Plato's Laws II, 1

The part I elided over in the first book returns strongly in the opening of the second book:  the importance of drinking, singing, and dancing to good education. In Book I the Spartan in particular was worried that allowing pleasure would weaken (cf. this contemporary concern about virtue and pleasure). The Athenian defended the idea that communal pleasures are of moral significance. 

But they must be the right kind of pleasures; it is not just good that you should drink and sing and dance, but that you should drink and sing and dance well. Not all dances, or songs, are equally ordered to virtue. Some are better than others:

Ath. There are others, again, whose natures are right and their habits wrong, or whose habits are right and their natures wrong, and they praise one thing, but are pleased at another. For they say that all these imitations are pleasant, but not good. And in the presence of those whom they think wise, they are ashamed of dancing and singing in the baser manner, or of deliberately lending any countenance to such proceedings; and yet, they have a secret pleasure in them.

Cle. Very true.
Ath. And is any harm done to the lover of vicious dances or songs, or any good done to the approver of the opposite sort of pleasure?

Cle. I think that there is.
Ath. "I think" is not the word, but I would say, rather, "I am certain." For must they not have the same effect as when a man associates with bad characters, whom he likes and approves rather than dislikes, and only censures playfully because he has a suspicion of his own badness? In that case, he who takes pleasure in them will surely become like those in whom he takes pleasure, even though he be ashamed to praise them. And what greater good or evil can any destiny ever make us undergo?

Cle. I know of none.
Ath. Then in a city which has good laws, or in future ages is to have them, bearing in mind the instruction and amusement which are given by music, can we suppose that the poets are to be allowed to teach in the dance anything which they themselves like, in the way of rhythm, or melody, or words, to the young children of any well-conditioned parents? Is the poet to train his choruses as he pleases, without reference to virtue or vice?

Cle. That is surely quite unreasonable, and is not to be thought of.
Ath. And yet he may do this in almost any state with the exception of Egypt.

Here we have a very conservative case being made against the First Amendment, as it were. Who can deny that music is much degraded in our age, compared with (say) the 1960-70s? There are very rational reasons to believe it.

Those are concerns that might bother Apollo, certainly Athena; there are perhaps base moral concerns as well, which are more the prerogative of Zeus. Of course we don't think of Zeus as especially moral, reading the Greek legends; but the Greeks did. This is one of Plato's concerns in the Republic, you may recall:  the poets keep telling scandalous stories about the god who is supposed to root justice. They must be stopped!

So here is another important question where we differ -- in our devotion to free speech and free expression -- from Plato. Are we right? Well, it was free speech and free expression that got us the flowering of the 1960s-1970s, too. Something has gone wrong, but it isn't necessarily freedom that has done so. What, then, is it? 


Joel Leggett said...

It isn’t due to freedom per se, but it is due to cultural decay which, on one level, is connected to freedom. Our society has voluntarily chosen to go in a certain direction and that has ramifications across the culture. For instance, our society has become increasingly risk averse and committed to safety, comfort, and convenience. The results of this can be seen in several phenomena, such as a significant drop off in motorcycle sales for all bike producers, the ever deceasing numbers of people that hunt, and the rise in numbers of young adults that never leave home. I also believe this is one reason rock & roll has become increasingly less popular. That is a genre of music that traditionally has promoted themes of independence, risk taking, and rebellion. Such themes will not appeal to a largely sedentary culture that prioritizes comfort and safety. To such a society, mass produced pop music with themes focusing on self-esteem and gratification will dominate. In short, as we get weaker so does our music.

Christopher B said...

To Joel's point about rock

Eric Blair said...

I'm old enough to remember when "Rock n' Roll" was considered cultural decay.


Eric Blair said...

But I'm also not sure that Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus are encompassing representatives of the age. In fact, I'm going to assert that they are not. They are really no different from any of the manufactured groups of the 50's, 60's and 70's. Popular music comes and goes, It's not like anyone here listens to the popular music of the 1920's or the 1880's or the like anymore. You couldn't even name a song from the 1880's without doing some research, never mind much earlier, and only through the repeated viewing and or listening of existing media from later do you know of any of that. The technology is largely driving this now, allowing/enabling a fragmentation of artists that was never possible before. It's certainly different. Is it decay? I dunno. Joel has an interesting point about seeking safety, comfort and convienence, but that's everybody through the ages.

Grim said...

“I'm old enough to remember when "Rock n' Roll" was considered cultural decay.”

Indeed, at one point they took pride in it! It’s at least as old as Woodstock, but I always think of Twisted Sister’s “We're not gonna take it.” It’s a muscular rejection of everything except personal strength and rebellion. Women’s clothes and makeup, but still terrifying the stiffs.

Plato surely would reject that approach, but it’s true that it’s not about comfort or safety. It can train courage and resilience, which are virtues; and in spite of the symbolic adoption of feminine markings, it’s not effeminate in the sense of being unwilling to leave pleasant things for dangerous ones.

Grim said...

I also note that Plato — here as elsewhere — is really interested in art’s role in education. But here he is also interested in conviviality and drinking/feasting as crucial to the proper education of a virtuous citizen. It’s something we should do, in the right way, together.

MikeD said...

I don't care much for the argument. It smacks of the Muslim argument against allowing blasphemy against Mohammed. A good case can be made that allowing blasphemy is against "the public good". But at the same time, I distrust anyone (regardless of religious or political stripe) who advocates restricting the freedom of others "for the public good". Why? Because once we agree in principle that freedom must be sacrificed "for the public good", wicked men (and women, of course) will use that power we've granted the government to achieve their own ends. See, as an example, countries that are criminalizing so called "hate speech". Surely, they argue, allowing hateful speech is against the public good. And I'm also certain many segments would love to categorize pro-Western, pro-Christian, or pro-Conservative speech as "hate speech". Do you doubt it? In 2020?

If we give the government censorious power over us, we WILL end up regretting it, regardless of how high minded or noble our reasons for doing so in the first place. Yes, it allows fools, scoundrels, and the wicked the opportunity to spread their influence. But it is the job of the wise, the just, and the righteous to oppose them by spreading their influence (i.e. the answer for bad speech is more speech) rather than appeal to an authority to silence those they oppose. For once you grant such a power, it WILL eventually be turned to wicked purpose.

Grim said...

Good. One of the reasons to do this is to come to know Plato, and to get comfortable both understanding and critiquing his arguments.

In some ways Plato is my favorite philosopher because all his work is structured around inviting you to the discussion. These are dialogues between thinking people, not dictates from on high. Socrates would talk to anyone, and Plato brings that out. Everyone should engage in this kind of discussion.

Now, while I’m trying in my commentary to show some places where his thought is incompatible with ours, I do want to be clear that we have some pragmatic advantages. Plato is recommending what we can recognize as a totalitarian system. He never saw one try to operate, but we know how that story goes. So he’s not recommending something he ought to know will be harmful; he thinks it could work.

These arguments are very similar to the progressive ones you’ll encounter today. They also think it would make sense to try to order every aspect of society to encourage us to behave; compel us if necessary, but mostly only if we won’t be encouraged. Sharpening your understanding of what Plato wanted will sharpen your edge there, too.

And it might even point up some areas of common ground. Every now and then, you may find you agree with Plato. Perhaps those are areas where you might find agreement with contemporary opponents too.

Tom said...

Wasn't Socrates condemned to die for corrupting the youth? I guess he wasn't corrupting them with blasphemous poetry.

Grim said...

Yes, that is correct. It was in part because Socrates called into question whether Zeus and the other gods were really fit moral actors, or an appropriate source for moral values given their reputed behavior. Plato's description of this makes Socrates sound like he was chiding the poets for being blasphemous, rather than the gods for being immoral.

This points to a basic problem for Plato, who needs to re-explain Socrates to the Athenians in a way that will make them adopt his project of philosophical examination. I wrote my Master's Thesis on that topic.

ymarsakar said...

Trying to re explain Socrates is like trying to explain ymar.

It's a hard task I don't envy them.

ymarsakar said...

Also J anime is already doing what Plato envisions. It just took forever.

Tom said...

Interesting, Grim. Does Plato present 2 different accounts of the reasons for Socrates death? Or does he just do some clarification?

And I'm just curious, briefly, how he re-explained it, if you have time to say something about that.

Grim said...

So, the 're-explanation' I mean is that Plato wrote all these dialogues. The Athenians already had an explanation in mind, because they'd killed Socrates themselves. It was an exercise in direct democracy. They thought they knew what Socrates was about, what they thought he did wrong, and what to think of this philosophy business.

What I think Plato did was that he explained philosophy in his dialogues in a new way. He explained it as a heroic undertaking. He did this, my thesis argued, by regular reference to Odysseus -- a hero who was famous for his wit and guile, and whose name means "Troublemaker" or something close to that. Socrates was a troublemaker, but not a bad one: a hero, like Odysseus, engaged in a struggle for truth and deeper understanding.

You can see Socrates likened to Odysseus in many places in Plato's works, but never more clearly than in what we call the "Lesser Hippias," or "Hippias Minor." The suggestion that this dialogue is less important than the other dialogue built around Socrates and Hippias ("Hippias Major") is our own, not Plato's. Most philosophers who treat it take it as an unimportant piece, built around a mere reductio ad absurdum.

I don't think that's the right reading of it. That dialogue is the one in which Socrates takes the position that Odysseus is a greater hero than Achilles. In this position he is fully aligned with Odysseus, and explaining why the Odyssean approach is even more fully heroic than the one that the Greeks tended to think as the most heroic of all. Socrates proves Odysseus to be the greater, more capable hero; and thus he proves himself, as an Odyssean figure, to be greater and more capable than those who seem conventionally stronger.

He also proves that philosophy is a kind of duel, and that it is a kind of duel that Odysseus or Socrates might win. Philosophy is suddenly no longer about corruption of the youth, and instead about heroic dueling with Truth itself as the prize.

And thus Plato and his Academy survived, and trained Aristotle who taught Alexander the Great. We still today study all this because the Greeks bought the explanation, and came to see Socrates as a kind of hero, and philosophy as a heroic pursuit.