The Marriage of Opposites

An Account of the Birth of the Cosmos

Through Hierarchies in Plato’s Timaeus

Aside from being a well-rounded, canonical thinker of the Ancient World, Plato, unlike his student Aristotle, has given us but one pivotal work of science. While Aristotle can claim fame preponderantly for his copious works ranging from ethics and cosmology, it is the latter which unites these two philosophers, aside from a historical and personal proximity.[1] When undertaking to formulate a cosmology, one notices the ever-widening gap between man in the present and the theoretical birth of the same within the collective past. The proximity of the two—man and creator (or creating force)—seems to lessen in spite of the efforts of the cosmologist to amplify it. In Plato’s account of the creation of the universe, his Timaeus, the problem of bridging this gap is met by his introduction of what are termed Hierarchies.[2]

The solution is to stress man and nature’s sub-ordinance to divine dualities and to form a cohesive explanation of what it means to be by amalgamating the dichotomies of types of being and not-being. Focusing on Plato’s Timaeus, these themes of simultaneously merging opposites to demonstrate the order and creation of the universe will be here explored. Attention will be given to those Hierarchies of Perfect over Imperfect, Beautiful over the Ugly, and Cause over the Caused. In so doing, an explanation of Plato’s use of them in the Timaeus will be produced.

Originality was both crucial and impossible to avoid in the formation of the cosmos. It was argued by the philosopher that creation emerged of itself, and not externally. Plato says this self-emergence can be called the Demiurge.[3] He also mentions that “whenever [the Creator/Creating Force] look[ed] to the unchangeable and fashion[ed] the form and nature of his work after an unchangeable pattern”, it was the first instance of such.[4] When considering forces and works which had not yet been manipulated, they have must by virtue of their virginity been pure, “[must have] necessarily be[en] made fair and perfect”.[5]

Presenting his first Hierarchy, Plato follows these lines with a description of their antithesis, imperfection of design adapted from something already created. But, after presenting these two opposing points—that perfection is found only in pure design, and imperfection eternally tied to contrived derivation—he melds the two concepts, stating: “Created . . . and therefore sensible . . . all sensible things are apprehended by opinion and sense” the faculties from which conceptualizations of perfection and imperfection arise. Similarly, “[things created] [when] in a process of creation [were] created”.[6] Plato uses the Hierarchy pair of Perfection over Imperfection to account for the supremacy of the world and nature, and expresses that a perfect creation must be original, yet is born of itself, and in theory, deriving and emulating its already-existing self, which would be imperfection.

Building on this structure, Plato uses the pair of Hierarchies the Beautiful over the Ugly to help define what becomes the geometry lesson of the Timaeus. Triangles are given preference over all other shapes and forms, quite without explanation in the text, and in this vein, are said to be chosen mainly because of their inexplicable beauty. “ . . . [W]e must endeavour to construct the four forms of bodies which excel in beauty”, Plato seems to rejoice in saying, “and secure the right to say that we have sufficiently apprehended their nature”.[7] Important as a strong statement of preference of the beautiful over the ugly, Plato’s logic always seems to reflect that of and support the particularly pair of Hierarchies concerned in the text: “Of the infinite forms we must again select the most beautiful”.[8] Following through on this usage of the Hierarchies, Plato’s Timaeus draws attention to the opposite of the pair, that of ugliness, and while expressing that the opposite—any shape or form besides a triangle—is not adequate to translate the ideas of the universe into creation, though Plato, joining the ugly with the beautiful, offered the “carry[ing] off [of] the palm, not as an enemy, but as a friend” at not a defeat or discovery of a better form, but the union of the two, beautiful and ugly forms.[9] Ultimately, the beautiful takes precedence.

Coming to the third of these examples of Plato’s employment of his Hierarchies in pairs which demonstrated the important duality of those concepts which were and which were-not, an analysis of the Cause over the Caused must be made. “ . . . [T]hat which is created must . . .  we affirm, of necessity be created by a cause[,]” and so the necessity and existence of cause is stated.[10] Here, Plato’s Timaeus established the precedence of the cause over the caused, but acknowledged the veracity of both. It seems Plato, in his dialogue the Timaeus, actually has his pairs of Hierarchies initiate dialogue when he has Timaeus inquire as to whether the Demiurge aimed to derive creation from the unchangeable or that which is created.[11] This is, as always, the philosopher’s commencement of the merging of the pair to reinforce the novel concept of the Hierarchy with precedence. Plato, once joining the concepts of the cause and the caused, affirms his amalgamation by postulating that “[e]veryone will see that [the Creator/Creating Force] must have looked to the eternal, for the world is the fairest of creations and [Creation] is the best of causes”.[12]

Through his presentation of numerous Hierarchies, Plato, speaking through the characters of his cosmological dialogue, the Timaeus, managed to solve the problem of the ever-separating of the created and the creator, man and nature—the divine. While Plato presents many Hierarchies, those which explored the Perfect over the Imperfect aspects of nature and the divine, the Beautiful over the Ugly, and Cause over the Caused proved enough to amalgamate while joining each other, those two primary forms which have trouble being joined. Nature and the divine, and the ordering of creation the way it was perceived to have been by Plato were facilitated by a basic system of dichotomies.[13] Because Plato brings together opposing, separate examples, he simultaneously brings together rationalizations of the universe which seem distinct.

To Plato, everything, when its origin is considered, stems from either a derived source a manipulation of internal ability.[14] His Timaeus in its very structure serves as an example of this consideration, and one observes the work is itself a type of marriage of opposites, with its opposition acknowledged, but not addressed; there are considered to be only two sides, unequal in individual stature, but together matched in importance to the outcome or final creation, regardless of the source of that creation.

For a cosmology, the work acts on many levels, explaining in its unique structure the evolution of the universe, while it being an evolution and creation. Each time read, the Timaeus reveals other presentations and applications of the Hierarchies in their ability to be translated to any question of creative veracity. Perhaps the best example of one of the pair of Hierarchies from the Timaeus is one indicative of the functionality of all others: that beauty and ugliness exist, but one can only be created from—or in comparison to, in context with—the other. In this vein, Plato bridged the gap, and gave birth to his cosmos.


Primary Sources

Plato, Timaeus; taken from Plato: The Collected Dialogues (Princeton University Press). Private collection.

Secondary Sources

Lindberg, David C., The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press). Private collection.

[1] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 86.

[2] Ibid., p. 39.

[3] Ibid., pp. 39-40.

[4] Plato, Timaeus, 28b.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Plato, Timaeus, 28c.

[7] Ibid., 54a.

[8] Plato, Timaeus, 54a.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 28c.

[11] Ibid., 29a.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Lindberg, Western Science, p. 42.

[14] Ibid., p. 105.