Plato's Laws XII: The End

At the end of his last dialogue, Plato has his Athenian return to the subject of virtue, its divisions, and its central importance to good governance. These arguments should be familiar even if you have only read my summary of Plato; students of Plato will know them backwards and forwards. Yet it is worth looking at them one last time, as he chooses to do.

The Athenian closes his long miscellany by raising a worry that, although they have set up excellent laws, the state's longevity and security has not been assured. He likens this to the spinning of wool, which needs a knot at the end to prevent the work from all coming undone. What sort of knot could ensure that all this carefully-spun pattern of laws and institutions should continue to hold together across generations? 

The answer that he comes to is to empower the nocturnal council with the power of serving as a general committee on the virtue of the citizenry and the state, which to a reader living after the French Revolution and the various Communist movements is as terrifying an answer as it is easy to contemplate. Let us agree that pragmatism has proven this approach to be a false answer. It is still worth looking through the argument to see if we could identify where it goes wrong.

First: keeping the state from going astray from virtue is analogical to navigating a ship to its proper destination, or leading an army to victory rather than defeat. Thus, just as a ship needs a captain and an army needs a general, someone needs to be firmly in charge of making sure that the proper end (virtue, the right destination, victory) is kept always in view and adjustments are made as necessary to get there.

Second: the state is like an animal's body in that it has different organs that serve different purposes. Just as an animal needs sense organs like eyes to identify threats in the world, the state will need a sense organ (apparently the sort of thing we would call an intelligence service, the Athenian proposing elements to survey both domestic and foreign environments). Just as the animal needs a mind to make decisions about what to do with the information sensed by the sense organs, the state will need a decision-making body. Just as the animal's mind will only be successful if it has the right kind of understanding to make correct judgments about what its senses detect, the decision-making body needs to be composed of individuals with a very high level of practical understanding.

Third: we call the qualities they will need "virtues," but we also call them collectively "virtue." The Athenian had already divided them all the way back in Book I into four parts (courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice). Now we get a very Socratic move: the right people to be on this council will be the ones who can say exactly why it's acceptable to call them four, and in what way they are separate; and also who can say why it is right to call them one, and in what way they are the same.

Socrates at least as Plato presents him to us was very concerned with this proposition. Virtue is a kind of knowledge, and thus is rational. Rationally, things are either one thing or they are more than one thing. They are a unity, or they are not a unity. Courage is a kind of wisdom, because it is a practical wisdom about what to do in the face of danger. It is a 'practical' wisdom because it embraces both the knowledge of what to do, and the capacity to do it. But if you have courage, then, you should be able to say exactly what it is that you have -- you should be able to give a rational account of this rational quality.

Back in Book One, I said that the Athenian gave an account that doesn't seem to follow a rational order of priority. Wisdom is the chief virtue, but a precondition for justice. If that's the way we rank the virtues, then the priority of wisdom arises from the fact that you must have it in order to attain the others; it is thus prior in the literal sense. Yet courage is also a precondition for justice, and it is said to be lesser ranked. Here in Book XII, the Athenian says that courage is partly bestial, which seems like it is therefore not rational, at least not fully. 

Ath. There is no difficulty in seeing in what way the two [virtues] differ from one another, and have received two names, and so of the rest. But there is more difficulty in explaining why we call these two and the rest of them by the single name of virtue.

Cle. How do you mean?
Ath. I have no difficulty in explaining what I mean. Let us distribute the subject questions and answers.

Cle. Once more, what do you mean?
Ath. Ask me what is that one thing which call virtue, and then again speak of as two, one part being courage and the other wisdom. I will tell you how that occurs:-One of them has to do with fear; in this the beasts also participate, and quite young children-I mean courage; for a courageous temper is a gift of nature and not of reason. But without reason there never has been, or is, or will be a wise and understanding soul; it is of a different nature.

If courage is not (fully) rational, then you shouldn't necessarily be able to give an account of it of the type he is demanding. If it is a precondition for justice, then, justice itself has an irrational root. You shouldn't expect to be able to give a fully rational account of it if it is predicated on a partly irrational quality.

Plus, this deeply complicates the idea that courage and wisdom are two parts of a greater whole. Wisdom is said to be "a gift of nature and not of reason" and thus "of a different nature" from wisdom. (Hamilton gives this last as "the cases are utterly different.") Why should we expect to find a rational account of the unity of the virtues if they are neither fully rational in all cases, nor of the same nature?

The Athenian does not give us the answer, which would allow prospective council members to cheat by just repeating what he has to say, but he does give us a hint of how to proceed that students of Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists will recognize. 

Ath. [W]e ought to proceed to some more exact training than any which has preceded.

Cle. Certainly.
Ath. And must not that of which we are in need be the one to which we were just now alluding?

Cle. Very true.
Ath. Did we not say that the workman or guardian, if he be perfect in every respect, ought not only to be able to see the many aims, but he should press onward to the one? this he should know, and knowing, order all things with a view to it.

Cle. True.
Ath. And can any one have a more exact way of considering or contemplating. anything, than the being able to look at one idea gathered from many different things?

Cle. Perhaps not.
Ath. Not "Perhaps not," but "Certainly not," my good sir, is the right answer. There never has been a truer method than this discovered by any man.

The answer is philosophical training with an eye towards appreciating the Forms. The Forms are supposed to be fully rational (Aristotle says that they are pure activities, and thus stripped of all mere potentiality -- and as such, you should be able to appreciate them intellectually). However, they have an interpenetrating quality. Because they are not material, they are capable of being 'all together in one place,' yet intellectually distinguishable from one another. Perhaps you have an idea of number, for example; and in a way, all the numbers you know are 'there.' But in another way, you can distinguish the numbers 1 and 4, or any other numbers, and say exactly why they are different, and exactly in what ways they are the same. 

This requires a type of philosophical training that the Athenian admits he has no idea how to perform, and in fact can't devise for students. They have to figure it out for themselves, by doing the work, where they need to go next. 

Ath. In the first place, a list would have to be made out of those who by their ages and studies and dispositions and habits are well fitted for the duty of a guardian. In the next place, it will not be easy for them to discover themselves what they ought to learn, or become the disciple of one who has already made the discovery. Furthermore, to write down the times at which, and during which, they ought to receive the several kinds of instruction, would be a vain thing; for the learners themselves do not know what is learned to advantage until the knowledge which is the result of learning has found a place in the soul of each. And so these details, although they could not be truly said to be secret, might be said to be incapable of being stated beforehand, because when stated they would have no meaning.

He is capable of saying a few things about what kinds of things they must learn, and the first one is that they must develop a fear of God. No one without a firm conviction on the proof of the divine, and the soul that orders the world, can be trusted with power. That part of the argument was actually given in the text, so potential Guardians on the council must show that they have understood and accepted the argument. The world is ensouled, and the soul that began all motions is deeply ordered and driven by a commitment to justice. 

The rest of it he likens to a game of dice, with three dice, where the winning throw will be only three aces or three sixes (e.g., 1 chance in 108, although I think here Mr. 5,040 is thinking more of the metaphor of very long odds than a specific mathematical number). It may be nearly impossible; but if it can be done, he says to Cleinias, "you will obtain the greatest glory; or at any rate you will be thought the most courageous of men in the estimation of posterity."

So: where did he go wrong? Was it a failure to wrestle with the irrational roots of what he wanted to be fully rational virtues? Was it the idea that godly men would rule fitly, which pragmatically seems to have been disproven by the long history of the Vatican and its council of Cardinals? Was it the analogy of the state to a body? The analogy of statesmanship to the captaincy of a ship or being general of an army? Was it the idea that human beings would benefit from being subject to the rulership of virtuous guardians? 

Or was it just that the philosophical training that was necessary but nearly impossible proved actually impossible to convey? If you did have guardians who fully understood the relationship of courage and wisdom and temperance to justice, could they guide the community justly? Or would they, too, fall into the human weaknesses that Aristotle warns against in the Rhetoric? 
First, to find one man, or a few men, who are sensible persons and capable of legislating and administering justice is easier than to find a large number.... The weightiest reason of all is that the decision of the lawgiver is not particular but prospective and general, whereas members of the assembly and the jury find it their duty to decide on definite cases brought before them. They will often have allowed themselves to be so much influenced by feelings of friendship or hatred or self-interest that they lose any clear vision of the truth and have their judgement obscured by considerations of personal pleasure or pain.
At the end of this reading, I hope you have questions, and that you feel inclined to voice them or to engage them. If you'd like to do so privately, rather than in public, feel free to email me. But one of the greatest goods of Plato is the invitation to all to join the field of philosophy. He doesn't end up having all the answers either, and is often aware that the things he wants to say sound incoherent. Don't be afraid to compete; even the masters of this game have given no perfect answers, and no sure way forward. The best the Athenian can say is that he wants to try, but admits that the odds are very much against him.

No comments: