Plato's Laws VII

The seventh book of the Laws begins with a piece that must be nearly the first in the genre of philosophers giving advice on how to raise babies. One of my favorites of these is Kant's work, On Education, which is the easiest Kant you'll ever read and also the funniest. It's funny in part because of the hilarious suggestions Kant comes up with about things he plainly knows nothing whatsoever about, like breastfeeding. The Athenian likewise has some ideas about how it is important to educate the child from the stage of the embryo by constantly walking about as a mother, and then having nurses to transport the child back and forth, because motion is so important to its education -- while, however, keeping it swaddled so that it can't in fact move at all. We may safely set these sections aside.

Of greater interest is a point on which Kant and Plato clash, which is the importance of liberty for young children. Kant puts it this way:
First, we must allow the child from his earliest childhood perfect liberty in every respect (except on those occasions when he might. hurt himself-as, for instance, when he clutches must be at a knife), provided that in acting so he does the liberty not interfere with the liberty of others.

The Athenian gives it this way:

Ath.  [A]t [ages] three, four, five, and even six years the childish nature will require sports; now is the time to get rid of self-will in him, punishing him, but not so as to disgrace him. We were saying about slaves, that we ought neither to add insult to punishment so as to anger them, nor yet to leave them unpunished lest they become self-willed; and a like rule is to be observed in the case of the free-born.... The nurses are to see that the children behave properly and orderly-they themselves and all their companies are to be under the control of twelve matrons... annually selected... whom the guardians of the law appoint. These matrons shall be chosen by the women who have authority over marriage,... if any citizen disputes the punishment, let her bring him before the wardens of the city; or, if there be no dispute, let her punish him herself.

Perfect liberty in every respect is definitely not what the Athenian has in mind, but rather careful training in the customs and culture of the city. Plato's work endorses the very thing that Kant hoped to throw out, that is, the authority of customs and traditions that are merely inherited. Kant would argue that such things are accidents of a sort, rather than rationally derived; Plato's Athenian argues that we can see the rationality of them in the fact that cities survive or perish based on how strongly the old customs are held.

Ath. That all the matters which we are now describing are commonly called by the general name of unwritten customs, and what are termed the laws of our ancestors are all of similar nature. And the reflection which lately arose in our minds, that we can neither call these things laws, nor yet leave them unmentioned, is justified; for they are the bonds of the whole state, and come in between the written laws which are or are hereafter to be laid down; they are just ancestral customs of great antiquity, which, if they are rightly ordered and made habitual, shield and preserve the previously existing written law; but if they depart from right and fall into disorder, then they are like the props of builders which slip away out of their Place and cause a universal ruin-one part drags another down, and the fair super-structure falls because the old foundations are undermined. Reflecting upon this, Cleinias, you ought to bind together the new state in every possible way, omitting nothing, whether great or small, of what are called laws or manners or pursuits, for by these means a city is bound together, and all these things are only lasting when they depend upon one another; and, therefore, we must not wonder if we find that many apparently trifling customs or usages come pouring in and lengthening out our laws.

There follows a section on the importance of martial training, both for boys and for girls (if, the Athenian says, the girl does not object to being exposed to it -- a liberty the boys are not granted, but similar to his concern from book six that women will probably protest being subjected to eating at the public mess so strongly that they probably can't be forced to do it). 

He has a proposal in case they do object, though, which is that the girls should be taught to dance in armor -- in honor of Athena, I believe, the virgin warrior-goddess. The boys likewise will engage in warlike parades and such, clad in armor throughout the exercises in order to develop their ability to work in armor for long periods of time. 

Ath. After the age of six years the time has arrived for the separation of the sexes-let boys live with boys, and girls in like manner with girls. Now they must begin to learn-the boys going to teachers of horsemanship and the use of the bow, the javelin, and sling, and the girls too, if they do not object, at any rate until they know how to manage these weapons, and especially how to handle heavy arms... 

Ath. The custom of the Scythians proves [that we should teach fighting equally with both right and left hands]; for they not only hold the bow from them with the left hand and draw the arrow to them with their right, but use either hand for both purposes.... [this] may be of very great importance to the warrior who has to use iron weapons, bows and javelins, and the like; above all, when in heavy armour, he has to fight against heavy armour. And there is a very great difference between one who has learnt and one who has not, and between one who has been trained in gymnastic exercises and one who has not been. For as he who is perfectly skilled in the Pancratium or boxing or wrestling, is not unable to fight from his left side, and does not limp and draggle in confusion when his opponent makes him change his position, so in heavy-armed fighting...

Education has two branches-one of gymnastic, which is concerned with the body, and the other of music, which is designed for the improvement of the soul. And gymnastic has also two branches-dancing and wrestling; and one sort of dancing imitates musical recitation, and aims at preserving dignity and freedom,... Nor, again, must we omit suitable imitations of war in our choruses; here in Crete you have the armed dances if the Curetes, and the Lacedaemonians have those of the Dioscuri. And our virgin lady, delighting in the amusement of the dance, thought it not fit to amuse herself with empty hands; she must be clothed in a complete suit of armour, and in this attire go through the dance; and youths and maidens should in every respect imitate her, esteeming highly the favour of the Goddess, both with a view to the necessities of war, and to festive occasions: it will be right also for the boys, until such time as they go out to war, to make processions and supplications to all the Gods in goodly array, armed and on horseback, in dances, and marches, fast or slow, offering up prayers to the Gods and to the sons of Gods[.]

Now this is a point of agreement between Plato and Kant, the latter of whom also is very interested in the physical education of the youth as well as their moral and intellectual education. It is a point on which our own systems fall down: whereas Kant proposes mountain climbing as a regular part of education, and Plato has warlike exercises, we sit our kids in desks for hours every day, perhaps with a few minutes of recess or supervised games. Far better would their lives be, and perhaps their educations, if their physical nature was engaged as much as we hope to engage their mental capacities. 

1 comment:

james said...

Without the courtesies of affection you need the courtesies of custom, and without either you need a limitless number of laws.

"The smoke from your burning leaves is aggravating my mother's asthma."