- Consider when he lived, 427—347 BC. Little survives from so long ago.
- Consider what he did. He was a philosopher. He strove to think. Thinking is a spiritual act. Our senses cannot perceive a thought. We have difficulty conveying thought. Preserving a thought is even more difficult.
- Consider how we preserve our thoughts, in writing. What we write perishes easily if no one cares to keep what we have written.
So what was Plato’s legacy? Why does anything remain of him who lived so long ago?
PLATO, the great Athenian philosopher, was born in 427 B.C., and lived to the age of eighty. His literary activity may be roughly said to have extended over the first half of the 4th century B.C. His father’s name was Ariston, said to have been a descendant of Codrus; and his mother’s family, which claimed descent from Solon, included Critias, one of the thirty tyrants, and other well-known Athenians of the early 4th century B.C. That throughout his early manhood he was the devoted friend of Socrates, that in middle life he taught those who resorted to him in the grove named Academus, near the Cephisus, and there founded the first great philosophical school, that (with alleged interruptions) he continued to pre-side over the Academy until his death, are matters of established fact. (continued here (encyclopedia.jrank.org))
Plato was a teacher and writer. Plato taught others what he had learned about thinking, and those he taught preserved their memory both of him and what he wrote, and later generations did the same. Here is a description of Plato’s last written work.
In the Laws, Plato’s last work, the philosopher returns once again to the question of how a society ought best to be organized. Unlike his earlier treatment in the Republic, however, the Laws appears to concern itself less with what a best possible state might be like, and much more squarely with the project of designing a genuinely practicable, if admittedly not ideal, form of government. The founders of the community sketched in the Laws concern themselves with the empirical details of statecraft, fashioning rules to meet the multitude of contingencies that are apt to arise in the “real world” of human affairs. A work enormous length and complexity, running some 345 Stephanus pages, the Laws was unfinished at the time of Plato’s death. According to Diogenes Laertius (3.37), it was left written on wax tablets. (from here (iep.utm.edu))
Can you imagine writing a large composition on wax tablets. Today most of us compose on computers using word processing programs, and we consider that expensive and laborious. To share his thoughts with a small audience (one that appreciated what a gift it is to think), Plato labored much more mightily than most of us ever will.
Plato’s Laws is strangely reminiscent of the tasks Moses and later Joshua faced. Moses wrote the Mosaic Code. Joshua conquered and divided up the Promised Land by lots. Because designing the laws for a hypothetical Cretan colony of 5040 citizens is the pretext for the Laws, Plato includes a system for dividing up the property of the colony.
What follows is an excerpt from Plato’s Laws. This excerpt is also the basis for the question posed by the title of this post.
Further, the law enjoins that no private man shall be allowed to possess gold and silver, but only coin for daily use, which is almost necessary in dealing with artisans, and for payment of hirelings, whether slaves or immigrants, by all those persons who require the use of them. Wherefore our citizens, as we say, should have a coin passing current among themselves, but not accepted among the rest of mankind; with a view, however, to expeditions and journeys to other lands,—for embassies, or for any other occasion which may arise of sending out a herald, the state must also possess a common Hellenic currency. If a private person is ever obliged to go abroad, let him have the consent of the magistrates and go; and if when he returns he has any foreign money remaining, let him give the surplus back to the treasury, and receive a corresponding sum in the local currency. And if he is discovered to appropriate it, let it be confiscated, and let him who knows and does not inform be subject to curse and dishonour equally him who brought the money, and also to a fine not less in amount than the foreign money which has been brought back. In marrying and giving in marriage, no one shall give or receive any dowry at all; and no one shall deposit money with another whom he does not trust as a friend, nor shall he lend money upon interest; and the borrower should be under no obligation to repay either capital or interest. That these principles are best, any one may see who compares them with the first principle and intention of a state. The intention, as we affirm, of a reasonable statesman, is not what the many declare to be the object of a good legislator, namely, that the state for the true interests of which he is advising should be as great and as rich as possible, and should possess gold and silver, and have the greatest empire by sea and land;—this they imagine to be the real object of legislation, at the same time adding, inconsistently, that the true legislator desires to have the city the best and happiest possible. But they do not see that some of these things are possible, and some of them are impossible; and he who orders the state will desire what is possible, and will not indulge in vain wishes or attempts to accomplish that which is impossible. The citizen must indeed be happy and good, and the legislator will seek to make him so; but very rich and very good at the same time he cannot be, not, at least, in the sense in which the many speak of riches. For they mean by ‘the rich’ the few who have the most valuable possessions, although the owner of them may quite well be a rogue. And if this is true, I can never assent to the doctrine that the rich man will be happy—he must be good as well as rich. And good in a high degree, and rich in a high degree at the same time, he cannot be. Some one will ask, why not? And we shall answer—Because acquisitions which come from sources which are just and unjust indifferently, are more than double those which come from just sources only; and the sums which are expended neither honourably nor disgracefully, are only half as great as those which are expended honourably and on honourable purposes. Thus, if the one acquires double and spends half, the other who is in the opposite case and is a good man cannot possibly be wealthier than he. The first—I am speaking of the saver and not of the spender—is not always bad; he may indeed in some cases be utterly bad, but, as I was saying, a good man he never is. For he who receives money unjustly as well as justly, and spends neither nor unjustly, will be a rich man if he be also thrifty. On the other hand, the utterly bad is in general profligate, and therefore very poor; while he who spends on noble objects, and acquires wealth by just means only, can hardly be remarkable for riches, any more than he can be very poor. Our statement, then, is true, that the very rich are not good, and, if they are not good, they are not happy. But the intention of our laws was, that the citizens should be as happy as may be, and as friendly as possible to one another. And men who are always at law with one another, and amongst whom there are many wrongs done, can never be friends to one another, but only those among whom crimes and lawsuits are few and slight. Therefore we say that gold and silver ought not to be allowed in the city, nor much of the vulgar sort of trade which is carried on by lending money, or rearing the meaner kinds of live stock; but only the produce of agriculture, and only so much of this as will not compel us in pursuing it to neglect that for the sake of which riches exist—I mean, soul and body, which without gymnastics, and without education, will never be worth anything; and therefore, as we have said not once but many times, the care of riches should have the last place in our thoughts. For there are in all three things about which every man has an interest; and the interest about money, when rightly regarded, is the third and lowest of them: midway comes the interest of the body; and, first of all, that of the soul; and the state which we are describing will have been rightly constituted if it ordains honours according to this scale. But if, in any of the laws which have been ordained, health has been preferred to temperance, or wealth to health and temperate habits, that law must clearly be wrong. Wherefore, also, the legislator ought often to impress upon himself the question—’What do I want?’ and ‘Do I attain my aim, or do I miss the mark?’ In this way, and in this way only, he may acquit himself and free others from the work of legislation. (from here (gutenberg.org))
Think about those two sentences. “And if this is true, I can never assent to the doctrine that the rich man will be happy—he must be good as well as rich. And good in a high degree, and rich in a high degree at the same time, he cannot be.” Was Plato right? Does his explanation make sense? It is something to think about. Do you, as Plato did, love to think?