Correctly interpreting a Platonic dialogue is less a science than an art, one conditioned by many conditions obvious and abstruse. In reading Plato, we must keep in mind the time in which the dialogue was supposedly written, for such will help us determine whether Plato wrote in the mold of his teacher Socrates, or according to the dictates of his own ruling reason. We must keep in mind the structure of the dialogue, which unlike a treatise, is ended not by a logical summation of the foregoing argument, but by mundane occurrences such as the break of day, or the calling of a friend; which does not explicitly endorse a single opinion, but plays with multiple viewpoints; which may be written ironically or seriously; and which gains great meaning from its setting and its cast of characters, which are never unintentional but always carefully chosen. We must keep in mind that the Ancient Greek language, which had a literary life in excess of 1500 years, possesses far greater shades of meaning than does Modern English, and that the translation we have recourse to is invariably imperfect, and must always be corrected by frequent and prudent retreats to the original text.
With requisite humbleness, and bearing these thoughts in mind, I will attempt to elucidate some things as I read through Plato’s “Laws,” the more mature fruit of the great philosopher’s mind, but the less widely read in comparison to his magnum opus, “The Republic.” As I have not completely read the Laws as of this first writing, this will be more of a reader’s diary than a fully-fledged analysis. Unless otherwise noted, I have furnished all the translations myself. Perhaps at the end of my enquiry I will tie together my thoughts, but as of now, I will limit myself strictly to what I have read up to this point. Throughout, I will refer to portions of the text according to the accepted notation, as I have a digital rather than a print edition at my disposal.
624a-625b: In every literary work, the first and last words, or the opening and closing lines, are extremely important. They act as the brackets of a literary work, in which everything is contained, thereby crafting the tone of all therein. The greatest example of this is Homer’s Iliad, which begins with the accursed and divine wrath of Achilles, “μῆνιν ἄειδε θεά Πηληῑάδεω Ἀχιλλῆος οὐλομενήν,” and ends with that wrath’s natural result, the destruction of Troy’s greatest hero, Hektor: “ὣς οἵ γ’ ἀμφίεπον τάφον Ἕκτορος ἱπποδάμοιο,” or “and so was the funeral of Hektor, tamer of horses.”
In similar fashion, Plato frames the beginning of his dialogue with a most important but also peculiar question: “θεὸς ἤ τις ἀνθρώπων ὑμῖν, ὦ ξένοι, εἴληφε τὴν αἰτίαν τῆς τῶν νόμων διαθέσεως;” or “Was it a god, or some man, o strangers, to whom you ascribe the origin of the ordering of your laws?” Here, Plato does not concern himself with what the best laws are, or what they should be, but rather who has given them. The words he chooses have an interesting meaning. Αἰτία has the sense of responsibility or guilt, and thus a rather negative connotation, in its earliest Homeric usages, and this usage tends to predominate in all except philosophy, where it has the denotation of a cause or an originating point. Whether Plato is playing off both meanings, or whether he means only the later, is hard to say. Διαθέσις is a compound of the prefix διά meaning by or through, and the noun form of the verb τίθημι, to place, so it is literally a “placing through,” an ordering. Finally, νομός is generally translated as law, but has a much more expansive meaning than the English term, encompassing notions of custom, religious propriety, and overall civic life. When Socrates is arguing with his disciples about whether to flee, or to die in his cell, he invokes the specter of the Laws personified, reproaching him for abandoning his duty to protect and uphold them, as they have protected and upheld him: these are the νομοί. Laws are not something that merely govern a polity, they create, maintain, and nurture such a polity. Taken together, Plato is not just asking who has laid down a set of laws, but who was it, a singular human being or a force of nature, that created the entire basis for your civic life? Who was it that set in motion the entire apparatus of your society?
Here, the speaker is not identified except by the demonym Ἀθηναῖος, Athenian. He mimics the role of Socrates in many Platonic dialogues, and indeed engages in the same process of elenchos, but is here considered only as an avatar of Platonic thought. His two interlocutors, Klinias and Megillos, come from Crete and Lakedaimon respectively, and are treated as representatives of their constitutional arrangements. They find each other as strangers on the road to Knossos, where they are all heading to the temple of Zeus for some religious function. The Athenian suggests a discourse, befitting their age and mental alacrity, on the nature of law. Aping the pilgrimage of the mythic king Minos, who would travel every nine years to this very shrine for the purpose of receiving instruction from Zeus on the law, the other two heartily agree to the suggestion.
Plato’s first invocation, and the setting of his dialogue, readily complement each other. The first asks whether the law comes from man or from a god, while the second seemingly answers in favor of the gods, set as it is in direct apposition with Minos’ nine year journey to Zeus himself. Law, and all its attendant meanings, seems to spring from divine reason rather than human craftsmanship.
625c-627b: Of course, this is immediately overthrown when the Athenian asks Klinias to explain his Cretan customs. The warlike nation is so only because of the providence of the lawgiver, who saw “ἄνοιαν δή μοι δοκεῖ καταγνῶναι τῶν πολλῶν ὡς οὐ μανθανόντων ὅτι πόλεμος ἀεὶ πᾶσιν διὰ βίου συνεχής ἐστι πρὸς ἁπάσας τὰς πόλεις,” or “In my opinion, he [the lawgiver] condemned the lack of understanding amongst the masses, as not knowing that war against all states is always a lifelong vocation for all people.” Furthermore, “ἣν γὰρ καλοῦσιν οἱ πλεῖστοι τῶν ἀνθρώπων εἰρήνην, τοῦτ’ εἶναι μόνον ὄνομα, τῷ δ’ ἔργῳ πάσαις πρὸς πάσας τὰς πόλεις ἀεὶ πόλεμον ἀκήρυκτον κατὰ φύσιν εἶναι,” or “For the multitude of men call peace, to be just that name, and every state is, according to nature, involved in a perpetual informal war with every other state.”
The Athenian interprets this philosophy as follows: the properly organized state is one in which the laws, civic practices, and religious ordinances are oriented to ensure victory through force of arms, “δοκεῖς μοι λέγειν οὕτω κεκοσμημένην οἰκεῖν δεῖν, ὥστε πολέμῳ νικᾶν τὰς ἄλλας πόλεις.” The Cretan agrees, whereby the Athenian shows him the folly of his ways through a reductio. If states are always at war with other states, then this implies that the constituents of states are always at war with the other constituents of that state, for it would be strange to say that the behavior of a large group is violent according to nature, but the behavior of smaller groups is not. The Cretan concedes, and the Athenian continues by saying that if state will fight state, and group group, then why not individual and individual? Or even further, an individual within himself? The Athenian then brings the argument in the opposite direction: if the nature of man is himself conflicted, in that one part is superior and another inferior, and one will worst the other in a battle over the soul, is not the same true of individuals, groups, and states? Klinias concurs, stating that, as a man is composed of better and lesser parts, so too is a state, namely the noble classes forming the better part, and the lower classes forming the lesser part. Because Klinias has fallen prey to a crass classism, the Athenian catches him in a trap. If it is indeed true that the lower classes are inferior, but nonetheless they win over the noble classes in an intrastate struggle, does this not mean that the victorious state is, in fact, inferior? And the worsted state superior? This contradicts the principle of superiority through victory, since the victors cannot both be inferior and superior at the same time, thereby showing Klinias’ doctrine as contradictory and bankrupt.
Plato through the mouthpiece of the Cretan articulates a Hobbesian picture of human nature, where all are stained red with the blood of their compatriots and enemies alike, and such is not an evil, but indeed the flower of a nation’s laws properly organized by a lawgiver, in this case, the Gods themselves. Anyone familiar with the Euthyphro might chuckle here, for in that dialogue Socrates skillfully showed how a conflicting pantheon of gods could never be true moral arbiters, for their laws are always sunk in a morass of contradiction. It is dangerous to ascribe to the early Plato and his Socratic mouthpiece the same opinions as the late Plato here, but the parallel seems striking nonetheless. It is also strengthened by the Athenian’s victory over Klinias in this contest of wits.
627c-628a: The Athenian brings home the thrust of his argument by reorienting the idea of a proper state introduced by Klinias earlier, viz. as a ragged collection of armed militants, constantly seeking to kill or usurp the other, instead asking his interlocutors to consider the state through the metaphor of the family. Here, the Athenian is implicitly asking us, the readers, to consider a proper state not as a collection of individuals, but as a corporate unit that should act in concert for the mutual benefit of all. If we think back to the earlier metaphor of the state, group, and individual red in tooth and claw, they were conceived not as unified groups, but as individuals looking solely to their own gain. This defies the very definition of νομοί, which depend on mutual civic engagement, and also was exposed by the Athenian as an absurdity of logic, as it was exposed later by Hobbes as an absurdity of reason.
With this new metaphor of a family of warring brothers, the Athenian presents us with a new situation: the members of a single group quarrel with each other, and because they will fall into the absurdities of individual conflict, they require an arbitrator who is above them, a judge. The Athenian presents three choices: “πότερος οὖν ἀμείνων, ὅστις τοὺς μὲν ἀπολέσειεν αὐτῶν ὅσοι κακοί, τοὺς δὲ βελτίους ἄρχειν αὐτοὺς αὑτῶν προστάξειεν, ἢ ὅδε ὃς ἂν τοὺς μὲν χρηστοὺς ἄρχειν, τοὺς χείρους δ’ ἐάσας ζῆν ἄρχεσθαι ἑκόντας ποιήσειεν; τρίτον δέ που δικαστὴν πρὸς ἀρετὴν εἴπωμεν, εἴ τις εἴη τοιοῦτος ὅστις παραλαβὼν συγγένειαν μίαν διαφερομένην, μήτε ἀπολέσειεν μηδένα, διαλλάξας δὲ εἰς τὸν ἐπίλοιπον χρόνον, νόμους αὐτοῖς θείς, πρὸς ἀλλήλους παραφυλάττειν δύναιτο ὥστε εἶναι φίλους,” or “So, which of the two is better, one who destroyed all the wicked of them [the brothers], and appointed the good ones to rule themselves, or one who would appoint the good to rule, and allowing the wicked to live, made them willingly submit? But there is a third we must mention, best according to excellence, if such a one could be found among them, who would not destroy anyone, but in dealing with a future time, would give them laws, and have the power to ensure that each of them is able to live in amity.”
Both Klitias and Megillos agree that the third judge is by far the best, for he is able through the use of his art to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, and thus ensure a lasting peace. Thus, the goal of laws is not to inflame the martial passions of individuals, villages, groups, or states, but rather to cool them, and thereby create the basis for concord between moral actors. Plato does not deny that animosities exist between people, or even that the basis of Klitias’ philosophy is wrong. Rather, he argues that his conclusions are wrong: that the existence of a state according to nature is not a sanction for its continuance; that life by the sword is not the foundation of proper law, but rather the reason for law’s existence, and the object of its restrictions; that unbridled individualism is inferior to the moderation of a wise judge, or set of laws.
This is all the work I have energy for at the moment. After a harrowing three day journey on bone-rattling mountain roads, I made it to Pokhara, a backpacker’s Shangri La in the foothills of Annapurna. Tomorrow I will tackle the famed Annapurna Circuit, and hopefully will be able to blog more on this fascinating book from one of the tea houses there. Until then, χαίρετε!