Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Congruency and Evil in Plato's Timaeus

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Congruency and Evil in Plato's Timaeus

Article excerpt

The ISSUE OF evil in the Platonic corpus is one that has generated a great deal of scholarly debate. Unfortunately, while Plato was considerably interested in virtue--intellectual, moral, and civic--none of his dialogues is specifically concerned with the existence of evil. This is not to say that readers of the Platonic dialogues are not able to derive some understanding of evil, even if only indirectly. In fact, there seems to be a general consensus among scholars; Hackforth states, for example, "it is universally agreed that Plato inherited from Socrates, and consistently maintained to the end, the doctrine that no man does evil of set purpose ... but because he mistakes evil for good. All moral evil, therefore, for Plato, involves ignorance." (1) This statement is an apt summary of Plato's position on evil on the most general level, but unfortunately the conception of evil expressed therein is not developed enough to explain the complex nature of evil within the Platonic framework.

As the following pages will attempt to show, while there is no principle of evil (arche kakou) for Plato, evil does exist in the Platonic framework in various ways, and the ways in which it exists help to illuminate other important and often overlooked aspects of his thought--namely, human freedom and the ability to choose and act. Plato's holistic account of the cosmic order, the Timaeus, affords the opportunity to examine evil in all of its aspects and regarding the points that are illuminated as a result.

Using the Timaeus as the basis for the present investigation, I will examine the construction of the world-soul and its relation to the human soul in order to understand Plato's notion of congruency. I will then look at evil and the variation of existing evils in order to determine whether there is congruency among the various evils present in Plato's thought. Finally, I will explore aspects of human existence that are brought out by the examination of evil, thus bringing to the fore extenuating issues that directly relate to a complete understanding of the Platonic framework.


It is interesting to note that Timaeus's account of the cosmos begins in an ethical context. The preliminary conversations and remarks include a political synopsis from 17a-20c, a brief account of the virtue of the paleo-Athenians from 20c-26e, and finally an invocation of the gods from 27c-29d. (2) But more significantly, Timaeus begins his actual account with a moral statement of the character of the demiurge: "He was good, and one who is good can never become jealous of anything. And so, being free of jealousy, he wanted everything to become as much like himself as was possible." (3) Thus, by way of this assertion it is clear that the creation of the cosmos, and all that the cosmos comprises, is begun in light of what is good in itself. On the one hand, Timaeus is explicitly referring to the demiurge in this passage. But on the other hand, the statement of the craftsman's excellent character also recalls the excellence of his model for the cosmos, (4) and together these are meant to inform the explanation of the cosmos that follows. (5)

Immediately after this moral characterization of the demiurge, Timaeus explains, "accordingly, the god reasoned and concluded." (6) That is, the demiurge reasoned and concluded about the constitution of the cosmos on the basis of his goodness, which was essential, if not primary, to his motivation. As the direct result of this interface between character and intellect, the demiurge first realizes the inherent superiority of the intelligent over and against the unintelligent, and then the necessity of soul for the proper functioning of intelligence. Just as ethical character informs the intellect of the demiurge, soul is set up to found the intellect of the cosmos; neither demiurge nor cosmos is purely intellect, but both are rational and both have an ethical dimension as the result of their intellectual character. …

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