Plato's Laws XI

You might have thought that we'd adequately covered business transactions in previous books, but no, it's the subject of Book XI as well. Now that we have the apparatus in place to punish people for wrongdoing, we need to re-examine punishments for immoral business practices -- which, surprise!, are often going to be treated as incidents of either blasphemy or treason.

In spite of this harshness, the book contains first principles that are really reasonable and moral. Here's the very opening, for example:

Ath. In the next place, dealings between man and man require to be suitably regulated. The principle of them is very simple:-Thou shalt not, if thou canst help, touch that which is mine, or remove the least thing which belongs to me without my consent; and may I be of a sound mind, and do to others as I would that they should do to me.

Who could object to these simple principles? I would like others to respect my property, and not handle or dispose of it without my consent; and, as a rational being, I recognize that I ought to extend this same protection to others since I want it myself. This is John Wayne stuff.

The Athenian immediately departs into a place more Beowulf than The Shootist. What to do if a man has laid up treasure in a tomb, and it is discovered, and none of his family remain behind? As we all know from the Beowulf (and The Hobbit) the best thing to do is not to touch it, not even one cup of it, lest you bring down the dragon. For Plato this isn't a literal dragon, nor even a literary one, but the punishment of the gods upon the soul of the man who 'takes up what he did not lay down.' You will not, the Athenian warns, do better financially than you will suffer in the quality of your soul if you steal treasure from the dead.

Similarly, when considering the trades -- innkeepers are his particular example here -- the Athenian lays down what at first sounds like a very moral and correct first principle. Trade is good! After all, it's just how we deal with the fact that Citizen A has lots of timber, more than he needs; and Citizen B has more honey than he can use, but might want some timber. Trade is how we get these inefficiencies dealt with, and goods distributed to those who need them. 

Ath. Retail trade in a city is not by nature intended to do any harm, but quite the contrary; for is not he a benefactor who reduces the inequalities and incommensurabilities of goods to equality and common measure? And this is what the power of money accomplishes, and the merchant may be said to be appointed for this purpose. The hireling and the tavern-keeper, and many other occupations, some of them more and others less seemly-alike have this object;-they seek to satisfy our needs and equalize our possessions.

Yes, he admits, we look down on these merchants; but if good and moral people were in these trades, they'd do so well that we'd think as well of these trades as of institutions like motherhood that are the business of the best kind of people.

Ath. For if what I trust may never be and will not be, we were to compel, if I may venture to say a ridiculous thing, the best men everywhere to keep taverns for a time, or carry on retail trade, or do anything of that sort; or if, in consequence of some fate or necessity, the best women were compelled to follow similar callings, then we should know how agreeable and pleasant all these things are; and if all such occupations were managed on incorrupt principles, they would be honoured as we honour a mother or a nurse. But now that a man goes to desert places and builds bouses which can only be reached be long journeys, for the sake of retail trade, and receives strangers who are in need at the welcome resting-place, and gives them peace and calm when they are tossed by the storm, or cool shade in the heat....

That's a wonderful service, as he correctly points out; the only problem is that innkeepers are greedy (he claims) and want to be paid extortionate prices for their hospitality, rather than treating their guests as friends. 

Now it might seem as if he has the principles in place to construct an admirable solution: assign these duties a special honor, and make them a part of the business of the kind of wealthy citizens for whom hospitality can be generous and profit from the service need not be tremendous. Of course he does not come to that conclusion, but the opposite one: no citizens should be allowed to participate in these ventures "either voluntarily or involuntarily," but only foreigners and resident aliens. Any citizen who runs an inn, or other tradesman-like ventures, is to be imprisoned for a year, and the punishment doubled and redoubled for any repeat offenses. 

Then, having restricted innkeeping etc. to the very class that will most need to make a profit from it, as they haven't other lands and ways of drawing incomes like the citizens do, we simply regulate them by law so that they must behave the way a generous citizen might. 

So, instead of following the argument to what seems like its natural conclusion, we follow the logic of the social class prejudice inherent in ancient Greece. These things are lowly; they would be better done if better people did them; therefore, no better people may do them, but only poor people who must be punished if they don't act as if they were richer than they are. 

Plato wasn't a businessman, and we've seen the Athenian's hostility to business throughout this work. Still, in a work that is supposedly structured to order society in such a way as to bring about moral improvements, here is a clear missed opportunity that his own stated principles might have led him to endorse.


Aggie said...

These are terrific posts, Grim.

I've got to confess, I've got a long-standing urge to create a 2-sided T-Shirt of the highest quality, with the front of it showing "WWJD?" (and a nice silk-screened graphic of Jesus, looking his most beneficent), while on the back side showing "WWJWD?", showing of course, The Duke.

This pretty much would encompass the entire decision process for any normal American Male on any given day, I think. When you boil it down, it's either one or the other.

Grim said...

Thanks! I'm glad you're enjoying them.

james said...

In how many places in the world have innkeepers been, on the whole, trustworthy? I have the impression that this has been somewhat more honest and honorable in the modern West, but I could be mislead by sampling bias in the literature.

Grim said...

It's hard to know the answer to that question; I don't have any sort of hard data on it. The literary tradition in the West goes on two tracks, too: you've got the "innkeepers will murder you/ have you murdered in your sleep" track (e.g. Psycho, or R.E.H.'s "Shadows in Zamboula"); or you've got the deeply trustworthy ordinary good guy innkeeper (e.g., Barliman of the Prancing Pony, or the goodwoman of the Pied Merlin, who marries Samkin Aylward after dutifully protecting his war trophies during Conan Doyle's The White Company).

It is worth noticing, I guess, that Plato isn't the first one to give them special attention; Hammurabi's Code has a lot to say about inns and alehouses.

E Hines said...

The literary tradition in the West goes on two tracks....

Maybe there's a third track: the innkeeper who's assumed fundamentally honest because he's present in the story as a necessary part of the background, but, being background, no commentary occurs relating to anything nefarious about him.

Or maybe the background nature of that portrayal takes him out of any track consideration.

Eric Hines