Re-Reading Plato's Timaeus-Critias Politically
Cover of Political Science Reviewer 46.1


first philosophy

How to Cite

Re-Reading Plato’s Timaeus-Critias Politically. (2022). The Political Science Reviewer, 46(1), 87-126.


Does first philosophy have a place in political theory? For different but overlapping reasons the modern consensus answers “no”. This essay reconsiders this question through an interpretation of the Platonic dialogues Timaeus and Critias. The significance of these texts for Plato’s political philosophy is admittedly ambiguous. Both are centered around monologues delivered by the title characters. Timaeus speculates on the origins of the cosmos; Critias recounts an ancient Athenian triumph against invaders. The dialogic Socrates seems a marginal participant.  Nonetheless, I argue that these dialogues are political in several registers.  First, while their narratives are seemingly disconnected from the practical world, conflictual political circumstances inform both the substance of the speeches and the interactions of the interlocutors. Second, the dialogues’ internal pragmatics reflect a struggle for discursive control. Third, this struggle does not simply reduce first philosophy to a power move, for these narratives invite scrutiny of their originating historical conditions and cultural templates, encouraging the interactive politics of Socratic questioning.  Fourth and finally, although the dramatic texture of these dialogues interrogates political power, the abrupt conclusion of Critias implies that conversations that should happen will not because of power’s distortions. Returning to the initial concern, many voices in modern and postmodern political theory reject first philosophy as either an applied metaphysics that threatens to displace practice or a surreptitious power move that aims to dominate it. Contrasting, these dialogues imply that (always controversial) concerns about the nature of the world and the place of human beings within it are inevitably arise within political theory.