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Peter Blumsom

Joined: 09 Mar 2007
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Location: Wembley, London, UK

PostPosted: Sat Oct 13, 2018 10:17 pm    Post subject: Joseph Milne Lecture Reply with quote

I put this speech given by Joseph Milne for the Forum's perusal. In one way it is economics but clearly its essence transcends economics and a philosophical forum is its natural place of study.

Ownership in Early Christianity and the Natural Law Tradition

Henry George Foundation Open Day Lecture 2018
Dr Joseph Milne

Charles Avila’s book Ownership: Early Christian Teaching shows us that the Church Fathers addressed the question of land ownership and its exploitation very strongly. For example he quotes from Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, in the fourth century who wrote:
“The elements have been granted to all for their use. Rich and poor alike enjoy the splendid ornaments of the universe. . . The house of God is common to all.” (p. 72)

Or in another passage he says

“Thus God has created everything in such a way that all things be possessed in common. Nature therefore is the mother of common right, usurpation of private right.” (p. 74)

Ambrose’s assertion that the earth and all the elements belong to all in common is to be found in the other Church Fathers. It was an essential part of early Christian thought. From the Christian perspective all nature belongs to the Creator who has given it, simply as a gift, to all the creatures to share in common. Just as God has created each being, so likewise he has created their dwelling place where all may flourish. With the human race this is even more so, since through intelligent cooperation the community may enhance the gifts of nature in mutual benefit, so there is no need for want or poverty.

According to Ambrose, the cause of poverty is avarice. Very simply, it is the desire to possess for oneself what by nature is to be shared amongst all. Here he accuses the wealthy landlords as avaricious who exploit their tenant farmers who barely survive while they themselves live in luxurious palaces, gathering riches for their own sake.Their defence, according to Avila, is the Roman law of property. But to Ambrose gathering wealth as an end in itself is to live for the wrong reason, out of accord with nature, and to inflict harm on others. Like the other Church Fathers, he pleads with the landed rich to give their excess to the poor. This would be no more than to return what they have stolen from them. On being elected Bishop of Milan by popular demand, Ambrose gave most of his property to the poor.

Needless to say, beyond a few rich Christians who heeded these pleas from the Fathers, the exploitation of the land remained. And since the wealth of the Roman Empire derived primarily from agriculture, the direct abuse of land monopoly was a plainly evident wrong. Now it is worth asking why this teaching of the early Church went largely unheeded. Christianity, we should remember, had become the official religion of Rome, and these teachings widely known, especially the idea of the community holding all in common and giving to the poor.

We are faced with the same question today. Why, after such great popularity, have the insights of Henry George into the proper use of land also gone unheeded? After all, as Charles Avila points out, George was only saying in economic terms what the early church was saying in ethical terms. The Fathers called upon the justice of divine providence, George upon empirical economic justice. Both arrive at the same evident truth: that if the gifts of nature are misappropriated, then exploitation will arise between citizens, poverty will increase while wealth increases and, if this is not remedied, a society will eventually fall – as did the Roman Empire.

Now Avila wonders why the slaves or tenants did not rise up against the powerful landowners. It seems there were small rebellions, but these were easily put down with force. If we look around the world today, it is clear that the oppressed have no chance of remedying their condition themselves. It is precisely because they are at a disadvantage that they are oppressed. But if we turn to what we may call the modern free democracies, it is equally clear that the disadvantaged or exploited are the least likely to rise up and bring about justice. A more likely result of any rebellion is that the oppressed become the oppressors – just as those fleeing to America from the Irish potato famine have done. Avarice and injustice seem to take root even from the best intentions.

Why is it, then, that the more educated and influential cannot bring about a remedy to this most basic injustice of misappropriating the earth? Even those politicians who understand the land question cannot bring about any change. All they can do is try to mitigate the consequences of injustice.

Here is where I believe the Church Fathers and the classical philosophers had an insight which our own age lacks. They understood the human situation at a far deeper level than either the poor or the rich and powerful of their day. They could see that both the rich and the poor did not understand either human nature or the laws of nature – what we may call the ‘social laws’ of nature. From the Christian perspective, the question is: why does avarice arise? Indeed, why does ‘possessiveness’ arise? Why do human beings desire to take things as their own property, even though it obviously harms others? Is humanity selfish and brutal by nature as Thomas Hobbes proposed in his Leviathan? Or, further, is there no such thing as ‘justice’ in the order of nature, but merely brute force, survival of the fittest, and the ‘war of all against all’?

The early Christians, like the classical philosophers before them, asked these questions, and they rejected the idea that human nature is essentially selfish. Christianity sees human nature as fallen from its original natural state. It has always been concerned with restoring human nature to its natural condition – its condition before the Fall. This meant that the political or social teaching of the early Church, and in the Middle Ages, recognised that there cannot be a truly just society in the fallen human condition. What is required is a transformation of the soul, so that the providential order of nature can again be perceived. The earliest Christian communities did attempt to live in common and share all property. And in the Middle Ages this was the basis of monastic life – to live without any possessions. Yet even the monasteries tended to accumulate wealth and every now and then needed great reform, as with the birth of the Cistercians, Franciscans and Dominicans. But it is recognised that the majority cannot live this way. I will come back to how this wasanswered in a moment.

The philosophers had a different explanation. They saw the problem lay in errors of judgement, of mistaking for true what was not true. This is how Plato and Aristotle see the human situation. According to them we do not know how to judge correctly between the true and the false, or between the just and the unjust. They understand that the faculties of the mind are naturally directed towards truth, just as the eye is directed towards light, or the ear towards sound, but that this capacity needs to be developed through careful education. This meant strengthening the rational faculties, but also the body, and the cultivation of the virtues – primarily justice, courage, prudence, and temperance. For Plato and Aristotle, the understanding of the truth of things is directly connected with understanding justice. For them the true and the good cannot be separated.

Book I of Plato’s Republic is all about misconceptions of justice. These take several forms. First, that justice is only an external convention in a society. Second, that justice is the rule of the strong over the weak. Third, that it is doing good to your friends and harm to your enemies. Fourth, that it is giving to each what they are owed. Each of these positions are shown by Socrates to be flawed in one way or another. They belong to the realm of uninformed opinion. The remaining books of the dialogue seek to overcome these false conceptions of justice and to find its true nature.

This is not the time to go into that in detail. But one thing ought to be noted. Plato’s dialogue arrives at an understanding that, through erroneous thinking, Nature and Law have become separated. The Greek words are physis and nomos. For Plato the law of anything is its nature, or its nature is its law. This law belonging to each thing is also its natural connection with all other things. The whole cosmos is a harmony between all its parts, and this harmony is the coincidence of physis and nomos, Nature and Law. The Greek word kosmos means ‘order’. Everything has a part to play within the great whole, and through that part each fulfils its own being. It becomes harmonious with itself and with the whole cosmos. This harmonious order of things is true justice. Justice is not imposed upon things from outside but belongs to their essence and their proper mode of being. It means each thing acts according to its own true nature when it acts according to the order of the whole. It also means that each human being who lives justly has a harmonious order in their own being or soul, so that thought, action and virtue all work together. Most important of all, living justly becomes the primary aim of human life, both within and without. Next after that is the health of the body, and lastly the right use of wealth.

For Plato and for Aristotle, a life devoted to gathering money or wealth is quite simply an ignoble life. This is especially clear in Aristotle. In his Politics he argues that nature is ordered in such a way that the needs of all creatures are met. The land naturally supplies enough for a human community, and there is a natural limit in what it provides. Seeking in excess of this natural limit is harmful. This means that trading solely for monetary profit is not only an ignoble way of life, it also goes beyond the natural limits of nature’s provisions. To seek to acquire unlimited wealth distorts the harmony of nature. It is unjust. The fact that it has no natural limit indicates it is unjust. But also, for Aristotle, trading merely for the sake of money, corrodes the civil order of the community. Markets in this sense are a threat to the social stability of the polis. They corrupt natural human relationships. For Aristotle economics is the study of a society becoming self-sufficient in necessities, within the limits of nature. It is more a study of ‘good management’ rather than of ‘commerce’. The aim is health and peace rather than wealth.

These two perspectives – the Christian and the philosophic – are quite different to each other, yet together they embody the highest aims of a just society in Western civilisation, which has absorbed aspects of each. One seeks a way of life based on goodness and mercy, on the love of God and neighbour. The parable of the Good Samaritan still strikes a note. The other seeks a way of life through reason and discriminating between reality and appearance. It seeks an understanding of the unity of physis and nomos, Nature and Law, or the real and the good. Both also see the quest for the just life as an ongoing journey. For the Christian tradition it lies in overcoming the avaricious desires that come with the Fall, while for the philosophic tradition it is a way of bringing human nature and society into harmony with the cosmic order.

In either case, these are responses to the injustices that afflict human society. They both aim at a condition of justice that seems beyond the capacity of the majority of people. The Church Fathers and the philosophers were perfectly aware of this. Those who are wealthy through the labour of others are not that keen on having a just society. They even console themselves with the idea that justice is an impossible dream, so why not carry on as usual. Those who speak on behalf of the poor are too often driven by envy of the rich, and so they achieve nothing either. Complacency and anger are two wrong responses to the question of justice.

Given the fact that few are likely to become saints or philosophers, is there a kind of justice that can be established which removes the worst ills that arise from the misappropriation of the land, and which opens a way towards the possibility of a truly just society? Well, obviously at least to us, Henry George opens the door to such a possibility, by removing the means of misappropriating the land and stealing the value created by the community and the wages of those who produce wealth. Thereare elements of the noble Christian ethic in George’s work as well as elements from the philosophic tradition, especially that of the Natural Law and the understanding of justice as a universal principle. There is a tendency nowadays to reduce the scope of George’s insights merely to his fiscal proposals, and to seeking ways of implementing a land tax, forgetting that it is the love of justice that informs all his economic analysis.

We must face the simple fact that we are as far from achieving this today as George was a hundred years ago – or the Church Fathers were in persuading the people that the land belongs to all in common sixteen hundred years ago, or Plato 2,500 years ago. For as far back as we can go in recorded history it has always been proclaimed by the poets, the prophets and the philosophers that the earth belongs to all in common.

We have an added difficulty in our time, the implications of which were only hinted at in George’s time: the separation of the economic realm from the social realm. This is something Karl Polanyi has observed very clearly in his The Great Transformation. With the growth of a market economy, aimed at exchange for profit, the creation of wealth has gradually divorced itself from the social realm, and come to exist independently of society. Not only is land monopoly stealing the natural community revenue and the wages of labour, the economy as a whole is becoming parasitic upon society, making human life serve the economy, rather than the economy serve human life. This separation, now so plainly evident, especially in the great cities where land monopoly is rife, is precisely what Aristotle warned against, and what the Church Fathers struggled against.

This separation of the economic from the social is reinforced by the modern reduction of economic analysis to mathematical models. This tendency to reduce economics to mathematical calculation is already present in the early economic thinking of the seventeenth century. And this in turn came from a previous shift in the conception of the ‘laws of nature’. The new conception of the laws of nature was based upon a purely mechanistic observation of the laws of motion, to which all phenomena could be reduced. This new view was hailed as superseding the religious and philosophical approaches to nature. These, it was argued, belonged to a more primitive stage of society, preparing the way for the empirical method of mechanical science. This idea is expressed in Turgot, for example, one of the pioneers of economics in the eighteenth century. The Physiocrats were not immune to the mechanistic thinking of their age.

The expression ‘laws of nature’ was directly opposed to the tradition of ‘natural law’ which extended back to Plato, the Stoics and early Christians such as St Augustine, and was greatly refined through the Middle Ages, producing in the twelfth century the Decretum Gratiani, and culminating in the thirteenth century in Aquinas’s great treatise on law in the Summa Theologica. Natural law refers to what we spoke of earlier, the harmonious order of the cosmos in which everything plays its part for the sake of the whole. It is the cosmic justice which brings community into being. It is essentially ‘cooperative’ as opposed to ‘competitive’, communitarian as opposed to individualistic. Natural law expresses the common good. According to natural law the land belongs to all in common, or simply to the Creator. The new mechanical conception of the ‘laws of nature’ cannot account for just possession or ownership. There is no ethical dimension to the mechanistic conception of nature. These questions now get transferred to positive or conventional law, which is no longer rooted in the natural law or universal justice, but rather in the will of the legislator.

It is therefore no surprise that the expansion of positive law since the seventeenth century has been primarily in property law. Legally speaking, ‘ownership’ becomes the new way of conceiving human nature and society. Locke’s famous theory that the ownership of land springs from extending self-ownership through labour to land is the obvious development of this new kind of ‘law of nature’ absorbed into positive law. The ‘self-owning person’ has no precedent in history. It is rooted in a new conception of human nature and our relation to the world and society. Out of it springs a new branch of law called ‘human rights’, which are claims made upon the state, more or less replacing earlier ‘natural rights’, which are natural liberties, as formulated in the American constitution, which in turn replaced the natural law tradition extending back into the Middle Ages. This is a mode of law for the self-owning person, whose claims stand in opposition to the state. The modern state has arisen through the loss of the communal understanding of society, in which each citizen serves the whole. Once society is conceived in terms proprietorial individuals, each seeking their own ends, then ‘the state’ in some form or other has to be imposed to regulate the conflicting desires and actions of individuals. And this includes the market.

These are problems that George does not tackle. In his time for most ordinary people the vision of freedom was still framed within the context of the common good and natural justice, and had not yet declined into the notion private freedom and individual rights. It was only ‘intellectuals’ who propagated these ideas, while the majority of people still lived in the shadow of Christian morality. His eye is on the just society and on how to remedy the injustices that have arisen with the market society based on land monopoly. It may well be that, with the full implementation of the land tax world-wide that the separation of the economic realm from the social realm would be removed. It may well be that then the pursuit of wealth for its own sake would be replaced by higher cultural aims, including due care for the environment. All that may well be so. But the implementation of the land tax will not come about without first overcoming the mechanistic interpretation of economics, which reinforces its separation from the social realm, and which suits land monopoly by abstracting the earth into capital or mere resources. Nor can the ‘social’ good be restored without a return to understanding the communal nature of the human person. This communal nature is something that the Church Fathers could call upon. And it was something that was gradually developed throughout the Middle Ages through the formulations of civil and canon law, including English common law.

There is a growing body of scholarly study of the communal nature of society, and it is from this perspective that the limited nature of the sphere of economic theory is clearly brought to light. It seems to me that the study of economics in relation to other disciplines would be of enormous value. For example, the very good work being done in environmental studies and ecology remains limited because it lacks a real social dimension, and generally its economic proposals are devoid of good knowledge of economic laws. Yet environmental destruction and economic injustice have a common cause. They occur through a misconception of the nature of society rooted in a proprietorial conception of our relation to the land or nature. From the perspective of the Church Fathers and the Greek philosophers, these aremanifestations of the separation of physis from nomos, of Nature from Law. Where George and the Church Fathers meet is in their common call for justice in conformity with the laws of nature, and in their recognition of the essential goodness of human nature.

Further reading
Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christina Teaching
St. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters (Volume 10 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers)
Thomas Aquinas, Commentary of Aristotle’s Politics
Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law
Aristotle, Politics
Saint Augustine, The City of God
Brendan Francis Brown, The Natural Law Reader
Peter Brown, Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD.
Christopher Franks, He Became Poor: The Poverty of Christ and Aquinas’s
Economic Teaching

John Wu, Fountain of Justice: A Study of the Natural Law
Henry George, Progress and Poverty
Michael Oakeshott, Lectures in the History of Political Thought
Plato, Laws
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation
Medieval Political Philosophy: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Parens and Joseph Macfarland
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Peter Blumsom

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 26, 2018 8:19 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Among others this paragraph speaks to me.

It is therefore no surprise that the expansion of positive law since the seventeenth century has been primarily in property law. Legally speaking, ‘ownership’ becomes the new way of conceiving human nature and society. Locke’s famous theory that the ownership of land springs from extending self-ownership through labour to land is the obvious development of this new kind of ‘law of nature’ absorbed into positive law. The ‘self-owning person’ has no precedent in history. It is rooted in a new conception of human nature and our relation to the world and society. Out of it springs a new branch of law called ‘human rights’, which are claims made upon the state, more or less replacing earlier ‘natural rights’, which are natural liberties, as formulated in the American constitution, which in turn replaced the natural law tradition extending back into the Middle Ages. This is a mode of law for the self-owning person, whose claims stand in opposition to the state. The modern state has arisen through the loss of the communal understanding of society, in which each citizen serves the whole. Once society is conceived in terms proprietorial individuals, each seeking their own ends, then ‘the state’ in some form or other has to be imposed to regulate the conflicting desires and actions of individuals. And this includes the market.

Of course 'self-owning person' has a rather ironic ring to it. It means, I think, owned by the self of an individual. Well that's one in the eye for God and by extension Christianity. It is also in contradiction of nature itself except when we look closer we see that nature does not claim ownership of anything. As far as one can gather, it simply 'is'. No, for myself the irony springs from that old Greek trick of relocating the emphasis of the words. That a person owns him/herself reminds me of the Shakespeare sonnet - "They that have the power to hurt and do none." This is a phrase that David Tang might consider. It penetrates to the root of compassion. It is only such who are 'The Lords and masters of their faces'. If you've ever held a young babe or owned, say, a dog you will surely understand this.

Shakespeare has quite an investment in this subject of Joseph's, especially in what is going on in this paragraph. The first twenty odd sonnets are quite different to the rest to such an extent that 'experts' have found it difficult to blend them into the homoerotic trope that is used to day to mask the profundity of his Sonnets in general. Of course they try but its clear that Shakespeare's mind is on other things.
Enough of that - rather listen to this.

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself they beauty's legacy?
Nature's bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free:

If we took the third line seriously the idea of the "self owning person" that Joseph talks about in the above paragraph ceases to exist. What ever the human soul needs is 'lent' to him - he/she does not own it. It is a land-claim to imagine ownership, and I mean 'land' in the widest possible sense.

Shakespeare in this poem uses three descriptions of the human soul in its travail. It is an 'unthrifty loveliness'; that is, it is beauteous but claims its beauty by hugging its external image to itself. Ah, all mine - I cannot let you go! (It'd make a good song lyric). Then the second description becomes more chiding. "beauteous niggard" - an abuser by self claim of this freely lent nature and finally the peremptory "profitless usurer" a contradiction in terms in that looking for gain it loses the good that it already has, that nature frankly (freely and generously) provides.

All this springing from the illusory concept of 'self-ownership', Shakespeare then turns to elucidate on the matter of 'self':

For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive;

There are two selves, one is 'sweet', as Arden says, 'the most intimate part of yourself'. This self would not wish to own anything - more to gaze on in wonder. But there has to be a 'practical self' who does not gaze but "traffics" not with nature but with himself, who more easily can be duped into wanting to grab what 'sweet self' knows is already freely lent'. This practical self is the problem, not only for the individual but also for society and cosmos. For the human being is quite important and what drives humanity has implications for what lies beyond humanity, as we are finding to our cost today.

Some set up. eh?

This is a poetical view of what has happened with man's relation to the cosmos. In my humble opinion the Greeks have given us a master science to tackle problems such as this. I personally do not believe that religion is suited to the task nor even the enlightened economics of Henry George. It is the science that takes the mind back to clear sightedness, and it is this clarity rather than solution seeking which is the key. Harmonics is a complimentary science, on its own it can do very little, but when allied to other disciplines brings them to a unity where they can all transact with each other. It speaks a common language to all.

Strangely enough I find what Joseph has written here, not only in its own right hits the nail on the head (metaphorically) but also opens the door for harmonics to enter. (It would never knock.)

I am going to try to put into practice what I preach here and see if I can make harmonics relevant to the discussion. It might be a faltering attempt and will need the help of others as I have this view of myself, which won't go away, as a bear of little brain.
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Joseph Milne

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 31, 2018 8:59 am    Post subject: Reply with quote


I like your reference to Shakespeare's first few sonnets. But I am now curious about how the question of self-ownership relates to harmonics. You must elaborate, please.
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Peter Blumsom

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 04, 2018 9:12 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yes, Joseph, I hope I can satisfy you on this, but I fear many questions will be begged and it may take more than one attempt.

First I'd like to say a few things about harmonics by way of an introduction. We might remember that though once acknowledged as on ‘official science’ or in Greek terminology, episteme, it is now most the neglected of subjects - even though there are many who might be excited if they knew more about it. ‘Officially’ it has been replaced by the science of acoustics which, though full of bewildering algebraic formulae and complicated engineering terminology, manages to preside over some of the most badly constructed buildings from the point of view of sound quality of any age. (Eat your heart out amphitheatre at Epidaurus!)

One reason for its neglect is that harmonics never puts itself forward, it has to be invited. But any subject into which it is invited will, I say, find itself changed in a positive way by this philosophical interloper. Joseph, we could say that you have, as it were, invited harmonics into Economics and the result may be unforeseen and perhaps chaotic. But, never fear, having invited it in you won’t have to hang out the garlic or hammer together wooden crosses, for it is, in reality, quite benign.

Sonnet 8

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,
Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?
If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,
By unions married, do offend thine ear,
They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds
In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.
Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,
Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,
Resembling sire and child and happy mother,
Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing;
  Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,
  Sings this to thee: “Thou single wilt prove none.”

Shakespeare’s Eighth Sonnet ties together all the themes of these opening sonnets into a harmonic bundle. It may be coincidental but there are also the eight sirens of Plato’s Myth of Er who sing out from their allotted places upon the circular rims of the Spindle of Necessity “a concord of a single harmony”. Shakespeare’s matching phrase in this sonnet is a “true concord of well-tuned sounds, by unions married”.

But unexpectedly this wonderful sound is found to offend the ear. Is it, the poet asks, that this beautiful harmony reminds us of our own singleness? For this is the singleness of separation, that is, separation from our own nature, just as self ownership is a kind of separation from the nature all around us, and which we are part of.

This singleness of a being is not a healthy state according to these early sonnets. Such ‘privatisation of the self' does not sit easy with its natural demeanour and leads from mere separation to isolation. This must have a deleterious effect on its (our) negotiations with nature which suffer a subtle reversal. Nature must now be assumed to be 'part of us'. The rather egotistical young man whom the poet is addressing is told that such a singleness of separation doesn’t allow him to hear the true union in the harmonic parts “Who all in one, one pleasing note doth sing.” The sonnet ends with a rather chilling warning about what this harmonic unity is singing to him, and what he is finding so difficult to hear:
“Thou single wilt prove none.”. This singleness is less than one, in fact it will prove to be nothing. As Sonnet 3 echoes: “Die single and thy image dies with thee”.

So this singleness speaks (or sings) not of a person’s natural self, their ‘sweet self’ as Shakespeare describes it in Sonnets 1 and 4, but of the other self mentioned in Sonnet 1, the one that is cruel to the sweet self, in fact, is its foe. And being the foe of the natural self it must be unnatural and foe to all other natural things. It is the self-love of Sonnet 3 who stops posterity (posterity as lineage, genos, that which links us to our true nature) and as such is, I say, the ‘self owning person’ in that paragraph of yours, conceived by Locke to control all the nature he can ‘legally’ get his hands on. This can only lead both society and individual to a state of true isolation.

I admit to only give hints here of a science of harmonics, but you didn’t ask me to lay down its foundations. I believe it would be inappropriate to do so on this thread . But I am trying to show how this science can play a subtle role without altering the outer structure of a subject. Without overpowering them, many of the traditional themes of harmonics are on display in these early sonnets, skilfully sown by Shakespeare into familiar outer garments, garments that transact at an everyday level while at the same time subtly disclosing a universal or cosmic theme. We are being fed harmonics intravenously.

If anything is still unclear please ask. I’ll do my best to answer.



Let me continue for a bit on the same theme.

If the harmony of the soul is the ‘sweet self’ this singleness seems to me undoubtedly the individual who has become separated from such a harmony. Throughout these early sonnets there is this interplay between ‘selves’. It takes the form of the poet challenging an eligible young man to leave his selfish state and ‘create another’, fall in line with his true nature and stop being ‘cruel’ to his, what we might call, his natural self.

Forming the backcloth to this struggle is nature ‘herself’ – in all her feminine Pythagorean guises, carried through to Plato’s Timaeus, the ‘Bible of harmonics’ and thereby on to Shakespeare, to us. It is a nature that continually refreshes herself through her seasons and cycles – the very cycles that fascinate Plato so much at Republic 546, concerning the fall from one political system to another:

“Not only to plants in the ground, but also among animals upon the ground, cometh fertility and infertility of soul and bodies as often as their revolutions make the circumferences of the respective cycles/circles, faring a short way in those whose life is short, and the reverse in the reverse…”

Socrates goes on to talk of how what we are calling the unnatural self comes about:

“Now as touching your kind, clever though the leaders of the city be whom you saw educated, none the more will they, by calculation together with perception, attain to true fecundity and barrenness, but it will escape them, and they will one day beget children when they ought not.”

This ‘Pythagorean ode’ has always been of great interest to me. Its relevance to this theme of mine lies in the description of those men who were meant to be guardians of the state but grow up in ignorance of the natural cycles and their essential link to a of divine geometry and proportionality underpinning the whole cosmos - that is , they can no longer 'calculate' [see Laws 645a]; instead they elect to follow their ‘unnatural selves’ even though they still purport to fulfil the role of guardians and should be ‘the lords and masters of their faces’ (Sonnet 94).

This however is far from the truth for they show the same lack of knowledge as the young man of the sonnets. Like him they ‘set too little store by music’. He, remember, would not listen to the harmony and was actually is annoyed by it and is, as Socrates’ Musai sing, “growing up without us.”

The aspirations of Elizabethan England are not those of Socrates’ Athens. But in essence the message is the same. Socrates holds the ‘sweet self’ in just as high esteem as did Shakespeare. As the brief light of the Renaissance gave way to the more prosaic 'Enlightenment' Shakespeare’s worse fears were realised and it seems that Locke’s concept of the self owning person finally donned the crown, as it were, or was it just a tin hat?
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Joseph Milne

Joined: 17 Apr 2008
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 11, 2018 12:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote


Forgive my slowness in responding. This is mostly due to a perplexity your exegesis of Shakespeare’s sonnet has given me.

The first perplexity is how exchanging one set of metaphors for another advances us towards Shakespeare’s meaning. He takes up the metaphor of the harmony of strings in concord together. In so doing he does what poets do – he finds a correspondence between visible things and the inner life. As I say, this is the manner in which poetry speaks, as distinct from philosophy. I would say further, that it is a universal vocabulary and intuitively understood. It brings about an existential understanding, a sharing in the poetic vision.

If this is translated into a kind of mathematical metaphysics, we have to consider if this is furthering our reception of the poem, or in some sense replacing it with a meaning that removes its immediate act of communicating with us. Do we end up with some universal idea which replaces the telling of the poem?

We may also ask if Shakespeare ‘thought’ in this way, as though he brought a meaning from numerical proportion and transferred it into a sonnet, in an outer garment which can be removed to uncover the meaning. Was his source a philosophical or metaphysical law? If that were so, then art becomes merely a vehicle for philosophical doctrines. Here we have to be very cautious. For this is precisely what happened to the Bible in the high middle ages, when the mode of apprehension that saw in manifest things the invisible made visible was lost. As you know, this is what Heidegger chose to call ontotheology, the reduction of divine things to ontology or metaphysics.

There is a further dimension to the sonnet that also gets lost in this way of interpretation – the manner in which it addresses the ‘thou’ of the addressee:

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

Always in Shakespeare’s sonnets someone is being addressed, even if that someone is present only in the poet’s mind’s eye. Poetry arises between the speaker and the one spoken to, and this is because there is that which calls to be said and heard. The ‘thou’ in that first line is being addressed in friendship, and not, I would say, as an ‘egotistical’ young man. This kind of accusation is a modern invention, derived more from the anthropology of Hobbes of Locke, or even Freudianism, than from early anthropology which had not divided selfhood into two persons.

Shakespeare is interested in the comportment of his characters towards existence, to the world about them. Their life is the way they act in the world. On its own, that first line could be addressed to the melancholic lover, who in the absence of the beloved sees no harmony or beauty anywhere, and so apprehends the world sadly. Of course, this is not the case in this sonnet. The strange line is:

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

What is this alternative that is loved without gladness? Or why receive in pleasure that which annoys? These are strange contradictions in apprehension, in perception or reception. They are not unfamiliar to us as part of the human condition. Must we take these to be flaws or faults? I think not. Or rather I do not believe the poet is addressing them as faults. They are simply the human condition which, in the providential order of things, is accounted for since the human race must, by being human, reflect upon its apprehension of existence. This for Plato and for Aristotle is the ‘political’, the life in community, which is neither the life of the beasts nor of the gods, but in a realm between.

It is here where the question of ‘ownership’ directly emerges. The ‘proprietorial self’, which looks upon the world as that which can be owned, gives rise to the notion of ‘self-ownership’ as a philosophical justification of the way the world is seen. If I may put is so, it is the way the world is seen that gives the gift of self-knowledge. It is the ‘whole’ that gives us to ourselves individually, not the other way round as Descartes would have it. As the Athenian Stranger says in the Laws, ‘the universe did not come into existence for your sake, but you for the sake of the universe’. This is an existential statement, showing how we belong first to all that is for the sake of all that is. Out of that position we have access to the gift of self-knowledge, or more ‘Greekly’, to virtue, to ordering our soul. In other words, our cosmology situates us.

It is therefore no accident that in our times when the cosmos is seen as inert and without meaning it can be reduced to human property, or put at human disposal, or in the prevailing economic language, taken to be mere ‘resources’.

The ‘modern self’ including all talk of ‘ego’, has arisen from the modern ‘world picture’ as Heidegger puts it, from the prevailing cosmology. Economics has become our relation with nature, as transactional, legal, proprietorial, mechanistic, efficient as so forth – everything Plato and Aristotle says we must be on guard against. The ‘market’ holds sway, above society, above the arts, philosophy or religion, above the individual. Might this not be an example of what this line may mean?

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly

Do we not love that which we do not receive gladly, yet will not let go? And where might we look for remedy? According to the sonnet we must learn to hear differently what we hear, receive through our senses differently, attend to the harmony of nature more carefully, and observing that which we took to be single was not. Poetically, this means seeing what is already manifest and visible, what is showing itself forth, since for poetic vision ‘presence’ and ‘meaning’ arrive unbidden and are the same. In poetic vision, the world is let to be. In philosophical vision it is put into questioning. And so a caution must be exercised, it seems to me, in interpreting poetry as though it had a philosophical meaning under or behind the text.

So much for my perplexity. I wonder if we might strike off on another note with your thoughts on this passage from my talk:

“Plato’s dialogue arrives at an understanding that, through erroneous thinking, Nature and Law have become separated. The Greek words are physis and nomos.”

It is of course the Sophists who he accuses of making this separation. It strikes me that precisely this separation always remains a peril in human understanding, a threat in any conception of human society, and that when separated ‘both’ become misconceived.

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Peter Blumsom

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 19, 2018 4:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well, Joseph, I don’t entirely agree with your conclusions but do not disagree enough to make a fuss about it, being mindful of the nature of the thread. I do believe that if I did decide to argue my case in detail we would lose the clear direction of your lecture which seems essentially to do with Economics. My personal view is that Shakespeare had a profoundly harmonic view of his subject matter and was deeply influenced, like Spencer and the Sidney circle, by the French Academies such as Ronsard’s La Pleiade who were themselves based upon the Italian model of Ficino’s Florentine project. Now on a separate thread I could put forward my case ‘in its own environment’ as it were, and would feel obliged to go into the necessary detail. This of course would include a definition of what I meant by the term harmonics (and that may surprise you) but for now I would rather tackle your Platonic question posed at the end of your last post regarding phusis and nomos (both of which, by the way, had double meanings in Greece). For this I need to gather some material, do a bit of reading and then – watch this space.
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Peter Blumsom

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 21, 2018 10:04 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

There is a lot about nature in Plato and a lot, even more, about law, but not much that describes their true relationship. In Laws Book Ten we hear of those who think the cosmos is the result of nature and chance, a view fiercely contested by The Athenian. But I see nothing in Book Ten that specifically brings Law and Nature closely together. However, here is an interesting passage:

"Then opinion and reflection and thought and art and law will be prior to things hard and soft and heavy and light; and further, the works and actions that are great and primary will be those of art, while those that are natural, and nature itself which they wrongly call by this name—will be secondary, and will derive their origin from art and reason." LAWS 892

Clearly Plato objects to Nature being characterised in the way the materialists had done over previous decades.

The word phusis has two main meanings in Liddell, origin and growth, and as such can be closely identified with Being-ousia, "that which is and never becomes", and Becoming-genesis, "that which is always becoming yet never really is." - I paraphrase here the opening proposition of Timaeus, which deals with both aspects of phusis.

My problem, and perhaps you can help me, is that there seems a nexus of words that mean similar things. For me, the essence of something (for some no longer a 'politically correct' term) is similar to the character of something, which itself is near to its Idea, and a thing's nature seems also to be in this group. I feel you would be doing many people a favour if you could shed light on this. Essence (what a thing is) is officially an account of something, but does that satisfy? If you change the essence in any way the thing must either disappear or change accordingly. That is, no longer be what it was. Or there again, perhaps it's impossible to change the essence in the way that you can change the character of a thing yet it still remains essentially the same - there’s another word – tautos, the same.

I sometimes play around with these words in my mind and I think I am having to do so again to get some kind of hold on Nature. It’s so easy to say, the nature of the soul, or the nature of essence, or even, the nature of the Good/One. In his first hypothesis Plato’s Parmenides warns us against giving the One a Nature, but he relents in the second.

Along this line of thought one might consider nature as fundamental as anything that can possess it, for it combines with things as easily as existence itself. I’m thinking now of Sophist where he examines the most fundamental forms of opposition:same-other, change-rest. We can apply ‘the nature of’ as easily to these as we can apply being/existence - it also bestrides their oppositions without a care. So that makes me wonder whether we can make a comparison of, say, essence with nature in that essence is what a thing is and nature is that a thing is. Nature arises with being.

If this is so then nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ is directed merely to growth and not origin. And the fundamental split you mention is one that occurred in the minds of the materialists (doubtless seized upon by the sophists) who in Laws Book Ten ascribed the Cosmos not to Law but to ‘nature and accident’. Plato counters this point of view by stating that the soul is far older, and, by inference, far more august an origin than what they misname as ‘nature’ where it seems they conflate its two meanings of growth and origin. (See Laws 892b) The origin in this case will be the origin of the cosmos, soul itself. It’s a short step from Cosmos, or ‘goodly order’, to Law for in Phaedo [97c] Socrates says of cosmos:

“…it is the mind that arranges and causes all things. I was pleased with this theory of cause, and it seemed to me to be somehow right that the mind should be the cause of all things, and I thought, 'If this is so, the mind in arranging things arranges everything (Kosmein) and establishes each thing as it is best for it to be. So if anyone wishes to find the cause of the generation or destruction or existence of a particular thing, he must find out what sort of existence, or passive state of any kind, or activity is best for it. And therefore in respect to that particular thing, and other things too, a man need examine nothing but what is best and most excellent; for then he will necessarily know also what is inferior, since the science of both is the same.”

This is not understood at all by the materialists: “because of this they have fallen into error regarding the real nature of divine existence.” Laws 891e

This last quote is interesting in the light of what I was speaking of earlier for although the translation says ‘nature’ Plato’s original Greek doesn’t use phusis but gives : ontos (real/true) ousias (being).

Well a bit of a curate’s egg I’m afraid, but I find all the above interesting. Though much of it is speculation, it's none the worse for that.

To finish with I’d like to give a couple of quotes of a harmonic ‘nature’ (which I know you will enjoy!)

The first is from Laws 644d:

"Let us conceive of the matter in this way. Let us suppose that each of us living creatures is an ingenious puppet of the gods, whether contrived by way of a toy of theirs or for some serious purpose—for as to that we know nothing; but this we do know, that these inward affections of ours, like sinews or cords, drag us along and, being opposed to each other, pull one against the other to opposite actions; and herein lies the dividing line between goodness and badness. For, as our argument declares, there is one of these pulling forces which every man should always follow and no how leave hold of, counteracting thereby the pull of the other sinews: it is the leading-string, golden and holy, of “calculation,” entitled the public law of the State; and whereas the other cords are hard and steely and of every possible shape and semblance, this one is flexible and uniform, since it is of gold. With that most excellent leading-string of the law we must needs co-operate always; for since calculation is excellent, but gentle rather than forceful, its leading-string needs helpers to ensure that the golden kind within us may vanquish the other kinds. In this way our story comparing ourselves to puppets will not fall flat, and the meaning of the terms “self-superior” and “self-inferior” will become somewhat more clear, and also how necessary it is for the individual man to grasp the true account of these inward pulling forces and to live in accordance therewith, and how necessary for the State (when it has received such an account either from a god or from a man who knows) to make this into a law for itself and be guided thereby in its intercourse both with itself and with all other States.”

And this from Republic [410e]:

"a quality which the philosophic nature would yield? This if relaxed too far would be softer than is desirable but if rightly trained gentle and orderly?” “That is so.” “But our requirement, we say,1 is that the guardians should possess both natures.” “It is.” “And must they not be harmoniously adjusted to one another?” “Of course.” “And the soul of the man thus attuned is sober and brave?” “Certainly.” “And that of the ill adjusted is cowardly and rude?” “It surely is.”
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Joseph Milne

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 22, 2018 3:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote


Thank you for your thoughts on this rather elusive topic.

It is hardly surprising that it is hard to find a definitive reply from Plato to this question of the relation of nature and law. And looking up the definitions of such words is little help – and very rarely is with any philosophical question. I am sure that if I demanded of you a dictionary definition of ‘harmony’ you would know how inadequate that would be.

I think that it is significant in another way that we cannot get a clear answer to this question from Plato. In the Laws it is the implicit question that is being asked. Does law come from a god or is it the invention of man? It is clear that, although Kleinias and Megillus each affirm that law comes from a god, one from Zeus and one from Apollo, they do not really know what this means, even if it is true. For Plato it is far from enough simply to hold something to be true, even though it is true. Nevertheless, Kleinias and Megillus have given a pious reply and this opens the way to further enquiry – and the journey towards the temple of Zeus. The question has to be raised to a new pitch which asks: what is the end that the law is meant to attain? That is, what action is it meant to bring about? Through understanding its end its origin may then come to light.

But to get at that another problem has to be addressed. Is law merely convention? Some modern scholars take ‘nomos’ to mean convention, which is what the sophists held and which Plato disputes. The Athenian Stranger drops this in, but it is left till Book 10 to be directly discussed. That is where we find the attack on the ‘materialists’ which you raise, who conceive the cosmos as arising from unintelligent matter with the arts, law and the gods coming into being later. Whether this is a sophist view or the idea current at that time does not matter. What is significant is that it is a view that always threatens to be held. Needless to say it was held by Hobbes and in a devious form by Locke in the formation of our own age. For the Athenian Stranger it is an ‘impious’ view most likely to arise when due regard is not given to the ‘ethical’ ‘wise’ and ‘benevolent’ order of the cosmos and rule of the gods.

To take Locke’s view, there are no rules or laws of nature “which, as practical principles ought, do continue constantly to operate and influence all our actions without ceasing and which may be observed in all persons and all ages, steady and universal”. (Locke Treatise II, section 11). While for Hobbes there is no law but the law of self-preservation grounded in the fear of violent death.

On this basis Locke founds law only in human convention. And, following Hobbes, he holds that there is no such thing as ‘justice’ as such, but only that which is agreed upon through a social contract between ruler and ruled.

My point in presenting the ideas of Locke and Hobbes is that their thinking is not original. One might even say they have plagiarised the sophists, which they knew perfectly well. They hold the ‘inverted’ cosmic causality that the Athenian Stranger challenges as impious in Laws Book 10. The universe either arises from intelligence and wisdom, or else from unintelligent mechanism and blind chance. We therefore have to wonder about the nature of law in either case, because it cannot be the same thing in both conceptions of the cosmos. The law from Zeus is not the law the sophist feels he need pay no heed to because it was invented by the powerful so that they could rule through fear. These are the ‘problems’ that are encountered when raising the question of the relation between nature and law, and which the Athenian Stranger and his companions are grappling with in the Laws. The Stranger goes yet further in asking how a city may have good and wise laws even though the citizens do not understand the nature of law, yet may be brought to love and honour it. His concern for Magnesia is how it may endure in peace for a long time, as distinct from it being the ‘city in speech’ as with Kallipolis in the Republic.

This question springs from the concern to bring the city of Magnesia into conformity with the true nature of a city as closely as possible. This means that the law must be articulated or promulgated. A city in which there is no true understanding of the nature of a city will also have no true understanding of the nature of law, and vice versa. This is because the aim of law is to bring citizens into harmony within themselves and with each other, and to live in peace with other cities. For where there is a separation of Nature and Law there is strife and the city divides into factions. Such ‘factions’ are a ‘disease’ of a city, and so the law-maker is a kind of physician to the city, prescribing the healthy way of life and restoring the unhealthy to health.

There is a kind of a reason why Law may be regarded as merely convention, and therefore why this assumption can so easily be made. It is that the Law in the city works in the contingent circumstances of existence. It is all very well speaking of the Eternal Law (the Stoics and Aquinas) and the ‘unerring courses of the heavens’ (Plato), and this is a most beautiful thing to contemplate – even what man ought to contemplate – but nevertheless the operation of law in the city lies in bringing the eternal into action in the contingent – or in Plato’s terms, into the realm of becoming.

It is because law works in the ever-changing realm of human affairs that it is not particularly helpful to ask of its ‘essence’. The law-makers in Plato’s Laws seek to act according to a knowledge of the foreseeable consequences of law-making. The end they seek is justice performed. And this even involves a ‘shameful’ consideration of law in deciding on appropriate punishments for law breakers. And here is yet another opening for those who hold that law is only convention. And because of this the Athenian Stranger insists on the analogy of the physician and the law-maker. It is a very good analogy, because the health of the body depends upon acting according to its nature through diet and exercise and so forth. There is a clear correlation between the ‘nature’ of the organism and its ‘law’ in activity. Those who hold that they can apply any arbitrary law to their body act against its nature. And likewise with the city.

So we may say that in the city law seeks to assure the ‘growth’ that is proper to human nature. Plato is concerned with the relation of the eternal with the becoming. This is as much so when he is enquiring into the nature of law, or virtue, or poetry or music.

This is something the Neoplatonists have rather lost sight of. There has been a tendency to consider only the eternal and thus convert Plato’s dialectical enquiries into a static system which has no bearing on the realm of becoming, which is the human realm – or rather the human realm as it lies in between the realm of becoming and the eternal, and so is called by nature to act with the contingent and yet to abide with the eternal. Law shows itself precisely in this in-between realm of the human existence. Like the virtues, it is present only in action or in deeds. And we might well say that for Plato living virtuously is enacting the true law of human nature.

I have stayed mostly with Plato’s Laws in my remarks, but it is worth noting that although not much is said in the Republic about the nature of law, the very activity of conceiving the virtuous city of Kallipolis is performed by Socrates through law-making. Founding Kallipolis is an act of legislation. So way may ask if this founding of a city is a ‘divine’ business of law-making, or if it is an act of devising arbitrary conventions and calling them laws. This asks the question of the relation between law and nature.

Despite the elusiveness of our question, one thing is clear: any conception of the nature of society will bring with it a conception of law. This is as true for Hobbes and Locke as it is for Plato and Aristotle. If they have a crude conception of nature, they will have a crude conception of law. Or if they have a noble conception of nature, they will have a noble conception of law.

Please forgive this broad sweep, but I do not think we can get at Plato’s understanding of the relation of physis and nomos without moving along with his manner of enquiry into them, or without tackling the problems Plato raises that inevitably arise with considering them.

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Tim Addey1

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 23, 2018 4:32 pm    Post subject: neoplatonist concepts of law Reply with quote

I'm not quite sure on what grounds, Joseph, you say "Plato is concerned with the relation of the eternal with the becoming. This is as much so when he is enquiring into the nature of law, or virtue, or poetry or music. This is something the Neoplatonists have rather lost sight of. There has been a tendency to consider only the eternal and thus convert Plato’s dialectical enquiries into a static system which has no bearing on the realm of becoming . . ."

The late Platonic (or, if we want to use the rather dubious term, the neoplatonic) commentaries were very much concerned with how the realm of eternity and its contents shape the manifested cosmos. There are profound insights in Proclus' Commentary on the Parmenides about this - and especially the issue brought up by Parmenides himself (in Plato's dialogue) about how the idea of master in the eternal world is not only related to the idea of servant in the same world, but also how it impinges on the temporal realm.

In his Scholia on the Cratylus, Proclus picks up the affirmation in the Laws that "law is a distribution of intellect" (714a) to use it in this exploration of the nature of Dionysus, and his rule over the mundane world:

"Since therefore every partial fabrication is suspended from the Dionysiacal monad, which distributes participated mundane intellects from total intellect, many souls from one soul, and all sensible forms from their proper totalities; on this account theologists call both this god and all his fabrications wine: for all these are the progeny of intellect; and some things participate of the partial distribution of intellect in a more distant, but others in a nearer degree. Wine therefore energizes in things analogous to its subsistence in them: in body, indeed, after the manner of an image, according to a false opinion and imagination; but in intellectual natures, according to an intellectual energy and fabrication; since, in the laceration of Bacchus by the Titans, the heart of the god is said to have alone remained undistributed, i.e. the indivisible essence of intellect." (Pr. Crat. 109)

But he especially uses the concept in his analysis of the nature of cities in the Timaeus, in his Commentary on that dialogue:

"As therefore things secondary by nature are said to be first, thus also they are said to be paradigms to the things that are elevated from them, and which know through them the natures prior to them. Here also, what pertains to the Athenians, indicates a more total, but what pertains to the Saïtans, a more partial order. These things likewise are analogous, both in partial natures and in wholes. So that the polity which is about to be delivered, pertains to the city of the Athenians, or rather to the whole orderly distribution of things; and the laws extend to the whole world from Minerva. For every law is said to be the distribution of intellect, and is rightly said to be so. But the laws of the Athenians, being established conformably to the tutelar Goddess, exhibit the distribution of the Minerval intellect. But of this kind are the laws in the universe which are defined conformably to one demiurgic intellect, and the one providence of Minerva.

'For the race of the priests was separated from the rest of the inhabitants.'

That in a certain respect all this order of the polity of the priest is more partial and more divided than that of Socrates, imitating the middle fabrication, may be learnt from the multitude and quality of the genera in the city. For in the polity of Socrates, there were three genera, the guardian, the auxiliary, and the mercenary. For the triad is allied to the demiurgic monad. But here there are the double of these, the sacerdotal, and the military; the demiurgic, [or pertaining to artificers] and the pastoral; the venatic and the agricultural. For the middle fabrication has at one and the same time the duadic, and the triadic; and both these numbers are adapted to Minerva. But one of these indeed, viz. the triad, is immediately adapted to the Goddess; but the other according to generation. " (Com. Tim. 1, 150)

There are, of course, sections of the Commentaries of the late Platonists which concentrate on the metaphysical, but I do think a reading of Proclus on the First Alcibiades, or Olympiodorus on the Alcibiades, on the Gorgias or the Phaedo, or Damascius on the Philebus or the Phaedo would offer the reader a number of fruitful lines of enquiry into the way eternity unfolds its hidden nature in the realm of human affairs. And this is without bringing in the detailed Commentary on the Timaeus of Proclus which Taylor sub-titles "a Treasury of Pythagoric and Platonic Physiology"

The importance of the Laws' affirmation regarding "law as the distribution of intellect" cannot be overestimated once the dialectician understands that intellect and essence are tightly bound together in such a way as to ensure that the expression of every essence is the dynamic of its nature and the key to the Platonic doctrine of Arete, or virtue.

Tim Addey
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Joseph Milne

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 24, 2018 12:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you for these rich reflections, Tim. These certainly illuminate the relation between the eternal and temporal. I am not in dispute with anything they say.

I think I did not make my concern clear by referring only to a tendency. My reflections sprang from a reading of the Laws. The concern of this dialogue is how good laws may be made in founding a real city. While the companions of the Athenian Stranger believe that the laws of their cities were given by a god, they do not really understand what this means. They do not see how this leads them to good law-making. They do not even see the aim of law. They are content and proud that their laws come from Zeus or Apollo.

The dialogue then proceeds as though the question of the origin of their laws has been settled. It is not until Book 10 that the ‘theology’ of this position is seriously raised through the question of atheism or the idea that the gods can be bribed, or that the gods came into being late in the origin of the cosmos. The question of atheism arouses indignation, showing that the companions are at a loss how to deal with it. The discussion ends with deciding on a set of punishments to be imposed on the different kinds of atheists, the most radical being a death sentence upon any who will not reform.

Needless to say, many commentators have acted with great indignation at this theistic law Plato proposes. I think we can assume that Plato is perfectly aware that this law will provoke indignation in the reader, given that he understands (in the Phaedrus) how speech touches the soul.

My point is that it is precisely in the application of laws to specific situations that the real problems of the nature of law-making comes to light. It is in the ‘contingent’ realm of opinion, circumstance, unpredictability, fortune and misfortune that law-making is tested. It is how to apply the law in the realm of ‘becoming’ that is in question in the Laws. Beautiful arguments can be made for law originating in divine intelligence, in universal intellect, or that the gods take care of all things from the greatest down to the smallest detail. I agree wholeheartedly that a city or a people without a sense of the divine order of the cosmos is likely to fall into factions and adopt a degenerate morality. All the great religions are founded in this understanding. Nevertheless, with the act of law-making we arrive at the coalface of the meeting of the eternal and the temporal in a manner that human life is compelled to deal with out of its own resources.

Here a ‘metaphysical’ knowledge alone is not sufficient. There must also be knowledge of how human character and society is formed. For while the gods may take care of all things benevolently, even the goats and lambs, the human realm is indeterminate. That is to say, the noble life can come about only through resolution and effort, and action against forces pulling in the opposite direction. If we might put it so, human nature is free to err.

It is this aspect of Plato I was suggesting is barely touched on by the Neoplatonists. I stand to be corrected, but to my knowledge Plato’s Laws is the least commented upon dialogue in Neoplatonic literature. Parts of the theology of Book 10 are remarked upon while the other books are passed over in silence. This includes Thomas Taylor’s translation of the Laws. There is a fascinating book by Dominic J. O'Meara entitled Platonopolis: Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity which explores the concerns of Neoplatonists for cultivating a good society, including a circle around Plotinus. But nothing came of these efforts and, strangely enough, the question of how to live rightly in the ‘created city’ passed to the Christian thinkers, especially St Augustine and culminating in his City of God. He comes originally from Platonism and he retains much from that tradition after his conversion. His solution is to understand human life as dwelling in two cities at once, the temporal city of the world, and the eternal city of God. One must live rightly in both, and according to different laws. But this also means that this world has a divine end while ever under way – an unfolding sacred history or eschatology. Thus for Augustine the temporal world has a meaning in its own right which is not to be shunned. Each human being is two citizens at the same time.

But, leaving aside Augustine, the quotations you give relate the eternal and temporal through a causal relation. Let us grant that. Let us grant that all that comes into being arises from universal or divine intelligence. This, however, does not explain the meaning of contingency, of the becoming. There has been a tendency (I put it no more strongly than that) to therefore conceive of the realm of becoming as ‘unreal’ compared to its most real origin. That is to say, a metaphor that Plato has called upon for pedagogical reasons in order to point to the essence of things has been taken as literal. It is the imperfect seeing of things that gives a false understanding, not that things themselves have a false and a true being.

So, for example, in the divine order of things, there is no theft. But in the Laws theft from the temple is one of the greatest crimes requiring the severest punishment. It is a great crime because it threatens the harmonious order of the city. Clearly the temple embodies the intersection between the eternal and the realm of becoming, and that is why theft from it is a great crime. But the gods, if they be the bringers of the law, do not take the thief and punish or reform him. This task falls to mortal human beings who must judge what is to be done in the very specific circumstances of the city and the thief.

The application of the law is always contingent. This is the case in Plato’s Laws and likewise in English common law. It is one thing to know the eternal law, another to apply it. It is the kinds of penalties that the Athenian Stranger elaborates for specific crimes that arouses the indignation of the scholars. Without going into detail, one can say that the reason these penalties arouse indignation is because we live in an era with a very different notion of justice to that of classical times – we have a very different conception of the relation of the eternal to the temporal, which is neither Platonic nor Christian. But we must also ask if these punishments Plato proposes belong to the specific nature of Magnesia and ought not to be applied universally. We can ask the same of the laws he proposes in general. Do they have universal application, or do they apply only to the city the Athenian Stranger and his companions are contemplating founding, with its specific kind of mixed population and its specific geography?

It is my suspicion that these hard questions have made the Platonic literature hesitant to comment much on this dialogue. While they are content to take its theology or metaphysics on board, and the argument from divine causation, they have passed over in silence these problems that come with an enquiry into the nature and purpose of law. And for the same reasons they have been happier to consider the Republic as a city which exists only in contemplation than to ponder the difficulties raised in the Laws. And this is why I raise the question of the relation of physis and nomos.

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Tim Addey1

Joined: 02 Feb 2018
Posts: 11
Location: Bream, Glos. UK

PostPosted: Sun Nov 25, 2018 12:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Joseph, the reason why there is less about the practicalities of the temporal world and the application of law to it is to be found in your reply to me: the Church had taken power by the time of the late Platonists post Julian. So while those of the early phase of late Platonism (Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus) can be found discussing and getting involved in practicalities, those that come later are not in a position to join the discussion because of persecution. As you say about the Plotinian plan for a city founded on Platonic lines, "But nothing came of these efforts and, strangely enough, the question of how to live rightly in the ‘created city’ passed to the Christian thinkers . . ." Not strange at all:

The shocking murder of Hypatia by a Christian mob in Alexandria gave a pretty clear warning about any serious attempt to influence the course of city politics (Damascius writes in his Philosophical History her murder was set in motion by "St" Cyril). Proclus did contribute to Athenian political life, but at some point had to flee the city when some violence was threatened (most scholars see oblique references to acts of violence and arson against him in remarks made in one of his treatises). Damascius reports that he and his teacher, Isidore had to flee Alexandria because of Christian persecution of pagan philosophers and Hierocles was persecuted in Byzantium.

Church and Imperial power forced out philosophers from that side of life.

For the two centuries from the death of the last pagan Emperor to the Edict of closure pronounced by Justinian against the pagan academies, the Platonists had to steer a careful course in order to be able to keep teaching. Political power had passed to the Christian Church – bought, in my opinion, at the expense of the inner life of the religion – and therefore the Platonists of that era naturally directed their attention to areas of philosophy which advanced their influence without threatening the collapse of the academies. You only have to read the Commentaries of Olympiodorus to see how clearly he felt he was treading on eggshells (and if you choose his Commentary on the Gorgias you will find 19 references to Plato's Laws of which only three are to the theology of book 10).

In the end, as we know, the balancing act failed: the Edict of Closure is given in the following terms: "We forbid anyone stricken with the madness of the impure Hellenes to teach, so as to prevent them, under the guise of teaching those who by misfortune happen to attend their classes, from in fact corrupting the souls of those they pretend to educate. They will not receive state pensions, having no license either by Sacred Scripture or earthly law, to claim for themselves any immunity whatsoever"

But in spite of these barriers the writings of the Platonists are full of genuine insights into the way practical governance works, and the problems of social contracts - it's just not found in one place and in one block of text. Psychological insights found in Proclus on the Alcibiades and Hermeas on the Phaedrus (amongst others) ought to contribute to those who are seeking to order society.

Following Aristotle, after we have asked whether something is, we must ask what it is - and only then what kind of thing it is, and why it is. I think the emphasis the late Platonists place on Law being a distribution of Intellect is a useful starting point for the second question.

No Platonist of any era in the ancient world thought that the material order was unreal, simply because if that were so the eternal world which forms it would thereby be proved impotent. Nevertheless from Parmenides to Damascius - some 1100 plus years - they did understand that to be in a state of becoming is not the same as simply being, and that the common misconception about the nature of material reality needs to be understood if human beings are to approach the Beautiful itself, and live the just life.

Professor Sara Ahbel-Rappe in her edition of Damascius' Doubts and Solutions lists his works and says that there there is evidence that he wrote commentaries on books 1 and 2 of the Laws - now lost, of course.

I write at length because the late Platonists got a particularly bad press from scholars of the modernist and rationalist variety who were trying to excise from Plato the spiritual, mythological and initiatory elements - in other words to dragoon him into their narrow-minded regiment, which has so undermined the spirit of philosophy. It was, of course a German rationalist of the nineteenth century who coined the term neoplatonism/neoplatonist which serves to detach them from Plato: something to be resisted, I think.

Tim Addey
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Joseph Milne

Joined: 17 Apr 2008
Posts: 331
Location: Herne Bay, Kent, UK

PostPosted: Mon Nov 26, 2018 12:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thank you once again, Tim, for illuminating the historical situation. I am not familiar with the late Platonic writings you mention, so I cannot respond to them. But as far as I have read, Olympiodorus is seeking to adapt Plato and Aristotle to an essentially Christian audience, and so with negotiating a difficult path between ‘pagan’ and Christian cosmologies. I have a sense he is trying to preserve Greek philosophy from oblivion in an unconducive context. Strangely enough, an irenic path between Greek philosophy and Christian theology comes through Stoicism, where a direct sense of the relation of the divine cosmic order and immediate human action is maintained, where the virtuous life has a clear grounding in the intelligent order of the universe. Here ‘living in accord with nature’ is of the essence, so that there is a practical correspondence between the order of the soul and the order of the universe. In ethical terms, this was eventually more amenable to Christianity.

But questions of the historical fate of Platonic philosophy are not really my concern. These are matters that will always be in flux. And that philosophers are persecuted is nothing new, as we know from the fate of Socrates himself.

My questions are not intended to call Plato into question, but rather to understand the question of the relation of nature and law. Plato’s Laws establishes the divine ground of law and goes on the elaborate a system of laws to be promulgated in the founding of new city. It is these laws themselves which present us with a great challenge. I have suggested that the aim of these laws is to assist in bringing human nature into its full flowering or actualisation. It is this aspect of law-making that disturbs the modern scholars. They see these laws and this intent as tyrannous. A reason for this is that in our modern democracies it is held that laws are meant to give citizens rights and freedoms. They are held to be ‘ethically neutral’, though this is hardly the truth.

Nevertheless, laws based on an ideal of rights and freedoms still has within it a notion of human nature, an anthropology. And a notion of human nature assumes a relation with nature as a whole – even if it is the Hobbesian ‘state of nature’. So law-making is always in the territory of an understanding of nature. Plato’s understanding of nature as a whole, and human nature in particular, is very different to this modern democratic idea of nature. And so the laws that the Athenian Stranger and his companions design are necessarily at odds with these modern laws, and with the very idea of law-making and what it is meant to attain. This clash between ways of seeing law-making calls for philosophical enquiry. Law-making always calls for philosophical enquiry, because its ground and aims cannot be taken as given.

When discussing the difference between voluntary and involuntary injustices and the laws and penalties which must be laid down concerning them, the Athenian Stranger says:

“before legislating, it’s necessary to make clear somehow that these things are two, and what the other difference is, so that whenever someone imposes the judicial penalty on either of them, everyone may follow the things that are being said and may be able to judge, somehow or other, what is fittingly laid down and what is not.” (861c)

This passage is interesting because it argues that, both in laying down laws and in giving penalties, the action must be understood by ‘everyone’ to be ‘fitting’ or not. This means that any law laid down must somehow show itself to be appropriate in common understanding. A law is granted the status of law by the city and its citizens insofar as its application is seen to be appropriate in each given instance. And the Athenian Stranger concludes this argument by suggesting that the judge should apply the law in such a manner as to bring about friendship:

“. . . and once compensations have made atonement for each of the injuries, he should always try through the laws to create friendship in place of discord between the doers and sufferers.” (862c)

This is not the first time the Athenian Stranger proposes that friendship is the final aim of the law. It suggests that law is intended to order human nature to its full flowering through citizenship, and that the essence of citizenship is friendship. This Aristotle also suggests, and centuries later Cicero likewise, drawing upon a mixture of Plato and Stoic philosophy.

These seem to me to be beautiful and noble considerations of law. Yet they are as far from winning the day now as ever they were, and for different reasons in different historical periods. Yet it also seems to me that there must necessarily be a ‘debate’, to say the least, between these high aims and what is commonly desired from law. We by nature are pulled in several directions at once as to what is just and desirable, as represented by the simile of the puppets in 644d.

We come back to a question I raised before. How far are the laws laid down by the Athenian Stranger and his companions on their way to the temple of Zeus ‘conditional’ on the kind of city they are founding? There must be some kind of correlation between its nature as they conceive it and the laws they deem will be most appropriate to it. Hence the question of the relation of nature and law arises in a completely practical and contingent enterprise. I raise these questions not to be in dispute with Plato, but rather because it seems to me this dialogue calls us to engage with it through such questions.

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