Ancient History & Civilisation

6. The Lawmaker

He thought that he had found such a prince in Dionysius II. He felt, like Voltaire, that monarchy has this advantage over democracy, that in a monarchy the reformer has only to convince one man.128 To make a better state “you would assume a dictator young, temperate, quick at learning, having a good memory, courageous, of a noble nature . . . and fortunate; his good fortune must be that he is the contemporary of a great legislator, and that some happy chance brings them together.”129 It was, as we have seen, an unhappy chance.

In his declining years, still longing to be a legislator, Plato offered a thirdbest state. The Laws, besides being the earliest extant classic of European jurisprudence, is an instructive study in the senile aftermath of youthful romanticism. The new city, says Plato, must be placed inland, lest foreign ideas undermine its faith, foreign trade its peace, and foreign luxuries its self-contained simplicity.130 The number of free citizens shall be limited to the conveniently divisible number of 5040; in addition to these will be their families and their slaves. The citizens shall elect 360 guardians, divided into groups of thirty, each group administering the state for a month. The 360 shall choose a Nocturnal Council of twenty-six, which shall meet at night and legislate on all vital affairs.131These councilors shall allot the land in equal, indivisible, and inalienable parcels among the citizen families. The guardians “shall provide against the rains doing harm instead of good to the land . . . and shall keep them back by works and ditches, and make” irrigation “streams furnish even to the dry places plenty of water.”132 To control the growth of economic inequality, trade is to be held to a minimum; no gold or silver is to be kept by the people, and there shall be no lending of money at interest;133 everyone is to be discouraged from living by investment, and is to be encouraged to live as an active farmer on the land. Any man who acquires more than four times the value of one share of land must surrender the surplus to the state; and severe limits are to be placed upon the power of bequest.134 Women are to have equal educational and political opportunity with men.135 Men must marry between thirty and thirty-five, or pay heavy annual fines;136 and they are to beget children for only ten years. Drinking and other public amusements are to be regulated to preserve the morals of the people.137

To accomplish all this peaceably there must be complete state control of education, publication, and other means of forming public opinion and personal character. The highest official in the state is to be the minister of education. Authority will replace liberty in education, for the intelligence of children is too undeveloped to excuse us for leaving to them the guidance of their own lives. Literature, science, and the arts are to be under censorship; they will be forbidden to express ideas which the councilors consider hurtful to public morals and piety. Since obedience to parents and the laws can be secured only through supernatural sanctions and aids, the state shall determine what gods are to be worshiped, and how, and when. Any citizen who questions this state religion is to be imprisoned; if he persists he is to be killed.138

A long life is not always a blessing; it would have been better for Plato to have died before writing this indictment of Socrates, these prolegomena to all future Inquisitions. His defense would be that he loved justice more than truth; that his aim was to abolish poverty and war; that he could do this only by strict state control of the individual; and that this required either force or religion. The degenerative Ionian looseness of Athenian morals and politics, he thought, would be cured only by the Dorian discipline of the Spartan code. Through all of Plato’s thought runs the fear of the abuses of freedom, and the conception of philosophy as the policeman of the people and the regulator of the arts. The Laws offers the surrender of a dying Athens that had completely lived to a Sparta that, ever since Lycurgus, had been dead. When Athens’ most famous philosopher could find so little to say for freedom Greece was ripe for a king.

Looking back over this body of speculation we are surprised to see how fully Plato anticipated the philosophy, the theology, and the organization of medieval Christianity, and how much of the modern Fascist state. The theory of Ideas became the “realism” of the Scholastics—the objective reality of “universals.” Plato is not only a prä-existent Christlich, as Nietzsche called him, but a pre-Christian Puritan. He distrusts human nature as evil, and thinks of it as an original sin tainting the soul. He breaks up into an evil body and a divine spirit139 that unity of body and soul which had been the educated Greek ideal of the sixth and fifth centuries; like a Christian ascetic he calls the body the tomb of the soul. He takes from Pythagoras and Orphism an Oriental faith in transmigration, karma, sin, purification, and “release”; he adopts, in his last works, the other-worldly tone of a converted and repentant Augustine. One would almost say that Plato was not Greek if it were not for his perfect prose.

He remains the most likable of the Greek thinkers because he had the attractive faults of his people. He was so sensitive that like Dante he could see perfect and eternal beauty behind the imperfect and temporal form; he was an ascetic because at every moment he had to rein in a rich and impetuous temperament.140 He was a poet possessed by imagination, allured by every whimsy of thought, enthralled by the tragedy and comedy of ideas, flushed with the intellectual excitement of the free mental life of Athens. But it was his fate that he was a logician as well as a poet; that he was the most brilliant reasoner of antiquity, subtler than Zeno of Elea or Aristotle; that he loved philosophy more than he loved any woman or any man; and that in the end, like Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor, he concluded to a suppression of all free reasoning, a conviction that philosophy must be destroyed in order that man may live. He himself would have been the first victim of his Utopias.

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