is and has no becoming; and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is apprehended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state; but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason, is always in the process of becoming and perishing and never really is." **[Tim. 27e-28a] For Plato, fully actual Being belongs only to the intelligible and that which is necessary by reason of its intelligibility, that is to the immaterial essences discovered by dialectic. The highest praise that can be given to an existent, on the other hand, even to an eternal one like God or the soul, is just that its true home is with the essences, and that it participates in them to a particularly intimate degree. But material existences are known by the senses and have no permanence or stability. If in atomism the only sort of material change possible is locomotion, in Platonism material change is a radical generation and destruction of the existent. And if Democritus would have to reject the Aristotelian conception of matter as potential because Democritean matter is perpetually actual, Plato would have to reject it for >>>>the opposite reason that nothing material can ever be actual; it fleetingly imitates the actual, but never attains it. Thus corresponding to our first systematic contrast involving divergent attitudes towards the physical applicability of the >>>>principle of non-contradiction, we have now discovered a second: Democritean matter is always actual; Platonic matter is never actual; and Aristotelian matter is potential in so far as it is in privation of a property, but actual in so far as it possesses it. It is, then, actual under determinate forms.**

  1. The foregoing explains why Aristotle's two predecessors did not choose his particular philosophical resource for maintaining the applicability of the principle of non-contradiction to nature. It does not explain what led them to their original reservations about such application. But in the case of Democritus the motive is clear and well-known: the non-being the existence of which he must assert is empty space or the void; and he must assert it to provide an extended and non-resistant something in which the atoms may move. There are, then, two equally necessary realities in his universe, matter and space. Space shares with matter all its geometrical properties, and in fact is distinguished from it in only one primary respect, the distinction of the empty from the full. However, this is also the only distinction that enjoys ontological status in the system of Democritus. All other differences, indeed all qualitative determinations whatever, are reducible to this one.

If we now turn to the conception of space in Plato we again en- counter the sharpest contrast to Democritus. Whereas Democritus had made matter and space ontological opposites, they are identified by Plato. Space for him is the Receptacle, necessary as in Democritus to account for motion; but it is now also analogized with a Mother and nurse who, being impregnated by the immaterial essences, provides the very stuff out of which the sensible world of becoming is generated. The Receptacle is at once "hardly real," a postulate that is required by the fact that we say "all existence ... must of necessity be in some place and occupy a space," [Timaeus, 52b] and at the same time "in some mysterious way partakes of the intelligible" [Timaeus, 51b] so that although it is devoid of determinate and exclusive form it nevertheless is "duly prepared" to "receive the impress" of any form [Timaeus, 50c-e] and to be the substratum of the created world.

Johnson : 4-6.



Harold J. Johnson, 'Three Ancient Meanings of Matter: Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1967), pp. 3-16.


Don't read it if it bores you, but it's the same topics as the Republic (in some cases, the same material) presented in a different manner. For example, flip back to Bk. VII of Rep. - the parable of the cave - are you sure this is a parable about the soul? If you read carefully Plato is saying that there are four basic types of knowledge, corresponding to four basic types of entities (ideas, shapes, objects, and appearances). So it's a psychology that's inseparable from an ontology or a cosmology.

Likewise there is a tradition in Western philosophy of analyzing explanations into four types: what (form), of what (matter), by what (means), for what (purpose). Plato pioneers this in the Timaeus; you can see the same underlying question, is he talking about knowledge, understanding, and reasoning (according to you that would be about the soul and acceptable, right?) or is he talking about physical laws and cosmic processes? Not only is the criterion you propose (I would suggest) not an apt one for dismissing these topics, but Timaeus is actually one of the few works where Plato is in a sense trying to answer the question of whether e.g. his theory of the forms is psychological or ontological — more precisely, how it could be both at the same time.

Plato (=his characters) says certain things that are nonsensical and false that modern scholars would never get wrong. Modern scholars also invariably say certain things that are nonsensical and false that Plato would never get wrong. If you can learn to sift through and ignore the one you can probably deal with the other. But I don't know if this can be treated cleanly as a difference between facts and values, or between what is empirically known and what is unfalsifiable.

The really big difference between Timaeus and Republic isn't that the one treats metaphysics and the other treats metaphysics, but that one is driven by the ignorance of Socrates' interlocutors (as contrived by Plato) and the other lays out bluntly a logical overall order of moving between different topics/concepts/questions.

A more important general issue that will be hard for you to understand for a long time: sometimes a false opinion is nonetheless motivated by an important intuition into the truth. Getting access to this intuition can be immensely powerful (far more important than understanding a superficially correct answer, or even being correct oneself). The problem is most people can't understand how this could be true unless philosophy is like poetry and being right doesn't matter so long as you're clever and "original". On the contrary, the truth is all that matters... but I can only explain this conundrum in metaphors to you at this stage.

  • 1
    I should say that the whole of this answer is pretty helpful, but the ending bit is unnecessarily condescending and contradicting. "Truth is all that matters," vs "a false opinions is," and I paraphrase, "can be alright insofar as the intuition is useful."
    – Sermo
    Oct 31, 2018 at 21:01
  • >The problem is most people can't understand how this could be true unless ... Like I said, this is difficult to grasp until you see it yourself - it seems like an either/or, doesn't it?
    – guest1806
    Oct 31, 2018 at 21:08
  • Isn't analyzing explanations into four types much older than Plato ? The presocratics from Thales through Heraclitus to Anaximander had their four basic basic elements of water, fire, air, and water. The Timaeus also contains a summary of the Republic, for the record, as well as presenting parallels and identities with it (18a ff.). As well, Plato favours three-element analyses and explanations quite as much as in the three parts of the psuche and the three classes of the polis.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Oct 31, 2018 at 21:38
  • The answer I gave has nothing to do with numerology.
    – guest1806
    Oct 31, 2018 at 21:42
  • ... four basic types of knowledge, corresponding to four basic types of entities and there is a tradition in Western philosophy of analyzing explanations into four types. These three 'fours' led me to think that you enumerated in order to make a point. If you didn't, then naturally my comment about this doesn't apply. Also I over-interpreted Thales but not Herakleitos & Anaximander; Thales, from what little we can make out, believed that everything is composed of water - just one element. I liked your answer and have upvoted it.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 1, 2018 at 9:40

(The Neoplatonic view of) Plato's aim, across all of his diverse work, is to illuminate a conceptual realm that he believes cannot be directly explained in ordinary language, or understood in common ways. Accordingly, each of his works is set up like a puzzle box. Any given work seems to be a discourse on a particular topic, addressed to a particular audience, but with things that that audience is likely to reject or disagree with. It is Plato's hope that through that process of engaging with the puzzles of the work, the reader will come to understand the ineffable truths underlying it.

The upshot is that Plato is never, at any time, saying exactly what he thinks to be the case (because he can't). The closest he gets is metaphors and allegories. This is not readily apparently from any one work, although it is demonstrated in miniature in the Meno. It is, however, the common feature that unites all of his work.

The Republic is aimed at politicians and civil servants, and talks about the problems and the potentials of different societies and systems of government, but those governmental systems are used to illuminate the Idea of the Good, in terms of which systems draw closer or further from it. Similarly, Timaeus is aimed at theologians and mystics. It has the form of a creation myth, but its real point is, again, to illuminate the Idea of the Good.

  • Except that there is hardly any dialogue in Timaeus, in contrast with the Republic. Dec 6, 2020 at 17:24
  • @StevenJeuris - That isn't relevant to what I'm saying here. "Dialogues" are the standard name for Plato's works, even the ones that contain little or no actual back-and-forth scripted dialogue. Dec 7, 2020 at 14:18
  • Fair enough. I just interpreted the 'puzzle box' to implicitly refer to the dialectic process; the 'discourse', which you did refer to. How else are Plato's dialogues any different from any text making claims or outlining an argument, really? My point being, the qualities you outline here are very much related to most of Plato's works being actual dialogues, and Timaeus although one of Plato's works is less of a dialogue. Dec 7, 2020 at 15:43
  • Most authors at some point come out and say exactly what they mean. It's my contention that Plato NEVER does, not because he doesn't want to, but because he doesn't believe that the things he wants to convey are capable of being directly expressed. That's less clear in something like the Timaeus, which many people take (erroneously) at face value, but I think it's no less true of it than of something like the Meno or the Symposium. Dec 7, 2020 at 17:25

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