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David Semple is also known as EuroSoviets, Founder of the Allied States of EuroIslanders.
Was the society depicted in Plato’s Laws a successful recipe for Utopia?
Magnesia was a would-be apoikia to be situated on Crete, near the polis of Gortyn, away from the sea and in area of plentiful resources. In Laws Plato has a Spartan, an Athenian and a Cretan working out between them the constitution and organisation of this polis; this was suitable because Athens, Sparta and the poleis of Crete were noted for their democracy, constitutional stability and detailed law codes respectively
To modern standards, post-industrial revolution and post-enlightenment, the authoritarian and moralising standards of Plato’s mythic Magnesia would probably seem repugnant. Finley characterises Plato’s utopian polis, Magnesia, from Laws as strictly hierarchical, with a dramatic social reorganisation that would prove ‘want-satisfying’ (Finley, p187). To ancient standards, the similar ideals voiced in The Republic provoked Cicero’s sentiments that whilst admirable, the reality would prove to be ‘irreconcilable with human life and customs’ (De Ste. Croix, p71). Plato’s basic thesis was conservatism. It asserted that social problems arose from insufficient moral fibre, hence his infatuation with an agogç as a method of instilling morality (Morrow, p298). In order to assess how successful a recipe for utopia Plato’s Laws laid out, we should examine how Plato’s would be society was formed and how it eliminated problems inherent in other poleis.
The Laws divide easily into four main aspects; creating and maintaining a moral citizenry capable of good government, insulating the polis from foreign influences, maintaining law and order and creating a stable government. The first of these encompassed many measures; the politçs of Magnesia were to be farmers, barred from trade and craftsmanship (Morrow, p138). The land of Magnesia was to be divided between them, with four distinct property-holding classes, with the lowest having enough land and implements to feed their oikos and the highest possessing four times that. Gold and silver currency was forbidden.
These limitations, and the protection of the citizenry from having their land confiscated by the state, were designed to prevent unlimited accumulation of wealth (Laws, 736e, 741e), of the kind that brought men to the fore in a democratic or oligarchic state, regardless of their natural capacities. Such men as Nikias, Kleon and Kleophon are examples of these and between them their actions spelled much harm for Athens in the fifth century.
With every citizen having enough land to feed his oikos, there would be no wage-labourers that in Athens made up the lowest class, the thçtes. The lowest class would be the zeugitae, the hoplite class. The conservative nature of this class was well known. For example, at Athens, Ephialtes and Perikles made no move against the Areopagus until Kimon had led four thousand hoplites to Sparta. With no ‘tyrant’ to flatter, there would be no demagogues in Plato’s Magnesia.
These measures were similar but went further than those measures at Sparta, where men contributed from their kleros to the common meals and where the homoioi could not use currency recognisable elsewhere in Greece. The measures of Plato would have kept Magnesians free from any trade except what the state conducted through its officials. Plato’s poleis, in an area of many resources would have gained massive stability – such as Sparta held from the foundation of her Lykourgan constitution (Plutarch, 8-9) until the victory of Epaminondas. Economic stability was the first stepping stone to a successful utopia and this was it.
Magnesia was to share other features with Sparta (and the Dorian poleis of Crete). Trade and craftsmanship was thought to be immoral (Morrow, pp140-143) and a recurrent theme of Magnesia was the preservation of the moral character of the citizens. This moral character was to be first established by a rigorous agogç. The agogç as at Sparta was to be state-determined and state-sponsored, designed to instil not just courage as at Sparta but the other virtues of wisdom, justice and moderation also. This regime was to be reinforced continually throughout later life by religious festivals and by common meals. Morrow describes the Spartan version as never allowing a Spartan to forget ‘what was expected of a Spartan’ (p298). Plato’s all-encompassing agogç could conceivably have had the same effect and this moralisation of the citizenry would have left little room for internal conflict between the citizenry, a certain recipe for a successful utopia (Laws, 628c-630d).
As was mentioned above, at Magnesia there was to be no citizen class equivalent to the thçtes at Athens. The role of the thçtes was to be taken on by metoikoi and slaves. Only metoikoi that possessed a technç (a craft) were to be permitted to reside at Magnesia and even then, only for twenty years. Metics were not able to own land, a common law in Greek poleis, but in Magnesia there were limits on how much movable property a metic could own. All this was to prevent the rise of wealthy foreign merchants at Magnesia who lacked political power and would thus see a point in bribery and corruption (Morrow, pp146-148). This would undoubtedly prove advantageous to the Magnesians, reinforced as it was by the lack of major currency and could add an element of stability to Plato’s society. Slaves were also permitted to engage in craftsmanship for their Metic masters, though most slaves were to be spread across the country, to where the citizen-farmers might need the most. The slaves were also to speak a different language from one another where possible, to insure against the possibility of rebellion.
In addition to the restrictions on Metics and slaves there were detailed laws codes which set down all the prohibitions on the four status-groups within Magnesian society (slave, itinerant foreigner, metic and citizen). The punishments of Magnesian law were to fit the status of the criminal and were to have a remedial effect (Saunders, p215). Punishments for citizens were most often the harshest since their education should have allowed them to know better (Whitehead, pp134-135) though for serious crimes, metics and slaves could often suffer wounding and death to act as a deterrent for other crimes. No doubt this powerful deterring feature of Magnesian law would maintain order. In addition to this there were wardens of country and city to watch the metics, who were spread out across the tribes, and ensure the Metics introduced no innovation contrary to the moral upbringing of the Magnesians (Laws, 952D-953E). This was an extension of protecting the Magnesians against foreign influence and no doubt against the polypragmosyne of states such as Athens. In the creation of an authoritarian utopia, it no doubt was invaluable and as such we can call it part of a successful recipe for a utopia.
Law and order also fell into the jurisdiction of the Magnesian court system which was extensive. The Jury-courts of Magnesia were to be modelled on the Athenian jury-courts, with a set number of citizens sitting in judgement (Saunders, pp212-213). From there, there could be appeals to select judges, the highest court except in instances where the death penalty was sought or for crimes against the people. Saunders lays out for us the increased scientific nature of Magnesian courts over others, thanks to the existence of the agogç. ‘The Magnesian juror…has essentially just two tasks; to diagnose the nature and extent of the criminal’s psychic vice, and to prescribe the best means for curing it’ (pp178-179).
This was in my view an improvement upon the Athenian system, particularly of graphç paranomon. There was little or no room for the exercising of political vendettas through the court system and this would have deprived any factions that might have existed of their legal teeth in fighting against other factions in trials such as Perikles being brought to trial for misuse of public funds in 430 BC. This stability derived from such a detailed codex is certainly important in the creation of any type of utopia and in the authoritarian, insulated system that Plato wanted to create, it seems an ideal ingredient.
Magnesian stability of morality was to translate into the governmental field also. As mentioned, there were four property-owning classes of citizen in Magnesia. Each of these being strictly regulated, there was then an egalitarian structure allowing 90 men from each property class to be elected to the Council that would provide the prytanies for the year. This was in sharp contrast to the comitia at Rome, for example, where between them the Senatorial Order and a small number of the Ordo Eques controlled the majority of votes. It allowed for the proportionate sharing out of honours, offices and burdens within the state to the four property groups (Morrow, pp132-133). This in itself would have regulated and reduced class tensions, the very thing that caused the most bitter of struggles, for example at Athens in 411 or 404, or at Sparta in 465 BC. This was not just a successful ingredient for utopian society, it was of paramount importance.
The most important officials of the state are not selected on a class basis at all, but democratically chosen from a pool of men of the requisite age. The Nomophylakes, Guardians of the Law were 37 men, charged with judicial and juridical duties. They were to be over fifty and under seventy, serving a maximum term of twenty years and their function was reminiscent of the Areopagus of Athens, prior to the Ephialtic reforms (Morrow, pp196-211). The stability of the state was thus to depend on men of long-standing moral behaviour, of no class-allegiance and with no demes to flatter to secure re-election, leaving their judgement to rely foremost on good sense and the laws, much like the Justices of the US Supreme Court.
Since Plato’s laws were to enshrine everything conceivably needed by the people of Magnesia with reference to good order and behaviour, the conservative impact of old unrepresentative men may have been nullified, but of this I am not convinced and it is my belief rather that a body of unrepresentative old men would face some day the constitutional (or otherwise!) challenge of those who seek to free political power from the hands of any one group. If Plato’s authoritarian utopia were consonant with human nature, then perhaps this may have been a successful ingredient. Perhaps the moral education of the Magnesians would have resulted in a semi-perfect system where the interests of the whole society were the same, and where differing sets of morals never appeared, never mind clashed, but of this we cannot be certain. Saunders (p209) records that Nomophylakes were eclipsed by Athenian and other examples of democracy in the fifth century and in this we might believe lay the eventual fate of the Nomophylakes had there not been a Macedon, but this is speculative.
The ten eldest Nomophylakes, the minister of education, his predecessors, certain worldly old men and priests of high distinction were also to form a Nocturnal Council, which was to meet early in the morning and were to have a ‘synoptic view’ (Ferguson, p78) of the happenings in the Magnesian state. Free from other business, these old men might tweak the organs of state as necessary to preserve the equilibrium that Plato was so careful in designing.
Plato in this body even established the equilibrium between old and young, such as did not always exist in states to which we might compare Magnesia. At Sparta for example, when the Athenians had finally wrested control of the Delian League, the young bloods were all for rushing to war, to retake the leadership of all Hellas and this attitude put them at odd with the older men of the polis. In the event the intercession of a well respected Geron, Hetoimaridas, resolved the issue. The existence of a Perikles or a Hetoimaridas at such times was pure chance. Plato is not so bold as to rely on chance. Ferguson records (p78) that an equal number of younger men, aged thirty to forty, were to attend the meetings of the Nocturnal Council – probable training for future leadership as well as an extension of privileges reserved for elders to those younger men who merit it, thus forcing conformity on the young and ambitious simply by making conformity the object of their ambition.
The Nocturnal Council, particularly with the co-optation of the younger men was a superb idea as it could provide a speedy reaction to any problems within the state. The Nomophylakes and the Nocturnal Council could between them provide a powerful executive arm of the state that could react to ensure the security of the state from within and from without. The Council and the Guardians were to be the most morally correct men of their time, to set the standard for the society they were to lead. All this reckons on the excellence and completeness of the Platonic agogç. Though Sparta’s agogç may not have been as complete as the proposed system at Magnesia, Sparta had her Pausanias, Gylippus and Demaratus, to name a few Spartan scoundrels. There is no reason to assume that education however complete and reinforced with religious brainwashing could have compensated completely for human fallibility.
In summary Plato’s Laws, every bit as much as The Republic, was a functionalist model of society. It balanced property-owning classes against each other, old men with young, slave and metic with citizen, backed by all the arms of the state. It was meant to establish equilibrium. The very fact of this leads me to concur completely with Dahrendorf when he says ‘An equilibrium approach cannot come to terms with certain substantive problems of change’ (Dahrendorf, 143). I do not doubt that faced with a military defeat on the scale of the Athenian armies and fleets in Sicily, Magnesia would have been fatally impaired, with a crisis in property ownership crumbling the artifice built atop it. For all the grandiosity of Plato’s intellectual construct it was based on a model which did not permit the vibrant adaptations allowed by Athenian democracy, for example, the wholesale enfranchisement of Samos when all other allies had revolted, and for as long as humans and nature are unpredictable, the unexpected will bring down functionalist approaches. I am forced to conclude that Plato’s Laws does not contain within it the ingredients for a successful utopia.
Plutarch, (1983), ‘Life of Lykourgos’ in Crawford and Whitehead (eds.), Archaic and Classical Greece: A Selection of Sources in Translation, (pp110-115) Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Plato, (2000), Laws tr. Benjamin Jowett, New York, Prometheus Books.
De Ste. Croix, G.E.M. (1981), The Class Struggle in Ancient Greece, London, Duckworth.
Ferguson, J. (1975), Utopias of the Classical World, London, Thames and Hudson.
Finley, M.I. (1968), ‘Sparta’ in The Uses and Abuses of History, London, Chatto and Windus.
Finley, M.I. (1967), ‘Utopianism, Ancient and Modern’ in The Uses and Abuses of History, London, Chatto and Windus.
Morrow, G.R. (1960), Plato’s Cretan City, A Historical Interpretation of the Laws, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.
Saunders, T. J. (1991), Plato’s Penal Code, New York, Oxford University Press.