Transcript: 96 - Dominic O'Meara on Neoplatonism

Dominic O'Meara speaks with Peter about political philosophy and mathematics in Neoplatonism.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Peter Adamson: The topic that we're going to be discussing today is Neoplatonism and in particular, two topics you've written about in books called Platonopolis, and Pythagoras Revived. So we'll start with political philosophy, which was the topic of this book, Platonopolis. And I guess the obvious thing to ask you about that is were Neoplatonists even interested in political philosophy? Because there's a kind of cliched idea that this is just something they paid no attention to?

Dominic O'Meara: Well, the conventional image that you find of Neoplatonist philosophers is that they're not interested in the physical world, they're not interested in their bodies, they're not interested in social life, they're only interested in getting away from all that stuff and transcending this physical world, transcending ordinary human society and reaching some kind of union with some transcendent divinity, which they call the One. And they're so keen on doing this that they try to get away from any engagement in ordinary human relations or any involvement with ordinary life. And this seems to entail, according to the conventional view, that they take no interest in what it means to live well in ordinary life, how to organize one's daily existence in the world with other people.

Peter Adamson: But I guess that would be a pretty strange phenomenon, right? If these Platonists, who call themselves Platonists, weren't interested in political philosophy, after all, Plato wrote maybe the greatest work ever on political philosophy, which is The Republic. He also wrote other works on political philosophy, for example, a late work called The Laws, which people don't read much anymore, but it's there. So were they interested in those works, or did they just ignore them?

Dominic O'Meara: Yes, well, this is absolutely true. You would think that if they really did interest themselves in Plato, and if they thought that Plato was, so to speak, "the philosopher," then they would be aware of this dimension of Plato. The reason people have thought that the later Neo-Platonists were not interested in this side of Plato was, I think, because there is this idea that they're almost like monks, or they're almost like saints. There's some sort of confusion between, let's say, Christian ideas about asceticism and getting away from the world, going into the desert, and philosophers of the same period as these Christian ascetics. But in fact, of course, there were all of these texts of Plato, which they were interested in, which they read. And I think there's also a philosophical error involved in thinking that making this world less important, and taking less interest in this world, and thinking that what is more important is some other world, that this necessarily involves no interest in politics. In fact, I think putting less emphasis in daily life in this world is itself a political gesture, and involves a political theory. And so you might say that there is also a political philosophy, or an attitude to this world, which suggests that our present life, our daily life, is not the best life, does not entail logically that you have no political theory.

Peter Adamson: I guess I can see how that would work in ethics, because if you thought the things of this world were not important, then, for example, you might put less emphasis on physical pleasure, or getting money, for instance. But how does it work out as a political gesture?

Dominic O'Meara: Maybe another thing I want to say is that political philosophy in antiquity is not like modern political philosophy. And if you look at people like Plato and Aristotle, they consider that the polis, or the city, or the community, is in fact a sort of an ethical community, or a community in which you can realize the good, in which you can reach virtue. So it's quite different from a modern political perspective. So if we're talking about the Neoplatonists, I think we need to put them in the context of ancient political philosophy and the conception of political philosophy that you find in Plato and Aristotle. In other words, we live with others in order to attain virtue and in order to attain happiness. And this is quite different from modern conceptions. And the Neoplatonists thought also like this, that community, living with people, is a way of reaching virtue, and it is a way of reaching happiness in some way. And the purpose of political philosophy is to give us the knowledge required to realize this.

Peter Adamson: And so political affairs, getting your political regime in the right order, would in a sense be the first step, or at least an early step, on the way to some kind of fulfilled wisdom and happiness. Is that right?

Dominic O'Meara: Exactly. The big difference, you might say, is that the Neoplatonists didn't think that happiness could be fully attained, completely attained, in ordinary daily life, in the ordinary social situation, and that it could only be attained in a higher life. But they also thought that a step towards this higher life was living well, living virtuously - and in a certain sense living quite happily in your ordinary life, in your ordinary material life, in your ordinary social relations. And so they introduced the idea of political happiness. And the idea of political happiness is the idea of a happiness which is an image or an anticipation or preparation for a higher happiness, which would be the happiness of this transcendent life, this life of intellect, in fact.

Peter Adamson: Would they think if I attained the life of intellect, the true happiness, that the political happiness could just fall away, so that it's a kind of step on a ladder towards true happiness, but one that I could discard once I got off the ladder?

Dominic O'Meara: Yes. Well, I like to think of this in two ways. You might say the political happiness and virtues of living well with other people in your material existence is a necessary step for reaching a higher kind of happiness, the happiness of pure mind. But that's just one phase. The other phase is the phase of supposing that you've reached higher perfection and higher happiness. You're still living in this world. You still have a body. You still have people around you. You still live with them. And in fact, to the extent that you live with other people and you live a material existence, a corporeal existence, you still require political happiness, even if you have theoretical happiness. So in fact, political happiness leads to theoretical happiness, but if you have theoretical happiness, you still need political happiness to the extent that you live in a body with other people all around you.

Peter Adamson: Right. That's really interesting. Maybe we could talk about how that plays out in specific Neoplatonic thinkers. The obvious place to start would be Plotinus, because he's usually reckoned as the founder of Neoplatonism. And I guess that political philosophy is certainly not what leaps to mind when most people think of Plotinus. What is there to say about Plotinus and political philosophy?

Dominic O'Meara: I think for reasons maybe we'll be able to go into later on, Plotinus is probably less interested than his successors in political philosophy. And we hear about him that he wanted to found a city called Platonopolis. And this was to be a city outside Rome. And he was to live there according to Plato's Laws with probably friends and colleagues. And this project of founding a philosophical city according to Plato's Laws was not realized. The Roman emperor wouldn't give him the money.

Peter Adamson: Some things stay the same throughout history.

Dominic O'Meara: The endowment, yes. But it is an interesting story. And I think we shouldn't neglect the fact that it is to be a city organized according to Plato's Laws. We don't know whether that means that it would be a city organized according to Plato's Republic or according to Plato's Laws, the book. We don't know that. But I think it's a mistake to pretend that he didn't have an interest in founding what would be a good human society.

Peter Adamson: And does that have any reflection in the Ennead's, his own writings?

Dominic O'Meara: I think it does. I think he talks now and then about how we should lead our lives. He's mostly interested in, you might say, your personal life and in your family life and in living with the people who are near you or around you. And he uses for describing these relationships, the relationships within yourself and with the people who are close to you, he uses, in fact, the model of Plato's Republic where you need to develop a sort of a balanced life in which your emotions, your desires are rationally conducted. And conducted in such a way that they don't take over the function that is proper to reason. So he does talk about it, but he seems to think of it primarily as a matter of living a balanced life yourself and living well with others. And he also seems to think, he does mention at one point the idea that if you have reached theoretical wisdom, you may want to use this theoretical wisdom to translate it for the benefit of the people around you in improving social relationships. And there he does, this is a text in treatises, in Ennead 6.9, there he does use the idea of the philosopher who descends into the cave, which you find in Plato's Republic.

Peter Adamson: And speaking of the Republic, I guess we could move along to Proclus, because Proclus wrote a commentary on the Republic, or at least a set of essays on the Republic, and we would expect that that should tell us something about its political philosophy. What does it tell us?

Dominic O'Meara: Well, in fact, you might say, if I can add a few things, the Republic is a little more present in Plotinus than one might imagine, and there are actually more references to Plato's Republic than are listed in the standard editions. Iamblichus himself was interested in Plato's Republic and interpreted it, and uses it, quotes it quite extensively. And so when Proclus gets to commenting on Plato's Republic, this is not something new. But at least we have these texts from Proclus, and we don't have earlier texts which are lost. So at least in Proclus we can see what a later Neoplatonist would do with Plato's Republic. Now, why was Proclus interested in Plato's Republic? Well, he was interested in Plato's Republic and in Plato's Laws, and he read the Politicus also, Plato's Statesman. And it seems to be in the context of an interest in what is called political virtue in Plotinus and in Proclus. That is, the virtue of living well, as I have described it, in your terrestrial existence, in your material existence, in your social relationships with others. And to cultivate these political virtues, which are the virtues that Plato defines in the Republic, Proclus read Plato's Gorgias and also Plato's Republic and Plato's Laws. These were the texts in which you could find information about political virtue and how to develop it.

Peter Adamson: And you think that wasn't unusual, that they would have been studying the Republic and the Laws in his class? Or was it not in a classroom context? Was it something he was just doing on his own for his own interest? Or do we not know that?

Dominic O'Meara: I think we can say that Proclus was a brilliant student and that he read as a brilliant student, a very industrious student, a serious student, he read as much as he could of Plato. And so he didn't content himself with a sort of a minimalistic course in readings in Plato. He read everything. And he read the Republic and he read the Laws. And it's probable that his better students, when he became a teacher, also were not content with sort of the minimum course. And they also read these texts. And I imagine he wrote on Plato's Republic for these better students.

Peter Adamson: And what sort of themes most interest him about the political philosophy of the Republic? What does he do with the text?

Dominic O'Meara: Well, he's interested in a number of questions. There are a number of essays. And some of these questions are questions which are still very much discussed in Plato studies. For example, he discusses a question at the beginning of his set of essays on the Republic as to what the Republic is about. Today there's some discussion as to whether it's really about politics or is it not more about ethics or about psychology perhaps. And Proclus discusses this question and I think has a very good way of balancing out the political and the ethical dimensions of Plato's Republic. There's another essay which I find very interesting in which he talks about Plato's idea of the philosopher queens. And he has an interesting theory about this. He takes it quite seriously. If you think that neo-Platonists are not interested in politics, you will have a little problem with explaining why Proclus talks about philosopher queens.

Peter Adamson: And he's in favor of the idea, presumably, that women could be philosophers and be rulers.

Dominic O'Meara: Absolutely. But he has a refined theory because people notice that in Plato's Laws the women don't get the same equality. They don't have the same power in Plato's Laws as they have in Plato's Republic. Women don't become rulers in Plato's Laws. And so there's a problem in Plato. What you do with the fact that in the Republic women can be rulers as well as men, but in Plato's Laws they can't. They have a somewhat lower place. And Proclus deals with this question and his solution is to say that Plato's Laws takes account more of human nature. And so Plato's Laws introduces things like a certain amount of inequality between the citizens. He introduces the idea of private property, introduces also a certain subordination of women. This seems to have to do, you might say, with the realities of human nature. Whereas in the Republic, Plato excludes private property, excludes family life, insists on absolute equality, at least as regards to the rulers of society. And there women are no different from men, at least as far as their qualifications to rule is concerned. So Proclus regards the ideal city of Plato's Republic as an absolute ideal, an absolute ideal of equality, justice, harmony. But he regards Plato's Laws as a second degree ideal.

Peter Adamson: Which makes concessions to our own heart and our own sense.

Dominic O'Meara: And so we make some concessions to the fact that humans tend to want to have some private property and they tend to want to have families. And then of course the concession also, and this is maybe a typically Greek concession, that maybe women take second place. But this, you might say, is Proclus' attempt to make sense of Plato's political philosophy in respect to the difference between an absolute ideal and the given, the given of human nature and what might be not a reality we could realize, but an ideal for a reality we could realize.

Peter Adamson: Speaking of ideals, I wanted to move on to talk a little bit about Pythagoreanism in this later period of Neoplatonism. Let me ask you therefore about Pythagoras, who was perceived as a kind of ideal exemplar, both in ethics and I guess even as a political figure in later Neoplatonism. And I suppose the person to start with here would be Iamblichus, who wrote a long work on Pythagoras. So could you tell us about that and what Iamblichus did with Pythagoreanism and how he kind of reintegrated that into the history of Platonism?

Dominic O'Meara: Yes. In a way, continuing on what we've been talking about, Iamblichus interprets Plato's Republic as being a depiction of a Pythagorean community. It's a famous Pythagorean saying that 'everything is shared between friends,' "koina ta philon." And so this idea of sharing everything, not having anything, not having any private property, for Iamblichus is clearly the characteristic of a Pythagorean community. So he understood the ideal state of the Republic as in fact a Pythagorean community.

Peter Adamson: That phrase that 'everything is in common between friends' is actually quoted in the Republic, right?

Dominic O'Meara: Yes. But it's an interesting take on the Republic to think  that Plato might indeed have been thinking of a Pythagorean community in the Republic. At least that's Iamblichus's theory. Iamblichus is a great fabricator of a history of philosophy, which is in fact itself a philosophical statement. And so he tries to say that in fact Plato is not the source of all knowledge, he's not 'the philosopher.' In fact, Plato is himself dependent on Pythagoras and that the real Greek source of philosophy is Pythagoras. This means that anything that's true and good in Plato is in fact Pythagorean. And Iamblichus probably in polemics with Plotinus and Porphyry tried to claim that his philosophy, the Pythagorean philosophy, was in fact far older than the Platonism that was represented by Plotinus and Porphyry. It was a kind of a war between them as to the Platonic heritage. Who was the true heir to Plato? Iamblichus claiming that he was the true heir to Plato because in fact Plato was Pythagorean. 
Iamblichus in his major work on Pythagoreanism talks about the mathematical sciences and how they lead to knowledge of divine first principles. But he seems to be mostly interested in arithmetic in this big work of which we only have the first half. Proclus, who was much inspired by Iamblichus, however, gave more attention to geometry than to arithmetic and he seemed to think that in geometry we have an exemplary mathematical science as regards scientific method, as regards good rational method in general. And this may be the reason why Proclus, rather than talking about arithmetic, concentrated on geometry and wrote a commentary on Euclid's elements. So you might say it's as a consequence of Iamblichus's interest in Pythagoreanism that you ended up with Proclus writing on Euclid. And this commentary on Euclid is quite fascinating because he tries to develop a sort of philosophical method of reasoning on the basis of Euclid's book in order to interpret Euclid's procedures. And so there's quite a lot about how science is constituted, what its first principles are, how you develop arguments, what kind of arguments there are, what are the parts of arguments. And all of this is developed on the basis of an interpretation of Euclid. And it's an interpretation, you might say, of the procedure of mathematical science, but with the purpose of training the mind for thinking about deeper things or more fundamental things about first principles. You practice mathematical science and in particular geometry as a way of getting ready to reach first principles with a scientific method. 
However, the fact that Proclus was interested in Euclid is of great significance for the history of mathematics and for science. Because when a Latin translation of it was published by the mathematician Barozzi in the Renaissance, the Renaissance mathematicians and philosophers were absolutely fascinated by this book. They read Proclus' commentary on Euclid. And many of the methodological issues which they discussed were discussed as a result of their reading of Proclus' book. And this goes as far as Galileo, who was involved in discussions with other mathematicians of his period around issues that arose from reading Proclus' book. And of course, when Kepler got to publishing his book on the harmony of the world, he used big passages from Proclus' commentary on Euclid to talk about his astronomy. So in fact what Iamblichus has started was to have considerable consequences for the history of philosophy, the history of mathematics, including the Renaissance period.

Peter Adamson: I suppose that the Pythagoreanism, both in Iamblichus and Proclus, who I think follows Iamblichus in this regard, shows up in maybe two ways. One is philosophical methodology and the other is their metaphysics, which is highly mathematical. So to start with the first of those issues, what signs do we see in Iamblichus or Proclus or both that they are thinking of philosophy as a mathematical or quasi-mathematical enterprise?

Dominic O'Meara: Can I go back a little bit? One thing I'd like to add is that Iamblichus wrote this big work in which he tries to prove this propaganda of his, that in fact true Platonism is Pythagoreanism. And in it is a Pythagorean life. It's the first volume of this big work on Pythagoreanism. And in there you find a picture of Pythagoras, which we still use, a major source for knowledge about Pythagoras. But it's a picture, you might say, that is also a statement of what philosophy should be or what an ideal philosopher would be in Iamblichus's time. And so if you read it like that, then you find that Pythagoras is involved in politics. He gives political advice. He is a political thinker and he invents constitutions and his school, of course, is very much politically involved. You could read this text again as an illustration of a vision of the philosopher that Iamblichus himself would subscribe to. But of course, in this life of Pythagoras, or Pythagorean life that Iamblichus wrote, there is not just a facet of Pythagoras as a political philosopher, there's also the facet of Pythagoras as a mathematical philosopher. And in fact the two sides are there together, and as they are in Iamblichus himself. So in the following books of this big synthesis of Pythagoreanism which he wrote, which I think is not a collection of real evidence on ancient Pythagoreanism but an expression more of his program to make a Pythagorean Platonism. You find that this aspect of Pythagoras, Pythagoras as a philosopher of number, is in fact developed very much. So the philosophy turns out to be primarily mathematical science and then the science that mathematics leads to: the science of transcendent causes, metaphysics or dialectic as Plato calls it.

Peter Adamson: And they would even have seen some of the entities that you get up to study in the higher realms of philosophy as either quasi-mathematical or as actually numbers.

Dominic O'Meara: I think this taking seriously of the idea of the importance of number and of mathematics in general is important in Iamblichus and in his successors because they actually try to fill out this program. We have this idea that everything is number or we can understand everything through number - but how do you carry this out in detail in scientific investigations? And that's actually what Iamblichus tries to do. So it's actually very significant. And I think even more significant is that he seems to think that mathematical science provides us with the formulation of what rigorous scientific thinking is. And this means that mathematical concepts of order start to permeate all of the philosophical sciences in Iamblichus. Mathematical order, the order of numbers or the order of geometrical figures, provide the structures for understanding metaphysical order, the order of first causes, and also physical order, the order of things in this world.

Peter Adamson: Would that mean, for example, that if you had, say, a procession of gods, Neoplatonic divine entities, that they would be considered to be analogous to numbers so they would process in a kind of numerical fashion? Is that the sort of thing he has in mind?

Dominic O'Meara: Exactly. So if you're a later Neoplatonist involved in trying to save all of the old Greek gods and save all of these lovely stories about the birth of the gods in Homer and Hesiod, and it's kind of a mess if you want to sort it out, then all you do is you take mathematical structures and you fit them into these structures. Or mathematical structures, the order of numbers and the relationships between numbers or the order of geometrical figures and the relationship between geometrical figures, provide you with a skeleton on which you can hang all of these bits of old Greek religion. So the mathematization of philosophy in Iamblichus has very important consequences for the turning of the Greek pantheon into a sort of a philosophically meaningful structure.



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