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Always Becoming: Final and Efficient Causal Explanations in Plato's Timaeus

Scott Carson

Ohio University

I argue for the following claims: (1) The overall cosmogony presented in Plato’s Timaeus ought not to be read literally but as an extended metaphor; (2) Reading the text metaphorically shifts the explanatory emphasis from efficient causation to final causation; and (3) in light of this approach I retain ἀεί at 28a1.

Several recent scholars, including Vlastos 1996 [1965], Johansen 2004, and Broadie 2012, have argued that the cosmological μῦθος presented by Timaeus in Plato’s dialogue of the same name is properly read as giving a literal, if approximate, account of the order of events in a literal act of creation by the Demiurge. I argue that this reading of the dialogue errs by moving the explanatory focus away from final causation in the direction of efficient causation, a move that I will show is contrary not only to the overall argument of the dialogue, but to Plato’s general metaphysical orientation.

At Timaeus 27d5–28a1 Timaeus says: “As I see it, then, we must begin by making the following distinction: What is that which always is and has no becoming, and what is that which becomes but never is?” (Zeyl 2000). It is made clear in what follows (28b7-c2) that the distinction is grounded in the conception of what is perceptible and tangible and hence material. This distinction tacitly endorses Plato’s view that what does not come to be, but always is, also is not material or perceptible; and explicitly claims that what does come to be always does so through some cause. The two sorts of cause that could give rise to the sort of “becoming thing” that is the cosmos are efficient and final causation. If, as some have argued, the Demiurge is external to the cosmos and literally brings it into being out of chaos (the literal reading), then the Demiurge is the efficient cause of the cosmos. However, it is worth noting that after introducing the Demiurge as a kind of “cosmos maker” who creates order out of chaos by imposing form on pre-material “stuff” of some kind, Plato shifts to speaking of Being itself as the “father” of the cosmos, the Receptacle as the “mother”, and what comes to be in the Receptacle as the “offspring”. Now, Plato famously speaks of what comes to be in the Receptacle as having the status of an image based upon a model, rather as the reflection in a mirror is an image of some other object. I suggest that this sort of relationship—that of reflected image and permanent model—is unlike the relationship between craftsman and artifact. When a carpenter makes a table, she does indeed impose “form” from the blueprint onto matter, but once that imposition is accomplished, the table sustains itself in existence with no further need either for the carpenter or the blueprint. But an image in a mirror will disappear as soon as the object of which it is the reflection moves away from the mirror. This sort of relationship, in which the becoming entity is sustained in its ontological state by reflecting or “pointing at” a permanent model, is clearly an instance of final causation.

If this is right, then it cannot be right to see the creation story as literally true, since the literal reading requires the Demiurge to act via efficient causation and to be external to the cosmos. Moreover, the μῦθος would seem to have greater explanatory power if it is appealing to the teleological nature of final causation, which explains ongoing existence through time in a way that is quite different from, and more consistent with Plato’s metaphysics, than efficient causation.

Finally, if this reading of the dialogue is correct, then retaining ἀεί at 28a1 emphasizes that the “becoming” of what comes to be in the Receptacle is an ongoing ontological state rather than a one time act of creation.

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