The Wisdom of the Statesman Part 10

The search for the Statesman continues. Last week you might recall that we finished off discussing whether or not the Statesman would be guided by some written text and the Stranger was emphatic that this wouldn’t be the case saying “anyone who had actually acquired the knowledge of kingship would never create obstacles for himself by writing down these laws we have referred to”. Clearly the dialogue is now heading in a different direction to what we might suppose.

To illustrate his point the Stranger offers the following example: let’s take the example of a physician, or even a gymnastic trainer, who intends to be abroad and away from those he is looking after for a considerable time, or so he believes. If he thought that the sick people, or those undergoing training, would not remember his instructions, would he write down some reminders for them, if wanted to? What would we say? And what if he were to come back again, having been abroad for less time than expected? Would he lack the courage to propose alternatives to those written instructions if  others turned out to be better for the sick people, because winds or something else from Zeus had somehow arisen unexpectedly in an unusual manner? Would he be stubborn and think that we should not step outside the ancient edicts once they have been set down, either by proposing alternatives himself or by the patient daring to act contrary to the written directions, as these are the principles of medicine and health, and whatever is done differently is unhealthy and is not based upon those skills? Or would everything of this sort, at least when it occurs in the case of knowledge and true skill in all subjects, render such ordinances completely and utterly ridiculous?

Str: Consider the case of the person who has written laws, or framed unwritten laws, concerning just and unjust behaviour, noble and base practices, good and bad actions, intended for herds of human beings, who are herded in their particular cities based upon the laws of these writers. Is it really not permissible for different instructions, at variance with these, to be issued by the person who has the relevant skill and has written them down, or someone else like him who arrives on the scene? Or would this prohibition, in truth, appear every bit as ridiculous as the previous one?

Y Soc: Of course it would.

Str: Now, do you know the argument that most people present in such a circumstance?

Y Soc: Nothing relevant comes to mind at the moment.

Str: Well, if someone realises that there are laws at variance with those of former generations but better, he may institute his laws once he has persuaded his own city in each case, but not otherwise.

Y Soc: What about that? Is it not the right way to proceed?

Str: Perhaps, but what if someone were to enforce the better course, without using persuasion? Tell me what the name of that enforcement will be. But no, not yet; answer in relation to the previous example first.

Y Soc: What are you referring to?

Str: Suppose some physician, in proper possession of the relevant skill, but without persuading the patient, were to compel a man, or even a woman or child, to do what is better in contravention of the written precepts; what will be the name of this kind of force? Won’t it be far removed from the error we described as “contrary to the relevant skill” and unhealthy? And the person who suffered such force may justifiably say anything at all about what happened, but may never say that he has suffered unskilled and unhealthy treatment at the hands of the physicians who forced them.

Y Soc: What you say is perfectly true.

Str: What then is the error that we refer to as being at variance with the skill of statesmanship? Isn’t it baseness, evil and injustice?

Y Soc: Entirely so.

Str: Well, what about those who have been forced, contrary to written edicts and traditions, to perform other actions, more just, better and more noble than those prescribed of old? What, for his part, could a critic of such behaviour say about such use of force, if he is to avoid becoming utterly laughable? He may say anything at all, as the occasion demands, provided he never says that those who were forced to act in that way, suffered baseness or evil or injustice at the hands of those who forced them.

Y Soc: Very true.

Str: But are the enforcements just, if the person who exerts the force is wealthy, and are they unjust, if he is poor? Or if the person, rich or poor, achieves something beneficial, either through persuasion or without persuasion, in conformity with the written laws or at variance with them, the truest definition of proper management of the city in this respect must surely be this: the one that a wise and good man will employ to manage the affairs of his subjects. Just as a helmsman, being constantly vigilant for the welfare of the ship and its sailors, preserves his fellow sailors, not by setting down written edicts, but by presenting his skill as law: so too, based upon the same approach as this, a constitution may   become a proper one on account of those who are able to rule in this way, since through their skill, they provide a force that is more powerful than the laws. And those who rule intelligently, no matter what they do, avoid error as long as they are vigilant of one major principle: that they always dispense perfect justice based upon reason and skill to the people of the city, and are able as far as possible, to preserve them and make them better people than they were?

We need no reminding that our current legal system through which we are all ruled is both ponderous and filled with error because it is impossible to apply fairly to all circumstances. Anyone who has visited a large legal practice would be aware of the huge volumes of written law that has been largely ineffective in ensuring a just and truthful society, yet we slavishly stick to this system because we lack the knowledge to impose something better even though we can see its limitations. This becomes more problematic in the administration of our internal being, where most of us are unable to follow the dictates of natural law because they are not written down: they need to be discovered through a process such as the one we’re currently following here. The Stranger reminds us of the reason as follows:

Str: No large number of people of any sort would ever be able to acquire this kind of knowledge, and manage the city on the basis of reason. Rather, it is in relation to something small, few, even the one, that we must seek for that single proper constitution, and we must designate the others as imitations thereof and, just as we stated a little earlier, some imitate it quite well, others quite badly.

Y Soc: How am I to understand what you have said? In fact I didn’t really understand your earlier statement about imitations either.

Str: And indeed, it would be no trivial matter if someone, having initiated this line of argument, were then to set it aside and not even develop it to demonstrate the error that is arising about this issue at the moment.

Y Soc: What sort of error?

Str: We need to look for the kind of thing that is not particularly familiar or easy to see, and we should endeavour to lay hold of it nevertheless. Come on then, consider this constitution we have described, the only correct one: you know that the other constitutions must have recourse to the written laws of this one, and be preserved in this way by acting in a manner that is praised nowadays, even though it is not entirely correct to do so.

Y Soc: What is it that is not entirely correct?

Str: The notion that no one in the city should dare to do anything at variance with the laws, and whoever dares to do so should be punished by death and all sorts of extreme penalties. And yet, this is entirely proper and appropriate as a second preference whenever there is a departure from the first, the one we have described just now. So let’s explain the manner in which this so-called second best system has come into being. Shall we?

Y Soc: Yes, certainly.

Str: Then let’s revert once more to the images, to which it has frequently been necessary to compare the kingly rulers being the noble helmsman, and the physician who is worth as much as a thousand others; yes, let’s see if we can construct some outline based upon the people themselves.

What follows is a rather long description of what happens when we start disregarding these written edicts and I found this fascinating as it aptly describes what happens when the masses rise up to challenge autocratic rule that has degenerated and become cruel and harsh. In recent history we have many examples of revolutions that have occurred to overthrow these autocratic rulers. The sad thing is that people don’t learn from history and what often happens is that the autocratic ruler is replaced by an even harsher and crueler dictator.

What should have become obvious to us so far is that we need to take the utmost care in selecting a Statesman and this cannot be approached by following the person who makes the most noise or whose speech is the most appealing or whose stature is remarkable. We need to dig deeper and firstly discover that inner presence within us that is always just and never alters and is unmoving. Only then would we have a hope of recognizing these qualities in someone else. And for this to occur we need a system to follow, and the Stranger will now outline this process using dialectic. But more of this next week.