Friday, September 19, 2014

Nomoi (Part II: Preludes to Law)

Book IV

The Athenian opens the discussion of the city in speech by asking about its background conditions, and first whether it is coastal or inland. Clinias replies that it is about eighty stades (about nine or ten miles from the sea), and it has excellent harbors. The land around it is productive of many things and hilly, and there is no other nearby city. The Athenian replies that the closeness to the sea is unfortunate, but at least it is not right on it, and the other facts seem to suggest that it is not necessarily unfit for virtue. He is relieved to discover that the land is not timber-rich, which will reduce the tendency of the colonists to imitate bad deeds of their enemies. To make his point he returns to the Minos story: Crete under Minos had a powerful navy, and Attica was relatively unfitted for the sea. Because of this, it took them a long time to build up any navy, and thus they were forced to amphibious tactics that were conducive to courage. Clinias replies by pointing out the importance of the sea-battle of Salamis in the Persian War. The Athenian insists, however, that the war was won by land battles, and that the land battles made the Greeks better while the sea battles made them worse, even when they were military successes like Salamis or Artemisium.

They turn to consider who will settle the colony, and Clinias says that it will be Cretans, and probably some Greeks from the Peloponnesus, as well. The Athenian notes that everyone having the same background and language increases the friendship of the city, but also increases the reluctance to have new laws, whereas people will be more willing to have new laws if they are of mixed backgrounds, but will also be less unified. For this reason, among others, it seems that no man makes laws; laws are formed by all sorts of chance events or practical needs. Everything apparently seems governed by God (theos), chance (tyche), and opportunity (kairos); there must, however, be some room somewhere for art/skill (techne). It seems that if someone has genuine skill, then they are able accurately to identify and pray for whatever particular gift of chance that they need. So the Athenian considers what it is for which the person of legislative skill would pray. And he suggests that it is a monarchy with a competent monarch: this is the fastest way for a city to get the laws it should have: the fewer rulers, the easier it is to get things done. However, the monarch to do this properly still has to lead by example, exemplifying the character that the laws are trying to encourage in the citizens.

The three men invoke the help of the God, and then consider the appropriate constitution for the city. They decide to do this by identifying the constitutions for their own city. Megillus and Clinias are flummoxed by the question, though, since Sparta and Knossos seem to have very mixed constitutions. The Athenian agrees with this, but says that they are perhaps not using the right kind of classification; the usual labels just indicate different ways of men ruling other men, whereas the real constitution one would want to classify according to the god "who really does rule over men who are rational enough to let him" (713a). He tells the myth of Chronos to clarify what he means. In the age of Chronos, people were happy because Chronos knew that human beings given full power over human beings would become corrupt. For this reason, he gave them daemons for kings who, like shepherds for sheep, took care that human beings had "peace, respect for others, good laws, justice in full measure, and a state of happiness and harmony among the races of the world" (713e). For this reason, the Athenian says, we should strive to live according to that principle, organizing our lives according to that which is divine in us, namely, reason. Whenever people rule on any lesser principle, disaster awaits.

The Athenian opposes the position that justice is what furthers the interests of those in power with the rule of law, in which "law is the master of the government and the government is its slave" (715d), and insists on the importance of the latter. He then imagines giving an address to the colonists:

Men, according to the ancient story, there is a god who holds in his hands the beginning and the end and the middle of all things, and straight he marches in the cycle of nature. Justice, who takes vengeance on those who abandon the divine law, never leaves his side. Teh man who lives in happiness latches on to her and follows her with meekness and humility. But he who bursts with pride, elated by wealth or honors or by physical beauty when young and foolish, whose soul is afire with the arrogant belief that so far from needing someone to control and lead him, he can play the leader to others--there's a man whom God has deserted. (715e-716b)

He continues by noting that "the moderate man is God's friend, being like him, whereas the immoderate and unjust man is not like him and is his enemy; and the same reasoning applies to the other vices too" (716d). The prayers of the good are effective, and those of the wicked are futile; so piety to gods, ancestors, and parents is a key element of civic life.

At this point, there is introduced one of the more interesting ideas of the dialogue, the preludial system of legislation. In this approach to lawmaking, it is generally inappropriate for laws to be put forward as mere commands backed by force; they need to persuade as well as compel, in the same way that the most effective doctor is one who not only prescribes but also encourages and explains. Thus major laws should have a prelude or preamble that gives the context for the law itself. These will tend to be the broad moral aims that justify imposing the law in the first place and give reasons for people to go along with the law. For instance, the Athenian proposes a law that all men must marry between the ages of thirty and thirty-five, and the prelude for it is that human beings have a nature tending to immortality, and procreation is one of the ways in which this natural desire is fulfilled, so that it is inappropriate for us to neglect marriage.

They all agree that the preludial system is a good approach, even Megillus, who notes that in general Spartans prefer laconic brevity, and, because the address previously given seems to serve as a general prelude for laws concerning piety and impiety, they agree that the Athenian Stranger should give a general prelude for the laws governing human concerns.

  Additional Remarks

* The colony city is almost twice as far from the sea as Athens is, so the Athenian's comments on this point are an implicit criticism of Athens itself. The suggestion that naval power has a tendency to corrupt by encouraging luxury-driven behavior and dreams of empire is one found elsewhere in Plato (e.g., Critias).

* The discussion began around dawn, but it is now around noon (722d).

* All throughout the discussion of the preludial system of legislation, the Athenian plays on the fact that the Greek word nomoi can mean either laws or songs of a certain kind; the 'prelude' of the law is like the prelude section of a musical composition, preparing the one who receives it for the main work.

Book V

The Athenian's approach in building the general preludes for human affairs is to focus on the concept of honor. Beneath the gods, the holiest thing in human life is a person's own soul; it is therefore that which should be most honored after the gods. Honoring one's soul is a matter of having proper priorities:

To put it in a nutshell, 'honor' is to cleave to what is superior, and, where practicable, to make as perfect as possible what is deficient. Nothing that nature gives a man is better adapted than his soul to enable him to avoid evil, keep on the track of the highest good, an dwhen he has captured his quarry to live in intimacy with it for the rest of his life. (728c-d)

After the soul, the body has third rank in honor. What matters with the body is all-around completeness in good balance. External goods like money work on the same principle: everything in moderation, avoiding excess and defect. The young must be taught modesty, but the best way to do this is not by rebuke but by patient example: the elder should respect the younger, so that by showing respect to the young they will show the young what it is to respect their elders. Relatives, friends, and companions should also be respected. Contracts with someone foreign (xenos) should be upheld, because the gods have compassion to the stranger who is without friends and family in a foreign place, and Zeus Xenios, god of Strangers, looks out for them.

The next matter of concern is how individuals themselves should act. "Truth heads the list of all things good, for gods and men alike" (730c), so citizens should be encouraged to be truthful. Likewise, one should always encourage prudence, temperance, and other virtues. One needs people to be spirited but capable of great gentleness, because justice often requires that one fight for justice, but one should pity those who do wrong (cp. the very similar argument in Gorgias). Self-love should be recognized as the most pernicious kind of vice, since it is the one we always excuse in ourselves. Joy and grief, pleasure and pain, should be maintained in balance, but the virtuous life is both more pleasant and more balanced than the vicious one.

This ends the prelude. Now there are two things to do: establish offices and create a code to govern them. But there are some preliminaries required in order to do this properly and well. One needs to weed out real troublemakers, those who are dangerous to the society, so that they will not begin destroying things from the very beginning. In an established society this would be difficult, but since they are proposing a colony, the major issue is simply to control what kind of person will become a colonist. The Athenian proposes that they should have 5040 colonists, since 5040 will divide equally in a lot of different ways, which will make distribution of land easier. The best kind of property would be one built on the principle that friends have all things in common, but since this is practically impossible, we should look for the kind of city that approximates it most effectively. So people should receive their own land, but regard it as a common good, and distributions should be as stable as possible, so that there are always about 5040 households, to the extent that one can manage this. Buying and selling of land allotment is to be illegal. The city should make its own money for use in giving wages, but gold and silver, and any common Greek coinage, is to be turned over to the city to be used for all. There are to be no dowries and no lending at interest.

The legislator is not to aim at making the people as wealthy as possible, for great wealth does not tend to virtue, and virtue should always be the aim of law: "The whole point of our legislation was to allow the citizens to live supremely happy lives in the greatest possible mutual friendship" (743c). The laws should encourage citizens to make their soul their highest day-to-day priority, and then their body, and only third their money.

The Athenian recommends that the land allotments be done by pairs of land, an outer estate and another allotment in the city itself, with the land and the city being divided into twelve. He recognizes that reality rarely fits idealized plans, but insist that the plans must be laid out first before one considers how it may be adjusted into feasibility. The plans themselves are to be orderly and mathematical to the extent possible, but things like water and weather also need to be taken into account.

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