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Plato part 7: The importance of being verbal

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Posted on April 22, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of essays and reflections about politics and the moral life. They develop themes from a work by the philosopher Plato, entitled “Laws,” which he wrote shortly before his death in 347 BCE. “Laws” is written as a dialogue involving three old men with long experience in politics: Cleinias, from the Cretan city of Cnossos; Megillus, from Sparta; and an Athenian stranger who is not named, but who may be Plato himself. Poetics, the making of things especially through words, applies not only to works of poetry and fiction, but also to political institutions and the moral life. This is the theme of this essay.

Book iii of Plato’s “Laws” concludes with this curious remark by one of the characters in the dialogue, Cleinas the Cretan: “All right, then, now let us begin to try to found a state by word.” His comment comes at a transitional moment in the whole work. Up to now, the three companions have been discussing the purpose of the rule of law (peace) and its seat in the soul. The remaining books, iv–xii, describe the founding of a city and the framing of its constitution and laws.

What did Plato mean by this curious expression? Translators have several options. One is to take it literally, which I have done because it makes the most sense, which I hope will soon become clear.

Another translator, taking into account the fact that the three companions are conversing together, gives this translation: “To found the state in speech.” Another takes the expression to mean “only in theory,” as though the three companions had no immediate practical goal in mind. This seems mistaken, for the context shows that they were looking to found a city.

Cleinias tells his companions that the rulers of Cnossos, his home city, have commissioned him to draft a constitution and laws for a new city, a self-governing colony. He is about to become a founder, and he invites them to join him, at the very least as advisers.

The difficulty of translation arises from the fact that the Greek word logos often translated as “word,” “language,” “speech” or “theory,” can have all these meanings, and more. It can mean active intelligence, or a rational train of thought or its logical form, a learned discourse, a legal argument, or just plain conversation. All of these senses are more or less implied here.

But what is important to remember is that Plato did not want his book to be read as a collection of idle or utopian speculations. He offered practical solutions to real problems that were to be resolved through language.

Words are articulate sounds to which we attach meanings, and for which we fashion visual signatures that can be inscribed and deciphered, whose meaning can be recovered even after long periods of time. They become entwined with meaning. Just try thinking without words. They are our most versatile and indispensable instruments of creation and enactment. The rich fabric of human life would disintegrate without them. There would be no reading or writing or conversation, no news. Human curiosity would wither away. Shared intimacies would have to rely on touch only, or longing glances, or inarticulate sighs and groans.

Without words, the qualities of our lives, together or in solitude, would be much diminished. There would be no literature, no great epic poems, no soothing elegies, no lyrical reveries, no sweet-talking, no biting satire or rousing discourse, no learning, no lingering irony, no way to express or communicate our fears and hopes, or to celebrate our joys — indeed much of our pleasure would often be joyless, for we would have not means to celebrate it. Our capacity for thought, if we had any at all, would be curtailed. Memory would be short, and the internal discourse of thinking would have no landmarks to follow. Our minds would become confused.

It’s true, of course, that there would be no lying, no vicious ambiguity, no suspicion; we would have our passions neat: anger, rage, jealousy, perhaps, but we would be free of envy and resentment. But, all things considered, there would be more loss than gain.

Moreover, without words, nothing could be enacted, nothing created. I am reminded of the majestic narrative with which the Bible begins. It tells how God created the world by calling it into existence out of nothing, by word. This narrative wonderfully describes the act of creation through words: a creator starts off with a mere idea that seems initially clear and luminous, like heaven and earth; then there follows a vast chaos — perhaps a fragmentation of the initial idea, a disorder of thoughts and words — through which the mind or spirit of the creator searches for unity and meaning, which when found or invented is fixed in a sequence of commands, and the idea of heaven and earth becomes a tangible reality.

Like God, in whose image we are supposed to have been made, we too can be creators and in a not dissimilar way. Consider the opening words of our Constitution: “We the People of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United State of America.” It says that the People are creators of the nation. Who are the People, and how did they accomplish this? In aggregate, they are all those enfranchised persons who took part in the vote for ratification of the Constitution more than two centuries ago. This includes all, whether they voted yes or no, for participation in an election implies a promise to accept the outcome as something decided by law (a principle that, unhappily, is too often willfully ignored in partisan zeal). A majority of votes was cast in the requisite number of states, and thereby our nation was constituted.

And not only that, but “THE PEOPLE,” the body politic, refashioned itself by this action and secured its future in us who live under the Constitution they enacted: our oaths and civil actions — the votes that we cast, the petitions we sign, the public meetings we attend, etc. — all these and more incorporate us into “THE PEOPLE” and perpetuate its living body. All this is accomplished by word.

Now the act of creating is mainly done for the sake of some intended good. And in the case of worlds or nations, this involves the well-being of creatures or of people. In such cases, creating necessitates the promise that the good intended will endure and be fairly administered. The People who ordained our Constitution promised that it would make a more perfect union, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” As heirs of the People, we are heirs to these promises, as beneficiaries of them but even more as their keepers. So, we have many promises to keep.

A promise is a verbal action that once performed entails the obligation to do whatever is promised. If I make a promise and fail to keep it, my own words, by which I made the promise, are evidence enough to condemn me. I cannot escape blame. Such is the power of words — there is a logic in them that binds everyone who uses them. As citizens, then, we must be true to our word, which adds another aspect to this thought. Keeping one’s promises and acting truthfully, which includes also speaking the truth, are all tied up together. These things take their seat in our souls and make us citizens.

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