Plato and Our Constitutions
Plato’s famous work the Republic is an effort to create a good government based on abstract ideas, something very distasteful to Southerners, who value historical continuity and experience over private philosophizing. However, that does not mean it has nothing at all within it that we can learn from and apply to our own political situation today here in the Southland and in the rest of the union, for quite a bit of that work is based on Plato’s observations of mankind’s actual behavior in history rather than simple speculations.
First we must note something that Niccolo Machiavelli says in his Discourses, mainly that revolutions in government usually lead to an overreaction to the problem that caused them rather than to a balanced, stable solution. This is what has happened here in the States. The British colonists, unhappy with certain policies of King and Parliament, instead of working to reform the system from within, threw off their authority and set up governments with weak executives and judges and strong legislatures. Some of the new governments (Virginia and the Articles of Confederation, to name two) even had their legislatures choose their chief executive magistrates. Although some of these peculiarities are no longer with us, the mindset that gave rise to them continues today in giving to voters in general and the representatives they elect in particular the bulk of the governing power.
It is here that Plato has something to say to us. In his description of government, he uses the analogy of the human soul:
In mapping out the constitution for his utopian society or state, Plato starts out with a schematic description of the human soul. Every soul, according to him, is composed of three parts: bodily desires and appetites, “spirited emotions” like ambition and courage, and finally the faculty of knowledge and reason. In a healthy individual all three parts fulfill their proper function. Bodily desires and appetites secure the physical survival of a person, the spirited emotions inspire his more far-reaching plans and projects, and the intellectual faculties make sure that all enterprises remain reasonable and under rational control. Plato lays great stress on the disciplining function of reason. Without the self-discipline imposed by reason a person may easily turn into something like a self-destructive glutton, or into a person carried away by foolish emotions and thoughtless ambitions. Informed reason, according to Plato, is the faculty best suited to make all the right and necessary decisions in a person’s life.
The utopian society described in the Republic has a similar tripartite structure as the human soul. Corresponding to the bodily desires and appetites of the soul is the class of people who are involved in the economy of a state. This class constitutes the vast majority of the people, and it comprises such diverse groups as craftsmen, farmers, merchants, manufacturers, and money changers or bankers. Plato classifies all of them as “lovers of money.”
Corresponding to the spirited emotions in the soul is the much smaller class of the armed forces, the class of professional warriors that is responsible for the safety of the community. Plato calls them “lovers of honor.” Their main desire is to gain fame and admiration by serving their fellow citizens—for whom, in extreme situations, they are willing to sacrifice their lives as well as their material possessions.
Corresponding to the faculty of reason is the smallest class of people—scientists, scholars, high-level experts, and similar sophisticates. Plato calls them “lovers of wisdom,” i. e., “philosophers.” Their most passionate interests are understanding and knowledge, and their greatest pleasure a lively life of the mind.
--Jorn K. Bramann
Out of fear of oppression by a monarchy and/or oligarchy, the peoples of the States have placed the greatest governing powers in the hands, according to Plato’s reasoning, of those most ill-equipped to use them well: the working class, the ‘lovers of money’. This is not to say that this class should have no power in government at all. On the contrary, as Edmund Burke, G. K. Chesterton, and others have noted, this class can act as a powerful check on a wayward elite because of the common sense and tradition deeply ingrained within many of them. But it is nonetheless true that they can be led astray all too often by demagogues, especially today when propaganda techniques have been honed to a level of perfection unknown in the past by years of careful studying and by new technology:
If people did not naturally have the disposition they display in a dysfunctional democracy, other people would not be able to exploit and mislead them the way they do. Ruling elites do not create popular ignorance and apathy, a defender of Plato might say, they only use it for their own purposes--in the same way in which a seller of dubious merchandise does not create lack of buyer discretion, but simply exploits that deficiency.
So it is not unreasonable to say that the current distribution of powers in the constitutions of the States and of the union is tilted in the wrong direction. More must be done to restore the powers of the other two classes of society, the warrior/service aristocracy and the philosophers.
The South at one time excelled in making men fit for the first of those two, the aristocracy. All she must do to regain that excellence is to reincorporate the necessary elements from her past that made it possible. Charles Sydnor elaborates well enough on that, without any comment from us, so we will go on to the second class mentioned, the philosophers.
The philosopher-kings of Plato share a pretty fair resemblance to hereditary Christian kings. The traits of the two are identical:
For Plato, philosophers make the ideal rulers for two main reasons. First, they know what is good. Second, they do not want to rule (esp. 520e–521b).
--Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The hereditary Christian king, by virtue of the education he receives in his royal upbringing, and especially because of the Grace bestowed upon him by the Holy Ghost when he is anointed as king, has a firm grasp of what is good. And by virtue of the ‘accident of birth’ (which is another way of saying the ‘Providence of God’), he is not of the class of men who lust after power. In other words, power has sought him out, not the other way around.
The element of kingship has been missing from the union since the colonial era ended. The judiciary has attempted to fill this void, clothing its behavior in a sort of regal air (which makes sense, for judges have often been considered an extension of the king’s justice), but since judicial appointments in the current system are the offspring of elected politicians (and others are elected directly nowadays), they are unable to do so adequately. The judges are not quite independent enough from the passions of the working-class people to comprise a political class separate from them.
The written constitution itself is also an attempted replacement for the king, a way to protect the integrity of the laws from corruption by favoring various interest groups. However, this involves a contradiction that cannot be overcome. If the people are the writers of their own fundamental law, of their own restraints, then they can simply rewrite it whenever it pleases them in order to remove some obstacle it has placed in their path. The great barricades of the written constitution are easily breached.
It is the same as an alcoholic who goes into a bar with a piece of paper in his pocket on which he has written, ‘I will not get drunk.’ That paper is nearly meaningless; it might prick the conscience, but it is powerless in itself to prevent the evil act of drunkenness, even though it is written by his own will and by his own hand. It has no power in itself to restrain. What he needs is a friend to turn him away from the bar. The king is one of those friends for the political body.
The aforementioned Sir Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, says that one of the real rights of man is to be told ‘No’ when it is necessary:
Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom. Among these wants is to be reckoned the want, out of civil society, of a sufficient restraint upon their passions. Society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should frequently be thwarted, their will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection. This can only be done by a power out of themselves, and not, in the exercise of its function, subject to that will and to those passions which it is its office to bridle and subdue. In this sense the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.
Since the peoples of the States and their governments have had no ‘power out of themselves’ (i.e., an hereditary king and/or an hereditary aristocracy) to check their passions, there is now trillions in debt, non-stop wars, corporate welfare, boondoggles galore, and so on. This is where a king can be extremely valuable, able to step in at some point in the political process and stop abuses (through executive veto powers or as a court of final appeal, e.g.):
When former president Theodore Roosevelt visited Emperor Franz Joseph in 1910 and asked him what he thought the role of monarchy was in the twentieth century, the emperor reportedly replied: “To protect my peoples from their governments” (quoted in both Thesen and Purcell 2003).
Even further, the Christian king has traditionally been the ally of the plain folk, protecting them against selfish wealthy oligarchs (whether nobles, bureaucrats, bankers, or what have you) who would betray the traditions of the country, or even the independence of the folk itself, if it meant they would gain personally from it. Dr Matthew Johnson has written on this extensively with regard to Eastern Europe.
For an example from Western Europe, we may turn to the deep heart of the motherland of Dixie in southwestern England, to Wessex, and to the Holy Orthodox King Alfred the Great of England, who reigned from 871 to 899 A.D. In Bishop Asser’s Life of King Alfred, written in 893, he describes the justice of King Alfred in these words:
105. Alfred Judges the Poor with Equity.
When all these things were properly arranged, the king, eager to hold to the half of his daily service, as he had vowed to God, and more also, if his ability on the one hand, and his malady on the other, would allow him, showed himself a minute investigator of the truth in all his judgments, and this especially for the sake of the poor, to whose interest, day and night, among other duties of this life, he was ever wonderfully attentive. For in the whole kingdom the poor, besides him, had few or no helpers; for almost all the powerful and noble of that country had turned their thoughts rather to secular than to divine things: each was more bent on worldly business, to his own profit, than on the common weal.
106. His Correction of Unjust and Incompetent Judges.
He strove also, in his judgments, for the benefit of both his nobles and commons, who often quarreled fiercely among themselves at the meetings of the ealdormen and sheriffs, so that hardly one of them admitted the justice of what had been decided by these ealdormen and sheriffs. In consequence of this pertinacious and obstinate dissension, all felt constrained to give sureties to abide by the decision of the king, and both parties hastened to carry out their engagements. But if any one was conscious of injustice on his side in the suit, though by law and agreement he was compelled, however reluctant, to come for judgment before a judge like this, yet with his own good will he never would consent to come. For he knew that in that place no part of his evil practice would remain hidden; and no wonder, for the king was a most acute investigator in executing his judgments, as he was in all other things. He inquired into almost all the judgments which were given in his absence, throughout all his dominion, whether they were just or unjust. If he perceived there was iniquity in those judgments, he would, of his own accord, mildly ask those judges, either in his own person, or through others who were in trust with him, why they had judged so unjustly, whether through ignorance or malevolence — that is, whether for the love or fear of any one, the hatred of another, or the desire of some one's money. At length, if the judges acknowledged they had given such judgment because they knew no better, he discreetly and moderately reproved their inexperience and folly in such terms as these: 'I greatly wonder at your assurance, that whereas, by God's favor and mine, you have taken upon you the rank and office of the wise, you have neglected the studies and labors of the wise. Either, therefore, at once give up the administration of the earthly powers which you possess, or endeavor more zealously to study the lessons of wisdom. Such are my commands.' At these words the ealdormen and sheriffs would be filled with terror at being thus severely corrected, and would endeavor to turn with all their might to the study of justice, so that, wonderful to say, almost all his ealdormen, sheriffs, and officers, though unlearned from childhood, gave themselves up to the study of letters, choosing rather to acquire laboriously an unfamiliar discipline than to resign their functions. . . .
Apart from the rebuke of the king, to help officials, elected or appointed, in our own day increase the wisdom and virtue with which they govern, there is the idea of T. S. Eliot, to pair each one of them with a poet - an idea surely congenial to the Southern temperament.
While some of what has been written above could apply to the union as a whole, most of it is applicable mainly to the South. This is as it should be. There is little chance that any set of reforms would be acceptable to all the regions making up the union. What do West Coast New Agers and radical environmentalists have in common with Midwest Lutherans and South Florida Venezuelan and Cuban exiles? One of the regions of India is about to test the secession waters; perhaps one in Indonesia, too. There is no reason the sections of the united States shouldn’t go ahead and try it, also (other than Yankee fantasies about an indispensable, indivisible, übermensch messiah nation).
One of the major errors of Yankee Americanism has been to idealize the middle class. In that ideology, all hereditary nobility is evil (and even outlawed! See Article I, Section 9, last clause of the u. S. Constitution), as is anything resembling poverty. But by lopping off the nobility, by anathematizing the poor, the States have put themselves in a terrible position. For when the written constitutions do not correspond to the unwritten constitutions of the peoples (i.e., their habits, customs, traditions, and so on), then sorrow and turmoil will come upon them. And there has yet to be a people without a hierarchy of classes, even if it is something as simple as St-King Alfred’s ‘praying men, fighting men and working men’ (from his translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, included in Alfred the Great, translators Keynes and Lapidge, Penguin Books, 2004, p. 132).
But with the help of the Ancient Greek and Roman writers like Plato, and Christian writers from every age of the Orthodox Church’s life, the South and the rest of the States can straighten out these deformities in their constitutions so that they include the whole people - the poor, middling yeomen, nouveau riche wealthy businessmen, nobles, the king, monastics, clergy - letting each class participate to the extent which it ought in public life, which will in turn bring about some much needed harmony for the various ethnoi living within the boundaries of the States.