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Plato: Land, people and citizens

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Posted on October 21, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



This is the third in a second series of essays and reflections about politics and the moral life. The themes of the essays are drawn from Plato’s Laws, his last and longest philosophical dialogue written shortly before his death in 347 bce. Laws is a fictional account of a conversation 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. They have assumed the role of founders of a new Cretan city, Magnesia. This essay is about the physical aspects of a city: its land and people. It concludes with Plato’s thoughts about citizenship.

The city of Magnesia was to be located on the Plain of Messara in south central Crete. High mountains border the plain on the north; the Libyan Sea lies ten miles to the south. A small range of mountains separates it from the sea on the southeast. According to tradition, the Magnetes, a tribe from Thessaly in the north of Greece, established a settlement there, but they abandoned it for a more promising place in Asia Minor. The name, Magnesia, derives from their earlier settlement.

The Athenian Stranger questions Cleinias about the land and he learns that it is a fertile place, although rugged. It is fertile enough to produce all that a population of 20,000 or more would require for its sustenance and, when apportioned among them, for each of them to live a material life of “comfortable moderation,” but not much more than that. It is not a land fertile enough to expect large surpluses for export. Magnesia will not be situated on the sea, but there are good harbors not far away. There is timber, but not enough for shipbuilding.

The Stranger’s comments on all of this are worth noting. It’s a good thing, he observes, that the land is not fertile enough to produce marketable surpluses, for that would only yield excess wealth. It is just as well that there is no timber for shipbuilding and it would be better if the sea were farther away. Magnesia is not meant to become a great commercial city, although a modest amount of trading, a relatively simple money economy, and some acquisition of wealth would be allowed.

Remember that for Plato, the primary business of a city is not wealth and power, but the perfection of the soul, on whose striving for perfection the public good depends. These modest circumstances seem better suited to this end.

The people who are to settle here will not be of common ancestry, nor will they all be Cretans; care should be taken that they be hardy and well motivated. Yet once arrived, they will be organized into families and tribes, just 12 tribes (demes), and the land will be distributed among them.

At some strategic place, the administrative, cultural and commercial center of the city—the town—will be situated, and radiating from there will be 12 districts of land equal in productivity, although not necessarily in size, for the productive quality of the land is not the same in all places, and this must be taken into account when the land is allotted to tribes and households.

Central to each district will be a village or hamlet, which, like the town, will accommodate a market, shrine and administrative center. The city will consist of just 5040 households or families distributed equally among the 12 “tribal” districts. Each family will receive an allotment of land consisting of two parts, one closer to the city center and the other in the countryside, so that each family will have an urban or suburban and a rural residence.

The land is allotted to the paterfamilias, who has the right to choose an heir from among his sons, and it remains in his line so long as there is an heir. When there is no heir, the allotment reverts to the city to be reallocated.

It is disappointing, since, as we shall see, Plato was a strong advocate for women’s equality, that no provision is made for matriarchal succession in possession of the land. In any case, the land can neither be sold nor divided. There can be only one heir over each generation. Nor can an impoverished householder be deprived of his land and the means to cultivate it in payment of debts.

You may wonder about the number 5040. It is worth wondering about. Plato is emphatic about it; he seems preoccupied with it. Why? Because a city must somehow reflect nature, and Plato firmly believed that number is at the heart of nature. There is, in one respect, the practical value that, since 5040 is divisible by all the digits from 1 through 10, and by 12 and forty-eight other numbers, the administrative tasks of city government are made easier when various apportionments must be made.

But there is also a theoretical significance. Plato seems to have been attracted to the ancient Pythagorean doctrine that numbers are the real elements of reality and that they determine everything.

Who, then, are citizens? Not just the heads of households, but their wives and children, male and female. Every biological member of a household is a citizen.

Among the duties of citizens is the defense of the city, and therefore all must outfit themselves with appropriate arms and armor, and, for those who can afford it, a horse. It should be noted that for Plato, bearing arms was not a right but a duty of citizens. There is no standing army or professional military, but only citizens’ militia, a defense force not to be used in foreign wars.

Being a citizen is, in Plato’s imagination, a primary vocation that leaves room for little else. Hence, citizens must be free from the drudgery of farming the land; they acquire slaves to do that. Nor should they practice a trade or profession or engage in commercial adventures. These are all distracting. Resident aliens are admitted to do these things: artisans, merchants, physicians, musicians, and teachers.

Yet citizens are not a leisure class. As Plato depicts them, they are up before dawn and always active, guarding the city, or performing some other public office to which they have been elected, or otherwise keeping themselves fit in mind and body to serve, exercising in public gymnasia, conversing about political things in public places, and sharing in common meals.

Plato shows no concern about fulfilling the private lives of the individual. The boundaries of a citizen’s life seem never to exceed the political. Is this too restricted a life to lead? Plato would answer no, because a citizen’s life when properly lived is not only free, but also full of satisfactions that rival those we customarily seek and only rarely realize in private life.

This rich idea of citizenship has its attractions. But a problem arises when we recall that a citizen’s vocation, according to Plato’s account of it, depends upon the toil and labor of others who are less free and have fewer privileges, whose lives are expendable. This is surely unjust. If we are to appropriate any part of Plato’s idea, we must first remove the injustice. Achieving this will be the theme of a subsequent essay.

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