Plato’s Timaeus is an excellent insight into his musings on the nature of the universe, deities and human nature itself. The writings take the form of an extended dialogue, mostly composed of an extended soliloquy by the titular character. Drawing upon the ancient belief of the four basic elements: earth, air, water and fire, Plato, in the guise of Timaeus, essentially lays out a theory of the universe. In short, Timaeus is Plato’s theory on how the universe was formed.
Plato observes the orderly and carefully formed universe and concludes that it must be the work of a master craftsman, or Demiurge, who planned and developed the entirety of the known world. The introductory conversation introduces the veritable cast of characters, including the Demiurge, and lays out the introductory question, to determine the nature of the universe. The majority of the information is presented by Timaeus, the narrator, but at other points in the text other characters come into play. (Plato 360) This method allows a more personable approach that cannot be replicated through simple writing. At the same time it prevents confusion and presents the information in a clear and succinct manner.
The god consistently referred to as the Demiurge in the text, in Plato’s mind is somewhat in line with the beliefs of the Deists. As an entity, the god of Plato’s universe is outside of the universe. The word used to describe and refer to the deity, which is most accurately translated as craftsman, itself is representative of this belief. Plato observes a highly sophisticated and well-formed universe, requiring the mind and work of a master craftsman. (Taylor 1987) Unlike the biblical view of God, Plato’s deity does not intervene in the daily activities of individual mortals, nor does he perform miracles or inflict plagues. Like the Deist god, Plato envisions a god who crafted a well-formed and devised universe with predefined and determined rules, which was capable of running itself without assistance or interference. (Owen 1953)
This belief is not in line with traditional views, and would not become popularized until the Enlightenment period. In the ancient world, the gods were often personified and interactive. The best-known example is the Greek/Roman Gods. They each exemplified a specific trait or element, often coming down off Mt. Olympus, talking and fighting with mere mortals. Most famously this is shown in the story of the Trojan World. To suggest a “hands-off” approach on the part of the overarching deity was revolutionary. This entity was exogenous to the larger universe, developing an interesting perspective on the topic. (Runia 1986) The revolutionary view of deified individuals was as different as the allusions to monotheism.
The critical characteristic of the Demiurge is intellect. The beautiful orderliness of the universe is not only the manifestation of Intellect; it is also the model for rational souls to understand and to emulate. This god is a rational god, devoid of emotions, unlike the most common manifestations of divinity in the ancient world. This deity is a principle outside of the universe, impartial and not acting.
In short, the Demiurge is an unemotional, external actor that does not agree with the traditional ancient view of gods who interact with human beings and actively create and modify the world. The Demiurge is a craftsman who developed and molded a world complete with the laws of physics, chemistry and mathematics that can manage and resupply itself. This view of a diving being would not be popularized for a long time and Plato’s contemporaries may have condemned it as heretical.
- Plato (360) Timeaus. Unknown.
- Taylor, A.E. (1987) A commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. Garland Publishers: New York
- Owen, G. (1953) The Place of the Timaeus in Plato’s Dialogues. The Classical Quarterly. 3 (1/2) 79-95
- Runia, D. (1986). Philo of Alexandria and The “Timaeus” of Plato. Rotterdam Press: Rotterdam.