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Корпус текстов Платона в истории его интерпретаций - 2


Democracy and the later Plato

Robinson T. M.

(PhD, University of Toronto, Canada)



There have over the centuries been a number of attempts to get the best of democracy while avoiding what are perceived to be insuperable problems with it if is left entirely to its own devices. It is as though there has been a common agreement that, whatever disagreement there might be over details, democracy is particularly susceptible to a political version of the Second Law of Thermodynamics: left to its own devices, its tendency is towards chaos. And several models of constitution have emerged to cope with this perceived problem.

We could start with the ‘firm hand model’ exemplified by the late Mr. Chavez in Venezuela. The controlling mechanism here is the personal dynamism of a single individual, who frequently comes to power in a fair and free election, and often with a very large popular vote, and succeeds in staying in power for a significant length of time, every four or five years or so continuing to win the majority of a large majority of the voters in free and not noticeably unfair elections.

The ‘live free or die’ version, particularly popular in the USA, takes a quite different tack. According to this model - like the preceding model grounded in free and generally fair elections - government should be reduced to the absolute minimum, and every possible freedom should be made available to any individual citizen that is compatible with the legitimate claims to freedom espoused by everyone else. This particular model, while popular with many, has its own problems satisfying everyone in areas where freedom-claims clash, such as when the freedom of x to carry a gun runs up against the right of y not to risk finishing up as ‘collateral damage’ in one of x’s shooting sprees.

Between these two extremes are a number of variants bearing features of each, and often found in conjunction with them. A prominent one is the ‘market’ model (very popular up to 2008, at which point it lost a lot of its appeal, though it is now showing signs of a comeback). In this model democratic society might or might not be under the thumb of a strong and often charismatic human leader, but it is clearly the willing subject of two other leaders, each of them very powerful but neither of them human. The first of these, very much material in nature, goes under the name of ‘The Market’, and this leader is characterized by a demand for total obedience to its whims, backslidings, and general unpredictability of behavior, and also by its total lack of conscience about any human suffering it causes. The second is God, who is immaterial, and has the infinite capacity to offer us consolation (but no cash) when the first - ‘The Market’ - is on one of its periodic rampages. A good example of such a society is the present-day USA. A post-Christian variant on it, in which ‘The Market’ reigned supreme but a comforting God had for most people more or less vanished from the scene, was Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.

Three other models have to do with a choice of moral principles in the establishment of the goal of one’s democracy. The first is the ‘virtue’ model, in which the goal of society is the production of citizens characterized by the maximum amount of civic virtue of which each is capable. The second is the ‘common good’ model, in which the goal of society is the overall good, even if on occasion this may have to supersede the apparent good of a number of individuals.

The third model has as its driving force John Stuart Mill’s ‘no harm principle’. This might be seen as another variant on the ‘live free or die’ model, but this time stressing freedom from as much as freedom to. It makes no attempt to produce virtue in its citizens, but is satisfied if, whatever their private predilections, people are law-abiding and avoid harming the other to the degree that they are able. This is of course a very popular principle in a number of today’s democracies, but trying to come up with a satisfactory definition of what constitutes ‘harm’ in various circumstances continues to be a source of dissension.

I mention these variants as a brief introduction my paper, which will be a discussion of one of the earliest attempts to describe, and to defend with argument, what Plato took to the most acceptable model of democracy that he felt had a chance of being realized. To those who have read his Republic but not his Laws, this might come as a surprise, but I hope that it will be less surprising as my argument proceeds.

We can begin by saying how much the Laws resembles the Republic in various details, and little time need be spent on this. While much else might have changed, his thoughts on basic education, for example, have changed little, and education continues to be a major component of his theory. And the same could be said of his overall teleological vision of things, and of virtue as the goal of a good society; he is as much a functionalist in the Laws as he was in the Republic, and the doctrine colors everything he discusses.

The same goes for his overall view of the common good, which a virtuous citizen will always have as a goal transcending (if need be) his personal predilections. And if a ‘noble act of deception’ by the rulers is called for to encourage him along this path, a noble act of deception, he says in both dialogues, is eminently justifiable.

But a great deal seems to have changed from the Republic too, and I want now to set out those differences, to offer reasons why they might have come about, and to assess, as best I can, their philosophical, political and social worth in terms of our own continuing efforts to produce democracies which we think worthy of the name.

The biggest overall difference lies in the ontological status of the society the Laws sets out to describe. While the society outlined in the Republic was purely paradigmatic, the society described in the Laws, Magnesia, is meant to be a live practicality, in a real country and populated with real Greeks. He calls it his second-best society, but not in any negative sense. The term is used to contrast it, not with the paradigmatic Kallipolis of the Republic, but with the first-best instantiation of that paradigm, which he writes off as being an instantiation confined to our imagination, since it would have to be populated by (in his words) ‘gods and sons of gods’. If we talk of it simply in terms of where it stands among practical possibilities, Magnesia would of course be entitled to be called his best society.

A major constitutional difference from the paradigm is the fact that Magnesia will be, he says, a mixture of monarchy and democracy. But the monarch’s role seems to be strictly that of fashioning the society, in conjunction with the ‘legislator’ who had the good fortune to find him. Once this is done, he just seems to vanish from the scene. What is ‘monarchic’ about the society which remains is unclear, unless Plato means simply that the Guardians of the Laws and the Nocturnal Council appear to enjoy a disciplinary power often associated with monarchic rule. But their members too, we need to remember, have a limited term of office, and must render an account of themselves upon leaving it. So, while members of the two institutions certainly wield much more power than any citizens of contemporary Athens, the fact that their term of office is limited, and the fact that they are held accountable for their actions in office, it could be argued, render the two institutions considerably more compatible with basic democratic procedure than might at first appear.

The idea of a class of rulers, both male and female, which can be identified – and perpetuated in existence across the generations - by a combination of appropriate parentage and appropriate, highly specialized education, has likewise been abandoned. Magnesia will not be run in accordance with the fiat of a virtuous Guardian class, as in Kallipolis, where laws are unnecessary, there being no antisocial activity or criminality within the society; it will be governed by laws, the implementation of which will be by a group of rulers drawn, not from some classe politique, but from the general citizenry, and with fixed terms of office.

A further difference will be that education will be for all citizens, male and female, and those who finish up in governing roles in society will do so, not because they belong to some supposed political class, but as the result of a combination of election and the use of the lot-system. (Let us call the idea ‘constrained meritocracy’). As for any further education received by members of one particular body, the Nocturnal Council, this will be voluntary self-education in disciplines its members perceive necessary for a more profound understanding of the laws it is their job to safe-guard. 

A further change is the institution of private property for all, including the rulers, and in a way such as to guarantee neither poverty nor excessive riches for any citizen.

Yet another change will be the existence of something the Greeks would have found genuinely new, and that is, preambles to laws, such that all citizens are always fully informed, and in some detail, of the reasoning behind each one. If penalties can be grievous, and many are, citizens will at least be aware of the reason why the Nocturnal Council thinks they should be what they are, and the purpose they serve in the overall good of the state.

Much of the above turns on Plato’s assumption that Magnesia, unlike the fully virtuous Kallipolis, where there is no such thing, will be characterized, as I have just mentioned, by a good deal of antisocial and indeed criminal activity.

A final, very broad difference of assumption between the Laws and the Republic is the grounding of something the two dialogues are fully agreed on, and that is, the virtue which both societies have as their objective. In the Republic this grounding was, not a set of gods, but something transcending the gods – the Form of the Good. In the Laws it is the gods themselves who are the grounding, and one god in particular, that Divine Chess-Player who is the world’s Rational Soul. And this has the effect of turning Magnesia into, not just a combination of monarchy and democracy, but a theocracy, where its king, and subsequently the Guardians of the Laws, are, in the final analysis, the mouth-piece for the King of all things.

Who other than these leaders have access to the Divine Chess-Player’s wishes? Everyone, says Plato, and his views on the matter are nowhere more evident than in his discussion of homosexuality, where the divine will for our conduct is there for all to infer from the operations of the natural world they see around them.

I have used the word ‘infer’, and this leads naturally to another feature of Magnesia: the fact of the death penalty for contumacious atheism, and, more generally, the broadening of the concept of impiety to a point where a significant number of citizens (who can guess the number?) could finish up executed. Not that the death penalty for atheism is a new idea; many Greek societies had this among their statutes, including Athens. What is new is Plato’s rationale for it: one dies for contumaciously continuing to reject clear evidence presented by the observation of nature (this time nature as observed in the orderly, perfectly circular movements [as he understands them to be] of the heavenly bodies), and for refusing to accept arguments from authority about how the gods relate to us.

What can be said, by way of final assessment, about Plato’s last, twelve-book statement on what constitutes a good society? One can begin with his contention that it will be a mixture of monarchy (which he sometimes calls, more generally, ‘autocracy’) and democracy. In so speaking he propounds a view which went on to have a long life in antiquity (as the prototype of a so-called ‘mixed constitution’) and an even longer life since then. I merely note this in passing; my views on various features of Plato’s own version of the mixed constitution will emerge as I come to each.

Let me begin with a list of ideas in the Laws which seem to me ones which any rational agent could accept.

1. The common good. The good of the community as a whole will be the overall goal of Magnesia.

2. Access to office will turn on election, not on membership of a supposed ‘political class’.

3. Accountability. Those who hold office, up to and including the most senior office, will hold it for a limited term, and will be subject to careful scrutiny by auditors upon leaving office.

4. There will be a ‘quantum’ property system for all citizens, such that any rational agent would be willing to live at the level of a person possessed of the lowest quantum, and also to forgo all holdings that would take him beyond the value of the highest allowed number of quanta.

5. There will be universal education, for all females as well as all males.

6. Punishment for crime will be, as far as possible, remedial.

7. Extenuating circumstances will be taken into account in trials.

8. Every law will be accompanied by an explanation why it exists, and what it hopes to achieve within the framework of the common good.

In setting out this list, I am of course aware that in various parts of the world some people claiming to be rational agents will vigorously deny the worth of at least one item on it. Many, for example, place a higher value on freedom of the individual than on a supposed common good. Others are clearly committed to a vengeance theory of punishment. Others (mercifully few in number but greatly troublesome) think that no female should be educated. Others think that there should be no maximum to the permitted accumulation of wealth. I make no comment on this, other than to express the hope that, some day, the holders of such views will one day see the error of their ways, and to re-iterate my own belief that on all eight points Plato is on absolutely the right track. The ‘quantum’ theory of property in particular seems to me well worth looking at, containing as it does incentives to work vigorously for self-betterment while carefully safeguarding against a modern plague, the growing impoverishment of the many in face of the growing enrichment of the few.

Let us pause for a while over this. In the new society there will be equality of opportunity (744b), but an inequality in wealth accumulated. There will, however – and crucially - be no penury (i.e., complete destitution) permitted, and there will be a cap placed on wealth. The possession of the basic one quantum of property will guarantee a reasonably good life, even if it might be deemed poverty by contrast with those who possess wealth valued at four quanta. The possession of wealth to the value of two, three, or four quanta will clearly offer opportunities for further satisfactions for some people, but the reasonable quality of life at even the lowest level will be never in doubt. And finally, if anyone accumulates wealth beyond the value of four quanta, he will by law consign the surplus to “the state and its gods” (745a1-20). While Plato does not spell this out in detail, one can assume that some of the surplus wealth that devolves to the state goes to the all-important maintaining of the value of the one basic quantum of property, to ensure that no citizen holding this single quantum will ever see the basic good quality of his life eroded. Certainly, Plato is sufficiently confident that his system would protect the basically good quality of life of all citizens that he says begging will be forbidden, with the penalty of expulsion from the state for anyone who attempts to do so, in order that, he says, in disheartening language, “our land may be entirely cleansed of such creatures”(736c).

The principle underlying this vision is a concept of ‘justice as fairness’ that readers of John Rawls will immediately recognize.[1] A good society, says Rawls, is one where any rational agent would be willing to live at the level of its least advantaged member.[2] And this seems to be exactly what Plato is after too. As it stands, it is not only democratic as an ideal, it is sophisticatedly democratic, possessing as it does incentives to wealth-accumulation by everyone but always within the over-arching constraint of the common good.

Let me now set out a list of commitments in the Laws on which a rational agent might wish to take issue with Plato.

1. The need for a supreme ruler who will set up the second-best society and its laws, and will apparently have no time-limit to his rule.

2. The necessity (apparently) that such a ruler, along with all in major governing roles, such as the Guardians of the Laws, will be male.

3. The need to use the lot-system as part of the final selection of the Guardians of the Laws.

4. The need for ‘beneficial acts of deception’ by the state.

5. The view that the primary purpose of the arts is their service to the state.

6. The need to use belief in benevolent, non-corruptible gods as the grounding of citizen-virtue.

7. The need to believe that the operations of the natural world are in significant respects an expression of the divine will with regard to conduct.

8. The need for a series of punishments consequent on the above – such as deprivation of civic rights for homosexuals and the death-penalty for contumacious atheists.

9. The continuation of a slave-system as the underpinning of the state.

On the face of it, Plato’s careful regulations concerning election of all public officials, and the necessity that such terms be limited and be followed by scrutiny of how such officials conducted themselves while in office, would appear to be enough to safeguard the state. And Plato’s commitment, in the Laws, to education for all females as well as males would appear to be enough to ensure that there would be a plentiful supply of females as well as males for potential election to all the various offices of state. As he himself put it: to fail to educate women is to fail to use half of society’s talent. Or as another ruler was to put it later: women hold up half the sky. But in practice, despite his statement that women in Magnesia would be eligible to ‘enter office’ (archas) at age forty (785b), the offices in question do not appear to include any major offices of the state. The Minister of Education, for example, a post which Plato describes as ‘the most important of the highest offices of the state’ (765e), is by statute a ‘father of a family’. The Guardians of the Laws Plato refers to unequivocally as ‘men’ (andrasi, 755b5). The all-important Auditors of those finishing their term of office are all ‘men’ (andras, 946a1). And the members of the Nocturnal Council are clearly men too, being comprised of ten Guardians of the Laws (all male), a Minister and an unspecified number of ex-Ministers of Education (all male), an unspecified number of (male) priests of distinction,[3] and a number of junior members, who, being by statute aged between 30 and 40, are also clearly each one of them men, women being forbidden access to office before the age of forty. The only other major public office left to which citizens are elected is the Advisory Council. We cannot be certain whether Plato intended women to form part of it, but the fact that those who, in final conjunction with a use of the lot-system, elect its members are once again ‘men’ (andra, 756e4) offers little reason for thinking it likely. If we add to this the fact that only males in Magnesia are entitled to hold property, and that women continue to have their marriages arranged by male relatives, it looks highly unlikely that, by contrast with contemporary Athens, females have been granted citizenship (814c4) in Magnesia, as some understand Plato to be saying.[4] If there is any political break-through for women in the second-best society, it is at a level well below that enjoyed by male citizens.[5]

Given the heavy stress on virtue-as-efficiency in the Laws (as in the Republic), it will also seem, in the eyes of many people, counterproductive on Plato’s part to use the lot-system in the final round of selection for membership of the Advisory Council. His argument in favor of the move is that it will please the democratically-inclined in Magnesia, who will see it (as contemporary Athens did) as a healthy safeguard against the possible rise of a self-styled ‘natural’ ruling class. But it will also be achieved at a cost, and that is, the presence at all times in the Advisory Council of a number of members who, while no doubt talented enough, and no doubt broadly representative of the will of the populace (they had, after all, reached the final round by standard electoral procedures), were possibly not as talented for membership of such a body as a number who, at the last moment, had seen their own equally legitimate candidacy vanish by the use of lot-system. It seems, on the face of it, almost a guarantee of ongoing feelings of anger and resentment, at any given time, on the part of a number of citizens, frequently very talented citizens, at how they have been treated by the system, and something more likely than not to work against rather than in favor of that overall harmony of parts which Plato takes to be an essential feature of a good society.

As far as so-called ‘beneficial acts of deception’ by the state are concerned, the problem with them in the Laws is the same as it was in the Republic: does a noble end – the common good – justify a means which to many people looks like an infantilization of the state’s citizens, even if a well-intentioned one? Most would continue to say No, and demand that Plato’s rulers employ the same respect (aidos) for the ruled as he himself demands that the young demonstrate towards their elders. Such respect will no doubt on occasion (such as when a justified war is going badly) be compatible with withholding some unpleasant truths for a while, or (in the same circumstance of war) with active attempts to deceive the enemy. But few will be willing to concede to Plato that there will ever be circumstances when a state will be allowed to deceive its own people into thinking something to be true which it, the state, knows full well to be false.

But there is such a circumstance, Plato would undoubtedly reply, and that circumstance is when it is for the good of the state that citizens be told as a truth what the state knows to be merely a story. Which is why, in the Laws, he talks carefully about beneficial acts of deception. It is the heart of his case, and we must engage with him on it, not least because of its implications for so much else in his political theory.

Much turns on whether we agree or disagree with Plato on a fundamental metaphor he uses to describe the virtue of a state or a person, and that is the metaphor of health for the virtue (or efficient functioning) of either and the metaphor of ill-health for the vice (or inefficient functioning) of either.[6] If we see merit in this metaphor, and in particular if we accept the Greek notion of health as a functional balance of parts in an organism, we are likely to accept his view that virtuous action is self-evidently beneficial. (Who, after all, except a person who is deranged, would choose ill-health over health?). But if such a person is actively adopting beliefs and making choices which – did he but know it - militate against his own and, more broadly, the state’s virtue, he is unwittingly opting for his own and the state’s ill-health rather than health. So corrective procedures by the state-as-doctor are called for, even if the patient has no idea that he is ill or heading towards illness. And any procedure, however drastic or however strange-looking, will be acceptable as long as the patient’s health is achieved (or re-gained). One such procedure, suggests Plato, will be the story of a Divine Chess-Player.

There is good reason, however, to doubt the appropriateness of Plato’s metaphor, based as it is on what seems to be much too inward-looking an understanding of virtue. If virtue is much better described in terms of how we relate to others than of how balanced the parts of our psyche are one with another, the metaphor of health (in the Greek sense of balance of parts within an organism) to describe virtue is seen at once to be misleading, along with all talk about the putative acceptability of any and all means necessary to achieve such health. The use of, on occasion, a ‘medicinal deception’, such as the story of a Divine Chess-Player, is for Plato one such means; but, like any other such ‘beneficial deceptions’, it is as inappropriate as the metaphor which sustains it.

The same thing happens in reverse when it comes to the arts. This time we are dealing with the medicinal concealment of truths which might induce sickness in the soul and, by extension, and very importantly, in society. Such as the truth that the wicked frequently do prosper, and die in their beds extremely content with their wickedness. But to believe such things, claims Plato, is to have a ‘lie in the soul’, to quote a famous phrase from the Republic. And this is to be in the sickest state of all, sickness in one’s thinking self (logistikon). So no portrayal, in drama or poetry, of a wicked man who dies happy will be allowed in Kallipolis or Magnesia. What is more, a definition of happiness will be taught which states that it is a state of the psyche which goes hand in hand with virtue; the wicked man who looks ‘happy’ in the traditional sense of the words is not really happy in the genuine, Platonic sense of the word – he is in fact the worst-off of all men, being thoroughly sick in his soul and not knowing it. And what rational man would ever prefer ill-health to health? etc.

But this idea too is deeply problematic. Just as a misleading metaphor was the driving force behind Plato’s definition of virtue, and of the supposed need for the occasional medicinal untruth, the same metaphor is now the driving force behind his definition of happiness (eudaimonia) in terms of a state of the organism rather than a feeling of some sort, and the supposed need for the occasional medicinal suppression of a truth. In each instance, however, Plato’s goal is achieved by a use of private language, so private that he can finish up denying that feeling happy is sufficient grounds for claiming that one is happy, and expecting anyone (apart from his well-chosen interlocutors in the Republic and Laws) to believe him on the matter.

We come finally to a third, critical instance of things which Plato maintains all citizens must believe if the whole state is to prosper. And this time we are dealing, not with medicinal untruths, or medicinal suppression of truths, but (forgoing all metaphors) with a set of assertions which Plato is convinced are true but many do not. I refer to the assertions that there are gods who care for us and are incorruptible; that their existence is provable by astronomical observation and the drawing of rational inferences from this; and that their message to us, through the operations of nature qua productive, is the basis of sound conduct in the area of sexual behavior.

Underpinning these claims is an argument for the presence of rational soul in the universe, a soul Plato equates with God. This argument turns, however, on his assumption that circular movement in the macro-cosmos is a manifestation of the presence of rationality there. But the evidence he uses with a good deal of confidence to establish this turns out to be groundless; all of that circular movement he thinks he sees in the sky is, unfortunately, not circular but elliptical. As for his confidence that a putative immaterial object (a soul) can move a material one, there are very few philosophers who share it, and understandably so.

None of this would of course be too significant if it were simply Plato expounding his private views on theology. But its consequences are devastating, as we have seen, for atheists and homosexuals in his society.

On the continued belief by Plato, too, in the need for a slave-base to underpin even his justest society I have no comment, except to applaud the breakthrough of his contemporary, the sophist Alcidamas, in suggesting that it is unsupportable by right-thinking people.

In order to state my case clearly, and with the best arguments I could, I have of course taken more time over items that seem to me problematic (not to say - at times - horrifying) in Plato’s account than over items which seem to me self-evidently right and to be applauded. Among these, as we saw, were such things as the need for universal education; for accountability for those entrusted with public office; and for remedial rather than vengeance-driven punishment. If we can draw the two sets of commitments, praiseworthy and problematic, together and try offer a name for what has been achieved, we might wish to describe the package as a particularly severe version of the ‘firm hand’ model of democracy, where - despite everything - the major features of what we would consider the heart of democratic life, such as education for all, free and fair elections, a term to all office, accountability for things done in office, and so on, are all prominently the case. While a good deal is also there which not too many thinking people of our own time would ever wish to see implemented, I should like to end by stressing again those ideas - mentioned earlier on in my paper - which have in fact gone on to become part of the common consciousness of people calling themselves democrats, along with a couple of ideas which in my opinion ought to become so - the quantum idea of wealth-accumulation which I compared to the view of Rawls, and accessibly written preambles to all laws. If they come accompanied by a few noxious items, they still remain a major contribution to any search for the best instantiation of the democratic ideal.




[1] See Mostafa Yousenie, Profile of justice in Plato and Rawls, Philotheos 9 (2009), pp. 45-56

[2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (revised edition) (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), and Justice as Fairness. A Re-statement (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2001)

[3] At Meno 81a10 Plato clearly distinguishes priests and priestesses; the word ‘priest’ is not a generic term covering both. See also Laws 800b1, 828b4, 909d9, Phdr. 244b1, Rep. 461a7. As far as Magnesia is concerned, priests and priestesses are chosen by lot (759c), must be over sixty years of age, and hold office for one year.

[4] In distinguishing ‘politides’ and ‘citizens’ Plato is distinguishing between ‘free females dwelling in the polis’ and ‘citizens’ - who are free, male, and have all the rights of full citizenship. See S. El. 1227, E. El. 1335, where no one would ever infer from the use of the word politides that the women in question enjoy the privileges of citizenship, even if, out of camaraderie, they address one another warmly as ‘politides’.

[5] While it is possible that the several references to ‘andres’ are just slips on Plato’s part, this seems very unlikely, given the various other instances of high office where males and only males seem to be involved. A more likely explanation, it seems to me, is that women’s ‘entering office’ (785b5) simply means their ‘entering public service,’ without specification of what the range of such service might be. An example of it would be membership, if elected, of the board of ‘female overseers’ of Magnesia’s marriages, something mentioned in the immediately antecedent paragraph, at 784a1-2. But this does not compare with the major offices open exclusively – apparently - to men.



[6] For a detailed discussion of what he calls ‘medical penology’ in the Laws see Trevor Saunders, Plato’s Penal Code (Oxford: University Press, 1991), pp. 139-211


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