When Science Ruled by Dialogue and Kings by Imitating God

30 April, 2012

This week on the reading rest I have an article by Dominic O’Meara, again from Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources, edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou.

O’Meara, D. 2002. The Justinian Dialogue on Political Science and its Neoplatonic Sources. In: Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed) Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources.
But today—
Dominic O’Meara’s book Platonopolis. Platonic Political Philosophy in Late Antiquity. Calderon Press Oxford 2003
—must be added as well as
Peter N Bell (Trans, Notes and Intro) Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian. Agapetus, ‘Advice to the Emperor’. Dialogue on Political Science. Paul the Silentiary, ‘Description of Hagia Sophia’. (Translated Texts for Historians, vol. 52) Liverpool University Press 2009.

Santorum quotes from the www state that ‘if faith is true and reason right you’ll end up in the same place’—indeed, ‘end up’ in places such as Santorum’s or Ahmadinejad’s or Netanyahu’s. When looking through the three texts listed above bearing in mind this quote on faith and reason, anyone, except perhaps those to whom the equation faith true = reason right rings true, will agree that when it comes to faith, reason and politics Roman or Byzantine problems are still with us.

The Christian concept of God as applying in mid-first millennium Rome and Byzantium posed a growing problem for Neoplatonists trying to nourish and develop their idea of the divine in forced opposition to Christian ideas. As late as 529 AD these intellectuals fell victim when Justinian, beefed up his anti-pagan legislation, purged Pagans and closed the Neoplatonic school of Athens.

In this general perspective the fragmentary anonymous Dialogue on Political Science (DoPS) can be seen as an attempt – one, two or three decades after the 530s – to revive and develop Neoplatonic ways of thinking – niching them while addressing the field of political science. In the 550s Justinian was already Mubarak-old if not exactly in years and surgery sessions in Germany. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that when a Neoplatonist writer turns to this field of practical rather than metaphysical or esoteric thinking, he seeks to demonstrate something uncommon among Neoplatonists. In effect he argues that a Platonic foundation will support the better government of any two Christian or non-Christian rulers, and he thinks that political leaders ought to step down at 57 or 60. Given that old age came early in the 6th c. this is not a bad idea.

Ultimately, the reason why this argument can at all be developed is the commonly agreed Late Antique dogma that kingship was an imitation of God or Platonically speaking, the Divine. In the chapter Kingly science as an imitation of the divine Dominic O’Meara (DO’M) discusses this notion in relation to the DoPS (DO’M pp 55 ff, ). Since kings or emperors cannot escape old age, old leaders should resign because growing old they tend to lose their grip and capability of imitating the Divine. That’s why they send in a son imitating the divine as it were. If Justinian wasn’t old and weakened when the dialogue was penned, the old-age argument would have been most dangerous. But then again Justinian probably felt that his capacity was exceptionally supreme. Notwithstanding, a pretext would have been found. And since it wasn’t, the dialogue was probably written in the last years of Justinian’s reign c. 560 CE.

The dialogue is intellectual and learned, but not outright Pagan. Its composition is difficult and far from straightforward when it comes to politics. Its rhetorical style is manneristic or as O’Meara puts it: ‘the fiction of the Platonic dialogue is pushed very far in the fragments’ (p.51). In my opinion and to a majority of their reviewers, O’Meara, followed by Bell, has convincingly argued the Neoplatonic case and pointed to consciously wide-ranging references to classical authors emphasizing Plato, Cicero and a host of others from Homer and onwards. Given their analyses it is worth pointing out that in the 9th century when Photius catalogued and labeled DoPS he stressed its novel ideas on political science, its criticism of Plato and its affinities with Dicaearchon views. It’s by way of Cicero that DoPS points out the once influential 3 c. BCE philosopher Dicaearchus as the father of these views, which in the 6th c. carried little ideological ballast. Judging from Photius, it would seem that in the mid 9th c. is was difficult immediately to denounce DoPS as Pagan and non-Christian. The Neoplatonic case wasn’t straightforward in modern times either.

The dialogue is fragmentary. Books I-III and VI are lost.

The extant part of Book IV is concerned with a rather unsophisticated, now and then inexperienced dialogue of military science and virtue – there is a nice and typical paragraph on the use of horn signals too – leading up to the much better preserved Book V. This book takes up a theoretical and central discussion that gives rise to a new political science. The composition would seem to indicate that the didactics of the dialogue proceed from pressing or at least everyday problems to general, markedly intellectual, solutions able to guide any rulership.

The author of the DoPS has found a field full of practical problems in which essentially Neoplatonic solutions and sound guidance stand out as worthwhile—not least in the Queen of Cities, i.e. Constantinopel, i.e. Rome, i.e The Empire.

In our day and age, when once again fundamentalist scripture-based political sciences have their advocates DoPS is not without its points: ‘Instead he (i.e. the emperor) will accept the imperial authority offered to him by the citizens as if it were an imposition, thinking it to be in itself a personal burden and a public obligation for which he will not be unaccountable to God’s judgement and perhaps that of men also.’ (DoPS book 5.47; Bell 2009 p.155)

It’s the bit about ‘men also’ that counts.

Nevertheless, if we ask any of the recently disqualified Egyptian presidential candidates, however dangerous, corrupt and popular they may be, they will tell us that personal burden and public obligation make up a foundation for their commitment to power.

The outlook of the dialogue reveals it as open to barbarian skills and the possibility to interact with barbarians. In book IV, e.g., the military skill of the Franks is considered model and speaking about the optimates of the state, those who should be chosen because of natural qualities and education/culture, Menas (the central speaker) points out to Thomas that able barbarians too must be among the optimates. Rhetorically, echoing 6th c. problems in sustaining urban populations, Menas concludes: ‘If they say it’s the most important thing of all to secure a good management for a private estate, how much more necessary would it be for the state.’ (book 5.31-32) Indirectly DoPS advocates government by common sense in a system where the King is imitating the divine and the optimates, whether Roman or foreign, Christian or Pagan, are chosen with a view to their personal qualities.

This attitude of the DoPS can be compared to the central role of the political model of the King, the King’s men and government expressed in poems echoing contemporary Pagan/Barbarian society. This model surfaces in poems by Venantius Fortunatus, The Finnsburg Fragment, Beowulf, Hêliand, Ludwigslied, Eddaic poems or Ynglingatal, i.e genealogies, epics and lyrical poems alluding to or reflecting upon government and politics.

Late Iron Age Germanic royalty is related to the divine. These ties are most often mythical and thus plentiful and rhetorical in poems where kings and queens are referred to as descendants of gods, the offsprings of holy weddings (Man + Goddess = True), God’s foster children, or clairvoyantly existing in the visible as well as the (seemingly) invisible world at the same time. This capacity for foresight, i.e. the Divine, runs in families as it does in Rome.

Thus Athalaric (10 years old) when he was made King in Italy in 526, was first of all of the right kind of royal family. This is confirmed by the fact pointed out by himself that he was designated by Theoderic the Great, his maternal grandfather. In Rome/Byzantium of course, bishops and patriarchs were needed to guarantee divine consent. Then Athalaric was elected/accepted by the elite among the Goths and acclaimed by an assembly of citizens. This series: designation by a King with divine qualities; election by the elite; and public acclaim is a pattern found in all Germanic societies. Athalaric’s case shows that this model procedure was conventional, the real ruler was his mother Amalasuntha and she inherited the throne when Athalaric happened to die in 534 (Procopius, who else, gives us a hunch that it happened for a reason) [1].

Nevertheless, this model procedure parallels the one prescribed in DoPS. In the dialogue the imperial or royal power legislates for itself how legitimate proclamation should be brought about, so that he who is about to receive power receives it when it is given to him by God and offered to him by the citizens (Book 5.17). Because the divinely royal is already there, in the Pagan and early Christian Germanic society, kingship is given by God or gods—the method is designation by a King in his divine capacity—and offered by the citizens by means of election and acclaim. Similarly, in Book 5.50, DoPS describes how the optimates go about electing the emperor, and in principle the Roman optimates and the Gothic elite play the same part—in practice in Ravenna 526 CE and in theory in DoPS. Germanic kings, whether Pagan or Christian, imitate the Roman emperor and the DoPS link-in with the democratic and secular perspectives of Pagan succession. Naturally, the DoPS involves the Church in its much more regulated and balanced model procedure. The point, nevertheless, is the affinities: Pagan or Christian, Kingdom or Empire alike are all societies organized either around a semi divine King , an executive elite and a certain popular involvement, or around Emperor, optimates and a certain involvement of the citizens. In the dialogue, the system is constructed with an eye to neutralizing the Church.

Since Hêliand and more so Beowulf are poems comparable to mirrors of princes they have some affinities with DoPS.

Beowulf is of the right kind of family. He is reluctant to become king as long young prince Headared lives, but he is designated by the widowed Queen. The elite, ‘the helpless’ in the poem have elected him (inasmuch as they urge him to receive kingship) and since he helps Headared among the people we are given to understand that they approve of him too. Everything is stuffed into vv 2369-2377. Of course Headared is killed and Beowulf becomes King and Beowulf therefore ‘accepted the authority offered to him as if it were an imposition, thinking it to be in itself a personal burden and a public obligation’ to use the words from DoPS book 5.47.  Beowulf’s supernatural swimming capacity is evident and as a king he ‘lived rather for those he ruled than for himself’. In fact the whole passage Book 5.157 seems tailored for Beowulf:

For me, Thomas, the man who had reached such a height of virtue and power would lack something of imperial perfection if he did not himself persuade us by his actions, similar though he be to God amongst men, that he lived rather for those he ruled than for himself – for this is the true and sufficient of the man who really is worthy of imperial rule. (DoPS, Book 5.157)

When Beowulf, vv 2417 ff, fights the Dagon he knows that he will die, but sacrifices himself for the common good. In so doing, he takes kingship to the kind of perfection recommended by DoPS, when Menas points out: ‘Put simply, he lives not for himself or in his own interest. And, if it is necessary, he will lay down his life for them as has often happened with some rulers, as Codrus died for the Athenians’. (Book 5.133)

Menas recommends this practice when it comes to emperors, but when he says: ‘has often happened with some rulers’, he is hardly referring to Roman emperors who weren’t in the habit of sacrificing themselves. Instead Menas has to refer to barbarian myth or reality.

Being good is important in the dialogue (DO’M p. 57) inasmuch as God/the divine is good and the king imitating the divine. In Book 5.118  we are told that ‘[authority is] inserting the power of doing good in things through his own providence – just as radii extend from the centre of the circle to the circumference’. The Platonic essence of this argument is developed up and until 5.122 where we understand authority also to be the emperor/king. This general standpoint is followed up in sections 5.123-71 in which DoPS concerns itself with the practices of being a ruler in terms of characteristic virtues such as goodness, wisdom, power, justice and foresight. Already in Book 5.130 ‘it is fitting, therefore, for the emperor who wishes to make himself like him (i.e. God), first of all to be himself good, to do good to those he rules’.

In Beowulf being good in character and practice is of paramount importance. In the first part of the poem, King Hrothgar is already as good as it gets and Beowulf is growing in goodness with each of his engagements with the evil. The actual word ‘good’ is used by the author to designate Beowulf and King Hrothgar. The word is also used to bracket episodes in the poem in such a way that before anything happens ‘good’ is emphasized, so that we know what is coming to us. Afterwards ‘good’ is used to close the episode making us aware of what happened in it.

Wealhtheow’s speech after the story about Finnsburg has come to an end is typical—the politically good are stressed in the frame of the episode and ‘good’ is used as a keyword in the end of the speech. The frame is circumstantial with longs lines in the beginning. Old Hrothgar and young Hrothulf are both good, but Unferth is not because he is not a flawless optimate. If we were to use the two ways in which the DoPS judges optimates, Unferth is an optimate by nature, i.e. birth, but not by education. Wealhtheow’s speech proceeds smoothly into concluding the Good and in the frame ‘good’ is mentioned once again. Since Beowulf is such an ominous poem the audience knows and doubts that if Hrothgar dies the two remaining good ones Hrothulf and Beowulf will look after Wealhtheow’s two young sons Hrethric and Hrothmund, while the widowed Queen engages herself in dialogue on political science with her new friend Menas [2].

There are affinities between Beowulf and other Germanic poems when it comes to understanding what a king must be. Needless to say there is were little in the poems of the elaborate model society discussed in the dialogue, but still the kingly barbarian matches the Neoplatonic emperor. The dialogue shows knowledge of the contemporary barbarian world and acknowledges its qualities. Correspondingly the use of ‘good’ in Beowulf is so structurally organized that it echoes the Neoplatonic practice discussed in the dialogue.

The point in this exercise is not to argue for a conscious exchange of Pagan ideas, but to emphasize a preparedness to add, mirror, transform or echo cultural elements between European elites in the 6th century. Among the barbarians ideals lived on in myth and poems. The practice suggested in the DoPS did not take on although Dominic O’Meara has shown that part of the philosophical model behind the DoPS can be traced in Islamic political philosophy. Adding one or two barbarians thinking along lines with an affinity to Neoplatonic political philosophy, seems to support Dominic O’Meara’s conclusion that such a philosophy existed.

In periods favouring ideological streamlining it is good to know that there’s always some Greek thinking to counter it.


[1] These and other characteristics of Continental and Scandinavian first millennium CE aspects of kingship are discussed by Svante Norr in To Rede and to Rown.Espressions of Early Scandinavian Kingship in Written Sources. Occasional Papers in Archaeology 17. Uppsala University 1998. If you google    To rede and to rown Norr       you can download the book as a pdf file

[2] A translation:

Then Wealhtheow came forth,
walking in a golden neck-ring to where the good pair
sat, uncle and nephew; then their kinship was still together,
each to the other true; Unferth the þyle was also there
sitting at the feet of the Scylding lord; each of them trusted his spirit,
and that he had great courage, though he to his kin was not
honourable in clash of blades; the Scylding lady then spoke:
‘Receive this full cup, my noble lord,
dispenser of treasure; you–be joyful, gold-friend of men, and to the Geats speak
with gentle words so ought a man to do;
be gracious with the Geats, mindful of gifts
which from near and far you now have;
it has been said to me that you wish for a son,
to have this leader of armies; Heorot is cleansed,
the bright ring-hall; enjoy, while you may,
many rewards, and leave to your kinsmen
folk and kingdom when you must go forth
to meet what is fated; I know my
gracious Hrothulf, that he the youths wishes
to hold in honour, if you earlier than he,
friend of the Scyldings, leave behind the world,
I think that he with good will repay
our children, if he that at all remembers,
what we for his sake and for his worldly renown,
before, in his youth, bestowed our favours.
She turned then by the bench, where her boys were,
Hrethric and Hrothmund, and heroes’ sons,
the young company all together; there sat the good
Beowulf of the Geats by the two brothers.

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