Ideas In God: The Timaeus and the Platonic Tradition

I mentioned that the doctrine of Divine ideas finds has some of its seed notions in Plato’s Timaeus.  I here embark on a brief investigation of a few of the relevant portions of the Timaeus and the Platonic tradition.

Timaeus 28a-29a

TIMAEUS: We must, then, in my judgment, first make this distinction: what is that which is always real and has no Becoming? And what is that which is Becoming always and never is Existent? Now the one of these is apprehensible by thought with the aid of reasoning, since it is ever uniformly existent; whereas the other is an object of opinion with the aid of unreasoning sensation, since it becomes and perishes and is never really existent. Again, everything which becomes must of necessity become owing to some Cause; for without a cause it is impossible for anything to attain becoming. But when the artificer of any object, in forming its shape and quality, keeps his gaze fixed on that which is uniform, using a model of this kind, that object, executed in this way, must of necessity be beautiful; but whenever he gazes at that which has come into existence and uses a created model, the object thus executed is not beautiful. Now the whole Heaven, or Cosmos, or if there is any other name which it specially prefers, by that let us call it,–so, be its name what it may, we must first investigate concerning it that primary question which has to be investigated at the outset in every case,–namely, whether it has existed always, having no beginning of generation, or whether it has come into existence, having begun from some beginning. It has come into existence; for it is visible and tangible and possessed of a body; and all such things are sensible, and things sensible, being apprehensible by opinion with the aid of sensation, come into existence, as we saw, and are generated. And that which has come into existence must necessarily, as we say, have come into existence by reason of some Cause.

Now to discover the Maker and Father of this Universe were a task indeed; and having discovered Him, to declare Him unto all men were a thing impossible. However, let us return and inquire further concerning the Cosmos,–after which of the Models did its Architect construct it? Was it after that which is always in the same unchanging state, or after that which has come into existence; Now if so be that this Cosmos is beautiful and its Constructor good, it is plain that he fixed his gaze on the Eternal; but if otherwise (which is an impious supposition), his gaze was on that which has come into existence. But it is clear to everyone that his gaze was on the Eternal; for the Cosmos is the fairest of all that has come into existence, and He the best of all the Causes. So having in this wise come into existence, it has been constructed after the pattern of that which is apprehensible by reason and thought and is always in the same state.

Now Plato inquires as to whether the world has always existed without begining, or whether it in fact did begin to exist.  It must have begun to exist he conculdes for what ever comes to be must have a cause of it coming to be.  The (sensible) world is in a process of becoming, therefore, it must have had a cause.  The Demiurge or Architect is the one who fahsions the world into existence (let us lay aside the question of whether this being is real or mythic). When at the dawn of the universe this Demiurge set about to create sensible things, he did not fashion them of his own accord.  Instead, he looked to the unchanging models which are apprehensible by reason as the pattern for his work.  For Plato then, the world is a product of intelligence and care.  It did not arise out of sheer chance.  But neither was it a product of pure necessity either.  Instead,

…Reason overruled Necessity by persuading her to guide the greatest part of the things that become toward what is best; in that way and on that principle this universe was fashioned in the beginning by the victory of reasonable persuasion over Necessity.  48a

 Now given the mythic nature of Plato’s Timaeus, some have wondered whether this realm of eternal archetypes were actually the contents of a mind.  Plato himself does not do this, but this notion was welcomed in the later Platonic tradition.  Middle Platonism and Roman philosophy (esp. Macrobius, Seneca) for instance, did not hesitate to compare Plato’s ideas to the ideas an artist conceives in his mind before he produces an image.  Here, the ideas are exemplars or patterns in whose image the world is made. 

Likewise, Philo of Alexandria when interpreting Genesis speaks of God making the intelligible world as a paradigm or pattern which he then uses to create the material world.  When an architect recieves the instruction from a king to build a city, he first concieves the city in his mind.  This is the ‘intelligible city.’  He then begins to build the city with wood and stones all the while keeping the eye of his memory focused on this intelligible city from which he fashions the corporeal one.  Creation of the corporeal world came about after the supreme mind had concieved the models first.   

Interestingly, Philo uses his Logos doctrine to teach something interesting about the ideas.  When God in Genesis 1:27 says “Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness,” Philo takes it that man was made in the image of the Logos.  For you see, the Logos (a sort of second-level intermediary being lesser than God but greater than creatures) just is the Word of God, the very image of God and God’s pattern for creation.  This Logos contains in himself the intelligible world of ideas and is that by which God makes the world.


Ideas in God


2 Responses to Ideas In God: The Timaeus and the Platonic Tradition

  1. Susan says:

    Plato is one of the reasons I don’t hold that we can reason our way to the kind of knowledge- of- God required to initiate relationship with Him (We only grasp the information sufficient to know there is a God as Romans 1 declares) He must come to us (which He does by way of the Incarnation and the Word) to make things clear. Paul’s words in Acts 17 always come to mind – – for Plato seems to be groping, he almost has it, he gets remarkably far along…but falls short…and so we have the “Unknown God.”

  2. […] Posted over at Summa Xavier writes more on Ideas In God and I commented that whenever I have read Plato, I think of Acts 17. […]

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