BMCR 2005.01.06

A Journey into Platonic Politics: Plato’s Laws

, A journey into Platonic politics : Plato's Laws. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004. x, 244 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0761826890. $39.00.

Whitaker’s fine book-by-book commentary on Plato’s Laws is pitched less to classicists than to those who seek to use ancient thought to critique modern rationality — those strains of philosophizing deriving from Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Joseph de Maistre, Eric Vogelin, Allan Bloom, Leon Kass, and their students and their students’ students. It is a book intended to be useful specifically to American students of political science or “neo-conservative” political philosophy. In his work as an editor and translator for Focus Publishing, Whitaker has established his bona fides as a classicist, but in this volume he is a pedagogical guide who leads students on a journey that aims to show them the need to overcome the “misguided” iconoclasm of modernity and to teach them how to repair our “intellectual and moral home” (vii) using a Platonist religiosity instead of mere critical reason.

Drawing perhaps as much on American constitutional and moral controversies as on the classical aspects of the Laws, Whitaker hopes to make “God” central to the conversation about the best way to govern. It is this aspect of his book I will focus on, to the exclusion of many other noteworthy aspects of more interest to those of a political or philosophical bent than a classical one.

Whitaker’s commentary on the journey of the Athenian Stranger, the Creten Kleinias, and the Spartan Megillus to the dark cave of Zeus, where they will prepare for founding a new regime, is itself a journey meant to persuade the reader to accept the necessity of a regime ruled in all ways by the nocturnal council. This small vanguard does whatever is necessary to safeguard the regime’s laws, to convince the impious that the gods exist, care for us, and cannot be appeased, and to coerce all to be good, pious citizens. Like the Athenian Stranger, Whitaker argues that not only is this dialectical palace of thinking necessary for a good regime but that a regime can only be good in so far as the many live to protect these few philosophers-cum-legislators, that the best regime “subjugates all political life to a few scholars’ pursuit of divine science” (206).

This rule of the many by the few is made both easier and more natural through the skilful use of god-based legislating. However, neither the Stranger nor Whitaker ever claims to believe or disbelieve in the god or that the god is the cause of nations and their laws. However, the goal of the Laws and Whitaker’s commentary on them is to demonstrate the goodness of politics being guided by the god — even if that god is a fiction, a noble lie.

In contrast to modern democratic thinking that disavows revelation in favor of human reason, Platonist politics, as Whitaker sees it, is less concerned with the “individual” and her “rights” than in the stability of the regime. This stability is best maintained by citizens understanding their place in the divine ordering of things (“minding their own business”) and performing their assigned social duties, not pursuing their “natural rights.” Alongside the Stranger, Whitaker argues that the “progress” of modern democracy has not only failed to create “happiness” but that happiness can never be achieved except in a strong, unified, pious, and patriotic regime pursuing a unified goal, not infinite individual ones.

The characters in the Laws, Whitaker points out, are not philosophers. Unlike those who seek to escape the cave and live in the light of the sun in The Republic, in the Laws the characters flee from the sun and seek refuge in the cave. As lawmakers instead of philosophers, they understand that “truth” is not as politically useful as a conformist piety and that citizens live together best if they agree on the most important issues — even if they have not been given all the information necessary to make truly wise, or philosophical, decisions about them.

Working closely though the Laws, Whitaker discusses the political usefulness of something that does not seem at all pious or martial — drinking parties. These ancient frat parties did more than simply sort citizens into the trustworthy and the irresponsible. In the absence of a single revealed divine truth, frequently hitting the bottle loosens up the old men who rule the regime so that they will consent to sing to the youth in chorus the pious myths and fictions about the inseparability of pleasure and justice and the unpleasantness of the unjust life. It is not important that they believe the “highly profitable lie[s]” (35-36) they sing, only that they convey these pious frauds and likely takes sincerely and seriously — and that they be received without question.

Such a regime will “naturally” create citizens who desire to know how to rule and be ruled, to harmonize their passion and reason, and to accept what the law commands. Such citizens, nurtured only on approved textbooks and stories, will thus not demand what we moderns think of as “freedom” but will submit to the stronger, wiser few. Whitaker asks, “Who would not admit, in his most sober moment, that he would prefer to be ruled over by wise and prudent rulers than mediocre, fickle, or foolish ordinary folk?” (53). Who indeed?

Ultimately where the Stranger and Whitaker hope to lead their interlocutors is to an understanding that democracies, oligarchies, aristocracies, and monarchies are but regimes where the stronger tyrannically enslave the rest. Only in a theocracy can there be true justice, for the god knows the natures and deeds of all souls; thus, in a theocracy everyone gets what he deserves. Since an actual theocracy seems unlikely, the best alternative is rule by what most closely resembles the divine, nous (intellect). Rule by intelligence overcomes the divisiveness of other regimes, but human intelligence is neither divine nor purely rational. However, if the law speaks like a god, addressing all equally, making the same demands of each, and is revered like a god, civic unity, Whitaker claims, is sure to ensue.

As Whitaker writes, the “great men” who would rule such a regime understand and teach that a “hierarchy of human beings” exists, and they are not at all impressed by claims that one must offer all human beings equal respect (83). In this rank-ordered city of friends holding all things in common, marriage, the family, economics, agriculture, morals, and everything else are strictly regulated by the great men who know best. Marriage is eugenically arranged to produce good-natured homogeneous children and immoral erotic desires (adultery and homosexuality) are outlawed. Should one think this a bit much, Whitaker asks, seemingly without irony, “And how would one rather live? Enslaved to one’s selfish, narrow, personal desires? Or a free member of an entire community, who can, by his actions and choices, decisively affect that community’s future, for better or worse?” (105).

In the Stranger’s pseudo-theocratic regime, which Whitaker lovingly elucidates, there is no idea that “all men are created equal,” and also no idea that what is new is improved. As Whitaker points out, the worst evil in such a regime is innovation. Tradition must be maintained: “The healthy political state is one in which people revere or even fear the law . . . But what happens if the law changes all the time? People come to look upon those ever-changing laws with disrespect or disdain. And so they become bolder in ignoring the law” (113). Whitaker clearly advocates the Stranger’s political use of religion and tradition to sanctify what is, to demonize change, and to fabricate useful fictions that uphold customs against the onslaughts of modernity and free thought.

Whitaker’s commentary suffers, perhaps, by comparison to his elders’ books: Leo Strauss’s The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws, Thomas Pangle’s commentary in his translation of the Laws, both of which Whitaker refers to, and Seth Benardete’s Plato’s “Laws, which was published around the time of Whitaker writing his book. Unlike these other weighty tomes, content to amble through Platonist esoterica, Whitaker’s book is a shot across the bow of American political thinking. Though there is much in his book for “conservatives” to love and “liberals” to hate, the true challenge of Platonic politics, as Whitaker delineates it, would certainly prove that even America’s new “value voters” are too liberal. Whitaker says out loud what most Platonists whisper only between the lines: there is no god, but we should act as if there was and do our best to make others believe; most people are bad and must be ruled accordingly; the many exist slavishly for the leisure of the few. Should any students find their way to this book, especially those who, as Machiavelli says, are not princes but deserve to be, they will find Whitaker to be a tutor to rival Chiron and will find their way to a Plato that makes Ayn Rand seem compassionate. Reading Whitaker’s book on Platonic politics might not interest the true classicist, but it could certainly help some gain admittance to America’s nocturnal council and help others learn how to bring it into the light.