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Plato part 4: On drinking one's way to sobriety

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Posted on April 1, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of essay about politics and the moral life. The essays develop themes from a work by the philosopher Plato, titled Laws, which he wrote shortly before his death in 347BCE. Laws is written as a dialogue involving three old men with long experience in politics: Cleinias, from the Cretan city of Cnossos, Megillus, from Sparta, and an Athenian stranger who is not named, but who may be Plato himself.

This essay and the next two explore the role that the emotions play in the rule of law.

Anyone who reads Plato will soon become familiar with the character of Socrates. He is present in all the dialogues, except one. In most of them, he is the principal speaker, giving definitive expression to themes that comprise what is commonly known as Platonic philosophy.  He is absent from the Laws; his customary place is taken by the Athenian stranger.

Yet although Socrates makes no appearance, his presence is felt. It is most evident in a long digression that begins mid-way through the first book and continues through the second. The topic of discussion is the usefulness of drinking parties, the Greek word for which is ‘symposium,’ which is the title of one of Plato’s most enduring and enchanting dialogues, the Symposium, where a full-bodied Socrates dominates the scene.

The topic is introduced in this way. The Athenian stranger is critical of the laws and customs of Sparta and Cnossos because they seem to have only one purpose—to establish and sustain martial virtues. Their laws assume a constant state of war between cities; their design is to train warriors to be brave and bold in battle. In this single-minded endeavor, the social virtues are ignored. He suggests that Spartan and Cretan warriors are little better than mercenaries, who may be disciplined in battle, but who otherwise lack self-control and moderation, which are the very virtues that a civil society requires if it is to endure. The rule of law depends upon these civil virtues. How are the adolescent youth of a city to be trained in them?

The Athenian stranger observes that a military commander must also be a teacher, instilling courage in his warriors through rigorous exercises that realistically mimic the hardships of war and the terrors of battle. From repeated practices, warriors learn to overcome fear and to be resolute. But, to strengthen their resolve, they are inculcated with another kind of fear that is not to be resisted or overcome, but cultivated: they acquire a sense of shame for any behavior that might be judged cowardly.

The Athenian stranger sees an analogy between war games and drinking parties.  Just as a military commander trains his warriors by subjecting them to the harsh conditions of a campaign, and to the dangers that they may face in battle, so the drinking party can be employed to train adolescents in how to live in polite society—and I use the term ‘polite society’ in its historic sense as a society that governs itself by its own laws and customs.

Here’s how it works. The Athenian stranger supposes that the passions, especially the violent and irrational ones, are analogous to the horrors of battle. Therefore, it is only fitting that we discover what passions reside deep within the soul, lest unseen they rise up, and, taking us by surprise, overpower us and make us think and do things that we might later regret.

Wine facilitates this discovery. It awakens the passions and liberates them by neutralizing the inhibitions that tend to keep them down. Thus they make their appearance. Likewise wine frees the imagination, so that, fancy free, the tipsy mind may contemplate doing whatever pleases it at the moment however excessive, there being nothing to make it afraid, because it is without shame. Wine is, therefore, an instrument of self-discovery. Hence the saying, ‘in wine, there is truth’ (in vino veritas).

Now, it is the function of the commander of drinking parties in such moments as this to instill in those he commands a new and more enlightened sense of shame, whereby it becomes an internal monitor, restraining them, like the voice of conscience, exhorting them to do nothing for which they might be ashamed. Plato doesn’t elaborate the methods that the commander of the drinking party should use to achieve this end. There seems more whimsy than method in the discussion. But, there is little doubt that this fanciful discussion alludes to Socrates and to the Symposium, where indeed we find that there is a serious lesson to be learned, not about drinking but about education.

It should be clear that education and the rule of law are inextricably joined, for every citizen’s consent and obedience to laws requires a concurrent understanding, which does not come about spontaneously or by chance. It must be planted and cultivated in the soul—hence, the word ‘culture.’

In the Symposium, Plato depicts the portrait of an ideal teacher in the figure of Socrates; he describes his course of instruction as Erotics, the art of love.* Socrates is a lover of handsome young men. He pursues them not for their bodies, although he admits his attraction to their physical beauty. He aims at their souls. He wants to implant or engender in them the idea of something that is noble and good—the idea of beauty itself, intending that it should take root and come forth in lives that epitomize it in all respects, in physical gracefulness and moral nobility. Socrates presents himself not as an authority or an expert on what he teaches. He is a lover, who desires to possess the very truth that he teaches. Like any proper teacher he longs for the knowledge that he want to impart.

You may ask what all this has to do with the rule of law?

Very much, I think, at least if you imagine yourself a Platonist. The idea of beauty, which is noble and good, is not just an object of thought. It is preeminently the cause of existence of beautiful things; it infuses everything and is the source of whatever power and dignity they possess. It awakens our intelligence and presents itself as its proper object. It is complete and perfect and never changing. The mere glimpse of this transcendent idea makes one ashamed not to desire it above all else. Shame of this sort is a higher passion that defeats the lower passions of greed, predatory lust, megalomaniacal ambition, envy, and resentment as well as lesser varieties of shame. These are the ingredients of a well-regulated life, which, like a work of fine art, is a thing of beauty.

* Footnote: Plato intended the term‘love’ in a much different sense than is applied to it today. The Greek word, ‘erotica’ is grammatically the same as ‘physica’ ‘ethica,’ ‘politica’ and ‘mathematica’ all plural nouns signifying, respectively, physics, ethics, politics and mathematics. Thus he imagined it as an art or science, which involves intelligence and internal control.

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