Plato's Laws II, 3

There are at least two more issues worth commentary in this book. The second of those two is the regulation of drinking, about which the concluding remarks are concerned. You end up with something like Prohibition except for mandatory social drinking for approved ends. That's sort of the worst of both worlds, there.

The first is a kind of artistic censorship.

Ath. [I]f I were a lawgiver, I would try to make the poets and all the citizens speak in this strain, and I would inflict the heaviest penalties on any one in all the land who should dare to say that there are bad men who lead pleasant lives, or that the profitable and gainful is one thing, and the just another... For tell me, my good friends, by Zeus and Apollo tell me, if I were to ask these same Gods who were your legislators-Is not the most just life also the pleasantest? or are there two lives, one of which is the justest and the other the pleasantest?-and they were to reply that there are two; and thereupon I proceeded to ask, (that would be the right way of pursuing the enquiry), Which are the happier-those who lead the justest, or those who lead the pleasantest life? and they replied, Those who lead the pleasantest-that would be a very strange answer, which I should not like to put into the mouth of the Gods. 

There's a great deal more by way of argument about why this is philosophically correct. I'm going to stick to a different question, which is whether it is or is not good art -- good both in the sense of making interesting art, art that is true to the world, and also in the sense of whether it does in fact improve people to have art of this sort primarily presented to them. 

So, one way to approach this topic is by telling the story of Conan the Barbarian.

Conan is well-familiar to readers of this page, but mostly as he was in his original incarnation: the works of Robert E. Howard. Sometime after Howard's death in 1936, the Conan intellectual property was picked up by L. Sprague De Camp. De Camp's role in the story of Conan is much debated, but one thing that is clear about it is that De Camp decided to purify Conan of some of Howard's wilder aspects. 

He was influential on Conan's second life as a comic book character, which was constrained by a set of moral codes governing comic books at that time. They were close to the ones Plato is recommending here: that a protagonist should be just, not merely successful. The Conan that is produced by this careful censorship is much like the hero of the detective noir that Raymond Chandler promised in 1950:

"But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things."

That figure is also the hero of Louis L'amour novels. He could wear Chandler's trenchcoat and fedora, L'amour's Stetson and duster, or Conan's wolf-cloak and sword -- but he is not Conan. 

I have written approvingly before of L'amour's effect on moral education. I definitely think that, if the stories are being written for moral education, there's a lot to be said for this approach. And all three of these sets of stories -- Chandler's, L'amour's, and the Conan stories -- have also been highly successful as art. People consume these things across generations, not as matters of fashion but out of recognition of a deep truth about the world. 

Yet Conan as Howard wrote him is not a man like this, and it was violence to his character to try to distort him into another token of the type. Conan is just as happy to be a pirate as a hero, and perhaps happier. In the famous adventure with Belit, he watches her and her crew kill all of the proto-Greek sailors he had shipped with but chooses to side with her for perfectly lustful reasons. He then becomes her right hand at piracy, and describes himself as highly satisfied:  

Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

Conan is described by Howard not as a 'man of honor,' though he has a 'rude chivalry' and treats women invariably with kindness -- sometimes respect. But he is a red-handed killer, and loves his pirate queen and the life she gives him. 

Conan is a hero, though, like Achilles is a hero, like Odysseus is. Homer is Plato's foe here, and Homer may be greater than Plato. The fire Homer captures must have something of the divine in it, and yet it is that very quality that Plato wishes to tamp and tame. Plato has reasons to try to tame that divine fire; yet if it produces such men as Conan and Odysseus, how can we say it is wrong? 

Mear and Poland

"No prophet speaks to calm our grief/But all in silence mourn"--that line gets me every time. This tune being Common Meter, these Texas singers are free to add a verse of "Amazing Grace" at the end. I haven't been to a singing for a while. I miss these people.


 "I'm but a sojourner below/As all my fathers were"--I'm working on a Project Gutenberg exegesis of the Psalms, and ran across this phrase in Psalm 39:12: "for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were."


Living Stones

I don't know if they build or fight as well as they make commercials, but this is really something.

Plato's Laws II, 2

After we get to the idea that art and moral education are linked, there is an interesting question raised about who is the right kind of judge of the best art. This is presented in a way that might at first seem silly. In fact Plato acknowledges that in the voice of the Cretan. 

Ath. One way of considering the question will be to imagine a festival at which there are entertainments of all sorts, including gymnastic, musical, and equestrian contests: the citizens are assembled; prizes are offered, and proclamation is made that any one who likes may enter the lists, and that he is to bear the palm who gives the most pleasure to the spectators-there is to be no regulation about the manner how; but he who is most successful in giving pleasure is to be crowned victor, and deemed to be the pleasantest of the candidates: What is likely to be the result of such a proclamation?

Cle. In what respect?

Ath. There would be various exhibitions: one man, like Homer, will exhibit a rhapsody, another a performance on the lute; one will have a tragedy, and another a comedy. Nor would there be anything astonishing in some one imagining that he could gain the prize by exhibiting a puppet-show. Suppose these competitors to meet, and not these only, but innumerable others as well can you tell me who ought to be the victor?

Cle. I do not see how any one can answer you, or pretend to know, unless he has heard with his own ears the several competitors; the question is absurd.

It does seem absurd at first. How can you judge the winner of a contest that includes horse riding, and puppet shows, and poetics, and maybe an opera for all we know? It seems as if you're trying to compare apples and oranges, as we say. There's no clear standard against which such dissimilar events can be compared. 

What you have to realize that Plato is raising a metaphor for how a whole society functions. A whole society involves many, many kinds of different activities going on at once. Decisions have to be made about which of them are most important even though they are unlike. The question is really about who should rule, not who should judge the art.

Ath. Well, then, if neither of you can answer, shall I answer this question which you deem so absurd?

Cle. By all means.

Ath. If very small children are to determine the question, they will decide for the puppet show.

Cle. Of course.

Ath. The older children will be advocates of comedy; educated women, and young men, and people in general, will favour tragedy.

Cle. Very likely.

Ath. And I believe that we old men would have the greatest pleasure in hearing a rhapsodist recite well the Iliad and Odyssey, or one of the Hesiodic poems, and would award the victory to him. But, who would really be the victor?-that is the question.

Cle. Yes.

Ath. Clearly you and I will have to declare that those whom we old men adjudge victors ought to win; for our ways are far and away better than any which at present exist anywhere in the world.

Cle. Certainly.

Ath. Thus far I too should agree with the many, that the excellence of music is to be measured by pleasure. But the pleasure must not be that of chance persons; the fairest music is that which delights the best and best educated, and especially that which delights the one man who is pre-eminent in virtue and education. 

This is an approach that is most often credited to Aristotle, who makes a lot of it in his ethics. It is clearly one of the principles he learned from Plato. The best judge of the most virtuous activity is the person who is in fact virtuous. Just as the spectator who has never tried to play football won't understand the nuances of what makes a route pass play especially impressive, so to the person who has never been in a position to have to be courageous may have a cartoonish idea of courage. 

The best judge will be the person who has proven a capacity to do the thing. This holds not just for courage, but for all the virtues -- and therefore for everything, including art, that might or might not be virtuous. 

Ath. And therefore the judges must be men of character, for they will require both wisdom and courage.... He is sitting not as the disciple of the theatre, but, in his proper place, as their instructor, and he ought to be the enemy of all pandering to the pleasure of the spectators. 

So say we all who, for example, deplore the way American entertainment has devolved into cheap superhero fantasies and garbage pop music. 

I'm not quoting at length the Athenian's argument that there are discoverable (even mathematical) principles of music that are eternal and truly good, but it is a version of the argument from the video yesterday. It is well-traveled ground here over the years: things like the pentatonic scale really exist, and so too other demonstrable forms. Plato is appealing to that, in music, and going beyond it to the theatre and to all forms of art. But he's really not talking about art. He's really talking about everything. 

Ath. The inference at which we arrive for the third or fourth time is, that education is the constraining and directing of youth towards that right reason, which the law affirms, and which the experience of the eldest and best has agreed to be truly right. In order, then, that the soul of the child may not be habituated to feel joy and sorrow in a manner at variance with the law, and those who obey the law, but may rather follow the law and rejoice and sorrow at the same things as the aged-in order... And similarly the true legislator will persuade, and, if he cannot persuade, will compel the poet to express, as he ought, by fair and noble words, in his rhythms, the figures, and in his melodies, the music of temperate and brave and in every way good men.

One of our key disagreements with Plato lies here: who gets to judge? Capitalism puts the right of judgment with everyone, insofar as he or she has money to spend. They make different judgments, and many of them judge in favor of superhero movies or garbage pop. 

Likewise people may vote for Donald Trump, whom all the wise know to be the worst of men. They might prefer traditional forms of faith and society, rather than bending the knee to social justice and trans* movements. But that in itself points up a problem Plato has with himself, not with us. He would have wanted his legislator to put that kind of activist to the sword if necessary: to compel, if they could not persuade, such people to comport themselves in accord with the general laws of beauty and right. 

So here lies another problem, and a problem for both of our sides as well as for Plato. None of us are in perfect agreement: our love of liberty enables the perverse, the garbage, the worthless. Plato's love of the rule of the wise, however, enables the Woke; and the Woke, who would find much to agree with in Plato's account, would be horrified to realize that he never meant for them to be the ones who'd be thought fit to judge. That power would have been placed with old men of proven virtue, the most conservative body in any society. 

Plato's Laws II, 1

The part I elided over in the first book returns strongly in the opening of the second book:  the importance of drinking, singing, and dancing to good education. In Book I the Spartan in particular was worried that allowing pleasure would weaken (cf. this contemporary concern about virtue and pleasure). The Athenian defended the idea that communal pleasures are of moral significance. 

But they must be the right kind of pleasures; it is not just good that you should drink and sing and dance, but that you should drink and sing and dance well. Not all dances, or songs, are equally ordered to virtue. Some are better than others:

Ath. There are others, again, whose natures are right and their habits wrong, or whose habits are right and their natures wrong, and they praise one thing, but are pleased at another. For they say that all these imitations are pleasant, but not good. And in the presence of those whom they think wise, they are ashamed of dancing and singing in the baser manner, or of deliberately lending any countenance to such proceedings; and yet, they have a secret pleasure in them.

Cle. Very true.
Ath. And is any harm done to the lover of vicious dances or songs, or any good done to the approver of the opposite sort of pleasure?

Cle. I think that there is.
Ath. "I think" is not the word, but I would say, rather, "I am certain." For must they not have the same effect as when a man associates with bad characters, whom he likes and approves rather than dislikes, and only censures playfully because he has a suspicion of his own badness? In that case, he who takes pleasure in them will surely become like those in whom he takes pleasure, even though he be ashamed to praise them. And what greater good or evil can any destiny ever make us undergo?

Cle. I know of none.
Ath. Then in a city which has good laws, or in future ages is to have them, bearing in mind the instruction and amusement which are given by music, can we suppose that the poets are to be allowed to teach in the dance anything which they themselves like, in the way of rhythm, or melody, or words, to the young children of any well-conditioned parents? Is the poet to train his choruses as he pleases, without reference to virtue or vice?

Cle. That is surely quite unreasonable, and is not to be thought of.
Ath. And yet he may do this in almost any state with the exception of Egypt.

Here we have a very conservative case being made against the First Amendment, as it were. Who can deny that music is much degraded in our age, compared with (say) the 1960-70s? There are very rational reasons to believe it.

Those are concerns that might bother Apollo, certainly Athena; there are perhaps base moral concerns as well, which are more the prerogative of Zeus. Of course we don't think of Zeus as especially moral, reading the Greek legends; but the Greeks did. This is one of Plato's concerns in the Republic, you may recall:  the poets keep telling scandalous stories about the god who is supposed to root justice. They must be stopped!

So here is another important question where we differ -- in our devotion to free speech and free expression -- from Plato. Are we right? Well, it was free speech and free expression that got us the flowering of the 1960s-1970s, too. Something has gone wrong, but it isn't necessarily freedom that has done so. What, then, is it? 

Plato's Laws I, 2

A little later in the dialogue, the Athenian proposes that the real reason for which Cretan law should be praised, and the proper purpose of the law, is the way it regulates all the aspects of society in order to create human happiness. 

"The Cretan laws are with reason famous among the Hellenes; for they fulfil the object of laws, which is to make those who use them happy; and they confer every sort of good."

Note how total this is: "Some... ordinances will relate to contracts of marriage which they make one with another, and then to the procreation and education of children, both male and female; the duty of the lawgiver will be to take charge of his citizens, in youth and age, and at every time of life, and to give them punishments and rewards." 

This is a fundamental difference in how we see society from how Plato sees it, although it is in line with how progressives see it. The government should have all power, and perform all functions, necessary to bring about maximized human happiness. Laws should require people to behave in the right ways.

We then get a very strange ranking of the goods of life. They are of two kinds, human and divine. The human goods are lesser, and are attained by striving first for the greater divine goods. These goods, which are virtues, have a rank as well.

"Of the lesser goods the first is health, the second beauty, the third strength, including swiftness in running and bodily agility generally, and the fourth is wealth... [W]isdom is chief and leader of the divine dass of goods, and next follows temperance; and from the union of these two with courage springs justice, and fourth in the scale of virtue is courage. All these naturally take precedence of the other goods, and this is the order in which the legislator must place them, and after them he will enjoin the rest of his ordinances on the citizens with a view to these...."

The ranking of the virtues is odd, I say, because it has no clear priority. Wisdom is chief, but also a precondition for Justice. Thus, it makes sense if Justice is considered of a lower rank, since Wisdom must be pursued first in order to create the conditions for Justice to be possible. Yet notice that courage, also a precondition for Justice, is considered of the fourth rank rather than the third. 

It's not clear to me what Plato is thinking of here. He plainly wants to say something like "It's more important to be wise than courageous," but that itself is out of order with what has usually been Plato's position as expressed through Socrates, i.e., that virtue is a kind of knowledge or wisdom. To be courageous is to be wise, in a way. Here wisdom is severable from courage, and even partly from justice. 

The Athenian here is not Socrates, and here at least is a proof of it. He is approaching courage as something different; and, as Aristotle will do in his own ethics, Plato is going to at once demote it to a lesser rank among the virtues yet also use it as the first and paradigmatic example of what a virtue is. 

"I think that we must begin again as before, and first consider the habit of courage; and then we will go on and discuss another and then another form of virtue, if you please."

Also, having disposed of 'victory in war' as the key end of the state, the rest of the first book returns to it as a primary concern. Education is said to be good in that it produces victory, for example; courage is only properly courage and not a vice like rashness if it is ordered to victory.

All in all, a strange opening to a significant work. Note also the distinction between foreign and civil wars, and the perfection of virtue that is required only in the second -- which is nevertheless said to be a worse form of war, though it perfects virtues in its victors, which is supposed to be the true purpose of the state.

Non-COVID medical news for a change

From Maggie's Farm, news of a pharmacological breakthrough that might prove pretty wonderful.

Hyborean Age in Michigan

Or, Robert E Howard was right, again

Plato's Laws I

As a useful way to spend my evenings, I am reading Plato's Laws from the beginning. I may occasionally make notes here, mostly for myself but also in case any of you are interested. 

The Laws is one of the longest things Plato wrote, and the last, and the only one that doesn't feature Socrates. Instead, the three characters are old men -- one from Athens, one from Crete, and one from Sparta -- who are taking a long walk together and decide to discuss political philosophy. The Athenian, more philosophical given his national character, quickly takes the lead.

The Cretan opens by confirming that 2/3rds of the constitutions of their states are supposedly divinely given, but likewise affirms the wisdom of the founding men involved. In especial, what impresses him is that his government was set up with the understanding that all other states in the world were at least potentially at war with them: that even in peacetime, one had to keep up preparations to repel invasions or conquests. As a result, their island nation had regular public feasts -- not only to build national friendship, but also to maintain the infrastructure necessary to feed the public if it needed to muster as an army. Martial training of the militia was kept up as well.

The Spartan naturally approves of this approach.

The Athenian begins questioning them in what is a very Socratic way, attempting at first to get them to declare whether they agree that what is true for the nation should also be true for the family; and when they do, whether they also think it should be true for the individual. This is a rapid reprise of the move Socrates makes in the Republic, in which he convinces everyone to go along with what is usually called "The Fallacy of Composition." 

This move allows Plato to explore political philosophy by analogy to self-control in a good individual. However, there is good reason to doubt that a nation should be run like a family, or that an individual is a good analogy for a group of people. There are crucial differences that make this unlikely, and call the value of the whole dialogue -- both of them -- into question.

Nevertheless, both of the interlocutors agree to the proposition. Just as a nation should be ordered to be prepared to resist conquest from abroad, so families should be ordered to ensure that they are disciplined against bad influences or tyranny from the outside. The individual, meanwhile, should run himself so that he is not conquered either from outside or, more importantly, by his own base desires. 

Now the Athenian asks if there isn't a third approach, which is translated as "mediation." It's not a mediation in our sense of the term, though, because the mediator has access to capital punishment: the Athenian wants to know if the best mediator would kill bad people to prevent them from corrupting the whole, or control them while not killing them if not necessary, or if he would instead construct the whole society so that the good and the bad live in harmony without the need for violence or coercion. The two other old men agree that the last option is best. 

If you've read the Republic, you know that Plato has just laid out the basic argument in a few paragraphs so that he can take another run at what such a just society would look like. The Laws is much longer, and goes into much greater detail about particular laws the elder Plato thinks are just and worthy. 

Ultimately there is a lot to object to in the setup itself; and thus I will stop here, to see if any of you want to discuss that. 

In Praise of Grift

BLM Central might not be the Marxist insurgency threat they proclaimed, because it looks like they just kept all that money and spent it on travel and self-dealing

Capitalism wins again. 

UPDATE: They should be ashamed, these ice-cream socialists and their Commie chic

Taboo Deformation

This author’s idiom annoys me, but the subject is an curious aspect of linguistics and philology. 

St. Andrew's Day

Happy St. Andrew's Day. If you followed along with the Scottish steak pies, you've got some appropriate leftovers today!

Suicide Numbers

These are from Japan; as the article points out, Japan is one of only a few places you can get timely suicide numbers. 

All the usual caveats apply regarding international or cross-cultural comparisons, of course. 

Happy Advent / Thanksgiving Casserole

Today is, as those of you interested already knew, the first Sunday of Advent. I hope you have a good period of preparation for the Yuletide.

We are also in the period of trying to finish off Thanksgiving leftovers. Today I said to my dining companion, "At some point, you're going to ask me what this is." 

What it was, was Thanksgiving casserole. A few days ago I turned part of the turkey into a diced, mushroom-rich pasta filling for home-made ravioli. (I'm not a great maker of egg pasta, but it's fun sometimes to do different things.) Today I took what was left of that, which was quite a lot because it turns out you only put a teaspoon of filling in each ravioli, and mixed it with other leftovers. I put in the leftover macaroni and cheese, the leftover cornbread stuffing, the leftover gravy, mixed it all thoroughly, and baked it with some additional cheese on top. It didn't look like much of anything, but it tasted pretty good.

As we polish off the remaining leftovers, we can turn our attention to what kinds of festival foods we'll want to make once the big feast arrives. I've decided to focus on meat pies and other "Great Pyes" this year, which is different from usual. This evening I'm trying out a recipe for Scottish Steak Pie, a Hogmanay classic, to see what I'd want to change about it to make it as good as it can be come New Year's Eve.