Plato's Laws IV, 5

This is the last commentary on Book IV. With the completion of Book IV, we are approximately a third of the way through the Laws.

If any of you are reading along, you must be struck by the eerie way in which Plato's work is immediately relevant to our current moment. I'll give two examples. There is a warning against political factions coming to power who intend to use their momentary election to ensure they will always and forever be in power. Such a faction is so destructive to justice that a state that comes under their sway can no longer be said to be constitutional:

Ath. That when there has been a contest for power, those who gain the upper hand so entirely monopolize the government, as to refuse all share to the defeated party and their descendants-they live watching one another, the ruling class being in perpetual fear that some one who has a recollection of former wrongs will come into power and rise up against them. Now, according to our view, such governments are not polities at all, nor are laws right which are passed for the good of particular classes and not for the good of the whole state. States which have such laws are not polities but parties, and their notions of justice are simply unmeaning.

This is the Jowett translation, again; Edith Hamilton gives that "are not constitutions at all," rather than "are not polities." Yet this is a live theory of what Democrats intend if they win the Senate and seat Biden or Harris today: to pack the Supreme Court, to add seats to the Senate with new Democrat-leaning states, to abolish the Electoral College through the Popular Vote Compact, and to add new voters through amnesty and such. Plato's concern is immediately relevant.

A second example, more fun, is that Plato's characters actually have a discussion about who is and is not properly called a "doctor." For Plato as for ourselves, part of the issue is that there are very different standards of training and expertise at work; yet both the superior and inferior classes are granted the title. 

(The issue is pointed specifically at medicine, and since "doctor" is a Latin word, the word would properly be "physician" here. This means 'a scientist of nature,' for the Greek root of our word "physics" translates as "nature" and not "motion" as you might expect. We think of physics as the science of motion, but Aristotle's account for why different things move differently is that they have different natures. Yet it is motion he is interested in -- his Physics includes inquiry into whether motion is philosophically possible given objections e.g. from Zeno, and how to explain it if it is.)

This remarkable relevance is a feature of a truly great work, one that proves how worthy Plato's Laws are of our continued attention. No matter when you read it, you will find things in it that are relevant. Had we read it a few years ago, for example, we would not have found those aspects as important; but we would have been more taken with his account of the nature and function of marriage. Plato gives an account of what marriage is for and about that is in line with the one our traditionalists were advancing a few years ago: the one that our courts decided 'had no rational basis,' even though it was argued for on purely rational grounds both here and in Kant's Metaphysics of Morals

Another eternally relevant matter, and the one with which I will close my discussion of this book, is the proper form of laws. The issue is whether it is better for a law to be concise, or whether it should be verbose about what exactly it intends to accomplish. You might say that the question is whether the 'spirit of the law' should be put into the letter of the law. 

Consider the Second Amendment. "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Here we have an example of what the Athenian is advocating: the law does not just say what shall be true ("the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed") but why it is appropriate, and what this right intends to preserve. 

Many have pointed out that the protections would have been a lot stronger if the explanatory dependent clause had been omitted. Had the Second Amendment simply read "The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed," there would have been less room for clever arguments admitting infringements. 

The Athenian takes the other view, which is that we help our progeny stay true to our constitutional and legislative order if we explain it to them clearly. Because they are now able to know just why we structured marriage laws (that is Plato's example) the way that we did, it will be clear to them what we thought was at stake in making them this way.

This is an attempt to address Chesterton's Paradox of the Wall. By encoding the explanation in the law, we make sure that no one should be able to say, "This wall serves no purpose!" They may be able to explain that the purpose is no longer relevant, which was Chesterton's proposed condition for allowing the wall to be removed. (Second Amendment opponents often argue that there is no longer a need for a militia, given that we have accepted a standing army and have a developed police force; although in the wake of last year's abdication of the police of their duty to protect communities in the face of mob action, that argument sounds very weak.)

There is a lot more, about the duty to one's parents and family -- just last week I saw someone on Twitter arguing that parenthood is a kind of natural tyranny that should be abolished, but Plato views respect for the debt one owes one's parents and elders as fundamental to society. Much of this is eternally relevant, or cyclically so. It rewards our attention, and provides another perspective -- high and distant from our own -- to consider as we attend to the same debates in our own time and place.

1 comment:

J Melcher said...

The idea of a "preamble" to legislation specifically detailing legislative intent has attractions. And it spawns similar thoughts:

It would be a nice habit to establish that one act of the legislature addressed one issue. I understand the need but I despise the common practice of omnibus bills that turn a flagpole of intention into a Christmas tree of ornamentation garlanding all around. "We must help renters postpone eviction during the quarantine -- AND replace the engines in the Navy's littoral combat vessels; AND impose "net neutrality" standards on ISPs in rural communities; AND force Uber and Lyft to pay Davis Bacon 'prevailing wages' to their drivers. " What sort of "intent" can be summarized at the beginning of such an act?

It would be nice if each act of legislation cited the constitutional articles authorizing a legislature to do whatever the act intends to do. "Under the power of the 18th Amendment giving Congress to enforce the prohibition of "intoxicating spirits" and with the understanding that LSD, THC, and variants of morphine fall under the definition of "intoxicants": this act will establish the US Drug Enforcement Agency". SCOTUS may or may not agree, but the dispute would certainly be more narrowly focused.