Plato's Laws VII, 2

From the education of the young we turn to the need to regulate the rules of games, so that all children shall learn to play the same games in the same way (and thus ensure the development of the same, good, qualities). There is an invocation of the dangers of change of any kind whatsoever (with the sole exception of 'change from the bad') and a general curse on the character of the kind of people who love innovation. 

One wonders how much of this is Plato being old, rather than Plato being philosophical. But then he turns from games to festivals, and extracts from the Egyptians a system that looks almost like the system the Catholic Church actually achieved through the Middle Ages -- a system that is responsible for all the delightful folk festivals we admire from a distance, folk customs of unknown antiquity that have been turned to sacred purposes and the good of the community.

Ath. Can any of us imagine a better mode of effecting this object than that of the Egyptians?

Cle. What is their method?

Ath. To consecrate every sort of dance or melody. First we should ordain festivals-calculating for the year what they ought to be, and at what time, and in honour of what Gods, sons of Gods, and heroes they ought to be celebrated; and, in the next place, what hymns ought to be sung at the several sacrifices, and with what dances the particular festival is to be honoured. This has to be arranged at first by certain persons, and, when arranged, the whole assembly of the citizens are to offer sacrifices and libations to the Fates and all the other Gods, and to consecrate the several odes to gods and heroes: and if any one offers any other hymns or dances to any one of the Gods, the priests and priestesses, acting in concert with the guardians of the law, shall, with the sanction of religion and the law, exclude him, and he who is excluded, if he do not submit, shall be liable all his life long to have a suit of impiety brought against him by any one who likes.

The Church arranged that every festival would fall on a day that was available to be sacred for one reason or another, and encouraged that such festivals be brought within the confines of the sacred as far as possible. (Christmas, surprisingly to contemporary Americans, was the one they had the most trouble with: it was so riotous as to be regularly the subject of legislation, and its celebration in Scotland was banned for so long that New Year's became the occasion of the winter festival -- Hogmanay, as we were recently discussing.) 

The Church also managed to attain something like the degree of separation from history that the Athenian proposes as the ideal. These customs' origins and longevity are forgotten; no one in the little village can say how long this particular festival to St. Cuthbert (or whomever) has lasted.

Ath. For when they have been brought up in certain laws, which by some Divine Providence have remained unchanged during long ages, so that no one has any memory or tradition of their ever having been otherwise than they are, then every one is afraid and ashamed to change that which is established. The legislator must somehow find a way of implanting this reverence for antiquity, and I would propose the following way:-People are apt to fancy, as I was saying before, that when the plays of children are altered they are merely plays, not seeing that the most serious and detrimental consequences arise out of the change; and they readily comply with the child's wishes instead of deterring him, not considering that these children who make innovations in their games, when they grow up to be men, will be different from the last generation of children, and, being different, will desire a different sort of life, and under the influence of this desire will want other institutions and laws; and no one of them reflects that there will follow what I just now called the greatest of evils to states. 

Were these happy outcomes? We have the testimony of J.R.R. Tolkien and others that they were much to be envied, and their wearing away due to the Modern period much to be regretted. There is some danger, as AVI has been reminding us, that this is merely nostalgia; on the other hand, Tolkien seems to have maintained this opinion throughout his life, and not merely when he was as old as Plato was when the Laws were composed. 

Now in earlier books we heard that the old men should be the proper judges anyway of what was right and best, but here is an alternative: what seems right through all ages might have a claim to be better yet than that which seems right at any single age only. Yet then we have to ask whether it is not a particular character that is able to value these things in youth as well as age; I know old men who celebrate novelty, and bemoan how slow our society is to change. Whom shall judge continues to be a problem.

There is the usual argument about non-sacred songs at Christmas... er, sacred festivals.

Ath. If when a sacrifice is going on, and the victims are being burnt according to law-if, I say, any one who may be a son or brother, standing by another at the altar and over the victims, horribly blasphemes, will not his words inspire despondency and evil omens and forebodings in the mind of his father and of his other kinsmen?

Cle. Of course.

Ath. And this is just what takes place in almost all our cities. A magistrate offers a public sacrifice, and there come in not one but many choruses, who take up a position a little way from the altar, and from time to time pour forth all sorts of horrible blasphemies on the sacred rites, exciting the souls of the audience with words and rhythms and melodies... Now, ought we not to forbid such strains as these?... [W]e should avoid every word of evil omen; let that kind of song which is of good omen be heard everywhere and always in our state. I need hardly ask again, but shall assume that you agree with me.

And we also get a restatement of the importance of regulating poets and songwriters, to ensure that they produce nothing that does not embrace what is good and noble. Plato returns to that as often as Tolkien did to the good of the English countryside; it is one of his most certain conceptions, and one with which I am most inclined to disagree. Yet by the same principle I just raised for consideration, perhaps we should reconsider it; and also, since so much that both he and Tolkien agreed was good arose from this system, perhaps it too deserves more consideration than I'm inclined to give to such a controlled and unfree system. 

1 comment:

J Melcher said...

Plato and Tolkien and also Moses.

The so-called Noahide "laws" -- which Moses is attributed to have said to have been ordained by the Hebrew's supreme God over all righteous gentiles serving other lesser gods -- include about 2.5 out of 7 dealing with just this sort of blasphemy. Cursing, idolatry, and courts with jurisdiction over crimes including those as on par with murder and theft.

American "exceptionalism" somehow managed for a couple of centuries to avoid putting laws and courts over questions of God, lesser gods, or the sacred and profane. Dedicated to NOT imposing such laws. Ensuring dispute. Free exercise, free press, free speech ... Plato would be aghast. And yet it worked. For a while.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether this nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.