Plato's Laws IX, 5

There is a whole school of interpreting philosophy, following Leo Strauss, that believes in reading philosophers ironically or without assuming they're really saying what they mean. The argument, which Strauss developed with care over many works, invokes the fact that death was always the likely fate of especially political and moral philosophers who disagreed with their society's elites. Socrates was executed; Aristotle nearly so, having to flee Athens to escape that fate; numerous Christian philosophers either were charged with heresy or threatened with it; and even in our own age, the fate of thinkers in many parts of the world has been grim. 

When Plato reaches the end of Book IX, he says something that makes me wonder if a reading like that is plausible. Strauss apparently posthumously published a book on the Laws, and perhaps when I'm done I will look it over. I am intentionally not reading other people's thoughts on the work before I've encountered the work and finished this set of notes about it; later I will compare my thoughts with those of others, to see where they provide insight or illumination to things I may have missed on my own. 

(Generally this is a good way to read serious philosophy, in my experience. You want to directly encounter Plato and Aristotle, etc., and form clear ideas of your own about the problems they are raising. Then, when you encounter scholars who have studied them with care, you will not merely assume their opinion; you will have brought something of your own out of the work as well. It is a matter for historians to decide which of you was right, if either; the work of philosophy is to struggle with the hardest problems of human life. You should do that yourself, and not simply be told what to think even by the Wise.)

Akratēs was the problem of the last section, and the Athenian's firm conclusion appears to be that all evil actions are involuntary. If one was not ignorant, seeing the truth of what was right and best, one would act according to a moral principle. Now he realizes that acting according to principle can sometimes bring harms -- a difference from Aristotle, for whom virtue as a state of character brings success, not just a principled decision. (Aristotle is proto-pragmatic in this way: you can judge the virtue of a man in part by how successful he is in noble undertakings.)

Ath. And now I can define to you clearly, and without ambiguity, what I mean by the just and unjust, according to my notion of them:-When anger and fear, and pleasure and pain, and jealousies and desires, tyrannize over the soul, whether they do any harm or not-I call all this injustice. But when the opinion of the best, in whatever part of human nature states or individuals may suppose that to dwell, has dominion in the soul and orders the life of every man, even if it be sometimes mistaken, yet what is done in accordance therewith, the principle in individuals which obeys this rule, and is best for the whole life of man, is to be called just; although the hurt done by mistake is thought by many to be involuntary injustice. Leaving the question of names, about which we are not going to quarrel, and having already delineated three sources of error, we may begin by recalling them somewhat more vividly to our memory:-One of them was of the painful sort, which we denominate anger and fear.

So the idea here -- similar to Kant, really -- is that one can only act freely when acting according to a rational moral principle. Otherwise, one is being driven along by base nature, and not really voluntarily choosing an action. Thus, all evils are involuntary in this special sense; all principled actions are good, even if they lead to harm "by mistake." 

Having established that "clearly, and without ambiguity," the Athenian proceeds into a very extended discussion of different kinds of homicide. What turns out to be extremely important to just punishment of these different kinds, though, is whether or not the decision was voluntary.

Ath. Having begun to speak of homicide, let us endeavour to lay down laws concerning every different kind of homicides, and, first of all, concerning violent and involuntary homicides. If any one in an athletic contest, and at the public games, involuntarily kills a friend, and he dies either at the time or afterwards of the blows which he has received; or if the like misfortune happens to any one in war, or military exercises, or mimic contests. of which the magistrates enjoin the practice, whether with or without arms, when he has been purified according to the law brought from Delphi relating to these matters, he shall be innocent. And so in the case of physicians: if their patient dies against their will, they shall be held guiltless...

Now remember that theft was to be punished the same way regardless of whether much or little was stolen, because all theft is of a kind: an involuntary overwhelming of the deciding capacity by some pleasure, or avoidance of pain, or passion, etc. Supposedly we've established that all wrongs are involuntary. But the very first question, and one explored at extreme length -- much too long to quote -- is all the ways in which a crime can be more or less voluntary. 

So a man who kills a fellow citizen at the warlike athletics is to be forgiven after ritual purification; that we already knew from earlier books. The city prospers by maintaining so vigorous and warlike a population, enough to justify the occasional death in training. What if you did mean to kill a fellow citizen, though? Well, one case is it might be your spouse, and done in a matter of passion; that deserves one level of punishment because of the strength of the passion (i.e., it was less voluntary because an ordinary person could be expected to be more overwhelmed in a case like this). This goes on and on. What if you used an assassin, and thus freely chose to murder, and also corrupted someone else into choosing to carry out the murder for you? Etc., etc.

It leaves me with the question as to whether the discussion of akratēs was ever serious at all. It seems to be; Plato returns to the problem over and over throughout his works. Per Aristotle, we believe Socrates took this to be a serious proposition. Is Plato here ironically refuting him, by first declaring for the principle and then showing at length that ordinary notions of justice completely reject it? That, indeed, the question of intent and voluntary choice pervades our ideas about justice?

Or are these issues somehow severable in his mind? Perhaps what he means is that 'in a way' these acts are involuntary; but 'in another way' they are obviously chosen after deliberation in some cases, and in other cases were not chosen but just happened. Even here, though, we are not in a clean binary between 'in a way' voluntary cases and complete mistakes or accidents; there are very fine degrees of voluntary choice and deliberation examined.

It's curious. See what you think of it.

1 comment:

Eric Blair said...

That's an interesting thought.