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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Carlos Steel on Platonism and Christianity

Carlos Steel is a highly respected scholar and specialist in the history of Platonism from antiquity to the Renaissance. This lecture is a great introduction to the topic of Platonism and its historic relationship to the Christian faith given at the Lumen Christi Institute in 2011. Like any general overview of a topic, however, the way in which the details fit together to form the general narrative is precisely where the problematic questions emerge.

Steel does not shy away from asking difficult questions. Some Platonists joined philosophy to religious ritual (Iamblichus, Proclus, et al.), yet were these philosophers distorting the original message of Plato? Steel replies that these represent “creative developments” of Plato rather than outright distortions, esp. since Plato tended to emphasize the use of prayer in philosophy.

Another difficulty in relation to a Christianized Platonism: Does Augustine’s platonizing of the Gospels represent a corruption of the original message of Christianity? Again, Steel points to elements in the teachings of Jesus and Paul that seem quite commensurable with Plato’s teachings.

Perhaps the most conspicuous difficulty regarding the relationship between these two “philosophies” has to do with authority. Though the Platonists considered Plato to be a divine prophet and he was held in highest authority over other philosophers, he did not hold the authority and claim to divinity which Christians claimed of Jesus. How, then, can Christianity be wedded to a philosophy that promotes a certain freedom of inquiry that seems incompatible with the comparably rigid and authoritative doctrines of the church? The church after all merely uses philosophy to guard its own theology from the aberrant teachings of heresy. Steel merely hints at a solution to this by way of Boethius, noting the latter proposed a better way, a way that permitted the study of philosophy as an exercise detached from the strict sequestering of free thought apparent in theology. One can see at this point in Steel’s argument a particular political theology that denotes a rather strict separation between religion and philosophy, one that a Protestant following the “two Kingdoms” formulation of the Reformers would read rather differently. But alas, this is just an introduction.

The Platonism of the Early Church Fathers

I may add that from among the fathers of our religion who accepted the theory of Ideas, as did Augustine, none introduced them so that the craftsmen might turn to them and learn how to perform their tasks, but rather as the Ideas toward which God himself looked when he formed the natures of different things. (Peter Martyr, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, p. 172)

Platonism as articulated by Aristotle was utterly impractical.  He demonstrates (in I.6) that if an artist or a craftsman must look to a univocal separate Form in order to know their craft rather than the concrete image that knowledge is useless. Aristotle asks: “How is a man a better doctor or a better soldier by studying the idea itself?”  He continues, “A doctor surely is not intent on health so understood but on the health of man in the concrete, or even better perhaps, on the health of this man.” (Ibid)

Vermigli notes that this does not mean that Aristotle deplored the a priori reasoning used by an artist to better know the principles of his/her craft.  Aristotle argued against the principle that a doctor should begin with an eternal separate Idea of Health without first investigating health as it comes through the experience of healthy things.  The Fathers must have also seen the impractical nature of Platonic philosophy when ministering in their local churches. Theology would have no use for ideas that have no heuristic applicability to Christian holiness. Neither would Aristotle have a use for such impractical ideas in divine science.

Aquinas: The Son Is the One Idea

Commenting on Colossians 1:16 Thomas says:

He [Paul] says that the Son is the first-born of every creature because he is generated or begotten as the principle of every creature. And so he says, for in him all things were created.  

With respect to this, we should note that the Platonists affirmed the existence of Ideas, and said that each thing came to be by participating in an Idea, like the Idea of man, or an Idea of some other kind. Instead of all these we have one, that is, the Son, the Word of God. For an artisan makes an artifact by making it participate in the form he has conceived within himself, enveloping it, so to say, with external matter; for we say that the artisan makes a house through the form of the thing which he has conceived within himself. This is the way God is said to make all things in his wisdom, because the wisdom of God is related to his created works just as the art of the builder is to the house he has made. Now this form and wisdom is the Word; and thus in him all things were created, as in an exemplar: “He spoke and they were made” (Gen 1), because he created all things to come into existence in his eternal Word.