Plato’s Timaeus is less a dialogue than a short tale of antiquity by Critias followed by an account of the cosmos by Timaeus, in which, the question is asked: Why is the greatest philosophical work on the cosmos framed by politics?
Before reviewing Peter Kalkavage’s Focus Press translation of the Timaeus, I must, in all fairness, confess my partiality. He, Eric Salem, and myself were the co-translators of Plato’s Phaedo  and his Sophist  for the same publisher. Together, over several years, we worked out some principles of translation which are discernible in this Timaeus version. In fact, I think the three of us would welcome with some glee the notion of a St. John’s College school of translation. For we wanted to be working very much with the spirit of the Program and a possible use by our students in mind. We thought that translations of Plato should render word for word, even particle for particle, with the greatest exactitude, what the Greek said, avoiding all interpretative paraphrase, craven omissions, and latter-day terminology. But we also stipulated that they should catch the idiomatic expressiveness and the changing moods of the original. These principles are clearly at work in this rendering of the Timaeus.
We learned as well, however, that each dialogue is a unique universe of discourse, the artful representation of an inquiry with its own approaches, terms, settings, and above all its own participants, each of whom is in a mood specific to this never-to-be-repeated, yet ever-to-be-continued conversation. Thus it follows that the Timaeus made its own particular demands on the translator. It is, after all, less a dialogue than a short tale of antiquity by Critias followed by an account of the cosmos by Timaeus—a long one. The familiar voice of Socrates falls almost silent as these speeches are made to be a feast for his enjoyment—or, perhaps, amusement. Timaeus’s cosmology is full of the sort of technical matter Socrates does not scruple to spoof in the Republic—the very dialogue which establishes the sort of ideal city that his companions agree to bring to moving life for him by giving it its historical and cosmological setting.
Timaean cosmology involves not only the moving spheres and circles that bear the astronomical bodies and the geometric elements from which they are constituted, but also the musical “harmonies” (scales) that ensoul the heavens. Three beautifully clear appendices provide the reader—and this edition is meant for the “adventuresome beginner”—with the fairly elementary knowledge needed to enjoy this heavenly entertainment. It should be said, though, that the cosmological astronomy of the Timaeus, together with its sober mathematical exposition in Ptolemy’s Almagest was the serious science that stood behind the New Astronomy of the dawn of modernity. (There is a story—I cannot vouch for its truth—that in the early days of the St. John’s Program books of astronomy and physics were to be found in the library ranged under “Music,” courtesy of the Timaeus.) The dialogue is so full of Greek science that there is a danger of regarding it as a source of antiquarian problems. But, the translator observes in his Preface, that is the very danger, the one of reducing the cosmos to a collection of mummified facts and recondite puzzles, to which the Egyptian priests are said to fall prey. So less is more by way of learned exegesis, and the well-illustrated appendices give just enough to make the dialogue intelligible to an amateur.
Since I’ve started at the back, let me say that here too you will find an English to Greek glossary. The entries tell not only how a Greek word is translated and, if more than one translation has to be used, why that is necessary, it also gives the root or central meaning and others that flow from it. In sum, the entries are a pretty interesting lesson in philosophic Greek.
To go to the front end of the book, there is, besides the Preface, the Introductory Essay. The Timaeus, the only Platonic dialogue known in medieval times and in all epochs the most influential one among those philosophers to whom the constitution of the cosmos was of central interest, is also, in Peter Kalkavage’s words, “the strangest of Plato’s dialogues. It is so strange that one wonders whether anything can be taken seriously…[It] is strange not only to us but also in itself.” The Introduction is intended to illuminate that strangeness without dispelling it. The odd but necessary question is pursued: What is the Timaeus about? Socrates is all dressed up (kekosmenos) and in a strange mood. He gives a truncated, philosophy-free version of his Republic and asks to be told about this stripped-down political blueprint mobilized to go to war. The resulting verbal feast prepared for him among the three eminent men who are present (one mysterious fourth is absent) has an oddly skewed relation to the truth and the love of wisdom that are Socrates’ normal preoccupation, for it is presented as a “likely story,” and a story of likenesses, the way of being that is so dubious for Socrates.
The festivity begins with Critias’s retelling of an antiquarian tale about archaic Athens as told by the Egyptian priests to the visiting lawgiver of Athens, Solon. We hear that this old Athens, ancient even to the ancients, once defeated a huge and sinister island empire called Atlantis.* Critias thus presents a pseudo-historical Athens as the embodiment of a “pale image” of the Republic. There is plenty to puzzle about in this beginning.
For this city Timaeus supplies the cosmic setting; we are invited to wonder how fitting it is. A divine craftsman appears out of nowhere and makes the cosmos, the well-ordered beautiful world, in the image of an original model. Hence the cosmos has two wonderful features. It is a copy and thus, while imperfect in its being, capable of being in turn a model, as it indeed is in the dialogue. And second, it is intelligible, interpretable, not only as an intentionally made work of art, but as en-, or rather, circum-souled. For whereas the human animal has its soul within, the cosmos is encompassed by bands of soul matter. All these wonderful and significant doings can be read in the dialogue, but the Introduction brings out their thought-provoking strangeness and their relevance to our humanity.
Thus after the cosmic construction there is a harsher “Second Founding.” It has an elusive “wandering cause,” the “source of power as opposed to goodness”—an intra-cosmic, semi-intractable cause called “necessity” acting in a scarcely intelligible theater of operation, space. Within it arise body and the human animal: “The making of man for Timaeus is a pious desecration,” says the Introduction. It is delegated by the Craftsman-father to his star-sons.
This part of the Timaeus, the coming-to-be of organic life within the cosmos, is so weird that our undergraduates aren’t even asked to read it, yet Peter Kalkavage shows how to begin to make humanly applicable sense of it.
Finally he returns to the question: “Why is the greatest philosophical work on the cosmos framed by politics?” An answer is suggested: The frame signals Plato’s reflection on what happens when the Socratic search for truth is replaced by a Timaean will to order. But this shift to the constructive will might well stand for the revolution that initiated our modernity. The means to this new age are also adumbrated in this miraculous dialogue; in his final assessment of the Timaeus Peter Kalkavage says that “the likely story presents the paradigm of what it would mean to use mathematical structures to make flux intelligible—at least as intelligible as possible.” Twenty-one centuries later the calculus will perfect these structures, and so the science by which we live and which Plato has prefigured will really take off. Read this introduction to get a sense of what it means for a work to be great, to see deep into things and far into time.
But better yet, read the splendid translation framed by the valuable apparatus. It is trustworthy; it sticks close to the text, word for word. But it is also readable—not translaterese but good, lively, and flexibly intoned English, since faithfulness in translation includes preserving something of the literary quality of the original. This dialogue in particular is, for all the wild exuberance of its philosophical imagination, written in fresh, plain Greek, though plain terms are often put to novel uses. Would you expect to find Being, Becoming, Same, Other, ordinary words with a gloss of high philosophy, in a cosmological context? Perhaps the best example is the divine Craftsman. As the translator points out in the glossary, the Greek word, which has passed into English as “demiurge,” merely means a skilled worker available for orders from the public, so it was just right to preserve that sense with the plain English word. To help with background knowledge, there are lots of footnotes right on the page.
*I can’t resist a footnote.
In our own last century, there have been droves of people, many of them now active, who have fallen into Plato’s antiquarian trap and gone in search of this lost continent. The description of the island, which enormous geometrically planned public works have transformed into something formidably awful, is set out in the dialogue Critias. Its Speer-like architecture (Speer was Hitler’s architect) appealed to the Nazis, whose mythmakers represented Atlantis as an early Nordic utopia, to be rediscovered by state-sponsored archaeologists. These people had at least got it right with respect to the scariness of the drawn-and-quartered, brass-walled locale. Most modern representations, be they in books, songs, or movies (of which Disney’s “Atlantis” is the latest) are governed by the mistaken notion that Atlantis was meant to be a lost place of marvels and beauties, a sort of mid-ocean Shangri-la. It’s actually a totalitarian topography, the triumph of the will over nature.
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This essay was originally published here in June 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It is republished with gracious permission of the St. John’s Review (Volume 46, No. 2, 2002).
1. Plato: Phaedo, translated by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (1998).
2. Plato: Sophist: The Professor of Wisdom, translated by Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (1996).