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Plato's myth of the statesman, the ambiguities of the Golden Age and of history*

  • Pierre Vidal-Naquet (a1)


In the treatise de Abstinentia that the neoplatonist Porphyry devoted to justifying abstention from foods of animal origin, there is a long quotation from Life in Greece (βίος τῆς Έλλάδος) by the Peripatetic, Dicaearchus (end of the fourth century B.C.), who was a direct disciple of Aristotle. This book is known to represent a sort of cultural history of Greek humanity from the very earliest times.

In its essentials, this text tells us that the Golden Age, or age of Cronos, referred to by the poets, principally by Hesiod, in his Works and Days (from which Dicaearchus quotes verses 116–19: ‘And they had all good things, the grain-bearing earth, ζείδωρος ἂρονρα, itself produced an abundant and generous harvest, and they lived off their fields in peace and joy, amidst countless boons…’), that this marvellous epoch was perhaps a historical reality



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1 Porphyry, De Abstinentia iv 2, pp. 228–31 Nauck; the Dicaearchus text forms no. 49 of the collection of the fragments by Wehrli, F. (see also frr. 47, 48, 50 and 51, which are from the same source but are not direct quotations). Our text is also reproduced (with translation) in the very useful collection by Lovejoy, A. O. and Boas, G., Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (repr. New York 1965) 94–6.

2 Here I shall simply refer readers to Cole, T.'s fundamental book, Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology (APA philol. monog. 25, Middletown Conn. 1967).

3 Here I have in mind especially the things we have learned from J. Bertier, in her edition of the Mnesitheus and Dieuches fragments (Leyden 1972).

4 Diodorus ii 55–60.

5 I have briefly explained this elsewhere, cf. my article ‘Valeurs religieuses de la terre et du sacrifice dans l'Odyssée’ in Annales ESC xxv (1970) 1278–97; republished in Finley, M. I. (éd.), Problèmes de la terre en Grèce ancienne (Paris 1973) 269–92 (see 272–8).

6 De Abstinentia ii 27, p. 156, corresponds to fr. 13, p. 174 of the W. Pötscher edition (Leyden 1964).

8 FGrH 70 F42, from Strabo, vii 3.9 (trans. H. L. Jones).

9 Cf. Vernant, J.-P., Mythe et pensée chez les Crecs 3 (Paris 1971) i 1379.

10 Op. 276–8.

11 ‘Entre bêtes et Dieux’ in Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse vi (autumn 1972) 230–46 (see p. 236).

12 ‘Remarques sur la fonction du langage dans la découverte freudienne’ in La Psychanalyse I (1956) and Problèmes de linguistique générale (Paris 1956) 75–87 (see p. 82).

13 Loc. cit. 83.

14 Cf. P. Vidal-Naquet, loc. cit. 278–80.

15 Cf. for instance, what Ed. Will, says on the subject, Le Monde Grec et l'Orient. (Paris 1972) 482. A detailed demonstration is presented in the as yet unpublished thesis by R. Winton, Cambridge.

16 Protagoras 322 a.

17 Here I recall the famous lines from the Odyssey (ix 112–15) on the lack of deliberative institutions among the Cyclops.

18 Aristotle has provided testimony that is probably valid for his own epoch when he states that the tyranny exercised by Pisistratus seemed like the age of Cronos, in the tradition of the Athenian peasants (Ath. Pol. xvi 7).

19 In his article quoted above (n. 11), the entire analysis may be considered as a commentary on Aristotle, 's formula: ‘he who by nature and not by accident, is without a city, is a being who is either base (φαῦλος) or more powerful than a man is’ (Pol. i 1253 a 4).

20 Cf. Loraux, N., ‘L'interférence tragique’ in Critique 317 (1973) 908–25.

21 Bacchae 702–11 trans. G. S. Kirk (1970).

22 Ibid. 701–2.

23 ‘Eine Schule, welche recht für die Proletarier Athens gerechnet war’: ‘Das Gymnasium Kynosarges in Athen’ in Gesammelte Abh. aus dem Kl. Altertüme ii (Munich 1863) 156–95, see p. 169.

24 Diogenes Laertes, vi 1.13; Lexic. Rhet. Bekker p. 274. Cf. Humphreys, S. C., ‘The Nothoi of Kynosarges’ in JHS xciv (1974) 8895.

25 Diogenes, vi 17, 18, 73, 80.

26 Cf. Plutarch, , Aquane an ignis sit utilior 956b; Dio Chrysostom, vi 25, 29–30. The anti-Prometheus is Heracles.

27 De esu carnium 995c–d.

28 Cf. [Diogenes] Ep. p. 32; Lucian, , Drapetai 17, and T. Cole, op. cit. (n. 2) 151, n. 12.

29 Goldschmidt, V., Les Dialogues de Platon (Paris 1947) 259. On the role of the myth that treats of the search for a human eidos, see Bernardete, S., ‘Eidos and diaeresis in Plato's Statesman’ in Philologus cvii (1963) 193226, esp. 198.

30 Ibid. 260.

31 They have been collected by Frazer, J. G. in his edition of the Pseudo-Apollodorean, Library, ii 164–6; the most important texts, dating from before Plato, are Euripides, , El. 699730; Or. 996–1012.

32 Cf. Pearson, A. C., The Fragments of Sophocles, i p. 93.

33 ii 142; cf. Froidefond, Ch., Le mirage égyptien (Paris 1971) 143.

34 Cf. Ch. Froidefond, op. cit. 267–342.

35 See for instance, Vian, F., Les origines de Thèbes: Cadmos et les Spartes (Paris 1963) and, by the same author, ‘La fonction guerrière dans la mythologie grecque’, in Vernant, J.-P. (éd.) Problèmes de la guerre en Grèce ancienne (Paris 1968) 5368, concerning which, however, I do not accept the historicity of the interpretation.

36 414c ff., 468e f.

37 248c, cf. also Laws 727e:

38 Cf. infra p. 140.

39 Gorgias 523 b–e; on the negative aspects of Cronos, see also Rep. 378a.

40 Schuhl, P. M., ‘Sur le mythe du politique’ in Rev. de Métaphysique et de Morale xxxvii (1932) 47f; republished in La Fabulation platonicienne (Paris 1947) 89–104.

41 Bollack, J., Empédocle, 1, Introduction à ľancienne physique (Paris 1965) 133; I also recommend the excellent analysis in p. 135, n. 1; cf. preceding this, Goldschmidt, V., Platonisme et pensée contemporaine (Paris 1970) 104. It has occasionally been argued that instead of two cosmic cycles, there were three stages: the age of Cronos, the age of the world in reverse, the age of our world, which is a mixed one. This interpretation is endorsed by A. Lovejoy and G. Boas, op. cit. 158, and independently, by Brisson, L. in Le Même et l'Autre dans la structure ontologique du Timée de Platon (Paris 1974) 478–96. This hypothesis can be supported by such texts as Statesman 269d, in which ‘our’ world is described as a mixed world in terms that Timaeus himself would not disclaim (see infra pp. 138–9) but the description is quite incompatible with a close reading of the myth.

42 Among others, by Rodier, G., ‘Note sur la politique d'Antisthène: le mythe du Politique’, Année philosophique (1911) 17, republished in Etudes de Philosophie grecque (Paris 1926) 30–6.

43 Which is how we should understand an expression in the Statesman, 273e: On this point the translation made by A. Diès creates a misinterpretation that had been avoided by L. Campbell, in his edition with comments (Oxford 1867).

44 Op. 181.

45 Plato i, trans. H. Meyerhoff (N.Y. 1958) 206.

46 Cf. the use of the verbs νέμϵιν, νομϵύϵιν, and of the noun νομή in 271d–272a, 274b; see Laroche, E., Histoire de la racine ‘nem’ en grec ancien (Paris 1949) 115–29, and briefly, Benveniste, E., Le vocabulaire des institutions indoeuropéennes (Paris 1969) i 84–6. The ‘pastoral’ value did not enjoy priority, but at the time of Plato, it was very clearly sensed.

47 The proximity of these two expressions, ‘abandoned by God’ and ‘cycle of Zeus’, underlines once more the brilliant ambiguity of Plato's text. Both are supported, naturally, by precise passages (272b, e, etc.). It is nevertheless true that Plato underlines the fact that the reign of Zeus was merely a λόγος, here, ‘hearsay’ (272b), and that while the God abandoned direct administration of the world, he continued to occupy an observation post (272e).

48 The pre-history of the word κράτος in the Homeric epoch has been studied by E. Benveniste, op. cit. (n. 46) ii 57–83. The author makes a statement of essential importance to us, which is: ‘Kratos is used exclusively for gods and men’ (p. 78).

49 On this point, I am correcting the interpretation of A. Diès and of many other scholars who understand ἀνακύκλησις as ‘reversal of revolution’ (Taylor), cf. the note by Robin, L., Platon, Pléiade, edn. ii 1456, n. 46. The usual translation is incompatible with the text that follows, which sees the world turning now in one direction, now in the other.

50 The essential text is Timaeus, 36b–d; for details, I shall simply recall the above-mentioned thesis by L. Brisson.

51 True enough, one can hesitate as to the exact meaning of what Plato is saying in 274c: which are ‘the gifts of the gods mentioned by tradition’, a tradition that Plato does not necessarily assume as his own; but between the invention by men of the arts and technai, and their definition as divine gifts, both of which are ‘traditional’, Plato evidently chose the version that was the most opposed to humanism (cf. Menex. 238b, in which already this choice is given preference over the ‘lay’ tradition of the Athenian funeral oration).

52 Havelock, E. A., The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics (New Haven 1957) 4051: Popper, K. R., The Open Society and its Enemies, I, The Spell of Plato (London new ed. 1963) esp. 1925 and 39 f. For a convenient summary of the discussions prompted by Popper's book, cf. the selection made by Bambrough, R., Plato, Popper and Politics (Cambridge 1968); also V. Goldschmidt, op. cit. (n. 41) 139–41.

53 A similar opposition may be found in Epicurean philosophy; cf. the classical study by Robin, L., ‘Sur la conception épicurienne du progrès’ in Rev. de Métaphysique et de Morale (1916) 69 f., republ. in La pensée hellénique des origines à Epicure (Paris 1942) 525–52.

54 V. Goldschmidt is right to call attention to this point: ‘The city, the material origins of which lie in needs, in the inability of individuals to achieve self-sufficiency, and in blind Necessity, seems to be of no use in the next world. There does not exist in Plato the equivalent of the “city of God”’ (op. cit. [n. 41] 120). But although, in Plato's writings, science is by rights separable from civic institutions, it remains true, as we have seen, that the men of the Golden Age do not appear to have been scientifically active.

55 Die Philosophie der Griechen, ii 1 (Leipzig 1889) 324, n. 5.

56 Loc. cit. n. 42.

57 It will be recalled that Wilamowitz, had given this title to the chapter devoted to the Laws in his Plato (Berlin 1920) ii 654704. The Statesman is generally dated to the period immediately following Plato's third visit to Sicily (361); hence, before the final crisis of the Athenian empire.

58 A God creates the dual royalty, a ‘human nature united to a divine nature’ establishes the gerusia, a ‘third saviour’ invents the ephorate. ‘And so, thanks to these proportions, the royalty of your country, a balanced mixture of the ingredients that were needed, saved itself and brought salvation to others’ (Laws 601d–602a).

59 Ibid. 690d–691b.

60 Ibid. 739e. Here, as I was taught to do in the past by H. Margueritte, I have retained the text of manuscripts A and O, and rejected Apelt's uninspired conjecture τιμία δϵυτέρως, ‘next in honorability’, which has been retained in the Des Places edition. Concerning the question of unity as the basic principle of Plato's Republic, cf. Aristotle, Pol. ii 1263b 30 f.

61 V. Goldschmidt, op. cit. (n. 41) 113.

62 Places, E. Des, edition of the Laws II, 61, n. 2.

63 Literally speaking, this expression is unsuitable, since for Plato, humanity begins again, it does not begin.

64 Op. cit. 25.

65 Τὰ ζῷα: this can hardly refer to animals exclusively, since they are not the only creatures concerned by the invention of agriculture.

66 The quotation from Od. ix 112–15 is in the Laws 680b–c; cf. Labarbe, J., L'Homère de Platon (Liège 1949) 236–8.

67 Rep. 428e–429a.

68 The simplicity and naïveté of early legislation was also to become a theme for Aristotle; cf. Pol. ii 1268b 42. I want to thank R. Weil for having reminded me of this text.

69 Laws 678a.

70 Rep. 372d.

71 This study begins with an attempt to show that the breach took place after Plato's time.

72 Laws 817b.

73 V. Goldschmidt, op. cit. (n. 41) 98.

* This essay was published in French in the volume entitled Langue, discours, société. Pour Emile Benveniste (Paris 1975) 374–91; It has been translated in collaboration with Maria Jolas, and I have taken this opportunity to revise it and make a few slight changes.

I want to thank those who have been so kind as to read it, especially: V. Goldschmidt, G. E. R. Lloyd, C. Gill, and Nicole Loraux.

Plato's myth of the statesman, the ambiguities of the Golden Age and of history*

  • Pierre Vidal-Naquet (a1)


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