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Plato takes a transcendentalist interlude

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Posted on November 18, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



 

Author’s note: This essay interrupts the sequence of expository essays on Plato’s Laws to answer an objection that questions the validity of the entire series. Transcendentalism is the name of an intellectual movement that flourished in the United States during the 19th century, especially in New England. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are its leading proponents. Their writings range over a wide range of topics, literary, philosophical, religious, and political. The influence of Plato and Platonism is evident throughout them.

I had not long finished the last essay when I was overcome by a feeling of doubt that maybe Plato’s economic policies are just too simplistic and unrealistic to be taken seriously, at least today in our complex world. I could easily imagine someone objecting that since they are pre-mercantilist, pre-industrial and pre-capitalist, if not altogether out of time, only bare curiosity would warrant any consideration of them.

Plato imagined that a city could exist in splendid isolation from international political involvements and overseas commerce, that its wealth should be measured by the quality of virtue in its citizens rather than by its gross domestic product. His policies were judged unrealistic in his own time; they must seem even more so today in our interconnected world existing precariously on the edge of political and economic catastrophe, chronically at war, and environmentally stressed, whose population is approaching nine billion.

Also troubling is Plato’s conceit of the citizen householder, who so much resembles the English country gentleman, now extinct, secure in his possession of ancestral lands, relying on others, servants or slaves, to manage his estates and bring forth its produce, and so freeing him to perform any requisite political duty that may come his way, with time enough left over and sufficient wealth to live a leisured life engaging in pursuits befitting his station in life — with this last consideration the morally damning charge of elitism and hypocrisy can be added to the already damning one of irrelevance. 

It became clear to me that I could not continue this series without satisfying myself that these objections might be answerable, for my purpose in reading Plato was to find some practical wisdom for today.

To begin with, I wondered whether it might be possible to overcome the gap of time between Plato and us as a first step in proving his relevance? As I surveyed the scene in my imagination, there on the other side of the divide I spied Henry David Thoreau. He is revered by environmentalists and literary naturalists, and through them has gained new prominence. Two years ago, when the great financial crash occurred, many found solace in reading “Walden,” his masterpiece, because there they learned from Thoreau that it was possible to live well and expansively on small means by being self-reliant.

Besides, his writings against slavery and against the Mexican War are evidence of his political involvement — he was offended that our government should use its military forces, whose only purpose is defense, for foreign conquest. His essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” better known as “Civil Disobedience,” exemplifies the politics of protest.

But Thoreau was more than a sentimental naturalist or political pamphleteer. Many regard him as a profound philosopher, a political philosopher, inspired in no small way by Plato. There is solid evidence that he read Plato’s Laws — in Greek, for he was an accomplished classicist. Walden could never have been written, if Thoreau had not studied the classics. His writings echo Plato in so many places that one can easily imagine him forming his own political and economic opinions as he read.

The principles that found their way from Plato’s “Laws” into Thoreau’s “Walden” may be framed in three hypothetical questions:

•  What if each of us and our households had placed within our grasp sufficient means of subsistence, an inalienable endowment, so that we would never be without adequate food, clothing and shelter if we chose to make good use of these resources. Let’s call this principle “Life.”

•  And what if, in addition, there were available to each of us the time and opportunity to live a complete human life — morally, intellectually and materially. Call this principle “the Pursuit of Happiness.”

•  Finally, what if the manner of life that we live by these resources were free and self-reliant, under no other dominion than the supreme law of right, which is the law of our very being, seated in our soul, principally in our intelligence. Call this principle “Liberty.”

The names assigned to these principles should remind you of lines written in another important text in our American political tradition that solemnly affirms the inalienable rights or endowments that each of us has as human creatures to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Here is another instance of Platonic and Classical roots. So it seems we have crossed over the great divide from Plato to our own national political tradition — a tradition that requires active intelligence if it is to become useful.

Plato believed that it was the duty of civil government to provide these things. If the city is not the creator of citizens, it is surely their sustainer. The inalienable allotment of land assures us of life. The program of education is our pathway to liberty and happiness. The political economy of Magnesia is so designed that neither great wealth nor imperial ambition will gain a foothold in the city and corrupt its institutions or public life. This also serves as an external guarantee of liberty.

Like Plato’s “Laws,” Thoreau’s “Walden,” is a work of political philosophy. It bears the marks of American individualism, but its purpose is to reform civil society. Thoreau went to live in the woods not to escape society but to learn how better to live in it; everyday he spent time in the village conversing with his neighbors discoursing about how to live. The wild setting of Walden was his state of nature.

A state of nature exists whenever the constraints of civil government are absent. Physically, nature was Thoreau’s dwelling place, out of town, where he lived on his own. But a state of nature is also a state of mind seeking understanding, whose only constraints are the laws of thought, such as they are, and of morality, whose rules and the reasons for them we discover as we think — and read, take long walks and contemplate our duties in life. It is a critical vantage point from which we may survey the moral foundations of civil society and measure how well their way of life and their societies conform to them.

The three companions of Plato’s “Laws” were in a similar state when they trekked together and discoursed about a model constitution for Magnesia and the principles on which it should be founded. These experiments in thinking, recorded in our classics, may be timeless, but that is because they are never out of time.

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