Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.03.26

Jean-Marie Bertrand, De l' écriture à l' oralité. Lectures des Lois de Platon.   Paris:  Publications de la Sorbonne, 1999.  Pp. 470.  ISBN 2-85944-372-X.  200FF.  



Reviewed by Harold Tarrant, University of Newcastle, NSW (clhast@cc.newcastle.edu.au)
Word count: 3534 words

'Legem enim brevem esse oportet, quo facilius ab imperitis teneatur. velut emissa divinitus vox sit: iubeat, non disputet. nihil videtur mihi frigidius, nihil ineptius quam lex cum prologo. mone, dic quid me velis fecisse: non disco, sed pareo.' These words of Posidonius (F178) reported by Seneca (Ep. 94.38) show that not all Plato's admirers in antiquity were sympathetic towards his mighty attempt to turn the legislator's business into a kind of discourse, a discourse that could be readily compared with that of a Homer. Even in the Symposium it seems to have been Plato's view that the law-codes of the great legislators were creative works of art, like those of literary artists, establishing something orderly for prosperity, and it is not surprising therefore that Laws combines the functions of literature and legislation in several ways.

Many areas of study relevant to classical Greek life have benefited from reconsideration in terms of literacy and orality, and ever since Havelock Plato has been an author who loomed large in the minds of those who undertook such studies. In no author is there such conflict between the successful adoption of writing and the commitment to a lively oral educative culture. While Laws often has modern readers agreeing with Posidonius' nihil...frigidius, nihil ineptius, and have far less attraction than Phaedrus and other fashionable texts, it cannot be doubted that they are a fertile hunting ground for those who wish to further clarify Plato's elusive thinking on the place of written and oral culture in the control of the polis. One may assume with confidence that much of the treatise-like dialogue before us has its origins in the deliberations of the inner sanctum of the Academy, possibly in that pre-dawn period favored for the Nocturnal Council, and that its author would judge its success in terms of the quality of legal discussion that the work generated among others concerned with legislative matters.

The great merit of this book is that Bertrand brings a considerable knowledge of the actual legislative and administrative procedures of the Greek cities to bear on the procedures recommended by Plato in what is traditionally considered to be the last of his works. Original readers would have naturally compared the legal arrangements of this text with those of cities in their own experience. It is no accident that the Athenian Stranger represents himself as an expert in legal and constitutional matters (968), and recommends the study of his own laws in turn (811). The whole business of the Nocturnal Council revolves around the thornier problems of practical legislative science (952), and legal studies are particularly recommended for the judge (957). Expertise in law invited comparisons. Hence, for an understanding of Plato's Laws, one ignores the real world of Greek politics only at one's peril. Exploring with Bertrand this relationship between written work and legal processes enhances one's appreciation of it, better reveals the workings of an enlightened mind, and shows how Laws is to some extent the creative achievement that Plato expected of legislative activity.

The title will seem paradoxical to those who think in terms of a steady progression away from oral culture and towards literacy, and perhaps particularly to those who with Havelock see writing as essential for the initial development of Plato's thought. It is, however, appropriate, as the reader may quickly gather, for the twelve books of the Laws were intended not as some kind of written monolith, nor as a fixed system to impose on human beings, but rather as the foundation of an on-going legal culture, in which educated oral discussion would ensure that the laws offered were subject to improvement. Further, the boundary between written laws and oral activity was broken down by language that frequently thought of laws as having a voice, as addressing, as advising, persuading, and threatening.

The subtitle, it seems, is more the means of adding further irony to an already intriguing title, for this is not simply a general interpretation of Laws, even though passages from virtually all contexts are considered here. Nor would it strike one as a book about Plato, for, even though it does not neglect other dialogues, it makes little attempt to situate the political thought within the wider issues of Platonic thought. It may well prove frustrating for those for whom Plato is a collection of doctrines rather than an educator. Nor indeed could this be simply described as a book on literacy and orality in Plato. And if the title does not give a clear idea of the content of the book, much the same could be said of chapter titles and subtitles. They flag shifts rather dictate contents. Readers may well feel as I did in the first instance, that the discussion was not taking me in any clear direction, but I should urge them to persist nevertheless.

The initial feeling of aporia was enhanced by the material with which Bertrand chose to begin his exercise. After a brief introduction, comes a long section entitled L' écriture du législateur. Rather than beginning conventionally from the beginning of Plato's work, or from an obvious point within the legislative program, Bertrand prefers to begin with material from book 3 on prehistory, the origins of the polis, and its legislation. Such questions as the skills needed by the legislator and the part of the divine in his work, and indeed in his becoming available, are discussed. The city must precede the citizens, who must in turn precede the lawgiver (44-5). Here Bertrand looks at how the discourse of actual cities used to presuppose the city's own past, which would still live on in the present (50), and so to the role of writing in preserving of the past into the present (55). After discussion of Solon, this brings us to the importance of writing for nomos in Plato's eyes (60); but written law does not just preserve something fixed, because, through various interpreters, it can actually become the instrument of major change, something that Plato is said to have grasped (70). With the physical death of the author comes the empowerment of the interpreter, yet the author needs to somehow live on through his work for stability to be ensured. Preferably he must select his audience (90), see that enough is written, and so encourage their fidelity to his intentions (91).

The second section has the title 'Les ambiguïtés de la publication'. It begins from history, the obvious difficulties in actually consulting written laws that were theoretically available, and the tendency for public readings, as at Teos, of written laws. Ritual may still require performance of public readings or chantings, though Plato's laws are not thought of as themselves to be chanted (100); the late preservation of local dialect in laws may also show their ritual importance (119). The power given to the reader of important documents like treaties is discussed (108), with democracies associated with ease of consultation (114-6). Once the public could and did read them, the inscribed laws of Greece become very public (109). Attention is given to the different material that might preserve laws in Greece, and different places for consultation, as well as the methods chosen to make the letters clear. Sometimes here a reader must keep a careful track on the dates from which the various pieces of evidence are drawn.

The section goes on to discuss various ways in which the life of the seemingly fixed inscription may be threatened: emendation occurs, and forgeries spring up to serve political agendas (120), and problems arise from the plurality of sites housing laws. Republication and erasure are both possible. The city's identity is so linked with those of its laws that, if it is to change, then they too must undergo processes of evolution that writing does not prevent (128).

After a discussion of the overall problem of writing in the Platonic corpus, in which the authenticity of the Seventh Epistle is courageously dismissed in a brief footnote (129), one moves to various functions of writing in the political life of Magnesia (137ff.). The kind of problem that often concerns Bertrand is the way that public writing can be a substitute for an absent writer (136), or a written name a substitute for the person whose laudable acts or transgressions were recorded (153-67).

By the time we come to the third section 'stabilités et permanences' questions of change are already familiar. That the chapter begins with the story of Theuth (169) seems to presage that this will be the heart of the book. I was impressed with the argument from the closeness of the seed-language at Republic 497c and Phaedrus 276d-7a to the conclusion that Plato recognizes no philosophic word or writing that can be monologic, and that interactivity is what gives it its meaning. The use of other middle or late dialogues for the study of the Laws is again in evidence at 186ff., where the psychology of the Theaetetus and Philebus, which both feature 'writing in the soul', leads to the remark that 'La mémoire inscrite sur le corps physique de la cité, dans ses dépôts d' archives, sur ses murs, sur les stèles de la place publique, sur les bornes de son territoire, pouvait être considerée comme la représentation métaphorique de cette tablette intérieure à l' homme' (187). The macrocosm-microcosm analogy seems apt for Platonic studies and then serves to suggest that writing was not just a record of the past but a guarantee of appropriate future developments. Plato's laws, it is argued, are to provide just this connection between the distant past and future time through the process of rereading and reliving.

The ability of law to guarantee permanence is again considered in the remainder of this chapter. Writing is seen not as a guarantee of permanence, but as an aid to the listener who has the will to make reasoned use of and to defend them. Consequently such persons must listen to law's lessons (230). The judge reads them, but himself has a creative role to play, not just obeying them but also imitating (232: Rep. 458c). The arrangements for mitigating the severity of the marriage laws (925-6), and the criticism of those who insist on the letter of the law, are used to reinforce the argument that Plato's law is intended to be flexible (234-5). Historical cities looked for the intention or the spirit rather than the letter of the law, and utopias had to follow (238). Subsequent generations, it is argued, would not only flesh out the law, but even 'correct' it on occasions. I find this too dependent on the notion of a second best law if the best fails in the section on sexual behavior (736-42). One wonders whether Platonic law was really quite so flexible. Certainly it is acknowledged that much experience is required before changes are made (244: though the use of Polus' concept of empeiria from the Gorgias to explain Laws 772 is strange), and that the system, once perfected, will become immutable. Again, it is fully explained just what level of consensus is required among magistrates, citizens, and oracles before changes are allowed (245-7). One can say with confidence that conservatism will prevail in Plato's city!

Theuth returns to introduce the next section, 'Les jeux du dialogue politique'. Its early sub-sections deal with law and repression, law and power, and law as ordinance. A good deal of emphasis falls upon the way in which Plato's laws speak to those for whom they are intended. At 251 it is interestingly observed that Plato insists on an entire legal code, all pointing towards the single goal of virtue, while real codes lose their unity when modified in accord with pressing needs. The roles of law as a warning, as a therapy, and as an example are discussed. The enlightened nature of Plato's legislation is perhaps exaggerated, partly through overlooking the extent of the death penalty in Magnesia. (Anglophone readers may miss some reference to M.M. Mackenzie's Plato on Punishment, University of California Press, Berkeley 1981.) At 263-78 the twin functions of Plato's pieces of legislation, commanding and persuading are compared. The command must become personal, like the voice of a parent that must nevertheless be obeyed, and so allow appropriate legislative discourse to follow.

Not surprisingly, the twin functions of the laws lead on to consideration of Posidonius' bête noire--the prologues to pieces of legislation, an area of current controversy. The prologue is what makes each law sufficiently long to count as literature (858), seeking for itself the best expression. While Plato is superficially convinced that persuasion of citizens is preferable but that threats are also needed in practice, our attention is drawn at 284-5 to the variety of ways in which prologues seek to address the citizen, from which the conclusion is drawn: 'Ces distortions dans la procédure d'adresse laisse penser que la nécessité pédagogique revendiquée par le législateur pour justifier l'adjonction d'une prologue à chacune de ses lois, et de l' idée qu'il se ferait un devoir de persuader plutôt que de contraindre est, peut-être, fallacieuse' (255). It is observed that the prologue is being addressed to the whole state, the laws only to those liable to err (287), though one should not lose sight of the fact that, on different levels, everything is addressed (a) to the interlocutors and (b) to Plato's audience. This 'literature' works on several levels.

In a section on 'lois et lieu so/cial' (294) we meet good material on the degree to which Greeks associated communal assent with the law. In postulating unity within the city, Plato is not seen as using law to create that unity but rather it is the unity that brings about the consent, since the city as a unified entity is ontologically prior to its law. In 'le refus possible de la participation' we discuss non-Platonic texts such as Antiphon's Truth, for Plato resists the view that the individual can stand outside the city. Then 'le refus des lacunes' (303-8) treats the absence of gaps in Plato's law whereby it would fail to have a bearing over some part of a citizen's life. The overall aim of creating a virtuous polis means that nothing relevant to virtue can be left to chance. However, this relies on 820e, which deals specifically with education and is of special relevance to virtue. What remains indisputable is Plato's willingness to apply law in areas where we should not. Bertrand here brings out some curious consequences of Plato's holistic approach.

At 308 we pass to a consideration of Crito in the light of Laws and other texts used throughout this book. In view of the enormous literature that has built up concerning this dialogue, one wonders to what an extent a convincing contribution can be made in the context of a study of a different dialogue. Most Platonists would place these at opposite ends of Plato's creative career and see a fundamental gulf between the Socrates of the former and the Athenian legislator of the latter. A few have tried to bridge this gap, among them M. Montuori in his Il Critone. Un proemio alle Leggi?, Quaderni dell' Accademia Pontaniana 16, 1993, and H. Thesleff, 'Platonic Chronology', Phronesis 34 (1989), 1-26 at 21. Neither is referred to here. The section concludes (317-323) with consideration of the limitations of law-codes in Platonic thought.

The final major section of the work is entitled 'Les manipulations de la parole dans la cité magnète'. It begins with the familiar theme of the need to introduce an element of governance into all walks of life, in spite of the impossibility of passing legislation on everything. In these circumstances lawlessness (παρανομία), he believes, includes not merely disobeying an existing law, but also other conduct outside the law that tends towards hedonism and causes the individual to forget civilised values. If this is lawlessness it is legislators' business to do what can be done to prevent it, using the natural impulses towards law and order within our species. There is an in-built consensual voice (φήμη 838d, 932a etc.) whose power needs to be harnessed (as historical authors such as Aeschines knew, 329-331). The voice can be manipulated, and gives the legislator a hidden power in addition to open ones, particularly when given sanctified status. While the voice can limit the lawgiver in an established city, he has more manipulative opportunities in a city being founded (331-3). Included in the voice of the city is that of the slave, who has rights to speak in public that were denied in Athens (337-9) and whose testimony is protected. His murderer may be treated as if he were a citizen (872c), raising questions of institutional make-believe in Greece as a whole, and then of Plato's treatment of citizen-murders by slaves as patricide (869d: 344). Owing to the wide role of the Magnesian slave Bertrand is able to write at 344: 'L'esclave peut être l'oeil et la bouche puis le bras.'

Legislators can control public discourse by various prohibitions. Laws offers less material on censorship than Republic, but book X is notorious for its zeal in promoting the conformity of religious belief. Bertrand also finds material pointing to the legislator's establishment of appropriate vocabulary, particularly moral vocabulary, though again we find him treating Plato more widely on this topic, with constant reference to Cratylus. Amnesty and the obliteration of records can be a kind of imposed silence. Deliberately left gaps in the laws are another form, bans on oaths (948d-949b) are another, and the willingness to pass over the best law for one more easily enforced, even an unwritten one (841b) can be viewed as another still (838e-841e).

Not surprisingly, Bertrand's sensitive treatment of these topics (354-386) lead to discussion of lies, including justified lies, within the city (386-396). More important, however, is what follows concerning the importance of collective discourse. Plato values united communal discourse (739d), and the state will use quasi-magical persuasion to develop a common voice on many issues (665c etc.). The chorus is an important tool in this process of enchantment, being both the speaker and recipient of the views that it promulgates, and able to reach the entire city (404). Bertrand leaves his final chapter by drawing to our attention the degree to which Plato's emphasis has fallen on the perpetual preservation of a single virtue-directed discourse, overshadowing any need to inquire into what the moral goal(s) is (664a, 405).

It had been inevitable that the unity of this book had sometimes seemed to mirror that of a journey on which one alternately rested and pressed on. The material of Laws is vast, the possible approaches numerous, and the proportion of the whole with some bearing on political discourse considerable. The conclusion leaves one in little doubt, however, that Bertrand has assimilated this disparate material into a whole with the potential to be enlightening. Nor does it shy away from bold statements, claiming for instance that Plato is not strictly 'un philosophe du droit', emphasizing how his political ideas are based on familiar political practices and reminding us that his task was to secure the right environment for the promotion of individual human merit. He argues that Magnesia had a double structure organized on two different but complimentary axes, the one cartographic, the other hierarchic and mirroring divisions of the human body. He also underlines some important faults of Plato's Magnesian project. One would like to see a justice system oriented primarily towards the offender's cure, but it aims rather for the city's cure by the correction of imbalance that unfairness has created (415). One would like to see here a city where genuine political discourse flourished, where rulers and ruled were united in a project to which even a Socrates could contribute, where the true sources of power were there for all to scrutinize (421).

Beyond the conclusion lie a considerable bibliography, index platonicus, short Index thématique dealing with principal terms and names, and the Table de matière which speaks with the clarity of the Delphic oracle.

The work is a learned, and ultimately rewarding study of Platonic socio-political theory in the context of Greek socio-political practice; but rather too meandering to be compulsive reading. The earlier pages had often adhered more closely than necessary to particular passages, working into the main text long phrases of Greek to supplement French paraphrase. Full bibliographic references seem to have been consistently given where only enough to identify the work in the bibliography was needed. Too often I discovered that references to the text of Laws were imprecise, as where we are referred to the non-existent 850e (334 n.43). Occasionally I felt many readers of Plato would now demand greater attention to who was the speaker of any given passage. For instance, where Bertrand uses his interpretation of 838c8-d2 (citizens think their breathing is subject to the authority of the law) to emphasize the extent of Plato's interventionism, he should have noted that the words belonged to Megillus. A more significant worry was the way in which the work could meander, without sufficient sign-posting, between Republic, Politicus, and Laws as if there were some a priori expectation that these works would somehow cohere--a controversial assumption.

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