© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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Platonism, a fresh look (part 4)

February 26, 1995

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: plato <plato@freelance.com>
      sophia <sophia@liverpool.ac.uk>,
Date : February 26, 1995, 18:03:24
Subject : Platonism: a fresh look (part 4 & last)

It is possible to show a close parallel between the plan of the Timæus and that of the Laws down to the slightest details, except for two or three inversions here and there. Let's try it here, at least in part. At the top level, one way to look at each dialogue is to divide it in three parts:

Laws        Timæus
Prolog, preamble and "plan" of the city 642a-735a Prolog, preamble and "genesis" of the world 17a-52d
Part 1: "genesis" of the city 735a-850c Part 1: "genesis" of man 52d-81e
Part 2: "becoming" of the city 853a-969b Part 2: "becoming" of man 81e-92c

The prologs are both divided in five sections:

Laws        Timæus
1. The paradigm of a harmonious city: sumposia 642a-650b 1. The paradigm of the just man: the Republic 17a-20c
2. Organisation of festivals: music, danse, choirs 652a-674e 2. Remembrance of past festivals 20c-22b
3. Interpretation of history 676a-701c 3. Rewriting history: the "story" of Atlantis 22b-25d
4. Clinias' program: the building of a city 701c-715e 4. Critias' and Timæus' program: genesis of world and man 25d-27b
5. The athenians' preamble to the genesis of the city 715e-735a 5. Timæus' preamble to the genesis of man 27c-29d

The parallel in sections 4 and 5 is not strict, though we can find exactly the same subsections in both cases, only in different orders, this being due to the fact that Timæus has to deal with two geneses, that of the world and that of man, whereas the Athenian only deals with one, that of the city. Thus, if we further analyse section 4 of the Laws, we come up with the following:

which relate to the following subsections of the Timæus (shown here in the order of the sections of the Laws they relate to, not in the order the appear in the Timæus, with references indented each time there is a break in sequence):

And section 5 of the Laws would come up this way:

relating to the following subsection of the Timæus:

Let's continue by looking at the parallel between part 1 of each dialogue:

Laws        Timæus
1. The "building blocks" of the city: families 735a-747e 1. the "building blocks" of bodies: elements 52d-57d
The "head" of the myth: laws (752a) The "head" of the myth: man (69b)
Transition: Everything ready for Cnossos "father" of the city 751a-754c Transition: Everything ready for demiourgos, father of the world 69a-c
2. The "organs" of the city: the public servants 754c-768c 2. The "organs" of the "ensouled" body 69c-72d
3. Genesis of the citizens: weddings and begetting 768c-785b 3. Genesis of "material" bodies 57d-61c
4. "Informing" citizens: education 788a-824a 4. "Informing" living bodies: senses 61c-69a
5. relationship of citizens with environment 828a-850c 5. Relationship of bodies with the outside world 72d-81e

and ultimately to the parallel between part 2 of each dialogue:

Laws        Timæus
1. The "diseases" of the social body: crimes, violence 853a-882c 1. The diseases of man's body 81e-86a
2. The diseases of man's soul: impiety 884a-910d 2. The diseases of man's soul 86b-87b
3. The city's "metabolism" 913a-953e 3. Man's metabolism 87b-89b
4. Retribution: justice and funerals 953e-959d 4. Retribution: differences in reincarnations 90e-92c
5. Perpetuation of the city: the nocturnal council 959d-969b 5. Perpetuation of man: the immortal soul 89d-90e

The differences in ordering would require more comments than I can make here, but the point is, there is more sameness than differences, and the building blocks are the same, nothing being left aside in either dialogue. The point I wanted to make here is the fact that such a parallel "enacts" what Plato means by "contemplating" the world, "theorizing" (from the Greek "theorein") in order to help us build our "political" world, and thus answer the initial question, what it is to be a man, and what a man should do in this world (and we may notice that the man whose project we are undertaking is a Cretan that goes by the name of Clinias, the same name as that of Alcibiades' father, who could not give his son the proper upbringing to make him capable, as does here the unnamed athenian, to unite Athens and Sparta under the auspices of Cretan laws). It helps understand what role "science", in the sense we give this word today, that is, all that makes up the Timæus, has in Plato's project: that of a means, and not an end in itself, and a means to uncover order and cosmos, and improve it with our "logos", not to uncover chaos and excuses for selfishness and disorder. It also shows us that, for Plato, the "city" is not a construct of an higher order to the point that man might lose his soul to the advantage of some city's soul, because there is no such thing as a "city's soul"! The city may be a "social body", but it does not have a soul of his own (which does not mean it does not have a form of his own): everytime the Timæus deals with man's soul, the parallel in the Laws also deals with man's soul, not the city's; and when the Timæus deals with the world's soul, the parallel in the Laws is not with a city's soul, but again, with man's soul. And Plato is clear on the fact that the whole purpose of living together in a city, and of establishing laws, is to improve all citizen's life and souls and to strive for their hapiness. As far as I can see, Plato was no totalitarian subjecting individual to state...

So, where does that leave us? Well! we have the answer to the question we tackled in the first place: what makes man what he is in this world, is that he has "logos", and that, unless he uses it, he will end up a beast (see the last section of the Timæus); and this logos tells him that the world is not limited to matter, and that he has a part to play in building it and in building himself, in using this logos to bring order and unity both within himself and without, in his social life. His logos tells him that he cannot be happy if he does not take into account in an appropriate way all parts of himself, those that are bound to dissipate, so long as they are there, as well as those that are immortal. His logos also tells him that not all men are endowed with the same gifts, and that each one should seek to do what he is most gifted for, whatever that may be, and rely on his fellow men for the rest, within a law abiding city, especially when it comes to setting up and adapting these laws. But in order to get to that point, we had to go through many stages, that are but steps along the road, clearing the way with the help of linguistics, epistemology, dialectics, political science, ethics, natural sciences and the rest, none of them being sufficient by itself, and none of them deserving that we stop there and get englued in it.

We also have to remember that we cannot get all the answers to all the questions in this world of becoming: can we say, for instance, that we fully understand what it means for a "form" to be outside time and space? Probably not! Suffice it to know that such forms "exist" and that there is no other way to account for what we see that to postulate such forms. Do we have to know what they are in order to reach our goal in life? Certainly not, because, as soon as we know that they are, and we know we may "participate" in some of them and not in others, our task is to find out which ones we want to participate in, justice or selfishness, order or chaos, and so on... Do everybody get to know these "forms" as clearly? Again, not. But those who have a fainter view should trust those who have a better one to guide them along the way. Are these "forms" in another "world"? Well! the question doesn't make sense! Everything that "is" makes up one single world; but not everything is alike in this world, and we may be caught distinguishing for the sake of reasoning different "subsets" of it that we might still call "worlds" to make short, as if there were several of them (and form materialistic minds like Aristotle's, it might get very confusing!..). There is room for material as well as "immaterial" beings in it, for perishable as well as immortal "beings", and time itself is one among the "created" things. And nobody, not even Einstein, can speak coherently of an "outside" of space and time: what does it mean to be "elsewhere" than space, or "before" time? "Elsewhere" is still a "local" word, and "before" or "after", "temporal" words... Why should man worry about such remote beings? Because he is in time, that is, in a "world" of becoming, and he is not yet fully "perfected"; he is in search of his "perfection", his "telos", his "aretè", and it won't "fall" upon him ready made from heaven, no more than it is all "in potentiality" in a "form" that might be there in the first place, a given of "phusis" that would grow without us having to do anything about it, call it an "entelechy" with Aristotle, or a genetic code with modern science. What he was given, again, is a "logos", and that logos is free, within the bounds of "anankè", the laws of matter and those of his body, to reach or miss his "measure", his telos, his good... Man cannot make progress by seeking a goal within himself, by setting himself as a measure, no more than a car can reach a place that is within itself. The only way for man to improve his "world" is to "shoot for the stars", to seek a "divine" goal out of reach of himself... to look at the light of a good that will illuminate and reveal what's good for him...

And now, where is "platonism", in all that? It all depends what you put behind this word. My take is that "platonism", that "theory of forms" business turning Plato into a sort of dreamer evading the "real" world for a heaven of ideas started with Aristotle, who couldn't follow Plato all the way through, and that Plato was perfectly aware of it, and knew darn well where Aristotle was getting into trouble, and told us where, in giving Aristotle's name to the replicant to Parmenides in the dialogue by that name... Aristotle couldn't understand Parmenides' problem, and thus, couldn't understand the Sophist's answer to it either. But he thought he had, and got us all in trouble for centuries to come, and we are not yet out of it!... I think there is a way to make sense of all that Aristotle says about Plato and his "theories" as soon as you try to understand Aristotle in the light of Plato, and not the other way around (sorry, Mr Darwin); and, by the way, in doing this, you might find out that all that's worth in Aristotle is Plato's more or less "digested", but hidden behind layers of problems raised by a too materialistic Aristotle... Look for instance at the four forms of man we found in the Timæus, and see if they could not smell of Aristotle's four causes; and so on...

And was there an "unwritten" platonism? Were there lessons, on the good, or on something else, that embodied Plato "true" doctrine? Sure!... Sure, Plato didn't write all he thought! At least he didn't write it as "treatises", as "doctrines", because he knew it was useless (look what happened with his brightest student, Aristotle, who had "live" access to the master...) And sure too, he would discuss it with his "colleagues" and students; otherwise, why bother set up and run the Academy? But what then? If he didn't write it in plain words, it's all there, in the background of the dialogues, for who can find it, and the dialogues are nothing more than a path to it. So, who, except some would be Sherlock Holmes lost in the land of Greek scholarship, would prefer to search for the lost transcript of a hypothetical seminar given by Plato, a transcript that would most likely be the work of one of his bewildered listeners not sure to have understood what he meant, rather than read the dialogues written by Plato himself, combed and curled by him for years until death to lead us toward our truth, not his, preserved intact over the centuries, acknowledged by everybody as one of the greatest masterpieces of all times?...

P.S.: This is a summary, may be already too long to your taste, of about three hundred pages that I wrote (in French) about two years ago, and couldn't get published yet. And what strikes me is that each time I get back to it, I find more consistency in the hypothesis, new relationship between dialogues, between form and contents in each one individually and among one another, and I feel I get a better understanding of what Plato was driving at. To me, that's the best defense for this hypothesis (try it by yourselves, and you'll like it!). And now, I feel I would not publish what I wrote two years ago as is, but should rework it and enlarge it. But wouldn't that be the exact opposite of what Plato intended, who took the risk of letting knowingly Aristotle screw his work up (not to the extent of handing him over the leadership of the Academy, however! Better a less smart guy who admits discussion than a guy who brings everything down to his own "truth"...)?..

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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