Sunday, June 27, 2004

Iraq and Plato's Laws: Building the Second Best City

"Anyone who uses reason and experience will recognize that a second-best city is to be constructed %85 That city and that constitution are first, and the laws are best, where the old proverb holds as much as possible throughout the whole city: it is said that the things of friends really are in common." (Plato, Laws 739A3-740C3)

In this famous passage, the Athenian Stranger in Plato's Laws informs his partners in dialogue that they are exploring and describing how to create not the ideal city, but the second-best city, for that is what they should do in building their new city on Crete. Those who are not blinded by ideology, those who can use reason and have experience can plainly see that the ideal city is not possible given the failings of human nature; indeed to attempt the construction of the first-best city will lead to corruptions and great evils. The first, best city, the Athenian says, is that where throughout the entire polis property is held communally. While ideal, this is foolish and impossible -- something best left to the imagination, or perhaps reserved for the transcendent city. It is the arrangement of property contrived in The Republic (at least as to the first two classes of citizens), a discussion where Socrates (and significantly not the Athenian Stranger) was embarking on a different kind of mission from that in the Laws: Socrates was searching for the meaning of justice for men individually through the analogy of the city, justice writ large. From comparing the ideal arrangements of the Republic's polis, justice was to be found and then reduced to guide the individual conscience. Thus the Republic was never really meant to be attempted -- the best possible city that can actually be brought intexistencece, at least in our mundane sphere, is the second-best, that in the Laws.

Thus in the Laws, Plato, through the Athenian, expresses what has become the dominant theme of modern American conservatism: that pragmatic, anti-ideological point of view which sees Utopia as dangerous and knows the place of men as against gods and devils. It is the anti-communist impulse that recognizes the danger in promoting man to a divine position, or promoting nature and lesser creations above man. It is a recognition of our own limits, and our own temptation to corruption. It is the realization that government's greatest goal is to do no harm while encouraging virtue to flourish. Plato saw all of this nearly 2,400 years ago, nothing has really changed save the deadliness of our weapons and therefore the scale of danger presented by refusing to understand our own human flaws.

Liberals would do well to remember these teachings of Plato, and try not to fall pray to the temptation to believe too much in our progression beyond the moral state of classical man. We have done a fair job of constructing that best truly possible but second-best city here in America, and we are currently attempting to do the same for a foreign people, a task not totally unlike that of the Athenian stranger. For while the men of Crete and Athens there had different cultures and different nationalities, they shared what all of us share, the reality of the Good and of Justice, realities that do not change. They shared the same human drives and failings, and thus the best and second-best city for an Athenian was the same at some level as for those who hailed from Crete. There is hope in Iraq if transcendent Good is allowed to cut through dogma enough to shine on that part of the Iraqi people which yearns for the same things we do, values the same things all men do. Even while evil exists and attempts to thwart us in our task, we should be heartened by the desperation evil men currently show, the gravitation to Iraq of every brand of evildoer and fanatic, for they come to fight us because they see us cutting through their dogma, letting Good shine through. They know that if we succeed in building the second-best city, they and their plans for the region are doomed to failure.

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