At the beginning of the Timeaus, Socrates indicates that what we are about to witness is a work of a political philosophy. Having presented an image of the most just city the day before, he now asks the men gathered to set this city into motion, to show the activity of justice and to demonstrate how the perfect laws and institutions he has devised, practically work. It seems, however, that the men he is speaking with play a small joke on him and on us. Rather than an account of the city in motion, Timeaus gives an extended account of the origin of the heavens and the earth. Rather than a work of practical and political philosophy, we are given what seems to be pseudo-scientific account the origin and nature of the finite world.
However, as the natural realm indicates, appearances are often deceiving. Socrates begins the dialogue by giving a summary of the city that he had previously described(17d-19b). Those familiar with Plato’s Republic recognize his description as following the account of the the city detailed in Books 2-5 of that work. Readers of the Republic will also recollect that in his summary and presumably in the conversation of the previous day, Socrates has left out the most important images in the city’s development. For beginning at the end of Book 5 and carrying through to Book 7 and, arguably, to the end of the Republic, Socrates describes the relationship of the city and the individual to the Good. After all, for justice to be a “good” that we desire and actively seek, it must, Socrates says, participate in something which is good in and of itself. For without “the good of it,”what would be the point of justice or any of the other “goods” that we want? In these later books of the Republic Socrates describes both our yearning for the good and also the seeming difficulty we have in getting a firm grasp on it. As a result, the perfect justice of the city is left in some doubt, instead we have images of individuals and cities striving o achieve ever better versions of both it and themselves.
The argument of the Timeaus picks up at the end of Book 5 of the Republic. Rather than describing humans and cities striving upwards towards the good, we are given instead an image of the Good or the divine descending downward. The image Timeaus draws is of a perfect craftsmen who strive because of his own goodness to create something that as much as is possible mirrors his own perfection and beauty. Having to contend with the realm of Necessity, however, the god is not free to overturn the laws of logic, and while the world that he creates is as good as it might be, it nonetheless is other and difference is a necessity.
Socrates asks Timeaus to show him a city in motion, specifically, the perfect city at war. And Timeaus does exactly this. He shows the “divine city” at “war” in the realm of necessity. The material realm, we learn has laws of its own. The science of matter, the laws, for instance, of physics, cannot be overturned. Instead, they can be known, predicted and used for the benefit of what is understood to be good. The divine craftsmen, who knows better than we the nature of the good, is most adept at transforming the realm of matter and seeming arbitrary motion and instability, into a world of great beauty. For example and not unimportantly, under divine ministering, element water becomes sap and even wine (60b).
Our own existence is a result of this “war” and an example of its on-going activity. Composed of both bodies and souls, we participate in the divine life of the craftsmen and the material realm of necessity. Timeaus indicates that our final happiness, depends on governing the necessary elements of our bodies which in space and time in a way that corresponds to how the divine crafted the nature of the universe.
Timeaus’s image of the origin of the world is of the divine intellect creating, mixing and molding the elements of nature into one of such beauty that, while other, reflects the nature perfect goodness in itself. Looking to the world, we can know something of the nature of Goodness in itself, and, further, perceive in its workings how we might best mold and govern ourselves so as to similarly reflect the nature of the divine.
Looking to the perfect assembly of stars, we might assemble ourselves in similarly ordered and harmonious ways, reflecting the divine light back unto It. In the Republic, we strive with great difficulty to know and understand the Good. Timeaus gives us a moment of rest. The Good is not outside of our reach. It is reflected in and around us. And the divine is not without care. His love and attention is manifest in the very reality in which we are immersed.