restricted access One Book, The Whole Universe: Plato's Timaeus Today (review)
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Reviewed by
Richard D. Mohr and Barbara M. Sattler, editors. One Book, The Whole Universe: Plato's Timaeus Today. Las Vegas-Zurich-Athens: Parmenides Publishing, 2010. Pp. viii + 406. Paper, $87.00.

A new volume on one of the most influential and most discussed works from antiquity should offer something new. In this truly interdisciplinary volume, a great number of intriguing problems posed by Plato's Timaeus are given a fresh and lucid treatment. Contributors from an unusual range of backgrounds reflect on aspects of Plato's astounding synthesis of natural philosophy, including cosmology, theology, perception, physiology, and more. Plato's synthesis was original, reusing previous ideas for a new vision of the structure and coherence of the physical world: his "likely account" (Tim. 29bc) (as he preferred to call it) showed that a Maker or Creator used a form of "geometric atomism" to build up the universe from scratch (triangles as "atoms"). Such an account raises all kinds of questions about the nature of the visible world, its invisible foundations, its purpose, and its durability, but also about theology, teleology, and the possibility of a Grand Unifying Theory.

After a helpful introduction, thematic sections cover historical and intellectual context (its place, as well as the Presocratic conceptions of God, space, and motion) and philosophical problems (Aristotle's critique of the Timaeus's exposition of the primary elements and of the receptacle as space/place), but there are also less traditional papers on the inspirational influence the work has had on visual media. The diversity of topics is not surprising, because the Timaeus offers a kaleidoscope of subjects and perspectives, of which I will highlight a few.

In chapter 2, A. A. Long gives an insightful and elegant analysis of the Demiurge (an "expert craftsman") in Platonic and Stoic thought, who produces a rationally structured cosmos in which a World Soul animates the universe, a notion alien to modern ideas of theology and cosmology. Here teleology, which "marks Plato as the world's first fully fledged theologian" (43), is highlighted as Plato's important contribution to the design of the cosmos. Crucially, "Demiurgic rationality is the exercise of paradigmatic goodness" (46). The Stoic account of cosmic craftsmanship differs in that it aims for a (pseudo-)scientific account based on physicalism. It translates more easily into a political agenda in which humans can strive to [End Page 132] perfect themselves, because the divine rationality is extended to humans. Chapters 3–6 also deal with the Maker, but from different angles: philosopher-kings and craftsman-gods (Allan Silverman); the place of cosmology in Plato's later dialogues (Charles H. Kahn); the interpretations of the Demiurge as "Maker or Father" in Platonism up to Plotinus (Matthias Vorwerk); and Thomas M. Robinson's brief look at the term ‘mythos'("story," "account") in response to Myles Burnyeat's influential paper on eikōs logos (also discussed in the papers by Gábor Betegh and Alexander Mourelatos).

Space, place, and motion are dealt with in chapters 7–11. Verity Harte (chapter 8) tackles the thorny question of creation at the physical origin: if the Demiurge finds a chaotic "primordial" cosmic body, where do the building blocks of the universe come from? The four elements needed are being harnessed by geometrical regular forms and numbers, but what is being formed here? She makes a convincing case for how we should read the "traces" (53b2) of the elements as instantiations of the Forms of space (not in space), hence sustaining the claim that it is not a creation from nothing. Stephen Menn (chapter 9) looks at the way in which the Timaeus adopts Presocratic topics and themes, with criticism of their notion of vortex. He concludes that Plato does not just present a Presocratic cosmogony, but an Empedoclean one (147). Ian Mueller's essay (chapter 10) presents some late Platonists views on matter, with a focus on the harmonizing interpretation regarding matter and basic material "chemistry." Zina Giannopolou (chapter 11) proposes to reject Derrida's denial of nameability of the receptacle.

Further essays of a more philosophical bent are found in the next few chapters: Thomas Johansen (chapter 12) considers Aristotle's analysis of Plato and...