1The Timaeus is a dialogue that describes the origin of the world, of mankind, and even of the city. In this dialogue, Plato adopts a contradictory position. On the one hand, he describes the origin of the world with the help of a story that makes him gravitate toward Hesiod's Theogony and involves a temporal dimension, whereas, on the other, he proposes an explanation – the first one – with the help of mathematics, in which time plays no role. The definition and the role of the central character in this story, the demiurge, has given rise throughout history to multiple interpretations, which are, however, always associated with his status as “intellect”. This text consists of two parts. In the first, I set forth my way of viewing the demiurge, and in the second I explain my objections to the other interpretations proposed so far.
- 1 I have used the following system of translitteration: êta = e; oméga = o; dzèta = z; thèta = th; xi (...)
- 2 On the demiurge in the Timaeus, see Luc Brisson (19952, 19983), Le même et l’autre dans la structur (...)
- 3 See my translation : Platon, Timée / Critias, traduction inédite, introduction et notes par Luc Bri (...)
2At the foundation of Platonic cosmogony is this presupposition : the sensible things that surround us are mere images of genuine realities, the intelligible forms. Because sensible things are images of intelligible forms, they must resemble them. But the notion of resemblance is double-sided : it implies conformity and disparity. In the Timaeus, it is the intervention of the demiurge2 which, thanks to mathematics, ensures the conformity of sensible things to the Forms in which particulars participate ; and it is the khóra or “spatial medium” that accounts for their difference from the Forms : all the sensible things that are in the khóra and made of the khóra, appear as multiple and distinct in it (Timaeus 52c2-d1). If Timaeus can say that the khóra “participates in the intelligible in a particularly disconcerting way”, this means not that there is an intelligible form of the khóra, but that the khóra has several features that render it akin to the intelligible : it is a principle, it is immutable, it is not perceptible to the senses, etc. In the Timaeus, Plato thus distinguishes no longer two, but three kinds, because, in addition to intelligible forms and sensible things, he evokes the existence of the khóra, in which sensible things are present, and out of which they are constituted (Timaeus 51e6-52c1)3. By introducing mathematics at the level of the world soul and at the level of the world's body, the demiurge gives things enough permanence and regularity so that virtuous behavior, associated with adequate knowledge and language, becomes possible in this world.
- 4 Logismós, at Timaeus 30 b, 34 a, 52 d, 55 c.
- 5 Nomízein,at Timaeus 33 b.
- 6 Prónoia, at Timaeus 30 c, 73 a.
- 7 For instance, at Timaeus 41 a, d, e.
3To fashion the most beautiful world possible, the demiurge takes as his model not the sensible, but the intelligible (Timaeus 29e-30c). Yet to perceive the intelligible as such, the demiurge must be an intellect (noûs), the only faculty that can grasp intelligible forms. The demiurge “reasons”, “calculates”, and “reflects”4 ; he “takes into consideration”5 and “foresees”6. This is why he “speaks”7. The sensible world is a living being that has as its model the complete Living Being (Timaeus 31b1), whose unity is found in our world as well (Timaeus30c-31c). There is, moreover, an intelligible form for each thing (Timaeus 51c3-4). This allows Timaeus to recall this presupposition :
“Since these things are so, we must agree that that which keeps its own form unchangingly, which has not been brought into being and is not destroyed, which neither receives into itself anything else from anywhere else, not itself enters into anything else anywhere, is one thing. It is invisible – it cannot be perceived by the senses, at all – and it is the role of intellection (nóesis) to grasp it. The second thing is that which shares the other’s name and resembles it. This being can be perceived by the senses, and it has been begotten. It is constantly borne along, now coming to be in a certain place and then perishing out of it. It is apprehended by opinion which involves sense perception.” (Timaeus 51e5-52a7, transl. D.J. Zeyl modified)
- 8 Timaeus 36d8, 39e7, 46d7-e4, 47e4, 48e1.
4There can be no doubt that the demiurge is an intellect, whose object is the intelligible8.
- 9 Timaeus 30a2, 30d3, 31b8, 32b4, 34c1, 38c7, 39b4, 42a1, 46c7, 46e8, 53b4, 53d6, 55c5, 68d4, 69b3, 7 (...)
- 10 By giving the demiurge this attribute, Plato shows himself to be coherent with himself. In the thir (...)
- 11 On this important feeling, see Luc Brisson (1989), « La notion de phthónos chez Platon », reprinted (...)
- 12 The way Critias insists on recalling that the division of the world among the gods took place witho (...)
5According to Plato, the intellect that constituted our world and what it contains can only be a divinity9. As a divinity, it must be immortal, insofar as nothing indicates that it has been engendered by another entity, whereas the demiurge himself engenders the other gods, whose immortality he ensures (Timaeus 41a-d). Because he is a divinity, this being is good : “He was good and one who is good can never become jealous or envious of anything. And so being free of jealous envy, he wanted everything to become as much like himself as was possible” (Timaeus 29e1-3, transl. D.J. Zeyl)10 .The demiurge does not behave like a god of the Greek pantheon, Zeus, for instance, who can feel jealous envy11 with regard to another god12, and even with regard to a mortal who is too happy, too rich, or too beautiful, and goes so far as to take vengeance on him for that reason. Since the demiurge is good, he is not jealous or envious, and he will make the world that is the best and the most beautiful possible.
- 13 This attenuation is formulated in various forms at Timaeus 30 a, c, 32 b, 37 d, 38 c, 42 e, 53 c, 6 (...)
6Insofar as the intelligible forms and the khóra exist prior to his intervention, and as “necessity” resists his action, in one way or another, the demiurge is not an omnipotent divinity. This is why he can only carry out what is best insofar as is possible13. This relative impotence of the demiurge is in accord with the traditional representation of the divinity in Greek mythology. Indeed, in the Greek pantheon, Zeus, the sovereign, like any other god, is only distinguished from a mortal by two features : he does not experience death, even though he was born, and he is more powerful, although this power is limited.
- 14 In the Timaeus, one finds the verbs ethélein (Timaeus 41 a) and boúlesthai (Timaeus 30 a, d, 41 b) (...)
- 15 An-aitios is attested at Timaeus 42 d.
- 16 Cf. Timaeus 37 c.
- 17 Timaeus 48a-c.
- 18 For instance, Timaeus 44 e, 71 b, e, 73 b, 75 b etc., where the singular is surprising. However, on (...)
- 19 Cf. the myth of the Statesman (268 d - 275 a) and Laws IV (713 a - e). See Luc Brisson (2005), « La (...)
7Nevertheless, the demiurge exercizes “will”14, which is why his responsibility is engaged15. He has feelings16, and tries to persuade necessity17. By all these features, it seems the demiurge must be assimilated to an individual ; however, the mention of his assistants, and the sudden and unexpected passage from the plural to the singular18 lead one to suppose that for Plato, the demiurge represents above all a function, the productive function of the universe. What is more, the demiurge's action is a one-time affair. He limits himself to “fashioning” that which, in the sensible world, is apt to exhibit an eternal nature ; once this is done, he withdraws (Timaeus 42 e), transmitting his power to his assistants for a while, then leaving genuine autonomy to the universe and to man, contrary to what happened under the reign of Kronos, according to traditional mythology19. After the departure of the demiurge and his assistants, it is the world soul that takes over, guaranteeing the maintenance of an order that is primarily mathematical in the course of incessant change.
8Another particularity must be added to this one. When he tries to describe what a god is in the Phaedrus, Plato shows himself to be very prudent. He begins by situating his discourse not on the level of the lógos, based on a well-argued knowledge that lays claim to the truth, but on the level of mûthos, a story that remains probable ; and he concludes with an appeal to the benevolence of the divinity which assumes the form of a prayer :
“This composite structure of soul and body is called a living being, and is further termed “mortal”: “immortal” is a term applied on no basis of reasoned argument at all (oud' ex henòs lelogisménou), but our fancy pictures (pláttontes) the god whom we have never seen, nor fully conceived (oúte idóntes oúte noésantes hikanôs), as an immortal living being, possessed of a soul and a body united for all time. Howbeit, let these matters, and our account thereof, be as God pleases (hó pei tôi theôi phílon).” (Phaedrus 246c5-d3, transl. R. Hackforth).
9This definition is cautious, but will not vary : a god is an immortal living being (athánatón ti zôion). In the Timaeus, however, it is impossible to find any information that the demiurge has a body, or even a soul ; he is a mere intellect, and this is a singular feature that was to inspire the history of Platonism: as an intellect, this god lacks any kind of body, including a body that cannot be perceived by the senses, as is the case for all traditional gods,
10As an intellect, he is a divinity who is good, but is not omnipotent, and to whom it is hard to attribute a genuine identity. Yet what is the role of this divinity?
11The first allusion to the identity of this personage who makes the world appear is to be found in this phrase: “Now to find the maker and father of this universe is hard enough, and even if one succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible.” (Timaeus 28 c 3-4, transl. D.J. Zeyl modified). The qualifier “father” corresponds to the context found in Hesiod's Theogony, where the gods engender one another. It is this character who is qualified as “father of the world” a bit farther on: “Now when the father who had begotten the universe observed it set in motion and alive, a thing that had come to be as a shrine for the everlasting gods, he was well pleased, and in his delight…” (Timaeus 37 c 6-7). The same holds true for the other gods, whom he addresses in these terms: “O Gods, works divine whose maker and father I am, whatever has come to be by my hands cannot be undone but by my consent.” (Timaeus 41 a 6-8, transl. D.J. Zeyl). All these gods are thus his offspring (Timaeus 42e6-7), and he has children who are his assistants, particularly for fashioning human beings: “For those who had fashioned us recalled their father’s instruction to make the mortal race as excellent as possible…” (Timaeus 71d5-7, transl. D.J. Zeyl modified). Note that the qualification “father” does not entail either an allusion to marriage or to sexual intercourse.
- 20 Timaeus 28a6, 29a7, 31a4, 40c1, 41a7, 41e4, 42e8, 46e4, 47e4, 59a5, 68e2, 69c3.69c4, 75b8, 76d6, 80 (...)
12It is, however, the term “demiurge” that is most often used to designate the maker of the world in the Timaeus20. This decision gives rise to a large number of metaphors and comparisons connected to work. The demiurge accomplishes a series of operations that were typical of specific artisanal activities. When he fashions the universe, the demiurge behaves like a metal-worker, a builder, and a painter. He is a metal-worker and a blacksmith, as one can see if one follows attentively the description (Timaeus 35a-40d) of the fashioning of the armillary sphere to which the world soul is assimilated. The demiurge prepares and melts the alloy that constitutes its material; he molds, fashions, and arranges the plates that are used for constituting the circles along which the stars and the planets move, etc. He is also a builder, whose main activity consists in assembling things, either when he establishes a proportion between the elements that enter into the composition of the body of the world (Timaeus 32 b), or when he places the world soul in relation to its body (Timaeus 34 b, 36 d). Again, he is a painter, when he arranges the signs of the zodiac on the celestial vault (Timaeus 55 c). When he creates mankind, the demiurge behaves like a potter, a modeler of wax, and a basket maker. He is a potter who prepares the clay of which the osseous substance is constituted (Timaeus 73 e), who fashions it (Timaeus 73 e - 74 a) to make the skull and the vertebrae, and fires it. He is a modeler in wax, when he arranges flesh on this skeleton (Timaeus 74 c-d); and he is a basket-maker when he fashions and adapts mankind's respiratory system. It should be noted, moreover, that the demiurge is assimilated to a farmer when he sows the souls (Timaeus 41 e, 42 a, 73 b, c) and when he constitutes the circulatory system (Timaeus 77c), which is akin to a networks of canals intended for irrigation. Finally, the demiurge behaves like a peasant when he implants the three parts of the human soul in accordance in the various locations of the body (Timaeus 69 e - 70 a, 70d-e).It seems, however, that agricultural work must be added to artisanal labor.
- 21 Luc Brisson (2002), « Le divin planteur (phutourgós) », Kairos 19, p. 31-48. For a critique, see Fr (...)
13The divine planter21 in Book X of the Republic seems to be another figure of the demiurge, although this time he is linked to agricultural work. The god implants the forms in the khóra.
14This recourse to metaphors associated with labor (technical or agricultural) to describe the origin of the world is absolutely original in the Greek world.
- 22 Here, I refer to the fourth section of Jean-Pierre Vernant (1955, 1965, 1990), Mythe et pensée chez (...)
- 23 An opposition that already appears in the Charmides 163b-d, attributed to the “Sophist” Critias, cf (...)
- 24 On this point, Jean-Pierre Vernant invokes Euthydemus 289c ff., Republic X 601c.
15Plato thus collided, moreover, with social prejudices and theoretical objections. Jean-Pierre Vernant22 gave a good description of the devaluing of work in ancient Greece. Insofar as he works, the tradesman does not have the use of what he does. His labor is thus alienated in its use value; it is therefore reduced to the service of others and becomes akin to slavery. Hence, the opposition in Aristotle between poíesis and prâxis23. Poíesis creates a work external to the tradesman, and foreign to the activity that produced it24, whereas in the case of prâxis, the agent, informing himself, produces a value of which he himself is the use. Aristotle was to criticize the consequences of applying a technical model to the production of the world, and would substitute for it a natural model. Nature is opposed to art or to technique on the following two points: art or technique is not interested in the end, but seeks to discover the means intended to make something whose principle is in the producer come into being. The existence of an artisanal or technical object, particularly the one constituted by the sensible world, is therefore not necessary, but contingent, since, as such, it depends on a decision made within time. It follows that the world has a temporal origin, and therefore that it can be destroyed, since all that is born must die. Yet neither Aristotle nor Plato can accept this consequence; in the Timaeus (41a-d), as we have seen, it is the demiurge who guarantees the immortality of all he has fashioned. In short, it is not plausible for a god to practice a trade.
- 25 In the Gorgias, the definition or rhetoric is: a demiurge of persuasion (πειθοῦς δημιουργός ἐστιν ἡ(...)
16In Western Greece, however, the term “demiurge” also designates an important magistrate. In the Timaeus, the demiurge assumes this role as well, for by establishing the parts of the soul within the body, he appears as a colonizer, and by trying to persuade khóra, he plays the part of a political orator25.
- 26 “Fiction” need not be understood in a derogatory sense. The social contract which Rousseau made the (...)
- 27 Luc Brisson (2011), « La “matière” chez Platon et dans la tradition platonicienne », Materia XIII C (...)
17To understand the Timaeus, one, as has already been said, must suppose that sensible things are mere images of intelligible forms. But an image must be simultaneously similar to its model and different from it. To solve this problem, Plato appeals to two fictions26 : the demiurge and the khóra, which must not be identified with Aristotelian matter27. The khóra brings it about that sensible things are distributed in space, for they are impenetrable. Nevertheless, the khóra does not play any role in establishing order in the world, for it lacks all characteristics. However, it is filled by the elements, in the form of traces or in their fully developed form, which are animated by an erratic motion that the demiurge will try to bring to order. Plato calls this motion without proportion or measure, which the demiurge will try to set in order, anágke, that is, “necessity”. The program is announced from the beginning of the dialogue:
“The God wanted everything to be good and nothing to be bad so far as that was possible, and so he took over, all that was visible – not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion – and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order, because he believed that order was in every way better than disorder. Now it wasn’t permitted (nor it is now) that one who is supremely good should do anything but what is best.” (Timaeus 30a2-7, transl. D.J. Zeyl)
18The literary structure of the Timaeus, moreover, confirms this analysis:
What the intellect did (29c-47e)
The role of necessity (47e-69a)
The intellect's cooperation with necessity (69a-81e [81e-92c])
19In the Timaeus, there is only one genuine cause, the intellect, which makes use of necessity, which is described as an errant cause (planoméne), a cause that is auxiliary (sunaítia) at 46c7, ancillary (summetaítia) at 46e6, and second (deútera aitía) at 46e2.
- 28 Timaeus 47e7, 48a2, 48a4, 48c7, 51e2, 51e4, 70a7, 91b5.
20Yet since necessity pertains to the visible, and hence to the sensible, the demiurge, who is an intellect, can only use persuasion toward it28:
“Now in all but a brief part of the discourse I have just completed I have presented what has been crafted by Intellect. But I need to match this account by providing a comparable one concerning the things that have come about by necessity. For this ordered world is of mixed birth: it is the offspring of a union of necessity and intellect. Intellect prevailed over necessity by persuading it to direct most of the things that come to be towards what is best, and the result of this subjugation of necessity to wise persuasion was the initial formation of this universe.” (Timaeus 47e3-48a5, transl. D.J. Zeyl)
21It should be noted that the intellect addresses necessity, which pertains not to the intelligible, but to the sensible, by using rhetoric, the “demiurge of persuasion” (Gorgias 453a2, 454a2).
22As can be observed, the figure of the demiurge in the Timaeus is complex and contradictory. He is an intellect, a good divinity who tries to fashion the best world and the most beautiful possible by working. The difficulty attached to the description of this figure explains the diversity of interpretations.
23What is probably the most widespread interpretation considers that the demiurge is an independent divinity who fashions the world more or less like the God of Genesis. In this regard, Sarah Broadie makes an interesting distinction:
- 29 Sarah Broadie (2012), Nature and divinity in Plato’s Timaeus, Cambridge / New York, CUP, p. 62.
“According to one way, the eternal paradigm of the cosmos is an original of which the Demiurge makes a copy or representation or reproduction in a different medium. According to the other the paradigm is a recipe he follows”29.
- 30 Filip Karfík (2007), « Que fait et qui est le demiurge dans le Timée ? », Études platoniciennes 4, (...)
24Filip Karfík30 maintains the former interpretation. For him, the demiurge follows a plan (logismós); it is by contemplating the intelligible that he organizes the body of the world in the khóra with the help of mathematics. For Sarah Broadie, in contrast, the intelligible is not outside the intellect, as seems to be indicated by the passages from the Timaeus quoted above, but is present within him. In short, we are in the perspective of a god who takes himself as his object of thought, and fashions the world according to a precise plan. This interpretation refers to a position clearly expressed in Alcinous :
“He is the Good, because he benefits all things according to their capacity, being the cause of all good. (...) He is Father through being the cause of all things (Timaeus 28c) and bestowing order on the heavenly Intellect and the soul of the world in accordance with himself and his own thoughts.” (Didaskalikos X, 164.36-42 Hermann, transl. J. Dillon, see 163.14-15)
- 31 Myles F. Burnyeat (2005), « Eikos muthos », Rhizai 2, p. 143-165. See the reply by Luc Brisson, « W (...)
25One thus understands that the demiurge no longer contemplates the intelligible in order to act, but implements a plan that organizes his thoughts in a reasonable perspective, as is the view of M. Burnyeat31. In fact, all these interpretations seek to render otiose any reference to intelligible forms that are located outside the demiurgic intellect. We thus end up with an interpretation akin to that of Middle Platonism, for which the intelligible forms become the thoughts of a god who occupies the first rank.
- 32 Sarah Broadie (2012), Nature and divinity in Plato’s Timaeus, p. 196.
- 33 David Sedley (2007), Creationism, and its critics in Antiquity, Berkeley (Calif.), University of Ca (...)
26This has the consequence of emphasizing the “mythical” aspect of the character of the demiurge, and hence of making him akin to the God of Genesis; the demiurge is separate from the world, which he fashions within time32. One can therefore understand how David Sedley, whose position on the nature of the Forms is not clear, makes Plato the ancestor of creationism and of the idea of “intelligent design”33.
- 34 H. F. Cherniss (1944), Aristotle’s criticism of Plato and the Academy, New York, Russell & Russell, (...)
- 35 F. M. Cornford (1937), Plato’s cosmology, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, p. 187.
- 36 Gabriela Roxana Carone (1994-1995), « Teleology and evil in Laws 10 », Review of Metaphysics 48, p. (...)
27Many contemporary interpreters consider that the demiurge is immanent. H. Cherniss34, who follows F. M. Cornford35, and G. R. Carone36 for book X of the Laws, think that this demiurge could be identified with the world soul. This interpretation is based on the following passage, which distinguishes between two types of causes which, in the case of the Timaeus, correspond to the demiurge and to necessity:
“Now all of the above are among the auxiliary causes (tôn sunaitíon) employed in the service of the god as he does his utmost to bring to completion the character of what is most excellent. But because they make things cold or hot, compact or disperse them, and produce all sorts of similar effects, most people regard them not as auxiliary causes (sunaítia), but as the actual causes (aítia) of all things. Things like these, however, are totally incapable of possessing any reason (lógos) or intellect (noûn) about anything. We must pronounce the soul to be the only thing there is that properly possesses intellect (noûn). The soul is an invisible thing, whereas fire, water, earth and air have all come to be as visible bodies. So anyone who is a lover of intellect and science (noû kaì epistémes) must of necessity pursue as primary causes (aitías prótas) those which possess intellect (metà noû) and secondary (deutéras) all those belonging to things that are moved by others and that set still others in motion by necessity. We too, surely, must do likewise: we must describe both types of causes distinguishing those which possess understanding and thus fashion what is beautiful and good, from those which, when deserted by intelligence (phronéseos), produce only haphazard and disorderly effects every time.” (Timaeus 46c7-e6, trans. D.J. Zeyl modified)
28Yet this interpretation is untenable, simply because the world soul, whose intellect is its highest activity, is fashioned by the demiurge. We would then have to do with a case of self-fashioning, which would be strange, to say the least.
- 37 For an interpretation of this passage, see Francesco Fronterotta (2010), « La critica aristotelica (...)
- 38 Francesco Fronterotta (2010), « Ἀρχὴ τοῦ κόσμου and ἀρχὴ τοῦ λόγου. A new hypothesis on the beginni (...)
29The only way to avoid this contradiction is to interpret the fashioning of the world soul at Timaeus 35a-b in a non-literal way. This is why everything points toward considering that the demiurge is an intellect separate from the world and hence independent, despite the multiple problems entailed by this position. Francesco Fronterotta goes much further in this direction, for he wants to show that the demiurge is not the intellect of the world soul, but the world soul itself, which is nothing but intellect. This implies that the world soul is not totally immanent, for a part of it remains in the intelligible, which it contemplates. This position, inspired by Aristotle (Metaphysics A 9, 991a19-2337; De caelo I 10, 279b-280a), brings Francesco Fronterotta38 to consider that the fashioning of the world is completely metaphorical, and does not imply being situated in time. This interpretation of the Timaeus is compatible with the one according to which the world is mathematized, but contradicts the one that recognizes the importance of the narrative element.
30Having noted that the demiurge is absent from this essential passage of the Timaeus:
“For the moment, we need to keep in mind three types of things: that which comes to be, that in which it comes to be, and that after which the thing coming to be is modeled, and which is the source of its coming to be. It is in fact appropriate to compare the receiving thing to a mother, the source to a father, and the nature between them to their offspring.” (Timaeus 50 c7-d3, transl. D.J. Zeyl)
31whereas at the beginning of his exposition, Timaeus declares:
“Further, we maintain that, necessarily, that which comes to be must come to be by the agency of some cause. Now to find the maker and father of the universe, is hard enough, and even if one succeeded, to declare him to everyone is impossible.” (Timaeus 28c2-5, transl. D.J. Zeyl modified)
- 39 Franco Ferrari (2003), « Causa paradigmatica e causa efficiente. Il ruolo delle idee nel Timeo », i (...)
- 40 Matthias Baltes (1996), « Gégonen (Platon, Tim. 28b7). Ist die Welt real entstanden oder nicht ? », (...)
- 41 A position that had been anticipated by Jens Halfwassen (2009), « Der Demiurg : seine Stellung in d (...)
32Franco Ferrari39, who follows M. Baltes40 in particular, concludes, from this discrepancy, that the demiurge is but “the active and productive aspect of being”, that is, of the intelligible, since the world is the image of its model, the “Complete Living Being”41. The absence of the demiurge in this tripartition could be explained in many other ways: either the scene takes place before the demiurge's work, if one thinks that the fashioning of the world takes place in time; or else the demiurge's presence is implicit at this level of the exposition. The fundamental objection against this interpretation is found in this passage:
“Rather, let us lay it down that the universe resembles more closely than anything else that Living Being of which all other living beings are parts, both individually and by kinds. For this Living Being comprehends within itself all intelligible living beings, just as our world is made up of us and all the other visible creatures. Since the god wanted nothing more than to make the world like the best of the intelligible things, complete in every way, he made it a single visible living being, which contains within itself all the living things whose nature is to share its kind.” (Timaeus 30c5-31a1, transl. D.J. Zeyl modified)
33Here, it is impossible not to make a distinction between the demiurge, who fashions our world, and his intelligible model, the complete living being (31b1).
- 42 Luc Brisson (1997, 2000), « Aristote, Physique IV 2 » , reprinted in Lectures de Platon, Par (...)
34Aristotle agrees with Plato's Timaeus on one fundamental issue: a mechanistic explanation is not enough. But whereas Aristotle speaks of a Prime Mover, object of desire of all beings, Plato introduces a demiurge, a craftsman, a technician, and whereas Plato speaks of khóra and of necessity (anágke), Aristotle, who considers this to be a failed prime matter, speaks of matter (húle). I have written on the question of matter42, and here I am dealing with the demiurge. The demiurge is good, because he is an intellect that contemplates the Forms, and in particular the Good, which are separate from him and from the sensible things he fashions. In contrast, the Prime Mover takes himself as an object, he who is, moreover, the object of the desire of everything else. We therefore have to do with two different interpretative universes.
35The only way to bring the two into contact is to appeal to the Middle Platonic interpretation. In the face of a Platonism that preached the suspension of judgment, which Cicero knew and against which Numenius reacted violently, a need was gradually felt among the Platonists for a more religious philosophy. This was when Plato's thought reappeared as a means of acceding to another order of realities: that of the divine, the intelligible, which only the soul could apprehend by its intellect. Thus, there occurred among the Platonists the renaissance that became known as Middle Platonism.
36The most emblematic representatives of this trend were Atticus and Alcinous. Of Atticus, only fragments subsist, most of which come from the Evangelical Preparation by Eusebius of Caesarea. Alcinous, who wrote around the middle of the second century of our era, and was closely attached to the branch of Middle Platonism that interpreted Plato in the light of Aristotle, was the author of a Didaskalikos. It has recently been established that this Alcinous must be distinguished from Albinus, another Middle Platonic philosopher, author of a brief Introduction to the dialogues of Plato, and whose classes the physician Galen was said to have attended. Whereas Atticus defended Platonic orthodoxy against Aristotelianism, Alcinous in his Didaskalikos proposes as Platonic a logic that is simply Aristotelian. This attitude marks a decisive turning-point in the history of the relations between Platonism and Aristotelianism.
37The dialogues most often utilized by Atticus and Alcinous were the Timaeus and the Republic. At least at first, these dialogues were not the subject of continuous commentaries, but one sought to find in them views on the divinity, the world, man, and society, in the context of a system articulated around three principles: God, the Model, and Matter. This interpretation attributes the first place to God, for the Model, that is, the Intelligible, becomes the thought of God, in order to construct this new Platonic dogmatism.
38For the Middle Platonists, god was to be identified with the Good of the Republic and the demiurge of the Timaeus (Didaskalikos X, 164.36-42 Hermann). And since this god was the very first god, the supreme principle, nothing could be higher than he. Such supremacy determined the type of relation the god maintains with the second principle, the model. The Middle Platonists were accustomed to envisage the problem by recalling the passage from the Timaeus (29a6-7) in which the demiurge is said to “have looked at the eternal model”. They derived from this the conviction that in a certain way, the intelligible forms were the “thoughts” of God (Didaskalikos IX, p. 164.32-34 Hermann, see 163.14-15, cited in section 2.1.), which did not prevent the Forms from having an existence in themselves, outside the intellect. The model thus corresponded to the intelligible, which, as the object of thought of the first god, the Intellect, was external and inferior to him. For the Middle Platonists, Plato limited himself to following the opinion of his predecessors, and following their example he accepted only four elements, from which all the other bodies were formed as a result of transformations and combinations according to definite proportions : they are earth, water, air, and fire, which occupy determinate positions in space, by virtue of the very constitution of the universe. These elements came forth from a unique, homogenous, and undifferentiated matter. This is no doubt what Plato in the Timaeus called the third kind, the errant cause, extension, or the receptacle. This third kind was perceived as a corporeal and sensible reality, a kind of undifferentiated chaos, in which all the elements of the universe were confounded.
39The interest of the Middle Platonic interpretation derives from the fact that it makes the demiurge of the Timaeus compatible with Aristotelian physics, particularly on the question of the Prime Mover:
“Since intellect is superior to soul, and superior to potential intellect there is actualized intellect, which cognizes everything simultaneously and eternally, and finer than this again is the cause of this and whatever it is that has an existence still prior to these, this is what would be the primal God, being the cause of the eternal activity of the intellect of the whole heaven. It acts on this while remaining itself unmoved, as does the sun on vision, when this is directed towards it, and as the object of desire moves desire, while remaining motionless itself. In just this way will this intellect move the intellect of the whole heaven.” (Alkinous, Didaskalikos X, 164,18-27 Hermann, transl. J. Dillon)
40One thus achieves a perfect agreement between Plato and Aristotle.
41Yet this interpretation implies that the constitution of the world depends not on technique, but on nature. The basic opposition is thus between nature, on the one hand, and art and technique on the other, as Aristotle clearly saw:
“Every craft is concerned with coming to be, that is, with crafting things and getting a theoretical grasp on how something may come to be that admits of being and of not being and whose starting-point is in the producer and not in the product. For things that are or come to be by necessity are not the concern of craft, nor are things that are in accord with nature (since they have their starting-point within themselves).” (Nicomachean Ethics VI 4, 1140a10-16, transl. C.D.C. Reeve).
42In this text, Aristotle opposes art or technique to necessity and to nature.
43For Aristotle, in the sensible world, the determining cause of action and production is the final cause, which is not only the end of a process, but also its goal, “that with a view to which” the process unfolds. This explains why at this level, the final cause coincides with the form, which is the principle of internal organization of each being, and why, more generally, all beings, because of their dependence on an immobile prime mover, the ultimate good and final cause, which moves all things as “an object of love” (Metaphysics L7, 1072b3), aim at their proper good as their end. Nature is opposed to art or to technique. That is why technique does not play a role in the process of the world's fashioning.
- 43 John M. Cooper (1982), « Aristotle on natural teleology », in M. Schofield and M. C. Nussbaum (eds. (...)
- 44 James Lennox (1985), « Plato's unnatural teleology », Platonic investigations, ed. by Dominic J. O’ (...)
- 45 Stephen Menn, first in « Aristotle and Plato on God and Nous and as the Good », The Review of Metap (...)
- 46 This is the interpretation suggested by Thomas K. Johansen (2004), Plato's natural philosophy. A st (...)
- 47 Anthony A. Long (2010), « Cosmic craftsmanship in Plato and Stoicism », in One book, the whole univ (...)
44Anxious to avoid anachronism, contemporary interpreters make a distinction between the “natural teleology”43 found in Aristotle, and the “unnatural teleology”44 whose traces one sees in the Timaeus. The expression amounts to assimilating the demiurge of Plato's Timaeus to Aristotle's Prime Mover45. This is the interpretation of Thomas Johansen46, for whom the demiurge, who is the guarantor of order in the sensible world, is merely the extension of his model, the Living Being in Itself. This is also the reference point of the authors who contributed to the second section, “God and related matters”, of the collective volume One Book. The whole universe, Plato’s Timaeus today, ed. by Richard D. Mohr and Barbara M. Sattler47. This amounts to interpreting the demiurge of the Timaeus on the basis on Aristotle's Prime Mover.
45As such, this interpretation is anachronistic, even if it is pertains to the currently dominant interpretive trend that reads Plato through an Aristotelian lens. This Aristotelian reading comes close to what one finds in Book X of the Laws, but it differs radically from what is found in the Timaeus, on three essential points. The demiurge of the Timaeus cannot be situated either within or beside the world, which he fashions; his benevolence is limited by the resistance of necessity; and it is the soul of the world, which he fashions, that is the source of all psychic and physical motion in the world.
- 48 A.-J. Festugière (1936), Contemplation et vie contemplative selon Platon, Paris, Vrin, p. 204-205; (...)
46There remains the question of the identification of the demiurge with the Good, the summit of the Intelligible, as was made by A.-J. Festugière48, and especially, in a completely different context, by the proponents of an esotericist interpretation of Plato. However, two problems then arise as far as the cause of the fashioning of the world is concerned: is the Good the cause of the origin of the world in the Timaeus, and is this causality compatible with the intervention of technique?
- 49 Michael Frede (1980), « The original notion of cause », in Doubt and dogmatism: Studies in hellenis (...)
47It must be noted that in Plato, one should distinguish between two senses of the term “cause”, as does Michael Frede: “1) the agent responsible for a state of affairs, and 2) that in virtue of which the agent is responsible for a state of affairs”49. The demiurge is qualified as “good”, but he is never identified with the Good. What is more, in the Timaeus the Good is never considered as the Good, responsible for the world's setting in order; the demiurge plays this role.
48But since the demiurge is a god, he is good and it follows that he cannot be held responsible for any evil (42d-e, 87e). As such, he is bereft of jealous envy. He is the best of causes (29a6), for he wishes that what he fashions should be as beautiful as possible. Thus he makes the world a perfect living being (33a6), endowed with a body, and a soul that has an intellect (30b4-c1). We find the same intention with the motion of the fixed stars (40b4) and the planets (38d7). Vision (47a2, b 6) is given to man so that he may admire the celestial motions, and from astronomy he moves on to philosophy, so that he may master the motions of the circles of his soul (46e-47c). The same holds true of the constitution of the human body, whether it be the growth of the hair (76c6) or the nails (76d7). The demiurge takes into account the absence of the void to make breathing (79a6, c1) and swallowing (80e1) possible, and he is concerned for the health of human beings (87c2). Thus, the demiurge cannot be identified with the Good, for all that can be said is that he is good, and that his intentions are good.
- 50 This is how I wish to translate lógos when what is at issue is not the faculty, but the power that (...)
- 51 The souls of the gods, of the demons, of human beings, of animals, and even of plants must be class (...)
- 52 On this topic, see Werner Deuse (1983), Untersuchungen zur mittelplatonischen und neuplatonischen S (...)
- 53 Controversy persists on this topic. Denis O'Brien (1991) thinks there is emanation of matter, and v (...)
49It should be noted, moreover, that in Festugière and in the context of an esotericist interpretation of Plato, we are in a neoplatonic, and in particular a Plotinian context. In this context, the first principle is the One-Good, from which there emanates the Intellect, inseparable from the Intelligible, that is, the Forms. In the Intellect, all knowledge is simultaneous and immediate, whereas in the Soul, there is change (metábasis) from one element to another, with the reasoning process moving from premise to conclusion. The Intellect is characterized by eternity, whereas the Soul is associated with time, which is engendered simultaneously with the soul: a paradoxical situation, insofar as like the Intellect, the Soul is an eternal reality. The Soul contains in succession and partition all that is found in a simultaneous and compact way in the Intellect, which Plotinus expresses by speaking of “reasons” (lógoi)50, which, in the soul, are equivalent to the Forms. More clearly, the lógoi are the Forms on the level of the Soul. The Soul depends causally on the Intellect, because it is through the intermediary of the Intellect that the One produces the Soul, with the effect always being different from the cause. Similarly, the Intellect, which, in a way, is responsible for the production of the sensible world, cannot be held responsible for the control exercized over it by the Soul. At this level, we no longer have to do with the Soul considered as a hypostasis, but with the souls that are in the sensible world, the World Soul and the souls of individuals51. For although Plotinus insists on the unity of the Soul, the world soul and those of individuals are not parts of the Soul that is situated above them; they are images of it. The World Soul differs from the soul of an individual in that the body it produces and animates is better than the human body, and especially because it is not subject to the problems that come to trouble the soul of human beings, and even those of human beings – although Plotinus, who believes in metempsychosis52, is also interested in that kind of souls. Lower than bodies, of which it represents as it were the constitutive foundation, one finds matter, which, it seems, it emanates from the lower part of the soul53. For the neoplatonists, the true demiurge is the Intellect-Intelligible, which however subsists in eternity and can only think itself. It must delegate the fashioning of the world to the Soul, which contains the Forms in the mode of “reasons”. The lower part of the Soul, the world soul, which corresponds to nature, produces matter, in which it implants the quantity and qualities corresponding to the “reasons”. In this gigantic system, the One-Good is thus the cause of everything else, but in a mediate way, with the demiurge appearing first of all as the Intellect that contemplates, then as the soul that does that actual fashioning.
50In the Timaeus, the god who fashions the world is a divine intellect, who takes the intelligible as the model of the sensible world; with this goal in mind, he works as an artisan or as a farmer, trying moreover, like a magistrate, to persuade necessity; and using mathematics. The complex, and even contradictory character of the demiurge has given rise to multiple interpretations from Antiquity to our time, even if the demiurge is essentially still considered as an intellect: intellect of the world soul, productive aspect of the intelligible, Prime Mover, divinity carrying out a plan like the God of Genesis, the Good as causal principle. The debate remains open, but it is important to note the originality of the Timaeus: it is the only cosmogony of Antiquity that involves a divinity that works, and that imposes mathematics as a privileged instrument of order.