The Curious Theology of Bone-Marrow in Plato's Timaeus

M. R. P. Pittenger

In Plato's Timaeus, the crucial task of binding the human soul to flesh by means of tiny 'pegs' (43a3: gomphoi) located in the bone-marrow (73b), falls not to the Demiurge himself, but to the created gods. The divine craftsman officially delegates this part of his creative activity in a formal speech (41a6-d3), strikingly the only one of its kind in Timaeus' whole discourse. Before giving them their assignment, the Demiurge first assures the gods by means of an elaborate litotes that, although inherently destructible, as products of his craftsmanship they will never die, because he will not let them. Then he explains what he wants them to do about the creation of mortal creatures, and why he cannot do it himself. Although it might not seem immediately apparent, both parts of the speech reflect the same essential paradox, with its roots in the nature of the human condition. For Timaeus is concerned lest his account wander too far in either direction, by making the gods look too much like human beings, or vice versa (68d3-4). In order to bind the human soul and body together, the gods must forge a connection between mortal and immortal elements, and they themselves therefore occupy a delicate position within the cosmic hierarchy of living things. On the one hand, for the sake of divine reason and the soul -- what may be termed the 'positive' strand in Plato's theology -- part of the human makeup must come from the Demiurge himself, and a fortiori the gods (as beings of a higher order) must never perish either. But because of material necessity and the body -- the contrary, apophatic strand in Plato's theology -- the Demiurge cannot put the finishing touches on human beings, because then they too would never die, and death remains the Fact of Life. Moreover, the gods have to fall on the proper side of the basic dipole Being vs. Becoming. As creatures within the phenomenal realm, they cannot be immune from the transiency of matter: 'everything bound together may be loosened' (41a8). Human anatomy, cosmic architecture, and the rhetoric of the Demiurge's speech are all of a piece according to the same internal logic: the logic of inversion, litotes, and paradox. Only the goodwill of the Demiurge comes between his creations and the threat of destruction inherent in their origins, just as only the will of the human philosopher to believe in the essential goodness of the universe keeps Timaeus' 'likely story' (29d2) from falling apart. Everything we say about the world around us remains limited to an irreducible degree by the well-known deficiencies of human nature.

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