Plato's Laws III, 2

The great destroyer of states is a kind of ignorance, Plato says. 

Ath. That the greatest ignorance is when a man hates that which he nevertheless thinks to be good and noble, and loves and embraces that which he knows to be unrighteous and evil. This disagreement between the sense of pleasure and the judgment of reason in the soul is, in my opinion, the worst ignorance; and also the greatest, because affecting the great mass of the human soul; for the principle which feels pleasure and pain in the individual is like the mass or populace in a state. And when the soul is opposed to knowledge, or opinion, or reason, which are her natural lords, that I call folly, just as in the state, when the multitude refuses to obey their rulers and the laws; or, again, in the individual, when fair reasonings have their habitation in the soul and yet do no good, but rather the reverse of good. All these cases I term the worst ignorance, whether in individuals or in states. You will understand, Stranger, that I am speaking of something which is very different from the ignorance of handicraftsmen.

Cle. Yes, my friend, we understand and agree.

Ath. Let us, then, in the first place declare and affirm that the citizen who does not know these things ought never to have any kind of authority entrusted to him: he must be stigmatized as ignorant, even though he be versed in calculation and skilled in all sorts of accomplishments, and feats of mental dexterity; and the opposite are to be called wise, even although, in the words of the proverb, they know neither how to read nor how to swim; and to them, as to men of sense, authority is to be committed. For, O my friends, how can there be the least shadow of wisdom when there is no harmony? There is none; but the noblest and greatest of harmonies may be truly said to be the greatest wisdom; and of this he is a partaker who lives according to reason; whereas he who is devoid of reason is the destroyer of his house and the very opposite of a saviour of the state: he is utterly ignorant of political wisdom. 

That this should be described as a kind of ignorance is a position we might well expect from Plato, who appears to have been persuaded by Socrates that virtue was a kind of knowledge. Aristotle ends up rejecting this position in favor of virtue being a kind of habituated character, which he thought solved a key problem Socrates kept running into -- if virtue is a kind of knowledge, why can't it be taught reliably?

But what kind of ignorance is it that Plato is talking about? It is not a failure to correctly discern, and thus know, what is noble or good. It is not a failure to know what is base. Those kinds of things would be more obviously called "ignorance," since in that case the person would be lacking in knowledge. But this person does know what is noble, and what is base, and errs in assigning his love to the base and his hate to the good.

I think Plato might be doubly wrong here. I think he might be wrong to have decided that this is a sort of ignorance, and I think he is definitely wrong to think it is the worst kind. Rather, what is going on here is that a person knows what is right and chooses to do the wrong thing anyway because it is more pleasurable. This is a regular feature of country music songs about men who ought to be home being good fathers, but are instead out honky-tonking and drinking up their paycheck. (Roger Miller's "Dang Me," for example.)  It may well be ruinous behavior, but they aren't doing it out of ignorance. They know it is wrong, and are doing it anyway.

What strikes me as a worse kind of ignorance -- and properly a kind of ignorance -- is to have come to the conclusion that the base is actually noble, the bad actually good. It seems to me that the great destroyer of our nation is not the country music song case, where people are failing in what they nevertheless recognize are their duties. The great destroyer is that people have embraced a host of things that are wrong, but that they have learned and taught each other to uphold as right. Arson in our cities and riots that result in great damage to public buildings and the common peace, for example, are celebrated as the pursuit of justice. Abortion is said to be health care.

These people are often college educated, so they are not ignorant in the sense of having never been educated. They are nevertheless possessed of a towering sort of blind ignorance, which can no longer discern good from bad, but instead names the bad as good and navigates as if that were the case. 

Likewise the reverse: a boy on the verge of becoming a man tries to help preserve his community in the face of riots, is attacked by a mob, defends himself, and is now on trial for murder. Public officials who cannot do the things their offices exist to do -- such as preventing riots or the burning of people's buildings -- act as if they are doing good and just things by behaving in this way. 

These are the people of whom I say, as Plato says, that they are to be stripped of power even if they are the best at calculations; and that those who can reason about the good more rightly, even if they are otherwise buffoons, are better choices for these public offices. This is close to the famous Buckley quote about preferring to be governed by the first 500 names in the phone book, but it is not quite that; Plato is going to give a strong argument against 'government by lot' later in the Laws. It is, rather, that even relatively simple people who really at least know right from wrong and good from bad are better choices than well-educated, credentialed, professional men and women whose judgment on these most basic issues is backwards. 

It is of those people, who make up so much of our government and managerial class, that I say as Plato says:

He who is devoid of reason is the destroyer of his house and the very opposite of a saviour of the state: he is utterly ignorant of political wisdom. 

No comments: