Illustrations for Science from Plato’s Timaeus

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A few weeks ago, I was at the annual meeting of the Association of Classical Christian Schools, where someone recommended that scientists go home and read Plato’s Timaeus. Being a physics professor, I went home and did so. Timaeus functions as a sort of ancient science textbook; in the words of one of its characters, it is a book that “will begin with the birth of the world and end with the nature of man1”, and all in about 120 pages. Our modern students should be so lucky.

It is a fascinating read that could lead to some great discussions in a science or philosophy course even in contemporary America. Allow me to highlight just two subject areas a teacher could cover from the book. While the end of the book has great discussions of ancient anatomy, you don’t want this physicist discoursing too much about medicine, so I’ll stick to the middle part of the book which is ancient atomic theory.

Ancient Atomic Theory

The Timaeus is a stupendous example of someone trying to build a model of reality from limited observational data – and limited observations are, of course, all scientists ever have to work with even today. But in the case of the Timaeus, the limited observations will be observations any student knows personally. Why does fire destroy other objects, and what is happening when they are destroyed? Why does water break apart clods of dirt but we don’t see air doing that? Relevant to 2021 perhaps, why can’t I smell odors through that mask? And even the obvious but important observation that larger objects are created by putting smaller objects together, and we can also reverse that process and cut up larger objects into smaller pieces.

The answer Plato settles on will be generally familiar: everything is composed of four elements, which we can call fire, air, water, and earth. (Though even here, it is repeatedly emphasized that this is a probable description, that only the gods know for certain. Like a good scientist, and entirely unlike many moderns who want to worship The Science, Plato keeps you aware of the uncertainty in his model.) However, the lesser-known details are, you might say, where all the cool science happens. He associates with each element a shape, and from that shape and the varying sizes of that shape derive the properties of the elements. 

Fire, for example, is a pyramid, (think “fire atoms are pyramid-shaped”, to put it in modern parlance). This is the sharpest of the four shapes he will offer, which accounts for fire’s ability to cut up and disintegrate other objects (and the pain it causes to humans). Earth is a cube, therefore also the most stable of the four elements. Water is an icosahedron, a generally larger shape, which is why it will dislodge particles of earth when it tries to navigate through them—smaller fire and air particles can slip through without effect. And, to put it briefly, odors occur when water is changing into air or air into water–the odor particles are therefore larger than air particles and so can be blocked by a mask, while air still passes through!

This is just a quick summary and a few of the many good questions Plato asks (what does it mean for something to be a solid? Why does wine react on the tongue differently than honey? Etc.) – there is plenty that could be discussed, and one reaction I kept having while reading is “it is remarkable how far an incorrect model can take you.”  And the history of science is filled with incorrect models that worked well until they didn’t. You don’t want to teach this book as “this is how the world actually is,” of course, but it is one smart ancient thinker’s attempt to wrestle with physical reality, and there are many parallels with modern theories to be drawn out.

Before the Fragmentation of Knowledge

I work in public higher education where interdisciplinary work is very popular these days. Everyone recognizes that, over the centuries, knowledge has become fragmented. That fragmentation is not entirely unreasonable inasmuch as it happened because there is so much to know and understand now, in even just one of the sciences, that we cannot teach everything to everybody. But there is a recognition that the fragmentation has also hurt us, we lost something when we made everybody into a specialist. Well, one way to bring integration back to education is to read from works that were composed before the fragmentation happened – the Timaeus is one of those works.

Plato presents a theory of the universe that he derives from empirical observations, careful logic and reason, and theological beliefs—all interwoven with each other. It is repeatedly emphasized that the universe we inhabit was created by the supreme god to be intelligible, and that studying the order of our universe is one of the noblest (you might even say “divine”) activities that man can undertake. My goodness, you could sit with a class just on that for a while. For example, vision was given to man, he says, “in order that we might observe the circuits of intelligence in the heaven and profit by them for the revolutions of our own thought.” Nothing exists accidentally in the Timaeus.

And it is repeatedly emphasized that the universe we have is a sort of compromise between a god desiring to create a universe as perfect as possible, but subject to the constraints of logic and limitations of the materials they had to work with. Now, no school is going to follow Plato in his integration exactly, but like many classic works, the Timaeus raises excellent questions as an entry point for discussions about how our philosophy or theology should interact with our science. It’s a worthy read for any student or teacher of the sciences.

Dr. David Shane
Dr. David Shane is a professor of Physics at Lansing Community College, and also serves on the board of directors of Cedar Classical Academy.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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