Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.06

Dominic J. O’Meara, Cosmology and Politics in Plato’s Later Works.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2017.  Pp. xii, 157.  ISBN 9781107183278.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Carol Atack, St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford (


Just where is the centre of gravity of the Platonic corpus? Plato’s early readers, from early Platonists to the Renaissance, would have had little doubt that the Timaeus was the key text—it is after all the text that Plato holds in Raphael’s Vatican fresco of the assembled body of ancient philosophers, the School of Athens—but modern readers have tended to treat the Republic as the core work. More recently, however, there has been what Dominic O’Meara terms a ‘renaissance’ of interest in Plato’s later dialogues, the over-riding concern with order that appears to unite them, and the difficulties in fitting them together.

This book, which for the most part revises previously published material, provides a welcome entry-point for understanding how Plato’s cosmology, as set out in the Timaeus, informs his later political thought, as expounded in the Statesman and the Laws. In its use of attractive analogies, such as architecture, and its emphasis on religion, it foregrounds the pre-occupations of Plato’s ancient interpreters rather than his modern analytic ones, but that too seems consonant with a resurgence of interest in Platonist commentary. It also provides engaging insights from these ancient readers, with Proclus, Olympiodorus and more being deployed to help readers construct their own coherent model of Plato’s project; these readings were the subject of O’Meara’s earlier Platonopolis.1

Achieving a thematic unification of Plato’s apparently disparate later works has occupied many scholars, and one can find plenty of other attempts on at least parts of these questions, as O’Meara acknowledges in his preface, citing André Laks’ comments on the ‘cosmo-political parallel’.2 Laks was responding to a 1954 paper by Glenn Morrow which emphasises the historical context and content of the Laws as an interpretative focus for Plato’s later work. This book reverses that approach, making the cosmic and cultic elements of the Timaeus the key to solving the puzzle. O’Meara aims to show readers who have responded to the Timaeus with ‘perplexity’ that it fits into a coherent body of work in which cosmology and the ‘good human community’ are interconnected, and in which the role of the demiurge, as the Greek noun suggests, has simple parallels with craft practice. O’Meara’s central claim in connecting the dialogues is that the Timaeus offers a paradeigma that works something like an architect’s model, an approach he finds illustrated in ancient responses to Plato, as well as exemplified in other works by Plato.

One example typifies O’Meara’s approach of using commentary from later philosophers to illuminate the Timaeus. He shows how the second-century CE Syrian philosopher Bardesanes’ description of a statue in India provided a model given by the god to his son to help him create the world (Porphyry fr. 376 Smith), a description that both matches Buddhist sculpture and offers a parallel with the demiurge’s model. Another parallel comes from the first-century CE Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who compared god’s creation of the world with the processes of architectural design and building. O’Meara expands this into a broader discussion of evidence for architectural models in the classical Greek world (pp. 48-50), and then into a discussion of the different types of model used by architects, rougher sketches and more detailed and precise scale models, and how this can be applied to Plato’s cosmic and political models.

The project of this book is to demonstrate how the cosmological model of the Timaeus is evident in the political structures of the Statesman and Laws. The prologue, ‘The Future of the Past in Plato’s work’, sets out some pointers for reading Platonic dialogues, particularly the negotiation of their temporal structures; O’Meara identifies T1 (dramatic date of the events described), T2 (composition date of Plato’s text), and T3 (their own reading date). But one of the complications of Plato’s dialogues is the complexity of their interior time structures. The dramatic dates of the frame dialogue and the main discussion typically vary, as a footnote concedes—so which should count as T1? And many dialogues include reported conversations, even imagined ones, in which Socrates represents debates between himself and earlier philosophers such as Protagoras, as M. M. McCabe (not cited here) has fruitfully shown; so there is also an implied T0 to consider.3 As O’Meara goes on to acknowledge, the transmission story given to content—whether the reported conversations of the Parmenides and Theaetetus, or Critias’ account in the Timaeus of how he came to know the story of ancient Athens—adds a degree of temporal complexity that his schema does not address. Some dialogues might not even have real dramatic dates—scholars as diverse as Sarah Broadie and Catherine Zuckert have made interesting arguments that position the Timaeus/Critias and the Laws respectively in a counterfactual present and an archaic past, a point conceded later.4

A connection between Platonic dialogues that has been widely acknowledged is the use of Athenian festivals as their settings. The Timaeus, like the Parmenides, uses the occasion of the festival to manipulate its characters into the same room so that they can talk, but it is clear that the religious context is more than just a dramatic convenience. The deficiencies and instability of Athenian politics are underscored by the occasion of the Republic, the first festival in celebration of the new goddess Bendis; but the Timaeus marks its importance by co-opting the Panathenaia, Athens’ great festival of its patron goddess. O’Meara argues that the sequence of speeches announced in the Timaeus should be interpreted as offerings to the goddess: the third speech, Critias’ story of Athens and Atlantis (Critias), can clearly be read in this way, but the question of how Timaeus’ cosmological speech might fit this schema is more complex.

Two suggestions made here do not entirely convince. First is the claim that Timaeus’ speech is given in honour of Zeus, an argument based on Timaeus’ reference to the demiurge as ‘father’ (Ti. 28c3), and the activities this deity undertakes. This runs into the immediate problem that Zeus is identified as a successor god, among those created by the original maker-god (Ti. 41a1), but O’Meara argues that the way that the demiurge is described is consonant with descriptions of Zeus and that Plato’s early readers would have understood that there was some degree of connection between the two. A second claim pushes back against aesthetic readings of Plato, seeking to distinguish Beauty from the Good, or at least to show that the connection between them is not an identity. Beauty indicates the realisation of the Good, for example in the presence of the aesthetically pleasing proportions of a well-designed building. O’Meara reads Instanbul’s Hagia Sophia, for example, as a late-antique hymn to Platonic proportion and geometry.

With the structuring role of the Timaeus and its model of the cosmos set out, O’Meara turns to the more obviously political Statesman and Laws. Like the Timaeus, the Statesman represents a part of a sequence of conversations, not all of which is represented in Plato’s writing. The four-yearly festival of the Great Panathenaia offers a connection between the two sequences (p. 88); the climax of the festival was presentation of a new peplos or robe for the statue of Athena on the Acropolis, carried there in the great procession, and O’Meara connects this with the weaving analogy that Plato develops to describe the work of the statesman. It seems highly probable, as he suggests, that any Athenian reader of the Statesman would have recognised a connection between the activities of the politikos in combining the citizens to create a strong whole and the goddess’ role in uniting the citizens, as well as the unificatory role of the festival and procession which delivered her new dress.

The Panathenaic procession had always served as an image of the kosmēsis of the city, but the details of the peplos, its production, and which statue wore it, are less certain than O’Meara suggests. While he envisages a large fabric offering for Phidias’ gigantic chryselephantine Athena Parthenos (pp. 88-90), and spends some time considering the mechanics by which such a garment might be produced, some scholars think it more likely that the ancient wooden statue of Athena Polias was the recipient, given that the practice predated the building and decoration of the Parthenon.5 Platonic approval for the celebration of extremes of size seems unlikely.

The pay-off for these readings should be a better understanding of the architecture of the Laws itself and how the model of the universe of the Timaeus feeds into the model of a city proposed in that work. Again, religion offers a connection with the centrality of festivals to the proposed polis of Magnesia and the philosophical concern with the citizens’ approach to the gods. The arrangement of the city itself as a microcosm of cosmic ordering is also relevant: the chapter opens with a diagram of Magnesia’s centre, satellite villages, and regions. This section raises the question of which model society inspires Magnesia. O’Meara suggests that it instantiates a life ‘comparable to some extent’ to that of the primeval Athens reported by Critias (p. 118), but also shows the analogical relationship between cosmic structure and movement in the Timaeus and movement in the people and spatial organisation of Magnesia.6 But the golden age society (Laws 4, 713c-714b) which Magnesia imitates is connected to the Statesman myth more directly than to the Timaeus. O’Meara’s claims for the precedence of Timaeus’ cosmology over that of the Statesman seems to rest on its links to the authority of Zeus (p. 98), but he does not consider how that sits with the invocation of Kronos. The reading of the Statesman’s political content, and the relationship between it and the cosmology of the myth, is the least detailed part of this work; in repositioning the Timaeus, the Statesman has been somewhat pushed aside.

While O’Meara occasionally glides over details and difficulties in the historical contextual evidence and their application to Plato, and while he is perhaps more fond of the exclamation mark than seems appropriate for philosophical exegesis (by p.122, it is hard to think that any reader will be surprised by the analogy between heads, spheres and the cosmos implied in the models), these features of his writing do not detract from a useful and readable guide to how Plato’s later works connect together to offer a coherent programme. The book reasserts the role of civic religion in the structuring of Plato’s thought and its presentation in dialogue form, and if not all of its conjectures convince, it shows the benefits of reading these works through each other. It is a helpful guide for anyone working on Plato’s later political and social thought who is tempted to bracket the Timaeus and a reminder of the richness of the readings of Plato’s earliest interpreters.


1.   D. J. O’Meara, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 2003); see BMCR 2004.01.08
2.   A. Laks, ‘Legislation and Demiurgy: On the Relationship between Plato’s Republic and Laws’, Classical Antiquity 9 (1990), 209-29, citing Glenn R. Morrow, ‘The Demiurge in Politics: The Timaeus and the Laws’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 27 (1953), 5-23.
3.   M. M. McCabe, Plato and his Predecessors: The Dramatisation of Reason (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
4.   S. Broadie, Nature and Divinity in Plato’s Timaeus (Cambridge University Press, 2012); C. H. Zuckert, ‘Plato’s Laws: Postlude or Prelude to Socratic Political Philosophy?’, Journal of Politics 66 (2004), 374-95.
5.   O’Meara cites R. Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 264-5; more detail on the peplos and epigraphic evidence for its production in N. Robertson, ‘The Praxiergidae Decree (IG I3 7) and the Dressing of Athena’s Statue with the Peplos’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 44 (2004), 111-61.
6.   See L. Prauscello, Performing Citizenship in Plato’s Laws (Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 142-8.

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