01 June 2007

Autonomy without Liberty?

Does moral autonomy for individuals imply also their economic, social and political autonomy? Must a concern for the first carry with it a concern also for the others? Luc Brisson would answer "yes" to both of these questions--which then provides the basis for an ingenious critique Bobonich.

Bobonich holds (in Plato's Utopia Recast) that Plato's political thought undergoes a radical shift between the Republic in the Laws. In the Republic, Plato is concerned simply that citizens (i.e. besides the Guardians) do what is right, regardless of whether they understand the reasons for what they do, and regardless of whether this makes them virtuous and happy. In the Laws, he is concerned, rather, that all citizens understand and rationally embrace the reasons they are doing what they do, so that thus they will be both virtuous and happy. Bobonich characterizes this as Plato's newfound concern for "autonomy", and he says that this new concern brings Plato much closer to us, in our political thoughts and aspirations.

Brisson replies first that it is anachronistic to attribute a concern for "autonomy" to Plato. He's right about that, of course (see this earlier post). But I find Brisson's second argument more interesting.

Brisson reasons that autonomy is a kind of self-determination: it's good that someone grasp for himself the reasons for his action, precisely because he can thereby structure and determine his own actions. Thus, autonomy requires that a person be given scope to structure and determine his own actions in matters of importance. And thus also: we should be reluctant to attribute a concern for autonomy to a political theorist who did not allow citizens scope to structure and determine their own actions in matters of importance.

Brisson then carefully examines Plato's provisions for the economy, the family, and political authority in the Laws and concludes that the economic, familial and political life of the society envisaged by the Laws is so tightly constrained by the imposition of ideal policies, that it allows almost no scope for individual decision or self-determination. And certainly Plato shows little concern for allowing that sort of scope; that is not what is of interest to him.

So then, what is the sense of attributing such a concern to Plato? Some representative remarks of Brisson:

As regards economic life:

It is the allocation of a share that makes a person a citizen. This share can therefore not be considered private property, but rather the undivided and inalienable property of the city; the citizen is only the smallholder of the share that has been allocated to him; that is, he is a sharecropper. He can neither sell his share, nor exchange it, nor even replace it with another one (98).

As regards social life:
...society in general and the family in particular are strongly hierarchical... As far as the family is concerned, it is valued only as a means for preserving the share.... The individual, then, definitely lacks genuine indpendence in the context of the family, and the family itself is not independent with regard to the city (105-6).

As regards political life:
...in the Laws the Assembly and Council are deprived of their legislative and judicial role, as well as their power of control, in order to transfer these powers to the magistrates. In addition, and above all, the Assembly and Council have nothing to say on the definition of the city's goals. ... In short, power no longer resides in the discourse which, particularly at Athens, unfolds at the Assembly and the courts, but in the knowledge possessed and cultivated by the members of a Council established by law, which escapes all control (107). Etc.


Anonymous said...

Socrates shows some concern about liberty or freedom in the Republic; one of the marks against the tyrannical man and city is that they are the most servile.

And (of course) he cares there about fraternity too!

Equality? Well, proportionate equality, not to each the same, but to each his due--that's the undergirding of the entire thing.

More seriously: do you know of any good studies of liberty or freedom in the Republic?