Laws VI, 4

This will be the last part of Laws VI, at which point we are halfway through the larger work. Those of you who are getting tired of this can breathe a sigh of relief, or else groan as you realize that there's still just as much to go as we've hit so far.

The closing section has more on marriage, and the proper regulation of recently-married couples to ensure they are properly prolific. Plato views this as a kind of moral duty, so that if you're doing your job and having lots of kids, man and wife can be treated as an honorable member of the community; if not, they need to be taken in hand by a band of elder ladies, and watched over carefully to make sure they're getting the job done. If it doesn't work out after ten years, they're to be divorced by the state and reassigned. Women are meant to marry the first time between 16 and 20, so ten years will give them a plausible second shot if they were married to an impotent husband. Marriage is meant to be for the good of the state, and not for individual happiness, so an unproductive marriage is to be dissolved even if the two partners were happy with each other.

There's also more on urban defense, cached in a discussion about the physical layout of a city. The upshot of this section is that the Athenian is against having city walls, because they make people lazy by making them feel safe. By leaving the city exposed, vigor in defending the city from all suspicious approaches will be maintained -- and thus, a more virtuous citizenry. "Walls ought to be of bronze and iron, and not of earth."

There are also two more important sections on female equality as regards defense. The Athenian is pro-conscription of all, men and women, for service. Women may not be assigned the same duties as men -- this is a time when the major weapons were heavy bronze armor and violent physical combat -- but they should be assigned duties and expected to serve in them. They do get off earlier, at age 50 rather than 60, but there is here too a kind of proportionate equality being maintained.

The other section has to do with public meals, which you may remember from way back in the beginning of the work. Public meals came about because of a necessity of defense, so that the city took to providing regular meals for the fighting men so they wouldn't have to worry about any of their fighters being too hungry to be effective. The Athenian spends a lot of time talking up this practice, and very hesitantly suggesting that he has an idea for improvement that he's very nervous about mentioning to his companions. After a long time, it turns out the idea is that women should be made to come and eat at public meals too -- the effects on communal spirit and public morale are so great that women as well as men should be required to appear, and take their food at the public mess.

Why is he so nervous about suggesting this? Not because of the men! He's worried about an outcry from the women, who will be so outraged at having their eating habits exposed in public that no legislator could hope to withstand them. 

Ath. The careful consideration of this matter, and the arranging and ordering on a common principle of all our institutions relating both to men and women, greatly conduces to the happiness of the state. But at present, such is the unfortunate condition of mankind, that no man of sense will even venture to speak of common tables in places and cities in which they have never been established at all; and how can any one avoid being utterly ridiculous, who attempts to compel women to show in public how much they eat and drink? There is nothing at which the sex is more likely to take offence. For women are accustomed to creep into dark places, and when dragged out into the light they will exert their utmost powers of resistance, and be far too much for the legislator. 

Even the godlike legislator of the Laws quails before women who don't want to be told what to do, or be seen to be eating too much by their society. 

All of this is interesting, but the real pearl in this final section of Book VI is the discussion of slavery. Though we reject slavery, I think rightly, as you shall see the discussion remains important because it generalizes to power relations of all kinds. It is fairly short, so I will quote it liberally. 

Ath. There is no difficulty either in understanding or acquiring most kinds of property, but there is great difficulty in what relates to slaves. And the reason is that we speak about them in a way which is right and which is not right; for what we say about our slaves is consistent and also inconsistent with our practice about them.

Megillus. I do not understand, Stranger, what you mean.

Ath. I am not surprised, Megillus, for the state of the Helots among the Lacedaemonians is of all Hellenic forms of slavery the most controverted and disputed about, some approving and some condemning it; there is less dispute about the slavery which exists among the Heracleots, who have subjugated the Mariandynians, and about the Thessalian Penestae. Looking at these and the like examples, what ought we to do concerning property in slaves? I made a remark, in passing, which naturally elicited a question about my meaning from you. It was this:-We know that all would agree that we should have the best and most attached slaves whom we can get. For many a man has found his slaves better in every way than brethren or sons, and many times they have saved the lives and property of their masters and their whole house-such tales are well known.

Meg. To be sure.

Ath. But may we not also say that the soul of the slave is utterly corrupt, and that no man of sense ought to trust them? And the wisest of our poets, speaking of Zeus, says:

"Far-seeing Zeus takes away half the understanding of men whom the day of slavery subdues." [This is from the Odyssey --Grim]

Different persons have got these two different notions of slaves in their minds-some of them utterly distrust their servants, and, as if they were wild beasts, chastise them with goads and whips, and make their souls three times, or rather many times, as slavish as they were before;-and others do just the opposite.... man is a troublesome animal, and therefore he is not very manageable, nor likely to become so, when you attempt to introduce the necessary division, slave, and freeman, and master.

Cle. That is obvious.

Ath. He is a troublesome piece of goods, as has been often shown by the frequent revolts of the Messenians, and the great mischiefs which happen in states having many slaves who speak the same language, and the numerous robberies and lawless life of the Italian banditti, as they are called. A man who considers all this is fairly at a loss. Two remedies alone remain to us-not to have the slaves of the same country, nor if possible, speaking the same language; in this way they will more easily be held in subjection: secondly, we should tend them carefully, not only out of regard to them, but yet more out of respect to ourselves. And the right treatment of slaves is to behave properly to them, and to do to them, if possible, even more justice than to those who are our equals; for he who naturally and genuinely reverences justice, and hates injustice, is discovered in his dealings with any class of men to whom he can easily be unjust. And he who in regard to the natures and actions of his slaves is undefiled by impiety and injustice, will best sow the seeds of virtue in them; and this may be truly said of every master, and tyrant, and of every other having authority in relation to his inferiors. Slaves ought to be punished as they deserve, and not admonished as if they were freemen, which will only make them conceited. The language used to a servant ought always to be that of a command, and we ought not to jest with them, whether they are males or females-this is a foolish way which many people have of setting up their slaves, and making the life of servitude more disagreeable both for them and for their masters.

Ancient Greek slavery as depicted in Homer was especially of women, as was common throughout the ancient and medieval world. Women were skilled at textile production, weaving and dyeing, and this produced highly valuable and portable trade goods. Women were also generally less likely to revolt successfully and kill their masters; and so, when Troy falls to the Achaeans, like usual they kill all the men and older boys, and enslave all the women and girls. 

Yet the Helots are a major exception, which gets mentioned in this passage here. Perhaps the whole of Sparta's famous warlike nature arises from the Spartans' domination of a whole population of people called the Helots. Because they ruled over this whole tribe of people as lords over slaves, Spartans were constantly afraid of revolt and murder, and thus they organized their whole society to be eternally prepared for war in the ways that have made them so famous even today. 

The banditti of Italy, also mentioned, are escaped slaves who wage war against their former masters (and anyone else, perhaps feeling that it is only just for them to enslave others as they were once themselves enslaved). 

So there are big problems with slavery, and two basic approaches to dealing with it that the Athenian proposes. One is to keep the slaves divided, as by not keeping a lot of one tribe of people together -- better still if they can't speak to each other, because they are from different nations with different languages. Yet even then you have to recognize that attempting domination with the lash only multiplies your difficulties as a master:  the slaves get worse, more dangerous, more distant from you the more force you use to compel their obedience.

The second approach, then, is to adopt a moral view of slavery:  "... to do to them, if possible, even more justice than to those who are our equals; for he who naturally and genuinely reverences justice, and hates injustice, is discovered in his dealings with any class of men to whom he can easily be unjust."

This basic moral principle applies, as he notes, to all other power relations. This raises an interesting question, though, which I will leave open in the hope of encouraging debate.  Can you "be even more just" to someone you keep as a slave?  More broadly, and thus more importantly, how can you be 'even more just' to someone while exercising power over them?  

There's another problem: on Plato's model, what is supposed to justify exercising power is possession of virtue. At least some slaves are noted in the passage as being more virtuous than their masters (this made me think of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where Pompey is not a slave but is a servant who adopts slave-like behaviors, yet is clearly the moral superior to the Wayne character and is completely and wisely trusted by him). This model clearly is only realizable in the case where some sort of justice, and not the lash, is used by the master; yet it still seems as if even this best model of slavery represents an inversion of Plato's moral ideal that power justly resides with virtue. 

So with that I will leave it open.

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