BMCR 2004.10.18

The Law Most Beautiful and Best: Medical Argument and Magical Rhetoric in Plato’s Laws

, The law most beautiful and best : medical argument and magical rhetoric in Plato's Laws. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003. xiv, 178 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0739106864 $55.00.

This book is a study of the Laws of Plato, with special reference to the role of ‘persuasion’ — comprising both reason-based rhetoric and sub-rational ‘brain-washing’ — manifested within it, employed as means of political persuasion. It is a mildly eccentric work, but none the worse for that really, emanating from the pen, not of a professional classicist or ancient philosopher, but rather from that of a prosperous and thoughtful corporate lawyer, with an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Chicago.

The particular issue that C. sets himself to address is indeed one of great interest and importance. Going back to Karl Popper’s impassioned post-war attack on Plato as a proto-fascist (in The Open Society and its Enemies), and considering various responses to that over the years, such as that of Glenn Morrow, in Plato’s Cretan City and most recently Christopher Bobonich in Plato’s Utopia Recast, which instead wish to argue for Plato’s profound respect for rationality, C. feels that he has found a key to resolving this apparent contradiction. What he suggests, as indicated in the sub-title to the book, is that a solution is to be found in looking to the traditions of Greek medicine, both traditional folk-medicine and magic, and the ‘modern’, rational Hippocratic tradition, and Plato’s appropriation of both these models.

It seems to me that he has put his finger on something here. Plato does indeed repeatedly, both in the Laws and in earlier works, compare political science with medical therapy, and this comparison is of great importance for him. He is also, as C. observes, very fond of imagery drawn from magic and sorcery. What C. wishes to maintain is that this proclivity of Plato’s goes deeper than a mere fondness for magical imagery. Socrates, to be sure, is indulging in his usual irony when he talks of finding a ‘charm’ or an ‘incantation’ with which to persuade some recalcitrant interlocutor, usually youthful, but, in the context of the Laws in particular, the Visitor from Athens does seriously contemplate employing non-rational persuasive techniques, particularly on the young — and indeed the very young — in order to produce in them a proper set of attitudes towards what is to be loved and what hated, what to be feared and what not to be. This, in modern terms, involves a considerable degree of ‘brain-washing’, and Plato would make no apology for that. All he wants to secure is that this should be in the hands of the ‘right’ people.

On the other hand, for adult citizens of Magnesia, it is the techniques of the best sort of Hippocratic doctor that are to be practised. That is the point of the contrast between the free doctor and the slave doctor in Book IV (720B-E) and the prescription of preambles for the laws of the state which follows upon that. The preambles appeal to the reason of the well brought-up citizen, and render him amenable both to the detailed legislation that is being imposed upon him and to the social and political system as a whole. Magnesia becomes, therefore, if all works well, a thoroughly rational participatory democracy, albeit of a rather peculiar sort.

This, as I understand it, is C.’s resolution of the apparent contradiction between Popper and, say, Bobonich, and I find it very sound and persuasive. His work is divided into eight chapters. In the first, ‘Philosophy and the Rule of Law’, he sets out his overall position, such as I have outlined. The only slight oddity I would discern here is the contrast he wants to make between the old and the young in Plato’s dramatic presentation. Here he is on p. 21:

“The Laws is a classic portrayal of the eternal contest between the old and the young. In this dialogue, written by an old man for adolescent boys, we see three old men engaged in the activity most characteristic of old men, inflicting their crabbed and mundane will on the next generation. That is, they are making law. As they go about their task, they are haunted by the specter of the young, whose love of wisdom — represented by their erotic longings and skeptical inquiries — threatens to undermine the fathers’ legislation, and that even before the fathers die.”

This is surely a bizarre approach to the dialogue. Certainly, Plato recognises a perennial tension between young men in their prime and their elders, but there is no way that he would wish to undermine the right of the elders to call the shots. Admittedly, Cleinias and Megillus are targets of some gentle derision, but they are not really going to be the legislators of Magnesia (though it is a nice point who exactly will be, apart from the Visitor himself). And who are these adolescent readers of the dialogue? C. seems to assume that the students in the Academy are generally still in their teens. Admittedly, Aristotle joined up at the age of sixteen, but we don’t know of anyone else, I think, especially at the time that the Laws was being written, who was not of reasonably mature years. This is a detail, perhaps, but it is representative of a streak of eccentricity that runs through this otherwise very stimulating work.

After his introductory chapter, C. devotes a chapter each to magic and to Hippocratic medicine, basing himself, respectively, on such works as Faraone and Obbink’s Magika Hiera and Geoffrey Lloyd’s Science, Folklore and Ideology, and, for the latter chapter, Ludwig Edelstein’s Collected Essays, Ancient Medicine, along with Lloyd’s Magic, Reason, and Experience. This ensures that the accounts of both traditions are thoroughly sound, but he goes into rather more detail than seems justified by his theme. Especially in the case of magic, it is deeply misleading, I think, to suggest that Plato would countenance literal magical spells or practices to achieve his pedagogic ends. C. is much closer to the truth in his final chapter (pp. 149-52), where he adduces Gorgias and his theory of the ‘magical’ power of rhetoric, as propounded in his Encomium of Helen and elsewhere. That is the sort of ‘magic’ in which Plato is interested.

These two chapters are followed by another pair, entitled ‘Geriatrics’ and ‘Pediatrics’, the theme of which is that the old, hidebound as they are by tradition, must be brought to an appreciation of philosophy, while the putative young philosophers of the Academy must be convinced in turn of the limitations of philosophy if not reinforced by the proper sub-rational training that Plato prescribes. In this connection, C. identifies the contrast between the procedure of the free doctor and the slave doctor made by Plato at the end of Book IV (720A-E) as of great significance for the structure and argument of the dialogue, and he is surely right. All this is fine, then, except for this odd postulation of a group of brash young philosophers as the audience for this work. But then, one might well ask, who really is the intended audience for the Laws ?

In ch. 6, ‘Plato’s Grimoire’, C. turns to a close examination of Plato’s attitudes both to magic and to folk-religion in the Laws. Magical practices are, of course, condemned, but traditional religion and religious rites are highly commended and ordained to be preserved, even if quite irrational. Indeed, one might criticize Plato’s whole policy of fostering the traditional Olympic pantheon, along with local gods and heroes, as deeply hypocritical when viewed against the background of the ‘higher truths’ about the divine revealed in Book X. All there really is is a rational word-soul, but the citizens of Magnesia are to continue to worship all the traditional gods and heroes. C. appositely quotes a revealing passage at 738B-C.

In his ch. 7, ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’, the longest in the book, C. looks in detail at Plato’s prescriptions for regulating all the most powerful impulses and needs of the human being, eating, drinking and sex, and shows how far Plato relies on sub-rational means, especially on the very young, to ensure that they grow up with the right natures. Here, once again, C. makes all the right points, but seems to take Plato’s talk of magical spells just a little too seriously. A passage such as 659δ which he quotes (p. 143), is a case in point. There the ‘incantations’ ( epôidai) are simply the moral instructions that are dinned into the ears of children in Magnesia from their earliest years not anything strictly magical. But C. is not completely off the beam, after all: Plato does intend all this propaganda to have an effect similar to incantations — even as the founders of the Soviet Union doubtless intended in their day!

C. rounds off his argument with a concluding chapter, with the same title as the book as a whole — a reference primarily to 817β where the Athenian compares his legislation favorably with that of the poets of Greece, declaring it to be a representation of the way of life that is most beautiful and best.

All in all, this book is a useful and stimulating contribution to the question of what Plato is up to in the Laws, and indeed in his political theorizing as a whole.