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Images of the World: Cosmology and Rhetoric in Plato’s Timaeus and Laws

  • Author(s): Esses, Daniel
  • Advisor(s): Ferrari, Giovanni R.F.
  • et al.

Scholarship on the Platonic cosmologies generally focuses on what philosophical doctrines we can extract from the accounts of the gods and the cosmos featured in the late dialogues, especially the Timaeus. Such work aims to unearth what Plato really thought about the gods and their identity and what his perspective was on the origins of the natural world. In contrast, this dissertation investigates Platonic cosmology as a flexible rhetorical form that he used for various purposes in different contexts. Without denying the philosophical core and significance of the cosmologies, we can account for significant differences between them by examining how they speak to their target audiences’ particular perspectives and needs. I devote my analysis to two dialogues in particular: the Timaeus and the Laws. These two dialogues, especially the Timaeus, are the ones scholars tend to single out as the best representations of Plato’s natural philosophy and theology. The scholarly consensus seems to be that these are the dialogues one should focus on in order to understand what Plato really thought about the gods and the cosmos. Furthermore, their cosmologies are most often interpreted as self-standing and it is generally more difficult to see what particular role they play within their unique dramatic context. Focusing on the Timaeus and the Laws is necessary for showing how cosmology plays a distinctive persuasive role even in dialogues where that is not made explicit or especially clear.

The first chapter focuses solely on the Timaeus, especially the opening exchange that precedes Timaeus’ cosmology. The opening exchange between Socrates, Timaeus and Critias raises a set of specific problems that Timaeus’ cosmology later addresses. Timaeus presents a mythic cosmology in part because myth is a powerful protreptic resource that can orient non-philosophers toward a more philosophical viewpoint. In this case, Critias is a quasi-philosopher who stands to benefit from such a reorientation. Unlike his companions, Critias is more interested in politics—especially Athenian politics—than philosophy. Furthermore, Critias’ framing of his story about Athens’ victory over Atlantis reveals him as rather naïve. Critias is under the spell of his childhood myths, which portray Athens as a god-beloved, extraordinary polis. One of the aims of Timaeus’ cosmology is to deliver the philosophical challenge Critias’ perspective calls for. Timaeus’ unconventional deities, as well as his views on human nature and our place in the cosmos, are especially well suited to turn someone like Critias toward philosophy.

The second chapter discusses the gods of Timaeus’ cosmology and compares Timaeus’ theology with the Athenian Visitor’s in the Laws, especially book X. It starts with an examination and comparison of how Timaeus and the Athenian position themselves vis-à- vis traditional religion. The different levels of deference to tradition that they show are explained by reference to their differing rhetorical and political agendas. Timaeus suggests that the traditional gods are less important and more difficult to understand than those deities his account focuses on, such as the Demiurge, to prompt Critias and others like him to see the traditional gods so important to them in a new light. The Athenian, by contrast, is more protective of the traditional pantheon and casts himself as a defender of established religious and cultural forms, even though his theology in book X focuses on vaguely identified celestial movers. His aim is not to challenge but to preserve piety in the ideal city he is designing. A detailed examination of Timaeus’ novel deities—the Demiurge, the cosmos, and their subordinates—follows. The way Timaeus’ theology casts the Demiurge and his creations as benefitting all humans alike while also remaining for the most part uninvolved and distant from human affairs stands in contrast with Critias’ focus on Athena and her special bond with Athens. The Athenian’s conception of the gods’ relation to humans is notably different: though, unlike Timaeus, he does not describe the gods carefully designing our souls and bodies, he is more invested than Timaeus is in the notion that the gods pay attention to human affairs and punish wrongdoers. This is because he is presenting a theology to support civic religion and he recognizes that fear of the gods’ wrath plays a major role in maintaining obedience to the laws.

The third chapter addresses the different perspectives on the polis and human society that Timaeus and the Athenian represent in their cosmologies and what that can tell us about the relationship between philosophy, cosmology and politics. On the one hand, Timaeus encourages us to think of our ultimate end as being completely independent of our political and social identity and affiliations; the conception of human happiness he advances within his cosmology is surprisingly apolitical. On the other hand, the Athenian endorses a view of human happiness and fulfillment in which the polis plays an indispensable role. It is fitting, therefore, that while the city is mostly absent from Timaeus’ cosmology, the Athenian’s invests justice in the polis with cosmic significance. Whereas Timaeus’ avoidance of the political is part of his strategy to turn people like Critias toward a less parochial, more cosmopolitan perspective, the Athenian’s attention to the city’s significance for both the individual and the cosmos is in keeping with his use of cosmology as a supplement to civic religion. The ways the Timaeus and the Laws use cosmology complement one another: though they present philosophy and its relation to our happiness and ultimate end in a different light, taken together they illuminate philosophy’s indispensability for proper political engagement and its longing to reshape the political realm.

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