01 March 2005

Pradeau v. Bobonich

I suppose I'm naturally contentious. I can't help wondering how Chris Bobonich's view in Plato's Utopia Recast fares against Pradeau's in his recent BACAP lecture.

It's not easy to say. Bobonich's discussion takes the form of about 20 arguments and sub-arguments directed against Andre Laks' already fairly subtle position. (Laks is not cited by Pradeau.)

This post can merely begin to set up the problem.

Some background for non-experts. Plato wrote two dialogues on constitutional theory and legislation, the Republic and Laws. This naturally raises the question of whether there is continuity or change across those dialogues. Bobonich says that there is change: he says (if I understand him correctly) that Plato moves closer in the Laws to affirming an almost liberal conception of political society as consisting of citizens as free and equal persons; and that the law of this society, directed at citizens so conceived, is designed to advance the virtue and happiness of all its citizens. Pradeau holds, as regards Plato's conception of law, at least, that there is no such change.

One crucial bit of evidence for deciding between these views is a device that is not present in the Republic but is introduced with fanfare as an innovation in the Laws, namely, the 'preludes' that are to be affixed to laws. What is the purpose of these 'preludes'? Bobonich says that they are intended to teach citizens the reasons behind the law--which would indicate a new conception of law as based in reason and directed at citizens as rational agents. Pradeau says that they are intended to persuade by rhetorical considerations, using praise and blame, threats and stories, much as a parent might talk to a child--which would indicate a paternalistic conception of authority and law fully continuous with what Plato says about law elsewhere.

The interpretation of these 'preludes' hinges in turn on a relatively few passages in which Plato explains them--especially a couple of passages in which Plato likens legislation to medicine. He says that merely to command or forbid action in law is like a slave doctor simply telling a slave patient what to do, without explanation. But a free doctor, treating a free patient, would first say something to persuade his patient to adopt the prescribed course of treatment. Thus the law too should persuade as well as compel.

Persuade and compel. But what does this 'persuasion' amount to? That seems to be the issue. More later.