The Laws: Plato’s Sacred Ethnostate, Part 2: Social Cohesion and Just Inegalitarianism

Artist’s impression of Spartan wrestling.

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A Holistic Rule of Law Aiming at Inculcating Virtue and Social Cohesion

Plato’s main innovation in the Laws is to have pioneered the notion of the “rule of law.” He constrains the Magnesian regime in a complex system of laws and courts of appeal, guaranteed by the so-called Guardians of the Laws, by which all officials were liable for prosecution for misdeeds. In the Laws Plato asserts boldly: “any state without duly established courts simply ceases to be a state” (766d). Plato the “totalitarian” is also the forerunner of the very notion of the rule of law and checks and balances, which would prove so influential for Montesquieu and the American Founding Fathers.

Another innovation: the laws are to have preambles, meant to persuade the citizens by rational argument of the necessity of a given action, with coercion to be used only if that fails. Thus the laws use two methods: “compulsion and persuasion (subject to the limitations imposed by the uneducated masses)” (722b). The law, devised by reason, is to be a “golden and holy” cord, pulling upon the souls of the citizens, towards virtue. Plato advocates a reformative penology aiming to improve criminals rather than harm them (854a). He expects citizens to “exact the vengeance of his fatherland” against those who would subvert the laws (856b).

While aware of the disadvantages of an inflexible and overly general law, Plato hopes nonetheless to escape the rule of men and establish the rule of reason embodied in law. The Greek word nomos means both “custom” and “law,” and indeed Plato’s notion of law sometimes explicitly extends to a society’s culture and traditions as a whole. He observes, as many have since, that the constitution and laws ultimately depend on “unwritten customs” and “ancestral law,” which “are the bonds of the entire social framework, linking all written and established laws with those yet to be passed. They act in the same way as ancestral customs from time immemorial, by virtue of being soundly established and instinctively observed, shielding and protecting existing written law” (793b–c). For Plato, politics and lawmaking are not merely matters of administration or management, but of education and customs. This is to say that, for Plato, respecting traditional culture is at the center of the statesman’s work.

Plato’s high ambition is again evident: his Laws do not aim to create a perfect legal text, but rather to imagine a society whose traditions, customs, basic law, and regime are all working to make the citizens tend towards virtue. This notion of law and custom obviously rejects the modern notion of a “private sphere” supposedly outside the domain of politics. Plato points out that “the state’s general code of laws will never rest on a firm foundation as long as private life is badly regulated, and it’s silly to expect otherwise” (790b). In this, Plato is not being uniquely authoritarian, but shares a view in common with Aristotle and Greek legislators in general.

The law will appeal to citizens’ feelings of guilt and shame to prevent them from becoming criminals (647a). The citizens are above all to be pulled away from following their emotions and their bellies, and towards piety and reason. While athletes succeed in delaying gratification to win sporting events, Plato would like to see such disciplines used to overcome the craving for pleasure:

[R]ight from the earliest years we’re going to tell them stories and talk to them and sing them songs, so as to charm them, we trust, into believing that this victory is the noblest of all . . . the conquest of pleasure. If they win this battle, they’ll have a happy life — but so much the worst for them if they lose. (840c)

Plato argues for a prescriptive and constant basic law on the grounds that people do not have the ability to both discern was is good and to enforce that good on a day-to-day basis. The first challenge is effectively to overcome “libertarian” solipsism:

The reason is this: no man has sufficient natural gifts both to discern what benefits men in their social relationships and to be constantly ready and able to put this knowledge to the best practical use. The first difficulty is to realize that the proper object of true political skill is not the interest of private individuals but the common good. This is what knits a state together, whereas private interests make it disintegrate. If the public interest is well served, rather than the private, then the individual and the community alike are benefited. (875a–b)

Plato argues by analogy that just as when doctors tend to a person’s limbs or a craftsman builds something, so in a community: “the parts contribute to the good of the whole, not vice versa” (903d). Furthermore: “complete freedom from all authority is infinitely worse than submitting to a moderate degree of control” (698b).

The Magnesian regime thus aims to discipline and educate its citizens towards unity and virtue. The means used are clearly largely inspired by Spartan practices. Citizens are to be required to eat meals in common in order to build social cohesion. Youths are to dance in armor and to compete in games using real weapons, despite the risks, as a preparation for war. The young are to be forbidden from criticizing the laws. Certain books and poets, deemed demoralizing by the authorities, are to be banned (634d–e). There is to be a ban on convertible currency and sharp limitations on foreign travel. All these measures can be ascribed to Sparta. Inspired by Egyptian practice, Plato furthermore says that authorized songs and dances are to all be religious ones, so that people’s reverence for them makes them unchanging and eternal across the centuries.  The entire society is to regularly engage in ritualized dancing and song together, so as to turn their spontaneous, random gestures into harmonies.

These measures are ultimately aimed at fostering social unity and virtue while preventing luxury and decadence. Plato says Magnesia will have no city walls, quoting a poet: “a city’s walls should be made of bronze and iron, not stone” (778d). Plato has scorn for those who dream of lazy, consumerist lifestyle:

Must each of them get plumper and plumper every day of his life, like a fatted beast? No: we maintain that’s not the right and proper thing to do. A man who lives like that won’t be able to escape the fate he deserves; and the fate of an idle fattened beast that takes life easy is usually to be torn to pieces by some other animal—one of the skinny kind, who’ve been emaciated by a life of daring and endurance. (807a–b)

The citizens are to become as psychologically homogeneous and synchronous as possible: “the same state and the same citizens (who should all be the same sort of people, as far as possible) should enjoy the same pleasures in the same fashion: that is the secret of a happy and blessed life” (816d). Young men are to be ruled, and then be ruled, individual action being eliminated, to notably ensure victory in war:

[W]e must condition ourselves to an instinctive rejection of the very notion of doing anything, if possible, except by combined and united action as members of a group. No better and more powerful or efficient weapon exists for ensuring safety and final victory in war, and never will. This is what we must practice in peacetime, right from childhood—the exercise of authority over others and submission to them in turn. (942c)

Plato is emphatic: we must learn about how each of our individual actions is not just a random spasm, but serves the public good.

Plato, a Practical Inegalitarian

Plato’s Laws, with its proposal of a democratic assembly, is no surrender to egalitarianism. The lawmaker, Plato says emphatically, must not follow the mob but be their teacher. The law’s strictures will both educate the people and constrain their will within certain bounds. Plato urges the statesman to be bold in going against public opinion where necessary:

Of course, most people only ask their legislators to enact the kind of laws that the population in general will accept without objection. But just imagine asking your trainer or doctor to give you pleasure when he trains or cures your body! (684c)

Plato notably remarks that his suggestion that newlywed women not be confined to the home but have their own common meals—and thus also be educated and participate in the life of the city—would be particularly scorned by the average misogynistic Greek of his day. However, the philosopher and lawgiver must tell the truth: “the common man will find our policy … more difficult to swallow than ever. However, we should never shrink from speaking the truth as we see it, Clinias” (779e).

More generally, while most public officials and generals are to be democratically elected by the Assembly, these appointments should ideally be based on merit. Plato lists seven generally accepted claims to rule: that of parents over children, high birth over low, old over young, masters over slaves, strong over weak, the wise over the ignorant, and by lot, the latter referring to the largely defunct practice of democratic election by choosing a random citizen; Plato staffs most offices through a mixture of voting and the lot. Of these, Plato claims the rule of the wise over the ignorant is by far the most legitimate. While the poet Pindar of Thebes had claimed that the rule of the strong over the weak was a “decree of nature,” Plato writes this is only true in the animal kingdom:

The most important claim will be … that the ignorant man should follow the leadership of the wise and obey his orders. In spite of you, my clever Pindar, what I’d called the “decree of nature” is in fact the rule of law that governs willing subjects, without being imposed by force; I’m certainly not prepared to say it’s unnatural. (690b)

Plato then unabashedly affirms that the wisest should rule. To achieve this, there will however be “equality of opportunity” (744b), not to pursue equality as an end in itself, but to give honor and power to citizens in precise proportion to their worth: “the citizens must be esteemed and given office, so far as possible, on exactly equal terms of ‘proportional inequality’” (744c). For Plato, “practicable and appropriate duties should be specified for each individual,” including women (785b).

In Magnesia, one acquires the authority to rule the state by having served it well,

No one will ever make a commendable master without having been a servant first; one should be proud not so much of ruling well but of serving well—and serving the laws above all (because this is the way we serve the gods), and secondly, if we are young, those who are full of years and honor. It is vital that everyone should be convinced that this rule applies to us all. (762e)

As in the Republic or indeed in Aristotle’s Politics, Plato in the Laws engages in lengthy denunciation of egalitarianism, worth reprinting here:

You see, even if you proclaim that a master and his slave shall have equal status, friendship between them is inherently impossible. The same applies to the relations between an honest man and scoundrel. Indiscriminate equality for all amounts to inequality, and both fill a state with quarrels between its citizens. How correct the old saying is, that “equality leads to friendship”! … The general method I mean is to grant much to the great and less to the less great, adjusting what you give to take account of the real nature of each — specifically, to confer high recognition on great virtue, but when you come to the poorly educated in this respect, to treat them as they deserve. We maintain, in fact, that statesmanship consists of essentially this — strict justice. This is what we should be aiming at now, Clinias: this is the kind of “equality” we should concentrate on as we bring our state into the world. The founder of any other state should also concentrate on this same goal when he frames his laws, and take no notice of a bunch of dictators, or single one, or even the power of the people. He must always make justice his aim, and this is precisely as we’ve described it: it consists of granting the “equality” that unequals deserve to get. Yet on occasion a state as a whole (unless it is prepared to put up with a degree of friction in one part or another) will be obliged to apply these concepts in a rather rough and ready way, because complaisance and toleration, which always wreck complete precision, are the enemies of strict justice. You can now see why it was necessary to avoid the anger of the man in the street by giving him an equal chance in the lot (though even then we prayed to the gods of good luck to make the lot give the right decisions). So though force of circumstances compels us to employ both sorts of equality, we should employ the second, which demands good luck to prove successful, as little as possible. (756e–758a)

Thus, Plato’s concession to democracy is halfhearted and pragmatic. Giving each a near-equal say in government is a way of giving him a stake in the regime and of building social solidarity, but given the inequality of men in wisdom and virtue, this is necessarily also suboptimal.

Plato’s views on “pop culture” have also certainly not changed from Republic. He is emphatic: a society’s culture and values must not be determined by fickle and low tastes of a mob. At the risk of sounding coarse, this is also obviously suboptimal. Cultural aristocracy is paramount, with culture and values inspired by the society’s most enlightened members. Consider Plato’s denunciation of awarding prizes by popular majority:

For instance, the law now in force in Sicily and Italy, by truckling to the majority of the audience and deciding the winner by a show of hands, has had a disastrous effect on the authors themselves, who compose to gratify the depraved tastes of their judges; the result is that in effect they are taught by the audience. It has been equally disastrous for the quality of the pleasure felt by the spectators: they ought to come to experience more elevated pleasures from listening to the portrayal of characters invariably better than their own, but in fact just the opposite happens, and they have no one to thank but themselves. (659b–c)

In a similar way, I would add, politicians who seek to be crowd-pleasers inevitably worsen their own character to the level of their constituents. I can furthermore do no better than reproduce Plato’s scathing account of the rise of “theatrocracy”:

People of taste and education made it a rule to listen to the performance with silent attention right through to the end; children and their attendants and the general public could always be disciplined and controlled by a stick. Such was the rigor which the mass of the people was prepared to be controlled in the theater, and to refrain from passing judgment by shouting. Later, as time went on, composers arose who started to set a fashion of breaking the rules and offending good taste. They did have a natural artistic talent, but they were ignorant of the correct and legitimate standards laid down by the Muse. Gripped by a frenzied and excessive lust for pleasure, they jumbled together laments and hymns, mixed paeans and dithyrambs, and even imitated pipe tunes on the lyre. The result was a total confusion of styles. Unintentionally, in their idiotic way, they misrepresented their art, claiming that in music there are no standards of right and wrong at all, but that the most “correct” criterion is the pleasure of a man who enjoyed the performance, whether he is a good man or not. On these principles they based their compositions, and they accompanied them with propaganda to the same effect. Consequently they gave the ordinary man not only a taste for breaking the laws of music but the arrogance to set himself up as a capable judge. The audiences, once silent, began to use their tongues; they claimed to know what was good and bad music and instead of a “musical meritocracy,” a sort of vicious “theatrocracy” arose. But if this democracy had been limited to gentlemen and had applied only to music, no great harm would have been done; in the event, however, music proved to be the starting point of everyone’s conviction that he was an authority on everything, and of a general disregard for the law. Complete license was not far behind. The conviction that they knew made them unafraid, and assurance engendered effrontery. You see, a reckless lack of respect for one’s betters is effrontery of peculiar viciousness, which springs from a freedom from inhibitions that has gone much too far. (700c–701b)

This judgment may seem harsh,[1] but Plato does not believe anything should be done merely because it “feels good”; rather, it must serve the good in some way. For instance, good music is that which elevates the soul and unites the community. Plato writes elsewhere on the threat to the younger generations posed by those selling them sensual pleasures and ever-changing superficial novelties: “we must also stop pleasure-mongers seducing them” (798e). I personally believe the rise of modern pop culture shows that Plato’s concerns were completely justified: public culture in an optimal society simply cannot be determined by what feels pleasurable to the lowest members in their lowest moments. In the United States, there were strong controls on the content of Hollywood movies from the 1920s until the 1960s emanating from religious and patriotic organizations.[2]

I would note that Plato, while extremely prescriptive, he is not exactly a gratuitous “totalitarian.” Rather, one should legislate as needed, being more prescriptive when the people need it: “When the majority of people conduct themselves with moderation in sexual matters, no such regulations [concerning child-bearing] should be mentioned or enacted; but if there is misbehavior, regulations should be made and enforced” (785a). The more naturally gifted and virtuous one’s population, the less need there will be for coercive legislation to keep people on the straight and narrow.[3]

The Laws also clarifies the sometimes otherworldly ethics of the Republic. Plato believes selfishness is never justified, but conversely, he is realistic about the need for harshness to protect the common good. He says that tackling evil is impossible without “righteous indignation” (731c) and that “when you have to deal with complete and unmanageably vicious corruption, you must let your anger off its leash. That is why we say that it must be the good man’s duty to be high-spirited or gentle as circumstances require”[4] (731d). Furthermore, Plato spells out the paradoxical counterpoint to his advocacy of unconditional altruism in the Republic, the only thing to be done with the incurably antisocial is to put them down:

We may use absolutely any means to make him [the citizen] hate injustice and embrace true justice — or at any rate not hate it. But suppose the lawgiver finds a man who’s beyond cure — what legal penalty will he provide for this case? He will recognize that the best thing for all such people is to cease to live — best even for themselves. (862d–e)

And again:

[The legislator will] do his best to banish ignorance and incontinence and cowardice and indeed every sort of injustice from the hearts of those criminals whose outlook can be cured. However — and this is a point that deserves constant repetition — when a man’s soul is unalterably fixed in that condition by decree of fate, our erudite judges and their advisers will deserve the commendation of the whole state if they cure him by imposing the penalty of death. (958a)

Plato is however most different from Aristotle in the general spiritual tenor of the ideal society. For Aristotle, religion is scarcely mentioned, being virtually an afterthought. Not so for the heaven-grasping Plato. He takes seriously the traditional Greek and Socratic view that piety is adherence to law, and vice versa. The city-state of Magnesia is openly inspired by a god, its officials occasionally appeal to the oracles, and indeed atheists face persecution. For Plato, as for most in the Socratic tradition, there is a kind of transcendental equation: nature = the divine = reason. Plato wants us to forever strive to be god-like, to follow the law of the gods: “we should run our public and private life, our homes and our cities, in obedience to what little spark of immortality lies in us, and dignify these edicts of reason with the name of ‘law’” (714a).[5]

Plato simply cannot abide a life of randomness and frivolousness. He is, as ever, an enemy of slouching nihilists, relativists, and belly-chasers:

I maintain that serious matters deserve serious attention, but trivialities do not; that all men of good will should put god at the center of their thoughts; that man, as we said before, has been created as a toy for god; and that this is the great point in his favor. So every man and every woman should play this part and order their whole life accordingly, engaging in the best possible pastimes — in a quite different frame of mind to their present one. (803c)

Plato elsewhere excoriates “all idle and thoughtless bons vivants . . . just the kind of people the poet [Hesiod] said were ‘like nothing so much as stingless drones’” (901a).

Plato wishes us to live by reason and walk with god, forever, to be as eternal as the stars. Particularly relevant to us in this respect, and quite rare for mystics, is Plato’s emphatic emphasis on the duty of reproduction. He provides the following preamble to a law requiring citizens to have children:

A man must marry between the ages of thirty and thirty-five, reflecting that there is a sense in which nature has not only somehow endowed the human race with a degree of immortality, but also planted in us all a longing to achieve it, which we express in every way we can. One expression of that longing is the desire for fame and the wish not to lie nameless in the grave. Thus mankind is by nature a companion of eternity, and is linked to it, and will be linked to it, forever. Mankind is immortal because it always leaves later generations behind to preserve its unity and identity for all time: it gets its share of immortality by means of procreation. It is never a holy thing to voluntarily deny oneself this prize, and he who neglected to take a wife and have children does precisely that. (721b-d)

I must say the phrase strongly resonates with me personally: each of us is “by nature a companion of eternity.”

[1] Whenever I look come across the vulgarity and childishness pop culture or pseudo-highbrow culture today, whether in the latest music video targeting young teenagers or in the pages of the New York Times, I think: Plato was right. Obviously, I am not unaware of the role of Jewish ethnic nepotism and activism in the production of this “culture,” however, the fact is they also find willing audiences among gentiles.

[2] The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America was established in 1922 in response to movements in over thirty state legislatures to enact strict censorship laws. Later the Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph I. Breen, was launched in response to a campaign by the Catholic National Legion of Decency.

[3] Which perhaps explains the extreme severity of Sharia?

[4] Perhaps a prefiguring of Aristotle’s famous doctrine of the mean.

[5]A pious sentiment which, I believe, also moved William Pierce.

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