I first heard of Plato’s Timaeus from a professor teaching the history of music theory at the University of Iowa. He mentioned it as the source of Plato’s explanation for Pythagorean tuning of the diatonic scale, but he also described it as a strange, mystical book difficult to understand. In the following years, I discovered that the Timaeus was not only intellectually elusive, but physically, as well: I couldn’t find it in any available collections of Plato’s dialogs. What a relief to find it in the Britannica set some fifteen years ago! When I finally read it, I found that the mystical part about numbers didn’t form a huge part of the dialog, and one could easily miss the passage about the scale if not reading carefully. And I also found that, far from being difficult to read, the Timaeus was in many ways very familiar.
What is called a “dialog” consists mostly of an uninterrupted disourse by Timaeus telling a creation story, beginning with one eternal, perfectly good God who wishes to make a good world for his pleasure. That’s definitely not the typical Greek myth; in fact, everything so far is consonant with Biblical doctrine. The Timaeus, in fact, reads like an authoritative sacred scripture with its pure narration of God’s doings, but the characters in the dialog deny all inspiration. They insist that the one God is beyond human understanding (also in accordance with the Bible) and that we must accept the most probable account of him that human reason can devise. Paul was right once again, it seems: even without revelation, God’s eternal power and deity are apparent to those who seek to understand Him through his creation.
The Timaeus’s account diverges from the Biblical account eventually, of course. According to Plato, the one God made the first gods out of fire and assigned them to the planets; although he doesn’t name them, its seems clear that Plato is referring to the Moon (Diana), the Sun (Apollo), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These immortal gods then begat other immortal gods and shaped mortal bodies for other immortal souls that the One created. The creation of the gods sounds a little more like the common Greek religion, but the gods created out of fire could be taken as angels, the Bible’s ministers of flame. The Timaeus was the only Platonic dialog available in Latin to medieval scholars before the twelfth century (ironic considering how hard it was for me to find in the twentieth century), so it’s no surprise that many theologians of the Middle Ages read the dialog, viewed it as Christian analogy, and related Plato’s created gods to the angels that, according to their medieval cosmology, propelled the planets.
Plato’s uninspired reason also told him that all mindless operations produce only things without purpose; anything existing with a purpose must have been planned by an intelligent being. Some modern Darwinists claim that reason tells them otherwise, that materialistic forces can create living things that appear to be designed. Others say that the beautiful, intricate design of life is real, not just apparent, and was created by interstellar aliens. But back to Plato, who, you’ll remember, said we must accept the most probable of explanations. Plato’s Timaeus seems to accept mindless operation of the deterministic world as a secondary cause under God’s control, a cause that works randomly. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t explain clearly how a mind with purpose using natural, deterministic operations creates randomness; perhaps he’s saying that such doings aren’t truly random when seen with a divine mind.
But curiously, the very symbol of randomness – dice -- shows up in the Timaeus. One wonderful passage explains the shapes of the individual particles of each of the four elements, and it turns out they look like the dice from role-playing games. Earth, Timaeus says, has the most stable shape: that of a cube. The other three all have the shapes of regular polyhedrons with equilateral triangles as sides. Fire has four sides, like a three-sided pyramid. Its acute angles cause pain when they tough our skin and help it penetrate even the densest earth. The air particle has eight faces, and the water particle twenty. But Plato says clearly that God works all things in wisdom; Plato’s God, like Einstein’s, does not throw these dice.