11 May 2007

Nature and Divinity in Plato's Timaeus: Precis

In Sarah Broadie's first Whitehead lecture yesterday afternoon, she posed the question, "Why couldn't Plato have been satisfied with pantheism?", and her answer was that he thought that he needed to postulate a God who is above nature, and who makes human beings, in order to account for our responsibility as individuals for our actions.

Broadie began by recounting the basics of Plato's creation story (Tim 28bff.). Since the universe is visible, tangible, and corporeal, it comes to be. Everything that comes to be, comes to be through an intelligent cause which fashions it with respect to some model. The universe is visible, tangible, and corporeal; therefore it has been fashioned by a Maker who made use of a model.

Broadie drew attention to Plato's language in these passages suggestive of a religious prohibition (themis, 29a4, 30a6), and said that this indicated that we were dealing here with Plato's most fundamental premises; we shouldn't expect that we would find them obvious, but we would have to grant them if we wanted to keep company with Plato in the remainder of his discussion.

Broadie offered a correction of a common interpretation of Plato's famous remark that the Maker lacked envy (phthonos): "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" (29e). Because of its resonances with some religious traditions, Broadie said, this has often been interpreted in the sense that the goodness of the Maker overflows, in the manner of bonum diffusivum sui. But Broadie claimed that it had a different sense: Plato was explaining why it is that the Maker could indeed make another god. For the cosmos which he makes is a god, and a very great god, according to Plato. Since the Maker lacks jealousy, he isn't concerned about making a god who might compete with him, or obscure him.

Broadie contrasted this idea of a god making a god with traditional theogonies, in which once a new god is begotten, it typically destroys the parent god. Plato's Maker isn't threated or destroyed by the god he makes, yet at the same time, after he makes the universe, he fairly withdraws to the background and does not remain as the most prominent god.

She then raised the key question of her lecture. Plato postulates two chief gods:

(1) the ultimate Maker god, and
(2) the cosmic god.
Thus, if he admits (2), why does he think he needs to postulate (1) as well? Why does he need two chief gods? Why isn't one god sufficient, and why can't it be simply (2)? Plato is unlike moderns who might think they need to postulate a Maker god because otherwise there would be no god at all; he accepts a pantheistic god. Thus the question for him is not "Either a Maker god or no god" but rather, "Either a Maker god together with a cosmic god, or a cosmic god alone." The latter seems the simpler hypothesis: why wasn't that Plato's view?

That there was available to Plato a serviceable notion of a cosmic god is shown by Diogenes of Apollonia. Simply add the Forms to his pantheistic god, and the result would presumably be a satisfactory enough pantheistic god for a follower of Plato.

Broadie then considered, and set aside, two possible answers to her question.

(i) One might argue that here Plato was simply influenced by Anaxagoras, whose Nous is separate and unmixed. We know that Aristotle and Socrates admired Anaxagoras, and surely Plato did also. --But Broadie pointed out that Plato did not accept Anaxagoras' reason for making Nous entirely separate, and so he would have no reason for following him on this point: Anaxagoras believed that only a completely separate agency could effect the "separating out" which was the process by which the universe was formed, but Plato did not accept this.

(ii) One might argue that Plato postulates a Maker because this kind of causation is easier for us to imagine. After all, we have experience of making things by deliberate action, whereas we do not experience (say) the organization of our bodies as the effect of deliberate agency. --But Broadie replied that considerations of what it's easier to imagine would have little force with Plato, and, besides, in fact it's not very easy to imagine how an incorporeal being might make anything in the way that we do.

Broadie then said that she thought that the correct answer to her question could be found, rather, in Plato's anthropology.

Suppose Plato had postulated only a cosmic god. Then how could he have accounted for the origin of human beings from this cosmic god? There would seem to be only two alternatives, neither of which would be acceptable to Plato.

(a) Human beings are the offspring of the cosmic god.--But Plato would reject this, because the cosmic god is immortal, and Plato thinks that reproduction occurs only insofar as mortal things aim to imitate the immortal. The cosmic god has no need of this, thus it would have no need of reproduction.

(b) Human beings are a transient portion or image of the cosmic god (a view like that sometimes ascribed to Heraclitus). --But then everything about how we are constituted does not belong to us; it belongs rather to the universe. And there would be no principles for our action other than those that we might have borrowed from the cosmic god. In short, this view cannot account for our individual responsibility.

Thus, Plato needs to postulate some distinct origin for us, and, given that he does so, it is simpler for him to make this cause also the cause of the cosmos.

Broadie then supported this suggestion with a brief recounting of the story in the Timaeus about how human beings are fashioned--where each human soul is assigned to a star, and the human body is composed of stuff left over from the making of the universe. Plato is purposefully describing a process that is analogous to the making of the universe: "Human beings are more like siblings of the cosmic god than offspring," she said, "We are not parts of the cosmic god but as it were parasites living within it."

Again, suppose that Plato had postulated only a cosmic god, and that the intellects of human beings were therefore parts or sparks of the cosmic intellect. Broadie insisted: on that picture, it is at least doubtful that a human intellect could gain access to intelligibles other than those that were available to the cosmic intellect. But if our ability to go beyond what the cosmic intellect thinks about is in doubt, then it also becomes doubtful that we can arrive at suitable ideal paradigms for human government--since certainly systems of government of human society mean nothing to the cosmic animal.

In conclusion: Plato's reasons for postulating a Maker god have nothing to do with "raising up human beings above the natural world." That project makes sense only on a naturalistic view of the world, but (as Plato's willingness to regard the cosmos as a god reveals) Plato is not concerned with naturalism in that sense. Rather, he wishes to explain how we can have responsibility for our actions, as being in some way 'first causes' of our actions, and he therefore traces our origin to a cause which is responsible for the cosmos as well.


That' s the precis. If you have observations or objections, why not raise them as comments? I suspect some of the objections you might have were raised also in the Q&A, and I can tell you how Broadie replied then. (I have some concerns of my own--of course!--but for now I prefer to hear what you think.)


Michael Pakaluk said...

Okay, I'll raise a concern.

Why isn't it sufficient to appeal to Plato's explicit reasoning?

To the question, "Why couldn't Plato have been satisfied with pantheism?" why shouldn't we provide an answer of the sort that Plato actually gives, viz.:

"Because pantheism postulates a corporeal god; but (Plato thinks) anything corporeal must have come into existence; and whatever has come into existence (he holds) does so through the agency of a maker."

I wonder whether Broadie's calling attention to Plato's use of the word themis is meant to suggest that these ostensible premises for his argument do not actually function as premises, but rather more like constraints that any explanation of the universe must satisfy--and then we need to investigate why he wished to set down such constraints.