Plato's Laws II, 3

There are at least two more issues worth commentary in this book. The second of those two is the regulation of drinking, about which the concluding remarks are concerned. You end up with something like Prohibition except for mandatory social drinking for approved ends. That's sort of the worst of both worlds, there.

The first is a kind of artistic censorship.

Ath. [I]f I were a lawgiver, I would try to make the poets and all the citizens speak in this strain, and I would inflict the heaviest penalties on any one in all the land who should dare to say that there are bad men who lead pleasant lives, or that the profitable and gainful is one thing, and the just another... For tell me, my good friends, by Zeus and Apollo tell me, if I were to ask these same Gods who were your legislators-Is not the most just life also the pleasantest? or are there two lives, one of which is the justest and the other the pleasantest?-and they were to reply that there are two; and thereupon I proceeded to ask, (that would be the right way of pursuing the enquiry), Which are the happier-those who lead the justest, or those who lead the pleasantest life? and they replied, Those who lead the pleasantest-that would be a very strange answer, which I should not like to put into the mouth of the Gods. 

There's a great deal more by way of argument about why this is philosophically correct. I'm going to stick to a different question, which is whether it is or is not good art -- good both in the sense of making interesting art, art that is true to the world, and also in the sense of whether it does in fact improve people to have art of this sort primarily presented to them. 

So, one way to approach this topic is by telling the story of Conan the Barbarian.

Conan is well-familiar to readers of this page, but mostly as he was in his original incarnation: the works of Robert E. Howard. Sometime after Howard's death in 1936, the Conan intellectual property was picked up by L. Sprague De Camp. De Camp's role in the story of Conan is much debated, but one thing that is clear about it is that De Camp decided to purify Conan of some of Howard's wilder aspects. 

He was influential on Conan's second life as a comic book character, which was constrained by a set of moral codes governing comic books at that time. They were close to the ones Plato is recommending here: that a protagonist should be just, not merely successful. The Conan that is produced by this careful censorship is much like the hero of the detective noir that Raymond Chandler promised in 1950:

"But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things."

That figure is also the hero of Louis L'amour novels. He could wear Chandler's trenchcoat and fedora, L'amour's Stetson and duster, or Conan's wolf-cloak and sword -- but he is not Conan. 

I have written approvingly before of L'amour's effect on moral education. I definitely think that, if the stories are being written for moral education, there's a lot to be said for this approach. And all three of these sets of stories -- Chandler's, L'amour's, and the Conan stories -- have also been highly successful as art. People consume these things across generations, not as matters of fashion but out of recognition of a deep truth about the world. 

Yet Conan as Howard wrote him is not a man like this, and it was violence to his character to try to distort him into another token of the type. Conan is just as happy to be a pirate as a hero, and perhaps happier. In the famous adventure with Belit, he watches her and her crew kill all of the proto-Greek sailors he had shipped with but chooses to side with her for perfectly lustful reasons. He then becomes her right hand at piracy, and describes himself as highly satisfied:  

Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

Conan is described by Howard not as a 'man of honor,' though he has a 'rude chivalry' and treats women invariably with kindness -- sometimes respect. But he is a red-handed killer, and loves his pirate queen and the life she gives him. 

Conan is a hero, though, like Achilles is a hero, like Odysseus is. Homer is Plato's foe here, and Homer may be greater than Plato. The fire Homer captures must have something of the divine in it, and yet it is that very quality that Plato wishes to tamp and tame. Plato has reasons to try to tame that divine fire; yet if it produces such men as Conan and Odysseus, how can we say it is wrong? 


Joel Leggett said...

I’m afraid I am going to have to disagree with your description of Conan as ‘not a man of honor.’ First of all, in Queen of the Black Coast Conan doesn’t simply watch his crew mates die and then switch sides. He fights for them viciously and only after they have all been killed and Conan is surrounded by Belit’s crew does he grudgingly accept her offer to sail with them. At that point, as the sole survivor he didn’t have much choice.

The character of Conan was certainly a man of honor according to the values of the people from which he came. In fact, that is an essential theme of the Conan stories, staying true to his Cimmerian values in the midst of decadent, soft, and corrupt civilizations.

Grim said...

So, there's an equivocation problem here. I put 'man of honor' in semi-quotes to indicate that I was using it as Chandler had used it, and as the mid-century censors understood it. Conan is not a token of that type.

He is certainly a man of honor in the way that Achilles is, or especially in the way Odysseus is. And maybe that's the proper sense -- really, actually, that's the subject under discussion. Plato wants to honor (through poetry) only virtuous and just men. Odysseus is honored primarily for success. He wins sometimes through prowess and sometimes through virtue, but sometimes through deception. The point is that he wins, no matter how much suffering he may have to go through in the meantime.

Conan is like that too. In "The Pool of the Black One," for example: 1950s morality would not look kindly on someone who accepted employment under false pretenses, especially when the man taking you on was saving your life by doing so. You might escape such employment later, but you'd be expected as a 'man of honor' in the 1950s sense to work honestly at the trade until a fair chance to separate yourself appeared. Conan, by contrast, took the job with the intent to kill the captain of the ship and then lay claim to the ship and the captaincy. He tracks the captain to a remote place and forces him to fight for his life, killing him in what Howard describes as a duel.

Now that's just the sort of thing a Greek hero might have done: thinking himself the better man, he raised a challenge and forced a decision through a fight to the death. Something like that happens at the beginning of the Iliad, where they try to end the war by a personal duel for Helen.

Conan's piracy and raids with the Kozaks are generally not depicted 'on screen,' but described as things that happened before or after the action of the story. Even with Belit, they are barely sketched. The action of actively robbing people at sword's point, killing them if they resist, even for Howard that's not the fit subject of a story (even if the hero of his stories admits that to be his primary business for much of his life).

Odysseus, on the other hand, regularly engages in sea-raids and piracy in the Odyssey. That's what Greek sea captains did. Homer like Howard doesn't dwell on it, because the main action of the story lies elsewhere. Both are willing to treat such a man as a hero, and to honor him, and both definitely think of their heroes as men of honor.

So what Plato is asking is, should we honor such men? Such gods? Should we say that a life of piracy can lead to great things, such as becoming king by your own hand and trodding the jeweled thrones of the earth under your sandaled feet?

Joel Leggett said...

Certainly the Vikings thought so, and the Anglo-Saxons (before and during their invasion of the British Isles). Just look at the resulting nations and civilizations. That brings up an important point; what constitutes virtue and justice will be culture specific. Raiding and piracy were expected activities within the Northern cultures. In fact, it was the only way nobles could really afford to maintain a retinue. A somewhat similar attitude prevailed on the Anglo Scottish border for a long time. One might ask if modern man should honor such men. That is another question. I believe we should judge the virtue of historical people according to the values of the societies and time in which they lived.

To bring it back to Conan, he is presented as a character from another time and place with a strong moral code derived from the culture from which he came. In his Cimmerian culture, which was modeled on the early Celts, raiding, piracy, and duels were not just morally acceptable activities, they were expected. Consequently, whether or not we deem Conan virtuous depends on how well he adheres to the moral code of his culture. In the stories, Conan always adheres to his moral code, especially when it gets him into trouble or causes him loss. Unlike Achilles or Odysseus he doesn’t do whatever is necessary to win. Sometimes Conan is simply lucky if he breaks even. Nevertheless, he never compromises his code. That is something even Plato could respect.

Grim said...

So, I get where you're coming from, but I have to raise a partial objection.

"I believe we should judge the virtue of historical people according to the values of the societies and time in which they lived."

There are several problems with this principle, but the most severe is that it seems to trap a virtuous man who lives in a bad society and time. If you and I are to be judged by the standards of our own society and time, well, many of our contemporaries think we are monsters. We embrace traditional martial prowess, courage, and a willingness to kill to defend what we value. We embrace old fashioned standards of other kinds. I would be more comfortable being judged by my own principles, not my society's; and that grows truer every day.

Indeed the virtuous man who finds himself in a vicious society can scarcely work to repair it if the proper standard is whether he is living up to his contemporaries' opinions. By violating the standards of his day and community, he is wrong by definition if we accept that principle.

The case is worse if, as we will be discussing tomorrow, the society has become corrupted to mistake vice for virtue and vice versa. That is true today. "Virtue signaling" generally means portraying one's self as adherent to moral principles with which you and I disagree (not always; both of us, I think, reject racism as wrong, though neither of us is prone to making ostentatious displays of how anti-racist we are).

So I can't accept a principle that you should be judged by the popular values of your society. I want to see virtues established on firmer grounds than popular opinions in any case, although it may be that moral legislation is properly grounded on the opinions of the many. That doesn't mean they're right, it just means that they're the ones whose judgment is most appropriate for what the law should say in a given society. (This is UK Law Lord Patrick Devlin's opinion, which you can find discussed in the archives here.)

Now Conan does have moral principles, although we don't see him invoke them very often as such. We do see him living by them, especially the principle of revenging his comrades (except in the Belit story, where he chooses to align with her -- and not, I think, because death is the alternative, which would be cowardice, but rather because of Belit and the power of her mating dance).

The clearest example I can think of Conan stating a moral principle and being bound by it is in The Phoenix on the Sword (which originally a King Kull story called "By This Axe I Rule," I recall, but Kull is a proto-Cimmerian of the Atlantis period). His knight Prospero asks him to kill a poet who is stirring up trouble in the streets, and Conan refuses:

'"Rinaldo is largely responsible," answered Prospero, drawing up his sword-belt another notch. "He sings songs that make men mad. Hang him in his jester's garb to the highest tower in the city. Let him make rimes for the vultures."

'Conan shook his lion head. "No, Prospero, he's beyond my reach. A great poet is greater than any king. His songs are mightier than my scepter; for he has near ripped the heart from my breast when he chose to sing for me. I shall die and be forgotten, but Rinaldo's songs will live for ever."'

That poets should enjoy freedom of speech as a kind of honor their art deserves is a moral principle by which he is bound to his harm, as Rinaldo comes himself later to try and kill him along with the other plotters. And even then, Conan would not have killed him if he had not come in disguise. And in that way, Conan is indeed a moral man who honors his values and the values of his people.

Grim said...

It is also, I note, exactly the opposite moral principle from the one Plato is advancing as regards poets.

Joel Leggett said...

You bring up some very good points. Consequently, it probably would have been better for me to say “When judging the virtue of historical people we should CONSIDER the values of the societies and time in which they lived." Otherwise, you are going to be throwing a lot of babies out with the bathwater. For instance, am I to reject George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Robert E. Lee simply because they owned slaves? I find the practice of slavery so morally repugnant I could never imagine owning a slave. However, the aforementioned gentlemen, being products of a certain time and place, held somewhat different views on the subject. Am I to turn my back on the father of my country because he owned slaves? Or should I be willing to consider the impact his time and place had on him regarding his involvement in the practice? I don’t know how to make an honest assessment of the man’s virtue without making allowance for the time and culture in which he lived.

Taking the discussion back to Conan, I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree with your description of the scene with Belit. He had fought to the last man with a crew he had just recently booked passage. The nature of his relationship with that crew was at best temporary and transitory. Nevertheless, he fought viscously with them until the last one died and he was the only one left fighting. By doing so he met any demand of honor required by his brief period as a passenger on the ship. I see no violation of his moral code by accepting Belit’s offer. Remember, Conan is himself a raider and could hardly have had any serious moral objection to Belit’s offer after he had fought to the last man. His attraction to her doesn’t change anything.

Grim said...

I definitely understood that you were talking about men like Washington, and the danger of trying to judge them, when you invoked the principle. I've often said that Washington was one of the greatest men to ever live, in spite of what I think was a grave moral failing; but I also think that those people of today who judge him harshly are not taking account of their own moral luck. They never lived at a time when owning slaves was even an option, yet congratulate themselves (and flatter themselves) for never doing what they never had a chance to do. I notice that few of them seem to quail from buying slave-made goods from China; it seems to me that they are more squeamish than moral, being perfectly fine with profiting off slavery as long as they don't have to see it or admit to themselves that this is what they are doing.

Yet Washington was truly great in many ways, even if he was not great in every way. Men are imperfect, and one of the great insights of Christianity is how much we need forgiveness. Not just for ourselves, either: we need it for Washington, and for all of our forefathers. None of them were without flaw, and nor will we be.

Yet I think we can say with confidence, "Washington was one of the greatest men who ever lived; but it would have been better, still, if he had rejected slavery."

Now we do seem to have hit upon an interesting moral question with Conan and the Argosean sailors. If anybody doesn't know this story and wants to follow along, the story is "Queen of the Black Coast" by Robert E. Howard; being out of copyright, you can read it free here.

So, Conan didn't exactly "book passage" with the crew. He leapt onto the ship and hijacked it, being only a few yards ahead of a squad of cavalry that was chasing him down for having killed a magistrate in open court. The story of why he killed the judge does involve Conan declaring another moral principle of his: not betraying a friend.

"'Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king's guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wrath, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.

'But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable's stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign parts.'"

The ship-master decides to let him sail with them because (a) he has no real choice, and (b) it would be good to have a fighting man on board in case of pirates. But there's no formal contract or oath to protect the ship; Conan is allowed to 'pay his way with steel,' as he says he will do.

It may be that Conan views the sailors not as comrades but as conquests of a sort, since he forced them to take him and sail with him. But they aren't treated as conquests fully, since he joins their voyage rather than making them go where he might prefer.

Joel Leggett said...

I agree with your points regarding assessing our forefathers. No man is perfect and all are in need of Christ’s forgiveness. Nevertheless, we can still appreciate their virtues while recognizing that they, like everyone else, had their flaws. We do those great men no favors by idolizing them.

I find our different interpretations of “Queen of the Black Coast” interesting. When I say booked passage I mean when asked how he would pay for his passage to Kush to he essentially offers to provide security, which he does to the best of his ability.

I don’t see any indication in the story that Conan looked upon the Argosean sailors with anything else than equality and comradery. He fights valiantly in their defense and keeps on fighting even after they are all dead, only stopping when Belit tells her men to stand down. You seem to think Conan owed the sailors something more and that his failure to provide it demonstrates a failure of virtue. What would that be? Was he required by some duty to engage in a blood feud with Belit and, if so, why? As I said before, Conan’s relationship with the crew was transactional and temporary (until he got to Kush). After performing his end of the bargain to the best of his ability what else was owed once the entire crew is dead?

Grim said...

I contrast, e.g., Conan's work at the beginning of "Shadows in the Moonlight," in which Conan contrives to escape as his comrades are slaughtered. He avenges them on the Shah who ordered their destruction, although that is presented as a target of opportunity rather than a feud he undertook. (Though later he pledges that he is 'not done with' the people of Turan, whose soldiers killed his companions.)

So there's something going on that makes the Free Companions -- which he describes as "dissolute rogues" "from a score of races and tribes" who served as mercenaries until the war ended, then took to plundering -- a group he felt a kind of bond with, but not the sailors. He really took the one group as comrades (and at the end of that story, joins the Red Brotherhood of pirates as a member and leader). His companionship with the Argoseans is more accidental, I guess; but maybe even more, they aren't his kind of people. Conan is always described as a wolf, and they are more like sheep. They have weapons and promise to not to 'give up life' without a fight, but it is clear that they know that their fighting would only be to salve their pride at being slaughtered.