Galen, Polybius and the construction of authority

The desire to connect with important figures from the past leads authors from later antiquity into anachronism, as they seek to establish connections with earlier writers. These were the findings reported in the final two papers of our Anachronism and Antiquity seminar series, ‘Anachronism in Ancient History of Greek medicine: Galen’s claim to be Hippocrates’ and Plato’s direct disciple’ by Catherine Darbo-Peschanski, and ‘Polybian Temporalities’ by John Marincola. The continuing authority of intellectual traditions associated with Plato and Hippocrates in particular saw writers asserting a connection to them and the intellectual traditions associated with them. These two papers showed Galen and Polybius to use and manipulate traditions associated with specific areas of expertise, respectively medicine and political theory. The close readings their speakers offered enabled us to see the distinctive strategies used by each.

Galen group from the Vienna Dioscurides MS - seven doctors with Galen in the centre
Another anachronistic community: Galen, seated centre in a position of authority, among a group of doctors and pharmacologists, some of whom predate him. From a sixth-century illuminated manuscript which contains the De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides and texts by other doctors pictured. 3v Codex Vindobonensis med. gr. 1.

Catherine Darbo-Peschanski opened her paper by setting out Galen’s intellectual context and the many developments in both abstract areas of philosophical thought, such as metaphysics and epistemology, and more applied medical thought, such as the new understanding of the human body gained through dissection, which separate the second century CE writer from the fourth century BCE. Galen’s desire to associate his own arguments and ideas with distant predecessors becomes an engine for generating anachronisms, as he seeks out passages in their texts which can be associated with later ideas. Although Brooke Holmes’ paper at our Florida conference last year had a very different approach, she likewise found Galen’s readings of Hippocratic texts to be an important site for the manipulation of genealogical time in the pursuit of scholarly authority.

Polybius is an author whose work has received relatively little scholarly attention, perhaps in the shadow of Frank Walbank’s massive historical commentary, although there are signs of a Polybian Renaissance and his models if not his actual text have long been of interest to historians of political thought. John Marincola showed the sophistication of Polybius’ understanding of time in his great project to weave together the histories of the Mediterranean world and explain the rise of Rome. Polybius’ excursus into political theorising in book 6, in which he explains the growth and success of the Roman Republic through anacyclosis, a universal model of political development and change into which all political communities can be fitted, is an interesting example of the incorporation and modification of traditions, while asserting the authority of a key figure from the past. His account of the development of political societies clearly owes a great deal to Plato’s account in Laws III, although he is clear that he is extending it (6.5.1), with the incorporation of newer ideas from authors intermediate between him and Plato. Only Plato, and the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, are named.

The urge to create connections with intellectual founding figures and their ideas through the construction of genealogies is widely prevalent in ancient thought. But intellectual filiations such as those between Galen, Plato and Hippocrates appear to operate much like other forms of genealogical explanation. While complete king lists were developed by chroniclers, only a few kings were the subjects of myths frequently told. Founder kings attract more stories, as do those who are involved in significant political change, such as Theseus as synoecist of Athens. Only these kings appear in the literary tradition, in Athenian rhetoric or allusions to the distant past in historical and philosophical texts.

We can find these practices replicated in contemporary academic practice. The use of Thucydides and Herodotus to represent all of ancient historiography generates many problems for those seeking to contrast ancient and modern approaches to the writing of history. Firstly, the historians of the later Greek and Roman worlds were able to work with and manipulate an established tradition. Secondly, this manipulation of tradition is apparent in the genealogical histories of other disciplines, particularly the histories of medicine and philosophy, as Galen’s works amply demonstrate. Both Darbo-Peschanski and Marincola have made important contributions to scholarship in this area, and their papers showed how careful reading of ancient texts can still reveal new insights into the intellectual culture of antiquity.

References

  • Darbo-Peschanski, C. (2007) L’historia: commencements grecs. Paris.
  • Gotteland, S. (1998), ‘Généalogies mythiques et politique chez les orateurs attiques’, in D. Auger and S. Saïd (eds.), Généalogies Mythiques. Paris, 379-93.
  • Marincola, J. (1997) Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography. Cambridge.
  • Walbank, F.W. (1957-79) A Historical Commentary on Polybius, 3 vols. Oxford.

Writing Plato’s Republic in the 21st century

Plato’s Republic might seem to be the ur-canonical literary and philosophical text. It is regularly reported to be one of the most frequently assigned literary works in US undergraduate education (as in this Washington Post report; there’s also a lively debate as to whether that place is merited). But assuming that the Republic is a timeless text with a timeless status turns out to be something of an anachronism, albeit one that has proved extremely productive for those responding to it.

Plato’s Republic hasn’t always been the top text. For many centuries, his other works, notably the cosmogony of the Timaeus, were more cited and central. When Raphael wanted to identify Plato in his School of Athens fresco, he showed him holding a copyof the Timaeus, while pointing upward to show his focus on the divine and the cosmic. Political and educational reforms in the nineteenth century led to the re-evaluation of Plato’s works and a new role for the Republic (including taking its place in a reformed syllabus for ‘Greats’, the final exams taken by students of Classics); increased citizen participation in politics, as democratic reforms were extended, and calls for women’s right to participate, made Kallipolis, with its equal roles for men and women, look all the more interesting. For Plato and reform advocate Benjamin Jowett, the Republic’s advocacy of a political role for women made it an important addition to the Oxford curriculum.

Any assertion of the timeless validity of the Republic and its argument for the role of knowledge in ordering society has to contend with its inherent strangeness, and the huge presence of aspects of Plato’s own society within it. Even in antiquity, the Republic needed explanation and reframing to address the political concerns of different societies, from the pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter applying Plato’s political thought to monarchical Sicily to Cicero applying it to the Roman republic in his own De Republica. In the present day, however, the role of philosophy has been challenged, often by scientists working in branches of science that have replaced Plato’s Timaeus as guides to the cosmos. Hasn’t empirical scientific knowledge replaced the abstract speculations of philosophers?

Book covers for Alain Badiou's Plato's Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton's The Just City.
Three recent books which use Plato to think about contemporary political and social issues: Alain Badiou’s Plato’s Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.

A paradox emerges in which Plato’s text is revered for containing timeless truths and for heading a philosophical canon, but requires constantly changing exegesis to render it comprehensible or useful. Part of the reason for undertaking the work of updating it is to gain access to those truths, and to participate in the continuation of that canon. Seeing how authors address this, and which issues they feel need attention or change, can itself be a productive exercise.

Three writers working in very different genres have addressed the problem by writing works which draw heavily on Plato’s dialogues, in some cases to the extent of rewriting the Republic. Alain Badiou’s La République de Platon uses the dialogue form, adapts some of the characters, and tweaks Plato’s politics and philosophy. Badiou introduces a female interlocutor, Amantha, modernises Platonic metaphysics into mathematical theory, and updates political references so that recognisable twentieth-century events and leaders replace the wars and rulers of Plato’s Greek world. Badiou described his rewriting as a form of ‘hyper-translation’ and explained its necessity:

he is the one we need first and foremost today, for one reason in particular: he launched the idea that conducting our lives in the world assumes that some access to the absolute is available to us … because the materiality of which we are composed participates … in the construction of eternal truths. (Badiou, Plato’s Republic, Preface, xxxi)

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein departed further from Platonic structure in her Plato at the Googleplex, but tackled the question of philosophy’s continuing relevance (under assault from scientists who see their discipline as replacing it). If philosophy has anything to offer, Plato is a limit case; she argues that he could attend present-day graduate philosophy seminarsand understand what was happening:

[Plato’s] antiquity removes him to a time and a sensibility that some have argued are all but irrecoverable to us. And yet, despite the historical distance, Plato could stroll into almost any graduate seminar in philosophy, seat himself at the elliptical table around which abstractions and distinctions would be propagating with abandon, and catch the drift in no time at all. (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, p.18)

In our seminar discussion, it was suggested that this table might be the ‘Harkness table’ associated with a Socratic method of teaching in US schools and colleges; Goldstein might be subtly suggesting that Plato belongs to an elite. However, she does not place Plato in a conventional academic setting in her book, but imagines him on a book tour, presenting his ideas as a public intellectual, in ten chapters which alternate between exposition and dialogue, and very loosely follow the argumentative structure of the Republic. We first meet him as a guest lecturer at Google’s headquarters, about to give a talk to the assembled staff. The dialogue we read is narrated by Rhonda, the friend to whom book publicist Cheryl unloads the details of her eventful day; the conversation is between Plato, Cheryl, Plato’s publicist, and Marcus, a Google programmer. The replication of Socratic dialogue in this structure, even down to an interruption by Rhonda reminiscent of Crito’s in the Euthydemus, is a delight:

I could tell… how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.
So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?
Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.
That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. (pp.64-5)

Goldstein’s point, in both this dialogue and the closing, is to assert that philosophers still have something to offer. Marcus aims to program an ‘Ethical Answers Software Engine’ which will crowd-source answers to ethical questions; but Plato points out that his ranking of the information gathered and control over the algorithm that develops the answer puts him in the position of being a philosopher king.

Novelist Jo Walton has had a life-long fascination with Plato’s Republic. Explaining how she came to write her version, she wrote:

Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler. Of course, it simultaneously seems like a crazy idea that makes people roll their eyes when I describe it.

Walton’s Thessaly trilogy imagines Kallipolis as Kallisti, a real rather than thought experiment, set up by the goddess Athena. In the trilogy’s opening novel, The Just City, some of the problems of Kallisti are caused by the reception of Plato itself; the masters are those who’ve prayed to Athene for Kallipolis to be real, which means many old men from pre-modern times. We see the city largely through the eyes of two female characters, Maia (formerly Ethel), rescued from a life of superfluity and intellectual frustration in Victorian England, and now chafing at the gender politics of Kallisti, and Simmea (once Lucia), one of the children bought by the masters in time-travelling raids on ancient slave markets, in her case from the northern Africa of late antiquity. Women masters are handed responsibility for maternity matters, as a new generation of citizens is bred from the children; at times the city starts to seem a little like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.

Like Goldstein, Walton uses encounters with technology to examine issues of identity and personhood – while Goldstein gives Plato an MRI brain scan, Walton’s Kallisti is serviced by futuristic robots, which her Socrates engages in conversation (Walton’s descriptions somewhat resemble this prototype robot from the University of Osaka in Japan).

Yellow robot with caterpillar tracks and two arms, developed by the University of Osaka
This prototype robot, developed at the University of Osaka in Japan, features the arms and tracks of the robots in Jo Walton’s The Just City.

Although all three works operate within different literary genres, they suggest that Plato’s Republicrequires the updating Badiou identified, at which point it might help us to understand the problems of our own societies. These works also suggest that any dialogic encounter with Plato’s text which applies it to a specific situation could generate a similar transformative rewriting. Acknowledging the need for such a transformation, and the productive forms it might take may offer a fruitful way to read current academic scholarship on Plato, inevitably engaged in similar if less explicit or imaginative reworkings of Plato’s ideas.

  • I will be considering the political implications of engaging with Plato’s Republicin my talk at the Anachronism and Antiquity panel at the FIEC/CA conference in July.
  • Observant readers will have noted scenes from Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ on two of the book covers featured; it also makes an appearance in these blog posts on Scholarly Communities and Anachronistic Communities, as well as in our forthcoming book Anachronism and Antiquity.

References

  • Badiou, A. (2012) Plato’s Republic, trans. S. Spitzer (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Burnyeat, M.F. (1998), ‘The past in the present: Plato as educator of nineteenth-century Britain’, in A. Rorty (ed.), Philosophers on Education: historical perspectives (London: Routledge), 353-73.
  • Goldstein, R. (2014) Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away (London: Atlantic Books).
  • Walton, J. (2015) The Just City (London: Corsair).
  • Weinberg, S. (1993) Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Hutchinson Radius), ch. 7 ‘Against Philosophy’.

 

Anachronism and Antiquity: Trinity Term 2019 seminar series

View of Oxford's High Street in 1810 by Turner
View of the High Street, Oxford, JMW Turner, 1810. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford WA2016.48.

Convenors: Dr Carol Atack, Dr Mathura Umachandran.
Venue: First Floor Seminar Room, Ioannou Centre, 66 St Giles’.
Time: Mondays,  14.00–15.30.

Week 1 (April 29)

Tim Rood, University of Oxford: ‘Anachronism and Antiquity’
Carol Atack, University of Oxford: ‘Writing Plato’s Republic in the twenty-first century: Jo Walton’s The Just Cityand Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex’.

Week 2 (May 6)      

NO SEMINAR (faculty meeting)

Week 3 (May 13)

Miriam Leonard, UCL: ‘Time and Revolution’.

Week 4 (May 20)

Tom Phillips, University of Manchester:  ‘Shelley’s Antiquities’.

Week 5 (May 27)

Mathura Umachandran, University of Oxford: ‘Theorising Anachronism with Theodor Adorno and Erich Auerbach: “Late Style” and “Figura”’.

Week 6 (June 3)

NO SEMINAR (Faculty meeting)

Week 7 (June 10)

Catherine Darbo, CNRS Paris/Maison Française d’Oxford: ‘Anachronism in Ancient History of Greek medicine. Galen’s claim to be Hippocrates’ and Plato’s direct disciple’.

Week 8 (June 17)

John Marincola, Florida State University:
‘Polybian Temporalities’