12th Grade: The Presence of Law is Half the Problem

Greetings,

This week we wrapped up our discussion of Plato’s political philosophy, at least for the moment.  This week we spent some time with Plato’s dialog The Statesman.  Many take the position that Plato’s Republic represents his best-case, unrealistic dream-world, and his subsequent dialogs (such as The Statesman) represent a more realistic approach.  I think this too simplistic, but clearly in The Statesman Plato wrestles with the fact that a) Rulers are not divine, and b) people are not sheep who will easily obey.

The problem gets compounded for Plato when he considers the nature and purpose of law.  States cannot exist without law, and yet Plato believes that the presence of law at all reveals a fundamental weakness in the state itself.  This sounds confusing, but if we consider our relationships with our spouses and friends, they are not governed by law.  We don’t have stipulations such as, “You must call me every day from work or you will face ‘x’ consequence.  Law in fact would kill the relationship.  The bonds between us have to be more organic and natural for the relationship to function well.

The same holds true for the state itself.  The presence of law presupposes problems in our relationships with one another.  If a state relies on law to hold itself together, the bonds will be merely external and therefore weak.  Plato knows that “philosopher kings” who know all and get obeyed by all is an impossibility.  He knows that a law-bound state will lack the internal harmony* required for success.  How to proceed?

Plato believes that the problem will have a partial solution if our leaders are “statesman,” and not “politicians” in the standard sense of the word.  Politicians attempt to curry favor with the people, or blow with the prevailing winds in a pavlovian manner, without regard for wisdom.  Politics then, can be a matter of mere technique.  Statesmanship, on the other hand, is an art form.  Statesman don’t rule via law, they find a way to knit people together without law.  We can approach Plato’s idea here if we think back on our greatest Presidents, who seem to embody something “American” for all people.  We don’t call them successful presidents for the great laws they passed, but for how the embody us and motivate us.  Law can do neither of these things.

Plato uses the analogy of weaving to describe the statesman’s art.  I include an excerpt from the dialog below if you have the interest.  Weaving shows up in many ancient texts, and seems to represent more than just skill with cloth (something I discuss in this post).  Plato kept on exploring, and he entitled one of his last dialogs The Laws, which may be an indication that he abandoned his dream late in life.  We need not see this necessarily.  Perhaps Plato wanted to tackle the problem of good governance from many different angles, and even in the laws he focuses on the importance of the soul.  We shall look at The Laws later in the year.

*A harmonious state requires harmonious souls within the state, hence Plato’s frequent references to music and the need for the state to control music within it.

Plato’s “The Statesman” — The Art of Weaving

STRANGER:

Then you and I will not be far wrong in trying to see the nature of example in general in a small and particular instance; afterwards from lesser things we intend to pass to the royal class, which is the highest form of the same nature, and endeavour to discover by rules of art what the management of cities is; and then the dream will become a reality to us.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Very true.

STRANGER:

Then, once more, let us resume the previous argument, and as there were innumerable rivals of the royal race who claim to have the care of states, let us part them all off, and leave him alone; and, as I was saying, a model or example of this process has first to be framed.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Exactly.

STRANGER:

What model is there which is small, and yet has any analogy with the political occupation? Suppose, Socrates, that if we have no other example at hand, we choose weaving, or, more precisely, weaving of wool—this will be quite enough, without taking the whole of weaving, to illustrate our meaning?

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Certainly.

STRANGER:

Why should we not apply to weaving the same processes of division and subdivision which we have already applied to other classes; going once more as rapidly as we can through all the steps until we come to that which is needed for our purpose?

YOUNG SOCRATES:

How do you mean?

STRANGER:

I shall reply by actually performing the process.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Very good.

STRANGER:

All things which we make or acquire are either creative or preventive; of the preventive class are antidotes, divine and human, and also defences; and defences are either military weapons or protections; and protections are veils, and also shields against heat and cold, and shields against heat and cold are shelters and coverings; and coverings are blankets and garments; and garments are some of them in one piece, and others of them are made in several parts; and of these latter some are stitched, others are fastened and not stitched; and of the not stitched, some are made of the sinews of plants, and some of hair; and of these, again, some are cemented with water and earth, and others are fastened together by themselves. And these last defences and coverings which are fastened together by themselves are called clothes, and the art which superintends them we may call, from the nature of the operation, the art of clothing, just as before the art of the Statesman was derived from the State; and may we not say that the art of weaving, at least that largest portion of it which was concerned with the making of clothes, differs only in name from this art of clothing, in the same way that, in the previous case, the royal science differed from the political?

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Most true.

STRANGER: In the next place, let us make the reflection, that the art of weaving clothes, which an incompetent person might fancy to have been sufficiently described, has been separated off from several others which are of the same family, but not from the co-operative arts.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

And which are the kindred arts?

STRANGER:

I see that I have not taken you with me. So I think that we had better go backwards, starting from the end. We just now parted off from the weaving of clothes, the making of blankets, which differ from each other in that one is put under and the other is put around: and these are what I termed kindred arts.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

I understand.

STRANGER: And we have subtracted the manufacture of all articles made of flax and cords, and all that we just now metaphorically termed the sinews of plants, and we have also separated off the process of felting and the putting together of materials by stitching and sewing, of which the most important part is the cobbler’s art.  Then we separated off the currier’s art, which prepared coverings in entire pieces, and the art of sheltering, and subtracted the various arts of making water-tight which are employed in building, and in general in carpentering, and in other crafts, and all such arts as furnish impediments to thieving and acts of violence, and are concerned with making the lids of boxes and the fixing of doors, being divisions of the art of joining; and we also cut off the manufacture of arms, which is a section of the great and manifold art of making defences; and we originally began by parting off the whole of the magic art which is concerned with antidotes, and have left, as would appear, the very art of which we were in search, the art of protection against winter cold, which fabricates woollen defences, and has the name of weaving.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Very true.

STRANGER:

Yes, my boy, but that is not all; for the first process to which the material is subjected is the opposite of weaving.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

How so?

STRANGER:

Weaving is a sort of uniting?

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Yes.

STRANGER:

But the first process is a separation of the clotted and matted fibres?

YOUNG SOCRATES:

What do you mean?

STRANGER:

I mean the work of the carder’s art; for we cannot say that carding is weaving, or that the carder is a weaver.  Again, if a person were to say that the art of making the warp and the woof was the art of weaving, he would say what was paradoxical and false.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

To be sure.

STRANGER:

Shall we say that the whole art of the fuller or of the mender has nothing to do with the care and treatment of clothes, or are we to regard all these as arts of weaving?

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Certainly not.

STRANGER:

And yet surely all these arts will maintain that they are concerned with the treatment and production of clothes; they will dispute the exclusive prerogative of weaving, and though assigning a larger sphere to that, will still reserve a considerable field for themselves.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Very true.

STRANGER:

Besides these, there are the arts which make tools and instruments of weaving, and which will claim at least to be co-operative causes in every work of the weaver.

YOUNG SOCRATES:

Most true.

STRANGER:

Well, then, suppose that we define weaving, or rather that part of it which has been selected by us, to be the greatest and noblest of arts which are concerned with woollen garments—shall we be right?

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