Plato's Laws III, 3

Once Plato has outlined what he takes to be the chief destroyer of nations, he then has his Athenian return to the question of what went wrong with the Greek alliance. Unsurprisingly it turns out to be that the leaders had the quality he identified as the chief destroyer. So how can a nation remain healthy?

Plato now proposes a typology of constitutions, quite different from Aristotle's. Aristotle famously held that there were three basic types of government, of which each had a healthy and a diseased form, yielding six total. The three types are 'rule by the many,' 'rule by the few,' and 'rule by the one.' Thus we get constitutional government and democracy (note that democracy is diseased -- mob rule that tends toward theft of wealth and abuse of the minority); oligarchy and autocracy; kingship and tyranny. 

Plato's model is both simpler and capable of more complexity. He proposes that there are two 'threads' of government, which can be woven together in myriad ways. These are kingship and democracy. He says that Persia is the perfect example of kingship, Athens of democracy, and that Sparta and Crete are both mixed forms -- which, the Athenian says, actually work better than either pure form. 

The next section is an examination of the rise and fall of Persia. Once again, the fall is going to come from what I called in the last post the 'country music' cases -- dissolute men who identify pleasure as the good they pursue rather than the goods that reason itself identifies. 

The Athenian puts this down to the fact that the Persians in their great days were so busy winning their empire in glorious battle that they forgot to educate their sons. Instead, even Cyrus the Great left education of the youth to the women, leading to disaster in the next generation:

Ath. I imagine that Cyrus, though a great and patriotic general, had never given his mind to education, and never attended to the order of his household.

Cle. What makes you say so?
Ath. I think that from his youth upwards he was a soldier, and entrusted the education of his children to the women; and they brought them up from their childhood as the favourites of fortune, who were blessed already, and needed no more blessings. They thought that they were happy enough, and that no one should be allowed to oppose them in any way, and they compelled every one to praise all that they said or did. This was how they brought them up.

Cle. A splendid education truly!
Ath. Such an one as women were likely to give them, and especially princesses who had recently grown rich, and in the absence of the men, too, who were occupied in wars and dangers, and had no time to look after them.

Cle. What would you expect?
Ath. Their father had possessions of cattle and sheep, and many herds of men and other animals, but he did not consider that those to whom he was about to make them over were not trained in his own calling, which was Persian; for the Persians are shepherds-sons of a rugged land, which is a stern mother, and well fitted to produce sturdy race able to live in the open air and go without sleep, and also to fight, if fighting is required. He did not observe that his sons were trained differently; through the so-called blessing of being royal they were educated in the Median fashion by women and eunuchs, which led to their becoming such as people do become when they are brought up unreproved.... 

Ath. Let us note the rest of the story. Observe, that Darius was not the son of a king, and had not received a luxurious education.... he made laws upon the principle of introducing universal equality in the order of the state, and he embodied in his laws the settlement of the tribute which Cyrus promised-thus creating a feeling of friendship and community among all the Persians, and attaching the people to him with money and gifts. Hence his armies cheerfully acquired for him countries as large as those which Cyrus had left behind him. Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes; and he again was brought up in the royal and luxurious fashion. Might we not most justly say: "O Darius, how came you to bring up Xerxes in the same way in which Cyrus brought up Cambyses, and not to see his fatal mistake?" For Xerxes, being the creation of the same education, met with much the same fortune as Cambyses; and from that time until now there has never been a really great king among the Persians, although they are all called Great. And their degeneracy is not to be attributed to chance, as I maintain; the reason is rather the evil life which is generally led by the sons of very rich and royal persons; for never will boy or man, young or old, excel in virtue, who has been thus educated. 

Right after this he goes on to note that the Spartans avoided this problem, in spite of their attachment to war, by making no distinction between the poor and the rich in education. So we might ask whether the problem isn't really that the children of wealth are ill-suited to rule precisely because of their luxurious upbringing (as opposed to the absence of fathers or the presence of eunuchs and princesses).

In favor of this proposition is the fact that the children who failed Persia were all raised in luxury. Plato's description of the luxurious education of the Persian elite is the opposite of what Herodotus says, by the way, which is worth noting because Herodotus' account is quoted by American fighting men as praiseworthy (see first comment, by Raven). They agree about the women being primary influences, but Herodotus says it was only for the earliest part of their lives.

Here is what Herodotus claims:

Next to prowess in arms, it is regarded as the greatest proof of manly
excellence to be the father of many sons. Every year the king sends
rich gifts to the man who can show the largest number: for they hold
that number is strength. Their sons are carefully instructed from
their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone,- to ride,
to draw the bow, and to speak the truth. Until their fifth year they
are not allowed to come into the sight of their father, but pass their
lives with the women. This is done that, if the child die young, the
father may not be afflicted by its loss. 

Herodotus died in 425 BC, however, and his histories mostly concern the period of Cyrus the Great. Plato was born about the time Herodotus died, but both of them lived in the right timeframe to have known about Xerxes as well as Cyrus. So for what it's worth, there's a difference in their accounts about how the Persian youth is raised. Herodotus thought it praiseworthy, and many of our own have as well. 

(Also praiseworthy, in my opinion, is another custom Herodotus claims for the Persians: that they debate weighty matters first while drunk, and then again when sober, and only take the actions their drunken company proclaimed if the sober reconsideration approves those actions. In this way they probably came to many creative and bold solutions, tempered by reason and reflection, that a purely sober reflection could have missed.)

After this, the Athenian turns his critical eye on Athens. 


J Melcher said...

debate weighty matters first while drunk, and then again when sober

Or the other way 'round ...

This is the point of the "symposium", or so I understood.

I also rather like the items in the Things I Will Do as Evil Overlord list, that call for the would-be Overlord to explain the nefarious plot first to his wisest advisors, then to a young child. If the wise ask, "Why do you want to?" or the child says "I don't understand," then the plot should be completely re-thought, if not abandoned...

J Melcher said...

Remembered this, and tracked it down ...

... the 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben” by Peter De Vries included a character named Gowan McGland “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober,” he had said, “and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

Grim said...

Herodotus makes for great reading; he's got wonderful stories of kings and tyrants and thieves and monsters. And tortures, too: several of the worst things that al Qaeda in Iraq was supposed to have done were also tales I read in Herodotus.

Sort of like "The Princess Bride" -- all kinds of sports in Herodotus.