Plato on One Universe in the Timaeus

Written by on July 24th, 2013. Subject: Philosophy. Filed in Natural Philosophy, about Plato Cosmology Greek

|||Plato, and Donald J. Zeyl. Timaeus. Plato’s Timaeus. Indianapolis, IN: Hacket Publishing Co, 2000.|||

Well-Built Roof Have we been correct in speaking of one heaven (Ouranos),1 or would it have been more correct to say that there are many, in fact infinitely many? There is but one, if it is to have been crafted after its model. For that which contains all of the intelligible living things couldn’t ever be one of a pair, since that would require there to be yet another Living Thing, the one that contained those two, of which they then would be parts, and then it would be more correct to speak of our heaven as made in the likeness, now not of those two, but of that other, the one that contains them. So, in order that this living thing should be like the complete Living Thing in respect of uniqueness, the maker made neither two, nor yet an infinite number of worlds. On the contrary, our heaven came to be as the one and only thing of its kind, is so now, and will continue to be so in the future. Timaeus 31a2-b6

In the Timaeus, Plato gives his account of the creation of the universe. There is a Living Thing, which is eternal2, perfect, infinite, and intelligent3. However, we can say that all the forms are eternal, perfect, and infinite. These characterize beings which are not embodied.4 Embodied things never attain full being, which is, properly speaking, an attribute of the forms only. That is why Plato says “that which is becoming never really is.” The eternal, perfect, infinite Living Thing, however, is superior to these forms. The most interesting quality of the Living Thing is its uniqueness5. The forms are a part of the Living Thing. It encompasses all of them, even comprehends all of them.

This brings us to the quote above. Is it possible for there to be more than one Ouranos, whether two or infinite? Because the world is beautiful, it cannot be an image of an incomplete thing, even if the only incompleteness is the property of being one form (a species) and not another. In this respect, the Living Thing is the only absolutely perfect thing; it has complete wholeness. Because the forms are individualized in their own way, and because the Living Thing encompasses all of them, the Living Thing must itself be an individual. The Living Thing is a distinct individual being. Therefore, the Living Thing cannot be communicated as a species.

If there were two universes, each would have to be modeled on a Living Thing. Each of these Living Things, however, would be part of a higher Living Thing that communicates its species to each of them. We saw, however, that, for the world to be beautiful, its model cannot be a part or be incomplete in any way. As an example, let us use the form of whiteness. There is one form of whiteness, which is encompassed in the Living Thing. If there were a second form of whiteness in a second Living Thing, then there would have to be a higher entity that encompassed both forms of whiteness. That there could be two forms of whiteness that are exactly alike and yet distinct from each other is impossible. If two forms of whiteness existed, one in each Living Thing, then the whiteness in the Living Thing from which our world was modeled would be imperfect. There would be a full whiteness in a higher Living Thing. Therefore, the Living Thing from which our world is modeled would be imperfect, since it would be a part. We have seen, however, that this too is impossible. Both alternate cases are impossible. Therefore, there can be only one Living Thing and one universe.

There are many premises on which he relies that we would readily admit. Among them are: that the craftsman of the universe must be good; that the forms are infinite; that the world is beautiful; that an intelligent being is superior to an inferior being; that unbegotten, eternal being is superior to begotten being. The most fascinating premise, in my mind, is that that in whose image the world was made is intelligent. By reaching these premises in a pre-Christian era, Plato has increased even more my appreciation and respect for him. We can understand the early Christians’ affection for Plato in the Timaeus.

About Brandon Bridger

Brandon Bridger graduated from the College of St. Thomas More. He is currently doing graduate course work in philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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  1. Editor’s note 16, p 14 “The three primary terms Plato uses to refer to the universe are ouranos (‘heaven’ or ‘the heavens’), kosmos (‘world’ or ‘world order’), and to pan (‘universe’ - lit. ‘the whole’). The first of these is properly the designation for the realm of the fixed stars but is also used to designate the universe as a whole (at, e.g., 31a2, b3). The second refers to the world as an orderly system, while the third considers it in its totality.” I will use the term “universe” as a less clumsy term in English for ouranos, since that is an acceptable use in this particular quote. 

  2. “We must raise this question about the universe: Which of the two models did the maker use when he fashioned it? Was it the one that does not change and stays the same, or the one that has come to be? Well, if this world of ours is beautiful and its craftsman good, then clearly he looked at the eternal model. But if what it’s blasphemous to even say is the case, then he looked at one that has come to be. Now surely it’s clear to all that it was the eternal model he looked at, for, of all the things that have come to be, our world is the most beautiful, and of causes the craftsman is the most excellent. This, then, is how it has come to be: it is a work of craft, modeled after that which is changeless and is grasped by a rational account, that is, by wisdom.” Timaeus, 28c7-29a11. 

  3. “The god reasoned and concluded that in the realm of things naturally visible no unintelligent thing could as a whole be better than anything that does possess intelligence as a whole, and he further concluded that it is impossible for anything to come to possess intelligence apart from soul. Guided by this reasoning, he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body, and so he constructed the universe. He wanted to produce a piece of work that would be as excellent and supreme as its nature would allow. This, then, in keeping with our likely account, is how we must say divine providence brought our world into being as a truly living thing, endowed with soul and intelligence.” Timaeus, 30b1-c1. 

  4. “What is that which always is and has no becoming, and what is that which becomes but never is? The former is grasped by understanding, which involves a reasoned account. It is unchanging. The latter is grasped by opinion, which involves unreasoning sense perception. It comes to be and passes away but never really is.” Timaeus, 27d6-28a5. 

  5. “This being so, we have to go on to speak about what comes next. When the maker made our world, what living thing did he make it resemble? Let us not stoop to think that it was any of those that have the natural character of a part, for nothing that is a likeness of anything incomplete could ever turn out beautiful. Rather, let us lay it down that the world resembles more closely than anything else that Living Thing of which all other living things are parts, both individually and by kinds. For that Living Thing comprehends within itself all intelligible living things, just as our world [kosmos] is made up of us and all the other visible creatures. Since god wanted nothing more than to make the world like the best of the intelligible things, complete in every way, he made it a single visible living thing, which contains within itself all the living things whose nature it is to share its kind.” Timaeus, 30c2-31a2.