Plato's Laws III

This book begins with an inquiry common to political philosophy: how do governments arise in the first place? The most famous of these texts in America are John Locke's Second Treatise on Government and Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, but Aristotle's Politics also begins with an account of how governments come to be. 

Unsurprisingly, Plato's account here is not far off from Aristotle's account, and probably informed it: governments arise when clans, whose patriarchs have given them their laws by natural authority, begin to join together into larger unions. These unions develop codes of laws because the natural authority of the (extended) family is no longer available in a society that does not share blood bonds.

What I want to comment on first are some striking facts about Plato's inquiry. When we think of Ancient Greece, we tend to think of it as the beginning of the project of constitutional democracies. Writing more than two thousand years ago, though, Plato's characters view constitutional states as already very old. So old, in fact, that they are incapable of giving an account of when they might have arisen:  such states are so old that they must be founded on myth.

Ath. Why, do you think that you can reckon the time which has elapsed since cities first existed and men were citizens of them?

Cle. Hardly.

Ath. But are sure that it must be vast and incalculable?

Cle. Certainly.

Ath. And have not thousands and thousands of cities come into being during this period and as many perished? And has not each of them had every form of government many times over, now growing larger, now smaller, and again improving or declining?

Cle. To be sure.

They then turn to the myth of the Flood, which they know in a form that isn't exactly Biblical. The Athenian describes this as one of several mythic traditions about how there was a great calamity that ended everything, and everything had to arise again from the few survivors. The inquiry into the origin of government thus takes as its assumed starting point such a calamity, looks at what the facts would be for far-flung survivors (such as bands of shepherds in the mountains), and then ropes in Homer's account of the Cyclopes for a view of what a savage society like that might be like. 

By coincidence, this once again gives us reason to reference Robert E. Howard. As you all know from reading this page regularly, I subscribe to the view that Howard was correct in his central conceit of 'The Hyborean Age' -- that is, that civilization is much older than we believe it to be, but that we have lost knowledge of what it was once. 

This view is also held by G. K. Chesterton, as he explains in The Everlasting Man.

The modern man looking at the most ancient origins has been like a man watching for daybreak in a strange land; and expecting to see that dawn breaking behind bare uplands or solitary peaks. But that dawn is breaking behind the black bulk of great cities long builded and lost for us in the original night; colossal cities like the houses of giants, in which even the carved ornamental animals are taller than the palm-trees; in which the painted portrait can be twelve times the size of the man; with tombs like mountains of man set four-square and pointing to the stars; with winged and bearded bulls standing and staring enormous at the gates of temples; standing still eternally as if a stamp would shake the world. The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized. Perhaps it reveals a civilisation already old. 

The Athenian goes on to give a philosophical account of why the Flood -- if there was a Flood -- must have been extremely long ago if it occurred at all. Men who remembered a Flood would not have build their cities on plains by giant rivers, but the great cities were so built; and how long would it have taken to re-learn how to make all the old tools, if you had only shepherds trying to rediscover smith-craft? Small wonder, then, that these learned Greeks cannot even estimate how long civilization has existed, or how many thousands of civilizations there have been.

The conversation snakes along until it comes within the field of what is properly history, at least for them: the founding of the three kingdoms of Lacedemonia, of which Sparta is the most famous. The Athenian asks the Spartan why the project failed; the Spartan proudly demands to know in what manner it can be said to have failed. The Athenian points out that the original project was that all three kings swore a great oath to uphold the political order, and the idea was that whenever one should depart from that oath the other two should ally against it. Yet that did not happen; in fact, all but Sparta itself fell into corruption, and rather than peace in the valley there was continual warfare. 

In fact the Spartan cannot answer why that happened, and the Athenian tries proposing that the issue was not a lack of strength -- those Lacedemonian warriors are even today famous for their valor -- but rather a kind of corruption in which vice was mistaken for virtue, and affection arose for pleasure and comfort instead of right.

I will pause here to give any of you interested the chance to read that account; also, to compare this book with Chesterton's parallel account, in the chapter cited above. He too is wondering about civilizations that might fall, and how they might rise again. Chesterton says some things that he intends as a challenge to his contemporaries, but they also serve as an effective challenge to Plato, for example:

[I]t is obvious on the face of it that any peoples reduced for any reason to a ruder life would have some things in common. If we lost all our firearms we should make bows and arrows; but we should not necessarily resemble in every way the first men who made bows and arrows. It is said that the Russians in their great retreat were so short of armament that they fought with clubs cut in the wood. But a professor of the future would err in supposing that the Russian army of 1916 was a naked Scythian tribe that had never been out of the wood. It is like saying that a man in his second childhood must exactly copy his first. A baby is bald like an old man; but it would be an error for one ignorant of infancy to infer that the baby had a long white beard.

So I will resume tomorrow with the discussion of corrupted vice and virtue.

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