Stop me if you’ve heard this one. An Athenian, a Spartan and a Cretan walk into Hades…. The Laws, while ostensibly about the creation of a perfect city, like Plato’s other dialogues, it is also about the desire for wisdom, and, more specifically, the possibility of knowing and being reconciled with the Good or the divine. In this dialogue, the emphasis on achieving such a reconciliation is specifically highlighted. The conversation takes place as three older men make a pilgrimage to the birth site of Zeus – a trek that Minos, the mythical founder of Crete, allegedly made every nine years, to receive oracles that inspired the Laws of his city. After his death, Minos became one of the rulers of the underworld. Seeking Zeus, these elderly men follow the path of Minos, resting regularly under Cypress trees, trees that symbolize mourning. It is not a far stretch to realize that the new city they imagine they are building speaks to more than just a new colony in Crete. It speaks to their desire and hope that in their deaths they might arrive at the destination of their pilgrimage – a life commensurate with the divine.
All of which helps explain some of the stranger things that the Athenian stranger insists are necessary for the new colony to be founded in Crete. Such as proclaiming that the laws of the city should be based on the number 5040 because it can be divided into so many particular parts, just as one might imagine that the universal manifests itself in the many particulars of the finite world.
In addition to a number of strange and often tedious details, the Athenian also makes several arguments that most would say are more than just historical anachronisms, but in addition are unfair and unjust. For instance, when declaring that women must eat their meals in open with everyone else, the Athenian declares that this will help cure the problem of their cunning and secretive natures (781a). Further, he goes on to restrict the sexual lives of the imaginary citizens to those between men and women who have the intent of producing children, procluding same sex relationships and even birth control (838e-839b). One can imagine how these lines could become justification for rolling back hard won gains in human rights.
Yet, when these arguments are looked at from the understanding that Plato is actually speaking about the possibility of mediating a human life with the divine, a different story appears. Having women as well as men share in public, common meals, the Athenian is suggesting that what is private (as the lives of women are conventionally held to be in Greece) should be made public or brought out into the open. Specifically, our hunger should be satisfied by a public or, more truly, a universal source.
On one level then the Athenian is not speaking about women at all. He is talking about the desire for wisdom, and suggesting that the city must play a role in mediating or satisfying this hunger. Philosophy should not be relegated to a a few courses while at university and then tucked away until you need a pretentious bon mot at a party. It should instead be the true work of our lives and the lives of our political leaders. Speaking of women, the Athenian says that they must “be dragged into the light”(781d), indicating that our innermost desires will only be satisfied by the light of knowledge. A city that can frame itself in the most true and just laws can play a role in mediating our hunger for what is truly universal.
Further, when taking up the sexual lives of future citizens, the Athenian describes the purpose of having children as partaking in “the eternal coming-into-being of nature.” And while having children is one way described as participating in the life of the divine creator, in the Symposium we are told by Socrates (who says he was taught this by a woman) that there are ways by which one can give birth. Specifically, intercourse as discourse and dialogue gives birth to greater wisdom and understanding.
So again, it seems that the Athenian is not really that concerned with same sex relationships or birth control. The fertility that is ultimately sought might be achieved by these three elderly men just as it might be between a young man and a young woman because what is at issue is wisdom. The key, it seems, is that the dialogue has to be between people who are other than themselves for something to be born. A conversation with someone who holds all the same opinions and biases won’t lead to knowledge, it will merely confirm your prejudices. Instead, there has to be space and willingness to engage with people who are different – those of the opposite sex, people of different sexual orientations, people from different cultures (like an Athenian, a Spartan and a Cretan), and people from different religions. After all, the knowledge Plato believes we seek is in some fundamental way “other” than we are, just as the divine is other than the human.
None of this is to suggest that Plato was a feminist or LGBTQIA activist. If he is to be faulted, however, it might be because he did not really consider these things to be the essential issue and used them instead as an images for what he took to be a universal human concern. Yet, if we follow his argument and engage seriously in the quest for wisdom, we would discover that the very practical concerns of our lives, such as our particular freedoms, have grounding in what is true and just.
If you want to join a fun and engaging conversation about Plato, please check out my online discussion course, The Socrates Who Does (Not) Know, coming up in April at Great Discourses.