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DEMIURGE . The Greek term dēmiourgos (together with its variants) is derived from the words dēmos ("people") and ergon ("work") and thus has the basic meaning of "one who works for the people," an artisan or a professional. This etymological base subsequently developed in two directions. On the one hand, dēmiourgos came to refer to a magistrate; on the other, it became a name for the original creator of the world, in the specific sense of an ordainer or arranger, someone who as an artist fashions the world out of preexisting matter in accord with a preexisting model. It is this second meaning that is of primary concern here.

The term dēmiourgos occurs only twice in Homer, each time in the Odyssey. At 17.383 it refers to a professional man such as a soothsayer, physician, carpenter, or inspired poet. At 19.135 it refers to a herald, "one who performs a public function" (kērukon hoi dēmioergoi easin ). Here the development of the later meaning, that of "magistrate," is already perceptible. Sophocles uses the term in its original sense when he calls Hades "the savage artisan of Hector's girdle" (Ajax 1035). Similarly, Aristophanes links the dēmiourgoi ("artisans") with other categories of workers (Peace 297) and uses the term dēmiourgikos ("in the style of an artisan, a specialized worker") to refer to Hermes, the versatile god of inventions (Peace 429). At one place dēmiourgos possibly takes on the specialized sense of "potter" (Knights 650), which suggests the future evolution of the word in the sense of "(cosmic) molder." The same term is used in its original meaning by Herodotos (7.31), whereas Thucydides uses it in the sense of "magistrate" (5.47.9; cf. 1.56). The pre-Socratic philosophers use the term dēmiourgiai in its original meaning (see, for instance, Philolaos, frag. 11t), whereas in the doxography of these philosophers, the term may refer to a molder or a former, in the sense of a cosmogonic agent (as in Em-pedocles).

Plato uses the term dēmiourgos to refer both to an artisan and to an original arranger of the world. Meaning "artisan" or "craftsman," the term occurs in Laches 185e and 195b and in Charmides 162e, 164ab, 171c, 173c, 174e, and 175a. The last two cases include the sense of something that affects or causes; compare Sophist 219c, Philebus 55d, and Laws 829d, where the suggestion is of performers of noble deeds. See also Gorgias 452a, 453ae, and 454a, where rhetoric and arithmetic "produce" persuasion, as do the arts in general. Compare, however, the term used as "creator of phantoms," that is, the opposite of a real creator, in Republic 599ad and 601b, and see also Republic 340e, 346c, 597d; Apology 22d and 23e; Alcibiades 1 131a and 140bc; Gorgias 447d and 455b; and Euthydemus 280c. Note particularly Republic 389d, which quotes Homer's Odyssey 17.383. In the context of the theory of the three categories of citizens in the polis, see Republic 415a; Phaedrus 248e; and Sophist 219c (cf. Statesman 280c). See also Critias 110c and 112b and Laws 746c and 921b.

Closely associated with the meaning "artisan" is the meaning "professional man" or "specialist," which appears in Homer. In this sense the term occurs in Laches 195d and Charmides 164b (cf. Philebus 55d and Sophist 229d); Protagoras 312b and 322b (dēmiourgikē technē, "the professional art" or "skill in handiwork," the gift of Prometheus to mankind, as opposed to the more spiritual or ethical politikē technē, the "political art," which is the gift of Zeus); Cratylus 389a, where the legislator is the most rare among the "specialists" or "experts" (cf. 428e and Laws 921d, respectively, referring to specialists in the arts of instruction and of war); Euthydemus 301c and Phaedo 86c, where it is a question of artists (cf. also the Symposium 186d, among others; Republic 401c; and Sophist 236a, where it refers to the sculptors of statues); and Hippias Maior 290b, where Phidias is mentioned as "a good craftsman knowing the beautiful" (here we are close to the meaning of a molder of the universe inspired by an invisible model). Finally, see Republic 596b, where a craftsman "fixes his eyes on the idea or form."

Dēmiourgos in the sense of a divine artisan or creator of the world is found in the Timaeus, Statesman, Philebus, Republic, Sophist, and Laws. It is the Timaeus, however, that provides us with the most complete description of the Demiurge. In fact, in the Timaeus nearly every occurrence of the noun dēmiourgos and the verb dēmiourgeō refers to the divine molder of the universe. The only exception to this is 24a, where the reference is to an ordinary artisan. The Timaeus presents the role of the Demiurge as essential to both the world and man, since it is responsible for their correspondence as microcosm and macrocosm. Although this theme of the microcosm and macrocosm has led some scholars to posit the survival of (reconstructed) ancient Indo-Iranian speculations on an alleged myth of a primordial man (makranthrōpos ) in the Timaeus, a myth that would express a kind of pantheistic unity of God and world, such a survival is unlikely. In fact, in Plato's Timaeus the role of the Demiurge is incompatible with an essentially monistic conception of the world as a gigantic organism. Rather, this text is informed by Plato's fundamental dualism, a dualism that describes an ontological reality while at the same time providing a principle of philosophical hermeneutics.

Plato distinguishes two realms. On the one hand there is the ideal world, the world of the Ideas, the models of all reality. Opposite this stands the sensible world, which comes into being through the activity of the Demiurge, who projects the efficacy of the ideal models that he contemplates into the receptive chōra ("receptacle"). Clearly the Demiurge is here to be distinguished both from the Ideas, including the supreme idea, the idea of the Good, and from the soul of the world, the soul that the Demiurge introduces into the "body" of the world in order to animate it.

Plato refers to the Demiurge as a cause or principle (aitia ) of the world, a term that he also applies to the world of Ideas in its relation to the sensible world. Even the chōra itself, the receptacle that preexists the molding activity of the Demiurge, is called an aitia, although due to its inferior ontological status it is sometimes referred to inaccurately in translation as "prime matter," in relation to the Demiurge and the world of Ideas.

The molding and animating activity of the Demiurge is an ordering activity that opposes the primordial chaotic disorder of the elements, progressively reducing their disorderly movement. The world is said to be generated by the Demiurge, who is also termed its "maker and father" (poiētēs kai patēr, Timaeus 28; cf. 41 and "maker and father," dēmiourgos kai patēr, at Statesman 273; at Republic 597d the painter is not dēmiourgos kai poiētēs ). The Demiurge is also described as "the most perfect of causes," while the world is described as "the most beautiful of generated beings" (Timaeus 29). The model that inspires the maker is eternal, always the same, uniform and ungenerated. The Demiurge itself is said to be difficult to know; knowledge of it is impossible to divulge (Timaeus 28). Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, the role of the Demiurge does not seem to be in doubt. The beauty of the world sustains the belief that the activity of the Demiurge is beneficent, inspired by an eternal model. As we shall see, this belief stands in marked contrast to the ignorance and the modus operandi attributed to the demiurge in Gnostic systems. Plato's Demiurge, being good and without envy (phthonos ), excludes as much as possible every imperfection from the world.

The role of the Demiurge in fashioning the world is primarily one of providing order. He takes the visible, preexistent mass that moves without measure and order (kinoumenon plēmmelōs kai ataktōs ) and orders it, placing intellect within the soul of the world and the soul within the world's body, so that the world as a whole might be truly a living being, having a soul and an intellect, and born through the providence of God (2930). The fashioning of man is somewhat more complex. The Demiurge provides man only with the higher, immortal part of his soul. The soul's inferior, mortal part, as well as the human body, are the creation of the inferior gods. Once brought into being, the Demiurge locates the souls among the stars and notifies them of the "laws of fate" (nomous tous heimarmenous ). All souls begin as equals, each enjoying the same original conditions. Their individual destinies are to be determined by either their observance or neglect of piety and righteousness. The just soul is destined to return to its star, while the others are subjected to the law of metensomatosis, according to which a first reincarnation would be in the form of a woman, to be followed by rebirth in the form of an animal, if the soul should persist in its evil (here Plato is heir to the Orphics). Only submission to reason can insure the soul's return to its star. Plato adds that the Demiurge "dictated to them all these laws in order to be in the subsequent times innocent of the evil (kakia ) of each of them," which can mean either that the Demiurge is innocent of moral evil or, more probably, that it is not responsible for evil souls. It is only after the establishment of this original justice by the Demiurge that the lower gods create for every individual the remaining part of the soul and the body.

Plato discusses the Demiurge in other dialogues as well, although these discussions are not always consistent with the doctrine presented in the Timaeus concerning the creation of man. Further discussions may be found at Statesman 270, 273 and 308; Philebus 27 (cf. 26 and 39); Republic 507, 530 (cf. 596 and Sophist 234ab); and Laws 902.

The development that leads from the Demiurge of Plato to the demiurge of the Gnostics is a long one. As a transitional figure we may mention the Middle Platonist Numenius, who to an extent foreshadowed the pessimistic outlook of the later gnostics. The demiurge of Numenius, which he called the Second God, was an ambivalent figure torn between the possibilities of contemplating the ideal world or, alternatively, directing his attention downward toward the sensible world. A quite different development of the Platonic Demiurge is found in Philo of Alexandria. Philo employs the narrative of the Timaeus when he introduces the notion that in creating man God had not worked alone but had been assisted by other heavenly agents. This introduction of demiurgic intermediaries was intended to keep God separate from human evil.

Coming to the Gnostics, we encounter the notion of an inferior demiurge, a notion more or less common to the various gnostic schools, sects, and religions, with their anticosmic attitudes, and in clear-cut opposition to the far more positive Platonic notion. This opposition was noticed by the founder of Neoplatonism, Plotinus (third century ce), who wrote a treatise "against those who say that the Demiurge of the world is bad and that the world is bad," namely the Gnostics (Enneads 2.9). It is true that the Gnostic demiurge continues to function as the fashioner of the world and as an intermediary presence. But there is an immense difference: the Gnostic demiurge itself belongs to this inferior world, the world of ignorance that holds the spiritual soul in bondage. It is accordingly inferior to the human soul, which, when enlightened by gnōsis, realizes its consubstantiality with the divine pneuma, or spirit. The inferiority of the demiurge is sometimes reflected in its name, as when it is called Saklas ("foolish one").

More precise characterization of the demiurge varies considerably according to the different Gnostic schools and sects. On the one hand, there is the monstrous, almost demonic figure of the lion-headed demiurge Ialdabaoth found in the Gnostic Apocryphon of John and the ignorant, "psychic" (i.e., nonspiritual) Ialdabaoth of the Valentinians. The latter was assigned a role in the preliminary education of man and was destined to be taken up at the end of time into the heavenly realm known as Ogdoad. Significantly, this latter realm was not included in the higher, divine realm of the plērōma. On the other hand, among some followers of Basilides one finds the demiurge Sabaoth, who was conceived of as just and who cooperated with the pneumatic or spiritual beings, though he always remained unassimilable to them and was presented as the son of the evil, dethroned Ialdabaoth.

Common to all these Gnostic demiurges, however, whether in the Valentinian or Sethian currents, is a complete lack of spiritual or pneumatic nature: they are essentially inferior. In addition, they are often described in terms originally applied to the creator god of the Hebrew scriptures, a god debased in the Gnostic ideology. This explains the popularity of Hebrew or pseudo-Hebrew names for the demiurge, such as Ialdabaoth.

The demiurge is also found in other Gnostic groups and religions. We may mention the ambivalent demiurge of the Mandaeans, Ptahil, and the demiurge of the Manichaeans, the Spiritus Vivens ("living spirit"), who was an evocation of the Father of Light and was believed to have fashioned the world from the dark, demonic substance of slaughtered demons.

See Also

Archetypes; Gnosticism.


Boyancé, Pierre. "Dieu cosmique et dualisme: Les archontes et Platon." In The Origins of Gnosticism, 2d ed., edited by Ugo Bianchi, pp. 340356. Leiden, 1970.

Bréhier, Émile. The Philosophy of Plotinus. Translated by Joseph Thomas. Chicago, 1958.

Dodd, C. H. The Bible and the Greeks (1935). London, 1964.

Dodds, E. R., et al. Les sources de Plotin. Geneva, 1960.

Elsas, Christoph. Neuplatonische und gnostische Weltablehnung in der Schule Plotins. Berlin, 1975.

Festugière, A.-J. La révélation d'Hermès Trismégiste. 4 vols. Paris, 19501954.

Guthrie, W. K. C., et al. Recherches sur la tradition platonicienne. Vérone, 1957.

Horst, P. W. van der, and Jaap Mansfeld, eds. and trans. An Alexandrian Platonist against Dualism: Alexander of Lycopolis' Treatise "Critique of the Doctrines of Manichaeus." Leiden, 1974.

Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion. 2d ed., rev. Boston, 1963.

Merlan, Philip. From Platonism to Neoplatonism. 2d ed., rev. The Hague, 1960.

Pétrement, Simone. Le dualisme chez Platon, les gnostiques et les manichéens. Paris, 1946.

Places, Édouard des. Pindare et Platon. Paris, 1949.

Robinson, T. M. Plato's Psychology. Toronto, 1970.

Rose, H. J., et al. La notion du divin depuis Homère jusqu'à Platon. Geneva, 1954.

Simon, Marcel. "Eléments gnostiques chez Philon." In The Origins of Gnosticism, 2d ed., edited by Ugo Bianchi, pp. 359376. Leiden, 1970.

New Sources

Benitez, Eugenio E. "The Good or the Demiurge." Apeiron 28 (1995): 113140.

Brisson, Luc. "Le démiurge du Timée et le créateur de la Genèse." In Le style de la pensée. Recueil de textes en hommage à Jacques Brunschwig, edited by Monique Canto-Sperber and Pierre Pellegrin, pp. 2539. Paris, 2002.

Burkert, Walter. "Sacrificio-sacrilegio: il trickster fondatore." Studi Storici 4 (1984): 835845.

Carpenter, Amber Danielle. "Phileban Gods." Ancient Philosophy 23 (2003): 99111.

Classen, Carl Joachim. "Schöpfergott oder Weltordner. Zu den Gottesvorstellung der Griechen von Homer bis zu Platon." In Ansätze. Beiträge zum Verständnis der frühgriechischen Philosophie, pp. 327. Würzburg, 1986.

Deuse, Werner. "Der Demiurg bei Porphyrios und Jamblich." In Die Philosophie des Neuplatonismus, edited by Clemens Zintzen, pp. 238278. Darmstadt, 1977.

Fossum, Jarl. "The Origin of the Gnostic Concept of the Demiurge." Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 61 (1985): 142152.

Hadot, Ilsetraut. "À propos de la place ontologique du démiurge dans le système philosophique d'Hiéroclès le Néoplatonicien." Revue des Etudes Grecques 106 (1993): 430459.

Jackson, Howard M. The Lion Becomes a Man: The Gnostic Leontomorphic Creator and the Platonic Tradition. Atlanta, 1985.

Mansfeld, Jaap. "Bad World and Demiurge. A 'Gnostic' Motif from Parmenides and Empedocles to Lucretius and Philo." In Studies in Gnosticism and Hellenistic Religions presented to G. Quispel on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, edited by Roelof van den Broek and Maarten J. Vermaseren, pp. 261314. Leiden, 1981.

Perl, Eric D. "The Demiurge and the Forms." Ancient Philosophy 18 (1998): 8192.

Quispel, Gilles. "The Origins of the Gnostic Demiurge." In Kyriakon. Festschrift Johannes Quasten, ed. by Patrick Grenfell and Josef A. Jungmann, pp. 271276. Münster, 1970.

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Reydams-Schils, Gretchen. Demiurge and Providence, Stoic and Platonist Readings of Plato's 'Timaeus'. Turnhout, 1999.

Ugo Bianchi (1987)

Revised Bibliography


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Demiurge, an anglicized form of δημιουργός, the ordinary Greek word for a workman, craftsman, or artificer, is commonly used in Greek literature from Homer onward. In Homer it is applied to heralds, soothsayers, and physicians as well as to manual workers; but in later Greek it primarily means a craftsman or maker, such as a carpenter or a smith. Its importance in the history of philosophy derives almost entirely from Plato's Timaeus, in which a Demiurge, or Craftsman, is represented as ordering and arranging the physical world and bringing it as far as possible into conformity with the best and most rational pattern. In two other places (Republic 530a and Sophist 265c) Plato uses the word δημιουργος, or the corresponding verb, in connection with divine creation; and it occurs in one passage in Xenophon's Socratic discourses (Memorabilia 1.4.9), but these are all casual and isolated references. For our understanding of Plato's conception of creation we must rely almost exclusively on the Timaeus.

The Timaeus is, in fact, Plato's only substantial essay in physical theory and cosmology. There is disagreement about the date of the dialogue and about its place in the chronological order of Plato's writings; but it is generally agreed to be later than the great group of middle dialogues, from the Phaedo and Symposium to the Republic and Phaedrus, in which Plato expounds his most characteristic metaphysical and ontological doctrines. The substance of these doctrines is repeated and underlined in the Timaeus itself, which makes a sharp division between the eternal, transcendent, intelligible, unchanging world of true being or reality and the temporal, phenomenal, sensible, unstable world of mere becoming. It was this very contrast between the world of Forms and the world of sense that had led Plato to neglect physical research and speculation; and when he does turn to this subject in the Timaeus, he repeatedly insists that even his own best efforts in this field cannot produce more than an εκς μυθός a "likely tale"falling far short of the certainty and exactness that can be sought in mathematics and pure philosophy. He speaks of the whole doctrine of the Timaeus in the provisional, tentative manner in which he presents the eschatological myths of the Gorgias, Phaedo, Republic, and Phaedrus.

Against this background it may appear surprising that Plato ventured on these topics at all. His motives become plainer if we remember his own comments in the Phaedo (97c99d) on the cosmology of Anaxagoras. Socrates first praises Anaxagoras for holding that νου̑ς Intelligence or Reasonordered and arranged the world, imposing a rational plan on a preexisting chaos. He then complains that Anaxagoras did not pursue this line of thought to its proper conclusion: He uses Reason as a mere deus ex machina to explain the origin of the cosmic process as a whole but does not give detailed teleological explanations of particular things and events, showing that everything is arranged for the best. Anaxagoras resorts instead to the purely physical explanations that had been used by his Ionian predecessors, which is like trying to explain why Socrates does not escape from prison wholly in terms of bones and sinews, without reference to intelligence, intention, motive, and morality. Aristotle makes a similar comment in Metaphysics I,3: Anaxagoras stands out among his contemporaries and predecessors "like a sober man among drunkards," but he does not make proper use of his concept of cosmic νου̑ς.

The Timaeus is Plato's attempt to carry out the program of rationalist cosmology that Anaxagoras had promised but had failed to fulfill. The Demiurge is portrayed as the agent who turns the initial chaos into a cosmos. Like a human craftsman, he arranges existing materials and does not create them. The conception of creation ex nihilo is foreign to the whole tradition of Greek thought. The Demiurge shapes his materials to conform as much as possible to the eternal intelligible model of the Forms. First, he makes other gods, the world soul that the cosmos requires as its motive principle, and the immortal part of the human soul. The created gods then complete the work by making physical things, including human bodies. The Demiurge's success is necessarily limited: the Reason that constitutes his pattern is opposed by a recalcitrant Necessity (νάγκη ) that hinders his work in something like the way in which a human craftsman may be frustrated by intractable materialsand no material is perfectly tractable. This obstacle to a faultless achievement by the Demiurge is also the main reason why Plato cannot hope to give more than a "likely tale" of the Demiurge's work.

It has been widely believed, from ancient times to the present day, that the Demiurge is a mythical figure and that Plato did not believe in the literal existence of such a creator-god. He is a personification of the Reason whose requirements he is represented as trying to embody in the nature of the cosmos. Even if he is literally meant, he must still be sharply contrasted with the creator-god of the Judeo-Christian tradition, not only because he is not in that sense a creator, but also because he is in no sense an object of worship.

It is more difficult to decide whether the process of creation is also mythical; whether Plato believed that the imposition of order on the physical world was a definite event that took place at some time in the past, or whether the narrative of the Timaeus is a presentation in chronological form of Plato's views about the relative value and ontological priority of the various elements in the universe. According to this latter view, the story that bodies were created after souls would be a pictorial way of marking the inferiority of the body to the soul. Aristotle reports (De Caelo 279b33) that this was the tradition in Plato's Academy. The chronological picture is said to be used only for purposes of exposition, like a figure in geometry. Aristotle himself took the chronology literally, and he was followed in this by Plutarch; but the ancient authorities were nearly all on the other side.

Most modern scholars have disagreed with Aristotle, but he has had some notable supporters; and the question is still being debated. In support of the usual interpretation one may quote the parallel case of the Republic, where the building and dissolution of the ideal community is a pictorial means of presenting a logical analysis in chronological terms. Defenders of the opposite view point out that the word γέγουευ ("it came into being") gives an emphatic answer to the crucial question "Has the cosmos always been, or has it come to be, starting from some beginning?" (28b). However, the imagery of the Republic is equally emphatic. Once a man has chosen to represent one thing by painting a picture of another, the fact that he uses firm brush strokes and bright colors does not destroy its claims to be a picture.

The concept of the Demiurge was taken over by the Neoplatonists and by some Gnostic writers. To the Gnostics he was the evil lord of the lower powers, creator of the despised material world, and entirely separate from the supreme God. Their parody of the Demiurge as a clumsy imitator is blended with hostile satire of the Old Testament creator-God. Plotinus protested against their conception of the Demiurge as a source of positive evil in the world.

There is no clear case of any notable modern thinker whose teaching has been closely or directly influenced by the concept of the Demiurge, although there are hints of a similar idea in J. S. Mill's essay "Theism," where the word Demiurgos is applied to a God whose creative power is limited by the nature of his materials.

See also Anaxagoras of Clazomenae; Aristotle; Gnosticism; Greek Academy; Homer; Mill, John Stuart; Neoplatonism; Plato; Xenophon.


Archer-Hind, R. D. The Timaeus of Plato. London and New York, 1888. Text, translation, introduction, and notes.

Bury, R. G. Plato, Timaeus, Critias, Clitopho, Menexenus, Epistulae. Loeb Classical Library. London and New York, 1929. Text and translation.

Cornford, Francis M. Plato's Cosmology. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1937. Translation of the Timaeus, with a running commentary.

Crombie, I. M. An Examination of Plato's Doctrines. London and New York: Humanities Press, 1963. Vol. II, Plato on Knowledge and Reality, Ch. 2.

Grube, G. M. A. Plato's Thought. London: Methuen, 1935. Ch. 5.

Hackforth, R. "Plato's Cosmogony." Classical Quarterly, n.s., 9 (1959): 1722.

Taylor, A. E. A Commentary on Plato's Timaeus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928. Prolegomena and notes.

Renford Bambrough (1967)


views updated May 23 2018

Demiurge (Gk., dēmiourgos, ‘craftsman’). The divine being in Plato's account (in Timaeus) of the formation of the visible world. In gnostic thought, it was used disparagingly of the inferior deity who created the material universe, distinguished from the supreme God.


views updated May 18 2018

demiurge creator of the world (in Platonism). XIX (earlier in L. form). — ecclL. dēmiūrgus — Gr. dēmiourgós handicraftsman, artisan, etc., f. dḗmios public + *erg- WORK.

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