Victor Nuovo: Plato envisions the model city: Rule of law provides basis for social order
Imagine Middlebury as Plato’s model city, which is his practical solution to implementing the rule of law. This is not so fanciful, when we recall that the Greek polis is the direct ancestor of the Vermont town. Recall that the Greek polis is a sovereign state at whose heart is a vibrant urban center, not unlike Middlebury, the shire town of Addison County. Plato imagined his model city inhabited by 5,000 families or homesteads in a territory the size of Addison County, a place well endowed with essential natural resources: water and timber and fertile soil.
Our systems of government are virtually the same: an elected council whose head is first among equals, a public assembly, a charter or constitution, and the rule of law. All our needs and entertainments are provided here: we have markets, a parent child center, schools from kindergarten through college, libraries, a theatre, a hospital, and the means of public safety. It is possible to live one’s whole life here and be satisfied.
These considerations should provide us with a sense of familiarity, if not empathy, when we consider Plato’s model city, and help us to understand the purposes of its institutions and how these might apply to us today.
The first requisite of the model city is the rule of law.
It must be a fundamental law whose primary purpose is to enable the city to be as self-perpetuating as possible, in short, a constitution that prescribes a political system whose use is self renewing.
It must also be a law whose goal is the good of the whole: peace, stability, order and an equitable or livable share in the common wealth for all who reside in it, or as our own constitution puts it: a perfect union, that is tranquil, secure against enemies, that promotes public welfare and secures the blessings of liberty for all. (In contrast, a law that allows the winners of popular elections to take all would not serve the city well; it would cause resentments, jealousies, civil conflict and general instability.)
In the case of liberty, Plato offers a measured endorsement of it in Laws. He proposes a mixed constitution: one that balances executive authority against popular opinion. He anticipated the arguments for a separation of powers that James Madison made in the Federalist Papers; that is, liberty regulated by unity and wisdom.
Plato’s model city also must be well situated geographically, accessible to its outlying districts, yet not so accessible to the world as to be easy prey to pirates and predatory raiders. Therefore, it should be located away from the sea and great navigable rivers. Our river is a source of local power and not a trade route. This provision was also meant to guard against the enemy within. Plato feared that commerce, excessive economic growth, the accumulation of vast fortunes, and luxurious living, were inevitable sources of corruption.
To prevent such corruption, he prescribed that family fortunes be limited and any excess redistributed; there would be neither poverty nor extreme wealth in the model city. Every household would be given possession of a portion of land sufficient to their well being if properly cultivated; it would belong to them and their heirs inalienably.
In this respect, Plato desired that his model city would be as near as possible a natural thing. Its flourishing would be like the flourishing of a tree or a rose bush, and although Plato did express the hope that a city, if modeled correctly, might “last for all time,” he did not suppose it had the quality of eternity, but of a durable constitution; its chief goal is not expansion, but regeneration. It would have a military force, but only for purposes of self-defense. And because its mode of life is neither luxurious nor extravagant it would be less likely the victim of predatory adventurers.
Furthermore, its people and especially its rulers would eschew all aspirations to glory. It would have no ambition to grow beyond its own borders, no dreams of empire, no grand narrative of manifest destiny, and hence no history. It would be as much a part of nature as its citizens could make it.
Consistent with Plato’s economic policies, in the model city, citizens would practice no trade. The arts and crafts, including medicine, would be practiced by resident aliens and in some instances by slaves. Plato did not consider slavery to be unnatural; nor did he find it necessary to justify it. Slaves were needed to work the land and perform the functions of household servants.
Citizenship comes with being a member of a family with land; and citizens were a landed gentry. Besides the management of their property, they are eligible to serve as officers of government or in the military. This applies to women as well as men. In the Republic, Plato affirmed the equality of women. To provide for this, he proposed to do away with the family. He advocated free love and raising children in common. In the Laws, the family is restored, but Plato remained convinced about women’s equality and their right to education and to participate in government.
Laws are duties that citizens owe to each other and to others who reside or have business with the city. And there must be a reason or beneficial purpose to every law. Much like a physician, who when prescribing treatment to a patient explains how it will serve to restore or maintain good health, so a law-giver must explain how a proposed law benefits the citizens, civil society and the public good.
Especially noteworthy are the model city’s practices in punishing criminals. In the Republic, Plato advocated a policy of restorative justice. It is premised on the belief that every person is a rational being, and that criminals can be reasoned with. Plato did not suppose that human beings are by nature good, but teachable. Prisons, then, are not places of punishment, or mere places of confinement, but counseling centers or schools of virtue. The process must be conducted with the greatest patience. When after repeated efforts an offender seems incorrigible, Plato prescribed capital punishment executed quietly in a place remote from the public square.
Plato was no advocate of globalism. Nonetheless, he considered an acquaintance with the practices and policies of foreign cities useful if not necessary. A city must not stagnate, but must learn new things in law and technology that might improve the quality of life for all residents; a city must not only be self-sufficient but also worldly wise.
Foreign travel was restricted for citizens. On their return from travel, they would be interviewed by the Council to learn what they learned. The wisest of these travelers would be made members of the Nocturnal Council, a body of citizens experienced in practice and demonstrably wise, who would meet regularly to discuss laws and legal theory. They functioned as a living intelligence of the city; they were neither legislators nor rulers, but teachers and regulators insofar as their wisdom and good judgment infused all the operations of government.
Postscript: I can think of no philosophical work that better fits an environmental agenda than Plato’s Laws, most especially the idea of a city as a living thing that endures by self-regeneration.
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