Monday, February 17, 2014

An Old Man & The Laws

Leo Strauss

- What's wrong?
- I've been fighting with a bad mood. Maybe caused by reading Plato's 'The Laws', the long dialog he wrote in his old age in which an old man specifies humorlessly the best practical form of government for a new colony. It is about 700 pages Plato seems to kept himself continuously in a bad mood to write.
- Tell me about it.
- Unlike the city Plato imagines in 'The Republic'*, this one would not have property held in common. It would be overtly religious, with four classes unequal in property ownership, and would have a fixed number of lots. Only one male descendent could inherit the lot, and if no male born and surviving one would have to be adopted.
- Like primogenitor in feudal times.
- Yes. It is a property arrangement meant to be stable, and unlike in 'The Republic', to respect individual desires in private life, at least the life of private ownership of property. Private feelings for other people however are not respected in the arrangement, as even if you were lucky enough to be a citizen - slaves and merchants were not - full citizenship for your children depended on inheriting or marrying into ownership of one of the limited number of lots. 
- I think I like our society better.
- Well, the idea expressed that only one aspect of private life - property - would be respected in the political arrangements is fascinating to encounter in our times because it is exactly the nature of our present political arrangements. Rules of property are legislated to be un-challengeable and citizens taught to consider it sacrilege to change them. For example, it is out of the question to consider application of anarchist rules of property (no one may be employed by another, no possession of property without use). On the other hand, no regular arrangements are made to respect personal relations of friendship or love. Like in our present society, if economic conditions demand then your own children are left to be property-less, with this unquestionably assumed to be fair and right.
- Not by everyone.
- By those it is accepted by the arrangement is religiously maintained: the religious element is the sense of property relations being unquestionable, as if dictated by god as a certain and permanent form of justice. 
- I know you. Displaying your bad mood is the beginning of a talk. Maybe it was the same for Plato, his thousand page bad mood. Am I right? I'm right.
- Though an old man himself when he wrote 'The Laws', and writing mostly words voiced by a humorless old man, Plato was not lapsing into senility.  He was practicing what the philosopher Leo Strauss called esoteric writing, apparently saying one thing but meaning another: expressing the unsuitability of a society based only on religion and property by showing how that building would look when rigorously executed: joyless and fundamentally unjust. Hiding his secret message in plain sight, conceivably even laughing at the thoroughgoing boldness of his own trick, Plato goes to the extreme of having his old man propose the very dialog of dull words we are reading as a model of how citizens should speak with each other.**

* See How To Read Plato's Republic
**Critics of  'The Laws' are sensible of a want of point in the dialogue and a general inferiority in the ideas, plan, manners, and style. They miss the poetical flow, the dramatic verisimilitude, the life and variety of the characters, the dialectic subtlety, the Attic purity, the luminous order, the exquisite urbanity; instead of which they find tautology, obscurity, self-sufficiency, sermonizing, rhetorical declamation, pedantry, egotism, uncouth forms of sentences, and peculiarities in the use of words and idioms. They are unable to discover any unity in the patched, irregular structure. The speculative element both in government and education is superseded by a narrow economical or religious vein. The grace and cheerfulness of Athenian life have disappeared; and a spirit of moroseness and religious intolerance has taken their place. The charm of youth is no longer there; the mannerism of age makes itself unpleasantly felt. The connection is often imperfect; and there is a want of arrangement, exhibited especially in the enumeration of the laws towards the end of the work. The Laws are full of flaws and repetitions. The Greek is in places very ungrammatical and intractable. A cynical levity is displayed in some passages, and a tone of disappointment and lamentation over human things in others. The critics seem also to observe in them bad imitations of thoughts which are better expressed in Plato's other writings. (Benjamin Jowett)