Friday, February 25, 2011


Richard D. Mohr, Barbara M. Sattler (ed.), One Book, The Whole Universe: Plato's Timaeus Today. Las Vegas/Zurich/Athens: Parmenides Publishing, 2010. Pp. viii, 406. ISBN 9781930972322. $87.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Carl O'Brien, Trinity College, Dublin / National University of Ireland, Maynooth (;

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Plato's Timaeus Today is a collection of conference proceedings focusing on providing a more detailed understanding both of the dialogue and its subsequent influence. The contributors are from a range of backgrounds, including not just scholars primarily noted for their work in the field of ancient philosophy, but also Anthony Leggett, the 2003 Nobel Laureate in Physics (although he is also a classicist by training). The volume also has an easy-to-navigate companion website, which supplies animated versions of some of the diagrams, as well as clips from some film portrayals of Atlantis. The Timaeus is famous for two narratives: the story of the war between Athens and Atlantis and the story of the Demiurge, in which Plato describes how a craftsman-god constructs the world by ordering precosmic chaos in geometric and mathematical proportion, and this volume treats both aspects in detail. With such a range of papers on divergent aspects of the Timaeus, a useful feature provided by the editors is a set of abstracts as part of a reader's guide to the volume.

For a variety of reasons, the Stoics can be regarded as heirs to the Demiurge myth just as much as their Platonist counterparts and this aspect is treated in Anthony Long's contribution "Cosmic Craftsmanship in Plato and Stoicism'. Long compares Platonic and Stoic theological cosmologies while contending that Greek conceptions of a supreme divinity matured along with notions of rationality. This is a very valuable study, since Long examines the pre-Platonic background, as well as providing a comparison of Platonic and Stoic demiurgy. The Stoic Demiurge is not faced with the sort of constraints imposed upon its Platonic counterpart and neither does it engage in the same sort of geometric or arithmetical activity. Charles Kahn also places the Timaeus in its intellectual context in "The Place of Cosmology in Plato's Later Dialogues", which evaluates the cosmological material of the Timaeus and Philebus as part of a broader movement of Plato's thought concerning the philosophy of thought, stretching from the Phaedrus to Laws 10.

Plato's description of the Demiurge as maker and father suggests a biological relation to creation as well as an artisanal one and the relationship between the two titles is explored in Matthias Vorwerk's chapter 'Maker or Father? The Demiurge From Plutarch to Plotinus', which examines the important role played by the Middle Platonists in developing the notion of the Demiurge, with Numenius drawing a distinction between the titles 'Maker' and 'Father'. Vorwerk provides a detailed analysis of the various interpretations which have been offered by both Middle Platonists and more recent scholars concerning Plato's usage of the two terms, before considering the implications of the absence of the phrase "Maker and Father" in the Enneads.

Interpretation of the Timaeus has been heavily influenced by Aristotelian criticisms of the dialogue and this aspect is treated in a special section entitled Aristotle's Timaeus. Thomas Johansen supplies an illuminating article "Should Aristotle Have Recognised Final Causes in Plato's Timaeus?" Johansen takes as his starting point Aristotle's claim in Metaphysics I that other philosophers might have recognised different causes, but failed to understand them properly. While this criticism does not relate to the Timaeus specifically, Johansen argues that Aristotle's statement here would have to be able to withstand the Timaeus and aims to show that Aristotle was "neither a careless nor a forgetful reader" of Plato (p. 184).1 On Johansen's reading, Aristotle attacks Plato for regarding formal causes as causes of goodness (mathematical forms), and for not being able to demonstrate why they are good (p. 195-196). Alan Code also examines Aristotelian use of the Timaeus in "Aristotle on Plato on Weight". Aristotle (in On the Heavens) takes Plato's definition of weight to be in terms of number, based on the remarks expressed at Tim.56aff, rather than the more detailed discussion at 62c3-63e8, again raising the suggestion that Aristotle has not been the most careful reader of the dialogue (p. 203) . Code argues that Aristotle's attribution of such a definition to Plato is incorrect. Code also examines the definition of weight in terms of directionality (a balance sinks in the direction of the heavier item) in the later Timaeus passage.

The activity of Reason, represented by the Demiurge organising geometric shapes within the Receptacle, and the space in which this process happens, has been of major importance for our understanding of space. It had, for example, a profound effect on Jacques Derrida, which is examined by Zina Giannopoulou's contribution. The related topic of the Timaeus' influence upon architecture is treated by Anthony Vidler ("The Atlantis Effect: The Lost Origins of Architecture"). His contribution takes up the theme of the utopian perception of Atlantis in the discourse of architectural theory, illustrated by the Renaissance architect Filarete's imaginary city of Sforzinda, as described in his Libro architettonico. In Filarete's Libro Atlantis provides the model of the ideal city, while the Demiurge becomes the model to which the architect should aspire. Also mentioned are the more sinister uses to which the Atlantis motif has been put, such as Nazi identification of Atlantis with Germany and occupied France. The situation regarding more contemporary architecture is discussed by Ann Bergren in "Plato's Timaeus and the Aesthetics of 'Animate Form'". Bergren is both a classicist and an architect and examines two conceptions of beauty in the Timaeus: the Platonic one of "animate form" and the pre-cosmic Receptacle, which, Bergren argues, points to "Homeric beauty" (p. 344). Bergren explores the works of architects influenced by such conceptions of beauty, such as Greg Lynn, a pioneer in the use of calculus-based software as an aid to architectural design. Bergren examines Lynn's Embryological House, as well as Imaginary Forces, an office renovation, including a series of diagrams illustrating how this process works. Bergren also examines the work of Elena Manferdini, who uses a similar process to design both clothing and buildings, and shows how in the case of fabric, the constant movement of these geometric shapes on the body mimics the continuous activity in the Receptacle. One tends to think of the Greek contribution to design as comprising the architectural orders, but Bergren reveals it to be far more extensive.

Atlantis has been frequently portrayed in film and the development of the genre is traced by Jon Solomon in "Timaeus in Tinseltown: Atlantis in Film". He finds an antecedent in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), which ascribed utopian institutions to Atlantis and attempted to locate it on the map, both features replicated in numerous film treatments of Atlantis. Jules Verne's 1869 novel 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea helped to carve out a place for Atlantis within the science fiction genre. Given this background, it is no surprise that Atlantis was often portrayed in film as either a technologically-advanced dystopia or endowed with utopian elements. Solomon's examination of the sword-and-sandal genre is enlivened by film stills.

Framing the volume are contributions from two physicists. While Leggett in "Resonances in Modern Physics and Cosmology" points out that the views Plato expresses in the Timaeus differ from those of modern science, he notes that some of the questions he posits are still being addressed by modern cosmology, such as whether the universe exists in time or why the universe actually exists; a problem which Plato solved through positing the Demiurge. While this is not the sort of theory that modern cosmology would advance, it is an area which it has difficulties explaining. Sean Carroll similarly points out that despite all the advances which science has made since Plato, two important questions have not been satisfactorily resolved: the issue of whether the universe had a beginning and whether it was generated by an external agent or is self-sufficient (p. 373). Carroll examines the Big Bang model by way of answering the first of these questions before looking at the future of our expanding universe and outlining the model of the baby universe, 'a tiny patch of space with a very high energy density, and just the right conditions to pinch off from its parent spacetime and go its own way' (p. 379), a theory which though hypothetical, would avoid the positing of a true beginning for the universe. The article is clearly written and understandable, even for a non-physicist, and serves to update Plato's discourse by offering potential modern solutions to ancient questions.

Also treated are other important aspects of the Timaeus, such as its relationship to Plato's political philosophy, the manner in which it responded to pre-Socratic philosophy and the way in which it, in turn, set the agenda for the Neoplatonists, as well as issues concerning the dialogue's use of narrative. This volume underlines the seminal importance which the Timaeus has had in modern western society, placing it in its original context in the Greek intellectual tradition, as well as outlining its reception in later periods, enhanced by the additional material supplied on the companion website. Although it contains specialised articles of greatest immediate relevance to philosophers, it will be of use for those who are contemplating a broad curriculum or classical tradition courses. It also provides an articulate set of arguments in favour of the perennial influence of the Classics. It might be useful to keep a copy on hand for those who query the relevance of a classical education…or simply direct them to the website.


1.   As suggested by Harold Cherniss, Aristotle's Criticism of Plato and of the Academy, I (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1944), p. 454.

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