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Plato (428-347 BC)
The Timaeus
translated by Benjamin Jowett

The Timaeus is written in the form of a dialogue–a conversation between historic characters, re-imagined and given voice by Plato. His teacher Socrates is one his characters (Plato’s dialogues are our main source for Socrates’s ideas, since Socrates himself left no writings). Hermocrates, a soldier from Syracuse, and Critias, an Athenian politician, are also present. But the bulk of the dialogue, is spoken by Timaeus, a philosopher from Italy who was Plato’s contemporary but was probably dead by this point.

The excerpts below outline the creation of the world by the Craftsman and then go on to discuss the ways in which we observe and interpret physical phenomenon. Here, you see Plato struggling with questions that careful observation produce: If there are four elements, why do they seem to change form? Do our senses deceive us? How exactly do our senses give us a picture of the world? In the absence of any scientific tools, he is forced to reason his way to an explanation–which is wrong, but unlike his description of origins, does not rely on the divine.

About this translation

Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) was an English professor of Greek and theology who undertook the translation of Aristotle, Thucydides, and Plato into English. His goal was to make these authors more accessible to a general audience. His translations were widely read and are still used today.

You should, however, be aware that while Jowett was a perfectly competent Greek scholar, he also wanted to make Plato popular in 19th-century England. So, as Frank Turner points out, he makes “conscious use of the language and rhetoric of the Authorized Version of the Bible” in order to “strike a responsive chord among the religiously minded.” Echoes of the book of Genesis in this selection are thus the work of Jowett, not Plato. A better rendering of “creator” would be “Craftsman.”

Now everything that becomes or is created must of necessity be created by some cause, for nothing can be created without a cause…..[W]as the world, I say, always in existence and without beginning? or created and having a beginning? Created, I reply….Now that which is created must of necessity be created by a cause.

…Let me tell you, then, why the creator of the world generated and created this universe. He was good, and no goodness can ever have any jealousy of anything. And being free from jealousy, he desired that all things should be as like himself as possible. This is the true beginning of creation and of the world…

…Wherefore also finding the whole visible sphere not at rest, but moving in an irregular and disorderly manner, out of disorder he brought order, considering that this was far better than the other. Now he who is the best neither creates nor ever has created anything but the fairest, and reflecting upon the visible works of nature, he found that no unintelligent creature taken as a whole was fairer than the intelligent taken as a whole; and that intelligence could not exist in anything which was devoid of soul. For these reasons he put intelligence in soul, and soul in body, and framed the universe to be the best and fairest work in the order of nature. And therefore….we may say that the world became a living soul and truly rational…

Now the creation took up the whole of each of the four elements, for the creator compounded the world out of all the fire and all the water and all the air and all the earth, leaving no part of any of them nor any power of them outside….He fabricated the world whole and of whole elements, perfect and not liable to old age and disease.

49, 51.
…[T]hat which we are now calling water, when congealed becomes stone and earth, as our sight means to show us; and this same element, when melted and dispersed, passes into vapor and air. Air, again, when burnt up, becomes fire;a nd again fire, when condensed and extinguished, passes once more into the form of air; and once more, air, when collected and condensed, produces cloud and vapor; and from these, when still more compressed, comes flowing water, and from water comes earth and stones once more; and thus generation appears to be transmitted from one to the other in a circle. Thus, then, as the elements never appear in the same form, how can any one have the assurance to maintain strongly that any of them is one thing rather than another?…Let us not call that which we see to be continually changing “fire,” but rather say, “that some such nature is fire;” and let us not speak of that other thing as water, but rather say that some such nature is water….We must not speak of them as individual things, but rather say, of each and all of them, that there is some such uniform principle which circulates in them…[T]he mother and receptacle of all created and visible, and in any way sensible things, is not to be termed earth, or air, or fire, or water, or any of their compounds, or any of the elements out of which they are composed, but is an invisible and formless being which receivess all things…and is most incomprehensible…[A]s far, however, as we can attain to a knowledge of her from the previous considerations, we may truly say that fire is that part of her nature which is inflamed, and water that which is moist, earth and air being also parts…

[About touch] …[T]he bodies which I have been describing [fire, water, earth, air] are necessarily objects of sense….First, let us see why we say that fire is hot, reasoning from the dividing or cutting power which it exercises on our bodies. We all of us feel that fire is sharp; and we may further consider the fineness of the sides, and the sharpness of the angles and the smallness of the particles, and the swiftness of the motion; all this makes the action of fire violent and sharp, and enables it to cut whatever it meets….fire…has a dividing power which cuts our bodies into small pieces, and thus naturally produces that affection to which we give the name of heat….That is called hard to which our flesh yields, and soft which yields to our flesh…That which yields has a small base; but that which rests on quadrangular bases is firmly posed, and offers the greatest resistance.

[About smell] …[A]ll smells are but half-formed substances, and no element is so proportioned as to have any smell. The veins about the nose are too narrow to admit the various kinds of earth and water, and too wide to admit those of fire and air; and for this reason no one ever smells any of them, but smells always proceed from bodies that are damp, or putrefying, or liquefying, or smoking, and are perceptible only in the intermediate state, when water is changing into air and air into water, and all of them are either smoke or mist. That which is passing out of air into water is mist, and that which is passing from water into air is smoke; and hence all smells are thinner than water and thicker than air.

[About perception of colors] Of the particles coming from other bodies which fall upon the sight, some are less and some are greater, and some are equal to the parts of the sight itself. Those which are equal are imperceptible, or transparent, as they are called by us, whereas the larger contract, the smaller dilate the sight, having a power akin to that of hot and cold bodies on the flesh….White and black…are affections of the same kind. Wherefore, we ought to term that white which dilates the visual ray, and the opposite of this black. There is also a swifter motion and impact of another sort of fire which dilates the ray of sight and reaches the eyes, forcing a way through their passages and melting them, and eliciting from them a union of fire and water which we call tears, being itself an opposite fire which comes to them from without–the one flashes forth like lightning, and the other finds a way in and is extinguished in the tear-drop, and all sorts of colors are generated in the mixture. This affection we term dazzling, and that which produces it is called bright and flashing. There is another sort of fire which is intermediate, and which reaches and mingles with the moisture of the eye without flashing; and in this, the fire mingling with the ray of the tear-drop produces a color like blood, to which we give the name of red.

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