Plato’s Two Cities

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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A Puritan Phaedrus

Peter_Sterry

There is no doubt that Peter Sterry (†1672) was both a Puritan and a Platonist. He was a devotee of Jesus and Plato, but only insofar as the latter agreed with and prepared one for the teachings of (and union with) the former. In a letter that he wrote to his son Peter (junior), Sterry combines the myth of the soul’s journey to absolute Beauty in the Phaedrus with the Christian doctrine of faith as a quasi-intellectual vision of Jesus within the soul in order to encourage his son to turn from his devotion to earthly passions and turn to Jesus. In this regard, Sterry appears as Socrates guiding his son to Beauty in Jesus by means of his influence and letters.

Your letters have both pleased mee well. I waite with hope to see with Joy that Eternall spirit, which is the seede of the Divine nature in you to carry on its owne Buds, and Blossomes to ripe Fruite. With all your Might thorrow the power of the glory of Christ in you, Follow after integrity, spirituality, constancy. Can hee that sees the Beauty of Christ’s face unveiled in him, and feeles Divine Love springign up imediately from its own Fountayne in his Soule, think, speake, or act from any other Principle, than the Light of this beauty, the Life of this Love, or to any end, besides the enlargement, and Propogation of the power, purity, Joyes, of this heavenly Light, and Life? O my Son, what sweeteness, Lovelynes, Strenth is there in being established in this grace, as a Tree in its Roote, in moving directly, continually towards this glory, without Gaps, or interruptions, as rivers to the Sea […] Hath the Life of Christ all things of heaven, and Earth in itself, as so many lives of Immortall Beauty, as so many Fountaynes of purest pleasures; have you by the good will of the everlasting Father thorrow that Essentiall Word his Son, this Life begottne in you, and can you doe any thing but abide in the actings of this Life, feede it, forme it in the Soules of others? So live in Christ, and Christ in you… (Peter Sterry, Selected Writings, ed. N.I. Matar. Peter Lang: 1994. pp. 133, 134)

Ficino vs. Vincenzo on Man’s Ultimate End: Intellect or Will?

Vincenzo Bandello's letter to Lorenzo de' Medici
Vincenzo Bandello’s treatise addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici

In the mid-1960s the late Renaissance scholar Paul Oskar Kristeller uncovered a manuscript by the Dominican Vicar General Vincenzo Bandello (†1507) addressed to Lorenzo de’ Medici concerning the teaching of Lorenzo’s close confidant, the famous Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino (†1499) on the subject of human beatitude – the full title of the text is, Opusculum fratris Vincentii de Castro Novo Ordinis Predicatorum ad magnificum ac generosum virum Laurentium Medicem quod beatitudo hominis in actu intellectus et non voluntatis essentialiter consistit. This text is interesting for various reasons but primarily that it provides an example of the contrast between Late Medieval and Renaissance philosophy, specifically with respect to the debate between Thomists and Scotists over whether man’s ultimate end consists in an act of the intellect or of the will and how the terms of this debate changed during the Renaissance.  The title betrays the fact that according to Fra Vincenzo, the ultimate end of man consist essentially in an act of the intellect and not an act of the will. Though Vincenzo and Ficino are indebted to Thomas Aquinas’s philosophical synthesis in crucial aspects, both however, sought to justify their positions with reference to the classical sources, Vincenzo to Aristotle, Ficino to Plato. Kristeller explains in more detail:

For both of them, the ultimate happiness of man consists in a conjunction of the soul with God that is permanently attained, on the part of the blessed, in the future life. Both of them also take it for granted that the intellect and will are involved in the attainment of this ultimate happiness which includes the vision and fruition of God on the part of the soul and presupposes the love and desire of the soul for its ultimate end […] [One] basic difference [between the two] concerns the theory of pleasure. Fra Vincenzo stands firm on the Aristotelian theory presented in the last book of the Nicomachean Ethics that pleasure is the accompanying perfection of an activity, and hence should not be coonsidered as a primary good or end of desire. Ficino, on the other hand, was at one time deeply influenced by the hedonism of Epicurus and Lucretius, and actually refers in his letter to his early treatise De voluptate, in which his views on this subject are developed. Moreover, he was influenced by the Neoplatonic view that the good, and the appetite directed towards it, have both a higher and broader metaphysical significance than the order of truth and intellect. [For Ficino] the intellect grasps its object through images or species … and when its object is God, the intellect lowers and narrows it to conform with its own capacity. Love, on the other hand, moves the soul towards its object as it is in itself, and when this object is God, love will lift and enlarge the soul to the infinity of God. Fra Vincenzo’s reply to this important argument is characteristic: the distinction between the acts of the will and of the intellect as given by Ficino is true for the present life. In the future life, the knowledge of God will be aided by the lumen gloriae, the soul will know God immediately in His essence, and thus be enlarged to His infinity through the vision of God, rather than through fruition.

(Kristeller, Studies in Renaissance Thought and Letters, vol. 3, 154-155)

Kristeller notes also that Ficino does not place such a radical division between the present and the future life as does Vincenzo. Rather, the present is a “genuine foretaste of the future life” and so the metaphysical pleasure or enjoyment of God that one enjoys in the present corresponds in a fundamental way to that of the future life. This would recall to any Presbyterian ears the words of the first question of the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Confession, that the “chief end” of man is to “glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” Vincenzo rejects dilectio and fruitio as forming an essential (essentialiter) part of human beatitude because, as Aristotle argues, this sort of desire aims at a particular good for the sake of pleasure and not for its own sake. According to Tamara Albertini this division between desire (or pleasure, enjoyment, or love – Vincenzo refutes all of them as essential to beatitude) and ultimate beatitude – and the way of dividing the intellect from the will so that one contributes more to beatitude than the other – was considered by Ficino, at least in his later years, to be a false dichotomy (see Albertini, “Intellect and Will in Marsilio Ficino: Two Correlatives of a Renaissance Concept of Mind” in Marsilio Ficino: His Theology, His Philosophy, His Legacy).

Though Kristeller published some of the Latin text of Vincenzo’s treatise, he was only able to transcribe about half of it. For those who may be interested, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana of Florence still has the original copy and has digitized it – click here to read it. The treatise is appended to Vincenzo’s interesting refutation of the doctrine of the “immaculate conception.” The Quod beatitudo… begins on Carta 157r.

Mario Equicola (†1525) on Gender Difference

Titian, Garden of Love (1518), commissioned by duke Alfonso d'Este under collaboration with Mario Equicola
Titian, Garden of Love (1518), commissioned by duke Alfonso d’Este in collaboration with Mario Equicola

Mario Equicola, the famous Renaissance poet, produced one of the comparatively few treatises on women (De Mulieribus) during the Renaissance. Equicola addresses his treatise to the Lady Margherita Cantelmo, who was one of his students and, according to Carolyn James, was being tutored by Equicola even from afar by means of his letters. After demonstrating from both scripture and authorities such as Hermes Tristmegistus and Cicero that the image of God in man is not differentiated in its essence between genders, Equicola invokes the authority of Plato and Aristotle to defend his main argument that the physiological and intellectual differences between men and women are due to poor educational custom and not nature. One traditional hermeneutic that was mined by Renaissance humanists from the texts of the Neoplatonic authors was the attempt to harmonize the apparent dichotomous philosophies of Plato and Aristotle for the sake of defending what they perceived to be the unique truth of perennial philosophical wisdom. Equicola praises both of these philosophers even though the latter wrote little to nothing on the current subject. He writes:

(English translation below)

Divinitatis a secretis semideus Plato in libris quos de republica scripsit in gymnica mulieres certamina deducere non veretur, et iactu lapidum, arcu, funda, luctatione exerceri iubet. In legibus quas ipse vehementer probavit (cum respublica voventis sit atque optantis, illae eligentis) eadem quae masculis eadem feminis exercitia tribuit, legem sanciens ut mulieres rem bellicam non negligant, gymnasticam discant, iaculandi sagiptandi exercitationes, peltasticen, quoque, et omnes armatorum dimicationes; acierum ordinationes, ductiones exercitus, castrorum positiones, et quaecumque ad equestrem pertinent disciplinam. Tales certe non tulisset leges nisi feminas – neque corporis valentia et robore, neque animae excellentia et nobilitate – viris inferiores cognovisset, et ad omnia habiles aptasque ex philosophiae penetralibus percepisset: consuetudineque feminis res forenses et bellicae, non natura, prohibitae.

Aristoteles, cum aliqua iisdem in legisbus et republica non probet, illam de mulieribus sanctionem praeterit, quod homo ingeniosissimus mortalium et gloriae ante alios cupidissimus non utique omisisset nisi sic esse habuisset optime exploratum: naturale enim cognorat, quod maxime natura fieri patitur.

~ Mario Equicola, De Mulieribus Delle Donne, edited by Giuseppe Lucchesini and Pina Totaro, (Rome: Istituti Editoriali e Poligrafici Internazionali, 2004), p. 34.

(Translation)

Plato (the semi-divine) writes in the Republic, by means of a secret divinity, that women are not afraid to launch a competition and he decrees that they are to be trained in throwing stones, in the bow, the sling, and in wrestling. In laws that he has vehemently proven (since the republic is characterized by laws voted on, wished for, and elected) Plato assigns the same rule for the training of both men and women, a rule sanctioning that women not neglect the military art, that they learn gymnastics, and [receive] training in throwing and shooting arrows (also with the pelta), and all the arts of combat: the arrangement of a battle line, the leading of an army, the positioning of encampments and everything that pertains to the equestrian discipline. He would have certainly not proposed such laws if he thought that women are inferior to men (either in power and strength of body or in the excellence or nobility of their souls), and he perceived (from the inner shrine of philosophy) that [women] are capable and well-suited for every activity and that courtly and military duties are prohibited for women because of custom and not because of nature.

Since Aristotle did not approve of some of Plato’s [arguments] in the Laws and the Republic, he did not make mention of any law concerning women. This man – who was the most talented of mortals and was more desirous of glory than others – would certainly not have omitted [this topic] unless he would have held that [Plato’s conclusions] were most optimally investigated, for he naturally recognized what the highest nature brings into being.

The hermeneutic employed here implies that if Aristotle omitted anything that Plato treated then the latter must have agreed (though Equicola allows for some non-essential disagreement) with his teacher. Yet, a more idealistic or Platonic account of gender difference would seem to work against Equicola’s argument that women are capable of education in the liberal arts despite their gender difference.

Later in his argument Equicola appears to depend more on Aristotle when he argues that the human mind is a tabula rasa and that women have no innate weakness or daftness but may perform well in all of the so-called “masculine” arts with the proper education. He argues, “It was rightly said that custom is a second nature [alteram naturam] – as neither conditions nor habits, vices nor virtues come into being by fortune or fate but by choice and practice [arbitrio et exercitatione] – since we are as a blank canvas [tabula rasa] on which anything can be painted.” As many Renaissance humanists, however, Equicola appears to see no essential difference Platonic and Aristotelian epistemology; he affirms, “Nature has given us an imperfect intellect but which is capable of being perfected. It has also given us the seeds of all the arts and the little sparks of the virtues [virtutum scintillas], but so great is the corruption of bad customs and of such great force that these little flames of the virtues [virtutum igniculi] are extinguished and vices spring forth and are strengthened [in their place].” For Equicola, one’s natural capacities for acquiring the various virtues are innate “little sparks” that are either strengthened or doused by education. Using these principles Equicola is able to argue that the two genders are not different in essence but, nevertheless, have certain bodily differences for the sake of procreation.

The Optimism of a Dualistic Reality in Later Neoplatonism

ImageAs Radek Chlup argues in his recent monograph on Proclus, later Neoplatonists such as Iamblichus and Proclus seem at first glance to present a more pessimistic account of the soul’s abilities than that of Plotinus who thought of the “higher soul” as freely able to navigate between different levels of ontological reality. For Plotinus the higher soul remains in the intellectual realm while the lower soul descends into the body. Thus, the material aspect of human existence is merely a hindrance to perfection and contemplative virtue is promoted as the only means of “escaping from here.” For Iamblichus and Proclus there is no higher undescended soul and the intelligible universe does not exist within the soul. Chlup explains that, although this divergence from the teaching of the original “father” of Neoplatonism may seem pessimistic, things are not as they may seem on the surface:

At first sight, the Neoplatonic approach [of later Neoplatonists] may appear rather pessimistic. While Plotinus had the entire universe at his fee, so to speak, and was able to pass through its various levels freely, starting with Iamblichus philosophers were ‘imprisoned’ on the psychic level, having no access to the higher ones. In fact, however, their position implies no pessimism whatsoever, and in some regards it is actually optimistic. Above all, eastern Neoplatonists have a much more positive relation towards the corporeal world. Plotinus’ identification with his ‘higher self’ established in the intelligible world caused our philosopher to show little concern for what goes on at the corporeal level. It is symptomatic that Plotinus has a very negative conception of matter, regarding it as the ultimate source of all evil. Late Neoplatonists cannot afford such a view or the simple reason that they have nowhere to escape from bodily reality. According to them, humans are mediators between the intelligible and the sensible world, and they have no choice but to take seriously both of them … A soul of this kind … should combine its contemplative activity with active providential care for things in this world. – Chlup, Proclus: An Introduction, (Oxford: 2012), 28, 29.

Thus, these later Neoplatonists, though they held a more pessimistic view of the soul, actually were more optimistic about the “hylemorphê” or the united body-soul composite that is the essence of a human. This also reflects a more optimistic metaphysics with regard the gods and their relation to the material world. According to Proclus:

[The soul] wants to imitate the providential care of the gods; it is for this reason that it abandons its contemplation. For divine perfection is of two kinds: one is intellective, the other providential; the former consists in rest, the latter in motion. This being so, the soul imitates the intellective and unswerving stability of the gods by its contemplation, but their providence and motion by its life in the world of  generation. – In Tim. III 324.6-12; Chlup, 245.

And, of course, Proclus’s more optimistic view of the hylemorphê and of the gods corresponds to a more civic oriented virtue ethic. Since human reality is ultimately a dualistic unity of mind and matter and because man desires to imitate the providential actions of the gods, so his contemplation will always return to bodily action, from which one might say it never truly departed. Proclus explains:

Moreover, since virtue is not one and indivisible but multifarious, we must understand that providence always incites us to ever different projections of our reason-principles, in order that the virtuous person might realize all possible modes of virtue and be shown as its true champion in the eyes of those who have arranged the contest of virtue [i.e., the gods]. For this reason providence often brings externally active people to rest, making the intellect within them revert on itself, but it moves to actions those who only look inside themselves; in this way it teaches us what form virtue has and that it is of two aspects. This is why providence gives us various tools but then takes back again what it has given: by making human lives variegated it challenges good people to actualize their dispositions in all possible manners, training them in this way to administer this universe together with the gods. – De dec. dub. 37.9-20; Chlup, 249.

Good Friday Meditation: Plato’s Glaucon on the Just Man

Now, if we are to form a real judgment of the life of the just and unjust, we must isolate them; there is no other way; and how is the isolation to be effected? I answer: Let the unjust man be entirely unjust, and the just man entirely just; nothing is to be taken away from either of them, and both are to be perfectly furnished for the work of their respective lives. First, let the unjust be like other distinguished masters of craft; like the skilful pilot or physician, who knows intuitively his own powers and keeps within their limits, and who, if he fails at any point, is able to recover himself. So let the unjust make his unjust attempts in the right way, and lie hidden if he means to be great in his injustice (he who is found out is nobody): for the highest reach of injustice is: to be deemed just when you are not. Therefore I say that in the perfectly unjust man we must assume the most perfect injustice; there is to be no deduction, but we must allow him, while doing the most unjust acts, to have acquired the greatest reputation for justice. If he have taken a false step he must be able to recover himself; he must be one who can speak with effect, if any of his deeds come to light, and who can force his way where force is required his courage and strength, and command of money and friends. And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honours and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering; and he must be imagined in a state of life the opposite of the former. Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust. When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two. (Republic II, 361b-d)

The Virtue of Friendship as the Basis of Society

David and JonathanAccording to Melanchthon, man does not really need to create a reason for friendship. It is the fulfillment of a natural inclination to be social. The Epicurean idea of friendship, that two people merely come together out of necessity or utility, is seen as a minimalist perspective. The fulfillment of utility arises from virtue and not vice versa, just as good actions proceed from good character. “Friendship” for Melanchthon is a “form of justice in which benevolence is given for benevolence.” In his Epitome ethices Melanchthon speaks of the final cause, the raison d’etre, of this friendship:

The Final Cause [of friendship] is first of all the very dignity of virtue. For friendship is to be sought and cultivated for the sake of virtue even if no usefulness follows from it. For the mind judges that man was made for this society and it is a worthy virtue for man to cultivate these bonds of mutual goodwill. And many sufficiently clear judgments have been impressed upon human nature to show that friendships are to be cultivated not for their utility but on account of virtue, which is why nature teaches us these duties. For parents are moved to love their children not by utility but by the decision and inclination of nature. And the force of love shows itself the most when calamities happen to children, when parents can get neither utility nor pleasure from them. This emotion is called parental love. And it is praised not only in the books of the philosophers but even in sacred literature, Rom. 12. Thus just as we may be led in this form by a judgment o nature to friendship, so in other matters nature ought to be stronger than the thought of utility. For it is stronger than the judgment of nature and preservation stronger than utility, when we are led by nature to society even though no usefulness comes from it. And the end of friendship is domestic union and mutual need. (Epitome ethices, LII.)

Medieval ParisJust as friendship is a virtue and is sought for virtue, so society is based upon virtue. The state did not arise merely due to the human survival instinct, nor some abstract social contract, but primarily due to man’s natural inclination toward the preservation and perfection of self, family, and society on his journey toward the Good. Melanchthon confirms:

And there is in a man a certain friendship toward the state, not for personal utility but on account of virtue, to the extend that he would not hesitate to go to his death for the state if it were necessary. And as they sense, not just Christian literature teaches, but even the law of nature itself so states, that God is angered by those who do not love the state and do not defend it. And the human mind understands by this that God is to be obeyed even if not benefits follow. And so Plato said that there is a certain quality which must be cultivated since God sets these beneficences down to be defended, which are all contained in the word “fatherland”, and they are truly divine things, namely religions, laws, the propagation of citizens [Laws 5, 740a]. Since friendship is a virtue, it should be sought along with the other virtues rather than because of its utility. And this is easy for Christians to judge, who know that these duties are to be distributed by the will of God rather than according to their benefit. (ibid.).

What the pagans found difficult to find, yet eventually did find, the Christian has been given – the knowledge of the virtue of friendship and the will of God that mankind come together for the sake of one another, rather than pursue acquaintance for mere utility. Thus the City of Man is just as natural as it is inspired by the supernatural. The Polis contains “divine things” in its religion and laws, and it protects its citizens with the parental care for which nature is in longing. For that reason the state demands and deserves that age-old title of “fatherland.”