BMCR 2013.09.10

Philosopher-Kings of Antiquity

William Desmond, Philosopher-Kings of Antiquity. London; New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011. viii, 256. ISBN 9780826434753 $120.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Since the publication of his prize-winning The Greek Praise of Poverty, William Desmond has been recognized as one of the most insightful scholars currently active in the study of ancient ethics. Philosopher-Kings of Antiquity is a worthy addition to Desmond’s oeuvre. A thoughtful and erudite analysis of the concept of the philosopher-king from its Platonic origins to the modern era, it will be of much value both to specialists in ancient philosophy and to those interested in broader questions of intellectual and cultural history.

To provide some structure to his survey of vast quantities of material, Desmond returns throughout the work to two basic propositions: first, that it is in some sense a part of human nature to seek strong, enlightened leadership of the type that “good kings” provide; and second that this search has been conditioned, in the Western tradition at least, by the lingering influence of what Desmond aptly dubs “Plato’s Dream” – the traditional roles of monarch and sage united in one man. It is Desmond’s central claim that even those thinkers who define wisdom in radically different terms from Plato’s cannot escape the shadow of the Platonic philosopher-king, while such notable figures of antiquity as Marcus Aurelius and Julian not only embraced but patterned their lives and careers after Plato’s paradigm. While he may sometimes be overly hasty in rejecting other interpretations of his material, there is no denying the fundamental persuasiveness and power of Desmond’s argument.

Chapter 1 sets the tone with a rapid-fire survey of attitudes to kingship in antiquity. Desmond demonstrates that the compulsion to seek out a wise monarch was strongly felt not only in the civilizations of Mesopotamia but also in such seeming bastions of democratic spirit as Classical Athens and the Roman Republic. In Chapter 2, we are treated to a tightly woven discussion of Plato’s political dialogues, where the virtues of philosophical kingship were fully articulated for the first time. Desmond detects (correctly, I would argue) underlying themes and preoccupations that provide unity to the seemingly very different Republic, Statesman, and Laws; whether Plato is arguing for a guardian-class, an enlightened theocracy, or a regime where a rigid code of laws takes precedence over the whims of men, he is constantly concerned to craft a government that can combine the sacred aura of the transcendental Good with effective rule over flawed human beings. Desmond also takes pains to dissociate Plato himself from the sometimes brutal political and military figures who had ties to his school, thoroughly repudiating the facile assumption that the Academy was simply a “training ground for tyrants”.

Chapter 3 opens with a survey of Plato’s contemporaries’ views on monarchy; here Desmond does a fine job of stressing the importance of Isocrates, whose influence on the “education of princes” genre is often underappreciated. The following discussion of Plato’s Nachleben in the Hellenistic period is highly compressed. Desmond is in part a prisoner of his sources here, as so much of Hellenistic kingship-literature is lost or fragmentary; but he recognizes the remarkable convergence of interest in kingship-theory among the important Hellenistic sects of Stoicism, Platonism, and Neopythagoreanism. The bulk of the chapter is a deeply impressive discussion of the philosopher-king motif in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Desmond, in line with the best of recent Plutarchean scholarship, paints Plutarch as a highly intelligent observer of human nature, at once enamored of “Plato’s dream” and well aware of how human frailty can pervert that dream into a nightmare. It is the central tragedy of lives such as the Dion, the Brutus, and the Cato Minor, Desmond cogently argues, that those “great-souled” men allowed their ideological commitments, whether Platonic or Stoic, to blind them to the need for compromise (84-5). Only figures like Lycurgus, who adopted a comprehensive program of ethical education that was reproduced generation after generation, were able to attain meaningful social reform in the long term. In Chapter 4, “Marcus Aurelius,” Desmond capably defends Marcus’ credentials as a philosopher-emperor against those scholars who frame his reign in more pragmatic (or cynical) terms. For Desmond, Marcus was neither a Machiavellian tyrant nor a priggish, detached academic, but a fundamentally sensible head of state whose political agenda was shaped by a struggle to reconcile his philosophical beliefs in justice, fairness, and human dignity with the inescapable realities of the Principate, a struggle in which he took Plato as his guide as much as, if not more than, the founders of the Stoa. While there is much to be said for such an understanding of Marcus, Desmond perhaps goes a bit too far in attempting to downplay the “orthodoxy” of Marcus’ Stoicism. I would, for example, be less ready than Desmond to draw a sharp contrast between Platonic and Stoic definitions of justice, both of which ultimately rely on the awarding to each of what he deserves (111); and, while Desmond is certainly correct (109-10) that Marcus embraced the doctrine of “preferred indifferents”, which allows for the pursuit of ordinary goals such as wealth and good health, that doctrine is already implicit in the writings of the early Stoics (bar the aberrant Aristo of Chios) and perfectly “orthodox”. Nonetheless, anyone who wishes to place Marcus’ reign in its intellectual context will now have to contend with Desmond’s stimulating arguments.

Chapter 5 is no less remarkable. Anyone who seeks to examine the emperor Julian afresh must cut through centuries of myth and polemic both favorable and hostile. It is a task in which Desmond succeeds admirably. He steers a middle course between those who valorize Julian as a champion of Hellenism and those who dismiss him as an ideology-driven fanatic; as Desmond elucidates from a close reading of the most important of Julian’s own writings, the apostate emperor was in fact a deeply divided and occasionally self-contradictory personage, driven by a “curious mix of rationality and righteous self-deception” (134-5). Striving after the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king without fully understanding its import, and alienating even his fellow pagans in the process, Desmond’s Julian comes across as flawed but sympathetic – neither demigod nor monster, but all too human.

The final chapter, “From Moses to Modernity,” is perhaps the least compelling of the monograph and the only point in the work at which Desmond seems a bit out of his element. Attempting to extend his story from Philo’s Moses all the way to Josef Stalin and his porcine counterpart Napoleon in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all within a span of under 40 pages, Desmond sometimes strains under the weight of his material and relies upon echoing the judgments of specialists in lieu of deeper analysis. Nonetheless, there are many flashes of insight; to name just one, Desmond notes that the philosophes of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, who openly repudiated Plato’s supposed irrationality and dismissed him as the spiritual godfather to the hated Catholic Church, were at the same time motivated by a longing for a strong ruler who would guide his people according to the highest good as the philosophes themselves understood it (164-5). The Republic ’s guardian-class, driven out with one hand, is welcomed back in with the other.

If there is any criticism that can be made of the book as a whole, it is that of a certain lack of care in editing; there are a number of typographical errors (Glen Bowersock’s name is often spelled “Bowerstock”; some sources cited in the endnotes are missing from the bibliography), and the writing style is occasionally stilted and awkward. But these problems are insignificant in light of the intellectual heft of the work. Desmond has shown us clearly how many men and women, in the ancient world and afterward, have sought to convert “Plato’s dream” into a reality.

Table of Contents

1. Fundamental Themes: Kingship and Wisdom (1-18)
2. Plato’s Dream (19-44)
3. From Plato to Plutarch (45-86)
4. Marcus Aurelius (87-116)
5. Julian the Apostate (117-44)
6. From Moses to Modernity (145-81)