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Plato’s Two Cities

February 5, 2015
Plotin

In his very informative book, Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity, Dominic O’Meara argues that the Platonists of Late Antiquity did not think that Plato intended his strict utopian government reflected in the Republic to be applied to any physical city or polity in this life. Rather, the Republic reflects the principles of the Ideal city, not the city of this world of flux. The Platonists saw a division between two “cities” in Plato’s political writings, between the Ideal city of the Republic and the more realistic (in terms of material limitations) civic polity delineated in Laws. O’Meara explains:

The relation between the ideal city of the Republic and that proposed in the Laws was, for the Neoplatonist, far from what it is often supposed to be today, that is, that the ambitious political reformer of the Republic, disappointed by his experience in Sicily, produced in his old age a more modest project, that of the Laws. Rather, the later Neoplatonist read the relation between the two cities in the light of a passage in the Laws (739b-e), which distinguishes between the best constitution (where all is held in common); a second-best constitution which seeks to approach the best, but admits of private property and family units; and a yet lower, third-best city.  Thus, in the Laws, a political project is sketched which approximates to the ideal, while at the same time making concessions to human nature as regards the need for private property and family. The ideal, best constitution, on the other hand, makes no such concessions and seems indeed hardly possible for humans, since it is described as a `city of gods or of children of the gods’ (Laws 739d). The Neoplatonists understood this city of the gods mentioned in the Laws as corresponding to the project of an ideal city of the Republic (Kindle Locations 1024-1031).

For example:

Proclus sees the political projects of the Republic and the Laws as situated on different levels: the Republic takes individuals that are pure and educates them, whereas the Laws takes people who have already lived in other cities and are less perfect. Thus the city of the Laws is inferior in its political ambition to that of the Republic: not only does it not foresee the highest positions for women [as the Republic does], it also allows private property (banned from the life of the rulers in the Republic), which, given woman’s weaker nature (in Proclus’ view) and thus her presumed preference for the private to the public good, means that it is prudent to exclude her from the highest office at the level of the less perfect city of the Laws. (Kindle Locations 952-957).

What, then, is the relationship between the two cities? How are they connected? The Platonists answer, is the philosopher king or the political philosopher. O’Meara explains the role of the political philosopher in uniting the two cities:

The purpose of the political philosopher is to promote a political order which favours the development of the `political’ virtues among the citizens and thus the achievement of `political happiness’, as a first stage in the process of divinization. Political life, a life in which soul, as living in relation to the body, is confronted with problems of order both within itself and in relation to others, is thus a school of virtue, an extended version, so to speak, of the philosophical school, the ruler being consequently a kind of mentor or guide who brings order to political life, inspired by a privileged  access to the divine (Kindle Locations 1001-1005).

By imitating the divine model of wisdom and providing an example of that wisdom in his person the political philosopher points the earthly city to the Good. This sort of education divinizes the earthly city. O’Meara notes:

At any rate, the goal of political science, the common good that includes the individual good on the political level, is `good’ to the degree that it relates to, or participates in, a transcendent Good. In short, the finality of politics is sharing in the divine, i.e. divinization, just as `political’ virtue represents a form and early stage of divinization. Thus the political good, or `political happiness’, is not an ultimate goal, but a stage giving access to the ultimate Good (Kindle Locations 998-1001).

For Platonists, the good of the earthly city is only good insofar as it participates in the Good of the heavenly “city of the gods” by means of public laws that bring order and structure to the souls of citizens; thereby divinizing the earthly city. This, of course, means that the Platonists were not merely political philosophers but political theologians.

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