Release the Stars: Plato’s Timaeus in the Renaissance



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Release the Stars: Plato’s Timaeus in the Renaissance


Curated by Barbara Sattler, Dennis Sears, Bruce Swann, and Angela Zielinski-Kinney.
[[[[ Dennis, here are my suggestions—orange is how it appeared in the draft which you sent me, blue is what sounds better to me. All of the “cf.”s can be deleted (I did the first half dozen or so—I think even those in the footnotes could go too. After all, what’s the *#&$^* point of the footnote if not to ‘compare’/cf.—also the eg. [for e.g.] in note 22 can be deleted). I did a double strike-through of anything which I would eliminate—especially the “we show” and “we display” “we exhibit” comments. A few puzzles remain, including the use of the word ‘reception’ in ways not familiar to me; and as a rule I don’t like beginning a sentence with And, or But.; and I like the word ‘only’ to appear where it is supposed to appear, etc.]]]]
Introduction for the web:

This exhibition on of early prints editions of and texts referring to Plato’s Timaeus, including three incunabula and one manuscript, is part of a four-day conference on Plato’s Timaeus at the University of Illinois, September 13th to 16th, 2007. The conference spans the time from Presocratic influences on the Timaeus up to examples of post-modern architecture which employ the notion of chôra (space/matter) and the image of Atlantis from the Timaeus. A, if not the, climax of the reception of Plato’s Timaeus, the Renaissance, is the focus of this Rare Book room display. We exhibit t The translations that helped Plato’s Timaeus survive as the only Platonic text known to the Latin West during most of the Middle Ages are shown, as well as works exemplifying important stages of the reception of the Timaeus. Accordingly, the items in the exhibition can be divided into two groups, the first group comprises different translations of and commentaries on the Timaeus, the second contains books employing and critiquing central ideas of the Timaeus more broadly.

The books on display date from the 15th century to the early 17th century – a time marked by manifold political, scientific and technological changes, changes which are reflected in the various exhibits. The political transformations include the increasing military pressure of the Ottomans against Constantinople, leading eventually to its fall in the 15th century. This pressure forced many attempts at a closer political cooperation between the Latin West and the Byzantine Empire, which eventually proved to be ill-fated. However, these efforts did result in closer intellectual exchange, which included the diffusion of the Greek text of the Timaeus in the Latin West (we show one of the first Greek prints editions is in the exhibition). This exchange also motivated Cosimo de Medici to found the Platonic Academy in Florence following the example of Plato’s Academy. One of the Academy’s first heads, the Plato scholar Marsilio Ficino, produced the first complete translation of Plato’s works; in the exhibition we show there are several editions of his translation and commentary on the Timaeus.

The new technologies of the Renaissance appear, not least of all, in the fact that most of the exhibits shown are prints were printed – the process of printing from moveable type had just been invented in the mid 15th century and helped Plato’s works, which had been neglected in the late Middle Ages in the West, to spread rapidly after their re-discovery in the Renaissance. Among the printers, publishers and typographers of the late 15th and early 16th century Aldus Manutius was one of the most influential; situated in Venice, a city already famous for printing, Manutius produced many of the first editions of the Greek and Latin classics, is said to have invented italics, and set the standard font for Greek. The latter can be seen in his editio princeps of the Aristotelian corpus which we display one volume of which is on display. Another famous printer and publisher, based in Paris, was Henricus Stephanus, whose 1578 edition of Plato set the standard pagination for Plato’s works; a copy of it is also shown in the exhibition.

Finally, the Renaissance enjoyed newly awakening interest in the sciences, especially in astronomy, which we can see, e.g., in the prints editions of Kepler’s works in the exhibition. For him the mathematics and physics in the Timaeus were particularly important. And , and the improvements in the knowledge of Southern constellations that this new interest spawned are reflected in our display of Johannes Bayer’s star map.
For help with the research with all the introductory texts I am very grateful to Stephen Menn (McGill).

1. Introduction to the Translation and Commentary Section:

Until Henricus Aristippus’ translation of the Meno and the Phaedo in the 12th century, the Timaeus was the only text of Plato available in the Middle Ages in the Latin West. The picture of Plato dominant during this time was accordingly quite different to than the one in antiquity or the one we have: Plato would be consulted especially for information about the natural world and questions of natural philosophy, since he was seen mostly as a scientific and technical author.1 One important reason for the dominance of the Timaeus was the early translation and early commentaries which preserved knowledge of the text into the Latin Middle Ages. The first commentary seems to have been already written sometime between the second half of the fourth and the beginning of the third century BC by Crantor, a member of the Old Academy.2 And the The first Latin translation is was provided by Cicero in the first century BC (cf. exhibit number 1); Kepler at the turn from the 16th to the 17th century still quotes from this translation. However, Cicero only translated only a part of the dialogue, Timaeus 27d-47b, so he omits the beginning and the whole second half of it. The slice selection which he does translate was probably meant to be included into his own unfinished dialogue on cosmology that was to have shown his mastery of what was regarded as one of the most difficult philosophical texts in Greek in his Latin translation 3.

Roughly two hundred and fifty years after Cicero, Galen paraphrased and summarized parts of the Timaeus, now with a specific interest in the later parts (untranslated by Cicero) dealing with the origins of diseases.4 Galen’s paraphrases turned out to be the most important source for the reception of the Timaeus in the Arab world, where it was, alongside the Republic and the Laws, the most important text by Plato.5 A commentary from the same century (second century AD) done was written, surprisingly, by a Peripatetic, Adrastus, and is partly preserved in Theon of Smyrna.6

But arguably the most influential translation for the Latin West is the translation in the 4th century AD by Calcidius (cf. exhibit number 2); it was “the ‘pass’ for Plato’s work to travel on to the Middle Ages in the West”, especially between the 9th and the 12th century7. Calcidius’ commentary, which commonly accompanied the translation, was heavily read, in certain periods even more so than the translation itself.8

In the following century Proclus wrote his commentary on the Timaeus (cf. exhibit number 4, this is the first printed edition of his commentary) which is only partly preserved. But since it was not translated into Latin before William of Moerbeke in the 13th century9, it was much less influential during the Middle Ages in the Latin West than Calcidius’ commentary. However, it was taken up again and frequently cited by Marsilio Ficino10 as, e.g., the notes referring to Proclus’ commentary in the 1536 Ficino edition (cf. exhibit number 3) and the 1592 Ficino edition (cf. exhibit number 8) illustrate. And So, in spite of the substantial influence of the Timaeus, it was only with Ficino in the 15th century that the Latin West got the first complete translation of the work, since Cicero and Calcidius11 had both left out (at least) its later parts, the parts in which Galen was especially interested omitted a part of it. Moreover, Ficino wrote not one but two commentaries on the Timaeus, the first of which, however, is not extant. The second commentary was first published in Ficino's 1484 Platonis Opera Omnia translation (cf. exhibit number 6); and its final edition was published in his 1496 Commentaria in Platonem.12

While Ficino’s commentary seems to have been inspired by Neoplatonism, e.g. by Proclus’ comments, Ioannes Serranus’ translation from 1578 (cf. exhibit number 5) tried to dissociate the Platonic text from its Neoplatonic interpretation prevalent up to that point. His Latin translation was is printed by Henricus Stephanus alongside an edition of the Greek text of the Timaeus – this is Henricus Stephanus’ very It is this edition that determined the pagination of the Platonic text still in use today. Soon the Timaeus was also published as a handy “travel book” (cf. exhibit number 8) and translated into vernacular languages (cf. exhibit number 9).
2. Introduction to the broader reception of the Timaeus in the sciences

The first reception of the Timaeus in the sciences and natural philosophy we find in Aristotle, especially in his Physics and in his De Caelo (cf. exhibit number 11 and 12). For Aristotle the Timaeus was especially important, among other reasons, because, as Aristotle states in the Physics passage shown, Plato was the only one who had dealt with the problem of space/place in a scientific way before. A very special kind of reception is the text Peri psychas kosmô kai physios, which allegedly shows some of the pre- rather than of the afterlife of the Timaeus. Written in the first century AD it was passed off as considered to be a pre-Platonic text by the Pythagorean Timaeus of Locri, on which Plato’s Timaeus was supposed to have drawn. The Neoplatonists were the first to accept it as an authentic document; but others did as well, as can be seen from the fact that Henricus Stephanus’ edition (cf. exhibit number 5) has this text printed in between Plato’s Timaeus and Critias; this is the reason why the Stephanus pagination of the Critias is not immediately continuous with that of the Timaeus.

The Timaeus drew a strong reception [???] remained important also during the Middle Ages. One essential reason for this was its obvious compatibility in many respects with the book of Genesis. The Timaeus was paired up with Genesis probably already as early as the 2nd century BC by Aristobulus, an intertwining anchored by Philo of Alexandria who focused on the parallels between Platonic cosmogony and the account of creation in the first book of Moses.13

There were phases when At times the differences between these two accounts of creation were stressed more than the similarities14, notably the difference between god as the single cause for the creation in Genesis and the three principles necessary for the creation in the Timaeus, the demiurge, the receptacle and the model (Forms). Especially Ambrose in his exegesis of Genesis in the 4th AD century pointed these differences out as “errors” of Plato. Ambrose thought these “errors” had already been refuted by Moses since Genesis starts out with “in the beginning god created heaven and earth”, thus, according to Ambrose, implying that everything, even the independent first principles of the Timaeus, is in fact created by god.

However, Ambrose’s student Saint Augustine15 and later on also Boethius16 focused on the similarities again – Augustine explicitly mentions as a point of agreement the same beginning passage from Genesis used by Ambrosius to point out the incompatibility of the Timaeus and Genesis17 – and thus prepared the way of the Timaeus into the Middle Ages. The 12th century was especially crucial in the reception of Plato: the first half of the century marked the climax of his reception in the Middle Ages, as can be seen in particular with the School of Chartres where Bernard of Chartres’ and William of Conches’ Glosae super Platonem were produced. In the second half, however, the study of Plato was gradually dropped diminished and became either insignificant (thus in the translation movement of the 12th century Plato’s oeuvre beyond except for the Timaeus did not raise much interest), or suspicious suspect (as can be seen in the trial of Abelard where the preoccupation with Plato was regarded as a possible seduction away from Christ).18 While Aristotle gained more and more influence with his newly translated works in natural philosophy as well as metaphysics and ethics in the later part of the 12th century in addition to his already translated logical works, Plato and his Timaeus were increasingly marginalised. Overcoming this marginalisation and rediscovering Plato and his Timaeus as an important philosophical document is an essential feature of the Renaissance. And it is this new evaluation of Plato’s Timaeus which provided us with the core items of this exhibition.

In the Renaissance, the Timaeus is again read as being very close to the conception of Genesis; so e.g. Ficino identified Plato’s demiurge with the Christian creator god and the Forms with god’s own mind19; in the Ficino edition of Plato from 1556 Plato is (in Neoplatonic tradition) even addressed as being divine: “Omnia Divini Platonis Opera” (cf. exhibit number 10). And Kepler in his Harmonice Mundi calls the Timaeus “a kind of commentary on the first chapter of Genesis, or the first book of Moses, converting it to the Pythagorean philosophy” (cf. exhibit number 14). Some 200 years later Schelling actually proposed that the Timaeus was not written by Plato but by a late Christian author.20

However, it is not only this new emphasis on its compatibility with Genesis that made the Timaeus a significant book for the Renaissance. It is also its combination of mathematics and physics that made it attractive for the newly reawakened sciences. Accordingly, Johannes Kepler uses the Timaeus to justify his own merging of mathematics and physics in his astronomy21 which is a central point in his Astronomia nova. Nonetheless, Kepler did not simply take the Platonic text as an authority, as was done in the commentators’ tradition. Rather, he considered the Timaeus as a resource to draw on for his cosmological questions. A ; and the question which inspired Kepler to write his Mysterium Cosmographicum was how to give a rational account of the distances between the planets which one could attempt to calculate only once if the sun was placed in the middle of the universe. The answer Kepler took from the Timaeus was the five Platonic solids (cf. exhibit number 15) and the relative distances between them which are achieved if they are nested in each other (cf. exhibit number 13; we show the second edition which is extended was expanded with notes by Kepler). The number of the solids (given Euclid’s proof in Elements book XIII, Prop. 18 that there can only be five such solids) explains why there must be exactly six planets (the five solids are needed to separate six spheres), and the geometry of their nesting gives us the distances – this enabled Kepler to retain his belief that god did everything for a cause, so also the arrangement of the universe, and to give a scientific model for the empirical data.

In this way, Kepler as one of the early defenders of the Copernican world view tried originally to give Plato a place in this new system which obviously contradicts Plato’s (and Ptolemy’s) geocentric view. One other aspect of Platonic astronomy Kepler had originally taken up is Plato’s insistence on uniform circular motion as being the one motion most akin to reason (Timaeus 34a) and hence the only one adequate for the motions of the heavenly bodies. Overcoming this Platonic idea by building on Tycho Brahe’s data led to Kepler’s famous first law that the planets revolve around the sun not in circular but in elliptical orbits having the sun as one focus (published in his Astronomia nova in 1609). The discovery of this first law helped to strengthen the heliocentric view of Copernicus who himself had followed Plato’s demand for uniform circular motion22 for the heavenly bodies in an even stricter way than Ptolemy did centuries ago in his Almagest.

The edition of the Almagest we on display (cf. exhibit number 18) is the version with which Copernicus was introduced to Ptolemy. It is a précis done by the Austrian astronomer Georg von Peuerbach and the German astronomer Johannes Müller von Königsberg (know as Regiomontanus). Included in Regiomontanus’ notes on the 12th book of the Almagest is his demonstration of an alternative to Ptolemy’s model of Mercury and Venus’ orbits relative to the sun; this demonstration is believed to have actually assisted Copernicus to postulate that the planets move around the sun.23

While Ptolemy could not strictly adhere to Plato’s fundamental claim of the uniformity of heavenly motion, he certainly observed Plato’s dictum that astronomers should try to find a reasonable hypothesis which would “save the phenomena”, salvare apparentia24 (i.e. a rational account should be given of all the phenomena that can be observed) not only for the motions of the planets25, but also for the stars. His placement of the stars within constellations seems to be based on star maps, or perhaps even on a celestial globe (the Farnese globe at Naples surviving from ancient times is generally believed to be a Roman copy from of an earlier Greek one, cf. also the celestial globe in the exhibition, exhibit number 16). This tradition of star maps building on Ptolemy is taken up again in the Renaissance, the first printed one is made by Albrecht Dürer, numbering the stars according to Ptolemy’s list. The first person to produce what is considered the first star atlas was Johannes Bayer in his Uranometria from 1603 (cf. exhibit number 17). He extended the 48 constellations tabulated by Ptolemy by 12 new constellations of the Southern hemisphere found by the first Dutch expedition to the East Indies and improved the accuracy of the old constellations with the help of Tycho Brahe’s data.



1 Cf. J. Marenbon, “Platonism - A Doxographic Approach: The Early Middle Ages”, in: The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages. A Doxographic Approach, ed. by S. Gersh and M. Hoenen, Berlin/New York 2002, pp. 67-89; and T. Ricklin, “Platon im zwölften Jahrhundert: Einige Hinweise zu seinem Verschwinden“, in the same volume, pp.139-163.

2 Cf. Proclus, In Tim. I 76, 1-2 Diehl who calls him the first exegete of Plato; J. Dillon, The Heirs of Plato, A Study of the Old Academy, Oxford 2003, p. 218 and H. Tarrant, Plato’s first interpreters, Ithaca 2000, pp. 54-56.

3 Cf. M. Puelma, Cicero als Platon-Übersetzer, Museum Helveticum 37 (1980), pp. 136-178, especially p. 151-153; C. Lévy, “Cicero and the Timaeus”, in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, ed. by G. Reydams-Schils, Notre Dame 2003 and M. Lemoine, “Le Timée Latin en dehors de Calcidius”, in: Langages et philosophie, Hommage à Jean Jolivet, ed. by A. de Libera, A. Elamrani-Jamal and A. Galonnier, Paris, 1997, p. 64.

4 Cf. M. Lemoine, op. cit., p. 65

5 Cf. D.N.Hasse, “Plato arabico-latinus: Philosophy – Wisdom Literature – Occult Sciences”, in: The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages, ed. by S. Gersh and M. Hoenen, Berlin/N.Y. 2002, p. 32 and R. Klibansky, The continuity of the Platonic tradition during the Middle Ages, London 1981, p.14.

6 Cf. F. M. Cornford, Plato´s Cosmology, The Timaeus of Plato translated with a running commentary, London 1948, p. 45.

7 Cf. G. Reydams-Schils’ introduction in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, Notre Dame 2003, p. 9.

8 Cf. P.E Dutton, “Medieval Approaches to Calcidius”, in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, ed. by G. Reydams-Schils, Notre Dame 2003, pp. 183-205.

9 Cf. J. Hankins and A. Palmer, The Recovery of Ancient Philosophy in the Renaissance: A Brief Guide, Florence, forthcoming 2007, p. 17 (I am grateful to J. Hankins for letting me consult the manuscript before its actual publication) and J. Brams and W. Vanhamel, Guillaume de Moerbeke: Recueil d’études à l’occasion du 700e anniversaire de sa mort 1286, Leuven, 1989.

10 J. Hankins, “The Study of the Timaeus in Early Renaissance Italy”, in: Natural Particulars: Nature and the Disciplines in Renaissance Europe, ed. by A. Grafton and N.G. Siraisi, Cambridge (Mass.) 1999, p. 86.

11 At least as far as we know the translation by Calcidus. That his partial translation was nevertheless still influential even after Ficino’s complete translation had been published can, e.g., be seen from the fact that his translation was still used in a 17th century edition (cf. exhibit 2).

12 Cf. M. Allen, “The Ficinian Timeus and Renaissance Science”, in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, ed. by G. Reydams-Schils, Notre Dame 2003, p. 247.

13 Cf. D. T. Runia, Philo of Alexandria and the ‘Timaeus’ of Plato, Philosophia Antiqua 44, Leiden 1986 (2nd ed.).

14 Cf. Ricklin, op. cit.

15 Cf. R. Klibansky, op. cit., p.23.

16 Cf. R. Klibansky, op. cit. p.24.

17 Cf. Augustine, City of God, book VIII, chapter xi. For Augustine, the Timaeus also rightly points out that god is neither created nor changeable and in general, Plato and the Platonists are the philosophers who come nearest to Christianity.

18 Cf. Ricklin, op.cit.

19 Cf., e.g., M. Allen, op. cit., p. 239. Ficino thus took up a reading common since Philo.

20 Cf. W. Beierwaltes, “Plato’s Timaeus in German Idealism: Schelling and Windischmann”, in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, ed. by G. Reydams-Schils, Notre Dame 2003, pp. 267-289.

21 Cf. R. Martens, “A commentary on Genesis, Plato's Timaeus and Kepler's Astronomy”, in: Plato’s Timaeus as Cultural Icon, ed. by G. Reydams-Schils, Notre Dame 2003, pp. 251-266, and Allen op. cit.

22 Cf. eg. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, book I.4. He could thus less well account for the astronomical data than Kepler.

23 Cf. M. Shanks, Regiomontanus on Ptolemy, Physical Orbs, and Astronomical Fictionalism: Goldsteinian Themes in the "Defense of Theon against George of Trebizond”, in: Perspectives on Science vol. 10, no. 2. (2002), pp. 179-207.

24 This is handed down to us by Simplicius and refered to as a guiding principle by Copernicus in his De hypothesibus motuum caelestium a se constitutis commentariolus, cf. Klibansky, op. cit. p. 26.

25 Like in the Timaeus Ptolemy explains seemingly irrational motions of the planets by the combination of different circular motions, cf. e.g. Almagest, book I.8, even if for Ptolemy they are only uniform around centres other than the centres of the circles of their motion.

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