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Becoming like God in Plato and the Middle Platonists, between praxis and theoria.

1. Introduction
In most of the so-called Middle Platonists we find the statement that, according to Plato,
assimilation to God as far as possible ( ) is the moral goal (the telos) of
human life. From Eudorus of Alexandria (who lived in the 1st century B.C.) up to Plotinus and beyond,
among the Christians, there seems to be a little doubt with reguard to this statement. But what does it
mean? Does Plato really believe that this is the telos of human life? In Platos dialogues this formula
appears in various ways, as many of the Middle Platonists themselves had noticed. For instance
Eudorus1 (text 6 in the handout) speaks of the poliphonia of Plato (but immediately points out that this
does not mean polidoxia, i.e. variety of opinions); Alcinous, in his handbook of Platonism, claims that
Plato proposed the doctrine poikilos, in various forms. The intriguing thing I found in my research is
that this very poikilia or polophonia in explaining the doctrine leads to a strong tension in Platonic ethics
between contemplative life (theoria) and practical life (praxis). This tension goes through all the
centuries that separate Plato from Plotinus (the big Mid-West of Middle Platonism, as Dillon says2).
In other words: what is the most perfect life for the sage, through which he can pursue an assimilation to
God as far as it is possible? Should the sage lead a life entirely devoted to the contemplation of the
intelligible realm, a life detached from the world and its ethical, political and social troubles and
struggles? Or rather is he supposed to engage in politics and risk compromising himself in relation to the
world, in order to create justice and order here, through political activity (or perhaps through a
philosophical school)? The source of this strong tension is the complex and perhaps ambivalent way in
which Plato dealt with this formula in his dialogues.
2. Homoiosis to theoi in Platos dialogues
2.1 The locus classicus (Theaetetus)
Let us begin with the locus classicus for all the Middle Platonic tradition. It is a passage in the
Theaetetus, a dialogue which, as you know, has very little to do with ethics. Indeed the passage appears

1

I refer to the fragment preserved in Sotobaeus Anthology which has been recently attributed to Eudorus of Alexandria
(before to Arius Didimus). If this attribution is correct, as it is reasonable, Eudorus would be the first who speaks about the
doctrine, since in the Old Academy the telos was the more Stoic accordance to nature. Ioann. Stob. Anth. II, 7,3 p. 49, 8 ss.
Wachsmuth in C. Mazzarelli, Raccolta e interpretazione delle testimonianze e dei frammenti del medioplatonico Eudoro di
Alessandria in Rivista di Filosofia neo-scolastica, 1985 (part 2). See also Dillon (1977).
2 Dillon (1977).

in the context of a digression. Socrates is presenting the two opposite choices of life: the one of the
philosopher and the one of a kind of politician. Briefly, the philosopher is described as completely
unwordly and self-motivated. He does not know the way to the agor and he is completely oblivious to
the life of the polis. As Julia Annas writes only his body lives and sleeps in the city, while his mind
takes off and wings its way trough the universe. As a result, he is helpless in practical matters; he is like
Thales, who watched the stars and fell down a well. On the contrary the politician has his life
organized for him by court timetables, deadlines, consequences of the friendships and enmities his
ambitious career has produced. 3 Immediately after this explanation his interlocutor Theodorus praises
Socrates, by saying basically that if everybody were like him evil would have disappeared from the
earth. Socrates answers:
But it is not possible for evils to be eliminated, Theodorus there must always exist some
opposite to the good nor can evils be established among the gods. Of necessity, it is mortal
nature and our vicinity that are haunted by evils. And that is why we should also try to escape
from here to there as quickly as we can. The flight (fuge) is to become like god so far as is
possible ( ). And to become like god is to become just and holy,
together with wisdom. ( .) (transl. Sedley 1999,
slightly emended). (Th. 176 b-e)

Thus, assimilation to God is here described as a flight from this world (where evil and good are mixed
up). And if we look at the context that I have briefly summarized, we are led to think that, the better of
the two choices of life, is that of the philosopher. In fact, the philosopher, leading an unworldly life, in a
sense performs a kind of flight from our world, and thereby (according to the Theaetetus) he would
assimilate himself to God. But, at the same time, in this passage assimilation to God is identified with
become[ing] just and holy together with wisdom ( ). And
piety, wisdom, and over all justice are certainly virtues which are supposed to be applied to practical
life. How can the philosopher be just and wise in escaping this world? This digression is briefly closed,
the dialogue continues with its logical and epistemological topics, and no other mention of this doctrine
comes out. In order to better understand the term wisdom I would like to refer to a passage from the
Phaedo (64a-67e, the famouse passage on philosophy as practise dying).4 Here Plato basically describes
wisdom as the purification and the release of the soul from the body. Philosophers virtue of wisdom is

3
4

J. Annas (1999), pp. 54-55.


Cf. Alcinous, Didaskalikos, ch. 28.

here utterly different from that of everybody else: it is striving for philosophical understanding and has
nothing to do with the practice of ordinary civic virtue. In this sense, wisdom can be described as a
flight from the world.
2.2 The Laws and the final book of the Republic
Nevertheless such a necessity of fleeing from the world in order to pursue assimilation to God
does not occur each time that Plato deals with the formula. If we look at the other passages that Middle
Platonists such as Eudorus and Alcinous bring as proof to support the doctrine, we find that, for
instance, in the Laws becoming like God just means being virtuous, and wise in particular ( is
the topic virtue). Annas points out that in this passage we find a very traditional view of virtue. In other
words virtue is here described in terms of behavior rather than of achieving knowledge about a behavior.
The passage reads:
And, according to the present argument, it is he among the ones of us who are wise who is dear to
God, since he is like him, while he who is not wise is unlike and different and unjust, and so likewise
with the rest, by parity of reasoning. (Leg. 716 d).

Likewise, in the final book of the Republic (613 a-c) assimilation to God consists in being willing and
eager to be just ( ), and practising the virtue (
). And even the context of this passage is worthy of attention: Socrates is here going to refute the
argument that the unjust person does better in worldly terms than the just one. So we are speaking of
justice to be practiced in the world. These two last passages are completely in tune with the second
half of the locus classicus of the Theaetetus: the identification between likeness to God and practice of
virtue could not be more clear than this; but the idea of a flight from the world is absolutely absent.
2.3 The Timaeus and the central book of the Republic
Now we shall turn to another passage, this time from the Timaeus, topic dialogue for the Middle
Platonists. Here we are going to find another idea of what assimilation to God means. The passage is at
the very end of the myth on the generation of the world (90 b-d). Timaeus is explaining that the best
state of the person is when the highest part of the soul (i.e. mind, nous) controls the other two parts. In
order to make the mind exercise the control on the other parts of the soul we basically are supposed to
turn our thoughts into a form that is different from the one they have while we are engaged in ordinary

thinking. And this sort of abstract thinking enables us to assimilate ourselves to our objects of thinking
(and so to God). This state of the soul, as it is explicitly stated, corresponds to human happiness.
Something similar is stated in the central book of the Republic (500 c-d). Here, the philosophers are said
to become as much similar as possible to the divine realm by studying the stability and order that marks
the intellectual realm. Nonetheless, immediately below, the philosophers are also said to produce the
same order not only in their own soul, but in the souls of the others who are imperfect as well. Here it
seems that the sage needs to remain in this world rather than escape from it, in order to create order in it.
2.4 Some conclusions: flight or practice of civic virtues?
As we have seen, the two groups of passages we have discussed seem to have very little in
common. To summarize what has come out from these first passages we have: (i) in the Theaetetus the
necessity of a flight from our world of evil, to be performed through the virtues of justice, holiness and
wisdom (that so are conceived not practically but theoretically?); a similar idea of wisdom as a
detachement from the world is shown by the passage of the Phaedo; (ii) in the Laws the exhortation
towards a traditional behavior according to virtue in order to be dear and so similar to god, and likewise
in the last book of the Republic a striving to be just; (iii) in the Timaeus, such as in the central book of
the Republic, we find an abstract study of the movements of the cosmos that may turn our thoughts into
a different form. Annas reasonably picks out the main underlying idea that all these passages seem to
have in common: thinking of virtue as produced by the dominance of the rational part of the soul,5
and, on the other hand, the prominence of wisdom and justice as the topic virtues. To make it easy,
under the formula assimilation to God we find in Plato: (1) a flight from the world (Theaetetus 176 e);
(2) the possess and the practice of virtues such as justice, wisdom, and piety (Th. 176b-e: Rp. 613a-d,
Laws 715e-718e); (3) the study and the contemplation of the movements of the heavenly bodies (Tim.
90b-d: Rp. 500c-d). Among them (1) and (3) are easily compatible: we are supposed to escape from this
sublunary world to better contemplate the divine celestial world. But what about the practice of the
traditional virtues?
3. The Middle Platonists interpretation of the doctrine
3.1 Philo and Plutarch

5

Annas (1999), p. 57.

This same tension permeates all the Middle Platonists interpretations of the doctrine. The first
who seems to deal with the doctrine is Eudorus of Alexandria, who lived in the first century B.C. The
passage in which witnesses Eudorus embraces this formula is preserved in Stobaeus Anthology.6 In this
fragment the doctrine is attributed to Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras. Eudorus emphasis is on phronesis,
wisdom. Actualy he claims that wisdom is the only faculty through which it is possible to achieve
assimilation to God. Here, in fact, Eudorus interestingly interprets the Platonic kata to dunaton not just
as so far as it is possible, but rather as according to that faculty through which it is possible; And
this faculty is, indeed, only wisdom. Of interest here is that the passage is full of Stoic-sounding terms,
such as kosmodioiketikon (in reference to God). However, assimilation to God consists here both in the
aquiring (ktesis) and in the exercising (kresis) of perfect virtue (arete) and it is in fact identified with
living in accordance with virtue (katareten zen). The main idea we may infer from the fragment is that
homoiosis to theoi represents a practical aim to be achieved in our practical behavior. No reference to
the flight and the contemplation of heavenly body comes out here, perhaps due to the infuleunce of the
Stoic Ethics, which is more directed towards a pactical rather than to a theoretical attitude.
Both of the components are present and even reconciled in the Jewish Philo of Alexandria, who
lived a little after Eudorus. The term appears only in three of Philos works, and when he does
it is always in reference to the likeness and kinship between God and man that exist since the very
moment of the creation, as reported in Genesis 1.7 In De opificio mundi Philo even specifies that this
resemblance between God and man resides in the guide of the soul which is the mind (nous). Mind is
described as litterally the God of the body, for it occupies in man the same rank as God in the
universal world. Thus, first our life should be first of all guided by the mind in order to assimilate
ourselves to God. Then, assimilation to God is more often described in terms of imitation of God in
Philos work.8 The model of such an imitation is undoubtedly Moses, who is in fact frequently addressed
as god (theos) or man of God (anthropos theou).9 Who is God for Philo? Although we cannot know
precisely how God is in himself, we definitely can see His Powers: he is first and foremost the creator of
the whole universe and we can imitate this creative or generative power through marriage and begetting

C. Mazzarelli, Raccolta e interpretazione delle testimonianze e dei frammenti del medioplatonico Eudoro di Alessandria in
Rivista di Filosofia neo-scolastica, 1985 (part 2). See also Dillon (1977).
7
Philo, Opif. 69, 71, 72; Conf. 169; Fug. 63. See also Helleman (1990), p. 56.
8
Most of scholars have persuasively argued that in Philo, especially in De opificio mundi, we have not clear distinction
among imitation of God (141), assimilation to God (144), following God (144).
9
Philo, Mos. 158-159.

of children.10 Then, as a creator God must always care for that which has created just as parents do also
care for their children. He is king, ruler and benefactor to all human beings (He is the God of widows
and orphans).11 Therefore, becoming assimilated to God means, as Helleman sumarizes, using the
gifts he has given, especially the virtues, as powers by which the wise man will benifit the others.12 It
follows that in Philo contemplation is not an aim in itself, but rather the basis for an active life (or at
least a way to lead the life but always in relation with the others, as the Levites do): contemplation is
something like looking at a model we want to imitate in our life through our activities. This is also the
reason why Philo does not approve of an excessive asceticism, as seems clear reading On Flight and
Finding.13 And also this is the reason why Philo in most passages leans towards an alternation between
the theoretical and the practical life, as Calabi points out;14 or even perhaps embraces the Stoic bios
logikos, which, as Reydams-Shils describes, needs to be sociable and has an attitude of affection
towards the kosmos of God.
The practical life and the exercise of virtue remain central even in Plutarchs view of the doctrine,
as we read especially in his essay On divine Vengeance (550 d-e) and in On generation of the soul in the
Timaeus (1014b). The former is particularly interesting for it is the only passages in Plutarchs works in
which the Platonic formula is quoted litteraly. Homoiosis to theoi is simply identified with human virtue
(anthropine arete) as they were just synonymous :
God offers himself to all as a pattern of every excellence (paradeigma panton kalon) and in
doing that he renders human virtue (which is omoiosis theo) accessible to all who can follow god
(hepou theoi) (De sera, 550d).

3.2 The hanbooks of Platonism: Alcinous and Apuleius


If, on the one hand, the idea of God as a benefactor who cares for the human beings suggests to
Philo a more practical reading of assimilation to God as an imitation of God in life and Plutarch locates
in virtue the path to pursue our final aim, on the other hand, in Alcinous Didaskalikos return an
emphasis on the flight from the world and a preference for the contemplative life. In chapter 28 of the
Didaskalikos, where Alcinous sets out to explain the Platonic telos, the main idea we find is a strong
tension between the noetic aspect of God and his providential care for the world. Alcinous quotes the
main Platonic passages to supports the doctrine (Th. 176; Rp. 613: Ph. ; Lg. IV; Phdr. 248). At the

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Decal. 107.
Virt. 168-169. See also Reydams-Schils (2012), forthcoming.
12
Helleman (1990), p. 56.
13
Fug. 33 ff.
14
Calabi (2008)
11

outset of the chapter the emphasis is on the practice of virtues as the main way through which we can
pursue assimilation to God. Basically, Alcinous says, in the Theaetetus likeness to God consists in being
intelligent () and just () and pious () whereas in the Republic (613 a) it seems to
consist only in being just (); In the Phaedo it consists in becoming self-controlled and just
( ). Moreover, he adds a kind of footnote to his explanation: the God
we are supposed to assimilate ourselves to is not the God above the heaven () but the God
in the heaven (). This latter God can probably be identified with the heavenly Intellect (or
World Soul), described in chapter 10, as most scholars suggest15. However, in this distinction of two
gods we can recognize the two aforementioned aspects of the divine (the noetic one and the providential
one). The indication towards the second God may suggest, as also Sedley argues, a practical
interpretation of the doctrine.16 Nevertheless, at the same time, right at the outset of the Didaskalikos, we
find a clear statement in which Alcinous identifies assimilation to God with the good condition
() of the soul while it is contemplating the divine. This good state is wisdom (The soul, when
contemplating the divine and the intellections of the divine, is said to be in a good condition, and this
condition of it is called wisdom. And that, one could say, is nothing other than assimilation to the
divine). Furthermore, in Alcinous Didaskalikos contemplative life is explicitly said to be superior to
practical life, which is considered a mere necessity imposed by circumstances.17
Nevertheless, as we find also stated in Apuleius De Platone et eius dogmate, it is reasoonable to
think of likeness to God as a goal that has to be pursued by combining both theoretical and practical life.
Apuleius argues that the Supreme God18 after all does not simply meditate, but brings his desires to
completion by the exercise of his providence (summus deorum cuncta haec non solum cogitationum
ratione consideret, sed prima, media, ultima obeat conpertaque intime providae ordinationis
universitate et constantia regat).19 This conclusion about the necessity of combining theoretical and
practical life is also confirmed by looking at Albinus Introduction to Plato 6. In all the Middle Platonic
tradition the doctrine of homoiosis to theoi concerns both praxis and theoria, and God, in His two
aspects is the model for both of these lives. Problematic and different from one interpretation to another

15

So do Dillons commentary, Tarrant (2007) p. 420, Donini (1988) p. 118, Loenen (1956) p. 310, (1957) pp. 35-56, Sedley
(2012) p. 173.
16
See Sedley (2012) p. 179-180
17 See Alc. Did. chapter 4.
18
Apuleius, unlike Alcinous, speaks of the summus deorum, which is, in his rendering, the first God but also the Demiurge.
See Finamore (2006).
19
Apul., Plat. XXIII.252-253.

remains the hierarchy between the two lives. While for Eudorus, Plutarch and Philo practical life seems
to have the same value as contemplation, (if not the very aim of contemplation), in Alcinous
contemplation remains the first choice whereas practical engagements just an evil necessity for the sage.
At any rate, at least up to Plotinus, Platonic telos continues to have at least also a strong practical
meaning.
4. Conclusion
Annas concludes her chapter on our topic in Platos dialogues by saying that it is not possible at all
to combine these two strands the civic one and the unworldly one in a single set of ideas, because
one or another will suffer too much strain.20 And I think that is difficult go beyond what I did in this
attempt without running the risk of forcing the texts. However, I would suggest that it is likely that Plato
himself, on one hand fascinated by the ideal of a life utterly devoted to contemplation of the divine, on
the other hand could not abandon entirely his interest in making justice and order in this world, through
practical engagement and practice of social and civic virtues. And these two ideas inevitably compete
for precedence, in Platos dialogues such as in his epigones. But, I would suspect, even in light of
reading of Middle Platonists rendering of the doctrine, that maybe for Plato the flight from this world is
not the highest level of the climb to virtue (as instead it will be for Plotinus). After all, the philosopher is
supposed to return into the Cave, once he has contemplated the Beauty of the real world.21 Could the
return (and practical life) be just an evil necessity? I am not so sure.

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20
21

Annas(1999), p. 71.
See also Armstrong (2004), who establishes a connection between the Theaetetus and the Republic.

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