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Euree Song (éd.), Demiurge: The World-Maker in the Platonic Tradition

Alberto Kobec
p. 343-346
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Euree Song (éd.), Demiurge: The World-Maker in the Platonic Tradition, Special Issue of Horizons: Seoul Journal of Humanities, Vol. 3, no. 1-2, Seoul, Seoul National University Press, 2012.

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  • 1  See, for instance, T. Leinkauf and C. Steel (eds.), Platons Timaios als Grundtext der Kosmologie i (...)

1In just the last decade, many conference proceedings have been published on Plato’s Timaeus and its influence on the history of philosophy1. The present vo­lume, which is the result of a symposium held at Seoul National University in September 2011, testifies to the enduring and widespread interest the Platonic dia­logue is able to elicit. The nine studies here collected by Euree Song center on the figure of the demiurge as maker of the world and they all deal with authors who, while having different religious and philosophical beliefs, are either Platonists or indebted to the Platonic tradition. Apart from a chapter on Plato, the book con­tains three chapters on Middle Platonic thinkers, two on Neoplatonism, and the last three on Medieval, Renaissance, and early Islamic philosophers, respectively. As may be expected, the topics under scrutiny include: the notion of demiurgy as a description of divine causal agency; the opposition between a metaphorical under­standing of the demiurge, favoured by the majority of pagan thinkers, and the Judeo-Christian and Islamic conception of God as a principle endowed with personality who sets off a deliberate creative process; the divergent views on the nature of the demiurgic god’s activity which follow from conceiving of matter as either created or uncreated; and the question as to whether the demiurge is to be identified with the highest deity or with lower levels of reality.

2In the first paper (‘Who Is the Demiurge in Plato’s Timaeus?’, p. 3-18) Dominic O’Meara argues that the audience of Timaeus’ speech would have easily identified the demiurge with Zeus, as the demiurge shares many familiar features with the Greek conception of Zeus. And yet there are significant divergences between the two, insofar as Timaeus’ emphasis on the demiurge’s goodness disso­ciates him from the often immoral image of Zeus that emerges from the poets’ stories. In line with the educational project of Republic II, Plato offers in the Timaeus a reformed image of divinity, “morally and metaphysically perfect” (p. 14). Finally, O’Meara explains that Plato chooses the notion of demiurgy to describe divine causality, since this notion best represents the action of the reformed god, but it is a pity that the chapter ends rather abruptly and that such an interesting argument is not pursued in further detail.

3In the next paper (‘The Middle Platonist Demiurge and Stoic Cosmobiology’, p. 19-39) Carl S. O’Brien contends that the figure of the demiurge disappears from view with Plato’s successors, it survives in the Stoic concept of logos (although combined with influences derived from Aristotle’s biology), only to re-emerge in the Platonic camp in the first century CE. The author then considers the influence of the Stoic logos on Philo of Alexandria’s and Plutarch’s conceptions of the de­miurge. Unfortunately, only three brief pages are devoted to these two thinkers. For a more accurate description of Philo’s account of the demiurge the reader must turn to the following chapter by David T. Runia (‘God the Creator as Demiurge in Philo of Alexandria’, p. 41-59). In his article, Runia first provides a clear overview of the main features of Philo’s interpretation of God as demiurge, focusing on his presentation of the biblical account of creation in De opificio mundi. Next he shows that Philo’s faithfulness to his Greek models and the dominant presence of the demiurgic metaphor in his exposition do not allow him to capture all the ele­ments of the biblical text: the emphasis on God’s making overshadows God’s other activities, such as speaking and seeing, while the introduction of the concept of matter – vital for the demiurgic image, but foreign to the biblical narrative – gets Philo into trouble because he is unable to think through its consequences in a monotheistic context.

4In the fourth essay (‘Plato’s World-Maker in Origen’s Contra Celsum’, p. 61-80) Cinzia Arruzza successfully illustrates the similarities and dissimilarities bet­ween Plato’s demiurge and Origen of Alexandria’s Creator. On the basis of an insightful analysis of the strategy adopted by Origen in his critique of Celsus’ Pla­tonic theology, Arruzza concludes that Origen is ready to make use of all the elements of Plato’s Timaeus which are not incompatible with the Christian doctrine, but rejects the others. Thus, in contrast to Plato’s and Celsus’ demiurge, Origen’s God is directly responsible for all creation (including matter) and maintains a personal relationship with the human being, which guarantees all men the possibility of knowing God.

  • 2  Cf. J. Opsomer, ‘A Craftsman and his Handmaiden. Demiurgy According to Plotinus’, in T. Leinkauf a (...)
  • 3 A list and a discussion of the relevant texts can be found in the too often neglected study by R. A (...)

5The following paper by Euree Song (‘Plotinus on the World-Maker’, p. 81-102) examines Plotinus’ metaphorical understanding of demiurgy, according to which the artisanal model of generation is replaced by a process of contemplative derivation in which the demiurge becomes an almost superfluous entity. The demiurge, however, makes his appearance throughout the Enneads: as scholars have recognized, Plotinus equates him with Intellect, but transfers many of his functions to the World Soul and to Nature2. Song’s original contribution consists in the claim that these three levels of reality are characterized by three different kinds of ‘demiurgic’ activities, which are theoria, praxis, and poiesis, respectively. Now, I would suggest that this view might be partial, if not misleading, because it does not do justice to the several passages where Plotinus uses, at the same time, theoria and poiesis to describe the causal activities of Intellect, Soul, and Nature, while praxis is confined to the description of an inferior form of practical activity, which is not self-contained, but directed outward and opposed to contemplation3. The systematic reconstruction of Plotinus’ complex doctrines is a difficult enter­prise, all the more so if one takes into account that traditional philosophical terms are often used by Plotinus in an unconventional way, as is the case here. It seems that Song’s interpretation places too much weight upon a few particular passages, and one wishes she had turned her attention to other significant passages as well.

6Gregory Shaw’s essay (‘The Chora of the Timaues and Iamblichean Theurgy’, p. 103-129) seeks to investigate the role played by the chora in the theurgist’s iden­tification with the demiurgic god according to Iamblichus. The theurgists, true incarnations of the demiurge, are able through their rituals to discover the chora that is innate in them, to become receptacles for the divine influx, and finally to establish their identity with the god. The tone of the essay is rather inspired, but the author might have used a little more caution in his opening attack on a purely rationalist reading of Plato and later Platonists. Nobody nowadays would deny the extensive presence in the Platonic tradition of what can be labelled as ‘irratio­nalism’, and to suggest the contrary is something of a straw-man.

7The paper by Lenka Karfíková (‘The Christian World-Maker according to Augustine, John Eriugena, and Thierry of Chartres’, p. 131-172), by far the longest in the collection, is a study over the presence of three different sources – namely, Plato’s Timaeus, the double account of creation in Genesis, and the doctrine of the Trinity – in the reflections on the creator of the world in Augustine, Eriugena, and Thierry of Chartres. Karfíková shows that the Timaeus is virtually absent from Augustine’s description of creation, and the same holds for Eriugena. Moreover, in Eriugena’s doctrine (which is heavily indebted to Neoplatonic speculations), the account of Genesis also does not play a relevant role. The situation is quite dif­ferent with Thierry, who, among these authors, “is the one who makes the most explicit attempt at linking the biblical account of creation with Plato’s Timaeus, making also the tightest connection between cosmogony and the teaching on the Trinity” (p. 162).

8Filip Karfík’s essay (‘Marsilio Ficino on the Maker of the Universe’, p. 173-193) is a rewarding study of two rival doctrines of world-making that emerge throughout Ficino’s works. The one “constitutes a sort of compromise between Neoplatonic and Christian views” (p. 178); the other represents “its specifically Christian variant” (p. 173). Both doctrines share the Christian belief that God is the immediate creator of unformed matter at all levels of the universe. The main difference, however, lies in the understanding of the divine mind or intellect: according to the ancient Platonists it is a demiurgic god inferior to the first deity, whereas for Christian Platonists it is God the Son, who is the same in substance with God the Father, though different in person. The latter view represents in Ficino’s eyes a more developed stage in the progressive revelation of truth, and allows the Christians to maintain that there is only one maker of the universe, who does not distribute some of his functions to lower agents.

9In the final article of the collection (‘The Early Ismāʿīlī Notion of the World-Maker: The Intellect, the Soul, and the Lord of Creation and Revelation’, p. 195-220) Shin Nomoto discusses the views of al-Nasafī, al-Rāzī, and al-Sijistānī, three Ismaili thinkers of the tenth century CE, strongly influenced by Neoplatonic phi­losophy. Despite some points of disagreement, they all identify the demiurge with the Intellect and with the Soul, but ascribe a proper demiurgic role only to the latter.

10The book is generally well edited, although it contains a few typos and other mistakes: see, e.g., the use of italics on p. 6: “the speech Timaeus gives in the Tima­eus”; ‘Enn. IV 6 [8]’ instead of ‘Enn. IV 8 [6]’ on p. 95, n. 63; and ‘conditio’ for ‘creatio’ on p. 136.

11All in all, the volume succeeds in providing a rather unified series of papers, each of which contributes to illustrate the different approaches that have been taken in the Platonic tradition to understand the figure of the world-maker.

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1  See, for instance, T. Leinkauf and C. Steel (eds.), Platons Timaios als Grundtext der Kosmologie in Spätantike, Mittelalter und Renaissance/Plato’s Timaeus and the Foundations of Cosmology in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2005; R. D. Mohr and B. M. Sattler (eds.), One Book, The Whole Universe: Plato’s Timaeus Today, Las Vegas/Zurich/Athens: Parmenides Publishing, 2010; F. Celia and A. Ulacco (eds.), Il Timeo. Esegesi greche, arabe, latine, Pisa: Edizioni Plus/Pisa University Press, 2012.

2  Cf. J. Opsomer, ‘A Craftsman and his Handmaiden. Demiurgy According to Plotinus’, in T. Leinkauf and C. Steel (eds.), Platons Timaios, cit., p. 67-102, to which Song’s article is much indebted.

3 A list and a discussion of the relevant texts can be found in the too often neglected study by R. Arnou, ΠΡΑΞΙΣ et ΘΕΩΡΙΑ, Étude de détail sur le vocabulaire et la pensée des Ennéades de Plotin, Paris: Alcan, 1921.

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Alberto Kobec, « Euree Song (éd.), Demiurge: The World-Maker in the Platonic Tradition »Philosophie antique, 14 | 2014, 343-346.

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Alberto Kobec, « Euree Song (éd.), Demiurge: The World-Maker in the Platonic Tradition »Philosophie antique [En ligne], 14 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 31 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Alberto Kobec

Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

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