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Plato: Politicians employ dense, Platonic turn-of-phrase on regular basis

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Posted on October 21, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



Author’s note: This essay begins a second series of essays and reflections about politics and the moral life. Each essay develops a theme from a work by the philosopher Plato, entitled “Laws,” which he wrote shortly before his death in 347 B.C. “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.

Political talk is riddled with ambiguities. This is unavoidable. Key words invented long ago, translated or transliterated and adopted into other languages and applied to changing circumstances, are still employed in human politics. This essay attempts to identify some of the most frequently employed among them and to clarify their meaning.           

Plato’s “Laws” is all about the founding of a city. The Greek word is polis. Its cognates are recognizable in our words “politics,” “political,” “polity,” “policy,” “polite.”

Plato used the Greek antecedents of these words to signify the city, its constitution and laws, the rights and powers of citizens, of governmental institutions and its officials. Our degraded use of the terms “politics” and “political” would have troubled Plato, although it would not have surprised him.

We all know what a city is: a vast densely populated area. Think of New York or London or Mexico City or even Burlington.

Plato had a different idea of it. He imagined a city to be an organized, sovereign population, heterogeneous in its origins, but settled or domesticated in one place, with a self-sustaining economy that is basically agricultural, secure and defensible; a community of shared values, culture and religion. Of all these characteristics sovereignty is most important.

Our cities today are larger, denser, more variegated, but they are not sovereign. Sovereignty here means not subject to an external power, being under one’s own dominion, free and self-governing. Add self-sustainability and the result is a social and economic entity complete in itself.

As to size, Plato’s planned city turns out to have population about twice the population of Middlebury (excluding slaves — about which I’ll have more to say in a later essay), occupying a territory about the size of Addison County. Its government consisted of popular assemblies and councils, much like our town government. This introduces another word, “town,” a Germanic word (but the Greeks had a word for it also), to mean an enclosed or circumscribed area (remember city walls?), a settled place, also the administrative and cultural center of the city. Its opposite is country, which in an agricultural economy is the vital source of wealth and sustenance.

This is not our common use of it. For example, in the expression “town of Middlebury,” “town” comes closer to Plato’s “ city.” Like Plato’s polis,our town is self-governing, self-contained, with its own infrastructure, and in certain respects sovereign, for whenever there is government of any sort, there is a degree of sovereignty. Plato’s ancient city may not be as deeply buried in the past as is commonly supposed.

Our word “city” comes from the Latin, civitas.This word introduces other meanings. For us, Rome is the archetype of the imperial city. There are others that come to mind: Beijing, Persepolis, Alexandria and Constantinople. For Plato, this idea of a city was a dangerous fantasy, and the idea of an eternal city at the center of the universe a vain and dangerous delusion. Cognate with these are our words “citizen,” “civil,” “civility,” which takes us in another direction.

A “citizen” is an individual who has been incorporated into a city, who has been nurtured and educated by it, and who possesses powers and duties on which the city depends. “Civil” and “civility” apply to the manners and culture of a city. “Citizen” and “civilize” are hybrids, compounds from Greek and Latin. They signify the process of making people fit to dwell in cities.

Another important term to keep in mind is “domesticate.” What distinguishes citizens from resident aliens is that they belong to a household, in a physical and generational sense. It involves being settled in a place over generations of time. Plato’s citizens are not just individuals, but individuals in households, rooted in the land.

Because the Greeks regarded cities differently from the way we do now, the expression “city-state” is used to signify the difference. The expression “nation-state” is used analogously, and “state” is now employed as a generic term for an independent, self-governing sovereign political entity — except, of course, when one uses the word to denote one of the United States. But the word has other senses. The state of a thing signifies how it is now, how it stands, like the state of the nation, but also state of war, or peace, or the state of the economy.

“Status,” a cognate word, also signifies dignity, and it is probably from this use that the political use of the term to denote a political entity is derived. A sovereign state is something that, among others like it, stands upright, has standing and a high dignity, and inviolability. Plato would have concurred with most of this, but with some discomfort. He did not like posturing in any form.

“Community” and “society” are two other key terms whose meanings we should reflect upon. Both have Latin roots and similar meanings. They signify a group of persons united in a common purpose. Plato’s idea of a city is of a community, and this implies a fundamental equality: we’re all in this together. Current use of the terms often takes them in different directions.

“Community” is often used to signify a group of persons united by common interests and held together by bonds of sentiment.

A society, in contrast, while also a group of persons united in a single endeavor, is an organization bound by rules. Societies have constitutions and law, and they may be hierarchical. Our current use of these words implies an opposition between sense and sensibility, reason and emotion. One finds no trace of this opposition in Plato.

There is another set of terms that will be pertinent to our discussion. They relate to types of constitution, of which Plato mentions three, distinguished by who governs. Some constitutions vest sovereignty in one person, others in a few, or many; hence: monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. There can also be mixed types. In the “Republic,” Plato argued that the best form of government is an aristocracy, which is a variety of oligarchy. What makes it best is that only the very best rule. These are persons who are wise, incorruptible, resolute, and, of course, self-controlled. He contrasts this with a plutocracy: rule by the very rich. In “Laws,” Plato does not argue for any one of these types of constitution, but for a mixed constitution and a separation of powers.

Finally, we should take a closer look at the term “people.” Our use of it differs from Plato’s. In modern democracies, it is assumed that the people are sovereign. Plato would disagree. He believed that the city was sovereign so long as it maintained the rule of law. The Greek word for “people” is demos. It signifies the basic social unit of a city beyond the household. A deme is a group of individuals dwelling on a portion of land within a city’s boundaries. In terms of population and territory, a city is a collection of demes, which have the power to assemble and select their rulers. Demes are neither ethnically homogeneous nor hierarchical.       

As to nationality, Plato acknowledged something comparable to ethnic identity, but attached no political significance to it. Greeks, or more properly Hellenes, took their name from Hellas, a folk hero of common memory but not ancestry. Plato had no interest in forging the whole nation of Greeks into a sovereign state.

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