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As a part of one of the most penetrating and insightful analyses of St. Augustine's reflections on politics in recent years, the political philosopher Pierre Manent argues, “Christianity's point of impact is the separation between the few and the many. What Christianity attacks is not social or political inequality but the pertinence of the distinction between the few and the many, the philosopher and the non-philosopher, with regard to the capacity to attain or receive the truth.” It is precisely on the basis of the capacity of the non-philosopher to attain or receive the truth that St. Augustine provides a critique of Porphyry in book 10 of The City of God, saying that this eminent Platonist has not come across a universal way for the liberation of the soul (liberandae animae uniuersalis uia). Instead, what Porphyry does provide are two separate ways of “purifi cation” (purgatio) that liberate the soul: one affecting the higher or intellectual soul (intellectualem animam), the other affecting only the lower or “spiritual” soul (ipsam spiritalem) through theurgy. The first way is for those few who are capable of philosophy; the second is for the multitude of men who for whatever reason are not capable of philosophy.
Through his critique of Porphyry on the basis of the concrete way of life lived by Christians, St. Augustine enters into a classic conversation, the boundaries and stakes of which had already been charted out. The classical political problem of the division between the few and the many is that for a city to be properly ordered in justice, it must be ruled by the wise and according to wisdom; but the wise are few and outnumbered by the many, who are far too attached to their own opinions and customs to allow the wise to rule, even if they could (1) identify the wise; and (2) persuade or coerce them to rule—a doubtful proposition in either case. This lamentable situation requires the wise to cultivate ironic distance from the multitude— most famously in the figure of Plato's Socrates. If the wise are to exert any influence on the city, it will have to be indirect and through the utilization of lies—the most famous instance of which is the noble lie in Plato's Republic.