"The Soul as Craftsman: an Interpretation of Plato on the Good" was presented as a Bicentenial Lecture in Classics and Philosophy at Brown University in February, 1962. Published in Philosophical Perspectives (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, 1967; reprinted in two volumes by Ridgeview Publishing Co.): Part. 1: Hisory of Philosophy, pp. 5-22. Transcribed into hypertext by Andrew Chrucky, July 30, 2004.


Wilfrid Sellars

My aim in this essay is to show that if the metaphysics of the later dialogues are explored with the conceptual structure of craftsmanship as frame of reference, major themes fall into place and make sense. Heretofore, these themes have proved endlessly puzzling when viewed in more piecemeal fashion, as Plato's attempt to resolve, in their ancestral form, the issues and perplexities of philosophy today. In the history of philosophy, as in philosophy itself, we must continually shift between analysis and synopsis, embracing the extremes of both. To stay at or near the middle is to be safe but uninspired. To give Kant's dictum one more twist: analysis without synopsis is blind, synopsis without analysis is empty. This essay is decidedly in the synoptic mood -- perhaps outrageously so. It is, however, my experience that the finer-grained analysis of these dialogues both illuminates and confirms the large scale picture I shall draw.

My starting point is the Timaeus, though my ultimate aim is to sketch an interpretation of the Idea of the Good which will generate the conviction that Plato, in his later dialogues, made greater payments on the promissory notes of Book VI of the Republic than is generally acknowledged.

It will be remembered that in Republic II, Socrates points out that if someone were attempting to understand a text written in small letters difficult to read, and learned that the same text was available in larger letters, it would be sensible for him to turn his attention to the latter. In the Republic, the soul writ large is seen as the City and a study is made of the latter to see if its virtues and vices throw light on virtue and vice as they appear in the individual soul. In the Timaeus, we find the craftsman writ large as the Divine Craftsman who shapes and animates the world or cosmos in which we live. It is often said that this Craftsman who makes the world is a fiction employed by Plato to analyze the continuing metaphysical structure of a world which was never made. I am convinced that in a sense this is true. I am also convinced that it is disasterously false, if the craftsmanship of the Craftsman is relegated to the fiction, and is not recognized to be a central feature of the metaphysical structure which the fiction was designed to illuminate.

The Timaeus, in those respects which concern us, is the story of the making of a unique rational animal, which has the physical world for its body, by a craftsman who contemplates an eternal pattern. The body of this World Animal is made from an ultimate raw material consisting of "likenesses" of certain elemental physical forms, which "likenesses" spontaneously appear in the "Receptacle," that is, for our purposes, Space. This ultimate raw material becomes "worked-up" or intermediate raw material through being shaped by the craftsman into geometrically tidy particles.

Although the World Animal has both body and soul, the Pattern after which it is made plays an explicit role as pattern only in connection with the making of the world's body. This should arouse a feeling of surprise, for knowing Plato's conception of the respective places of soul and body in the hierarchy of things, we might well have expected the primary feature of the Pattern of the World Animal to be a pattern of the world's soul. And it is worth noting in this connection that its predecessor in the dialogues, The Alive Itself of the Phaedo, was the Form of soul and soul only. In that dialogue souls are not only items the presence of which in a body made it alive, they are themselves alive. They are, indeed, the primary living things, living bodies being alive in a derivative sense only, by virtue of having a living thing proper, a true animal, within. From this point of view the true World Animal would be the World Soul.

The Timaeus does, indeed, tell us that the World Soul was made, and if this making were to be taken seriously, there would have to be a corresponding Pattern. As a matter of fact, a long and complicated story is told of the making of this Soul. But, curiously enough, no reference is made in this story to a contemplation by the Divine Craftsman of a pattern in accordance with which it is made. This, I hope to make clear, is no accident.

Consider, to begin with, the materials from which the world's soul is said to be made. They are surely such as to make it clear that the making must be a metaphorical making, whereas the making of the world's body need not be. There could be such a thing as making the body of the world out of particles of earth, air, fire, and water. There could not be such a thing as making a soul out of the Being, Sameness, and Difference which pertain to Forms, and the Being, Sameness, and Difference which pertain to physical becoming.

By the time he wrote the Timaeus, Plato has surely come to the conclusion that souls are realities which are as unique and irreducible as the Forms, as Space, and as physical becoming. The list of "ingredients" of which Souls are "made" mobilizes the classical themes that like knows like, and that like acts on like, to account for the ability of soul to know the eternal patterns and to govern physical becoming.1

If the world soul is unmade, must not its maker be a fiction? Other considerations point in the same direction. Plato emphasizes both in the Sophist and in the Timaeus itself (30B) that where there is intelligence, there must be soul. Thus, the Divine Artisan, having intelligence, must be (or have) a soul. The dialogue implies, therefore, that there is at least one unmade soul at the cosmic level. And, if other things are equal, it would be a reasonable move, in the light of all that has been said, to identify the Divine Craftsman with the World Soul. If the World Soul is unmade, it needs no Craftsman to make it -- and as for making the world's body, the theme of souls making their own bodies is already to be found in the Phaedo, where, although it is put in the mouth of Cebes, it clearly accords with the force of the argument.

So far I have said little, if anything, which is new. However, the above considerations provide a framework within which more controversial and speculative claims can be made. The first thing to note is that to say that soul is not made, is not to imply that there is no Idea or Form of soul. It only implies, strictly speaking, that there is no pattern of soul. For patterns are to make things by. The same is true of physical becoming -- in its character as the ultimate raw material of the world's body. This, too, is not made. It comes to be spontaneously, without design; though it is raw material for design. There are, therefore, no patterns, though there are Forms, of the elemental powers.

The same is, as already indicated, true of soul -- with this difference: Physical becoming, considered in abstraction from all shaping and craftsmanship, is Heracleitean in character. It is a ceaseless coming into being (coming to become) and ceasing to be (ceasing to become). Souls, though unmade, have a genuine identity through change. They are, indeed, everlasting in the strong sense that they are without beginning or end. And the World Soul, itself a moving likeness of eternity, makes possible the moving image of eternity which is Time.

The next thing to note is that although soul is not made from a more basic raw material, souls are themselves raw material for craftsmanship. Souls are not made simpliciter, but souls are made to be good (or bad). There is, we have seen, a Form but not a Pattern of soul. On the other hand, there is a Pattern of the good soul, which is, indeed, as we shall see, the key Pattern in the Realm of Forms as providing patterns to be realized in the temporal order. Soul is confronted by two basic types of raw material, physical becoming and soul itself, and by the Patterns in accordance with which these raw materials are to be shaped. That the soul (its powers and propensities) is raw material to itself is an essential element in the Platonic conception of an art or craft of living, a familiar and central theme in the ethical dialogues.


To introduce the next group of considerations which I want (in craftsmanlike manner, I hope) to weave into my argument, let me return to Plato's description of the Pattern which the Divine Craftsman contemplates and seeks to realize in the world of changeable things. He refers to it as "The Animal Itself" and characterizes it as a "whole" which has all other living things as "parts." His description, as we shall see, makes essential use of a hidden ambiguity of the terms "whole" and "part." Some might say that Plato is guilty of a logical howler, but Plato puts the ambiguity to such important use that it is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the conclusion that, as in the case of so many other "logical mistakes" or "fallacies" of which he has been accused, he was in full control of the situation. The relevant passage reads, in Cornford's translation, as follows:
Let us. . . say that the world is like, above all things, to that Living Creature of which all other living creatures, severally and in their families, are parts. For that embraces and contains within itself all the intelligible living creatures, just as this world contains ourselves and all other creatures that have been formed as things visible. For the god, wishing to make this world most nearly like that intelligible thing which is best and in every way complete, fashioned it as a single visible living creature, containing within itself all living things whose nature is of the same order. (30C-D

The ambiguity to which I referred above reflects the fact that Plato's terminology for the relation of genus to species refers to a genus as a "whole" and its species as "parts." From this point of view, the Form

The Animal Itself
is a "whole" which has as its intermediate "parts" such intermediate kinds as
The Land Animal Itself
The Sea Animal Itself
The Air Animal Itself
and as its ultimate "parts" such infima species as
The Lion Itself
The Tiger Itself
The Vulture Itself.

Now it is clear to us that a Form which had "parts" in sense (part1) would not be realizable except through its "parts." Thus, if we take as our example of a genus or "whole" the Plane Figure Itself and its "parts" or species

The Circle Itself
The Square Itself, etc.
it is clear that the genus or "whole" can be realized only through its species or "parts." Crudely put, nothing can be a plane figure without being a circle or a square or . .

It is equally clear that for Plato, The Animal Itself is realized in the temporal order as a "whole" in a different, and more familiar sense (part2) (i.e., as a living thing which includes all other living thing as "parts" in the sense in which each of us, to use an illuminating anachronism, includes cells of various kinds as parts). Thus the phrase "The Animal Itself," in the Timaeus, refers to two different intelligibles, and hence, presumably, Forms:

1. The generic character of being an animal.
2. The Form of a peculiarly gigantic species of animal which includes animals of other species as parts.

We can represent the situation as in Diagram 1.

Diagram 1
We can also say that since The Animal Itself2 is such that any of its instances (of which it is best that there be only one) must include instances of the more humdrum species of animal as its "parts" in the ordinary sense of the term, there will be another technical sense of "part" (part3) in which The Animal Itself2 (i.e., The World Animal Itself) has The Lion Itself, The Tiger Itself as "parts." This relationship is represented in Diagram 2,
Diagram 2
where many Patterns are represented as parts of one embracing Pattern.

This structure will turn out to be of decisive importance when we come to interpreting what Plato has to say about the Idea of the Good (The Good Itself).

Let me sum up our results to date by drawing and explicating the following diagram (Diagram 3).

Diagram 3
The controlling analogy is that of a Pattern-cum-recipe which includes Patterns-cum-recipes and ultimately a list of basic ingredients. The things of which the subordinate Patterns are Patterns are (in the cases we have considered) raw material in their turn with respect to superordinate Patterns. As far as Diagram 3 goes, the superordinate Pattern is that of the body of The World Animal. In this respect, the diagram and the conceptual structure it represents call for a completion which will shortly be forthcoming.

In other words, the Timaeus presents the realm of Ideas or Forms under the aspect of a system of Patterns-cum-recipes-cum-ingredients. Thus the realm of Forms has a structure which, while it may be viewed in terms of logical problems pertaining to genera and species, compatibilities and implications, ordinary Forms (The Circle Itself) and pervasiye Forms (Being, Same, Other), first order Forms and higher order Forms (Formhood), etc., must ultimately be viewed as a system of practical truths in that broad sense in which "practical" truths concern how life is to be lived and how the raw materials which confront soul, including itself, can be shaped into instrumentalities for the good life.

The stress in the Sophist and other later dialogues on Collection and Division (that is, on the relation of kinds to subkinds) as tools of dialectic does not mean that Plato came to view the genus-species relation as the only relationship of Forms to one another (which it obviously is not), or even the most important relationship for philosophy. The dialectician must divide reality "at the joints" and the "joints" are not matters of the logically possible permutations and combinations of indivisible kinds, but rather of the blending and clashing of Forms -- of the special relationships in which they stand to specific other Forms. And of these intelligible relationships, there are, broadly speaking, two kinds not easy to separate. There are, in the first place, those which lay down limits of possibility and compossibility as in geometry, for, as Mill pointed out, without such limits there is no craftsmanship. On the other hand, there are those intelligibilities which concern purposive action. The latter, for Plato, are primary. The intelligibilities of geometry would be as dust and ashes if there were no such thing as the intelligibilities of life.


Although the Timaeus presents the realm of intelligible Being as a complex pattern of artifacts to be realized in physical raw material and the raw material of the powers and propensities of soul, it highlights the role of the soul as animator of the body, as the craftsman which shapes and maintains its physical habitation. Thus the Pattern highlighted is the Pattern of the world's body which is realized as an orderly cosmos exhibiting to sight the power of reason to impose form on nonrational (and even irrational) materials. To get the full picture of the structure of the realm of Forms, we must look elsewhere -- and, in the first place, to the Phaedo and the Republic.

The Phaedo, it will be remembered, presents the Forms as defining ideal standards which are only approximated to by physical becoming. One theme in this conception, also found in the Republic, is the inherited theme of the unreality -- or at least lesser reality -- of becoming. The problem of Not-Being (and change involves something's becoming what before it was not) laid a heavy burden on Greek philosophy which was first lightened, if not completely lifted, by Plato's Sophist.

A second theme, of greater relevance to our purpose, is the connection of this "approximating" with the concept of striving. With striving comes the possibility of failure, and the concept of striving mobilizes the role of intentional action as the paradigm of causing something to come to be.

But the fact that in the Phaedo Plato pictures equality, greatness and other geometrical Forms as objects of striving, but fails to discuss the structure of the realm of Forms beyond the minimum necessary for the culminating argument for immortality, and makes a casual reference to sticks and the likeas the strivers, leaves most readers with the feeling that the idea that objects strive to realize or live up to geometrical Forms is to be construed as poetic license.

Nothing could be further from the truth. To be sure, the point of geometrical Forms is not to be the objects of blind, impulsive, sporadic striving by irrational strivers. On the other hand, their point, and the point of all Forms (as emerges in the Republic) is to be the objects of rational striving.

If we take seriously the idea that the Forms are essentially the objects of (or define the objects of) rational striving then we get the doctrine of the Republic. (1) The Forms would have in common the character of being objects of such striving. (If we refer to this character as "object-of-striving-ness," we would have one meaning for "The Good Itself.") (2) The Forms would be objects of striving which were neither conventional nor arbitrary, but "by nature."

Initially this way of looking at the Forms suggests a mere side-by-side of desirables having in common the abstract character of being desirables ("by nature").

This, however, was the position we were in when, in our first look at the Timaeus, we considered The Animal Itself as a genus of which The Lion Itself, etc. are the species. There we saw that The Animal Itself was also an embracing whole in another sense, a Pattern which included the other animal Patterns as parts. In the terminology of nineteenth century Idealism, the ambiguous phrase "The Animal Itself" stands for both a "concrete" and an "abstract" universal. I suggest, then, that in addition to the Idea of the Good as abstract universal (to-be-realized-ness or object-of-striving-ness), there is also the Idea of the Good as a concrete universal -- a "whole" which includes all the other Forms as relevant to one another in their various ways with respect to a non-arbitrary, unified object-of-striving. This would be the Idea of the Good as a "whole" in a sense akin to that in which The Animal Itself is a "whole."2 (See Diagram 4.)

Diagram 4

What to-be-brought-abouts or objects-of-striving exist "by nature" -- in that inclusive sense in which the latter phrase connotes that which is non-arbitrary and can be explained and criticized with reason and truth? That, as in the case of man-made artifacts, an object which exists in this sense "by nature" may also exhibit conventional features which "flatter" rather than serve, does not impugn the validity of the concept. There is, therefore, a legitimate sense in which such physical artifacts as beds and shuttles exist "by nature." More obviously "by nature" is health which, literally crafted by the physician, is also crafted by the soul in a sense which becomes more and more analogical as the Platonic tradition moves through Aristotle to more recent times. Then there is the weaving together of the products of the other crafts, which is the aim of the statesman. From this point of view, the world animal is the statesman writ large. Finally, there is the craft of the satisfying life (the "art of living"). This craft embraces all the others (l) as instruments and (2) as, in a sense, ingredients. From this point of view, the world animal is the philosopher writ large. And if, in the Timaeus, the World Soul is presented primarily in his cave as cosmic statesman, he is not denied the articulated vision of the Forms which lesser animals can only find by leaving theirs.

Thus, if there is a sense in which the craft of the statesman includes all of the crafts, there is a deeper sense in which the craft of living, of mixing a satisfactory life, includes all others -- even that of the statesman.

To support the above summary remarks, I would call into play the argument against Callicles to show that the art of living, like the other arts, has rules; and the argument against Thrasymachus to establish the relative autonomy of the crafts. Plato anticipates, in a sense, the key feature of rule utilitarianism -- the establishing of the non-arbitrariness of systems of rule-governed activity by exhibiting the place of these systems in a larger teleological scheme.

A soul's own happiness is, in a sense, its ultimate end; not, however, as a far-off event with respect to which each particular action is to be viewed as a means, but rather as a rationally ordered way of life which includes subordinate rationally ordered practices. As an analogy, one might use the relation of playing chess to happiness. It is not a mark of rational self-interest to make each move as a means to happiness, construed as a subsequent state of affairs. The same is true of engaging in a craft, including the craft of the statesman.

The relations of means to ends within a craft (formulated by the recipe) must be distinguished from the relations of the product to the purposes for which it is an instrument. The latter are in a sense external to the craft, but they are internal to the concept of its product. Thus a house is a physical structure of such and such a kind for the purpose of shelter. Again the means-end relationships within a craft and the purpose of the product must both be distinguished from the end to be achieved by engaging in the craft. It is this distinction which is highlighted by the contrast drawn in Republic I between the physician qua physician and the physician qua practicing the art of taking pay.

We must thus distinguish between

  1. the rationale of the recipe;
  2. the rationale of the product, and
  3. the rationale of engaging in the craft.
Plato's point is that all these rationales are "by nature." They are non-arbitrary and can be reasoned out. There is, pace Protagoras, truth and falsity with respect to them.


If we look at the structure of the intelligible world from the point of view we have been developing, it presents itself first of all as in Diagram 5.
Diagram 5
But it is clear that even a cosmos of instrurnentalities has a "point" which transcends it. The domain of objects-for-striving must include non-instrumentalities, and no mere side-by-side of these. Thus the structure of the Intelligible World must ultimately be represented by something like Diagram 6.
Diagram 6

In its own way, the "life of reason" includes, as well as makes use of, the instrumentalities, recipes, and the Forms (including those of ultimate raw materials) which they involve. For an essential part of the life of reason is contemplating the intelligible structure we have been schematizing.

And if the above analysis is correct (at least in its general character), then we can say that the Republic lays down the general theme that the realm of Intelligible Being is to be understood in terms of a system of ends and instrumentalities having a complex structure to which violence is done when one claims that the connection between following rules and achieving happiness is an arbitrary one established by power and or convention. The Timaeus uses the ambiguity of the terms "part" and "whole" to highlight the idea of a fitting of artifact into artifact to make an embracing artifact. It is in the Philebus, however, that Plato comes as close as he does in his dialogues to giving us a lecture on the Good in its core aspect as the life of reason to which everything else contributes as raw material, instrumentality, or ingredient -- not the least of which is the contemplation of how all these fit together.

Socrates . . . to me it appears that in our present discussion we have coated what might be called an incorporeal ordered system for rightful control of a corporeal subject in which dwells a soul.

Protrachus: You may assure yourself, Socrates, that my own conclusion is the same.

Socrates: Then perhaps we should be more or less right in saying that we now stand upon the threshold of the Good and of that habitation where all that is like thereto resides? (Philebus, 64B, Hackforth translation.)


1 It is perhaps worth noting, in this connection, that although souls are presented in the Phaedo as instances of the Alive Itself, and, therefore, in terms of their role as animators of bodies, this presentation is shaped by the requirements of the concluding argument for immortality, hinging, as it does, on the contrareity of "living" and "dead." Actually, the Phaedo views the soul as animator as subordinate to the soul as contemplator of the Forms. This would have generated no tension if Plato had conceived of contemplation as a "motion," for, as did others, he found the essence of the living to be the capacity for spontaneous motion (i.e., the capacity to move without being moved from without). The Alive Itself could have been the Spontaneously-in-motion Itself. It is clear, however, that at the time of the Phaedo, the kinship of the soul with the Forms was taken to imply that in its core being the soul does not move. Aristotle builds this theme into his doctrine of the Agent Intellect by construing contemplation as activity rather than motion. Plato's course in the later dialogues was to construe soul as that which is spontaneously in motion, which is not to say that he would have rejected Aristotle's distinction (indeed, he adumbrates it!), though he would have put it to different use.

2 Strictly speaking, the Idea of the Good qua abstract universal, as introduced above, would not be a generic universal, as is The Animal Itself, but a universal of second order which has universals rather than particulars for its instances. Thus the character of being an object of striving would be participated in by The Circle Itself rather than circular things in the World of Becoming. But the fact that The Good Itself and The Animal Itself as abstract universals are differently related to the Forms which fall under them is unimportant and simply points to another sense in which Forms can be "wholes" with "parts." It is The Good Itself as concrete universal which we will shortly find to be the heart of Plato's metaphysical doctrine. (That by the time of the Sophist Plato was aware of the distinction between generic and second level Forms is a story for another occasion).