BMCR 2004.01.08

Platonopolis. Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity

, Platonopolis : Platonic political philosophy in late antiquity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003. xi, 249 pages. ISBN 0199257582. £35.00.

This book is written avowedly to fill a lacuna in scholarship. It is widely held that the Platonists of late antiquity, shunning first the triumph of Rome and then the revenge of Christendom, despaired of paper schemes to mend society and addressed themselves instead to the deliverance of the soul. O’Meara considers this an error and undertakes to dispel it in three stages. First he undertakes to prove that all Platonists included political virtue in their pursuit of divinisation, next that they extended divinisation to the state, and finally that, although they accomplished little on their own account, their works survived to shape the political schemes of Christian and Islamic writers who were able to envisage the application of their projects to the world.

The model and the foundation for O’Meara’s dissenting thesis is the sequel to Plato’s parable of the cave, in which the philosopher, having struggled up to the vision of the Forms, accepts the duty of returning to put his insight at the service of other mortals. No faithful Platonist could ignore this passage, any more than he could deny the role of the four political virtues — justice, temperance, courage and wisdom — in the shaping the philosophic character. So much, as O’Meara demonstrates (pp. 40-44), was admitted in Enneads 2.1 by Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism. The same man, though he was more reclusive than any of his followers, desired to found a city of philosophers in Campania and befriended some of the great men of his time. His pupil and biographer Porphyry also represents the political virtues as the first, and hence the least dispensable stage in a philosophical career, while dialogues by Plato on political topics found a place after ethics in the curricula devised for the education of young Platonists by Iamblichus and others (pp. 44-60). On p. 67 O’Meara can list no fewer than sixteen commentaries on the Republic, Statesman, Gorgias and Laws; some four survive, and he might have added a fifth if he had chosen to divide the myth of Atlantis from the rest of the Timaeus. Proclus, in his commentary on this overture to the dialogue, holds that Atlantis is an inferior, hence more achievable, version of the ideal city sketched in the conversation of the previous day and written up by Plato as the Republic. O’Meara shows that Platonists held a similar view of the city in Plato’s Laws (p. 92), and there is consequently no doubt that he has proved his first contention: the Neoplatonists saw that political science was an indefeasible part of Plato’s work, and cherished political virtue as a means to the perfection of the soul.

But what, when he descends to the cave, will the sage impart to those who are still its captives? This is O’Meara’s theme in the second part of his book, and he shows that Plato’s readers neglected little that he had thought of, though they aimed at a great deal less than he attempted. Hierocles and Proclus, late and persecuted figures though they were, still thought it profitable to adumbrate the character of the philosopher-king (pp. 73-810). Macrobius urged — admittedly without “satisfactory” arguments (p. 81) — that a ruler might possess happiness akin to the philosopher’s; Julian, while no philosopher-king in his own estimation, was a king with a philosophy, and in his vigorous restoration of ancient cults he perhaps aspired to make religion the cement of justice, as Plato had recommended in the Laws (pp. 93, 120-123). Iamblichus too preached up the ancient ceremonies, including sacrifice, and offered a rationale for statesmanship as the art which, by imbuing the common folk with the political virtues, equips them for the pains of divinisation (pp. 87-91). If the Neoplatonists retreated into theurgy, that was because all public worship had been commandeered by Christians (pp. 123-131). Those who clung to polytheism could still dream of a commonwealth that was fashioned in the image of the gods — though, as O’Meara concedes to Proclus, these would be gods of lower rank (p. 96). Some Platonists were willing to canvass the master’s view that women might be rulers (pp. 83-60, while Sopater, a sophist of the third century, was echoing Plato rather than the custom of his times when he defined the goal of justice as a mixture of reformation and deterrence (p. 111-115). It must, however, be added that his work survives in fragments and does not make any open profession of Neoplatonism.

It cannot be said that the second part succeeds so well as the first: most of the authors quoted in my summary (which contains no more than is fairly and plainly stated by O’Meara) are like Pindar’s gods, who take away with two hands every boon that they give with one. The only one who attempts a comprehensive political science is Iamblichus, and he is the one whose thought has the strongest tincture of Pythagoreanism (p. 99 etc.). Perhaps that is of small consequence, for the schools had a common pedigree, and such authors as Numenius and Porphyry found it possible to combine them. Eusebius, who had read both, was the first theologian to paint a philosopher-king from life, and the chapter in which O’Meara traces the features of his Constantine to older texts is a cogent and original piece of scholarly detection (pp. 145-150). Augustine too, in his Hellenizing youth, is found to have entertained the “Pythagorean” notion that the harmony of the cosmos might be realised in an Empire of believers; as he freed himself from Plato, however, even the Christian polity of his time began to seem to him not an icon but an antitype of the city that God would build for the elect (pp. 151-8). In the Celestial Hierarchy ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite — a putative disciple of Paul who gives himself away by his echoes of Proclus — the bishops take the place of the philosopher-kings (pp. 159-71); and a courtier of Justinian’s time salutes kingship as an image of divine order which, in Neoplatonic fashion, both precedes and subsumes the other elements of political science (pp. 171-84). This author aimed to establish a mixed constitution in the spirit of Plato’s Laws; some time before, Boethius, a more active statesman, had penned his Neoplatonic Consolation of Philosophy in the prison to which his merits had condemned him (pp. 22, 80, 183). The tradition passed from Byzantium to the Moslem world, where Al-Farabi taught that the perfect state, imbibing justice as an emanation of the highest principle, should be ruled by figures resembling Plato’s guardians, who aim only at the happiness of their subjects (pp. 185-197). Such governors, by advancing true religion, will convince the population that their laws are underwritten by those of heaven. Thus it is amply proved — with a fund of learning on which others will draw with gratitude — that Neoplatonism could inform the political conscience. Since, however, none of the men adduced in this discussion was a professional philosopher, we are free to wonder whether they were drawn to affairs of state by their philosophy, or by the want of it, or by a combination of creed and circumstance.

There is no other book in English on the political philosophy of the Neoplatonists — none, at least, which collects the obiter dicta of three centuries into such a lucid, orderly and comprehensive survey. If. however, the aim is to prove that the Neoplatonists gave more thought to worldly affairs than is commonly imagined, one has still to explain why none of these prolific writers appears to have set his own had to such a treatise. O’Meara himself, in beginning with Plotinus, admits that he commends the “political” virtues, not as goals, but as propaedeutics to the nobler and less conspicuous regimen of the true philosopher. His life, no doubt, was an index of his interests, but while Porphyry dates events in his biography by regnal years, he does not present him either as a friend of the emperor Gordian, whom he followed to the orient, or as a champion of the senate, from whom he stole Rogatianus on the first day of his consulate. Modern scholars have made him both, and O’Meara seems to concur — though he does not pursue the question, except to say (more kindly than truly) that my own dissenting article of 1994 expressed a “conventional” position (p. 16n). I am surprised that he has not made more of Proclus, whose beneficence to shrines and cities even outside his homeland was extolled by his biographer Marinus; yet only the etymology of the word “political” justifies our using it for these atavistic shows of public spirit. Of course it was always customary for Greeks under Roman rule to make a utopia of the past, and a Proclus of the second century might have been as ready as the sophists to marry Attic patriotism with pointed homilies on kingship. On the other hand, the times alone will not explain why there is so little comment on ancient statecraft in the remnants of his Commentary on the Republic, while in his Commentary on the Timaeus he expressly prefers the ideal to the historical, the doctrine to the deed.

Marinus, the biographer of Proclus, chose to reckon the years from Julian; but Julian was forced to the throne by his ancestry, his grievances and an aptitude for warfare that sufficed of itself to prove him no true Greek. The little that O’Meara is able to glean from his copious writings on the theory of politics scarcely indicates that this was a flourishing discipline in the schools that he attended. Surely it is no accident that the best of the material comes from Christians, or authors who could pass for Christians under Christian emperors: counsels on society and government are seldom advanced without some hope of touching those in power. Erudite and judicious as O’Meara’s study is, I am still inclined to think that Plotinus will have been forced to “live unknown” if he abstained from sacrifice in the time of Decius, and that his followers, though they learned to tolerate sacrifice, were seldom any more active in the world than they were required to be by accidents of birth.