This paper aims to show that Plato’s account of time in the Timaeus can be understood as the first attempt to provide a universal temporal framework by synthesizing many of the preceding notions of time. The secondary literature on time in the Timaeus (cf. as especially influential Vlastos, Mohr and Broadie) simply takes such a universal framework for granted, since it does not look at the Platonic account in connection to preceding temporal notions in early Greek literature – philosophical as well as non-philosophical. Accordingly, it has not yet become clear in the scholarly debate how much Plato himself is already a crucial unifier of different temporal notions.
With respect to a few paradigmatic authors, such as Homer, Hesiod, Heraclitus, and Sophocles, I want to show that before Plato we do not find one unified notion of time, but instead different temporal notions that are relatively independent of each other. Chronos is often understood by modern scholars as the equivalent of our term “time”. However, in the very beginning of Greek literature, chronos indicates solely a particular time, usually a long time; and it can also stand for lifetime. While chronos slowly develops as a more encompassing temporal notion, as we can see, for example, with Pindar’s idea of chronos as the father of all things, I want to show that it is only from Plato onwards that chronos was finally conceptualized in such a way that other temporal notions such as hêmera or eniautos could be subsumed under it. Thus it can be understood as time in the sense that all temporal phenomena can be situated within it.
I will show that one of Plato’s crucial moves to derive a singular, unified notion of time is by contrasting chronos to another temporal notion that originally meant more or less the same as chronos and to which in the Timaeus he gives a different meaning, aiôn. This contrast between chronos and aiôn is established with the help of what we can analyse as two moves: 1) The main meaning of aiôn before Plato is lifetime, life, age, generation or a long time (cf. Theunissen (2000) and Vlastos (1995b)). All these different meanings signify the temporal nature of a life or a part of a life. With human beings and animals “lifetime” it includes the thought of finiteness as well as of changing and moving. In a first step Plato separate the two aspects of aiôn, a temporal and one to do with living, by understanding the unchanging model of the world as a zôon aidion. The aspect of aliveness is now captured by zôon. 2) In a second step Plato gets rid of any idea of finitude and change that is connected with aiôn as lifetime of human beings and animals. He does so by situating the model as zôon aidion beyond the realm of any becoming and by explicitly claiming that the nature of aiôn can never be bestowed on something that is begotten. Being aidion is explicitly differentiated from merely going on forever, which is what we are told happens to the world once it is created, it is going on with its rational life sumpanta chronon, for all time (36e).
This is part of the way in which I want to show how the contrast between time and eternity so familiar for us is carefully developed first by Plato’s synthesis and re-interpretation of a collection of temporal notions.