We finally get to the nuts and bolts of the daily life of the laws of the new state, starting with an overview of the officials (broadly discussed in the previous post) and their duties.
Guardians of the Laws
These “Guardians of the Laws” (thirty-seven total) must be at least fifty years old and will serve for no more than twenty years. They will have three main responsibilities:
1) Guarding the laws;
2) Dealing with the paperwork attached to the property requirements of the state;
3) Punishing those who violate the laws—particularly the property laws.
The laws which they enforce have been briefly touched on elsewhere, the point here is to reinforce the principle that property exists for the sake of the good life, not the good life for the sake of property. To that end, severe punishments are to fall on hoarders who clearly love their stuff more than their virtue. As a result, we can conclude that these individuals are more than just “property officials,” they are to have a wide-ranging authority in the state.
We should also note that second point: even in Plato’s day and even in an imaginary state, paperwork was still a significant part of the bureaucratic workload.
If it seems unusual to us for military officers to be elected, we should remember that the “normal” democratic process in Athens was selection by lot (after all, each citizen should be equally capable of doing the work of government in a democracy). That elections were held for specialized posts like “general” or “treasurer” was a rare admission that perhaps chance was not the best way of choosing people to fill an office requiring specific expertise. (This is how Pericles achieved and held power for so long—he kept running for “general” in Athens.)
In the military of the new state, there will be generals, company commanders, tribe leaders, and cavalry commanders. All of these elections are to be done visibly and publicly by either the citizen body or members of the military itself to make sure no one is cheating. The infantry is to supervise the elections of cavalry commanders, and vice versa.
The generals are to be elected from two lists, one provided by the Guardians of the Laws and a counterlist proposed by the citizen body. If we want to think of this as an election where the choice is to be divided between the establishment and the out-crowd, we may not be too far off.
The generals, in turn, make their own nominations for company commanders and tribe leaders, who then follow the same process as the generals with counternominations and a vote. The difference in this case appears to be that the voting for these lesser offices is done by the military alone, rather than by the assembled citizen body.
Finally, any disputes must be settled in a runoff—but only one. The Guardians of the Laws will decide who won if there is a third challenge to the results.
With its leadership elected, the responsibility of the military is primarily to protect the state but also to act as a security force and a public works force (when not at war). To this end, the military will be divided across the state with a rotation such that each of the twelve tribes will have a territory it is responsible for. (They will rotate yearly so that all are familiar with as much of the state as possible.) Within its section of the state, the tribe will select a number of country-wardens and assistants to travel the territory familiarizing themselves with the land and the people, building defenses where necessary, and constructing public works and engaging in beautification projects when possible:
The young men should erect in every quarter gymnasia for themselves and senior citizens, construct warm baths for the old folk, and lay up a large stock of thoroughly dry wood. All this will help to relieve invalids, and farmers wearied by the labour of the fields—and it will be a much kinder treatment than the tender mercies of some fool of a doctor. (761d)
Even in its defense, the unity and virtue of the state are to be kept in mind.
The Council and Its Executive Committee
A council is to be created with 360 members (90 from each property class) through a complex procedure that tries to blend secrecy and openness, choice and chance, all in equal measure. Nominations are done in secret, then voting narrows down the number to 180 from each class, then the lot narrows it down again to 90 from each class who serve on the council for a year. We’ll get back to the justification for this process at the end of this already-too-long post.
The council is too large to work without leadership, so the council is to be broken into twelve committees of thirty, each of whom will take a month where it functionally serves as the government. They are to be especially concerned with quelling revolution and responding to invasion—as well as coordinating with the other government officials. Presumably the whole council can be summoned in the case of an emergency, but Plato doesn’t tell us that one way or the other.
Public Works Officials
The care of public works built by the military is to be entrusted to the priests, city-wardens, and market-wardens. The priests care for public shrines and perform the appropriate rituals and ceremonies, while the city-wardens are in charge of maintaining public works. The market-wardens keep order in the marketplace. These officials are to be chosen
partly by election and partly by lot, so that a mixture of democratic and non-democratic methods in every rural and urban division may lead to the greatest possible feeling of solidarity. (759b)
There is also an ethical standard which must be met, regardless of whether the lot falls on the candidate or not. These offices are yearly and have a minimum age requirement of sixty.
Treasurers are also to be chosen (from the highest property class) to keep track of public money (kept in the temples). There will be six of these officials, chosen by the same method used for selecting generals.
The state is to have three “expounders,” something along the lines of a “city preacher.” (Think of Zwingli‘s role in Zurich, as a good example.) Their job is to interpret and explain the declarations of oracles and what the gods meant in what they said. They are nominated by tribes, voted down to nine names, and then the final three chosen by the Oracle at Delphi.
No doubt even with all the familiar offices drawn from existing Greek governments of the day (elected generals and treasurers, for example), this system would have sounded as strange to the Greeks as it does to us—and at this point we’ve only scratched the surface! Yet Plato does have an overarching plan with his scheme of offices. The goal is a state unified around virtue, which means we have to have a state which allows simultaneously for equality and justice.
He [the lawgiver] must always make justice his aim, and this is precisely as we’ve described it: it consists of granting the “equality” that unequals deserve to get. (757d)
In other words, one way to describe “justice” in society is to simply define it as mathematical equality: two cars in every garage is just. There is, we have to admit, something true in that definition, even if it is incomplete and insufficient.
Yet another way to describe “justice” in society is to define it as people getting what they deserve: a car in the garage of the person who works hard for it within the confines of the law. And again, there is a true foundation to this definition as well.
One problem we have is confusing these two definitions (particularly confusing the former for the latter by assuming that we all deserve two cars in the garage). Another problem is that we are tempted to ignore one or the other of the definitions. The correct balance that must be struck at the end of the day provides for justice as mathematical equality while relying as much as realistically possible on deserved justice. This is why the lot is used so much and so often in the selection process: even the guy-on-the-street has some chance to become the supreme official of the state, which appeals to our sense of mathematical justice. But it is also weighted in such a way that those who have the virtue have more of a chance to end up in a leadership position, especially if we combine this process with our prayers to the powers that govern the lot.
And with that, I’ll bring this lengthy post to a close—though we’re not yet done with Plato’s practical politics.
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.