Monday, September 22, 2014

Nomoi (Part IV: Gods and Virtues)

Book X

The Athenian proposes that the greatest respect for law is closely connected with belief in gods. This raises the problem of those who either do not believe in gods or who believe in them in ways that do not support law. There are three such groups, structured by belief in three different propositions:

(1) The gods do not exist.
(2) The gods exist but do not bother with the human race.
(3) The gods exist and are easily influenced by sacrifice and the like.

One of the standing themes of the Laws is that legislators should begin with persuasion, not coercion, so the problem of these groups is how one can go about persuading them. Clinias replies that the existence of gods is easy and obvious to show:

Well, just look at the earth and the sun and the stars and the universe in general; look at the wonderful procession of the seasons and its articulation into years and months! Anyway, you know that all Greeks and all foreigners are unanimous in recognizing the existence of gods. (886a)

The Athenian happens to agree that order and common consent show the existence of gods, but he points out that Clinias and Megillus, perhaps because of their background, don't grasp the full problem, which is that people in these groups have deliberately made up accounts to get around these points: they will say that sun and earth are just dumb, mute stones incapable of caring about human affairs. And on this ground they will insist that it is monstrous to make belief in gods part of the laws.

The Athenian's suggested response is to try to get the people in question to keep an open mind. Whatever they might think, they are not alone, nor the first to come up with these ideas; the population of each of the three groups rises and falls, but there are always some who fall into it. It is very common, though, for people who are in these groups eventually to change their minds, however.

The Athenians note that people tend to explain things that have come into existence, or will come into existence, by attributing them to nature (physis), skill (techne), or chance (tyche). On the basis of this, they often argue that skill is a secondary and derivative cause; it lacks the perfection of nature and is also an explanation applying to very few things, since natural works come about purely by nature and chance. In addition, the best work of skill is usually just a cooperation with nature, in which nature does the bulk of the work. On the basis of this, they think that government is mostly artificial rather than natural, and its laws are purely artificial. This leads people to conclude that the gods are legal fictions, matters of convention. They take the fact that human beings always argue about moral standards as a sign that they are artificial, and thus conclude, if they follow through on this all, that "anything one can get away with by force is absolutely justified" (890a) -- after all, the force-backed life has the same justification as any other, that people just made it so. Only if the standards were largely founded on nature could you hold that they were anything other than ideas impressed by force of will. But the standards have to be matters of skill; so if skill is not a major cause, matters like law are mostly artificial works of arbitrary will.

'Might makes right' is obviously death to justice in the city, but the Athenian notes that the legislator cannot go around punishing everyone on all the matters of civic good. The first step is indeed to focus on persuading them, however pernicious their doctrine might be. A difficulty here is that the addresses could be difficult and dull, but Clinias drily remarks that as they had to listen to the Athenian give a long, dull account of the importance of drinking parties, they surely can tolerate one on theology, particularly since it is the sort of thing that one would need to be clear about in the course of legislating.

The Athenian proposes that the root problem is thinking that everything is really made of elements (fire, water, earth, air) and that nature just is the ordinary action of these elements, while soul (i.e., life) is derivative from, and explained by, nature. The problem arises, in other words, out of a misunderstanding of the soul. In reality, soul has a sort of priority over what they are calling nature: "It is one of the first creations, born long before all physical things, and is the chief cause of all their alterations and transformations" (892a). Things of the soul, like reason, are prior and superior to the bodily things that they take to be natural and fundamental.

We find in the world things that move and things that stand still. They fall into different groups. Some of those that move will do so in different locations and some, like revolving circles, will do so in the same locations. Sometimes moving things collide, and when they do, they sometimes coalesce, increasing their bulk, or divide, decreasing their bulk, or are sometimes destroyed. When things are produced, we have a series of transitions to whatever is produced and, ultimately, to our perceiving it. But all of this overlooks, the Athenian says, two other kinds of motion:

The one kind of motion is that which is permanently capable of moving other things but not itself; the other is permanently capable of moving both itself and other things by processes of combination and separation, increase and diminution, generation and destruction. (894b)

Of these, the most powerful motion, that which is most effective as such, is that of the self-generating motion. Because there cannot be an infinite regress in motions, it seems that there must be some initial principle that involves self-generating motion. If we see this self-generating motion arise in a body, however, we call it alive; self-generating motion is that of a soul, i.e., what makes something a living thing -- soul is "motion capable of moving itself" (896a). Thus soul is prior to material things, and thus things like calculation, will, habit, memory -- all the things associated with reason -- can in principle be prior to material things. If it is original motion, however, it appears that it must control the movements of the heavens themselves, as a sort of world soul. If we look at the movements of the heavens, they are very orderly, in such a way that they bear a likeness to the circular movements of reason itself; so it would be arbitrary to deny that the world soul is a rational and virtuous soul. But if drives the heavens itself, and we all depend on the heavens, then it seems that its jurisdiction, so to speak, is everywhere and that "there are good grounds for believing that we are in fact held in the embrace of some such thing though it is totally below the level of our bodily senses, and is perceptible by reason alone" (898d). If we take the sun, the soul either is 'in' the sun in the way our soul is in our body, or it takes a different body that moves the sun by external contact, or it is wholly immaterial and moves the sun in some other way. But if any of the three is true, the soul provides us with light and such, and is reasonably called a god. So it is with all the rest: "everything is full of gods" (899b).

Thus either the people in question should demonstrate where the line of reasoning goes wrong, not merely by making up a different account but by giving a better case, or they should be persuaded that there are gods. Similar lines of argument can back the case against (2) and (3). We seem to have what is required to identify that the gods have some kind of virtue, suitable to rational life, and then it's just a question of whether it makes sense to say that the virtuous gods on whom all depends and whose jurisdiction covers everything neglect a considerable portion of those things, regardless of how important they think they are in the grand scheme of things, or whether it makes sense that the gods would not correct injustice, which is so harmful to human life.

The Athenian thinks that the argument he's given could use some work, but takes it to be a good start on a prelude to the law of impiety. He then discusses the work of the Nocturnal Council, an institution concerned with educating people on pious behavior and rehabilitating people who violate the laws against impiety. He also argues that no one should be allowed to possess a private shrine, since this encourages deviations and in particular can teach people that they can buy the gods off with bribes of private sacrifices.

  Additional Remarks

* The discussion of the three kinds of atheism -- as all three positions would have been called in the ancient world -- is not a strange digression. First, Books X and XI discuss transactions with others, and the Athenian is starting with the gods. But there is a more important reason that ties in with the idea of the whole dialogue. If one wanted to summarize the Laws in a single thesis, it is relatively easy to determine what it would be: Proper laws are a kind of divine order because they are expressions of reason, which is the divine in us; and reason is the divine in us because it has a kinship with the gods. Because of the link, made explicit from the beginning, between the laws and the gods, each of the three kinds of atheism is already an implicit form of error about law; that is why atheism is inconsistent with the rule of law proposed in the dialogue. The correspondence can be put fairly simply:

Theological ErrorPolitical Error
No godsReason is not divine
No providenceLaw is not a divine order
No reckoningMight makes right

The connection is not a mere analogy; the point is that the theological error on the left already commits you to the political error on the right. If there are no gods, reason cannot have kinship with them, and is not divine, which means that the law is not a divine order and is merely artificial, which gives us might makes right. If the gods do not care about human affairs, law is not a divine order; if there is no ultimate reckoning, justice can be evaded by bribe. All of this connects with claims that Plato has explicitly argued elsewhere, e.g., the Republic and Gorgias.

* The major concern throughout the book, it must be emphasized, is the primacy of reason.

Book XI

The Athenian continues the discussion of the laws by considering transactions with others besides the gods. The basic principle is that of consent: "no one should touch my property or tamper with it, unless I have given him some sort of permission; and if I am sensible I shall treat the property of others with the same respect" (913a). This is true even with things like buried treasure; if it's not legally yours, you can't take it, and it's impious to pray for it. All trading, as well, must be consistent with piety -- no lying under oath -- and people who are discovered to have known about fraud and not reported it are punished.

Trading -- i.e., mere trading, as in retail or wholesale, rather than producing and selling one's products -- is to be looked at with suspicion, because the majority of people cannot restrain their desires but always want more. Thus, while trading is allowed, only foreigners and resident aliens can do it; citizens are punished if they engage in retailing and wholesaling. The prices of retailers and wholesalers must be approved; the trader is to be allowed a real profit, based on his expenses, but the approved price must be displayed. Craftsmanship, the economic activity in which citizens can engage, is to be encouraged, but craftsmen are held strictly to their contracts and are to be taught that, having Athena and Hephaestus (or, depending on their craft, Athena and Ares) as their patrons, they have a responsibility to their divine patrons to keep their word. People buying from craftsmen are also held strictly to contract, so that if you fail to pay for something on time, you will be forced to pay double, and if you are a year overdue, you will be charged interest. (This is a notable move, because we've already seen that loans in general are not to be charged interest.)

After these, the next issue is inheritance, which is concerned with two points: the custom of making wills and the fact that people by chance die intestate. The Athenians think legislators have usually been lax about this matter, allowing people to dispose of their property however they see fit. This is as much to say, however, that people can ignore the good of the city in disposing of their property. Land allotments are not handled by wills at all, since it is seen as city property to which one has special entitlement; one can only dispose of acquired property, and there are restrictions on that. Dependents are favored over non-dependents, and if a man has no children, he can only give ten percent of his to anyone he pleases; if he wants to give more to someone, he must adopt that person as a son or daughter. A number of complicated rules are proposed for handling different kinds of cases where someone dies intestate; the Athenian explicitly recognizes that some such situations leave everyone bad off, and the best the legislator can do is try to minimize the harm to the city as a whole.

Filial piety is to be encouraged with the most urgent exhortation, and neglect of parents is a very serious crime. Other ways in which we harm other people are given various kinds of penalties. One of the guiding ideas throughout is that an institution or practice can be extraordinarily valuable to a city but can have its "evil genius" (937d), a sort of false version of it. Sophists in particular are in view. If someone attempts to use sophistry to win a court case, it is a crime: if they do so simply because they are pugnacious, they are banned for a period from any sort of litigation, but are killed if they are convicted a second time; and if they so because of avarice, they are exiled (if a foreigner) or killed (if a citizen).

Book XII

Next we have crimes against the city itself, such as impersonation of an emissary or defection in military service. There is considerable concern in the latter for being quite sure that it was a real defection, and not simply (for instance) a tactical retreat because you were robbed of your weapons before or during battle. The fines for deliberately abandoning your weapons, however, are very steep. The Athenian also devotes a considerable amount of attention to the office that inspects other officials, and to the laws governing admission of foreigners and travel abroad. The rules are strict in the latter cases, but generous hospitality to the foreigner is, of course, a legal requirement, being a moral matter that Greeks took very seriously.

The Athenian ends with a discussion of the Nocturnal Council, which is to have a role in the city analogous to reason in the human person. All virtue is a matter of reason, and all legislation is to be aimed at virtue. The Nocturnal Council is charged with maintaining these principles by educating people, especially officials, in virtue, and in things like theology and astronomy that are conducive to it. The full account of this, however, is deferred -- one needs to have the city formed, and the officials educated, before one can entrust it to the Nocturnal Council.

Megillus and Clinias end the dialogue by agreeing that they should make sure the Athenian is a partner with them in founding the colony.

  Additional Remarks

* What powers, exactly, the Nocturnal Council has is highly controverted in commentary on the dialogue. On the one hand, the Athenian constantly talks about the Council as educational, and never expressly gives it any coercive authority -- it seems to exist to persuade. On the other hand, its given such importance in the dialogue that it has seemed to people that it must have some kind of coercive power. Chris Bobonich and Katherine Meadows have a good discussion of this in their article on Plato on utopia. It is worth remembering, however, that one of the themes throughout the dialogue is that it is even more important for law to be persuasive than for it to be coercive; I don't think one can rule out the possibility that the Nocturnal Council is an expression of this principle.


Quotations are from Trevor Saunders's translation in Plato, Complete Works, Cooper & Hutchinson, eds, pp. 1318-1616.

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