Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.60 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.60

Francisco L. Lisi (ed.), Utopia, Ancient and Modern. Collegium politicum. Contributions to classical political thought, 6.   Sankt Augustin:  Academia Verlag, 2012.  Pp. 207.  ISBN 9783896655400.  €32.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Georg-August-Universität (

Despite its encompassing (and somewhat deceptive)1 English title, the papers presented in this collection are mainly “devoted to the analysis of [Plato’s] political works, especially the Republic and the Laws and their reception in the Hellenistic age and in the Renaissance”, as the blurb on the back of the book claims. The first paper, by the editor himself (“From the Republic to Utopia. Political Thought between Fiction and Reality”, 7-17), serves as an introduction to the volume, first retracing the history of the term “utopia” in the last half-century (marked, or so Lisi claims, by a considerable decline in public esteem after the fall of the Soviet Union), then commenting on the difficulty of establishing what exactly a “utopia” is,2 and finally giving an overview of the papers to come.

After this introduction, André Laks reflects on the ways in which the ideal states conceived in Plato’s Republic and Laws may be considered “possible” (“Temporalité et utopie: remarques herméneutiques sur la question de la possibilité des cités platoniciennes”, 19-37). Interestingly, his discussion is largely addressed to the dissenting views of Lisi, the editor of this volume.3 Laks looks first at the Republic (22-9) and maintains that, on the basis of Rep. V, 473a5-b1, we have to differentiate between a “possibilité réelle” and a “possibilité logique”: while Plato’s ideal polis in the Republic is “logiquement possible”, it is “réellement impossible” (23). Between these two possibilities there can only be an approximation (24). Both the paradigm of the Just City and the Philosopher King are logical possibilities, the realization of which can only be brought about in an imperfect manner. In his section on the Laws (29-37), in which he analyzes three passages (IX, 875b; IV, 711c; and IX, 853c), Laks employs the same distinction between a “real” and a “logical” possibility” and comes to similar conclusions.

In a well-structured and clearly written article (“Plato’s Political Idealism and Utopia in the Republic, the Laws and the Timaeus-Critias”, 39-60), Federico Zuolo wants to show that “the concept of utopia might prove incapable of assessing and revealing some of the most peculiar features of Plato’s political thought (particularly in the Republic)” and that “the concept of normative ideal theory” might be a better approach (39). To do this, he first develops a “threefold definition of utopia and the notion of ideal theory” (40-3) and then looks at “Utopia in the Republic” (43-9), demonstrating that parts 1 (unrealizability) and 3 (literary form) of his threefold definition cannot be applied to the Republic. In the section on “Utopia and the Laws” (49-53) he comes to the conclusion that “although the Laws retains some utopian features, it is still a work of normative theorizing and not a thorough utopia” (52). As for the Timaeus-Critias (considered on pp. 53-5), “it could be considered a utopia”, but “only from a formal point of view” (54); in Zuolo’s opinion, it “does not provide a fully fledged positive model” and in any case “we ought not to take the content of the dialogue too seriously” (55). He then develops a “new perspective” by comparing “Utopia and ideal theory” (55-60) and sees in the latter “a third point of view between unpolitical or apolitical normative pessimism and the utopian alternative”, which he regards as “more adequate to explain the specificity of the Republic” (59).

Going in a similar direction, Étienne Helmer’s contribution (“Platon: la cité possible ou l’usage rationnel de la croyance et de l’imagination en politique”, 61-78) also rejects the qualification of “utopia” for Plato’s Republic and Laws – for him as well the Critias is the “unique utopie littéraire de Platon” (64) – and stresses that Plato’s Just City is “une cité possible” (61); this is also the title of a whole section of his article, pp. 73-7) and even “la seule véritable cité” (69). Interestingly, he regards books VIII and IX of the Republic as describing “des étapes intermédiaires entre l’aristocratie et la tyrannie, où l’on trouve quelques suggestions d’actions concrètes” (77), while the general theme of these books is the process of continuous deterioration of the ideal state into the final “black hole” of tyranny”, and one may doubt that it is possible to read this process in the inverse direction.

The editor’s own contribution (F. Lisi, “La República de Platón y su recepción en el pensamiento utópico”, 79-98) is concerned with Plato’s place in the utopian tradition. After some considerations of the ambiguous meaning of the term “utopia” (80-2), Lisi discusses the four passages in the Republic in which the realizability of the ideal state is considered (V, 472d-474c; VI, 499a-502c; VII, 540d-541b; IX, 592a-b) (82-6), and concludes that the Republic is not a utopia but “un proyecto político o un esbozo de proyecto político” (84). A further section considers the Republic (and some later utopias) “como crítica de la situación política” (86-9). There follows a discussion of “El comunismo de la República” (89-98), in which the Republic is placed within a tradition of communist thought that can already be grasped in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae and then again in later utopias. In contrast to these other texts, however, Plato’s communism is confined to the governing class. The essay concludes by pointing out some further differences between the Republic and later Utopias, stressing that these texts either did not really take up Plato’s “ideas centrales” or misinterpreted them, but that he can nevertheless be regarded as a “precursor de los movimientos socialistas de los siglos XIX y XX” (98).

In his contribution (“Il passato come pharmakon in Platone: La kallipolis e l’Atene del tempo di Atlantide”, 99-112), Franco Ferrari, too, is concerned with the question whether Plato intended the ideal state of the Republic to be considered as possible (and desirable) in real life. He answers this question in the affirmative, pointing out the passages (already covered by Lisi) in which Socrates seems to come to this conclusion, but also drawing attention to another interesting passage (382d), where Socrates states that mythical accounts may be helpful to come close to what happened in past times. He combines this with the observation made in 499c-d that a state like that imagined in the Republic may already have existed in the distant past. Ferrari thus makes a good case that Plato puts these thoughts into practice by designing the history of pre-historic Athens and its clash with Atlantis as a (pseudo-) historical confirmation of the ideal state discussed in the Republic.4

The next contribution (Emmanuelle Jouët-Pastré, “Les Lois, un paradigme politique possible”, 113-26) deals exclusively with Plato’s Laws. As the title already leads us to expect, the author insists (repeatedly) that the Laws does not present an unrealizable utopia: instead she tries to show (and rather successfully) that it develops a quite possible political model that is even open to future adjustments, should the situation require such changes.

With Lucio Bertelli’s contribution (“L’utopia greca nell’ etá ellenistica tra realtà e immaginazione”, 127-42) we move into post-Platonic Greek utopian literature. After briefly sketching utopian thought in texts of the 5th century BC (Hippodamus of Miletus; Phaleas of Chalcedon; Aristophanes, Birds) and glancing at utopian phenomena in the texts of the earlier 4th century (most of all Xenophon and Plato), Bertelli first concentrates on a text which he sees on the borderline between earlier discussions of the best politeia and later descriptions of fantastic worlds in far-off regions: the Meropis of Theopompus of Chius (132-4). He then describes how the considerable widening of the Greek world-view in the time of Alexander the Great (with Alexander’s conquests and Pytheas’ explorations) led to the depiction of utopian societies on the edges of the enlarged world (Hecataeus of Abdera’s Elixoia and Onesicritus’ realm of Musicanus, 134-6), and finally to the “autobiographic” tales by Euhemerus of Messene and Iambulus, with both claiming to have visited utopian islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean (136-41).5

Carlos García Gual is mainly concerned with “El relato utópico de Yambulo” (143-59), especially in comparison with the tale of Euhemerus (of which he gives an outline on pp. 145-7, before turning to Iambulus’ story at pp. 148-50; for the comparison, see pp. 154-5). Giving an overview of the main characteristics of Iambulus’ tale (150), he also looks into its relationship with Lucian’s True Story (152, 156), parts of which may well be regarded as a parody of Iambulus.6 He also asks whether Iambulus’ “Islands of the Sun” might have inspired certain historical events, in which “Heliopolitans” made an appearance, but is rightly skeptical about this (157-8).

Giuseppe Mazzotta’s “Viaggi in utopia: Campanella, Bacone e la Tempesta” (161-79) is centered on the classical utopian texts of the early 17th century and their (possible?) reflection in Shakespeare’s Tempest. Starting with a look at Machiavelli’s Principe (161-2), Mazzotta then turns to Campanella’s Città del Sole (162-7), which he describes as a sort of response to Machiavelli who had rejected utopian thinking as futile (166: “Contro Machiavelli la Città del Sole rivendica sia la possibilità sia il valore epistemologico-politico dell’utopia”). We are then introduced to Bacon’s Nova Atlantis (167-74), the salient traits of which are described in comparison to Plato’s “old” Atlantis (168-9) – though Mazzotta does not report all features of the Platonic Atlantis correctly7 – and to Campanella’s concept. Mazzotta’s paper concludes with interesting observations on Shakespeare’s Tempest (174-9), demonstrating how the play takes up utopian conceptions like Campanella’s and Bacon’s but also shows their limits.

The last contribution (Iveta Nakládalová, “La biblioteca de la utopía”, 181-91) looks at the way libraries and books are handled in utopian texts. Discussing not only More’s Utopia, Campanella’s Città del Sole and Bacon’s New Atlantis, but also texts that have not yet been considered in this volume (Mercier’s L’An 2440, Andreae’s Christianopolis and Samuel Gott’s Nova Solyma), she brings out the tensions surrounding the world of books in these texts: on the one hand striving for a universal library, but on the other reducing it to what is deemed essential and subjecting it to severe moral restrictions.

All in all, the volume presents an interesting collection of articles that pursue current discussions in their respective fields (without, however, providing definitive answers). The editing leaves something to be desired. Some of the books cited do not appear in the “Quoted bibliography” (193-204), and within this bibliography alphabetical order is not always observed. The book concludes with two short Indexes (Index locorum, 205-6; Index rerum, 207).


1.   Deceptive, because only two of its eleven contributions are in English, while three are in French, three in Italian and three in Spanish. Possibly the English book-title was chosen to improve worldwide marketing.
2.   Not everyone will share Lisi’s conviction that a utopia “as such is supposed not only to be unrealisable but also not to be conceived for being fulfilled” (9). In fact, some of the authors of this collection entertain rather different positions.
3.   F. Lisi, “Héros, dieux, philosophes”, Revue des Études Anciennes 106, 2004, 5-22.
4.   Ferrari only seems to go too far in wanting to identify the ideal state briefly sketched at the beginning of the Timaeus totally with the state conceived in the Republic. For the differences between these conceptions, and for the notion that the dialogue held “yesterday” (Tim. 17a, c) is not to be identified with the Republic, see (e.g.) H.-G. Nesselrath, Platon, Kritias. Übersetzung und Kommentar, Göttingen 2006, 55-7.
5.   In contrast to the communis opinio, Bertelli wants to date Iambulus’ tale not to the early or middle 3rd century but to the late 2nd century BC, regarding it as a fictional mirror of the real-life adventures of Eudoxus of Cyzicus (139-41). This is tempting but perhaps not necessary: The author of Iambulus’ tale might have anticipated Eudoxus’ travels, just as Jules Verne anticipated the Americans sending a rocket to the moon from Florida by more than one hundred years.
6.   On this, he might have found more in H.-G. Nesselrath, “Utopie-Parodie in Lukians Wahren Geschichten” in W. Ax and R. F. Glei (edd.), Literaturparodie in Antike und Mittelalter, Trier 1993, 41-56.
7.   E.g. Mazzotta claims that Atlantis’ destruction “é decretata da Zeus” (168). Not so: Zeus intends the chastisement of the Atlantean kings to bring them back to their old virtuous ways. Atlantis’s flooding is presented as a wholly natural phenomenon, due to one of the periodically recurring global disasters.

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