Reviewed by C.C.W. Taylor in Phronesis 56 (2011) 93-111
Richard D. Mohr and Barbara M. Sattler, eds., One Book, The Whole Universe:
Plato's Timaeus Today
Las Vegas, Zurich, Athens, Parmenides Publishing, 2010, pp. 416, ISBN 978-1-30972-32-2, pbk., $87.00.
This remarkable book derives from a conference held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2007. The title of the conference was 'Life, the Universe, Everything – and More: Plato's Timaeus Today' and the ambitious scope of that title is fairly reflected in the contents of the book. In addition to essays in exegesis of the dialogue and of a wide range of related ancient works it contains essays on modern theoretical physics, on the depiction of the Atlantis myth in film, on the influence of that myth on architectural theory in the Renaissance and later, and on the application to modern design (in fashion, architecture etc.) of structural principles bearing some similarity to those basic to the cosmology of the dialogue. The editorial matter includes a link to a website containing animations illustrating three of the chapters (p. 24); according to a note in the acknowledgements (p. 26) the volume was originally intended to include a DVD containing film clips on the Atlantis theme, but that proved impossible, apparently for reasons of copyright. The twenty-two contributors, all but two based in North America, include several of the most distinguished contemporary writers on ancient philosophy, as well as experts in the other disciplines indicated above.
Following a general introductory essay and abstracts of the papers (by Richard D. Mohr), the volume proper is book-ended by two papers by theoretical physicists. The opening paper, by Anthony Leggett, Nobel Prizewinner in 2003 (who, before turning to physics, read Greats, including ancient philosophy, at Oxford), argues that the main interest of the Timaeus for contemporary physicists consists, not in its answering any questions, but in its raising questions which are still disputed, e.g. 'Did the Universe have a beginning?', 'Does the Universe exist in time, or does time presuppose the existence of the Universe?', 'Is the Universe unique?' and, most fundamentally, 'Why does the Universe exist?'. In the concluding chapter of the book Sean M. Carroll sets out the answers to some of these questions proposed by contemporary theorists, pointing out for example that the questions of whether the Universe had a beginning, and whether it is self-sustaining, or requires some external cause, are still open, and that the answers will be reached, if at all, only after much further investigation.
Following Leggett's paper the first main section is devoted to cosmology, broadly conceived. It includes a magisterial comparison by Anthony Long of Plato's Demiurge with the cosmic god of Stoicism, a survey by Charles Kahn of cosmology in Plato's later dialogues and an exceptionally wideranging paper by T.M. Robinson, which touches on topics as diverse as Plato's anticipations of the Big Bang (in the Timaeus) and of multi-dimensionality (in the myth of the Statesman), and his harsh views on atheism and homosexuality in the Laws. There follows a section on space, the receptacle and the primary bodies, including papers directly on the dialogue (by Donald Zeyl and Verity Harte), comparison with Empedocles and Anaxagoras (Stephen Menn), and discussions of later reception (Ian Mueller on Neo-Platonists and Zina Giannopolou on Derrida). Aristotle's criticism of the Timaeus is the subject of two papers, by Thomas Johansen on final causes and Alan Code on weight. Myles Burnyeat's seminal paper 'Eikōs Muthos' (mentioned in last year's Book Notes, p. 119) is discussed in two closely-argued papers, the first by Gabor Betegh (drawing on an earlier paper mentioned in the same section of last year's Notes) and the second by Alexander Mourelatos. While both are broadly sympathetic to Burnyeat's central claim that the mode of reasoning referred to as an eikōs muthos is not theoretical but practical, they conclude, on different grounds, that that is compatible with the more traditional understanding of the role of the muthos as explanatory. (The importance of Burnyeat's paper is incidentally attested by its citation by Robinson (pp. 101-3) and Johansen (p. 192).) The themes of time, rationality and history in the Timaeus and Critias are discussed by Barbara Sattler and Kathryn Morgan; these papers are followed by the essays on the visual arts mentioned above, which include much fascinating information and some delightful illustrations. (My favourites are the beautiful coloured photographs of the filigree headdresses worn by the Miao women of Guiyang-Huaxi, China, and of a 100-metre high glass and steel tower based on their design (pp. 368-9).) The volume is concluded by an index locorum and general index. There is no general bibliography; references to relevant literature are given in the footnotes to individual chapters.
The rich diversity of the subject-matter of this volume is matched by the overall high quality of the contributions. It should not be missed by anyone with an interest in the Timaeus or its Nachleben.