One Book, the Whole Universe: Plato's Timaeus Today

One Book, the Whole Universe: Plato's Timaeus Today

One Book, the Whole Universe: Plato's Timaeus Today

One Book, the Whole Universe: Plato's Timaeus Today


The much-anticipated anthology on Plato's Timaeus --Plato's singular dialogue on the creation of the universe, the nature of the physical world, and the place of persons in the cosmos--examining all dimensions of one of the most important books in Western Civilization: its philosophy, cosmology, science, and ethics, its literary aspects and reception. Contributions come from leading scholars in their respective fields, including Sir Anthony Leggett, 2003 Nobel Laureate for Physics. Parts of or earlier versions of these papers were first presented at the Timaeus Conference, held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in September of 2007.

To this day, Plato's Timaeus grounds the form of ethical and political thinking called Natural Law--the view that there are norms in nature that provide the patterns for our actions and ground the objectivity of human values. Beyond the intellectual content of the dialogue's core, its literary frame is also the source of the myth of Atlantis, giving the West the concept of the "lost world."

From Platonic space to Presocratic vortices, from Philosopher-Kings to Craftsman-Gods and from modern physics to the myth of Atlantis, One Book, The Whole Universe presents in one volume the most up-to-date and penetrating scholarship on Plato's Timaeus by some of the greatest minds alive today. Contributors
Ann Bergren
Gábor Betegh
Sean Carroll
Alan Code
Zina Giannopoulou
Verity Harte
Thomas Kjeller Johansen
Charles H. Kahn
Anthony J. Leggett
Anthony A. Long
Stephen Menn
Richard D. Mohr
Kathryn A. Morgan
Alexander P.D. Mourelatos
Ian Mueller
Thomas M. Robinson
Barbara M. Sattler
Allan Silverman
Jon Solomon
Anthony Vidler
Matthias Vorwerk
Donald Zeyl


Anthony J. Leggett

There are a few isolated passages in the Timaeus which an advocate might claim foreshadow modern scientific ideas. For example, 37c-38d seems to anticipate the concept of the “block” Universe as formulated by modern philosophers of science, and 52b similarly the Kantian notion of space. The “triangles” of 53d-57c might be regarded as a quasi-molecular theory of matter, and 67b makes a striking comment about the relation of frequency to perceived pitch. But I suspect much of this is coincidence. Overall, Plato's speculations on the nature of the physical world do not have much in common with the answers given by modern science.

Rather it is his questions that often have a modern resonance, and it is these which I shall address in this talk. In this context, the most interesting passages are probably 27d-38b, on the isotropy and uniqueness of the Universe and the nature of time, 47c-52d on nous (reason) versus anankê (necessity), the idea of the hypodochê (usually translated as “receptacle”), sameness and difference, kinematics versus dynamics, necessity versus contingency, and finally, the discussion from 69a onward about the relation of the physical Universe to human existence and perceptions. Just about all these issues are still alive, either explicitly or implicitly, in modern physics and cosmology.

We may as well start at the beginning. At 28b, Plato asks “Has [the Universe] always been? Was there no origin from which it came to be? Or did it come to be and take its start from some origin?” And he gives his own answer: “It has come to be.” Interestingly, this would not have been the answer given by physicists and astronomers in the nineteenth century or indeed in the first three decades of the twentieth: for them, the Universe had indeed “always been,” and would always be in the future. However, as is well known, in 1929 . . .

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