Laws IV, 2

We will not get much farther into Book IV today, as Plato brings up and then disposes of quickly two titanic subjects. The first is immigration, and the difficulty of diversity; the second, the effect of fate on constitutions.

The first subject arises because the Athenian wants to know from whence the population of the new colony is coming. He then gives a general set of remarks on the subject of the difficulties of trying to forge a new colony either of a homogeneous or a diverse population. Each has its challenges, he says:

Ath. Cities find colonization in some respects easier if the colonists are one race, which like a swarm of bees is sent out from a single country, either when friends leave friends, owing to some pressure of population or other similar necessity, or when a portion of a state is driven by factions to emigrate. And there have been whole cities which have taken flight when utterly conquered by a superior power in war. This, however, which is in one way an advantage to the colonist or legislator, in another point of view creates a difficulty. There is an element of friendship in the community of race, and language, and language, and laws, and in common temples and rites of worship; but colonies which are of this homogeneous sort are apt to kick against any laws or any form of constitution differing from that which they had at home; and although the badness of their own laws may have been the cause of the factions which prevailed among them, yet from the force of habit they would fain preserve the very customs which were their ruin, and the leader of the colony, who is their legislator, finds them troublesome and rebellious. On the other hand, the conflux of several populations might be more disposed to listen to new laws; but then, to make them combine and pull together, as they say of horses, is a most difficult task, and the work of years. And yet there is nothing which tends more to the improvement of mankind than legislation and colonization.

We can see plenty in American history to sustain these opinions for our own nation. The early colonies tended to be ordered around a particular faction that came of its own accord, with a homogenous view of life. These sometimes had trouble adapting to the harsher conditions of the new land, until they finally managed to overcome their convictions and adapt. The Plymouth colony famously had a religiously-inspired socialism at their root that failed them terribly; they were saved by the introduction of anti-socialist reforms. 

Likewise you have the story of ancient hatreds from the Old Country surviving for a time in the New World, until it became clear that they were no longer valuable. Even among those driven to emigration by destitution, pride in 'where one came from' was one of the last sources of personal meaning. It took a while for people to realize that it was not worth much in the new country, and to abandon it in favor of learning a new way of life that was functional.

Plato uses a nice metaphor for this process, that of two horses who have both been traced to the same chariot learning to breathe together as they run. As long as they fight the new conditions, and struggle against learning to work together, they will have a more difficult time of it. When they get it together, though, the work will go more smoothly for everyone.

We use 'the melting pot' for the same idea, a metaphor from cooking. Things that were quite different when they were put into the pot meld together into something that is -- hopefully! -- tastier and better than the two different things were alone. You can imagine a rich fondue as the ideal, but the truth is that the products are more like a stew: one recognizes that this element is a carrot and that one a piece of meat, but they have taken on each other's character to some degree and been joined in a broth that provides a savory harmony to each and to both.

We are far enough along in our own project that the initial failings of the homogeneous have been worked out, and many of the new additions have already successfully learned to breathe with the team. Others are still learning, but the process is ongoing in spite of ideological efforts to discredit it. The reason is Plato's reason:  it is a pragmatic reason. Things get easier as we learn to live and work together. They get easier for everyone. Whatever values or resentments you hold against the idea are expensive: you must literally pay for them, in your own life and in the extra difficulties they cause you. A particularly devout man might pay for his values, or resentments, but over time simple economy causes most of us to dispose of them. 

There is much, much more to be said about this, but I will leave it for you to say in the comments if you like.

The second huge idea is the effect of fate on human intentions. This rises naturally from the discussion of how hard it is to transplant homogeneous ideas from one area to an area of different physical conditions. How much do we really legislate, the Athenian wonders? How much are we not planning our political ideals, but just admitting to the necessities that reality is forcing upon us?

Ath. My good friend, I am afraid that the course of my speculations is leading me to say something depreciatory of legislators; but if the word be to the purpose, there can be no harm. And yet, why am I disquieted, for I believe that the same principle applies equally to all human things?

Cle. To what are you referring?

Ath. I was going to say that man never legislates, but accidents of all sorts, which legislate for us in all sorts of ways. The violence of war and the hard necessity of poverty are constantly overturning governments and changing laws. And the power of disease has often caused innovations in the state, when there have been pestilences, or when there has been a succession of bad seasons continuing during many years. Any one who sees all this, naturally rushes to the conclusion of which I was speaking, that no mortal legislates in anything, but that in human affairs chance is almost everything. And this may be said of the arts of the sailor, and the pilot, and the physician, and the general, and may seem to be well said; and yet there is another thing which may be said with equal truth of all of them.

Cle. What is it?

Ath. That God governs all things, and that chance and opportunity co-operate with him in the government of human affairs. There is, however, a third and less extreme view, that art should be there also; for I should say that in a storm there must surely be a great advantage in having the aid of the pilot's art. 

"That God governs all things" is the Jowett translation, which is 19th century. He was an Anglican, and not the only one to shoehorn Greek theology into Christian wording. He doesn't have to go far, though, because the original Greek is "θεός," that is, "Deus," which for a long time now has been given in Latin as "God" in English. It had a somewhat different usage in classical Latin. This is from scroll 709b, if you want to look at it yourself.

This is a point of great importance at the moment: we ourselves are struggling to find a way to reinforce our constitution against the winds brought by a disease and our fellow citizens' adaptations to it. Our constitution provides for unfettered free expression of religion; our governors ban church services. Our constitution calls for most powers to be divided among the state governments; yet such diversity of planning and legislation proves to be inefficient as a way of responding to a disease, though it does tend to give us opportunities to test which of the legislated ideas were really effective. Governors assume heretofore-unknown powers to close businesses or to forbid you purchasing seed to grow food. Mail-in-voting schemes may be adopted unconstitutionally in order to minimize disease spread; should they be accepted in view of public health, or set aside in view of the constitutional order? Are these temporary changes, or permanent ones?

Wars have also brought major changes to our constitutional order, especially but not only the Civil War. Immigration likewise was behind major constitutional changes: at a minimum the 18th and 19th Amendments were about making America less attractive to immigrants and diluting the power of mostly-male immigrants respectively. It is very likely that, absent circumstances in Europe that led to the flight of millions of migrants, we would never have had Prohibition or women's suffrage. These things are, then, accidents rather than the careful products of our legislation -- but we have come to think of the former as a ridiculous mistake, but the latter as a fulfillment of principles embedded in the work of earlier legislators, rather than an accidental product of pressures no one planned to endure.

The Athenian invokes this big idea briefly in order to bring the discussion back around to the skill of the navigator, who in our analog is the legislator. Constitutional changes may be products of necessity, but they can be made skillfully or not. That will be the subject of the next section.


Christopher B said...

...although the badness of their own laws may have been the cause of the factions which prevailed among them, yet from the force of habit they would fain preserve the very customs which were their ruin, and the leader of the colony, who is their legislator, finds them troublesome and rebellious.

I know The Athenian is talking about colonies but that's certainly a foreshadow of the now well-known problem of transplants bringing dysfunctional government and social structures with them as they seek to escape an area despoiled by those same disfunctions.

Grim said...

Well, it is like the earlier analogy to a contest involving disparate things like puppet shows, equestrian events, and poetics. Yes, he's talking about a colony. But the colony is just a way of talking about everything. Immigration poses challenges to established states in a similar way; and the massive changes posed by disease or war, mentioned later, are rather like colonists moving to a whole new environment and trying to make the old ways work there. The world changed out from under you, instead of you picking up and moving, but it's a different world now all the same.