Plato, slavery and inconsistency
Author’s note: This is the last in a second series of essays and reflections about Plato’s Laws. My concern in this essay is about an inconsistency in the Laws of Plato between idea of human freedom and the institution of slavery. I want to understand how Plato fell into it and to see if there is something to be learned from it.
Platonic freedom is best defined as autonomy, the capacity or power of individuals to govern themselves.
This power resides in every human soul. Plato equates it with intelligence, which rules the soul and refines its emotions, and the body also, aiming to perfect both according to universal standards of excellence and moral virtue. These in turn are manifold expressions of a unitary Good. A well-regulated virtuous life is happy and complete.
Autonomy also applies to cities. A self-governing city is sovereign and free from external domination. To preserve its freedom it must also strive for excellence, and its laws and institutions must be in accord with principles by which individuals properly govern themselves. Slavery does not fit in these endeavors; it is discordant.
In the Laws, Plato doesn’t prescribe the practice of slavery, he just accepts that it’s there. It soon becomes clear that, paradoxically, slavery is a consequence of the premium placed on citizenship. Being a citizen is a high calling, a vocation that crowds out all the rest. The Magnesian constitution requires that a citizen, even one who holds no special office in the city, must forego becoming a physician, or a teacher, artist or actor, or practicing a trade of any sort. If one takes the responsibilities of citizenship seriously, one shouldn’t have time for anything else—although the Stranger supposes that in households that are less affluent and can’t afford hired help, family members will have to labor to produce an adequate harvest.
Even so, their chief occupation will be to safeguard and preserve the government and institutions of the city and to make themselves fit for these endeavors by perfecting mind and body. All citizens are first of all servants of the city.
This may seem excessive, but in philosophical discourses hyperbole is often a key to truth.
The truth is that a city’s government is not a self-regulating machine. In a system like ours, which is not much different in design from Plato’s Magnesia—a republic, the people must be ever diligent to preserve, protect and defend their laws and institutions, and if they are not, then, as the saying goes, they get what they deserve.
But if being a citizen is a full-time occupation, who will do the other things upon which the life of the city depends? Cities need teachers, physicians, bankers, tinkers, tailors, shoemakers, plumbers, carpenters, engineers, agricultural and household laborers, servants, entertainers, and a host of others to maintain them. The Athenian Stranger supposed that all these things would have to be done by others.
“Other” has become a technical term in current academic discourse; it signifies anyone who is excluded from a favored group. In this instance, “others” are people who live and work in the city but are denied the rights and privileges of citizenship. They provide goods and services upon which the welfare of the city depends. These include dull and wearisome tasks—drudgery, and sometime hazardous labor—like mining. In Magnesia, these other persons included resident aliens, who practice trades and professions, but also slaves, who were employed in the more unpleasant and dangerous tasks—except war.
Yet all these others have the same human nature as any citizen. Each one is endowed with that prize possession, a soul, and intelligence, the fundamental instrument of self-government on which every popular government depends for its health and endurance. Plato recognized this. If they are endowed with a capacity for it, what reason is there to deny them the dignity of citizenship?
Economic and domestic necessity seems to be the reason. Without the services of others, citizens would have insufficient time to fulfill their civic duties. But although this may explain the practice of creating an un-enfranchised underclass in a society, it cannot justify it.
The issue is acute in the case of slaves. Resident aliens are free to return to their own cities, and from the account of them in the “Laws,” there is provision for a routine coming and going. Moreover, resident aliens are free to grow rich, whereas citizens are not. So there is a benefit here, or at least some compensation for the loss of privilege and honor—they may grow very rich.
But slaves are part of the property of a household or of the city. They can be bought and sold. Even if granted their freedom, they are never entirely free. They may marry only by permission of their former owner, who maintains continued supervision over them, and, should their misbehavior warrant it, the power to return them to slavery.
What is most revealing is the Athenian Stranger’s characterization of slavery: a slave is someone who lives under a certain kind of law consisting only of commands issued without reasons, which must be obeyed without questioning. Slavish laws are enforced not by reasons, but by enticements and threats. Thus, slaves are treated as though they lacked reason, even though they don’t.
Plato allows that in a practical sense they do lack reason, for they have been denied the proper nurturing and education that perfects the rational powers of individuals. It is noteworthy that he doesn’t claim the excuse, as did some contemporary philosophers, that there are individuals who are slaves by nature, who are a higher sort of domestic animal, not fully human. In the “Laws,” Plato unequivocally accepted human equality.
Slavery is surely a vile and cruel institution. Its counterpart is tyranny, which is also vile. But it would be smug and conceited to suppose, because Plato allowed it whereas we Americans abolished it, that we have ascended to a higher moral plane. The abolition of slavery in this nation was slow in coming, hard to achieve, and the stain of this institution on our national character is still vivid enough to be a cause for shame. Besides, there are still in our society human subclasses and under-classes, “others,” upon whom we depend for goods and services. The unstated reason of economic necessity continues to hold sway over our common life.
The inconsistency between freedom and slavery (the exploitation of “others”) and the human misuse of humans is a moral inconsistency, indeed a scandal. Therefore, we have a duty to overcome it, but we can also be sure that there is an intelligent way to proceed.
Plato’s “Laws” envision a plan. And here, in brief, is what it prescribes: We must learn to live more modestly and sustainably, and in a manner that doesn’t require exploiting others. The argument from economic necessity to allow slavery must be set aside and rendered otiose. Equality must be affirmed and achieved through universal enfranchisement and education. Beliefs about the value of material wealth must be downgraded, the culture of desire reformed, and our passions elevated to a love of excellence. This would have been Plato’s prescription.