Thursday, June 11, 2009

Plato on Sparta

The setting of Plato’s Laws is the island of Crete where an unnamed Athenian is on a walk with two other men: a politician from Crete named Cleinias and a Spartan citizen named Megillus. The walk is a pilgrimage to the Cave of Zeus, and the entire dialog is played out along the way. In the first three books, the discussion centers around the characteristics of good government and how government should function to create good citizens. Then, at the end of Book III, Cleinias announces that he has been given responsibility for creating laws for a new Cretan community (Magnesia) and would like the Athenian’s assistance. The stranger takes the opportunity to expound on his political philosophy as he tries to explain to the others how a city should be governed. There are references to the Spartan system because Plato has selected a Cretan and a Spartan as his main characters so they are able to reference their own political systems.

In Book I, the Athenian complains that the Spartan system is too heavily tilted toward enduring and overcoming pain when in fact courage is only one component of virtue. He asserts that virtue is also learning to avoid excessive pleasure, so, because the Spartan system does not provide pleasure avoidance training, it is deficient.

In Book III, the Athenian laments the collapsed ancient alliance between Sparta, Argos, and Messene, as the cause of disunity in the Peloponnese and the inability to repel the Persian invasion. This disunity, he contends, led directly to the adoption of the quirky Spartan political system with its Ephors and Gerousia.

In Book VI, they discuss population groups and the issue of slaves is discussed. The Athenian points out how troublesome the Helots are because they revolt. He claims a government will be better off if it treats its slaves with as much respect as equals receive.

He also agrees with the Spartans that a city should not have walls, because their presence, “is also apt to produce a certain effeminacy in the minds of the inhabitants, inviting men to run thither instead of repelling their enemies, and leading them to imagine that their safety is due not to their keeping guard day and night.”

Plato is critical of the Cretans and the Spartans for having no Mess for women, because women need to be subject to laws just like men are.

These are the opinions of Sparta as expressed in Laws.

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