The Laws: Plato’s Sacred Ethnostate, Part 4: Greek Unity and the Federation against Barbarians

Greeks vs. Persians

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Greek Unity: Federation against Barbarians

Beyond the family and city-state, the third concentric circle of kinship and loyalty is that of the league of cities or indeed the Greek nation itself. In the Republic, Plato had argued that Greeks should be gentle with one another on account of their shared blood, limiting their engagement in all-out warfare and enslavement to conflicts with barbarians. In the Laws, Plato returns to this theme, praising the federation of Greek city-states against foreign invasion.

After the family, the collection of families, and the city-state “being founded in succession over a vast period,” finally “we discover this fourth state” (683a), the generally loose and fractious leagues or confederations of Greek city-states as a potentially even higher form of social organization.

Plato discusses the mythical history of three city-states founded by the descendants of Hercules — Sparta, Argos, and Messene — which had together formed the Dorian League. The confederation was meant to protect not just themselves but the Greek nation itself:

Well then, it’s pretty obvious that they intended the arrangements they made to protect adequately not only the Peloponnese but the Greeks in general against any possible attack by non-Greeks — as for example occurred when those who then lived in the territory of Ilium trusted to the power of the Assyrian empire, which Ninos had founded, and provoked the war against Troy by their arrogance. You see, a good deal of the splendor of the Assyrian empire still remained, and the dread of its united organization was the counterpart in that age of our fear of the Great King of Persia today. Troy, which was part of the Assyrian empire, had been captured a second time [as recounted in the Iliad]. To meet such dangers the Dorian army formed a single unified body, although at that period it was distributed among the three states under the command of the kings (who were brothers, being sons of Hercules). (685b–d)

Plato laments however that the Dorian League was short-lived, despite the fact that all three cities were ruled by brothers: “if they had done as they intended and had agreed a common policy, their power would have been irresistible, militarily speaking” (686b).

Both Argos and Messene degenerated, Plato says, while only Sparta maintained itself through the inspired law of Lycurgus, which combined a mixed monarchic-oligarchic-democratic regime with extremely tough legislation aimed towards training the Spartiates for unity and warfare. Had Argos and Messene avoided luxury and decadence, and had the three cities been united, Plato suggests the Persian Wars would have been avoided:

But if anyone . . . had been able to control the various offices and produce a single authority out of the three [city-states], he would have saved all the splendid projects of that age from destruction, and neither the Persians nor anyone else would have sent a fleet to attack Greece, contemptuously supposing that we were people who counted for little. (692c)

Plato then portrays the Dorian League as a marvelous but wasted institution, which fell apart because of the bad laws of Argos and Messene. The failure to maintain the unity of these three states and to protect Greece against foreign aggression informs and frames the entire rest of the discussion in the Laws. The Greeks, Plato suggests, must learn from these mistakes. The Persian Wars, we recall, had almost led to the annihilation of the Greek people through universal miscegenation:

If it hadn’t been for the joint determination of the Athenians and the Spartans to resist the slavery that threatened them, we should have by now virtually a complete mixture of the races – Greek with Greek, Greek with barbarian, and barbarian with Greek. We can see a parallel in the nations whom the Persians lord it over today: they have been split up and then horribly jumbled together again into the scattered communities in which they now live. (693a)

This was no idle threat, Herodotus tells how the deportation and scattering en masse of entire tribes was a common way for the Persians to permanently eliminate national resistance. The first prerequisite for anything was to maintain the existence of one’s people. Plato furthermore says that a sense of shame was what motivated the Athenians to resist even after their city was occupied, without “Lady Modesty”: “they would never have combined to defend themselves or protect temples, tombs, fatherlands, and friends and relatives as well, in the way that they did. We would all have been split up and scattered over the face of the earth” (699c–d).

There is evidence that Plato promoted solidarity among Greek city-states not just in his philosophical works, but also in his political activities advising statesmen. In the so-called Seventh Letter, which most scholars consider authentic, Plato says that a wise leader would have instituted good laws and ruled generously, inviting people from all Greece to resettle the island, uniting its cities and expelling the Carthaginians:

If he [Dionysius, then new tyrant of Syracuse] should resettle the deserted cities of Sicily, and bind them together with such laws and constitutions as would make them friendly to himself and to one another and a mutual help against the barbarians, he would have an empire not twice but actually many times as powerful as his father’s had been; he would be ready to inflict upon the Carthaginians a far heavier defeat than they had suffered in the days of Gelon . . . (Seventh Letter, 332e–333a)

[If Dion had  lived] he would have turned with ardor to the next task, that of resettling all Sicily and liberating her from the barbarians, driving out some of them and subjugating others” ( 336a)

Summon others to help you in resettling all Sicily and equalizing her laws [i.e. giving the same constitution to each city]. Summon them not only from Sicily herself, but from the whole of the Peloponnese . . . (336d)

Thus, according to the Seventh Letter, Plato did not just speculate about Greek unity in the face of barbarians, but actively worked towards this in his political life.

The Yugoslav scholar Slobodan Dušanić argues on the basis of this and other passages in Plato’s works that the philosopher was deeply interested in the question of confederalism between city-states, that is to say of limited political unity on grounds of kinship and alliance against external threats. Dušanić argues that Plato engaged with “that epoch’s patriotic federalism,” was moved by “his barbarophobia and laconophilia,” and endorsed as “just wars” all “pan-Hellenic defensive actions against the attacks of foreign nations.”[1]

The failures and successes of the historic Greek leagues are still of some interest to us today, given that a single European Empire is unlikely to emerge and that, at best, we may see the emergence of different European ethnostates, which may either come into conflict or cooperate and enjoy various degrees of confederal unity. The problems of confederalism and divided sovereignty indeed bedeviled the antebellum United States and continues as an issue in the European Union to this day.

Dušanić suggests that Plato argued for confederal unity among Greek cities by their having the same basic law, or isonomia. In his account of the Heraclids, Plato says the unity of the Dorian League — all ruled by monarch brothers — was meant to be maintained by kings and peoples who exchanged “oaths in accordance with mutually binding laws which they had to adopted to regulate the exercise of authority and obedience to it.” The people swears loyalty to the king if he does not expand his power. Plato suggests an original model for ensuring the maintenance of the law: “Whenever a given state broke the established laws, an alliance of the other two would always be there to take the field against it” (684a–c).[2]

In the Laws and the Seventh Letter, Plato confirms his argument in the Republic: that states related by kinship and culture owe solidarity to one another. He goes further however, asserting that such kin states must not only be gentle with one another, but should naturally be allied and perhaps have a degree of political unity against external aggression. The enlightened members of an alliance, furthermore, could have a duty to enforce such norms on decadent members. While admitting that fully-fledged political nationalism is a product of the modern era,[3] born of the combination of our in-born tribal instincts and mass communication technologies, the fact is that many Greeks in the ancient world, Plato included, were also moved by a sense of pan-Hellenic patriotism beyond their city-state. If we follow Dušanić in claiming that Plato was arguing for the unity of Greek city-states against barbarians by sharing constitutions inspired by the Laws, with its clear ethnopolitical principles founded on kinship and reproduction, we may even say that Plato was proposing a group evolutionary strategy for the Greek peoples.

Conclusion: Plato, an Ethnocentric Cosmopolitan

Plato was evidently moved by a great sense of piety and feeling of that the universe was imbued with meaning. He happily quoted Thales on the wonder of existence: “everything is full of gods” (899b). Influenced by the disciples of Pythagoras, Plato argued for the study of astronomy and mathematics, in order to understand the elegant harmonies and eternal laws of the cosmos. He believed the reason in men was a small spark of that overarching divine harmony, and that we should seek to live in accordance with it. Unfortunately, Plato laments most Greeks of his day did not the basics of geometry or astronomy: “I blushed not only for myself, but for Greeks in general” (819e).

Prefiguring an idea later taken up the Stoics, Plato asserts there is a kind of a cosmic citizenship. Each of us is “a mere speck” with a duty to promote the well-being of the cosmos: “you exist for the sake of the universe” (903c). There is an idea of cosmic eudaimonia or flourishing, by the mystical equation of nature, reason, and the divine. This however did not imply a naïve rootless cosmopolitanism or undiscerning unreciprocated universal “altruism.” Mankind should be elevated towards wisdom and virtue, which are indeed universal. But for Plato, virtuous solidarity was impossible without kinship and virtue in general meant recognizing human inequality.

Hence we have the ideal Greek city-state as a particularistic, ethnocentric, and aristocratic polity: led and educated by the best, founded on filial piety as the fundamental to social order, excluding inferior elements, the reproduction and biological quality of the citizenry, and allying itself with kin-states to defend the wider Greek nation against barbarians.

Plato observes on the need to work with nature in all things:

If there are in fact some techniques that produce worthwhile results, they are those that cooperate with nature, like medicine and farming and physical training. This school of thought maintains that government, in particular, has very little to do with nature, and is largely a matter of art; similarly legislation is never a natural process but is based on technique, and its enactments are quite artificial. (889d–e)

And what, we may ask, is more natural in this world of struggling life than the embrace of one’s kin? What is more fundamental to our existence than the laws of heredity?

I would certainly not endorse all that is said in the Laws. For us moderns, living in a world which is constantly changing, not least under the constantly transformative influence of new technologies, the notion of a perfect, unchanging basic law appropriate to all circumstances can seem quaint. We can fault Plato with hubris in believing that, by pure reason, a lawmaker could or should even try to dictate such a perfect law at a particular time that will hold up for ages. Even Sparta eventually became exhausted. Ezra Pound warned his readers against being blinded by Plato’s “purple prose.”

A powerful and provocative critique of Plato is found in Nietzsche, who faults him for seeking to domesticate mankind, stunting his impulses in favor of a tyrannical “virtue” imposed by the legislator. The grandeur and misery of Platonic politics is perhaps best summed up by two of Nietzsche’s bons mots: “Christianity is Platonism for the people” and “Mohammed was a Plato who succeeded.” In this reading, the realization of Plato’s ambitions can only lead to an oppressive stagnation and vicious frustration. There is clearly some truth to these, in the sense that both Christianity and Islam drew on elements of Plato’s thought, namely the divinely-sanctioned authoritarianism. Perhaps Plato did not always follow his own advice when he wrote: “A first-class lawgiver’s job is to have a sense of proportion” (691d). I would however, also stress that neither Christianity nor Islam embraced some critical aspects of Plato’s thought: the practice of citizenship, natural inequality (at least for Christianity), ethnocentric politics, and eugenics. His ideal man is a philosophical athlete, not a penitent monk.

One should resist a simplistic and humorless reading of Plato. His dialogues are essays. They play with radical ideas and are meant to be thought-provoking, not dogmatically prescribe. In the Laws, Plato himself jokes that drafting paper-polities is a game of old age: “Like children, we old men love a bit of make-believe” (712b). There is also a memorable passage, on purging the state of subversive poets, in which Plato claims that the lawgiver is also an artist:

What about tragedians? We tell them: We are political artists! We tell these geniuses: “Most honored guests, we’re tragedians ourselves, and our tragedy is the finest and best we can create. At any rate, our entire state has been constructed so as to be a ‘representation’ of the finest and noblest life.”  (817c)

Perfect law could be instituted by a supremely enlightened dictator, advised by a good philosopher, but Plato admits this is unlikely, though perhaps not impossible on a long enough time scale.

While Plato’s Laws aims to be timeless, in practice, there is a willingness to experiment in order to steadily improve one’s laws. If a state has bad laws, Plato says the solution is the establishment of a new state through revolution, war, or emigration:

Rather than have the state tolerate the yoke of slavery and be ruled by unworthy hands, it may be absolutely necessary to allow it to be destroyed, or abandon it by going into exile. All that sort of hardship we simply have to endure rather than permit a chance to the sort of political system which will make men worse. (770e)

In a corrupt old state unfortunately, politicians are often reduced to muddling through: “The only policy left them is to mouth pious hopes and make a little cautious progress over a long period by advancing a step at a time” (736d).

Plato does allow for some limited possibilities of reform. The Guardians of the Laws may draft proposals which — if approved by the Assembly, all major officials, and the oracles — will amend the basic law. This is a very significant burden, meant to inspire awe in the law and not make it a frivolous thing. Plato furthermore prescribes that the Magnesian regime would send out wise men to investigate other states and report any good customs or laws they have: “In the mass of mankind you’ll invariably find a number — though only a small number — of geniuses with whom it is worth anything to associate,” (951b) and these may live in poorly governed foreign states too.

In the Laws’ final books, Plato introduces a mysterious Nocturnal Council made up of the highest officials and promising young men, who would philosophize from dusk till dawn. The Nocturnal Council would apparently be empowered to reform the state, something which has puzzled interpreters ever since, being in apparent contradiction with the previous emphasis on the rule of law. Perhaps this is due to the unfinished nature of the Laws.

Ultimately, Plato seems to have been skeptical of the very notion of reform. There is something both tragic and realistic about this. In one sense, can a defective regime ever really heal itself? In such instances, there may be no alternative to a refounding through war or revolution. In any event, Plato is working within the historical practice of Greek city-states: the best regimes are established by semi-mythical lawmakers in hallowed and mysterious antiquity. (In much the same way, I should add, as the American Founding Fathers are revered and created a basic law meant to constrain tyrannical and democratic impulses, and educate the citizenry in a certain ethos.)

Morrow writes that the Laws were meant above all as a practical work, reflecting the fact that Plato and his Academy were often involved in practical politics and the legislation of new cities. The treatise was his final attempt, in old age, to save his people:

It is not a Hellenic city in general that Plato draws for us, but an idealized Athens.  [. . .] It is the Athens of an earlier time, lifted from the past, but equipped with many of the inventions in law and politics that characterized the sophisticated century in which Plato wrote, that he makes into a model for the legislators of Athens and other Greek cities-to follow.
The Laws then is clearly a message prepared for Plato’s own age and for his own people, a message delivered too late to have the effect that Plato doubtless hoped it would have.[4]

Plato clearly meant his Laws as an inspiration to generations to come. If exhorts the lawgivers of the future:

Colleagues and protectors of our laws, we shall–inevitably—leave a great many gaps in every section of our code. However, we shall certainly take care to outline a sort of sketch of the complete system with its main points, and it will be your job to take this sketch and fill in the details. You ought to hear what your aims should be when you do this. (770c)

In the Greek political experience, there is much food for thought for us as their spiritual descendants in the twenty-first century. From him, I take an awareness that there is no contradiction between a communitarian, aristocratic, and eugenics ethos and the uniquely Western ideals of citizenship and the rule of law.

Personally, I am impressed and touched above all by Plato’s emphatic insistence that we must tell the truth as we see it, no matter how apparently unpalatable or unpopular or radical. He says that we should not “honor our own ego rather than the truth” and “every man must steer clear of extreme love of himself, and be loyal to his superior instead” (732a-b). I am also sensitive to Plato’s piety. It is this piety which makes him a vehement enemy of nihilism and relativism. Plato cannot abide the general slouching into egalitarianism, individualism, and frivolousness. Plato offers us the psychological place where the enlightened may find the self-confidence and intensity to assert themselves, to both live a life full of meaning, but also find the strength to dare to lift up our own societies ethically and culturally. I sense this same piety in the thoughts and actions of the best of our people throughout the ages.

I am also struck at the enduring relevance of so many aspects of Greek politics and Plato’s Laws. That we must live piously in accord with nature, reason, and the divine. For Plato, this means loving our family and nation as kin, ensuring cultural aristocracy and good breeding, and living life seriously. This also means perpetuating our line and serving our community. That is Plato’s “rooted cosmopolitanism.” With Plato, blood and spirit are in serene harmony, and I dare say we are indeed “partners in eternity.”

[1] Slobodan Dušanić, “Plato’s Projects for a Confederate Sicily and the Constitutional Patterns in the Third Book of the Laws,” Aevum (2010, 1), pp. 61, 66, 67. Dušanić cites other evidence that Plato was interested in confederalism, such as the portrayal of the mythical continent of Atlantis in the Critias as a confederation of monarchic city-states.

[2] A possible analogy in today’s context: a league of European ethnostates could be empowered to invade and enforce any European member state who began undermining the ethnic-genetic interests of the European peoples, such as by allowing displacement-level Third World immigration.

[3] The Marxoids are correct in claiming that fully-fledged political nationalism is a modern political phenomenon. They are wrong however in adding that this means that national identity and nationalism are largely “socially constructed” or even manufactured by elites. On the contrary, modern nationalism is born of the combination of an in-born tribal instinct going back at least to prehistoric times — obviously being an enormously powerful psychological mechanism attempting to distinguish kin from non-kin in the struggle for survival — and modern communications technologies enabling mass politics across large territories. Furthermore, if nationalism only expresses itself fully with modern technologies, it is obvious that it depends upon an underlying more-or-less dormant national identity, typically defined by language and kinship.  (This is where the Marxoid claim breaks down: if national identity were purely constructed, then it would be easy for political elites to unite multilingual and multiracial populations into a single identity, whereas in fact they always fail in this).

[4]Morrow, Plato’s Cretan City, p. 592.

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