What all states need at their inception is a dictator capable of and willing to implement the ideas of the lawgiver. At least, states need such an individual if they want to be well constructed from their start. The reality is significantly messier than, and in some ways the exact opposite of, a dictator-lawgiver power team building a virtuous state:
…no man ever legislates at all. Accidents and calamities occur in a thousand different ways, and it is they that are the universal legislators of the world. If it isn’t pressures of war that overturn a constitution and rewrite the laws, it’s the distress of grinding poverty; and disease too forces us to make a great many innovations, when plagues beset us for years on end and bad weather is frequent and prolonged. (709a)
The Athenian’s point is both obvious and true—in the normal course of events, laws are first driven by emergencies. The Athenian says that we might as well conclude “that the all-controlling agent in human affairs is God,” followed by “chance and opportunity” (709c). Only in third place does human skill come into play.
Now at this point, we might be tempted to think that Plato is about to give a defense of some sort of proto–common law, with the legal structure being raised over time in response to localized problems. He very quickly goes in a different direction: just as laws are regularly created by the circumstances of a combination of providence, luck, and skill, so too we need the right sorts of circumstances in order to establish a virtuous state. That is, rather than trusting to the winding growth of the common law, we simply ought to create the sorts of circumstances that lead to good law.
The ideal circumstances for such a founding are, as noted above, a restrained dictator working with a wise lawgiver. This isn’t to say that only in dictatorships will we see good beginnings, just that they are easiest to create when they hinge on one man. Still, the Athenian admits that other forms of government are not completely without hope:
The ideal starting point is dictatorship, the next best is constitutional kingship, and the third is some sort of democracy. Oligarchy comes fourth, because it has the largest number of powerful people, so that it admits the growth of a new order only with difficulty. (710e)
The advantage of a dictatorship is that to change the law and culture of a state, only one man needs to be convinced. That one man then becomes the de facto role model for the citizen body.
Whatever form of government we’re discussing, at the end of the day what matters is that we have a combination of power and virtue:
where supreme power in a man joins hands with wise judgment and self-restraint, there you have the birth of the best political system, with laws to match; you’ll never achieve it otherwise. (712a)
Once we’ve got that, we can get down to the business of thinking about the actual structures of our state, including its constitution. Yet, having invoked a divine blessing on the discussion of this new state, before actually talking about it the Athenian encourages us to get our constitutional categorizations straight:
The ones we called constitutions just now are not really that at all: they are just a number of ways of running a state, all of which involve some citizens living in subjection to others like slaves, and the state is named after the ruling class in each case. But if that’s the sort of principle of which your new state is to be named, it should be called after the god who really does rule over men who are rational enough to let him. (712e)
The point is that we must call states not so much by the political structures that govern them—those are merely relationships of power in any case—as by the virtues (“the god”) that define their foundations.
To that end, we need to look at the time when the greatest virtue, or “god,” governed men. This was the mythical age of Cronus, when men were under the best possible government—namely, angels governed men. (Okay, not really angels, but I couldn’t resist the Federalist reference.) We need to look back to that time when men lived virtuously because they were governed by spiritual beings and strive to bring out the best in ourselves contrary to the present circumstances of the world and our own evil desires:
where the ruler of a state is not a god but a mortal, people have no respite from toil and misfortune. The lesson is that we should make every effort to imitate the life men are said to have led under Cronus; we should run our public and our private life, our homes and our cities, in obedience to what little spark of immortality lies in us, and dignify this distribution of reason with the name of law. (713e)
If Plato had stopped here, we would have to write him off as a crpto-Rousseauean trying to bring out the inner good in us all. Fortunately, he goes on to point out the darker realities of human nature and our innate desire to give in to our own appetites. This combination of good and evil in human nature leads into the question of the role of law in the state. How are we to use the law to bring out the good and restrain the evil?
One problem we have with answering this question is that so few people truly understand the proper role of the law in the first place. The popular assumption is that the laws ought to support whichever regime happens to be in power. And so “justice” gets defined in terms of that same regime, rather than being that which defines and judges regimes themselves. We decide that “constitutional republics” are just because we happen to live in one and that just laws are those which uphold our current constitutional republic. And at the end of the day, what is that if not an institutional version of might-makes-right? The existing state uses its role as the existing state to create laws that serve its own ends and protect its own existence, and then it declares that those laws are the foundation for justice. This is exactly the opposite of how things ought to be:
we maintain that laws which are not established for the good of the whole state are bogus laws, and when they favour particular sections of the community, their authors are not citizens but party-men; and people who say these laws have a claim to be obeyed are wasting their breath…. Where the law is subject to some other authority and has none of its own, the collapse of the state, in my view, is not far off; but if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state. (715b–d)
The law must stand on its own morality and bend political institutions and politicians under its authority—not the other way around. Mixing up the hierarchy between law and politics destroys the former and corrupts the latter.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.