BMCR 2023.02.48

Cities and thrones and powers: towards a Plotinian politics

, Cities and thrones and powers: towards a Plotinian politics. Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2022. Pp. xi, 328. ISBN 1621388557.



The volume by Stephen R. L. Clark is not a scholarly work devoted exclusively to issues in the history of philosophy and to a punctilious reconstruction of Plotinus’s political thought; the author also, or especially, intends to illustrate a Plotinian sensibility towards ethics and politics capable of suggesting codes of behavior useful for our contemporary world. In this sense, the subtitle Towards a Plotinian Politics unveils the true scope of the book: to reform our approach to the others – humans, non-human animals, and even the environment – which should be conceived of not as separated from the single perceiver but as part of an interconnected whole. The volume is divided into three thematical sections, devoted respectively to the analysis of Plotinus’s metaphysics, to his politics, and to contemporary implications of his thought, for a total of eight chapters. A rich bibliography and a useful index of names and passages from the Enneads conclude the volume.

The first section, The Metaphysical Backdrop, reconstructs the fundamental points of Plotinus’s metaphysical system, which in turn forms the background for the intents and scope of his ethics and politics and, specifically, for his project of political and social reform whose culmination consisted in the planned – but never achieved – foundation of a perfect city, Platonopolis, in Campania, with Emperor Gallienus’s approval.

The first chapter, The Real and the Living World, illustrates Plotinus’s worldview, his “philosophy of mind” (the nature of the soul), and his metaphysics. The author suggests that some recurring assumptions in the history of Western speculation – only humans can adequately understand reality, each of them has their own individuality and specificity – cannot be found in Plotinus’ philosophy: according to Plotinus, there are no separable and independently existing beings; instead, everything is interconnected and united – as well as capable of participating in the contemplation of the world – because it is a manifestation of the same reality, the One. It is thus necessary to reject the notion of individuality that is all a “materialistic” approach, focused exclusively on the sensible dimension, can offer: we must experience things noetically, spiritually, in a way that shows how autonomous and independent beings are nothing more than entangled souls that must be freed from ignorance and transient desires in order to manifest their original nature, which is interconnected to every other thing.

Chapter Two, Freedom, Evil and the Undescended Soul, shows that the realization that we are entangled souls forces us to follow a precise code of behavior: we must accept direct responsibility for our actions (our voluntary acts) in the assumption that we are free to express our inner intelligent nature (even though this does not mean that we are actually free). According to Plotinus’s words, we must act as disentangled and intelligent souls and reconnect to our real selves, which have never left Nous, Intellect. In turn, this compels us to do only the right thing and not to choose between opposites (a good form of necessity and “moral determinism”). Moreover, admitting the existence of daemons and spirits is fundamental not to understanding the role they – purportedly – assume in the order of the cosmos, but to keeping alive our beliefs in an otherworldly and spiritual dimension.

Chapter Three, Multiplicity in Earth and Heaven, considers the values that the world as perceived through the senses and the world grasped through intellect assume for Plotinus. It should be noted that there are not two different worlds, but rather the same world known in two different ways. As such, through a process of abstraction that compels us to focus our attention not to the various different beings but to recognize that they actually belong to classes and genres, it is possible to affirm that everything derives from the same source, first of all from ideas, which must be conceived of not as abstract universals but as eternal paradigms made manifest in the phenomena of experience. Moreover, ideas exist in union with the divine Intellect, Nous, whose object of knowledge and thought are the ideas/forms, real entities bound together into a complex unity. On the contrary, the world as perceived through the senses is various, fragmented, subjected to multiplicity and in perpetual transformation.

Chapter Four, Keeping the Old Ways Living, considers some implications of the ancient belief in the existence of spirits and daemons. From an anthropological point of view, believing in spirits, monsters, and superhuman beings is the expression of our feeling that the world in which we live is mostly alien and unfamiliar; or else, by considering these notions illusionary or referring to a distant and extinct past, we can reassure our present condition. Either way, we are able to determine – and praise – what is truly human. However, this is also a sign that our world should not be understood in merely “domestic” categories: indeed, this allow Plotinus’s followers to detach themselves from particular, material, and anthropocentric world-views and ascend to another level of thinking, one that admits the existence of more than the sensible and human dimension. In other words, there is not a simple objective world: there are clues to the original and “real” world that does not coincide with the human microcosm.

The second section, Many Ways of Being Together, investigates the ways in which it is possible to live in the human world with the awareness of the existence of the real and intelligible dimension, the interconnectedness that bounds all things together.

Chapter Five, Platonopolis, reconstructs the characteristics of the city that Plotinus intended to found. The well-known words that end the Enneads do not mean that we should flee to another dimension, but rather see the same world differently, as a product of the One. This legitimates a sort of cosmopolitanism: true philosophers are aware that they belong to a collective dimension that derives from the same thing. However, in their existence as entangled souls they are also part of an historically and geographically determined polis, with families, friends, and so on. Consequently, Platonopolis should be founded in the light of these empirical “boundaries”, just like Plato’s perfect cities (the kallipolis of the Republic, the Magnesia of the Laws, and the antediluvian Athens). Inside it, there would be religious obedience; there would be rules that regulate and encourage procreation; all citizens would be educated in peaceful coexistence and cooperation; there would be care for the poor and the strangers; finally, slavery would be admitted, as well as guild-membership and radical caste division.

Chapter Six, The King is the Only Maker, considers Plotinus’s purported attitude towards the Roman Empire to which his ideal city would belong. The purpose of a polis, as well as of the wider political reality of which it is a part, is certainly internal peace and stability, obtained with a “World Morale”: different cults, creeds, and codes of behavior are simply various manifestations of (or should adhere to) the eternal and universal god and values, of which the myth of Cronus as illustrated in Plato’s Statesman is the model. As such, even though Platonopolis would be allegedly ruled by a council (and not by a single philosopher-king), in this perfect city there would be a space for a cult of the emperor, conceived of as the embodiment of Intellect, who acts as a unifying moral and religious authority: from a Plotinian point of view, just as the cosmos abides by a single order, so the human microcosm should be governed by a monarchy, a single sovereign, whose legitimacy comes from his or her deep relationship with the divine dimension and Intellect. Since Roman Emperors of the 3rd century CE were chosen mainly by the army and Pretorians, it is possible to hypothesize that Plotinus wished that the legitimation of Roman Imperial authority came not from the army but from “religion” broadly conceived – the existence of eternal and divine values, of which monarchs must prove to be the true embodiment – as in the Persian and Sassanid Empire.

Chapter Seven, Living beyond Boundaries, investigates the sense of community that would be experienced inside Platonopolis and a Roman Empire led by individuals inspired by Plotinian tenets. The cities would be permeated by a common “World Morale” that admits the reincarnation of souls in different bodies according to the conduct followed in their previous existences: this certainly risks legitimizing a certain status quo (some of those who live in misery might deserve it because they were once evil); but above all, this means that in the long term all wrongdoings would be avenged and justice restored. Living in the awareness of being entangled souls, subject to a cycle of reincarnation, also means that the proper context for our lives is neither the polis nor the global empire: proper Plotinians know that there are different grades of sensible existence, and that humans are not the pinnacle of life (for example, daemons, stars, and gods are obviously superior to humans); as such, they are simple wanderers in a world without borders or limits.

Chapter Eight, The Eremitic Option, suggests that Plotinus did not wish to become the governor of Platonopolis because he opted for one of the various ways of life that the embodied soul of a sage can choose, namely founding an “unhierarchical community” of friends, in which even those who prefer to pursue an “eremitic option”, going alone to the Alone and experiencing the One, are admitted. Such individuals do not live isolated, secluded from everyone else like the Desert Fathers: they simply experience the One better than others, they meet the One inside their inner selves, where they truly realize that everyone is part of a single whole.

The last section, The Shape of the Things to Come, shows the ways in which Plotinus would address issues for the coming age, for example those concerning natural and social limits for humans, how to live inside a world in perpetual change and how to approach a possible “End of Days”, i.e. the suspicion that catastrophes could actually happen in the future (excluded by most Neoplatonic systems but deeply embedded in modern-day sensibility). The author shows how, in some ways, a Plotinian world-view can be useful for shaping our conception of the world, ethics, politics, and relationships between humans, non-human animals, the environment, and future generations: we are all transient beings, parts not of a single and distinct species but of “Lifekind” itself, whose goal is to abandon any form of division and difference (age, sex, gender, nationality, grade), to reconnect to each other and, ultimately, to the same and single source.

To the benefit of a reader interested in the history of philosophy, the volume confirms the preferable approach to the study of Neoplatonic political theories: rejecting the thesis according to which Neoplatonists were mainly devoted to “otherworldly matters”, thus ignoring or giving little concern to ethics and politics. The author’s references to another monograph that considers this same issue, D. O’Meara’s Platonopolis, could be further expanded: the author explicitly reappraises solely O’Meara’s analyses concerning the importance of religion in a perfect city; for example, to reconstruct a Plotinian way of life, a more detailed discussion of Enneads I.2 and the different kinds of virtues (especially the most “basic” ones, the civic virtues) considered by O’Meara would be fruitful. To describe the characteristics of Platonopolis – of which we have no in-depth information – and Plotinus’s politics, besides Plato’s model (and mainly the Laws) the author perhaps tends to rely too much on possible parallels with other realities, e.g. ancient Indo-European, Buddhist, and Indian thoughts and political systems, in the belief that there may be a fil rouge that links them. However, the comparison is always coherent and thought-provoking; the characteristics of Platonopolis and, more generally, of a Plotinian way of life are convincing. But above all, the volume has the merit of showing how ancient conceptions are fruitful for interpreting – and improving or revolutionizing – our modern (or rather Western, typically individualistic) way of life.