You are here

Atomism and the Receptacle in Plato's Timaeus

Matthew Gorey

University of Washington

Despite widespread popularity in the ancient world and a long tradition of detailed exegeses, Plato’s Timaeus continues to elude straightforward interpretation. One particularly vexed issue is the ontological status of the δεξαμενή, or ‘Receptacle’ (48a-53c), said to nurse physical objects into being through the process of ‘becoming’. This Receptacle is described as a pre-cosmic ‘container’ filled with chaotic proto-elements that require further organization by a divine creator, but it is unclear how such elements can exist prior to the divine creation. Although the Receptacle provides a crucial venue for explaining the interplay of divine intelligence and material causes in the dialogue’s account of cosmogony, our understanding of its significance has varied considerably due to the allegorical nature of its language. I argue that Plato constructs the Receptacle and its pre-cosmic conditions in distinctly Democritean terms, evoking atomism in order to imagine allegorically (and tendentiously) what a fully materialist cosmology would look like in the absence of divine teleology.

The debate between literal and allegorical interpretations of the Timaeus’ cosmogonies has been an enduring feature of Platonic scholarship since ancient times (Sedley 2007). While ancient philosophers prior to Proclus favored a literal interpretation of the divine creation (Baltes 1976), modern scholars tend to explain the Receptacle as an allegory for how material causes, gathered under the banner of Necessity or the ‘wandering cause’, function in the absence of primary divine causation (Ruben 2016, Broadie 2012, Johansen 2004, et al). Yet despite this emphasis upon materialism in explaining the Receptacle, virtually no commentators perceive in the passage any meaningful engagement with atomism, one of the most influential materialist cosmologies of the early 4th century. Early commentaries by Taylor (1928) and Cornford (1937) discuss the possibility of Democritean or Empedoclean influence, but both ultimately deny the presence of Democritean intertexts, with Taylor favoring Empedocles as the primary model for the materialist elements of the Receptacle.

Without discounting the possibility of engagement with Empedoclean materialism, I argue that Democritus provides a more attractive model for Plato’s description of the Receptacle in its pre-creation state. First, I discuss the purpose of the Receptacle within the broader context of the dialogue, which serves to problematize the insufficiency of blind (i.e. non-teleological) mechanism as a cosmological principle. In particular, I demonstrate that Democritean atomism is a more likely source for such blind materialism than Empedoclean cosmology, which, as Sedley (2007) argues, retains various teleological features. In addition, I cite a little-discussed passage of Aristotle’s De Caelo (300b9ff ) that explicitly compares Democritean atomism to Plato’s Receptacle. My central focus, however, will be Plato’s simile comparing the Receptacle and its proto-elements to a winnowing basket for grain (52d-53b). Against arguments by Cornford (1937) to the contrary, I show how Plato’s image engages with a well-known Democritean simile, that of the grain sieve, which was used as an analogy for the operation of atoms according to mechanical principles (Taylor 1999).

I conclude by considering some implications regarding the place of the Timaeus within the intellectual and philosophical currents of the 4th century. In contrast to his penchant for citing specific philosophers and schools by name, Plato never directly addresses Democritus or atomism in his writings. In light of Democritus’ popularity and importance in the philosophical tradition, his omission from Platonic dialogues is conspicuous, and almost certainly indicates a conscious silence, as opposed to lack of awareness, on Plato’s part (Ferwerda 1972). Therefore, recognition of Democritean influence in the Timaeus, however indirect, provides an important point of contact between these two philosophers, suggesting that the atomist may have had a greater influence on Plato’s thought than previously suspected. Instead of rejecting Democritean atomism outright, the divine cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus incorporates atomic materialism as a subordinate part of a larger teleological whole.

Session/Panel Title

Mind and Matter

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy