Friday, January 30, 2015

The Athenian Stranger

I wrote last year on the hypothesis that Plato, however much he might have fictionalized his teacher Socrates in the Socratic dialogs, didn’t put words into his teachers’ mouth that he couldn’t have imagined Socrates at least supporting. The scholars probably know all about this theory and can either prove that it’s true or prove that it’s false. I’m just a guy who reads and has ideas, and it simply seems to me that it has to be that way; why does Plato have Socrates sit mutely on the sidelines in the Sophist if in so many other dialogs he’s willing to have an ahistorical Socrates say whatever he himself wants to teach?

This year, in reading half of Plato’s Laws, I still think my hypothesis holds up pretty well. Here we have a stranger not from Elea but from Athens. So again, if Plato is willing to have his fictional Socrates say things the historical Socrates wouldn’t have agreed with, and if he needs an Athenian to make this dialog with a Spartan and a Cretan work, why bring in a “stranger” instead of just using Socrates again, as he did in so many previous works? I think Plato has parted ways with some of Socrates’ vews by this point in his career (the Laws is supposedly a late work) and doesn’t want to distort the image of his beloved teacher past recognition.

Both this work and the much more famous Republic set out an (in Plato’s mind anyway) ideal state. But I’ve noticed many differences between the works. Two differences especially stand out to me. First, the Athenian Stranger says that the education of a noble man makes him a better person. Plato’s Socrates usually has a higher opinion both of education and of the human heart; he typically says that anyone – presumably even a person of less than noble character – yes, anyone who knows the right thing to do will do it. I’ve complained about this naive view before, and I was relieved last week to see that the Athenian Stranger improves on it.

The Athenian Stranger also parts from Socrates in his practical realism. While Plato's Republic stays in the realm of the ideal, the Laws deals with a very practical situation: Cleinias, a young Cretan, has been invited to start a colony and can establish any laws in the colony that he wants. Within the world of this dialog, the three interlocutors want to come up with laws that will actually work. And the Stranger has to admit that real people won’t stand for his ideal state. The conclusion he comes to halfway through (which is as far as I read this year) is that Cleinias will first have to establish a provisional government with familiar laws and then teach the offspring of the colonists the ideals of government. Maybe in thirty years the new generation can implement the ideal laws. Well, Athenian Stranger, did you forget your own words? That will only work if all the children have noble souls.

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