08 March 2005

A Question, A Criticism, and An Observation

I do promise to give—tomorrow—my resolution of this imaginary debate I’ve constructed between Pradeau and Bobonich. It’s probably gone on long enough. But for today I have a last question about Bobonich’s position; another criticism of his evidence; and a closing observation.

A Question

Here’s the question. On page 104 of Plato’s Utopia Recast, Bobonich offers, by way of summary, four observations about what, in his view, Plato holds as regards the preludes. All of the observations have to do with teaching and learning:

  • “What the person who is to be persuaded is asking for is to be ‘taught’”…
  • The lawgiver is characterized by Plato as “giving reasons to the citizens and bringing it about that they ‘learn’”…
  • “A certain activity is required of [the citizens]: they are to learn”…
  • “The preludes are meant to provide quite general ethical instruction…the citizens will learn why the laws are fine and just…”

Then, immediately following, on page 105, Bobonich draws a lesson from these observations. “These passages,” he says, “also give a first answer to the question of why such instruction, rather than simple commands or non-rational persuasion, is appropriate for citizens.” The answer, according to Bobonich, is that Plato accepts the following principle (which we have already seen):

In the case of two free persons, even when the first possesses knowledge of what is good for the second that the second lacks, it is ethically appropriate that the one try as far as possible to persuade the other rationally; because of the patient's status as a free person, he deserves to be rationally persuaded (Bobonich, 105)

Let us waive Pradeau’s objection that many of the passages Bobonich cites, about teaching and learning, are from book 10, which has a special purpose, and that many of the preludes outside that book do not seem to teach as much as to cajole or even threaten. Let us suppose that, indeed, all preludes are meant to teach, and let us also put aside the difficulty that, according to Plato, it is not necessary that every law have a prelude attached.

My concern is rather with how this principle would follow, even if we granted that a prelude always involves teaching and learning. That is, how might one fill in the steps of the following argument?

1. Legislators should instruct citizens about a law, and citizens should learn.


2. It is ethically appropriate that a legislator try as far as possible to persuade a citizen rationally.

I don’t see how that follows. The principle seems much too strong relative to the premise.

A Criticism

The criticism is directed at another piece of evidence Bobonich offers in support of his view. Bobonich twice cites Laws 722E7-723A6 as supporting his view that citizens are supposed to learn from a prelude. And yet, to my view, the passage says nothing of the sort.

Here is the passage, in Bobonich's translation:

What was called a tyrannical command, and likened to the image of the commands of the doctors we said were unfree, seemed to be unmixed law; what was spoken of before this, and said to be persuasive on behalf of this, really did seem to be persuasion, but seemed to have the power that a prelude has in speeches. For it has become clear to me that this whole speech, which the speaker gives in order to persuade, is delivered with just this end in view: so that he who receives the law uttered by the legislator might receive the command--that is, the law--in a frame of mind more favorably disposed and therefore more apt to learn something.

Here is the Greek (in SPIonic) of the passage:

o(\ dh\ turanniko\n e)pi/tagma a)peikasqe\n e)rrh/qh toi=j e)pita/gmasin toi=j

[723a] tw=n i)atrw=n ou(\j ei)/pomen a)neleuqe/rouj, tou=t' ei)=nai no/moj a)/kratoj, to\ de\ pro\ tou/tou r(hqe/n, peistiko\n lexqe\n u(po\ tou=de, o)/ntwj me\n ei)=nai peistiko/n, prooimi/ou mh\n tou= peri\ lo/gouj du/namin e)/xein. i(/na ga\r eu)menw=j, kai\ dia\ th\n eu)me/neian eu)maqe/steron, th\n e)pi/tacin, o(\ dh/ e)stin o( no/moj, de/chtai w(=| to\n no/mon o( nomoqe/thj le/gei, tou/tou xa/rin ei)rh=sqai/ moi katefa/nh pa=j o( lo/goj ou(=toj, o(\n pei/qwn ei)=pen o( le/gwn:

Bobonich in two places cites the passage as showing that citizens are meant to learn from the preludes:

What the lawgiver and the preludes actually do is characterized as ‘teaching’, that is, giving reasons to the citizens and bringing it about that they ‘learn’ (Laws 718C-D, 720D, 723A, 857D-E, and 888A) (My emphasis.)

The preludes are designed to be instances of rational persuasion…The citizens are expected to do something rather than have something done to them. A certain kind of activity is required of them: they are to learn (Laws 722E-723B, 807C-D, 858D, and 890B-891A). (My emphasis.)

But does the passage sustain that interpretation? It seems: no. Rather, Plato seems to be saying that a prelude has the function of making citizens disposed to accept the law and, therefore, more apt to learn from the law. His view here is apparently that the law educates, through obedience to the law. (This gets obscured in the translation, from the transposition of the phrase ‘more apt to learn something’ (eu)maqe/steron) to the end of the sentence--giving the impression that the phrase has no object, or an indistinct one, viz. ‘more apt to learn something’.)

An Observation

So the passage above does nothing to support the view that a prelude is meant to teach, and citizens are meant to learn from it.

But more important is the positive content of the passage, about the function of a prelude.

We might begin to draw this out with another quibble about translation, important in its own way, which is this: presumably one wants to render peistiko/n in the same way in both occurrences, that is, as ‘persuasive’ or ‘persuasive in character’. (One guesses that Bobonich renders it as ‘persuasion’ in its second occurrence to avoid giving the impression the persuasion is successful.) Why? Plato’s point seems to be that, although a prelude is merely persuasive, rather than imperative in character, nonetheless, as persuasive, it is not out of place in the articulation of a law, precisely because it contributes to the acceptance of the law.

That is, Plato senses that he needs to defend his inclusion of a merely persuasive element in the law at all. So he takes great pains in the passage to clarify its function. It’s evident, the Athenian says, that persuasive language, which one might otherwise regard as out of place in a law, is justifiable in a prelude precisely for this purpose (tou/tou xa/rin): to make citizens well disposed to accept the law (and to learn from the law as a result). This makes the commanding or imperative character essential to law (and helps to explain why Plato has just insisted that a prelude is properly speaking not a second aspect to the law, as he had earlier suggested, but something distinct from the law).

So, although the passage says nothing about the role of teaching and learning in a prelude, it does say that the function of a prelude is to make citizens disposed to accept the law.

This has a great bearing on how we understand Plato’s analogy between a prelude and the instruction of a free doctor. Does Plato use that analogy to argue that a certain way of giving orders, when free persons are involved, is appropriate and due? Or, does he use the analogy merely to argue that a certain way of giving orders is likely to be most effective? That in fact is the issue between Bobonich and Pradeau. We may sharpen the contrast as follows:

Bobonich: It is inherently good (appropriate, fitting, due) that a free person in authority persuade someone under his authority. Persuasion rather than a command is appropriate to their free status.

Pradeau: It is pragmatically useful, with a view to compliance, that a free person in authority try to persuade someone under his authority. Persuasion will be more effective than compulsion, given their free status.

Bobonich, as we have seen, wishes to emphasize that, according to Plato, the preludes teach, and the citizens who hear the preludes learn. But it is important to see that, even if this were true, it would not decide the case, since Pradeau can allow that someone is more likely to comply with a command, if he has to some extent been taught first about its purpose. On Pradeau's view, a legislator in a prelude should teach citizens when, for pragmatic reasons, this will be effective--when it would make the citizens 'favorably disposed' to accept the law and therefore 'more apt to learn' from it.