Plato's Laws IV

It is fitting that this section falls on the same day as the Army-Navy Game, which is being played at West Point this year. This section treats the question of whether the army or the navy is better, not so much from the perspective of offense and defense but from the perspective of inculcating virtue. 

The issue comes up because the Athenian asks after the physical situation of the new colony. He quickly establishes that he would be a poor city planner by ordinary standards, because his interest is in avoiding anything that would make the city economically viable. He is disappointed to discover that there are harbors available nearby, though somewhat distant from the site of the city, but glad at least that the city is not being built right on the sea. That leads to retail, he says:

Then there is some hope that your citizens may be virtuous: had you been on the sea, and well provided with harbours, and an importing rather than a producing country, some mighty saviour would have been needed, and lawgivers more than mortal, if you were ever to have a chance of preserving your state from degeneracy and discordance of manners. But there is comfort in the eighty stadia; although the sea is too near, especially if, as you say, the harbours are so good. Still we may be content. The sea is pleasant enough as a daily companion, but has indeed also a bitter and brackish quality; filling the streets with merchants and shopkeepers, and begetting in the souls of men uncertain and unfaithful ways-making the state unfriendly and unfaithful both to her own citizens, and also to other nations. 

Also comforting the Athenian is word that the city will be located on rugged ground, not on a plain. While productive this land will be somewhat difficult to farm, and thus require hard work from those who live there, while producing only enough to get by on. A virtuous people is more likely to take root if they have to work hard for little. 

Though I am inclined to agree that mountainous regions have many advantages, especially strategic but also in terms of the character produced by mountain climbing and the regular observation of far vistas,* Plato seems to me to be on shaky ground here. He is worried about love of luxury supplanting love of virtue, and clearly if luxury is impossible then it won't make any difference how much you love it. 

However, Plato has been clear that the education of the individual toward right reason is what produces good men even among Persian elites, or Athenian musicians. Now education is itself a kind of luxury good. Only in a city with enough resources to support a leisured class can you afford teachers, especially teachers of things like philosophy. If the land is hard enough that all hands need to be turned to farming or fishing, you will have no one studying history or music well enough to teach it; nor will the young have leisure for studying rather than labor. 

Indeed, this is so obvious that I wonder if Plato wasn't trying to draw out the objection from the dialogue's audience; perhaps the Athenian is less to provide us with answers than to provoke our own thoughts. The earlier dialogues often end in aporia, a confusion about the truth, which is an invitation for readers of the dialogue to try to pick up and carry the argument. The Athenian's certainty about some dubious ideas might be a similar invitation, this time an invitation to challenge.

Plato draws an even more surprising conclusion when he turns to the defense of the realm. Here he claims that it is good that a naval defense of the city will be impossible, because navies and marines are trained by their military arts away from virtue. The Athenian is contrasting marines with infantry soldiers, notice, not cavalry: for the wheel-and-strike maneuver that cavalry employs, and the ease of getting free and then striking again, characterizes cavalry maneuvers as much as marine tactics.

Ath. Better for [the Athenians] to have lost many times over the seven youths [that King Minos demanded as tribute, in the famous story of Thesesus and the Minotaur], than that heavy-armed and stationary troops should have been turned into sailors, and accustomed to be often leaping on shore, and again to come running back to their ships; or should have fancied that there was no disgrace in not awaiting the attack of an enemy and dying boldly; and that there were good reasons, and plenty of them, for a man throwing away his arms, and betaking himself to flight-which is not dishonourable, as people say, at certain times. This is the language of naval warfare, and is anything but worthy of extraordinary praise. For we should not teach bad habits, least of all to the best part of the citizens. You may learn the evil of such a practice from Homer, by whom Odysseus is introduced, rebuking Agamemnon because he desires to draw down the ships to the sea at a time when the Achaeans are hard pressed by the Trojans-he gets angry with him, and says:

"Who, at a time when the battle is in full cry, biddest to drag the well-benched ships into the sea, that the prayers of the Trojans may be accomplished yet more, and high ruin falls upon us. For the Achaeans will not maintain the battle, when the ships are drawn into the sea, but they will look behind and will cease from strife; in that the counsel which you give will prove injurious."

You see that he quite knew triremes on the sea, in the neighbourhood of fighting men, to be an evil;-lions might be trained in that way to fly from a herd of deer. Moreover, naval powers which owe their safety to ships, do not give honour to that sort of warlike excellence which is most deserving of it. For he who owes his safety to the pilot and the captain, and the oarsman, and all sorts of rather inferior persons cannot rightly give honour to whom honour is due. But how can a state be in a right condition which cannot justly award honour?

Invoking Odysseus here is remarkable. Odysseus is of course the great strategist, who was making a tactical point to Agamemnon in the quoted piece. Yet what Odysseus is most famous for doing in the Trojan war was staging a false retreat, in order to deceive the Trojans into accepting the Trojan horse. Plato had Socrates argue that Odysseus was the greater hero than Achilles in his Lesser Hippias, in part based upon the fact that Odysseus was better at deception.** So here, too, I wonder if Plato isn't trying to get a rise out of his readers.

Likewise, of course, the whole Greek army at Troy was an army of marines. Just because marines can retreat does not mean they must retreat; the Greeks spent ten years before the walls of Troy, with their ships handy the whole time. Not just Odysseus but Achilles and all the heroes on the side of Agamemnon were marines by nature. 

But the wider point that the Athenian is making is even worse than the literary analogy. It may inculcate virtue in the individual to learn to die boldly at his post, or to stand in a line of infantry that cannot retreat before the foe. It will not inculcate virtue in the city, however, to be conquered. A conquered people will not be educated with an eye toward virtue, but will be kept ignorant if possible in order to keep them weak and enslaved. In ancient Greece, slavery (or death) was very much the fate of the populations of conquered cities.

Thus, the discussion of honor and dishonor is entirely ill-founded here. In war, nothing is more honorable than a victory that ensures your independence; however you get there, that is the most honorable thing. A cavalry or marine corps that can effectively keep a city free and independent is better than an infantry that would fail to do so, given the terrain; and the greatest honor would attend to belonging to whichever force was most responsible for the continued freedom of your people.

The Athenian of course assumes the necessity of defending the city, however it must be done. His point is that you'll have a better city if it is possible to defend it with infantry than if it requires marines. The argument for this is so implausible, though, I can't help but think it was intended to be provocative:  perhaps of the kind of inter-service rivalry debates that we all so much enjoy, which the Greeks must have had as well.

With that thought, enjoy the game!

* This is a point of disagreement between myself and G. K. Chesterton, who was of the opinion that living on mountains was dangerous just because of the vistas, which make other people look small like ants. He also said that one sees great things from valleys, but only small things from peaks. 

** Hippias claims that Odysseus was worse than Achilles because he relied on deception rather than honorable strength. Socrates argues, successfully, that both Achilles and Odysseus practice deception -- but Achilles practices it on himself in ways that harm himself, and accidentally, whereas Odysseus practices it intentionally for his own gain. Odysseus is thus greater than Achilles, on the same principle that a runner who isn't capable of running well is not as good a runner as one who is capable of running well but chooses to run poorly for reasons of his own.


ymarsakar said...

The navy. Because they were able to fight for the constituon even thpugh the nation would see them as traitors.

ymarsakar said...

In other news, Marine corps are disbanding tank and artillery units. Likely due to entering space force. The navy will be in charge pf space force at this schedule.

J Melcher said...

In ancient Greece, slavery (or death) was very much the fate of the populations of conquered cities.

Oh. Unlike, then, the fate of the conquered in the Soviet empire, or Mao's China, or the Khmer Rouge's Cambodia... ?

Or the fate of meso-American cities and cultures under Spanish conquest?

Sorry. Just "hung over" from the 1619 garbage. The thing about slavery in North America (and the U.S. in particular) is how ordinary and banal forced labor was throughout all human history.

Back to the topic -- did Plato's debaters assume all the ship's crew were patriotic volunteers? Or were some rowers or sailors or hands "pressed" as when England's Navy enslaved men for ship duty? (Though the process was not called by that term.)

Grim said...

Excellent question. The Athenian navy was professional, rarely including slaves. It was however drawn mostly from the poorer class of Athenian citizens. So they were looked down upon somewhat, as people who needed the work rather than as patriotic volunteers.

Grim said...

Xenophon approved of the way the Athenian constitution allowed political officers to be appointed by lot, which Plato is going to criticize, on the grounds that it allowed the class of people who provided the navy greater power. The wealthy class who made up the hoplites were not nearly so important to Athenian power, he wrote.

Grim said...

And congratulations to the Army’s Black Knights for their 15-0 shutout in the game.