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.

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)