Plato’s Timaeus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


1. Overview of the Dialogue

The opening conversation (17a1–27d4) introduces the
characters—Socrates, Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates—and
suggests that the latter three would contribute to a reply to
Socrates’ speech allegedly given on the previous day, which
presented an ideal political arrangement strongly reminiscent of the
This reply would start with an account of the creation of the
universe down to the creation of human beings and, in a second step,
show an ideal society in motion. Critias is meant to provide the
second step with his account of a war between ancient Athens and
Atlantis, the beginning of which we find in Plato’s
Critias, while Timaeus is meant to deal with the first step in
our dialogue. Timaeus begins the discourse (27d5–92c9) with a
prologue (27d5–29d6) in which he sets out the metaphysical
principles on which his account is based, introduces the figure of the
Craftsman and his eternal model, and provides a brief comment on the
status of the account he is about to provide. This prologue is
followed by the discourse proper, which is uninterrupted to the end of
the dialogue (29d7–92c9). The discourse unfolds in three main
stages: the first sets out the achievements of Intellect
(29d7–47e2), the second gives an account of the effects of
Necessity (47d3–69a5), and the third shows how Intellect and
Necessity cooperate in the production of the psychophysical
constitution of human beings (69a6–92c9).

The first of the main sections of the discourse explains the existence
of the universe and some of its most general features teleologically.
The universe exists and manifests goodness because it is the handiwork
of a supremely good, ungrudging Craftsman, who brought order to an
initially disorderly state of affairs. It is a living thing
(zô[i]on, also translatable as “animal”),
because it is better for it to possess intelligence than to lack it,
and the acquisition of intelligence by anything requires the
acquisition of soul. It is complete, and thus it includes within
itself all the species of living things as its parts. It is unique,
because its model is unique; the uniqueness of the model follows from
its completeness. The world’s body is composed of fire (for
visibility) and earth (for tangibility), but these so-called elements
require the mediation of air and water in a progression of proportion
to bind them together into a unified, concordant whole. The shape of
the universe’s body—a sphere—and the characteristics
it possesses or lacks are all explained in terms of their various
purposes. The composition of the world’s soul out of a
harmonically proportionate series of portions of a mixture of both
divisible and indivisible Sameness, Difference and Being, and the
division of these portions into two intersecting circles (of the Same
and of the Different) explain the cognitive powers of the soul in
relation to the different types of objects of cognition: those that
are and those that become. When joined with the world’s body,
they also explain the cosmological organization of the universe. The
heavenly bodies are divine and move in their various orbits to serve
as markers of time: the fixed stars to mark a day/night, the moon to
mark the (lunar) month and the sun to mark the year. Time itself came
into being with these celestial movements as an “image of
Individual souls are made up of the residue (and an inferior grade)
of the soul stuff of the universe, and are eventually embodied in
physical bodies. This embodiment throws the previously regular motions
of the soul into confusion as the soul is subjected to the forceful
disturbances of internal bodily processes as well as the impact of
external bodies upon it, particularly in sense experience. These
disturbances gravely impair the soul’s cognitive functioning;
only with appropriate nurture and education can its original motions
be reestablished and proper cognitive functioning be restored. The
body and its parts were designed to support that functioning, and
Timaeus takes the design of the eyes and the mechanics of vision as an
important case in point.

As Timaeus prepares for the transition to the second main part of his
discourse, he points out that while a causal story of the sort he has
been telling so far is indeed concerned with what is properly the
cause (aitia) of the universe’s generation, that story
is not by itself sufficient and must extend to an account of
“contributing causes” (sunaitiai or
summetraitiai, 46c7, 46e6, 68e4–5) as well. The
discourse must provide an account of the various physical structures
that are necessary for and support the achievement of the purposes of
Intellect. The properties possessed by these various structures are
determined by their constitutions as a matter of
“Necessity,” and it is not open to the Craftsman to change
or eliminate the properties of these structures. The properties allow
(or disallow) certain processes desirable to the Craftsman, and to the
extent that Intellect achieves its desiderata, it succeeds in
“persuading” Necessity (48a2–5). It is the role of
the second major part of the discourse to set forth these contributing

The second main section begins with the introduction of the
receptacle, a “third kind” alongside the familiar
paradigmatic forms and the generated images of the forms
(49a1–4, 52a8, d2–4). The receptacle has been seen as
serving either as material substratum or as some form of space or as
combining both roles. Timaeus’ account of the receptacle
presents several interpretive difficulties, some of which will be
discussed below. In the “pre-cosmic” state (the state
“prior to” the intervention of the Craftsman) the
receptacle is subject to erratic and disorderly motions, and moves its
contents in turn. Its contents are mere “traces”
(ichnê, 53b2) of the subsequently articulated four
so-called elements: fire, air, water and earth. The Craftsman begins
by constructing these four regular solids as the primary corpuscles of
each of the four kinds. These solids have faces that are made up
(ultimately) of two types of right-angled triangles—the
half-equilateral and the isosceles—and it is these triangles
that are the ultimate “simples” of the physics of the
dialogue. Because their triangles are similar (half-equilateral), only
corpuscles of fire, air and water may be transformed into one another;
while corpuscles of earth are made up of isosceles triangles and are
thus excluded from such transformations. Each of the four kinds has
properties that are determined by the constitution of their respective
corpuscles, and these properties in turn determine how the particles
act upon and react to one another. These actions and reactions are
ongoing and perpetuate a state of non-uniformity which itself is a
necessary condition for motion, i.e., the continuation of the
interactions. Although each of the four kinds has a tendency to move
toward its own region of space, their being squeezed together in a
spherical universe without any gaps leads to the inevitable
transformations that occur when their various corpuscles cut or crush
one another. Thus it is assured that these migrations are never
completed in the sense that there would be a complete separation of
the four elements into separate regions. The account proceeds to
explain the various varieties of each of the four kinds, and the
sensible properties that they and their compounds manifest. An account
of sensible properties calls for a preliminary account of sensation
(including pleasure and pain), and it is with that preliminary account
that this section of the discourse concludes.

The third main section of the discourse—about the cooperation of
Intellect with Necessity—focuses primarily on the psychophysical
construction of the human being. While the Craftsman has created the
individual souls, he delegates the creation of the human bodies to the
lesser, created gods. As individual immortal (and rational) souls are
embodied in mortal bodies, the embodiment requires the further
creation of the “mortal” parts of the soul—the
spirited and appetitive parts, familiar from the Republic and
the Phaedrus. These parts are assigned their respective
locations in the body: the immortal and rational soul in the head, and
the two parts of the mortal soul in the trunk: the spirited part in
the chest (nearer to the head) and the appetitive part in the belly.
The various organs in the trunk—the lungs and heart in the chest
and the liver in the belly—support the functions of their
resident soul parts. The account proceeds to describe the formation of
the various bodily parts, setting out in each case the purpose of the
part in question and showing how its construction (out of the
appropriately selected materials) serves that purpose. The purpose is
prescribed by Intellect, and the properties of the
materials—selected because their properties render them
compliant to Intellect’s purposes—are the consequences
(and thus contributions) of Necessity. For the most part, Necessity
serves the purposes of Intellect well, but this is not always the
case. A notable example of them coming apart is the covering around
the brain. That covering needs to be massive to provide maximal
protection, but that very massiveness would impede sensation, and so a
preferential choice must be made between the conflicting demands. Such
occasional cases of resistance by Necessity to the
“persuasion” of Intellect limit the degree of excellence
the created world can attain. Timaeus’ discourse moves on with
an account of the mechanisms of respiration and digestion, and a
classification and etiological discussion of various diseases of both
body and soul. This is preparatory to an exhortation to properly
exercise both the soul and the body to recover or maintain physical
and psychic well being. The well being of the soul in particular is
emphasized: it is through realigning the motions of our souls with
those of the universe at large that we achieve our goal of living
virtuously and happily. The discourse concludes with an account of the
generation of women and non-human animals.

2. An Interpretive Question

Ever since Aristotle rejected the cosmology of the Timaeus on
the ground that it nonsensically required not just a beginning of the
universe in time, but a beginning of time itself (Physics
251b14–26), defenders of the dialogue—perhaps wishing
to neutralize Aristotle’s critique while conceding its
point—have claimed that the creation story is not to be read
literally, but
This metaphorical reading of the dialogue became the prevailing
(though not exclusive) view among Platonists, from the Old Academy of
Plato’s immediate successors to Plotinus (third cent. CE). The
question of how literally the creation story is to be interpreted
remains an intriguing one that continues to interest (and divide)
scholars to this day: if we follow the metaphorical interpretation, we
will read the account not as a process by which an intelligent
Craftsman put the world together at some time in the past, but as a
statement of the principles that underlie the universe at all times of
its existence, whether it exists eternally or not. Key questions
raised by this issue include the following: (1) Is Intellect
(personified by the Craftsman) literally an intelligent agent of some
sort, an entity that is ontologically distinct from both the model and
its copy, or can the Craftsman be identified with some aspect of
either the copy or the model—the world soul, for example, or one
or other of the forms—and thus be reducible to something else?
(On this question, see more below, under “Teleology.”) (2)
How do we understand the relation of the “pre-cosmic”
state of the universe to its finished state? The account posits that
pre-cosmic state “before” the creative process by which
the ordered universe comes into being. But if there is no time apart
from the measured celestial motions, how is that “before”
to be understood? (3) If the creation story is read literally, is it
consistent with Plato’s views on related subjects set forth in
other dialogues? These questions are at the center of much current
discussion of the

3. Relation of the Timaeus to other Platonic Dialogues

Plato’s literary output is vast, very likely spanning close to
fifty years, and over the years there have been numerous attempts to
place the dialogues into a chronological sequence. Many of these
efforts are motivated by the hope that success in determining such a
sequence will provide an objective basis for conjectures about the
development of Plato’s philosophical views over the course of
his literary lifetime. Such a developmental approach to the dialogues
has been called into question in recent years, and is currently out of
fashion in some circles. Nevertheless, it is difficult to deny many
lines of continuity, and sometimes discontinuity, in the questions
that are explored in the dialogues and in the answers—however
tentative—suggested by its primary characters. Both these
continuities and discontinuities justify a cautious attempt to
identify and to understand what endures and what changes in the course
of Plato’s writing.

The question of the place of the Timaeus relative to the
other dialogues has given rise to an acrimonious but nevertheless
fruitful debate, with far-ranging implications for our assessment of
Plato’s philosophy. In 1953, G. E. L. Owen published a
provocative article that challenged the orthodox view of the
Timaeus as a work written during Plato’s so called
“late” period, and argued that it should be regarded as a
middle dialogue instead, composed prior to the Theaetetus and
the Parmenides. Owen claimed to see in the Timaeus a
reassertion of several metaphysical views familiar from the
Republic but (on the reading proposed by Owen) subsequently
exposed for refutation in these two dialogues, both of which on the
orthodox view precede the Timaeus. The orthodox view was
based on long-standing tradition, but had been confirmed by the
stylometric studies of Plato’s writings undertaken by late
nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philologists. Owen called into
question the assumptions and the results of these studies. Four years
later Owen’s criticism of stylometry, as well as his
interpretation of the relevant arguments in the Theaetetus
and the Parmenides, were in turn vigorously if not
rancorously disputed by H. F. Cherniss in defense of the traditional
view (Cherniss 1965, 1977). This debate between these two scholars of
renown whose approaches to the study of Plato’s dialogues were
so markedly different did much to bring a new level of acuity to the
analysis of Platonic texts. Over time the orthodox view appears to
have held its own. Both a more nuanced examination of the texts and
more recent computer-assisted stylometric studies have done much to

4. The Status of the Account

In his prefatory remarks Timaeus describes the account he is about to
give as a “likely account” (eikôs logos) or
“likely story” (eikôs
The description is a play on words: the subject of the account is
itself an “image” (eikôn) and, Timaeus
avers, “the accounts we give of things [should] have the same
character as the subjects they set forth” (29b3–5).
Fashioned after an unchanging and eternal model—a possible
subject of a definitive and exact account—the universe as a
thing that becomes is shifting and unstable, and hence any account
given of it will be similarly lacking in complete accuracy and
consistency (29c4–7). This may be read as lowering our
expectations—the account is no more than likely. At the same
time, Timaeus says he will strive to give an account that is “no
less likely than anyone else’s” (or “any other
[account]”) (29c7–8) and, while the account cannot be
grasped by understanding (nous, 29b6—the faculty for
apprehending unchanging truths), it nevertheless merits our
“belief” (pistis, 29c3) and fulfills certain
standards. As Timaeus’ account proceeds, we are frequently
reminded of its “likely”
and both the negative and positive connotations of that
characterization should be kept in mind.

The account, then, is presented as reasonable, thus meriting our
belief, but neither definitive nor complete (cf. 68b6–8), and
thus open to possible revision (cf. 54b1–2, 55d4–6). A
definitive account of these matters eludes humans (29d1) and is
available only to a god
It has sometimes been argued that the qualification of the account as
“merely likely” supports a metaphorical reading of the
cosmology. This, however, is a mistake; it is not easy to see how the
distinction between an exact and definitive versus a reliable but
revisable account maps on to the distinction between a literal versus
a metaphorical account. The contrast should rather be seen as one
between apodeictic certainty (about intelligible matters) and
(about empirical matters). To the extent that the subject of the
account is a thing that becomes rather than a thing that is, as well
as a thing that is perceptible rather than a thing that is
intelligible, the account will be no more than likely. To the extent
that it is beautiful and ordered, modeled after a perfect reality and
fashioned by a most excellent maker, the account will be no less than

5. Being and Becoming

The account Timaeus gives of the generation of the universe is from
the outset based on metaphysical and epistemological principles
familiar from the dialogues of Plato’s middle period,
particularly the Republic. Introducing the subject of his
discourse, Timaeus posits a distinction between what always is and
never becomes
and what becomes and never is
(27d5–28a1). He goes on to connect each with its familiar
epistemological correlate (28a1–4): the former is grasped by
understanding (noêsis) involving a reasoned account
(logos), and the latter by opinion (doxa), which
involves unreasoning sense perception (aesthêsis
). Although Timaeus does not here name the types of entity
that satisfy these descriptions, the reader familiar with the
Republic will call to mind the distinction between forms and
sensibles (518c, 534a). The role of what is as the model
after which the Craftsman designs and constructs the universe (29a)
recalls the role of the forms as models for the philosopher-rulers to
imitate in exercising their statecraft (Rep.
500b–501c). It is not until much later in Timaeus’
discourse (51b7–e6) that forms are mentioned for the first time,
and their existence is argued for on the basis of the distinction
(itself supported by argument) between understanding and (true)
opinion. And the identification of what becomes with
sensibles (in this case the universe as an object of sense) is readily
made at 28b7–c2 (see 5. in the argument below).

Timaeus’ opening question (“What is that which always
is and never becomes…?”) can be read
extensionally (“What entity or entities are such that they
always are and never become…?”) or
intensionally (“What is it for some entity always to be
and never to become…?”). If read in the former
way, the answer will be “forms” or “a form.”
If read in the latter way, the question is answered immediately in the
text: always to be is to be intelligible and unchanging. For that
reason the latter reading should be preferred.

The metaphysical being-becoming distinction and its epistemological
correlate are put to work in an argument that establishes the
framework for the cosmology to follow. The conclusion of that argument
is that the universe is a work of craft, produced by a supremely good
Craftsman in imitation of an eternal model. The reasoning may be
represented as follows:

  1. Some things always are, without ever becoming (27d6).
  2. Some things become, without ever being (27d6–28a1).
  3. If and only if a thing always is, then it is grasped by
    understanding, involving a rational account (28a1–2).
  4. If and only if a thing becomes, then it is grasped by opinion,
    involving unreasoning sense perception
  5. The universe is a thing that has become (28b7; from 5a–c,
    and 4).

    1. The universe is visible, tangible and possesses a body
    2. If a thing is visible, tangible and possesses a body, then it is
      perceptible (28b8).
    3. If a thing is perceptible, then it has become (28c1–2; also
      entailed by 4).
  6. Anything that becomes is caused to become by something
    (28a4–6, c2–3).
  7. The universe has been caused to become by something (from 5 and
  8. The cause of the universe is a Craftsman, who fashioned the
    universe after a model (28a6 ff., c3 ff.; apparently from 7, but see
  9. The model of the universe is something that always is
    (29a4–5; from 9a–9e).

    1. Either the model of the universe is something that always is or
      something that has become (28a5–29a2, also implied at
    2. If the universe is beautiful and the Craftsman is good, then the
      model of the universe is something that always is (29a2–3).
    3. If the universe is not beautiful or the Craftsman is not good,
      then the model of the universe is something that has become
    4. The universe is supremely beautiful (29a5).
    5. The Craftsman is supremely good (29a6).
  10. The universe is a work of craft, fashioned after an eternal model
    (29a6–b1; from 8 and 9).

Given familiar Platonic doctrines and assumptions, the argument up to
the intermediate conclusion that the universe has a cause of its
becoming (7) presents no particular difficulties. But 7 by itself
gives only partial support to
Here it helps to anticipate 9d as a fundamental premise in
Timaeus’ reasoning; it is not just the generation of any world,
but that of a supremely beautiful one that Timaeus’ reasoning
here—and in fact throughout the discourse—attempts to
explain. That a world as beautiful as ours might be the effect of an
unintelligent cause is a possibility that does not so much as cross
Plato’s mind.

Once the conclusion that the universe is teleologically structured is
settled, the explanatory methodology of the discourse changes
accordingly. The question that frames the inquiry henceforth is not
the question: What best explains this or that observed feature of the
world? It is rather the question: Given that the world as a whole is
the best possible one within the constraints of becoming and of
Necessity, what sorts of features should we expect the world to have?
This question invites a priori answers, and Timaeus’ arguments
about the most general features of the universe as a whole (for
example, why it exists, why it is alive and intelligent, why it is
unique, why it is shaped and composed as it is) are derived wholly a
priori. Furthermore, the answers to these questions are not open to
empirical confirmation. But clearly the inquiry is also constrained by
features of the universe that are actually observed, and this gives
rise, secondly, to questions about the good purposes that are being
served by these features (for example, the motions of the heavenly
bodies, the psychophysical constitutions of human beings, etc.), and
how the features in question accomplish those purposes. For the most
part there is a happy coincidence between the features that are
required (in answer to the first question), and the features that are
actually observed (in answer to the second), and it is part of the
genius of the discourse that these are so well woven together.
Occasionally, however, the methodology leads to conclusions apparently
at odds with observation—for example, the exemption of earth
from inter-elemental transformation (see further under

The model that serves the Craftsman is regularly named the
“Living Thing (Itself),” and this is either a form, or an
appropriately organized constellation of forms. It is the Ideal (or
better: Real) Universe; the object of what Plato had called
“real astronomy” (as opposed to empirical astronomy) in
the Republic (527d–531d, esp. 530a3). The Craftsman
does not—indeed logically cannot—copy by replicating the
Living Thing; his challenge rather lies in crafting an image of it
that is subject to the constraints of becoming: unlike the model, it
must be visible and tangible (28b7), hence three-dimensional
(solid—stereoeidê, 32b1). This constraint in turn
requires the postulation of a three-dimensional field in which the
created universe may subsist, a field that Timaeus initially calls the
“receptacle (hupodochê) of all becoming”
(49a5–6) and subsequently calls
“space”(chôra, 52a8, d3).

The necessity of a three-dimensional field in which the visible
universe, as copy of its eternal model, takes shape and subsists
determines the sense in which we should understand the universe to be
an “imitation” of its model. The imitative activity of the
Craftsman is unlike that of a builder who replicates a larger- or
smaller-scale three-dimensional structure as model, but like that of a
builder who follows a set of instructions or schematics. That set is
the intelligible, non-material and non-spatial model that prescribes
the features of the structure to be built; it is not a structure
itself. It is debatable whether Plato’s middle-period
metaphysics included the view that forms were, or exhibited, some
grander, unalloyed version of some of the properties exhibited by
sensible objects. Arguably such a view (call it “crude
paradeigmatism”) was refuted by the “Third Man”
argument of the Parmenides (132a). As invisible, intangible,
and non-spatial entities forms are excluded from possessing properties
that only visible, tangible and spatial object may possess.
Nevertheless, in so far as they are or exhibit intelligible natures
forms may, like a set of instructions or schematics, serve as models
to be “looked at” (28a7, 29a3) by anyone who understands
those natures and is in a position to construct a world in accordance
with them. (This view of the Craftsman’s imitative activity
might by contrast be described as “refined

6. The Receptacle

Timaeus’ introduction of the receptacle as a “third
kind” (triton genos, 48e4) alongside forms and their
imitations is labored indeed. He apologizes for the obscurity of the
concept, and attempts to explicate its role by means of a series of
analogies: it is variously compared to a lump of gold (50a4–b5),
a mother that together with a father produces offspring (50d2–4,
51a4–5), a plastic, impressionable stuff (50c2–6,
e7–51a1), and an ointment that serves as a neutral base for
various fragrances (50e5–8). These images suggest that it is
devoid of any characteristics in its own right (except those formal
characteristics necessary to its role, such as malleability). The
receptacle is posited as the solution to a problem: none of the
observable particulars persists as this or that (for example as fire
or water) over time. We observe the very thing that is fire at one
time becoming air, and subsequently becoming water, etc.,
“transmitting their becoming to one another in a cycle, so it
seems” (49c6–7). Thus the thing that appears as fire here
and now is not fire in its own right: its fieriness is only a
temporary characterization of it. What, then, is that thing in its own
right? In a difficult and controversial passage Timaeus proposes a
In its own right it is (part of) a totally characterless subject that
temporarily in its various parts gets characterized in various ways.
This is the receptacle—an enduring substratum, neutral in itself
but temporarily taking on the various characterizations. The observed
particulars just are parts of that receptacle so characterized

The above analogies suggest that the receptacle is a material
substratum: as gold qua gold is the material substratum for the
various geometrical configurations it is shaped into, the ointment
base for the fragrances, or the impressionable stuff for the various
impressions, so the receptacle serves as the “stuff” that
gets characterized in various ways. But Timaeus does not use any
descriptive word that can suitably be translated as
“matter” or “material”; he does, however, use
the word, “space” (chôra). And its function
of providing a “seat” (hedra, 52b1) reinforces
the conception that its role is to provide a spatial location for the
things that enter it and disappear from it (49e7–8,
50c4–5, 52a4–6).

There has been considerable discussion about whether the receptacle is
to be thought of as matter, or as space, and whether it is possible to
think of it coherently as having both of those roles. Consider, for
example, what it would mean on either view for something to be a
receptacle part. (An observable particular is said to be a specific
“part” [meros, 51b4–6] of the receptacle.)
If the receptacle is matter, there would be no difficulty in
understanding how any receptacle part could be in motion: a given bit
of “stuff” could be variously characterized over time,
either in the same place or at different places, and still be
re-identifiable as that same bit of stuff. On the other hand, spatial
parts are fixed; if an observable particular were to travel from one
place to another, that particular would be (and not just
be in) a succession of distinct receptacle parts, and thus
not strictly the same part

This difficulty can be overcome if we think of the receptacle as
As space, its role is to provide both three-dimensional extension and
a specific location for any observable particular to be
“in” at a given time: for any particular to be, it must
occupy some spatial location (52b3–5), though not necessarily
the same one throughout. On the other hand, as the filling of that
space, it serves as the neutral underlying substratum from which a
particular, once characterized in some way, is constituted. An
observable particular, then, is a bit of extended, localizable stuff
that may be variously characterized at various times and in various
places. It appears that the receptacle is intended to serve both as
the matter from which observable particulars are constituted and as
the spatial field or medium in which they subsist. It is not clear
that these two roles are inconsistent—indeed, they appear to be

There is ongoing disagreement about the nature of the entities that
are said to enter into and disappear from the receptacle. They are
clearly not forms (52a4). Some interpreters have suggested that these
are character types (or character tokens) derived from the forms, and
that these types (or tokens) are properly the form copies
(mimêmata) that have a prominent place in the argument
for the receptacle (49c7–50a4). This interpretation is based on
a reading of that argument that is controversial (see note 16).
Whatever the merits of this reading, the things the receptacle is said
to “receive” are “all the bodies
(sômata)” (50b6). Bodies are three-dimensional
entities, and this makes it likely that it is the emergence and
disappearance of the variously characterized observable particulars as
such, and not their properties (types or tokens), that are mentioned
in these passages (49e7–8, 50c4–5, 52a4–6).

The complete metaphysical scheme of the Timaeus that is summed up at
50c7–d4 and again at 52a1–b5 is thus as follows: (i) the
eternal and unchanging forms, the “model,” or
“father”; (ii) the copies of the model or
“offspring” of the father and the mother (on this account,
the observable particulars); and (iii) the receptacle, or
“mother.” These three are the components of Plato’s
analysis; they are not three ontologically distinct ingredients. The
receptacle is introduced not as a distinct entity newly superadded to
particulars and forms, but as a new and essential component in the
analysis of what it is to be a spatio-temporal
What is missing from that analysis, however, is any mention of
character types or tokens, and while later philosophers might see a
use for such concepts in elucidating the metaphysical scheme of the
Timaeus, it is far from clear that Plato himself makes any
use of them there.

The introduction of the receptacle is an important innovation in
Plato’s metaphysics, and clearly a development that takes him
beyond the metaphysics of the middle
Little attention was given in those dialogues to the question of what
it is to be a sensible particular (other than being something that
participates in forms), or what is required of particulars to be such
that forms may be exemplified in them. In order to be effective in
their role of exemplifying forms, particulars must possess certain
general characteristics qua particulars: they must be spatially
extended and spatially situated, and they must be constituted of some
indeterminate but determinable “stuff” that is subject to
determination by way of participating in forms. Although the
receptacle does not appear by name in any other of the later
dialogues, it clearly has affinities to the concept of the
apeiron (indefinite or indeterminate) of the metaphysical
scheme in the Philebus. It is impossible, however, to
determine the chronological relation between these two dialogues with
certainty (see note 7), and thus impossible to infer which of the two
schemes Plato might have thought to be the more definitive.

7. Teleology

Many commentators on the Timaeus have pointed out that the
teleological account set out in the Timaeus is the
fulfillment of a quest for teleological explanations related in the
Phaedo (see, e.g., Strange 1999). In that dialogue the
character Socrates describes his foray into causal questions in the
realm of natural science and recounts both his high expectations of
and disappointment with Anaxagoras’ concept of Intellect
(nous) as providing the true cause of natural phenomena.
Socrates expected the use Anaxagoras made of Intellect to provide
teleological explanations; instead, Anaxagoras employed the concept to
provide the same sort of causal explanation—in terms of physical
interactions—that Socrates had found confusing. Continuing to
hope for teleological causal explanations but finding them elusive,
Socrates settles for a second best account: offering causal
explanations in terms of participation in Forms (Phaedo 99c6

It is not entirely clear by what avenue of reasoning Plato found what
his character Socrates failed to find in the Phaedo, but it
is reasonable to assume that the role of the form of the Good,
introduced in the Republic, assisted in the discovery.
Although the character Socrates in that dialogue declines to offer an
account of the nature of the Good, it is not unreasonable to connect
that form, as some have done, with rational, mathematical
Such order as the expression of goodness is arguably for Plato the
ultimate metaphysical datum; forms other than the Good are good in so
far as they possess such intelligible order, and they do so perfectly.
Sensibles are good in so far as they participate in these forms,
though they fail to do so completely. What is left to be explained,
then, is how such order is manifested in the visible universe, however
imperfectly. The explanation offered in the Timaeus is that
order is not inherent in the spatio-material universe; it is imposed
by Intellect, as represented by the Craftsman.

While the figure of the Craftsman seems to be an anthropomorphic
representation of
it remains to ask what the ontological status of Intellect is, in
relation to the division between being and becoming—a
distinction that appears to be exhaustive. Some interpreters, relying
on Timaeus’ claim (at 30b3) that intellect cannot become present
to anything apart from soul, have argued that Intellect is (part of)
the world’s
This cannot be correct: like the rest of becoming, the world’s
soul is a product of the Craftsman, and hence neither it nor anything
else on the side of becoming can be identified with Intellect.
Alternatively, either Intellect is a form, or the distinction between
being and becoming is not exhaustive. Some have argued that Intellect
is to be identified with the entire realm of
or the form of the
while others, understanding “nous” to name a
virtue, have opted for the form of Intelligence (a substance in virtue
of its status as a
More recently, it has been suggested that the figure of the Craftsman
is a personification of
None of these accounts seem adequate either: if Intellect were a form
of any kind, it would be an intelligible object, not a subject that
possesses cognition and efficient causal
Intellect, then, cannot be placed either on the side of being or on
that of becoming, and that dichotomy is thus not
It is reasonable to conclude that Intellect is a sui generis
substance that transcends the metaphysical dichotomy of being and
becoming—possibly not unlike the Judaeo-Christian conception of

The teleology of the Timaeus may be usefully compared to that
of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature. What is immediately
striking in that comparison is the absence from Aristotle’s
natural philosophy of a purposive, designing causal agent that
transcends nature. Aristotelian final causes in the formation of
organisms and the structures of the natural world are said to be
immanent in nature (i.e., the nature or “form” of the
organism or structure) itself: it is not a divine Craftsman but nature
itself that is said to act
Such an immanent teleology will not be an option for Plato.
Aristotle’s teleology is local, not global: while it makes sense
to ask Aristotle for a teleological explanation of this or that
feature of the natural world, it makes little sense to ask him for a
teleological explanation of the world as a whole. Moreover, for
Aristotle the development of an individual member of a species is
determined by the form it has inherited from its (male) parent: the
goal of the developing individual is to fully actualize that form. For
Plato the primeval chaotic stuff of the universe has no inherent
preexisting form that governs some course of natural development
toward the achievement of some goal, and so the explanatory cause of
its orderliness must be external to any features that such stuff may

8. Physics

While the receptacle has an obvious metaphysical role in the
Timaeus, its primary role after its introduction is in the
physical theory of the dialogue. The argument from 47e3 to 52d4 gives
Timaeus both the spatial matrix in which to situate, and the material
substratum from which to constitute, the universe that he will fashion
after its eternal model. The fashioning, however, is the process of
bringing order to what was, prior to and apart from the
Craftsman’s intervention, a thoroughly disorderly state of
affairs, and so the physical account begins with a description of that
disorderly, “god-forsaken” (53b3–4) initial

In that state, dramatically described at 52d4–53c3, the filled
space that is the receptacle undergoes constant, erratic motion: it is
subject to forces (dunameis, 52e2) that are dissimilar to and
out of balance with each other, and thus, as each spastic movement
produces its chain of spastic reactions, it is perpetually unstable
(52e1–5). These motions may accidentally produce manifestations
that to a would-be observer look like fire or any of the so-called
four elements, or “kinds” (genê). Timaeus
calls these manifestations “traces” (53b2) of the four
kinds, and states that even as inarticulate traces, they tended to
behave in the ways in which the subsequently articulated kinds would
come to behave by necessity: each trace type would gather to its own
region, with the heavier to one region and the lighter to another.
These migrations are the effect of the ceaseless agitation of the
receptacle, which acts like a “winnowing sieve” (52e6),
separating the heavy from the light. The result is a pre-cosmic
inchoate stratification of these traces, which anticipates the
(perpetually incomplete, 58a2–c4) stratification of the finished

In accordance with the requirements for the construction of the body
of the universe previously set out at 31b4–32c4, the Craftsman
begins by fashioning each of the four kinds “to be as perfect
and excellent as possible…” (53b5–6). He selects as
the basic corpuscles (sômata, “bodies”)
four of the five regular solids: the tetrahedron for fire, the
octahedron for air, the icosahedron for water, and the cube for earth.
(The remaining regular solid, the dodecahedron, is “used for the
universe as a whole,” [55c4–6], since it approaches most
nearly the shape of a sphere.) The faces of the first three of these
are composed of equilateral triangles, and each face is itself
composed of six elemental (scalene) half equilateral right-angled
triangles, whose sides are in a proportion of 1:√3:2. Timaeus
does not say why each face is composed of six such triangles, when in
fact two, joined at the longer of the two sides that contain the right
angle, will more simply constitute an equilateral triangle. The faces
of the cube are squares composed of four elemental isosceles
right-angled triangles and again, it is not clear why four should be
preferred to two. Given that every right-angled triangle is infinitely
divisible into two triangles of it own type (by dropping a
perpendicular from the right-angle vertex to the hypotenuse, the
resulting two smaller right triangles are both similar to the original
triangle) the equilateral or square faces of the solids and thus the
stereometric solids themselves have no minimal size. Possibly, then,
the choice of six component triangles for the equilateral and four for
the square is intended to prevent the solid particles from becoming

Since each of the first three of the regular solids has equilateral
faces, it is possible for any fire, air or water corpuscles to come
apart in their interactions—they cut or crush each
other—and their faces be reconstituted into corpuscles of one of
the two other sorts, depending on the numbers of faces of the basic
corpuscles involved. For example, two fire corpuscles could be
transformed into a single air corpuscle, or one air corpuscle into two
fire corpuscles, given that the tetrahedron has four faces and the
octahedron eight (other examples are given at 56d6–e7). In this
way Timaeus explains the intertransformation that can occur among
fire, air and water. On the other hand, while the faces of the cube
particles may also come apart, they can only be reconstituted as
cubes, and so earth undergoes no intertransformation with the other
Having established the construction and interactive behavior of the
basic particles, Timaeus continues the physical account of the
discourse with a series of applications: differences among varieties
of each of the primary bodies are explained by differences in the
sizes of the constituent particles (some varieties consisting of
particles of different sizes), and compounds are distinguished by
their combinations of both different sorts and different sizes of
particles. These various arrangements explain the perceptible
properties possessed by the varieties of primary bodies and their
compounds. An object’s particular arrangement of triangles
produces a particular kind of “disturbance” or
“experience” (pathos) in the perceiving subject,
so that the object is perceived as having this or that perceptible

It is a fair question to ask how the physics of the discourse relates
to its metaphysics—for example, how the perceptible properties
of observable instances of fire (its brightness, lightness and heat,
let us say) relate to the form of Fire, an intelligible reality that
has no perceptible properties at all. The form of Fire is the
non-spatial, non-material, non-perceptible intelligible, eternal and
unchanging nature of fire that the Craftsman “imitates,”
and in so doing produces spatially extended, material, perceptible,
transient and variable instances of fire. Although we are not told
what it is about the nature of fire that requires observable instances
of it to have just these properties, it is presumably that knowledge
that guides the Craftsman to select and assign the four regular solids
as he does. Given that the nature of fire is such that any
“imitations” of it that appear in the Receptacle must be
perceptible as bright, light and hot, the type of solid body that best
supports these properties—the tetrahedron, it turns
out—should be assigned to fire. And so with the other three
kinds (see 55d7–56c7).

9. Ethics

Plato inherited from Socrates the conviction that knowledge of
goodness has a salvific effect upon human life. That knowledge
remained elusive to Socrates. As Plato continues the Socratic quest,
he expands the scope of the search beyond ethical matters. In the
Phaedo, as we saw earlier, the character Socrates expresses
the conviction that goodness is the true cause (aitia) of the
beneficent arrangement of the natural world, though the nature of
goodness continues to elude him as well. The causal supremacy of
goodness is recognized in the metaphysical and epistemological roles
assigned to the Republic’s form of the Good, and it is
the understanding of that form that constitutes the culmination of the
education of the philosophical statesman, the paragon of the virtuous
and happy person. What remains to be articulated is a conception of
how cosmic goodness is manifested in the universe so that humans will
recognize it, understand it, and emulate it in order that their lives
may become truly virtuous and

We saw above that in its dramatic context, the Timaeus is the
second of a series of three or possibly four (see Critias
108a–b) speeches exchanged by four or possibly five (see
Timaeus 17a) friends during one of the yearly Athenian
Panathenaic festivals. It is sandwiched between Socrates’
Republic-like speech, which is briefly summarized at the
beginning of the Timaeus (17c–19b), and Critias’
speech, the unfinished sequel to the
which was intended to recount and celebrate the great victory of
ancient, prehistoric Athens over the vast military might of
The stated thematic purpose of Timaeus’ discourse is to provide
an account of human nature in the context of the nature of the
universe as a whole. Conjoined with Socrates’ previous account
of education (à la Republic) this account will provide
the basis for Critias’ forthcoming account of human virtue in
action, as displayed by the deeds of the ancient Athenians
If we take this stated purpose seriously, we will expect the entire
cosmological account to culminate in human psychology and ethics. And
that is indeed what we find.

In the passage that may fairly be taken as the climax of
Timaeus’ discourse (90a2–d7), human beings are urged to
devote their utmost attention to the cultivation and preservation of
the well being of their immortal, rational souls. The well being of a
rational soul consists in its being well ordered (eu
, 90c5), and so the goal of human life, given
the fact that the soul’s revolutions were thrown off course
around the time of birth (43a6–44b1), is to realign
(exorthounta, 90d3) those revolutions with those of the
universe at large. Such realignment is achieved by a study of the
revolutions and harmonies of the universe and, once achieved, restores
the soul to its original condition and thereby brings to fulfillment
“that most excellent life offered to humankind by the gods, both
now and forevermore” (90d5–7).


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