Plato's Laws IX, 2: Treason and its Fruits

When we get to the highest crime that America knows how to recognize, treason, the Athenian is willing to allow for corruption of the blood -- but only in extreme cases. 

Ath. Next, after what relates to the Gods, follows what relates to the dissolution of the state:-Whoever by promoting a man to power enslaves the laws, and subjects the city to factions, using violence and stirring up sedition contrary to law, him we will deem the greatest enemy of the whole state. But he who takes no part in such proceedings, and, being one of the chief magistrates of the state, has no knowledge of the treason, or, having knowledge of it, by reason of cowardice does not interfere on behalf of his country, such an one we must consider nearly as bad. Every man who is worth anything will inform the magistrates, and bring the conspirator to trial for making a violent and illegal attempt to change the government. The judges of such cases shall be the same as of the robbers of temples; and let the whole proceeding be carried on in the same way, and the vote of the majority condemn to death. But let there be a general rule, that the disgrace and punishment of the father is not to be visited on the children, except in the case of some one whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather have successively undergone the penalty of death. Such persons the city shall send away with all their possessions to the city and country of their ancestors, retaining only and wholly their appointed lot. And out of the citizens who have more than one son of not less than ten years of age, they shall select ten whom their father or grandfather by the mother's or father's side shall appoint, and let them send to Delphi the names of those who are selected, and him whom the God chooses they shall establish as heir of the house which has failed; and may he have better fortune than his predecessors!

I'm trying to think of a family that has attempted to dissolve a state for three generations running, let alone four. The Jacobites come close,* with an important clarification: they were in fact the lawful kings who were themselves overthrown. Their generations-long attempt to overthrow the British state was (in their eyes and the eyes of their supporters) an attempt to restore the lawful state rather than to dissolve the current one. Even then you get only James II (Battle of the Boyne), James 'the Old Pretender' (1715 uprising), and Bonny Prince Charlie -- after the 1745 uprising there were no more.  Bonny Prince Charlie's great-grandfather was Charles II, the Merry Monarch, beloved and successful king of England and Scotland.

In any case it worked out more or less as the Athenian wanted: the Stewarts repaired themselves abroad, and after the direct line died out, their claim passed to obscure members of the European nobility. You've probably never heard of the current heir.

The definition of treason here is less strict than ours. The Founders gave it as actually waging war against the state, or giving aid and comfort to those who do; here it is merely 'a violent and illegal attempt to change the government.' Of course as a practical matter, claims of treason usually end up with both sides charging each other with violence and illegality. In the famous (and in my opinion heroic) Battle of Athens, a band of World War II veterans in Tennessee seized arms and overthrew the local government; but the local government was actively involved in voter intimidation and stealing an election. It is definitely true that the losing side would have accused the winning side of 'a violent and illegal attempt to change the government' if they'd managed to come out on top. That they were themselves breaking the law, having seized the ballot boxes by force of arms under color of law, would have seemed immaterial to them.

For this reason I have come to the surprising conclusion over the years that treason isn't always wrong; that perhaps, just as blasphemy has been effectively dissolved as a crime, treason ought to be too. Perhaps just as we no longer consider God's interest in the law, or 'the gods',' we should no longer consider the state's. What we should consider is whether the act was done to keep men free, or to make them subject; to uphold the natural rights, or to suppress them. 

* Kant definitely did not approve of the Jacobite cause, which to him seemed like a clear-cut case of treason. This gives rise to one of my favorite examples from Kantian ethics. Kant talks about the Jacobites to illuminate his view of honor. Consider two Jacobites captured waging war against the crown, the says. Both of them are offered a possible choice of punishment between death or slavery. The more virtuous man loves honor more than life. The Jacobite who was a man of honor would prefer death, because he is “acquainted with something that he values more highly than life, namely honor, while the scoundrel considers it better to live in shame than not at all.”

The right thing is to execute both, Kant says. The moral difference between them makes it right to give the man of honor what he prefers, and the scoundrel what he hates. (If any of you want to look that up, it's Metaphysics of Morals 6:334).


Tom said...

I hadn't heard of the current heir of the Jacobites, but we talked once at the Hall about an order he is a Grand Master of, that of the Order of St. Hubertus.

Upon his death, I believe it was reported that Justice Scalia was a member. That seems to have not been the case, but some of the people he was with apparently were.

Tom said...

Thinking about the Jacobites, their loss with James II was important for the founding of the US. I've read that John Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Government as an apology for the Glorious Revolution, and they in turn were very influential in the Colonies. As I recall, they lay out the right of revolution being based on natural law; the idea that the legitimacy of government depends on the consent of the governed; and that the government's primary role was the defense of the individual rights of life, liberty, and property.

So I think the Founders might have agreed with you about treason.

Grim said...

Not quite, since they codified a definition of treason into constitutional law. They weren't ready to dissolve the state's interests as such.

But they were definitely headed my way. It's clearer in the Declaration of Independence than in the Constitution itself, I think.

Tom said...

True, but then, when they were fighting for independence, they were committing treason, and when they were writing the Constitution, they were designing a nation. I think their compromise between the two was to try to create a constitution that focused on defending individual rights while preserving the nation.

Grim said...

So I guess my thought is that dissolving treason, as we dissolved blasphemy, would not be incompatible with preserving a nation. It would, however, put the state on thinner ice in terms of what it could get away with without resistance. Plato here is very insistent that attempting to overthrow the laws is itself a terrible crime; but he is also setting up the laws with a careful eye towards justice. Sometimes laws come to be that aren't all that just; sometimes even just laws are misapplied by a government that needs to be replaced.