Timaeus, or the Universe as a Living Thing

Cosmology is an art that involves speaking about the whole: to do cosmology, I must share stories with others concerning what we all belong to. This can be done in many languages –some musical, others mathematical– and if I succeed, perhaps in English text.

The universe is a body, according to Plato– a Living Thing. It is unlike our own animal bodies, because it has no arms or legs to move around, since it is everywhere at once. Nor does it have a mouth, since there is nothing for it to eat except itself. Nor eyes, for who would it see?

Plato’s living cosmos is both still and in motion at once. It is a moving image of eternity. Our own bodies are signs of this body, mortal replicas of the universal model. This Cosmic Being is not just an empty body, though; it is given life by a soul.

Plato writes (as Timaeus in the dialogue) of a soul woven together with the body of the universe, and that:

…revolving within itself, [the world soul] initiated a divine beginning of unceasing, intelligent life for all time, (p.1240, Plato Complete Works).

Eternity can only appear to move and remain unified because of the harmony of time, as recounted by the soul. Plato sees the cause of the motion of the fixed stars is none other than there destiny: time is told according to number –past and future part of a single whole– together a “symphony of proportion.” The universe is a living likeness of the One held together by the music of the spheres.

Plato writes:

This world of ours has received and teems with living things, mortal and immortal. A visible living thing containing visible ones, perceptible god, image of the intelligible Living Thing, its grandness, goodness, beauty and perfection are unexcelled, (p. 1291, PCW).

Plato’s tale (he admits several times it is only a “likely story”) includes a demiurge, a divine craftsman responsible for shaping the chaos of matter into an ordered cosmos. The demiurge created lesser gods to make humans, because a truly immortal thing such as he could not create mortals. Intermediaries were required. Plato means the fixed and wandering stars (planets) when he speaks of gods, and says of the earth that it “ranks as the foremost, the one with greatest seniority,” and is our nurturer and guardian of night and day (p. 1244, PCW).

Though he speaks often of mortal bodies in general (by which he means the male body), seldom does Plato mention sex. When he does, he explains its origin thus:

…according to our likely account, all male-born humans who lived lives of cowardice or injustice were reborn in the second generation as women, (p. 1289, PCW).

It’s a fitting tale for a philosopher in love with only invisible ideas and their abstract explanations. But in the embodied world, sex remains to be encountered before it can be accounted for. Plato explains sexual difference by all but avoiding it, which is to say he demands we reign in our bodily desires to commit ourselves entirely to the Good itself, beyond all space and time, and especially beyond the pleasures and pains of the body. Only a brief line or two are required for Plato to remind the reader that the female body is but a corupted offshoot of man’s. He describes a woman’s uterus as though it were the cause of a demonic possession, making women nearly incapable of being reasoned with (Plato, in the Republic, does grant women rational souls of their own); he speaks of intercourse as “plucking the fruit from a tree, [sowing] the seed into the plough field of [the] womb” (p. 1290, PCW), thereby making man the cause of new life, and woman merely its temporary vessel. [Read this essay I wrote last year for more on the repression of femininity throughout Western history. Riane Eisler has elsewhere detailed the importance of agricultural metaphors in patriarchal civilization.]

Cosmology is the study of the body of the universe, its soul, and the living, procreating, and dying of the plants and animals within it. Plato retains a few precious hints of the goddess mysteries that tied pre-historical human civilization together; but much of his account of the cosmos is despite sex and death, rather than integral with them. Plato’s is the story of Man’s universe, though he is still forced at times to admit the presence of something else.

The most mysterious of Plato’s metaphysical concepts is not the demiurge, whose fatherly role is quite straightforward; rather, the motherly Receptacle remains “difficult and vague,” as Plato writes of this “wetnurse”:

Not only does it always receive all things, it has never in any way whatever taken on any characteristic similar to any of the things that enter it, (p. 1253).

The demiurge could not create on his own, but needed the help of space, of the cosmic womb. What does it mean that our universe is the product of such divine intercourse? Plato does his best to make it a sexless cosmos, and his failure is evidenced by his blatant phallocentrism. Where his ancient Greek tale fails, we modern children of Gaia are called to put the pieces back together. How are we to tell the story of our universe so that it celebrates women, sex, and mortality as much as the True, the Good, and the Beautiful?

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