Vol. 15 No.8 (August 2005), pp.730-733
THE LAW MOST BEAUTIFUL AND BEST: MEDICAL ARGUMENT AND MAGICAL RHETORIC IN PLATO’S LAWS, by Randall Baldwin Clark. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003. 192pp. Cloth. $58.00. ISBN: 0739106864.
Reviewed by Joseph Reisert, Department of Government, Colby College. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org .
Notorious for its difficulty, the LAWS is one of Plato’s most neglected dialogues, though its ostensible subject is a matter of the greatest practical significance. The LAWS recounts the conversation of three elderly men as they walk together on a hot summer’s day along the road from Knossos to the mountain cave where Zeus had, it was believed, conversed with Minos, the celebrated Cretan lawgiver. The conversation begins when an unnamed Athenian suggests to his Cretan and Spartan companions that they might all have a more pleasant journey if they were to spend the time “discussing the political regime and the laws, talking and listening” as they proceed, pausing occasionally to rest in the meadows and cypress groves they will encounter along their route (Pangle 1980, at 625b). Kleinias, the Cretan, agrees, and Megillus, the Spartan, does not object. During the first stage of their ascent, the Athenian Stranger asks his Dorian traveling companions about the laws of their cities, which according to the conventional wisdom of the day, were the best in Greece. Tactfully but steadily, the Athenian leads his companions to doubt the wisdom of their ancestral laws, building to the preliminary conclusion that “the lawgiver must in laying down his laws aim at three things, namely that the city for which he legislates be free, that it be a friend to itself, and that it possess intelligence” (Pangle, at 701d). In answer to the Athenian’s desire to find a “sort of test in conversation” of the utility of these conclusions, Kleinias reveals that he has been commissioned, together with nine others, to legislate for a new Cretan colony and proposes that they “construct a city in speech” with the twin aims of evaluating the merits of the argument thus far and of helping him to prepare for his legislative responsibility (Pangle, at 702d). The balance of the dialogue largely consists of the Athenian Stranger’s code of laws for the new colony, Magnesia. So impressed are they by what they hear that Kleinias and Megillus insist, in the closing lines of the dialogue, that the Athenian Stranger join in the founding of Magnesia.
With THE LAW MOST BEAUTIFUL AND BEST, Randall Baldwin Clark has produced a monograph that offers a detailed and highly focused analysis of a single, prominent family of images and arguments that illuminates one of the dialogue’s central themes: the problem of establishing the rule of law among persons who are not innately disposed to obey the law’s commands. This problem long commanded the attention of political theorists, from the time of Plato and Xenophon at least until that of Rousseau. Although today the task is regarded as a problem more suited to empirical investigation than philosophical analysis, the nature and foundations of the rule of law remain [*731] matters of the greatest import, and the establishment of the rule of law where it has not previously existed remains an urgent, practical concern. Of course, no reasonable lawgiver today would propose the Athenian Stranger’s code of laws for any political community, but Plato’s artful investigation powerfully illuminates several of the deep tensions any empirical lawmaker should expect to confront, notably including those between religious tradition and reason, between satisfying the needs of the body and securing the conditions for the elevation of the soul, and between establishing the prerequisites for civic harmony and observing the strict demands of justice.
As Clark observes, the Dorian laws implemented the most straightforward solution to the problem of legislation—established, it was believed, by divine authority, the laws demanded obedience, which was secured through coercion and indoctrination. And the unanimous conclusion of ancient observers was that this solution succeeded—Sparta’s political regime achieved an enduring stability that always eluded Athens. Remarkably, the Athenian Stranger convinces his aged Dorian companions to reject this traditionally successful model of legislation. Instead, he makes the remarkable proposal – familiar to all who have even slight acquaintance with the dialogue – that the commands and prohibitions of the laws be introduced by explanatory preludes, so that the citizens will be told by the laws themselves why they ought to obey. Understanding the aims of law should secure the willing obedience of its subjects—or so the Stranger declares.
Clark maintains that the Athenian accomplishes this remarkable feat of persuasion by employing a series of medical and therapeutic analogies: Citizens who are inclined to break the laws are shown to exhibit a disorder of soul which requires treatment, just as ordinary patients suffering from physical injury or disease require treatment to improve the health of their bodies. The legislator, then, stands in relation to the citizen as the healer to the patient. The brute commands of conventional lawgivers, the Stranger argues, resemble the commands that the servile physician’s assistant would direct to the slaves he treats. Hippocratic physicians, however, who treat free men, do not speak thus: they inquire carefully into the specific circumstances and conditions of the patient, and they explain their diagnosis and seek the willing cooperation of their patients, which in due course they secure. Just Kleinias and Megillus choose Hippocratic physicians to treat the aches and pains of their old age, so also do they prefer the rational lawmaking of the Stranger, which seeks to rule with the willing cooperation of the ruled. Clark also discerns a deeper significance to this turn towards rational medicine: it demonstrates the traditional norms to which the Dorians give their allegiance require to be examined rationally – philosophically – and to be revised to more closely satisfy the demands of reason (pp.86-87; Pangle, at 857c-e).
In Clark’s view, however, the LAWS does not simply endorse the philosophical approach to legislation implied by the Stranger’s endorsement, and his interlocutors’ acceptance, of the analogy between Hippocratic medicine and lawmaking. Nor should we suppose [*732] that Plato conceived elderly Dorians, like Kleinias or Megillus, to be the primary audience of the LAWS. Clark argues instead that Plato’s rhetoric is aimed at youthful readers, whom he suggests are characterized by “powerful erotic desires and skepticism concerning the verities of received traditions” (pp.8-9). He reasons that the Athenian Stranger’s endorsement of the Dorian strictures against the criticism of the laws by the young (Pangle, at 634d-e) in fact should excite the young to an eager interest in that from which they have so pointedly been excluded (p.9). Such young people, according to Clark, would delight in the Stranger’s critique of their elders and welcome the substitution of philosophy for tradition as the normative basis of law. The Athenian Stranger, however, also has a critical message to deliver to these metaphorically eavesdropping youngsters. Just as the elderly Dorians required to be cured of the spiritual deformities inflicted by an excessive awareness of their corporeality and mortality, so also do the “young Athenians” require treatment for their excessive indifference to death and impatience with all bodily constraints.
Introduced to temper the rigidity of the Dorians’ ancestral laws, philosophy itself requires to be tempered. This tempering, argues Clark, takes place in Book Five of the LAWS. Having introduced, in Book Four, the idea of legislative “preludes,” Plato’s Athenian Stranger proceeds in the subsequent book to consider, and reject, the communism of property and the abolition of private families – two of the key institutions Socrates had devised for the Kallipolis of REPUBLIC. Although he describes the Socratic regime as unconditionally best (Pangle, at 739c), the Stranger proposes for Magnesia a “second best” regime based on private property and traditional families in what Clark somewhat histrionically characterizes as “a jugular-grabbing repudiation of the Socratic platform” (p.95). Remarkably, the Stranger’s arguments for departing from the strict demands of reason forcefully remind Clark of the practice of Hippocratic physicians – which had, in the previous book, been cited to justify adherence to reason rather than compulsion. This “striking modification” of the Stranger’s view of rational medicine should, he explains, signal to readers that the political world cannot be remade wholly in accordance with the demands of philosophy (pp.102-103).
Nor does the Stranger’s concession to unreason end there: he also makes use of a series of arguments and analogies based upon the decidedly irrational, “magical” practices of folk-healing—he speaks of drugs, charms, fetishistic objects, spells, sorceries, incantations, and the rest. Where rational persuasion is impossible, the legislator must sometimes “persuade without convincing,” to use Rousseau’s felicitous phrase. Hence the need for magic, and for persuasive rhetoric, which Clark argues, Plato likens to magic. In Clark’s view, there is no contradiction between the Stranger’s use of magical and medical language. The Stranger uses both forms of therapy because each answers to a different human need: “In connection with political life, the Stranger’s invocation of the image of the rational physician teaches the importance of philosophy and its respect for the principle of voluntarism; his extensive use of [*733] magical therapy simultaneously suggests the limits thereof” (p.149).
THE LAW MOST BEAUTIFUL AND BEST makes a distinctive contribution to the literature on Platonic political philosophy, albeit a narrow one. Clark is a careful reader of Plato’s text, referring as necessary to Plato’s Greek, but generally citing from Thomas Pangle’s excellent English translation. Clark has thoughtfully engaged a substantial portion of the secondary literature on the LAWS, and, at its best, Clark’s work is highly learned and precisely argued. In particular, Clark’s chapters on Hippocratic medicine and magical folk-healers in classical antiquity offer a wealth of information that provide valuable context for understanding Plato’s references – in the LAWS and elsewhere – to these practices. At times, however, the argument strains: for example, that Hippocratic medicine is said at one point to stand for philosophy and at another point to represent an empirically grounded pragmatism introduced as a limitation of philosophy is more of a difficulty than Clark’s deft concession that it is a “striking modification” acknowledges. More significantly, it is not clear in the end whether the cluster of medical and magical images can bear the weight Clark’s analysis places on them. To be sure, the analysis of these tropes provides a useful path into the dense and obscure argumentative thickets of the LAWS, and Clark has done a useful service in marking out that path. However, at certain moments in the text, just as the argument began to point toward wider vistas – for example in the exploration of the similarities and differences between the arguments of Plato’s REPUBLIC and LAWS – Clark’s focus on the medical and magical compelled him to turn away, back towards his labor in the undergrowth of argument. In consequence, THE LAW MOST BEAUTIFUL AND BEST will prove rather more useful to specialists than to readers seeking to make their first acquaintance with Plato’s extraordinary account of legislation.
Pangle, Thomas L. 1980. THE LAWS OF PLATO. New York: Basic Books.
© Copyright 2005 by the author, Joseph Reisert.
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