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Plato part 8: Closing thoughts on the rule of law

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Posted on April 29, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



Editor’s note: This is the final essay in this series about Plato’s “Laws.” Two more series are planned. The next series will examine the institutions and offices and procedures of Plato’s Cretan city. Plato’s scheme of education will also be examined, in particular, its provisions for pre- and neo-natal care and his advocacy for the education of women. His attitude toward trade and colonization, war and peace, property, the family, economic sustainability will also be considered as well as his case for the separation of powers. A third series will explore two themes: the role of religion in civil society and the continuing relevance of Plato’s view of reality.

The rule of law, if it is to become effective, presupposes a principle of restraint that works internally. Without it, law’s dominion could only be realized by enforcement from without, by granting absolute power to law’s enforcers, who would be free to exercise their political right without restraint. Peace, if attained at all, would be sustained by fear; friendliness and good will would be inconstant and partial.

In a civil society, this internal principle of restraint finds expression in the consent of the governed and in their rights as citizens to reform government and revise its procedures to make them more just. But the ultimate source of this action must proceed from individuals who are self-controlled and internally governed by intelligence and reason. Only such individuals can unite to give a proper consent to a government and its laws.

Remember the similitude of the puppet: Each of us must learn to use the golden thread within if our conduct is to conform to the rule of law. If this doesn’t happen we are indeed no more than puppets. This is a matter of such great importance that it’s worth repeating. Law’s dominion, if it is not to be oppressive, must take its seat in each one of us. It is in each of us that the rule of law begins.

The golden thread, by which law takes effect within us, represents reason or intelligence woven together into an instrument of self-control. But what are reason and intelligence and where are they to be found? And why must we represent them figuratively? Further, assuming that they are real and we can locate them, how do we use them effectively?

Here, Plato officially directs us away from the body and physical desire. Reason and intelligence reside in the soul, which, unlike the body, is immortal and therefore desires something eternal, an Idea. Perfect intelligence is pure knowledge, the everlasting contemplation of an object self-sufficient and complete in itself that can never change, because, since it is perfect, any alteration or modification would diminish it.

Reason consists of a variety of exercises: counting, discerning, making distinctions, classifying things according to their similarities and differences, drawing inferences, inventing rules of every variety and applying them correctly, and, perhaps most important of all, abstracting thoughts from their material contexts so that they may become better suited to represent their real unchanging objects. These exercises are supposed to cause the human soul to detach itself from material objects, to rise free from the constraints of physical desire in the same way that setting-up exercises drive away sloth.

This official Platonism has engendered a prevailing belief — dare I say prejudice? — that mind and body are separate entities, temporarily joined; that the body, being material, is determined by mere physical necessity, which includes the necessity of desire; whereas the soul remains free so long as it aspires to a life of pure intelligence.

As to the necessity of figurative representation: It is inescapable so long as we think as embodied beings. Figurative thinking is merely an accommodation to our corporeal sensible state; our minds are befuddled by images parading by us as thoughts. When intelligence successfully breaks free from the body and contemplates a reality pure and unchanging, then it has no need of images or even of abstract rational thoughts, for it perceives reality, the eternal Idea, directly.

But, although Plato never ceased to be a Platonist, his adherence to it was not smug or dogmatic. He was well aware and even appreciative of a competing point of view that held body and soul together in a single, albeit mortal, entity. Plato’s idea of education founded on desire and physical training is consistent with this point of view and represents his intellectual debt to it.

The similitude of puppetry derives from it — it assumes that there is within the body a principle of self-control. From this other point of view, figurative thinking is just an expression of the sort of beings we are: animate, corporeal, sensible, articulate, thinking beings, who delight in images and sounds and scents and the varieties of taste and touch, and who think best when their thoughts are drawn from the material of life and are expressive of it.

I shall conclude this series of essays by exploring this alternate point of view. Following Plato’s example, I present it sympathetically.

Suppose, then, as Aristophanes’ myth implies, physical existence is the only existence we have, and suppose also, as Aristotle (Plato’s most distinguished student) maintained, the soul is not a thing separate from the human body, but merely a name that applies to the perfection of it.

To clarify Aristotle’s point, consider this similitude: the human body as a bag of bones. It is a likeness that borders on fact. Are we not, in certain respects, a collection of bones sewn up in a bag of flesh? Next, imagine it not just lying in a heap, but animate, endearingly vivacious, never quiet, always moving, laughing, crying, fond of games and puzzles, inquisitive, adventurous, its eyes bright with expectation, its movements proceeding from a well of energy — the energy of desire — that spends itself but is regularly replenished. The soul is just the body alive and active in its natural and social setting. Reason and intelligence are essential to it; but they are not separate from it. Rather they are organic to it. They are the body’s instruments, which provide direction and scope to its animation. Our bodies, so empowered and internally moved, are able to raise themselves up and aspire towards perfection, which, given our situation, is modest and temporary.

The perfection of the body and the perfection of the mind are but two aspects of the same thing. This is exemplified in dance and gymnastics, in the modulation of the voice in song, in rhythm and harmony, in the way actors and athletes command their bodies: All of these are employed in Plato’s course of education whose goal is self-control. Had he known of it, he might have included yoga.

Striving towards perfection in various yogic positions is proof that mind is altogether incarnate in body. The stationary postures and graceful motions of the body that are designed to reach them, the controlled breathing that accompanies this, are triumphs of self-control in which the unruly passions are calmed and made peaceful, and quiet intelligence unites every sinew of the body making it into a living whole full of grace and truth.

“A sound mind in a sound body” sums it all up. There is nothing that we do well with our bodies that does not depend upon intelligence; on the other hand, there is nothing that we do well with our minds that we could not do better if we would attend more to our bodies. Thinking bodies, embodied minds; therein we grasp the golden wire that makes the rule of law flourish.

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