What I’m Reading: Timaeus and Critias

I’m behind on logging my reading. Let’s start with Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, twin works that take place on the same day. Although Socrates is a character, as usual in Plato’s dialogues, he does not take a starring role in these two. Rather, his young friends Timaeus, Critias, and Hermocrates, describing how they were inspired by the speech Socrates gave the day before on the ideal city (with Timaeus giving a summary of the speech that sounds an awful lot like The Republic, which I reviewed here), have taken it upon themselves to come up with speeches of their own.

Socrates is delighted at this, and agrees to listen. Timaeus is to give an account of the origin and nature of the universe, and Critias is to describe the ancient lost city of Atlantis and its war against a city much like that in the Republic: an idealized prehistorical version of Athens. However, only Timaeus finishes his speech. Critias’s leaves off in the middle. This is not because, as happens far too often with ancient texts, we are missing the last part. No, we know that it was missing in ancient times too–Plato simply never finished it. Nor did he apparently ever get to the speech of Hermocrates, so we don’t even know what the topic of the final speech was going to be.

Anyway, back to Timaeus’s speech, which of course comprises the dialogue with his name. Timaeus attempts to do no less than describe the creation and fundamental nature of the universe. The Greeks believed there were four elements–earth, air, water, and fire–but in Timaeus’s conception, these elements were formless until a creator came along and shaped them into the universe as we know it. Because the creator would have to be perfect, of course he would create a perfect universe, and it’s only because he created the gods, and then the gods created humans, that we are less than perfect, as we’re pretty far down the chain, and made later, after the best and most perfect of the raw materials had been all used up. But while our bodies are imperfect, we do have one perfect part–our souls, and if we act as close to divine as possible while on earth, meaning rationally, after our death our souls will go and join the divine among the stars.

Well, there’s a lot more than that in Timaeus’s speech, all about how the universe is made up of triangles (interestingly, this comes off as sort of a primitive atomic theory), and how these fit together to create the four elements, and how the four elements themselves join to create all the different substances and materials we find in nature, and the way in which our senses perceive things. Plato really attempts to sort things out here without resorting to mythology. For a modern reader, though, I’m not sure there’s a lot to learn. Plato’s other dialogues are more about ethics and living a meaningful life, and provide a lot to think about. His ideas about how the world works in a physical sense, however, have all been superseded by modern science and are little more than a historical curiosity.

Critias’s speech is a lot more fun for a modern reader. It is about the lost city of Atlantis, the greatest city ever to exist, and how its people were overtaken by hubris and determined to conquer the world, only to be stopped by a highly virtuous city, the prehistoric Athens. The problem is, we only get ten pages of description, and never even make it to the war. The description is quite interesting though–Atlantis is a highly-engineered city, with a perfectly round island in the middle inhabited by its ruler and his family, surrounded by three perfectly circular rings of water, with perfectly circular rings of land in between them for the city’s residents and public buildings. There is a massive covered bridge with a canal underneath so boats can reach each of the rings, and outside of the city the canal leads to the ocean. Everything is on a monumental scale and covered with silver and jewels and so forth, in such abundance that the citizens have no special care for it, except as pretty building materials. We also get interesting discussions of the type of physically and mentally superior people who live there (descendents of the gods) and how fertile the land is, and some of the amazing creatures and crops and orchards that grow there. But just when we’re about to get to the action, it stops abruptly.

This was apparently the first mention of Atlantis in history, although it’s presented in Critias’s dialogue as being a vague legend everybody’s heard of, but that his grandfather had learned the truth about on a visit to Egypt. In fact, we believe now that Plato made it up–Atlantis was pure fiction. That hasn’t stopped people through the ages from trying to trace historical antecedents, or searching for the location of this mysterious sunken city. Even today, there’s still apparently some scholarly debate on whether there might not have been some kind of legend that Plato based this on, and that maybe we’ve simply lost the sources for? But that’s most likely wishful thinking.

I’ve tried to read some Plato (or last summer, Xenophon) every year for the past several years. When people have seen me reading it, they often say something like, “Isn’t that really difficult to read?” And the answer, until now, has been no. They’re just dialogues, meaning conversations, among Socrates and his companions. They’re not hard to read and they’re often kind of humorous. I don’t think I can say the same about Timaeus. There’s a lot of geometry and long chains of logic in it as Plato tries to explain his somewhat esoteric theories about the universe, and it took some real effort to follow. Nor was it that rewarding, as, like I said, science by now has passed Plato by. Critias, however, was a fun read on a subject that’s since driven a lot of speculation, although it was disappointing that it ended in the middle. I don’t think I could recommend these two works except to people with a truly endless interest in ancient Greece or ancient philosophy.

One Comment on “What I’m Reading: Timaeus and Critias

  1. Pingback: What I’m Reading: Gorgias – Nicholas Bruner

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