Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com
Ancient Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


See Platonic mathematics

Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity by Dominic J. O'Meara (Oxford University Press) Conventional wisdom suggests that the Platonist philosophers of Late Antiquity, from Plotinus (third century) to the sixth-century schools in Athens and Alexandria, neglected the political dimension of their Platonic heritage in their concentration on an otherworldly life. Dominic O'Meara presents a revelatory reappraisal of these thinkers, arguing that their otherworldliness involved rather than excluded political ideas, and he proposes for the first time a reconstruction of their political philosophy, their conception of the function, structure, and contents of political science, and its relation to political virtue and to the divinization of soul and state.

Among the topics discussed by O'Meara are: philosopher-kings and queens; political goals and levels of reform; law, constitutions, justice, and penology; the political function of religion; and the limits of political science and action. He also explores various reac­tions to these political ideas in the works of Christian and Islamic writers, in particular Eusebius, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, and al-Farabi.

Filling a major gap in our understanding, Platonopolis will be of substantial interest to scholars and students of ancient philosophy, classicists, and historians of political thought.

Review: The purpose of this study is to determine more clear­ly the particular place and function of political philosophy within Neoplatonic thought. This involves a reconstruction of Neoplatonic political philosophy, or rather a sketch of its main outlines, its principal articulations, and major themes by O'Meara. Such a sketch is unique to modern neoplatonic studies and  O'Meara realizes that this study is preliminary and requires further development. The main difficulty is how Neoplatonic political philosophy could be plausibly structured. For this effort O'Meara sought to better understand of how Neoplatonists saw political theory in the context of their philoso­phy as a whole. Although this study is concerned with the recon­struction of a theory, this theory is elaborated in particular historical contexts that O'Meara usually notes. However, this study is not exactly historical in that few claims are made about the concrete impact (or lack thereof) of the theories as reconstructed.

A reconstruction of Neoplatonic political philosophy is proposed by O'Meara as part of an argument suggesting a revision of the common view in modern studies that no such political philosophy can or does exist. Modernist and postmodernist have often infered that the otherworldly orientation of Neoplatonism has excluded sustained interest in political matters. O'Meara argues that this supposition is unsound and that a more exact view of the relation between divinization (as the goal of Neoplatonism) and political life leads to other results.

If in general in Greek philosophy, the human good, the goal of philosophy, can be described in some sense as divinization, this goal usually involves a collectivity. As Augustine rightly remarked, the philosophers saw human felicity as `social'. In this regard, if we follow the common view, Neoplatonists would have been exceptional in excluding political life from divinization. However, it has been shown that it is the case rather that political life, as the context in which `political' virtues may be developed, can have an important function as a preparatory and necessary stage for the transition of the human soul to a higher, transcendent divine life. The context in which the soul may acquire the `political' virtues requires reform, a divinization brought about by philosophers who have already reached divine life. These philosophers bring to bear a political science for the development of political structures allowing and promoting the `political' virtues other souls should acquire in order to reach the Good. O'Meara distinguishes two aspects of the relation between political life and divinization in Neoplatonism: the divinization of soul by means of the `political' virtues and the divinization of the state through political science as a means of promoting `political' virtue.

The divinization of soul through the `political' virtues concerns the soul as related to the body, using the body as instrument, according to a defini­tion of the human. Neoplatonists found in Plato. The `political' virtues are human virtues and involve the rational organization of desires and of whatever relates to the bodily condition. Once bodily affairs are put in order, reason is free to develop its own potentiality by attaining higher virtues ('purificatory', `theoretical') which lead it from human goodness to the divine Good. In speaking of `political' virtues, Plotinus had in mind the inner republic of the soul. However, later Neoplatonists, Porphyry, Macrobius, Damascius, for example, related them also to the political sphere where such virtues could and ought to be exercised. However, in many cases, we may assume, these virtues were cultivated primarily in the domestic world of the philosophical school, where the inner rational order of the soul (as related to the body) could show itself in relations with others. The school provided the best social context in which the `political' virtues would be developed, not only by promoting appropriate moral habituation, but also by providing instruction in practical philosophy, the wisdom required by reason in `political' virtue. This practical philosophy included ethics, `economics' (what we might call domestic ethics), and politics. Since, however, these three branches of practical philosophy merely applied the same practical wisdom on three scales (the soul, the household, and the state), the Neoplatonists preferred to distinguish between legisla­tive and judicial branches. `Political' virtue and wisdom, they felt, were taught primarily in Plato's dialogues, the Gorgias, Republic, and Laws, and it is consequently mainly by using their commentaries on these dialogues that O'Meara reconstructs their political philosophy. However, one can find this philosophy in other texts, Pseudo-Pythagorean and Aristotelian.

Having reached higher, more divine levels of life through the purificato­ry and theoretical virtues, the philosopher may wish to return to the political level to contribute to reforms which promote a life of `political' virtue for other souls. The return of the philosopher to political life can be approached in the light of Neoplatonic discussions of questions concern­ing the philosopher-kings of Plato's Republic. The return of the philosopher, for Neoplatonists, arises from participation in the transcendent Good. This Good is communicative of itself, as will be the philosopher who shares in it, who will seek to give political expression to the transcendent Good, in the form for example of legislation. More simply, the point is made by O'Meara that assim­ilation to god means not only attaining knowledge but also exercising a `providential', that is a political function. This function does not in principle affect the higher perfection of life, the happiness attained by the philoso­pher. Plato's conception of philosopher-queens is taken seriously and defended by Neoplatonists, a position which corresponds to the important place of women in their schools. However, in terms of what is humanly pos­sible in political reform, Proclus took a weaker position, justified also, he thought, by indications in Plato.

The philosopher who returns to political affairs, the `political philoso­pher' described by Hermias, will bring to bear `political science'. Political science, revealed, according to Iamblichus by Pythagoras to his followers, is defined by Olympiodorus as a ruling (architectonic) science concerned with moral improvement in actions in a consenting human community, a science depending on practical wisdom and seeking to achieve communal harmony and unity. The political goal is also defined elsewhere by Olympiodorus as `political happiness', itself subordinated to a higher good, that is higher levels of divinization. The political goal is therefore that of a community organized for the purpose of a moral improvement (in the `political' virtues), which provides the conditions for the further divinization of human souls. Different levels could be conceived in the political reform to be attempted, levels going from the city of Plato's Republic to the second-best project of the Laws and to yet lower degrees of ambition. The project of the Republic was taken to be the city of gods to which Plato refers in the Laws, hardly therefore a realistic ambition for political science which, for Proclus, aims at the advantageous and the possible. The project of the Laws was thus more relevant, as were less ambi­tious ideals of reform. A consequence of this was a greater stress on the importance of law, as the expression of political science. The doubtful prospect of rulers being philosophers perfect in morals and knowledge meant that rulers such as Julian, advised by philosophers, should be guardians of laws which serve to express moral values and develop the `political' virtues of citizens.

The political science of the philosopher as ruler or adviser, depends on practical wisdom. This wisdom, as Iamblichus describes it, is inspired by divine sources. What this means, in the primary, legislative branch of polit­ical science, is that models of constitutional order are found in the order of the cosmos, in mathematical principles, or in the divine orders responsible for the making of the universe. These models show hierarchical structures in which the principle of geometrical equality applies, for example rank and function are determined by corresponding capacities. In political terms, this means a `monarchic' or `aristocratic' constitution, as understood in Platonic terms, that is the rule of those with the requisite moral and intellectual qualities. The Laws suggest, however, a less utopian structure for realizing geo­metrical equality, a mixed constitution of which O'Meara provides examples, in particular in the anonymous dialogue On Political Science.

The judicial branch of political science concerns the correction of transgression of the law and restitution of lawful order. Using Plato's eschato­logical myths as expressions of judicial science, Neoplatonists interpreted the myths as representing punishment as being therapeutic and reforma­tive, not as retributive: punishment should seek the moral reform of those who transgress. O'Meara  cites Sopatros' letter to Himerius  to suggest a flexible approach in the administration of human justice, an approach that takes account of individual characters. His letter is also an interesting document concerning the way in which an authority might seek the moral good of citizens while protecting them from the immoral requirements of an autocratic ruler to whom he is subject.

O'Meara  shows that religion has an important political function for Neoplatonists, as it had in Plato's Laws. Public cult develops the relation with transcendent divinities; it represents and consolidates the moral values of political life as a form of divinization. The importance both of political life and of public cult in the divinization of human nature emerged more clearly when, with Iamblichus, the relevance of soul's relation to body in the divinization of soul was emphasized, in criticism of Plotinus' relative neglect of the material aspects of the human condition. In Julian, O'Meara suggests, we can find an example of a later Neoplatonic use of religion as part of a political reform.

This sketch of Neoplatonic political philosophy that O'Meara  makes shows that it included reflection on aspects of the practical reasoning involved in political decisions, the deficiencies this reasoning entails, the heteronomy of actions that are undertaken, and the reasons for failure.

Next, O'Meara discusses various thinkers, Christian and Islamic, that were influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy and reacted to it in dif­ferent ways. Eusebius' theocratic ideology might be described as a Christian appropriation: the philosopher-king and the pagan divine hierarchy as replaced by Constantine and the Christian Trinity, but the state remains a school of virtue preparatory, under the Emperor's rule and teaching, to a higher existence. Augustine seems to have been impressed at first by Neoplatonic political ideas, but he eventually completely rejected them: the state (even a Christian state) was not a stage in a scale for the human divinization. Such a scale of divinization was to be found later in the ideal Church of the Pseudo-Dionysius, another example, O'Meara contents, of Christian appropriation of Neoplatonic political philosophy. In the fragments of the anonymous dialogue On Political Science of the Justinianic period, we read, O'Meara proposes, an important expression of Neoplatonic political thought.

Lastly, al-Farabi's Best State corresponds in many respects to the ideas of the later Greek Neoplatonists traced in this study, ideas which find in him an Islamic adaptation. This example suggests more broadly that political philosophy in the medieval Islamic world, contrary to what is often supposed, has roots in the philosophy of Late Antiquity.

In conclusion O'Meara mentions briefly here two more examples in the history of political thought where the possibility of a Neoplatonic influence could be further investigated. The first is that of George Gemistos Plethon (c.1360–1452), `the last of the Hellenes', who died the year before Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks.

Plethon, while participating in the Council of Florence in 1439, much impressed Italian humanists and in particular Cosimo de' Medici. It is because of this meeting, Marsilio Ficino believed, that Cosimo came to his idea of a Florentine `Academy', sponsoring in particular Ficino's work in making available in Latin, through translations and commentaries, the texts of Plato, Plotinus, and other Neoplatonists. Second preliminary studies of Ficino's comments on Plato's Republic and Laws suggest that political life is seen as the context of moral reform leading to a higher more divine life and that a Neoplatonic metaphysical theology functions as the model of political reform. However, O'Meara  admits further research is required in order to establish to what extent and in what ways Ficino may have transmitted aspects of Neoplatonic political thought to Renaissance humanists.

O'Meara concludes by noticing the critique of Neoplatonic political theorists offered by one of the few scholars to have paid attention to the subject, Arnold Ehrhardt. Ehrhardt attributes a `complete failure' to Neoplatonism `in the political field'. He does not specify if the failure was in theory or in political praxis, but means probably the latter. The reason for the failure, he claims, was that Neoplatonism found no `valid relation between its metaphysical and its practical philosophy'. The Neoplatonists (erroneously) believed that pure reason had the supremacy over any ethical decisions. They held that the start­ing point was the study of the pure, unchanging and eternal law which was the centre of the utopian hope for a Golden Age ... the error lay in the assumption that there was an eternal law which was intelligible, and that it would influence human actions, if it was rightly understood.

Whatever the failure in real politics, it finds its roots, according to Ehrhardt, in theoretical errors. He mentions a number of points relating to such theoretical error, which O'Meara distinguishes and evaluates. Some of these points relate specifically to Neoplatonism, but others apply more broadly to Greek political philosophy in general.

Perhaps the major disagreements concern the particular metaphysical theory which the Neoplatonists used as a paradigm for polit­ical philosophy and their use of this theory as a normative foundation for political theory. Such disagreements also arise with regard to other ancient philosophers, in particular Plato and the Stoics. Modern views of political philosophy also tend to exclude essentially didactic views of political life such as those of the ancient Neoplatonists, views of political life as a school of virtue through which humans attain their good. But here also the difficulty is more general, applying beyond the Neoplatonic schools, to ancient philosophy in general. It is a difficulty which shows the distance between ancient and modern positions. O'Meara’s study  addresses an important lacuna in bridging the gap between ancient thought and modern political science. Highly recommended.

Politics, Philosophy, Writing: Plato's Art of Caring for Souls by Zdravko Planinc (University of Missouri Press) The collection begins with Horst Hutter's study of Platonic "soulcare'  in the Charmides. The main feature of the dialogue's drama, the conflict between Socrates and Critias for the soul of the young Charmides, il­lustrates the vast gulf between Plato's understanding of human nature-in par­ticular, our "dependency on a larger order beyond human control"-and the sophistic view that "man is the measure of all things." Hutter argues: "Critias's way has been realized. It is our reality." Socrates' attempt to turn Charmides' at­tention toward the condition of his soul, a first step in the formation of virtue, "failed spectacularly." However, through the dialogue's "mythopoetic psy­chotherapy," Plato continues to present us with the Socratic challenge to our way of life. In response to the rather "modern" notions of self-consciousness and perfectibility recognizable in the various definitions of sophrosyne ("sound­mindedness” given by Charmides and Critias, Plato's Socrates shows that sophrosyne is an excellence of the soul that recognizes the inherent limitations and fundamental aporiai of human existence.

Oona Eisenstadt's study of the Apology discusses the place of shame and shaming in Socrates' relations with his fellow Athenians. To determine why Socrates was brought to trial, she examines the shame and hatred aroused in Anytus, Socrates' main accuser, during their encounter in the Meno. To deter­mine why Socrates was condemned to death, she studies the voting patterns of the Athenian jurors and argues that Socrates was condemned neither by the ju­rors susceptible to the stings of shame-those whose understanding is repre­sented by the "old accusations"-nor by those whose shame turns to hatred when Socrates challenges it. Socrates was condemned by the vulgar shameless.

Leon Craig argues that the Meno, a long-neglected and widely misunder­stood dialogue, is the best introduction to Plato's Socratic way of "political" phi­losophizing. The Meno, like the Charmides, is commonly thought to be con­cerned primarily with epistemological topics. However, it addresses the rather concrete question of whether virtue can be taught to a man like Anytus or, in­deed, to anyone in politics. Although Socrates' provocative questioning resem­bles the sophistic techniques of causing "intellectual torpor" that had become predominant in Athenian political debate, Socratic dialectic is not eristic con­tentiousness. Craig discusses the famous "epistemological paradox" of the Meno-whether any knowledge is teachable if it is impossible for someone to seek either what he knows already or what he does not yet know-in the con­text of the distinction between dialectic and eristic. The paradox is a sophistic formulation and as such cannot be "solved," but the dialogue between Socrates and Meno leads to a resolution in the consideration of the nature of human ex­perience.

The first part of Barry Cooper's study of the Republic analyzes the "historical symbolic context" of the dialogue, as it has been reconstructed by modern scholars such as Joseph Fontenrose and Geoffrey Kirk, who are well respected by the classical establishment, and by E. A. S. Butterworth, Mircea Eliade, and Eric Voegelin, who are not. As a literary work, the Republic is situated in, appeals to, and comments on a symbolic tradition. Plato deliberately uses this tradition to show how Socrates may rightfully be said to "investigate things above and be­low the earth:' Socrates is widely seen as an adept at the Apollonian way up to the ideas and their immutable perfection. However, his ability to explore the depths is no less important. In the Republic, Plato's Socrates recalls mystic, shamanic, daimonic, or in any event participatory experiences and attempts to express them in discursive or rational terms. The second part of Cooper's study gives evidence for his reading in exegeses of the beginning and end of the dia­logue. The significance of Socrates' first word, kateben, "I went down," is dis­cussed, and the psychagogic implications of the shamanistic imagery of the Myth of Er are explained, in striking detail, to illustrate Plato's understanding of the complexity of the relationship between virtue and the course of a life.

My own contribution to the collection examines Plato's use of Homeric im­agery in the Phaedrus. I argue that Plato's presentation of Socrates' charming encounter with Phaedrus is based primarily on the Homeric description of Odysseus's encounter with Nausicaa in book 6 of the Odyssey. Plato's literary or poetic "refiguring" of Homeric tropes is extensive and quite deliberate. Conse­quently, the literary "grain" of the dialogue can be analyzed as a guide to its philosophic content. In this dialogue, I attempt to demonstrate, there is no con­flict between poetry and philosophy: the Music mania that produced its liter­ary form is in perfect harmony with the erotic mania that Plato presents as the heart of Socrates' philosophy.

Kenneth Dorter's study of the Timaeus reveals another aspect of Plato's liter­ary craftsmanship. Socrates' first words in his conversation with Critias and Timaeus-"One, two, three, but where is the fourth?"-suggest that something is missing. Dorter finds that there are several passages in the dialogue that take up and develop the opening implication: at four points, a threefold classifica­tion of things is given where one would expect a fourfold one. The careful read­er will search for the fourth term, and in each case, Dorter argues, it will be dis­covered to be present, though in a different context. This intriguing formal characteristic of Plato's text should also give the reader pause in considering the relations of the things under discussion: human vocations, elements and gods, causes of the cosmos, and the levels of "soul." In each of the accounts, a medi­ating term is missing that would relate particular things with their source or derivation, showing how the realm of becoming participates in the realm of being. The four lacunae in the text thus point to fundamental aporiai in Timaeus's account, the consideration of which reveals something of the nature of Socrat­ic philosophical inquiry. Instead of being presented with an account of the life of philosophy, the reader is invited by Plato to participate in it.

The collection of essays concludes with James Rhodes's study of the Seventh Letter. Although it is often thought by classicists to be a forgery, Rhodes defends it as a legitimate Platonic work: its artful form and its philosophical substance are fully consistent with Plato's dialogues. Setting his exegesis in the context of an excellent historical reconstruction of the tyrant Dionysius's resplendent court, Rhodes argues that the letter is a "treasure" for those seeking to under­stand Plato's political philosophy because it makes "the relationships among politics, philosophy, and the highest realities and truths visible in the context of a practical effort to yoke philosophy with historically existing power." The po­litical counsel given to the friends of Dion is timely, moderate, and prudent; the philosophical counsel of the so-called digression is neither irrelevant to the practical advice nor inconsistent with the presentation of philosophy in the Re­public and the Phaedrus; and the composition of the letter, Rhodes claims, is an education in itself, requiring the "active participation" of any reader if its pur­pose is to be understood. Plato's letter tests whether its reader is "inflamed" by philosophy by stating, in writing, that there exists no writing by Plato about phi­losophy. Philosophy, for Plato, is Socratic: it is ultimately not a matter of words, either written or spoken, but rather a flame in the soul itself (341c-d).


Reason and Religion in Socratic Philosophy edited by Nicholas D. Smith and Paul B. Woodruff (Oxford University Press)

In 399 BCE the Athenians put Socrates to death on the charge of impiety. Until recently the consensus was that the grounds of his prosecution were actually political in nature, with religious grounds as a mere pretext. Current inquiries now suggest that there were genuine religious grounds for the conviction, while disagreement remains about what precisely in Socratic philosophy aroused the concerns of Athenian society.

This extraordinary volume brings together studies by prominent historians, classicists, and philosophers on the roles and effects of religion in Socratic philosophy and on the trial of Socrates. New essays by Ash Gocer, Richard Kraut, Mark L. McPherran, C. D. C. Reeve, Stephen A. White, and Paul B. Woodruff are supplemented with influential previously published works by Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Robert Parker, and Gregory Vlastos. Also included is an appendix consisting of edited correspondence between Vlastos, Brickhouse, McPherran, and Smith on how Socrates' trust in his daimonion (his "divine sign" of "voice") should be understood. These valuable letters, now in the Vlastos Archive at the Harry Ransom Center for Research in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, are published here for the first time.

This collection of important studies by many of the leading scholars in the field will appeal to historians, religious scholars, classicists, philosophers, and political theorists interested in Socrates and Plato, as well as to readers interested in conflicts between reason and religion.


In summary, given the general vagueness of what passes for knowledge about Athenian religion, our enthusiasm in seeing Socrates as a lone radical voice must be restrained. If anything, we have more reason to view him as one voice among many in "the babel" of unorthodox and critical voices." By all accounts religion pene­trates every aspect of life in Athens during the latter part of the fifth century. It is therefore not surprising to find it integral to Plato's thinking as well. To what degree his depiction of Socrates was affected by his own religious conception, we shall never know. To what degree Platonic theology was innovative, and to what degree it was alien, must also remain unresolved questions. Even those who insist on the knowablitiy of the historical Socrates through Plato's dialogues agree that some of the Socratic religious tenets are consistent with Plato's. If that is the case, we might view Socratic innovation in religion, such as it is, not as the generative cause of Platonic theology, but as its sustaining cause.


Headline 3

insert content here