Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 966c–969d

Plato medallion on the facade of Sekundogenitur, Dresden. Photo by DynaMoToR, own work. CC BY-SA 3.0.

966c–969d

In the last post the Athenian argued that the Nocturnal Council—composed of the most virtuous and wisest in the state—is not only responsible for the study of virtue but for teaching it to the rest of the citizen body. The Athenian now argues that the most important field of study for council members will be theology, since it is the capstone of both natural studies and the study of the soul:

No mortal can ever attain a truly religious outlook without risk of relapse unless he grasps the two doctrines we’re now discussing: first, that the soul is far older than any created thing, and that it is immortal and controls the entire world of matter; and second… that reason is the supreme power among heavenly bodies. (967e)

This in addition to the other studies is necessary for the life of the state, for

No one who is unable to acquire these insights and rise above the level of the ordinary virtues will ever be good enough to govern an entire state, but only to assist government carried on by others. (968a)

The virtues we acquire through daily life are sufficient for most of us to be employed as civil servants—perhaps even administrators in some sense—but the true leaders of the state must be men of such surpassing virtue and wisdom that they have seen the Source of the law itself (Himself?).

This puts us in something of a bind, since this council will need rules and structures. But how can those of us who are only suited for regular political life set up the rules for those who are to be our lawgivers?

…it is impossible to lay down the council’s activities until it has been established. Its curriculum must be decided by those who have already mastered the necessary branches of knowledge—and only previous instruction and plenty of intimate discussion will settle successfully such matters as that. (968c)

And so we first have to fill the ranks of the Nocturnal Council and then let the council itself decide its course of study and governing principles. I think the idea is that you and I, who are of little more than ordinary virtue (if that), are competent to identify the citizens of great wisdom in our state but not competent to govern them. This isn’t to say that the council is to have absolute power over itself or that it is to do all things in secret because the average citizen is such a dullard he wouldn’t understand anyway, it is just to say that we ought not tie the hands of the wise before they even begin.


This view is obviously directly contrary to current American culture, where each of us is a philosopher king and as such should never have to defer to our betters. (Not that we see anyone as being “our betters” in the first place!) Which means that the project of the Laws has no hope in American public life, since in the Athenian’s view this is the lynchpin on which the whole depends:

And if… this wonderful council of ours can be formed, then the state must be entrusted to it, and practically no modern legislator will want to oppose us. We thought of our [discussion] as idealistic dreaming—but it will all come true, provided the council members are rigorously selected, properly educated, and after the completion of their studies lodged in the citadel of the country and made into guardians whose powers of protection we have never seen excelled in our lives before. (969b)

In a sense, all we have to do is recognize the people who should be in power because of their wisdom and virtue, and then shove them to the top of public life. Theoretically the design of our government should make this easy in the United States, given that for all intents and purposes we can vote for whomever we want—there is therefore nothing stopping us from voting the best people into office. The problem is, that if you let people do what they want, even when it comes to voting, eventually they will. Which is why we’re in the mess we’re in today. We can vote for whomever we want, and whomever we want is awful. Even if a potential guardian could still survive the American educational system, the cultural pressure in the opposite direction, and the hostility to anything resembling virtue, such a person would have no chance of accomplishing actual institutional or legal reform. Which is where as a Christian I am always encouraged to remember that Augustine, rather than Plato, is a better guide to political engagement. If Plato’s Laws were my workbook, it would be a depressing civic life indeed.

Which is not to say that this reading and discussion have been depressing. Thanks so much to those of you who came along for the ride. I hope you join next time as we pick up with Nietzsche!

 

Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, and cohost of the City of Man podcast.

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