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.

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.

Why Law Presupposes Nature According to Ralph Cudworth (†1688)

In his A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality (new version edited by Sarah Hutton, Cambridge: 1996), Ralph Cudworth defends, in a thoroughly Modern way, what one may rightly deem a classical ontology. I will offer here a review of the first two chapters of book one and will devote future posts to the remainder of the treatise. Cudworth begins Ralph Cudworthby noting that a common view throughout the ages has held that there is no natural law but only positive law, no natural difference between good and evil but only mandates established by the authority of a sovereign. Aristotle affirms that politically “honest” and “just” things seem to vary so greatly that they cannot possess any common nature. Hence, by way of clarification, Aristotle divided:

  • Politically Just things (to dikaion politikon) between
    1. Natural (physikon) – things that are the same everywhere, and
    2. Legal (nomikon) “which before there be a law made, is indifferent, but when once the law is made, is determined to be just or unjust” (Cudworth’s trans. of Ethics 1134b18-21).

Among those who deny the first among this division are Democritus, Epicurus, and more contemporaneous, Thomas Hobbes. Cudworth quotes the latter as saying, “In the state of nature nothing can be unjust; the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place; where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no transgression … No law can be unjust” (Elementorum philosophiae… vol. II, p. 145).

In connection with this denial of #1 are those who claim that only by the command of God in his absolute power do things become good. Cudworth singles out Ockham as one who held to this view of “an omnipotent Being devoid of all essential and natural justice” (p. 14). Some, such as Joannes Szydlovius (early 17th cent.) claim that “to love God is by nature an indifferent thing, and is morally good only, because it is commanded by God…” (Vindiciae questionum...).

Cudworth sets out in chapter 2 to prove by logical argument that commands depend upon and presuppose natures. No omnipotence, he argues,  is able to make a thing white or black without there being whiteness or blackness, and this is true whether one thinks of these as qualities (Aristotle) or dispositions of parts that beget the sensations of white or black within us (Descartes). Also, omnipotence cannot make things like or equal to one another without the nature of likeness and equality.

The reason thereof is plain, because all these things imply a manifest contradiction: that things should be what they are not. And this is a truth fundamentally necessary to all knowledge, that contradictories cannot be true; for otherwise nothing would be certainly true or false (p. 16).

By way of the Scholastics, Cudworth affirms the principle “that God himself cannot supply the place of a formal cause (Deum ipsum non posse supplere locum causae formalis).” In other words, “God” is not the nature of “justice” or “honesty” which is what would be the case if those terms were not self-referential but refer only to God’s will. Perhaps Cudworth’s clearest working principle, which one must affirm in order to avoid both logical contradiction and uphold natural rights, is that, “There is no such thing as an arbitrarious essence, mode, or relation, that may be made indifferently any thing at pleasure” (p. 17). In other words, things have their own existence and because of this they are not indifferent and thus cannot be changed at will. “For an arbitrarious essence is a being without a nature, a contradiction, and therefore a nonentity” (ibid.).

However, Cudworth notes, it is true that when God or a civil authority issues a command, the thing commanded becomes good when before it was indifferent, thus appearing to support the voluntarist claim that good and evil are human constructs. Even if things are bound by their natures, some claim, morality is created by the command of an authority. Cudworth responds that commands are not obligatory accept insofar as they apply to specific natures. For example, no known ruler has ever founded his authority of making commandments and others’ duty to obey them in a law of his own making.  Thus the authority of the commander must arrive from natural justice and an antecedent obligation to obey within the subjects. “Which things are not made by laws, but presupposed before all laws to make them valid ” (p. 18). For Cudworth, if there were no antecedent obligation to obey within subjects not even God himself could place any obligation on them to obey his commands “because the natures of things do not depend upon will, being not things that are arbitrarily made (gignomena) but things that are (onta)” (p. 19).

Having explained the logic of the above division between natural and legal good/evil Cudworth procedes to clarify what is known as “the Euthyphro dilemma” from Plato’s Euthyphro – Are things good because they are commanded or commanded because they are good? The answer to this dilemma, for Cudworth, depends upon a right division between intellect and will. The nature of man that does not depend upon arbitrary will is an intellectual nature. Thus, good and evil for an intellectual nature are things to which the intellect is obliged to pursue per se and others that the intellect obliges itself to pursue per accidens. This break-down may be of some help here:

  • Intellect – pursues the good by nature
    • Natural good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to immediately, absolutely, and perpetually, and upon no condition of any voluntary action that may be done or omitted intervening.
  • Will by means of Intellect- pursues accidental or “indifferent” good and evil by a voluntary action either
      • self imposed or
      • imposed by another person
    • Positively (accidentally) good – such things as the intellectual nature obliges to accidentally upon condition of some voluntary act of another person invested with lawful authority in commanding.

Through a command of the will indifferent things acquire a new relation to the intellectual nature by falling underneath something that is absolutely good or evil. In other words, though they are commanded by the will, these indifferent things depend upon the intellectual nature of the subject supplying the general categories of good and evil under which they fall. For example, to keep faith is an obligation of natural justice. To keep faith with a particular person/entity at a specific time is a thing indifferent. However, when one makes a promise by voluntary action, that particular thing falls under the absolute category of “keeping faith” thus forming a new relation to the rational nature. Thus, natural justice for man is the intellectual nature which obliges one to obey both God and civil authority.

Subjects are not required to obey a specific civil authority merely because of a “positive” law but because the intellect naturally pursues obedience to the general office of the civil authority. Yet, even the civil authority is bound by the intellect and loses the power to command if he or she exceeds these naturally imposed bounds.

Cudworth clarifies that commands do not change indifferent things into things good per se but the obedience to a particular positive law concerning an indifferent thing can be divided between form and matter. The act of obedience to the indifferent thing which has become obligatory is material obedience while  formal obedience corresponds to the universal of yielding obedience to lawful authority.

Wherefore in positive commands, the will of the commander doth not create any new moral entity, but only diversely modifies and determines that general duty or obligation of natural justice to obey lawful authority and keep oaths and covenants, as our own will in promising doth but produce several modifications of keeping faith. And therefore there are no new things just or due made by either of them, besides what was always by nature such, to keep our own promises, and obey the lawful commands of others (p. 21).

Cudworth concludes from the above premises that if there were no intellectual nature or natural justice then nothing would be obligatory, especially not that which is supposedly begotten by a mere command of the will. One can see in this the foundation for a Western theory of innate and inalienable rights as things founded upon certain and intellectual principles. It is no wonder that a man as influential as John Locke was first schooled in the philosophy of Ralph Cudworth and nurtured through close convivial acquaintance with the latter’s daughter Lady Masham.