Victor Nuovo: Plato and the rule of law
Eighth in a series.
Not long after he finished writing “The Republic” Plato, changed his mind — or so it seems. This happens often among philosophers, but when great philosophers like Plato change their minds, it is worth noticing.
To put it briefly, in his final work, “The Laws,” Plato abandoned the rule of the philosopher king, and the transcendent wisdom that was supposed to be his inspiration and his guide, in favor of the rule of law, which is abstract, impersonal, mundane and ordinary.
Needless to say, scholars disagree about the meaning of this change, or its import, or about whether it was a change at all. But quarrels among scholars are of little interest here. Our main concern should be with the very idea of the rule of law, for one thing is certain: Without rule of law civil society is unsustainable, even impossible, perhaps inconceivable.
“The Laws” is a dialogue, a conversation between three old men, who were once public officials, who come together on a walk in the country on a warm summer day on the Island of Crete. Their destination is a cave, purported to be the birthplace of Zeus. They are Cleinias, who is a Cretan, Megillus, from Sparta, and an unnamed Athenian who is the most talkative of the three and who, most likely, is Plato himself, or his literary surrogate. That Plato should portray himself as a garrulous old man is much to his credit.
The companions discuss the merits and demerits of their respective legal systems, mostly the demerits, for, as the Athenian stranger remarks, and all agree, the laws of their cities have been designed only with an eye on self defense. In the course of their conversation, Cleinias reveals that he has been appointed to a commission to found a new city, and the conversation comes to focus on framing a system of laws that would work as a model for all cities. Keep in mind that Athens, Sparta and Knossos (the chief Cretan city) were sovereign states, but also, in anticipation of what follows, that their leaders believed that government was the business of pious men only, and that slavery was an acceptable way to provide a laboring class. They we thoughtful men, but in these respects unenlightened.
Nevertheless, anticipating Hobbes, they were sure that civil government was necessary to secure peace on earth, for without it the state of nature is a war of all against all, and that undergirding civil government, there must be a moral law ruling the individual, for without it, as individuals, we are at war with each other and even ourselves. St Paul would have applauded this wisdom (see Romans 7), and may even have been instructed by it.
To begin with, the companions agree that the fundamental law or constitution of every city should provide for more than order and self-defense, that the actions of government must do more than evoke from citizens pride in their country and fierce courage towards its enemies. Courage is only one of the virtues and by itself insufficient to maintain the rule of law. What is required in every city is a system of laws that educates its citizens, that inculcates virtue, that causes them to be temperate, prudent, and above all just — for only then will citizens have a proper respect for the rule of law, only then will they have the capacity to establish it, refine it, and employ it as an instrument of public good, and only then will their city approximate justice.
What is noteworthy about Plato’s plan of model city is the sufficiency of the rule of law, and the sufficiency of the wisdom of its earthbound framers to enact it and sustain it. Civil society and the rule of law, as Plato presents it in “The Laws,” does not depend upon transcendent insight, its origin and durability are rooted in the moral fiber of its citizens, their common sense. To be sure, Plato, or the Athenian stranger, proposes that belief in God be required of all citizens of his model city and that piety be chief among the virtues. Yet, this prescription adds nothing to the rule of law or its content, so that for all intents and purposes Plato’s model city is a secular state, not unlike our own, yet also one whose citizens and legislators are, or aspire to be, virtuous, to do the right thing. The rule of law that inculcates virtue is a tonic that this nation, its citizens as well as its public officials are much in need of, for whoever we are, whatever our place in this society, we are first of all citizens whose chief duty is to create laws that are fair and just, and to apply them fairly and justly: this is a moral duty, an obligation that is inseparable from being a citizen.
Following the departure of Donald Trump and his corrupt minions from government, it will become the task of us, the people, and of all public officials who have been elected and appointed to legislate and administer government, to reestablish the rule of law, and thereby fashion a moral universe right here on earth.
Postscript: This essay concludes my Platonic digression. My search for a moral universe ends with Plato’s idea of the rule of law, which provides an easy return to my principal theme of the life of the mind in America, for the rule of law is the vital principle that holds any nation together; it is the vital principle of the body politic that ennobles the spirit as it enlightens the mind.
To be continued.
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