Plato as Statesman

By Glendon, Mary Ann | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Plato as Statesman


Glendon, Mary Ann, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


As Max Weber observed in Politics as a Vocation and Science as a Vocation-and as borne out by his own unsuccessful forays into political life-the qualities that make a first-rate political or social theorist are not the same as those required for success as a statesman. For every Cicero or Edmund Burke, there are many more like Weber, Tocqueville, and Plato, whose longings for influence in public affairs were largely unfulfilled.

Plato was exceptionally unlucky in his attempts to take part in politics. In his Seventh Letter, he recounts how as a young man he briefly joined two successive Athenian administrations but quit both, disillusioned and disgusted. Many years later, he traveled to Syracuse to become an adviser to Dionysius II, a ruler who professed to be interested in philosophy.

Although initially hesitant-a previous meeting with Dionysius' father had gone badly-he convinced himself that "if ever anyone was to try to carry out in practice my ideas about laws and constitutions, now was the time for making the attempt." Dionysius II proved to be a hard case, and Plato fell victim to palace intrigues. Nevertheless, he persisted, making the arduous sea voyage from Athens to Sicily not once but twice. Barely escaping with his life after the second trip, he finally accepted that his efforts had been futile.

Without those disheartening experiences, however, it is unlikely that Plato could have written The Laws, his last and most political dialogue. Of all the dialogues, The Laws is the one that speaks most pointedly to the social sciences, and it still has important things to say about the great perennial questions of the scope and limits of law, the rule of law, the relation between law and custom, and the cultural underpinnings of good government. In The Laws we also discover much that was reinvented or appropriated by later thinkers-Machiavelli's distinction between legislating for imaginary kingdoms and making laws for a real city, for example, and Montesquieu's insistence that lawmakers must keep in mind the physical and cultural circumstances of those for whom they legislate, and the distinction between citizens and subjects that was so central for Rousseau and, in a different way, for Tocqueville.

The dialogue in The Laws takes place among three elderly pilgrims who meet on the road from Knossos to the temple of Zeus on the island of Crete. As the trek ahead is a long one, the protagonist, known only as the Athenian Stranger, proposes to Kleinias, a Cretan, and Megillos, a Spartan, that they beguile the time with conversation about the government and laws of Crete and Sparta. Both Crete and Sparta were renowned at the time for their laws. In fact, the shrine that is the travelers' destination commemorates the supposedly divine origin of the laws of Crete. Athens, according to the Stranger, was less blessed: It suffers from numerous civic ills that he attributes to misuse of liberty and lack of restraint on the part of rulers and ruled.

In some ways, the nameless Athenian resembles the Socrates of the earlier dialogues, but he is less charming and more pious, less elusive and more pedantic. In fact, the regime outlined in The Laws-with its checks and balances, private property, private families, rights for women, and condemnation of homosexuality-is so different from the ideal polity of The Republic that some scholars have doubted the authenticity of the later work. But others, more plausibly, conclude that the Stranger is as close as we get to the voice of Plato himself, a Plato nearing the end of his own journey through life, an old philosopher making one last attempt to advise princes, this time through the written word.

When the Athenian asks the Cretan and the Spartan how their polities came to have such excellent laws, Kleinias and Megillos both respond that their laws originally were given to them by a god. But they do not sound particularly confident. In Crete, the lawgiver "is said" to have been Zeus, or "at least that is our tradition. …

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