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Scholars look to Plato's masterpiece for direction in 21st century

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Released 8/14/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Overwhelmed by all the chaos – personal or planetary? Then dust off your Plato and put a little cosmology in your life. That’s what some top thinkers are doing.

In response to a deepening sense of disorder in the universe since the turn of the new millennium – and to some curious trends in academia – professors from the sciences and the humanities are turning to one of Plato’s finest works – “The Timaeus”– for a reality check, and perhaps even some guidance.

Twenty-six scholars from the U.S. and Europe will gather at the University of Illinois Sept. 13 to 16 to “resurrect the ‘great book’ as a legitimate object of study.”

“ ’The Timaeus’ is Plato’s account of the creation of the universe, the nature of the physical world, and peoples’ place in the cosmos. It is the most important book you’ve never heard of,” said Richard Mohr, a professor of philosophy and of the classics at Illinois and co-organizer of “Life, the Universe, Everything – and More: Plato’s ‘Timaeus’ Today.”

“We see this as a return to substance in the humanities,” Mohr said. “Even post-modernists are getting tired of doctoral theses on Beyoncé videos – with their lack of content and brief shelf lives.”

Other than for Plato’s own “Republic” and Hegel’s “Logic,” “no single work has made more original contributions to more areas of thought than ‘The Timaeus,’ ” Mohr said. “After the Bible, it is the work that has had the longest and strongest influence on Western thought.”

Conference sessions are free and open to the public; most will be held in Room 210 of the Illini Union, 1401 W. Green St., Urbana. Barbara Sattler, professor of philosophy at Yale University, is the co-organizer.

The conference kicks off with a keynote talk on “Love and Beauty in Plato’s ‘Symposium’ ” by Alexander Nehamas, a professor of the humanities and of comparative literature at Princeton University. His talk is a MillerComm Endowment Lecture.   Other keynote speakers are Anthony Leggett, the 2003 Nobel laureate in physics and a professor of physics at Illinois, and Anthony Vidler, dean of architecture at The Cooper Union.

Conference topics include God, space, time, color, atoms, knowledge, stars and goodness. A companion exhibit of Platonic incunabula and other Timaeus-related rare books will run with the conference in the campus’ Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Since the turn of the 21st century there has been a “sudden explosion” of scholarly interest in Plato’s “Timaeus,” Mohr said.

“It is not surprising that the book is back,” he said.  “With faith, religion and intelligent design returning to the cultural menu, it is worth taking a look at how the philosopher who held that the unexamined life is not worth living and who ranked reason as the highest virtue works God into a rational universe.

“And, with science now on the verge of blurring the distinction between bits of stuff and bytes of information, it is worth looking again at the thinker who proposed that atoms and subatomic particles are mathematical constructions.”

A “Journey Into the CAVE” is a post-conference event. Named after the cave of Plato’s “Republic VII,” the CAVE at Illinois’ Beckman Institute is a total immersion virtual reality experience. Conference-goers will be able to navigate non-Euclidean space, observe four-dimensional phenomena and manipulate virtual shapes and processes, “allowing them to visualize what they normally cannot,” Mohr said.

Sponsors are 52 campus units and individuals; one-fourth of the funding came from the John Templeton Foundation and political commentator Robert D. Novak, a U. of I. alumnus.