Plato uses the analogy between doctors and legislators in book 9 as well as book 4 of the Laws. We’ve looked at the most significant passages in book 4. A loose thread which remains is the discussion in book 9. This passage is important—and perplexing—because, as said earlier, Bobonich and Pradeau interpret it in opposite ways. Pradeau takes the passage to mean that instruction, except of a limited sort, is at odds with the aim of legislation: a legislator should not aim to instruct for its own sake, because that would be like a doctor teaching his patient medicine, rather than healing him. Bobonich takes it to mean that instruction is essential to legislation and that a legislator should indeed teach citizens for its own sake, in a manner analogous to a doctor’s teaching his patient medicine.
To complicate things even more, Bobonich discusses the passage in replying to André Laks, who takes it to mean that extensive instruction in the foundations of law is a kind of utopian ideal of legislation, not very much realizable in practice.
So here are the three different lessons drawn from the passage:
Pradeau: If a legislator teaches a citizen anything more than what is needed to make a citizen more eager to obey the law, he commits the same mistake as a doctor who aims to teach medicine to his patient, rather than heal him.
Bobonich: Just as a doctor should teach as much medicine as he can to a patient, while healing him, so a legislator should teach as much about the law to the citizens as possible, while enjoining obedience.
Laks: Plato distinguishes a utopian from a practically attainable ideal: that citizens learn the rational foundations of law is a utopian ideal; that they be told enough so that they more willingly comply with the law is a practically attainable ideal.
Laks’ view seems an attractive middle position between Pradeau and Bobonich.
I should say that I remain perplexed by the passage and that, although I’m inclined to interpret in a certain way (see below), I have no settled view on it. I’m struck by how fluid and indefinite the argument around 856-860 appears. Plato seems to feint and shift in these pages much more than usual. Generally, I invite readers’comments on it.
Here is the passage in two translations, Jowett (given earlier) and Bobonich. I highlight what I regard as the crucial sentence for understanding the passage.
You have reminded me of a previous reflection of mine, how that none of the attempts hitherto made at legislation have ever been carried out rightly--as in fact we may infer from the instance before us. What do I mean to imply by this remark? It was no bad comparison we made when we compared all existing legislation to the doctoring of slaves by slaves. For one should carefully notice this, that if any of the doctors who practice medicine by purely empirical methods, devoid of theory, were to come upon a free-born doctor conversing with a free-born patient, and using arguments, much as a philosopher would, dealing with the course of the ailment from its origin and surveying the natural constitution of the human body,--he would at once break out into a roar of laughter, and the language he would use would be none other than that which always comes ready to the tongue of most so-called “doctors”: “You fool,” he would say, “you are not doctoring your patient, but schooling him, so to say, as though what he wanted was to be made, not a sound man, but a doctor.”
CLINIAS. And in saying so, would he not be right?
ATHENIAN. Possibly, provided that he should also take the view that the man who treats of laws in the way that we are now doing is schooling the citizens rather than legislating. Would he not seem to be right in saying that, too?
ATHENIAN. How fortunate we are in the conclusion we have now come to!
CLINIAS. What conclusion?
ATHENIAN. This,--that there is no need to legislate, [858a] but only to become students ourselves, and endeavor to discern in regard to every polity how the best form might come about, and how that which is the least elaborate possible. Moreover, we are now allowed, as it seems, to study, if we choose, the best form of legislation, or, if we choose, the least elaborate. So let us make our choice between these two.
CLINIAS. The choice we propose, Stranger, is an absurd one: we should be acting like legislators [858b] who were driven by some overpowering necessity to pass laws on the spot, because it is impossible for them to do so on the morrow.
Athenian: [W]hat pertains to the laying down of laws has never been worked out correctly in any way…We did not make a bad image, when we compared all those living under legislation that now exists to slaves being doctored by slaves. For one must understand this well: if one of those doctors who practices medicine on the basis of experience without the aid of theory should ever encounter a free doctor conversing with a free man who was sick—using arguments that came close to philosophizing, grasping the disease from its source, and going back up to the whole nature of bodies—he would swiftly burst out laughing and would say nothing other than what is always said about such things by most of the so-called doctors. For he would declare, ‘Idiot! You are not doctoring the sick man, you are practically educating him, as if what he needed were to become a doctor, rather than healthy!’
Kleinias: Would he not be speaking correctly when he said such things?
Ath.: Maybe—if at any rate, he thought besides that this man who goes through the laws in the way we are doing now, is educating the citizens, but not legislating.
[Quotation ends here.]
Here is the Greek (in SPIonic):
ou) kakw=j a)ph|ka/samen, o(/te dou/loij w(j i)atreuome/noij u(po\ dou/lwn a)ph|ka/zomen pa/ntaj tou\j nu=n nomoqetoume/nouj. eu)= ga\r e)pi/stasqai dei= to\ toio/nde, w(j ei) katala/boi pote/ tij i)atro\j tw=n tai=j e)mpeiri/aij a)/neu lo/gou th\n i)atrikh\n metaxeirizome/nwn e)leu/qeron e)leuqe/rw| nosou=nti dialego/menon i)atro/n, kai\ tou= filosofei=n e)ggu\j xrw/menon me\n toi=j lo/goij, e)c a)rxh=j te a(pto/menon tou= nosh/matoj, peri\ fu/sewj pa/shj e)panio/nta th=j tw=n swma/twn, taxu\ kai\ sfo/dra gela/seien a)\n kai\ ou)k a)\n a)/llouj ei)/poi lo/gouj h)\ tou\j peri\ ta\ toiau=t' a)ei\ proxei/rouj o)/ntaj toi=j plei/stoij legome/noij i)atroi=j: fai/h ga\r a)\n “w)= mw=re, ou)k i)atreu/eij to\n nosou=nta a)lla\ sxedo\n paideu/eij, w(j i)atro\n a)ll' ou)x u(gih= deo/menon gi/gnesqai”.
ou)kou=n le/gwn ta\ toiau=ta o)rqw=j a)\n le/goi;
ta/x' a)/n, ei) prosdianooi=to/ ge w(j o(/stij peri\ no/mwn ou(/tw diece/rxetai, kaqa/per h(mei=j ta\ nu=n, paideu/ei tou\j poli/taj a)ll' ou) nomoqetei=. a)=r' ou)=n ou) kai\ tou=t' a)\n pro\j tro/pou le/gein fai/noito;
eu)tuxe\j de\ h(mw=n to\ paro\n ge/gonen.
to\ poi=on dh/;
to\ mhdemi/an a)na/gkhn ei)=nai nomoqetei=n, a)ll' au)tou\j e)n ske/yei genome/nouj peri\ pa/shj politei/aj peira=sqai katidei=n to/ te a)/riston kai\ to\ a)nagkaio/taton, ti/na tro/pon a)\n gigno/menon gi/gnoito. kai\ dh\ kai\ to\ nu=n e)/cestin h(mi=n, w(j e)/oiken, ei) me\n boulo/meqa, to\ be/ltiston skopei=n, ei) de\ boulo/meqa, to\ a)nagkaio/taton peri\ no/mwn: ai(rw/meqa ou)=n po/teron dokei=.
geloi/an, w)= ce/ne, protiqe/meqa th\n ai(/resin, kai\ a)texnw=j w(/sper katexome/noij nomoqe/taij o(/moioi gignoi/meq' u(po\ mega/lhj tino\j a)na/gkhj h)/dh nomoqetei=n, w(j ou)ke/t' e)co\n ei)j au)/rion:
My inclination is to read the highlighted sentence in the following way. Plato’s interlocutors are agreeing that something like the slave doctor’s criticism would indeed have force against them, if they were truly engaged in legislation. But they’re not: so they are free to give reasons for the law beyond what would be practically needed for real legislation.
The phrase, “possibly, provided that he should also take the view”, in effect proposes a reciprocal agreement: “We’ll admit that the slave doctor’s criticism of the actual doctor (intent on actually healing) is correct, so long as the slave doctor admits, in turn, that an analogous criticism cannot be raised against us, who are, in fact, engaged in an investigation, rather than (real) legislation.”
That is to say, I’m inclined to read the passage as does Pradeau. (The distinction at 858a, between a utopian and a practically attainable ideal, on which Laks' view depends, would fall, I think, within the investigative project of the Laws.) Practial efficacy remains the standard by which instruction is justified, insofar as one is actually legislating.