Plato's Laws VI, 3

Of the modification of the laws over time, the Athenian admits its necessity but is clearly greatly bothered by it. In fact, he can barely bring himself to speak of it; almost the whole section that is supposed to be about letting future generations alter the laws turns out to be a long discourse on the importance of good courtship and marriage rituals. 

The initial argument for accepting that modification should be permitted is a metaphor, or analogy, to a painter who wishes not just to perfect a painting but to keep it looking good through the ages.

Ath. Suppose that some one had a mind to paint a figure in the most beautiful manner, in the hope that his work instead of losing would always improve as time went on-do you not see that being a mortal, unless he leaves some one to succeed him who will correct the flaws which time may introduce, and be able to add what is left imperfect through the defect of the artist, and who will further brighten up and improve the picture, all his great labour will last but a short time?

Cle. True.

Ath. And is not the aim of the legislator similar? First, he desires that his laws should be written down with all possible exactness; in the second place, as time goes on and he has made an actual trial of his decrees, will he not find omissions? Do you imagine that there ever was a legislator so foolish as not to know that many things are necessarily omitted, which some one coming after him must correct, if the constitution and the order of government is not to deteriorate, but to improve in the state which he has established?

Cle. Assuredly, that is the sort of thing which every one would desire...

Ath. As we are about to legislate and have chosen our guardians of the law, and are ourselves in the evening of life, and they as compared with us are young men, we ought not only to legislate for them, but to endeavour to make them not only guardians of the law but legislators themselves, as far as this is possible.

So they agree that the young must be taught to be guardians of the law, and the Athenian proposes a speech to try to convince the young of the importance of doing this. Yet almost at once he begins talking about marriage: how to structure society so that there is proper interaction between families, so that potential brides will be known to families into which they might marry; the importance of games and sports and dances for the youth, where they will get to know one another (including, he states, in various 'states of undress appropriate to the sport, such as modesty allows). There is a restatement of the rule that all men must be married by thirty-five, or else pay various fines and penalties; and of the bar on dowries, which is relaxed a bit (especially for the rich) provided that even more fines are paid. 

The Athenian proposes here an explicitly anti-eugenic arrangement, whereby the rich must marry the poor and the intelligent must marry the "slow." He argues that "[e]very man shall follow, not after the marriage which is most pleasing to himself, but after that which is most beneficial to the state." That principle is from the Republic, but the mode of marriage being proposed in the Laws is the exact opposite of the Republic's model. 

Presumably this is of the utmost importance in the Athenian's mind toward ensuring that there is a well-settled, disciplined population into which the adjustment of the laws might be trusted. The segue is not clearly justified, so it must be a thought that follows so naturally in the Athenian's mind -- and perhaps in Plato's, though it is important to keep their identities separate given Plato's love of irony -- that he doesn't see why anyone would need a justification for what seems to me like a significant departure. Indeed, he not only does not justify the departure, he returns to the subject for a single (rather lengthy) sentence, and then immediately dives back into marriage. 

In any case, right in the middle of this discussion of marriage he does eventually tell us what he thinks the process for amending the laws should be. It should be a ten year apprenticeship, with the original legislator working with a younger man to adjust the laws of the colony as they find the need. Once that ten years is past, the laws should be fixed in a permanent form. No adjustments should be possible except with the unanimous consent of many different people:

Ath. A ten years experience of sacrifices and dances, if extending to all particulars, will be quite sufficient; and if the legislator be alive they shall communicate with him, but if he be dead then the several officers shall refer the omissions which come under their notice to the guardians of the law, and correct them, until all is perfect; and from that time there shall be no more change, and they shall establish and use the new laws with the others which the legislator originally gave them, and of which they are never, if they can help, to change aught; or, if some necessity overtakes them, the magistrates must be called into counsel, and the whole people, and they must go to all the oracles of the Gods; and if they are all agreed, in that case they may make the change, but if they are not agreed, by no manner of means, and any one who dissents shall prevail, as the law ordains.

Now this is a city of 5,040 households, which is perhaps the size of a small town. Has anyone been to a town council where there was no dissenter on any public question of importance? 

A similar regulation affects NATO, by the way; it was brought into being in spite of significant distrust among its member states, and consequently it cannot act nor change any of its regulations except by the consent of all members. That gives each state a great deal of confidence that the alliance will not be turned into an oppressive system: every state can object to any decision, and any such objection shall rule. 

NATO was nevertheless highly functional for decades, and won the Cold War, and even today it manages joint actions in various places. Turkey's drift towards China and Iran (and Russia) suggests that the alliance may no longer be capable of achieving its original major project, though fortunately Russia is less threatening than was the USSR. 

So perhaps there is something to be said for this suggestion, since it seems to remove much of the danger of tyranny. You will have known the laws when you joined the colony, and if you get through the ten years without having reason to object to them (in which case exile or outlawry is the path of the good man), you will gain a household veto on any new laws. It will be hard to change the laws yourself, should you wish to do so, but in return you gain a measure of stability and confidence that the government will not be turned against you (as the NATO members feared the alliance might be). 

On the other hand, the system is highly non-adaptable. Our own constitution would probably not have survived a similar process, even if every state rather than every household were given the veto.  In fact the only one of our amendments to occur in the first ten years was the 11th (the Bill of Rights having been passed at the same time). 

Back on the first hand, however, Plato's colony is not intended as an expansionist project. The big compromises of the first decades of the United States were over expansion as it changed the balance of power between the states. Aside from that, the 13-15th amendments were products of the war that was sparked in part because of the changes in the balance of power brought about by the introduction of new states, slave or free; and the 17th-21st were reactions to mass immigration, chiefly, which Plato's colony would forbid. (The 19th would presumably not have been necessary in any case, given Plato's view of equality for women.) The 16th we'd have been better off without; the 22nd was really just a restatement of a traditional principle that FDR chose to violate; the others are mostly small adjustments. If the United States had remained in its original form, perhaps many of the changes that followed later would not have been needed.

Of course, it is not merely constitutional amendments that Plato's colony would enact only by unanimous consent, but any sort of changes to the law. The largest and most obvious objection is that this might have prevented us from abolishing slavery; by coincidence, slavery is the subject of the next and last part of my commentary on this book.

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