Apr 132013

Jacob Glover

In Plato’s Timaeus, Timaeus offers a cosmogony. He holds that there are two original principles in the cosmos, namely, intelligence and necessity. The beginning of the cosmos, Timaeus claims, depends on a particular event, the persuasion of necessity by intelligence. He says:

For mixed indeed was the birth of this cosmos here, and begotten from a standing-together of necessity and intellect; and as intellect was ruling over necessity by persuading her to lead most of what comes to be toward what’s best, in this way accordingly was this all constructed at the beginning: through necessity worsted by thoughtful persuasion. (Timaeus, 48a).

This is a dense passage because it contains the entire first moment of creation. But what is most interesting to me is the way Plato uses the verb “persuade.” By using “persuade” Plato immediately moves from scientific or philosophical discourse into poetry. Even the idea that necessity has desire or will is poetic, i.e. the suggestion that necessity and intelligence have intention and interact with another creates the metaphorical image of two people debating. Plato suggests that necessity wants to do one thing, but intelligence persuades it do another. He is personifying absolute principles of the cosmos as desiring entities.

Why does Plato need to rely on this metaphor of this cosmic persuasion in order to explain the moment in which necessity and intelligence stand together to create the cosmos? I think that Plato here conceives dialogue itself as containing a certain element of creativity. Then he transfers the creativity inherent in dialogue metaphorically to the creation of the cosmos.  Necessity is pure potential for movement toward some end, while intelligence functions as a conditioning or triangulating principle. And persuasion is the third element or mediator that makes it all possible.

This cosmic conversation, which Plato refers to as a σύστασις or a standing-together, depends on persuasion or πειθώ.  Persuasion is characteristically human because it deals in desire and belief. To persuade means to change someone’s mind, to convince him by talking, not by force. In The Republic Polemarchus points out that “you can’t persuade people who won’t listen” (Republic, 327c) because persuasion is the movement of one mind from disagreement to agreement, a change in will.

Necessity is, as Plato describes it, an absolute condition of things which come into being. Necessity is a sub-surface condition, a cause of causes, an axiom of existence. “Everything that comes to be, of necessity comes to be from some cause; for apart from a cause, it’s impossible for anything to have a coming to be” (Timeaus, 28a). Necessity is the condition upon which cause can cause, or it is a condition of existence: everything that exists must have a cause. But, for Plato, necessity isn’t an autonomously creative principle. Rather necessity must come into some sort of communication (standing-together) with intelligence in order to produce. The Greek word we translate as intelligence is νους which also means mind. Frequently in ancient philosophy these two translations seem to be interchangeable. The word νους implies that the universe has some sort of thinking component akin to the human mind. Intelligence deals in thought; necessity in causality.

In order to explain persuasion’s mediating function I want to take a close look at the Greek lines: ταύτῃ κατὰ ταῦτά τε δι᾽ ἀνάγκης ἡττωμένησ ὑπὸ πειθοῦς ἔμφρονος οὕτω κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς συνίστατο τόδε τὸ πᾶν. (As above: “in this way accordingly was this all constructed at the beginning: through necessity worsted by thoughtful persuasion.And here is my own translation following a more literal word order: “Thus in this way, and accordingly, through necessity bested by thoughtful persuasion as the beginning, this all was constructed.”)  The first thing to notice is that neither intellect nor necessity is the subject of the sentence. Plato tags the subject “the all” at the end with the verb almost as an after-thought. Both intelligence and necessity are in phrases which make them logical conditions for the subject and the verb, but the two principles themselves are not active in this sentence. The sentence seems to imply that their action (standing together) has already taken place.

Secondly, πειθοῦ, the word for persuasion, is in the exact middle of the sentence with eight words on either side. In English this would not be as interesting because word order means more grammatically and syntactically and less in terms of theme. But, in Greek, word order can affect the theme of the sentence. Placing πειθοῦ in the middle of the sentence gives it a sort of bridging function, or it pulls either end of the sentence together. I think that the word placement and the grammatical constructions Plato uses here are crucially diagrammatic of the way he understands (or at least Timaeus understands) the interaction between intelligence and necessity. At the level of sentence structure Plato seems to suggest that persuasion is a causeway of sorts. It brings together the two conditions which constitute the creation of the cosmos.

Another way of  explaining persuasion in this context might be to see how the cosmic conversation compares to the actual conversation which begins the Plato’s dialogue Timaeus. Socrates and his interlocutors start by discussing the interlocutors’ duty to give speeches to honour their host. Timaeus says: “It wouldn’t be at all just for those of us who are left, after being entertained by you yesterday with gifts so befitting to a guest, not to host you heartily in return” (Timaeus, 17b). So Timaeus and his friends make speeches because they owe them to Socrates, not out of an agreement made between them but on account of the traditional courtesies between guest and host. There is, in other words, a necessity for them to make speeches, a necessity driven by tradition. But tradition itself only requires a speech; it does not suggest the content of the speech. And this is the way Plato wants us to understand necessity, i.e. it provides a motion (or form)—make a speech–without giving it or purpose.

Then Socrates himself suggests the content of the speeches. He briefly summarizes the account of the just state in The Republic. Then he suggests that Timaeus and his friends make a “full account” (Timaeus, 19c) of a city founded on those principles, i.e. describe the city as if it were real and not just a “word-picture of an ideal state” (Republic, 472e); their speeches should create this city. As Critias says, it is as if they are to reveal “by the oracular voice of the sacred texts, and, in what remains, to make speeches as though about men who are already citizens” (Timaeus, 27b). Socrates stands in for the cosmological “intelligence” at this creative moment. The conversation among the friends and guests is at a critical point; it could either fizzle into nothing or create something new and real. Again, Socrates offers the content; the desire to speak comes from outside of Socrates, i.e. from tradition. To revert to the cosmological creation story, necessity is like a person coming out of a tradition and who must perform actions for no reason other than the imperatives of custom and habit, and intelligence is the philosopher from The Republic looking toward the good. If there is no persuasion then the result is the moment in The Republic when Cephalus walks away to continue sacrificing.

But where is the precise moment of persuasion in the conversation between Socrates and Timaeus? Socrates’ suggestion is technically the moment of persuasion. This is not perhaps a moment of pure persuasion because Timaeus, Critias and Hermocrates do not need much convincing. But persuasion is inherent in the way Socrates rationalizes why they should speak about the city. Persuasion is in the moment when both parties agree on the goal. The precise turn is hard to pinpoint because before someone is persuaded he is being convinced and afterwards he is only persuaded in retrospect. Persuasion is this moment in creation when an object is rationalized to a desire which until then had no object. This results in a reason to move and thus begins the act of creation.

—Jacob Glover


Plato. The Timaeus. Trans. Peter Kalkavage. Newbury Port: Focus Publishing, 2001.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.


Jacob Glover is in his senior year in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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