Arete and physics: the lesson of Plato's "Timaeus" by John R. Wolfe

By John R. Wolfe

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If we read the Timaeus in this way, what we draw out of the account in the proem is that any process of ordering will involve an ordered (in this case, the whole of the world of aisthesis), an order (the paradigm) and an ordering individual, principle, or agent (the demiurge), or, to use a later terminology, a material, a formal, and an efficient cause. All that we can say about this figure is that he represents whatever it is that is responsible for the the activity that structures the world, and that he is personified so as to better allow him to function as a character in a mythical narrative.

57 This is an astronomy which studies the intelligible structure of the cosmos rather than its imperfect visible correlate, it is a method that derives the way the world is from the way it should be. This further underscores how Timaeus is to be understood as the embodiment of certain ideas first given voice by Socrates. Beyond this, it will be useful to take a brief look at the way the good in particular, and archai in general, are treated in the Republic. We need look no further than the justly famous sections describing the philosopher king and her studies.

Timaeus' attempt to come to grips with the causes of the visible universe using the language of agency is seen more clearly in the next passage: 85 Ti. 28a. 51 So whenever the craftsman (dēmiourgos) of anything looks at what is always changeless and using a thing of that kind as his model (paradeigmati) reproduces its form and powers (dunamin), then, of necessity, all that he so completes is beautiful. 86 At this point it is fairly clear what is going on. Timaeus presents an argument for the cosmos being formed in accord with a timeless and unchanging model—that is to say a model articulated in terms of logos rather than doxa.

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