The Laws: Plato’s Sacred Ethnostate, Part 1
A version of this article will appear as a chapter in an upcoming book on ethnopolitical thought in ancient Greece. Constructive criticisms and comments are therefore most welcome.
Plato’s Republic is one of the most famous books in existence. So long as it has had readers, people have wondered whether the ideal state presented in that work, Callipolis, was meant as a serious political proposal. Or was it only meant as an intellectually-stimulating utopia, or even merely a symbolic analogy for the perfect soul? Personally I am surprised by the confusion; more important in the Republic, or any of Plato’s dialogues, than the specific provisions are the principles underpinning them. From this, we can be quite assured, for instance, that Plato was a fundamentally aristocratic thinker, seeing the recognition of inequality as the foundation of ethics, deeply concerned about ensuring a just hierarchy, good culture, and good breeding.
Furthermore, besides Republic, we have Plato’s longest yet less famous final work, also on politics: the Laws, which describes his “second-best city,” called Magnesia. Here we find our same Plato —the same uncompromising defense of altruism, the same paradoxical “totalitarianism” in service of the community, the same fear and loathing of egalitarianism and “pop culture,” the same meritocratic proto-feminism, the same quest for perfection. Most of what modern liberals find objectionable in the Republic can be found repeated, evidently meant seriously, in the Laws.
Actually, I believe the Laws merely explicitly spells out the implications in a particular concrete example of what one could reasonably infer from the Republic. At the eve of life, Plato apparently wished to cross all his T’s and dot all his I’s. Indeed the work sometimes goes into rather tedious detail, perhaps inevitable for a legal treatise. Furthermore, I would stress again that much of Plato’s authoritarianism was in fact not unique to him, but simply reflected the community-centered ethics and practice of citizenship of the ancient Greek polis. Glenn Morrow, the definitive interpreter of the Laws, writes that it has been “declared, with some exaggeration but with essential insight, that Plato’s Laws is a collection and codification of the whole of Greek law.” This would explain why there is so much overlap between Plato’s Laws and Aristotle’s similarly-encyclopedic Politics (though the latter, as lecture notes, are far easier for a modern to read). It also suggests that the Laws must be read not as a philosopher’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming, but as synthesis of centuries of practical Greek political experience.
In the Republic, Plato is arguably radicalizing Socratic insights on self-discipline, the rule of expertise, and good breeding, and projecting them to the level of a polity. Similarly, in the Laws, Plato is systematizing and occasionally radicalizing many of the underlying assumptions of the practice of ancient Greek politics. Whereas the Republic’s radically utopian aristocratic and eugenic principles can be summarized briefly, in the Laws Plato goes into considerable detail on specific measures to be taken.
One can see why the Laws has resonated less with passing generations than the Republic has. There is not a comprehensive philosophical system presented, but a discussion largely restricted to politics. The Laws meander and suffer from some contradictions. Some blame elderly Plato’s failing mental abilities, others note that the work was unfinished at his death, to be edited from wax tablets by his disciple Philip of Otis.
All this said, the Laws remains stimulating and provocative. Many of the insights of Aristotle’s Politics are already found in Plato’s work. The dialogue portrays three men — a mysterious “Athenian Stranger” similar to Socrates, a Cretan named Clinias, and a Spartan named Megillos — on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Zeus’ birthplace on Mount Ida, where the legendary Cretan king Minos had received his laws from the supreme god. The choice of a Spartan companion is no coincidence. Plato was evidently very impressed by the power and stability of that little Peloponnesian state. The Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus was said to have been inspired by Apollo. Plato, while retaining his pious moral earnestness, often jokes about his old age, and has kept his ability to engage in the most stimulating paradoxes. Probably the most famous of these in the Laws is the long discussion in Book 1 on the merits of drinking-parties. Alcohol is a supreme gift that enables us to discern virtue in men: those who are able to maintain their self-discipline under its influence thereby show they have the kind of virtue necessary to sustain good statesmanship under similar “intoxicating” pressures while in power. In vino veritas!
Old age and jokes aside, the Laws remains supremely ambitious: he is discussing the basic law of a new city which, synthesizing the best of the various Greek traditions, would prove timeless. This would establish an eternally virtuous version of Athens, preserving its ideal of citizenship, but without the egalitarian excesses. Plato was evidently inspired by the great discipline of the Spartan constitution and the immemorial religious traditions of ancient Egypt. By “law” the Greeks typically do not have in mind the fluctuating and ever-growing mass of legislation that we understand by the term. Rather, we are discussing a largely unchanging basic law, like that of Lycurgus, prescribing a way of life and educating the citizens. Plato wishes for a new state, a new lawgiver, this time however inspired by philosophy and reason as well as the uncertain visions of a god, promoting virtue and not merely militarism. And if Lycurgus’ law had by Plato’s time lasted almost three centuries, the philosopher again aimed higher, taking as his model Egyptian customs which, like the famous pyramids, were said to have endured for millennia.
In all this, the reproduction of the citizenry and their kinship are fundamental. Plato waxes lyrical about the sacred duty of citizens to produce the best children possible in order to “participate in eternity.” The city-state is conceived not merely as a collection of individuals, but as a timeless community including all past and future generations. Of great interest from an evolutionary perspective, the social order and ethics of Plato’s Laws are founded on kinship, both familial and ethnic. We find in Plato’s thought concentric circles of kinship and reciprocity: to the family, to the city, and ultimately to the Greek nation as a whole against the barbarians. Furthermore, Plato is emphatic on the duty of ensuring the biological and cultural quality of the citizenry, to be achieved notably by an initial wholesale purge of bad elements, strict immigration policies, and the careful regulation and promotion of marriage and child rearing.
In stressing the principle of kinship, Plato is embracing and systematizing wider Greek believes. Arnold Gomme writes: “The idea of kinship as the basis of membership in the state was fundamental throughout Greece, and in this respect the nationality of the mother was as important as that of the father.” Morrow says we can assume that Plato adheres to the Athenian notion of citizenship being limited to those with two native-born parents. Given all this, just as Lycurgus is said to have founded Sparta as the first ethnostate, I believe it is not anachronistic to speak of Magnesia as Plato’s sacred ethnostate.
What kind of city-state is Magnesia? Plato’s second-best city is not as radical and elitist as Callipolis depicted in his Republic. The holy order of philosopher-kings gives way to the rule of the laws themselves. Plato is far closer to Aristotle’s moderate and conventional notion of an ideal regime. In Magnesia, all native-born soldiers and veterans are citizens. Every male citizen has some property and each is expected to live happily with a moderate amount of wealth. Every citizen-soldier is expected to become a paterfamilias by begetting children. Most officials are elected by the Assembly of all citizens, the wealthy being given more voting power. Plato says this propertied democracy with oligarchic elements is meant to be a happy mean between Persian despotism and Athenian egalitarianism. On all this, Aristotle might approve.
Plato however is more prescriptive concerning the basic law. Magnesia’s democratic Assembly is to be constrained and the citizenry educated towards virtue through Spartan-like discipline stipulated by a largely immutable basic law. The philosopher is portraying a state in which all would live in harmony and piously, constantly training themselves and joining in communal activities: an aristocratic Athens, a philosophical Sparta, with folkways as eternal Egypt’s.
Plato envisions numerous measures to prevent decadence and the degeneration of the law. Economic inequality and poverty are checked by limits on capital accumulation and by maintenance of the number of households at 5,040. Plato favors virtuous self-sufficiency to corrupting intercourse with the outside world. Commerce is to be kept to a minimum (the city happily has no access to the sea), usury is to be banned, and the low trading professions are to be consigned to a class of non-citizen foreigners “whose corruption will not harm the state unduly” (919c).
In sharp contrast with Aristotle, Plato remains a meritocratic proto-feminist. He thinks it “stupid” that half the society is kept in the private sphere — Greek women were generally constrained to the home — and instead makes them potential citizens (albeit propertyless), eligible for office, grants them their own common meals, and enlists them in the armed forces if necessary. Even though Plato believed that women are on the whole less suited to war, politics, or abstract thinking, he cannot accept that so much potential remain untapped and even imagines female soldiers helping their menfolk by “gallantly resisting the destruction threatening their native land” (807b). Plato blames the lack of regulation and participation of women in Sparta for the rise of luxury in that state, saying the lawmaker should have covered both sexes: “A legislator should go the whole way and not stick at half-measures” (806c).
Plato’s obsession with an unchangeable and highly prescriptive basic law, intruding even into the smallest aspects of life and culture, can seem megalomaniacal and unrealistic. This reflects however not only his obsession with preventing decadence, but also the assumptions of his time and his philosophy. If law is inspired by the most enlightened, it would naturally override or channel men’s various spontaneous inclinations, especially those of the less gifted. If nature and reason are eternal and law is meant to reflect these, then the better the law is, the more timeless it would be. This somewhat static vision makes particular sense in the context of the ancient world, when technological innovation was very slow, humanity’s subsistence existence was in many respects basically unchanging, and truly one could say there was always “nothing new under the sun.”
I will go into some detail on the regime and principles Plato describes in the Laws. I believe this is warranted on several grounds. Firstly, the Laws shows that Plato’s aristocratic, communitarian, and eugenic principles as described in the Republic, which philosophy teachers tend to gloss over, were meant in earnest. Secondly, my readers are unlikely to wish to read the 500-odd pages of this difficult work, from which I have extracted the very substantial ethnopolitical themes. Finally, even academics explaining the Laws have also tended to gloss over its ethnopolitics. Charles Khan writes that in Morrow’s 600-page explication of the Laws: “There is almost no mention … of those passages in the slave law which, as Morrow put it, ‘do not make pleasant reading!’ Nor is there much said here about the preliminary population purges, nor the implications for home life of Plato’s system of ‘marriage inspectors.’”
I believe then that I am warranted in going into detail in describing the piety and rigor of the ethnopolitics in Plato’s Laws, piety and rigor which are symptomatic both of the ancient Greek tradition of citizenship and of one of the Western civilization’s greatest philosophers. The insights remain of great relevance to our time.
Glenn Morrow, Plato’s Cretan City: A Historical Interpretation of the Laws (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 6.
Just as, in a different genre, Plato’s Republic could be said to be radicalizing Socratic insights – on self-discipline, the rule of expertise, good breeding – at the level of the society.
 I am personally quite struck by the parallel with the later National Socialist notion of the Volksgemeinschaft.
Arnold Gomme, Essays in Greek History and Literature (Oxford, 1937), 86-87. Quoted Morrow, Plato’s Cretan City, p. 117.
Ibid., p. 116.
A Penguin Classics translation by Trevor Saunders is available, as well as bootleg editions of a nineteenth-century translation by Benjamin Jowett. Both have useful introductory texts but seem to lack a really comprehensive critical apparatus.
Charles Kahn, “Foreword,” in Morrow, Plato’s Cretan City, xxvi. I note that in 1940 Morrow wrote an article distancing Plato’s philosophy from National Socialism and Communism, on the grounds that the Laws is founded upon the rule of law. That is fair point, but it must also be conceded that Plato and indeed Aristotle’s communitarian politics are quite at odds with the modern liberals’ hypertrophied individualism and egalitarianism. See also Guillaume Durocher, “Plato, Hitler, & Totalitarianism,” Counter-Currents.com, March 23, 2017.
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