In Rabbi Judah HaLevi's Sefer HaKuzari (Book of the Khazar) he states in 1:63:

The Rabbi: There is an excuse for the Philosophers. Being Grecians, science and religion did not come to them as inheritances.

And in 1:65:

The Rabbi: Certainly. He [Aristotle] exerted his mind, because he had no tradition from any reliable source at his disposal. He meditated on the beginning and end of the world, but found as much difficulty in the theory of a beginning as in that of eternity. Finally, these abstract speculations which made for eternity, prevailed, and he found no reason to inquire into the chronology or derivation of those who lived before him. Had he lived among a people with well authenticated and generally acknowledged traditions, he would have applied his deductions and arguments to establish the theory of creation, however difficult, instead of eternity, which is even much more difficult to accept.

To me it sounds like these statements may be intended to echo Plato's words in the Timaeus:

Thereupon one of the priests, who was of a very great age, said: O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you. Solon in return asked him what he meant. I mean to say, he replied, that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age.

I have yet to have found Rabbi HaLevi bringing any other idea from the Timaeus, so it seems to me that he may have come to the conclusion that the above quote was intended by Plato to be the moral of the Timaeus: What happens when men without a tradition of thought attempt to explain big ideas? Answer: Timaeus of Locri's wild ideas on creation, the soul and so forth are the result (and therefore, no need to quote anything else from the Timaeus).

I was wondering if there are other scholars (not necessarily Jewish) who present this idea?

  • What do you mean with "men without a tradition of thought" regarding Plato and Ancient Greek philosophers in general ? – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 15 '20 at 6:09
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA according to Rabbi HaLevi traditions refer to direct knowledge on how the world works (creation, God, etc) passed down from the creation of man with divine influence. Men like the Greek philosophers lack these direct traditions (because the descendants of Japheth split off from mankind early on) and therefore went on to invent baseless explanations for the creation (or lack thereof), for God/gods, etc. This seems to me like a Jewish echoing-take on Plato's quote that may be a key to the meaning of the entire Timaeus. – Harel13 Jul 15 '20 at 6:36
  • Maybe Plato is alluding to the "fable" of Ancient Egypt wisdom that he may have known... Historically, it is plausible that ancient Egyptian "science" was known to Greeks. In addition, there were a pre-Platonic tradition: Homer, Hesiod, Thales, Pythagoras. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 15 '20 at 6:59
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    @MauroALLEGRANZA I guess I should clarify. I didn't mean that Plato's idea of a tradition of knowledge is necessarily that same one which Rabbi HaLevi refers to. My question is on whether there are any scholars (whether Jewish or not doesn't matter) that agree with this take that the gist of the Timaeus is that if one doesn't maintain a tradition of ancient knowledge from past civilizations, one can come up with some wild, baseless explanations for things? Note that surprisingly, Socrates mostly takes a backseat here, allowing Timaeus and Critias to do most of the talking. – Harel13 Jul 15 '20 at 7:10

With regard to Rabbi Yehuda Hallevi's criticism of Aristotle, I doubt that he is writing it specifically with Timaeus in mind. He did know it (he names it in 4:25), but from what I understand, the Arabic-speaking world knew Timaeus from translations of Galen's summaries of it; I am not sure whether this particular passage would have made it through the process. Even if so, this remark is natural enough in a Jewish context (compare Maimonides' similar comment in Guide for the Perplexed 2:24, end) that dependence on Plato seems unlikely, even if the ideas themselves are compatible. In other words, his statements are not interpretations of Plato, so they have to be compared from the outside.

Comparing him with Plato, there are some important differences between their views: Rabbi Yehuda Hallevi wrote with a specific tradition in mind (the Torah) that he claims Aristotle didn't have access to. If only Aristotle knew the Torah, he says, he would have been able to apply himself to proving true propositions instead of guessing. On the other hand, Plato seems not to expect that any human being could possibly know the answers to such things as the creation:

Wherefore, Socrates, if in our treatment of a great host of matters regarding the Gods and the generation of the Universe we prove unable to give accounts that are always in all respects self-consistent and perfectly exact, be not thou surprised; rather we should be content if we can furnish accounts that are inferior to none in likelihood, remembering that both I who speak and you who judge are but human creatures, so that it becomes us to accept the likely account of these matters and forbear to search beyond it. (Timaeus 29c-d)

The story of the Egyptian priest that Plato brings earlier would initially seem to indicate that he thought that valued the Egyptians' ancient traditions, but in fact, the Egyptian story might allude to another of Plato's Egyptian stories. In Phaedrus, Socrates recounts a story from Egypt, which Phaedrus disbelieves, but eventually they both agree that the provenance of true knowledge is of no value:

Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.

They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances. The people of that time, not being so wise as you young folks, were content in their simplicity to hear an oak or a rock, provided only it spoke the truth; but to you, perhaps, it makes a difference who the speaker is and where he comes from, for you do not consider only whether his words are true or not.

Your rebuke is just; and I think the Theban is right in what he says about letters. (Phaedrus 275b-c)

In other words, the Egyptian priest's remark against the Greeks in Timaeus seems to reflect an attitude that contradicts Plato's own views!

And there is another reason not to take the entire latter part of Timaeus as vain speculation: Plato's dialogues often end with Socrates saying that he is no wiser than when he started, yet here Plato dedicates the majority of a lengthy dialogue to describing the creation in detail, surely not for no reason, without any similar disclaimer at the end of it. So that even if Plato acknowledges that his creation might not literally be true, he did believe it was useful to go into in detail: there are many themes (e.g. the behavior of the Good) that are certainly not presented as if they are nonsense.

Many of the early Academics didn't take the creation narrative described by Timaeus as a historical truth, but their concern was likely to defend Plato against Aristotle (who did take the creation in Timaeus literally) by making Plato compatible with Aristotle's eternal world (Tarrant, Plato's First Interpreters 44-46).

But even if not to be taken literally, and even if not even presented as a certain truth (as implied in 29c-d, quoted above), I don't think it's tenable to consider Timaeus to be meant as a magnificent display of ignorance (I write in my opinion, not a scholarly interpretation as you were looking for; but then again, sometimes even oaks and rocks can speak the truth). The accusation of a lack of an ancient tradition is significant, as it applies to the creation no less than Atlantis. Yet from Socrates' remarks to Phaedrus, we might infer that Plato didn't feel a need for an ancient tradition. And as evidenced by the fact that the dialogue continues, the lack of a tradition didn't deter Plato from making a serious effort to come up with a reasonable creation narrative.

On the other hand, Plato has Timaeus say two interesting remarks that might imply the contrary:

Concerning the other divinities, to discover and declare their origin is too great a task for us, and we must trust to those who have declared it aforetime, they being, as they affirmed, descendants of gods and knowing well, no doubt, their own forefathers. (40d)

but the principles which are still higher than these are known only to God and the man who is dear to God. (53d)

It's hard to say what exactly Plato is alluding to here. The Loeb editor thinks the first remark is "obviously ironical." Obviously the bulk of the dialogue wasn't written as vain speculation with no claim on truth. But privileged divine knowledge does exist in Plato (as in his metaphor of the magnet in Ion, which would be a fitting portrayal of a tradition), so maybe Plato did in fact portray Timaeus as thinking that the Egyptians' tradition brought them closer to the creation of the world than the Greeks could get. If this was implied, was it meant to make the reader despair of ever getting accurate knowledge about the first principles, or to imply that the reader might get access to a divine tradition at the Academy, or just as an artistic touch? I don't know. But if Rabbi Yehuda Hallevi had seen one or more of these statements in translation, there might be reason to posit some dependence on the dialogue when he makes his remarks on tradition.

  • a. What you brought about Rambam and Rihal's criticism of Aristotle is interesting. Where'd you hear about the Arabic-speaking world's access to Timaeus through Galen? b. While I've yet to read Phaedrus, I've seen the argument that the later dialogues are critiques of past dialogues, so there's that...c. You make a good point on the ending of the Timaeus, but on the other hand, the Timaeus trilogy was never completed (or at least, we don't know how it ended, if it did) so for all we know, Plato may have intended to end all three with a classic Socratic conclusion. – Harel13 Jul 16 '20 at 20:51
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    a. The sources I remember looking at are The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy p. 43, Arabic Translations of Platonic works. It seems that Timaeus was either "not translated intact" (whatever that means) or transmitted via Galen. b.c. It could be. – b a Jul 16 '20 at 23:17
  • @Harel13 I reread the dialogue a while ago and noticed some statements that might support your reading (see edit) – b a Apr 11 at 12:20

IMO, the reading must be "reversed".

Juda Halevi is opposing Aristotle's philosophy and (presumably) its growing role in Islamic philosophy (and later in Christian one).

The reason IMO can be simplified to: Aristotle's philosophy "has no religion".

Thus, he contrasts it with Plato's "philosophical myth" described into the Timaeus: Critias repeats the legend learnt by Solon from an Egyptian priest regarding Atlantis myth.

The interpretation of Plato's dialogue is not an easy task: have we to read Plato as a plea toward a rediscovery of ancient wisdom ? Or Plato's strategy is only a rhetorical one ?

  • Okay, that's another interpretation of the Kuzari text. But are there scholars that suggest what I do about the Timaeus? – Harel13 Jul 15 '20 at 15:57

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