Plato's Laws VI, 2

These next two days are potentially momentous, politically; but few of us are in a position to have even an indirect effect on the outcome. Thus, I shall try to studiously ignore the matters of the moment in favor of the more important matters of the eternal. Let's return to Plato's Laws, Book VI.

While I am going to continue to ignore the discussion of particular offices, e.g. how judges and magistrates should be distinguished, I do want to note in passing the truth of something Plato has to say about the officer in charge of education.

Ath. There remains the minister of the education of youth, male and female; he too will rule according to law; one such minister will be sufficient, and he must be fifty years old, and have children lawfully begotten, both boys and girls by preference, at any rate, one or the other. He who is elected, and he who is the elector, should consider that of all the great offices of state, this is the greatest; for the first shoot of any plant, if it makes a good start towards the attainment of its natural excellence, has the greatest effect on its maturity; and this is not only true of plants, but of animals wild and tame, and also of men. Man, as we say, is a tame or civilized animal; nevertheless, he requires proper instruction and a fortunate nature, and then of all animals he becomes the most divine and most civilized; but if he be insufficiently or ill educated he is the most savage of earthly creatures. Wherefore the legislator ought not to allow the education of children to become a secondary or accidental matter. 

The idea that children must be properly trained less the advantages of civilization be lost to the worst kinds of savagery is an important one. This is, as he says, in some ways the first business of a society. If it fails in this, as we appear to be doing in spite of sending more children to more years of education than ever before, there is a great peril of failing in everything. 

That dire point aside, note Plato's interest in ensuring that the girls and boys are both considered in education. It's not just that he mentions "youth male and female," but that his ideal officer will be someone who has successfully raised both sons and daughters. (I would not qualify, both because I'm not quite old enough and because I've only raised a son.) 

Plato has the Athenian restate this view of equality in his discussion of the final purpose of life and of the state:

Ath. There was one main point about which we were agreed-that a man's whole energies throughout life should be devoted to the acquisition of the virtue proper to a man, whether this was to be gained by study, or habit, or some mode of acquisition, or desire, or opinion, or knowledge-and this applies equally to men and women, old and young-the aim of all should always be such as I have described; anything which may be an impediment, the good man ought to show that he utterly disregards.

It is not merely that women are capable of some virtues, and should be encouraged to develop the ones that they can; but that, exactly like men, the whole business of their lives should be the inculcation of virtue. Courage, temperance, justice, all these things are just as important for women as men. 

This is familiar ground for readers of the Republic, but it's even more strongly stated in the Laws. In the Republic, Socrates defends merely the proposition that highly capable women should be admitted to the Guardian or Auxiliary classes, 'though it is hardly to be expected that they are going to be the equals of the men in those classes.' The view of the Republic is eugenic, in that the hope is that the classes will breed true, although some measures are taken to push failures back into the lower classes. The Laws view is not: all citizens, male and female, are to be educated and taught to strive for virtue to the best of their ability. 

This last passage is immediately followed by a remark, perhaps important to us today, about what is to be done if the civilization ultimately fails and falls into vice.

Ath. And if at last necessity plainly compels him to be an outlaw from his native land, rather than bow his neck to the yoke of slavery and be ruled by inferiors, and he has to fly, an exile he must be and endure all such trials, rather than accept another form of government, which is likely to make men worse. 

Death before dishonor; become an outlaw before submitting to tyranny. This much I wholly endorse.

There are two more matters in this book before we finish with it that each deserve their own section. The first is the matter of leaving the legislative power to future generations, so they may correct flaws while hopefully not undermining the original project. The second is a discussion of slavery, which even this idealized ancient society did not imagine it could avoid. 


Elise said...

an exile he must be and endure all such trials, rather than accept another form of government, which is likely to make men worse.

What if all places to which one can exile oneself have forms of government, which are likely to make men worse?

Grim said...

An excellent question. What then?

Elise said...

Perhaps if one flees into exile it lessens or eliminates the dishonor of living under “another form of government”. In my own polity, I am responsible for the form the government takes; in a foreign polity, I am a guest and so am not responsible.

To use an analogy: in my own home I am responsible for it being clean and well-ordered; when I am a guest in another’s home I am not and, in fact, it would be rude for me to comment on the house being ill-run and ruder still for me to attempt to clean and order it.

This assumes, obviously, that there is simply nothing that can be done about one's home government, that the case is hopeless and the only choices are to leave or to lend legitimacy to a vice-ridden government by continuing to live under it.

Grim said...

Not obviously. I notice that Plato doesn’t contemplate revolution as an option; Aristotle talks about it as a danger to be avoided, mostly.