Thursday, May 31, 2012

Plato's "Laws": A Reflection

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Plato's Cave
Despite having been assigned it in my Classical Political Thought class, I only in the past few days finished reading Plato's Laws (apologies to Dr. Walsh). Which is a bit unfortunate, since it's bloody fantastic.

I confess to having had a bit of a "meh" relationship with Plato in the past. I mean, the number of his dialogues that I've actually enjoyed (as opposed to just kind of thinking they're okay) is pretty small- basically the Ion and maybe bits of Epistle VII. Sure, I've read and discussed what are usually counted as his greatest works (Gorgias, Meno, Apology, and of course The Republic) and even taught them in class (I prefer teaching the Crito, since it's short and a quick read for the students). But this was the first book where Plato and I really clicked. It was the first one of his that I've read where I found myself wanting to read more, to find out where the argument was going, and to see what the next step in his argument would be. Part of the reason for this may have been a translation issue (I read the Penguin Classics translation of The Laws done by Trevor Saunders- an excellently done work with good footnotes and introductory summaries), and part of it may have been the fact that all the other times I've read Plato it was for class. I can't say for sure what the reason is, just that this has ended up being a book that I truly enjoyed reading and look forward to (someday) exposing to students.

The way I've regularly had The Laws explained to me is that it's Plato's admission of failure. In undergrad, it was covered in a Greek civilization course where the prof (for whom I have the deepest respect) suggested that Plato had given up on trying to get anyone to care about the virtuous philosophical life and turned his final hopes on getting them at least to be good because the law said they had to. In the aforementioned graduate course, the professor (for whom I also have the deepest respect) suggested that The Laws is more of an appendix to The Republic, wherein the "Philosopher Kings" who exist at the center of the ideal state in The Republic have withdrawn from society, leaving behind only the laws they crafted. (I suspect this view is traceable back to a philosopher named Eric Voegelin, for whom I have slightly less respect but whom I occasionally enjoy reading.)
Having finally read the book myself, I think I disagree bit with both of these position. Certainly it's true that Plato is issuing some kind of passionate call here- after all this was his last and longest work. But I think a better way to read The Laws is as a second shot at The Republic. In The Republic, Plato had argued that people ought to live virtuous lives within virtuous states. The same argument is at work here. But! In The Republic, when asked how such a state could ever come about, Plato gives a mix of reasons including (but not limited to): education, hard work, divine intervention, leadership by a philosophical elite, some form of natural selection, and a life of continually increasing and unrestrained virtue. In other words, all of the ways in which people expressly do not want to live. How does Plato argue his state will come about in The Laws? By playing games, drinking, a life free from all but the most moderate work load, and enough sex to keep the state populated. Same goals, different means. It's true that there are differences between The Republic and The Laws (perhaps most noticeable is the presence of families in The Laws which had been outlawed in The Republic in lieu of communal wives and children), but these differences are very much organizational differences rather than differences in the philosophical goal of virtue.
Such, at least, is my read on the relationship between The Republic and The Laws- they're not really two radically different books, they've just got two different audiences. In a sense, I think it could be argued that the former was written as a guide for the Philosopher Kings, while the latter was written for at least the Guardian class, if not for the rest of the citizen body...

The biggest major modern issue with The Laws (at least as of the writing of the translator's Introduction in 1970) is the question of whether or not Plato was a totalitarian. This goes back to a book by Karl Popper written in the 1930s called The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper argued that any philosophy that teaches moral absolutism will eventually lead to totalitarianism, since moral absolutes are non-negotiables. As someone who clearly believes in moral absolutes, Plato must therefore be a totalitarian. Variations on this theme have followed Popper, but all are loosely tied back into his original thesis.
The translator takes a fairly middle path through the book, pointing out places where Plato seems to be totalitarian, and places where he is fairly liberal in his outlook (the absolute equality of women, for example).

I think the problem is we're asking an anachronistic question. Were we to say to Plato "are you a totalitarian or not?" His reply would be "huh?" That is to say, no such category existed in the Ancient World. In one sense, all ancient societies were totalitarian. There was no distinction between the individual and the state. After all, an ancient would argue, states are made up of bodies of individuals. So when you do something wicked, that makes the state that much worse. And when you do something virtuous, that makes the state that much better. With that being the case, why wouldn't the state have the authority to regulate even the most minute details of daily life, should it be necessary for preserving the virtue and dignity of the society? This would not be seen as either repressive or intolerable. Really, the only two political categories of major concern to ancients in any meaningful sense were 1) who was allowed to participate? and 2) what was the goal of the government? Any combination of answers to these questions could be more or less "totalitarian" by modern standards, that simply wasn't something they were interested in.

And, this reflection is going on probably longer than it should. After all, I haven't even said much about the book itself. I think this might have to turn into at least one more post, if only to keep the length of things manageable...

So, the short version is: this is an excellent book that raises all kinds of great questions (and gives great answers) to questions like: what is the role of education in society and individual life? What should be the goal of legislation? Who watches the watchmen? (seriously, that's one of them) What is the role of the elderly in society? And so on...

Highly recommended.

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