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That the full scope and meaning of the discovery was
hidden from the eyes of the Greeks, is no reason why we should
grudge the glory that belongs to them for seizing the central
idea, from which the amplifications of riper times have pro-
ceeded. Many harsh things have been said of the social
incompetency of the Greeks practically, and that they were
socially incompetent is only too plain. Let us remember, how-
ever, that this was the price they paid for their insatiable intel-
lectual curiosity, and the resplendent intellectual achievements
to which it led ; and that the failure of their own organisation
(1) Grote's Greece, Chap. Ixviii. (vi. 115).


in stability, and in most other material points, except the free
play of individual intelligence which it encouraged, has been
amply redeemed for posterity by the precious secrets which
that freely playing intelligence was tlie means of unlocking.
The Greek free polities fell after a miserably short existence,
and they fell, because the conditions which led to their inces-
sant and unrestrained intellectual activity were fatal to that
social subordination in the individual, and that cohesion in the
many, without which communities inevitably decay. But in
surveying the history of the gradual evolution of humanity, this
political catastrophe sinks into profound insignificance, when we
count the advantages to mankind of which that was the cost.^

It would be more than superfluous here to enter into any
examination of the multitude of questions about Plato, into
which the historian of Greek thought, or of speculative philo-
sophy, or the commentator upon the Platonic dialogues, is

(1) In a previous essay some account has been given of the dislike and con-
tempt in which the Greeks were held by De Maisti-e (see p. 174). Comte, in his
later speculations, outdid even De Maistre in his disparagement of their services
to progress, intimating among other things that though it was unnecessary in the
Athenian magistrate to put Socrates to death, it was sufficiently natural. Socratis,
' une etroit genie, repoussait aveuglement I'essor scientifique an nom d'une
vague preoccupation morale.' {Politique Positive, ni. 343.) The reason of Comte's
aversion to Greek thinkers is their failure to subordinate I'esprit to le coeur. On
one of them only he places any value, ' the incomparable Aristotle ; ' but then how
could Aristotle himself have occupied his position in philosophy, if Socrates and
Plato had not pre)ft,red the way for him, at least by breaking up common
language for philosophic use, if by no other service ? The whole chapter (o. iv.
of vol. iii.) is very remarkable, and for its character may perhaps be compared to
the retrogressive and obscurantist spirit, in which the Plato of the Laws would
have punished by imprisonment and death, those whom the Plato of earlier
dialogues had stimulated to use their own minds with independence. It is pain-
ful, in such a connection, to have to question whether Greek speculative effort lias
ever been meanly valued by any one, who was also a sincere friend to the free-
dom of human intelligence ?


reasonably expected to enter. How far Plato was essentially a
sceptic, how far lie was a dogmatist ; to what extent he repre-
sents accurately the personality, method, convictions, either of
Socrates or of himself; whether any systematic and authori-
tatively expounded doctrine ought to be attributed to him ;
these and the other subjects of controversy among Platonic
students have a special interest of their own, but the difficulty
of arriving at positive results is too great, and the connection
of such conclusions with the present subject, even if they could
be assured, is too slight, to warrant a digression into what is
essentially the region of literary and personal history. One
thing only need be said, and this is, that whatever may be the
^ case with other branches of their manifold inquiries, in the
sphere of political philosophy at any rate, it is useless to search
the Platonic writings for any one coherent, positive, and
systematic, theory of social movement.

For one thing, with the exception of the Laws and the
Statesman, there are no purely and exclusively political treatises,
and the latter of these seems to partake more of the nature of a
prelusion in the art of logical division, than of a positive descrip-
tion ; while the former, if more or less systematic, is in many
points of cardinal importance, on which we shall have pre-
sently to dwell, directly at variance with the spirit and letter
of the political portion of the Bepuhlic. We may, however,
well be content with describing some of the various political
ideas, which were in circulation in the fourtl# century before
Christ, as struck in the Platonic or Socratic mint, without
being over solicitous whether or no they all fit in to a single
uniform system. Men are but shades of names, and much of
the labour that is devoted to the association of completed
schemes with these shadows, is as frivolous and unworthy, as it
is necessarily sterile. In such distant ages, where anything


like assurance about persons is impossible, it is only ideas that
are worth, pursuit and exploration, and artificial attempts to
force them into frames and moulds will not be persisted in by
rational men.

The most interesting point in connection with every social
thinker is his conception of the nature of what we should now
call the evolution of humanity, or the many- grooved historic
movement of society ; and, what this conception was with Plato,
we are unable to determine with any precise conclusiveness.
We can perceive that the problems, of which a conception of
this kind would have been the accepted solution, were all
present to him ; the questions, for example, what were the
beginnings of society ; what the forces which first modified and
have since continued to modify these early conditions ; whether
there is any order in these successive modifications. On each
of these fundamental points in social speculation there are
opinions hinted, or broadly stated, in one place or another in his
writings. That such questions should have presented them-
selves now for the first time, is the circumstance most worthy
of remark, apart from the interest which attaches to the specific

The explanation of the genesis of a community in which
Plato comes closest to the historic method, and it is very close,
is to be found in the Republic. * The growth of a City, I
fancy,' says Socrates, ' must spring from this, that each of us
individually is not self-sufficing, but has a great many wants.
It is thus that, on account of these numerous wants, each
person invites the aid of others to meet one requirement and
another, and so when a number of people have been got
together in a single abiding-place, as comrades and helpmates,
we call such a jjlace a City. It arises from our natural


requirements.' ^ The speaker then goes on to trace the rise
of the division of labour in the same spirit. The roots of this
are found in the three facts, that different men are born with
different gifts and aptitudes ; that men succeed better when
they confine themselves to a single craft, than when they spread
themselves over many ; and that, inasmuch as work often
demands attention at a given moment, at tlie risk of becoming
good for nothing, the craftsman ought to be entirely at its beck
and call, which he could hardly be if he were engaged in
various employments.^ Thus the second condition of a City
arises, diversity and specialisation of craftsmanship.

The City, however, is not likely to be planted in such a
situation as to be able to meet all its own wants without a
certain amount of importation ; and it cannot procure imports,
except in exchange for commodities of its own ; it must there-
fore produce a superfluity, of the right sort of goods and in the
right quantity, to meet the wishes of those from whom it needs
other goods in return. Hence the necessity for ever larger
numbers of producers of various sorts, for merchants, and for
sailors, as some of the trafiic will pretty certainly be maritime ;
for markets, dealers, and a currency.^

This, we are informed, would be something like the normal
tj^pe of the healthy development of a community. But modi-
fying conditions of a more equivocal sort soon spring up, still

(1) Sep., II. p. 369. B. ylyviTai roivvv TroXig, tTrtiSi] Tvy\dpii iijxwv sicaffrog ovk
avrapKTjc, dWa TroWuiv ivSo'jg. . . . Troiqad Se avTijV i) j'jj-UTtpa XP*'"-

(2) Hep., II. 370.

(3) Hep., II. 371. Plato's phrase for money, vofxiafia ^vfi^oKov rijg aXXayr^e
suiKa, is less full and complete than Aristotle's excellent definition {FoliL, I.
ix. 8) — dib irpoQ rag aWayag rotovrov n avrkQtvTo Trpbg afag avroiig SiSovai Kai
Xafi^avtiv, o tSjv j^prjalfnov avTO bv «'x* '"')'' XP''^*" ibp-iTaxfipi-crTov Trpbg to
Ki]V, TO fiiv irpCjTov airXtZg opicrO^v fxtykQn Kcii (jraOyut^, to ci TiKtvToiov Kai
XopaKTtipa iiril5a\X6vTUJv, 'iva ctiroXvay Trjg /utrpi/o-twc; aiirovg' b yap xapaKTi/p
iriOt] tijV TrntTov (Tijuthw.


resting on the wants of men, only wants no longer simple and
natural. Luxurious desires and habits are indulged, and to
satisfy these, encroachments on the lands of neighbourino-
commmiities are necessarily resorted to ; these communities
retaliate ; and so wars take place, entailing the necessity of
fighting men, and so forth.^

The meritorious elements in this conception consist, first, In
the perfect rationality or posltlvity of its method, which seeks
for an explanation of a social fact simply in its own conditions ;
and, next, in its attribution of all the more rudimentary modifica-
tions of a society to the rudimentary wants and inclinations of
our nature. To understand the merit of this, we have only to
compare with it the strange futilities of Divine Eight, on the
one side, and Social Compact, on the other, which divided
European thought on the subject in subsequent times.

By way of illustrating the former of these characteristics, —
the recognition of the origin of institutions in a convenient
adaptation of social arrangements to circumstances, — we may
cite Socrates's account of the way iii v/hich a class of stationary
retail dealers or middlemen would be likely to sjjrlng up ; first,
because of the inconvenience of the producer having to spend his
time in seeking purchasers, and, second, because persons of un-
usual physical weakness would naturallj'' perceive that, by sta-
tionary trading between producer and consumer, they would both
be obviating this inconvenience, and at the same time be putting
themselves to the best use of which they were capable.^ Con-
trasting this simple and reasonable explanation with Adam
Smith's discovery of the principle, which gives occasion to
the division of labour. In our Inborn human disposition to ex-
change,^ we may measure the distance between the metaphysical,

(1) Eep., 11. 373. (2) Rep., II. 371.

(3) ' The division of labour is the nece.'sary, though very alow and gradual


or abstract, explanation of the facts of society as springing
from imagined qualities of human nature, and their positive
explanation as the result of a constant interaction between
men's faculties and the demands and accommodation of sur-
rounding circumstances.

The same perfect rationality may be noticed, also, in the
account of the way in which a community would be likely to
involve itself in war, through luxury and the extraordinary
necessity, which would come with luxury, for new lands for
pasture and agriculture : though all philosophers now are agreed
that war precedes the formation of political societies, whether,
like Comte, we attribute war to the carnivorous nature of man,
or explain it by an inherent destructive tendency, which man
does not share with the brutes, who are only destructive because
they are hungry.*

The deficiencies of the conception are quite as plain as its
merits. There is no germ in it of the idea of successive stages
of human progress from the original state of nature, each stage
having a corresponding form and organisation, or quasi-organi-
sation, of the community which is passing through it. If the
student were to forget that he is now contemplating the infancy
of social speculation, he would find it wonderful that Plato,
having recognised the natural wants of man as the source and
bond of the social union, and having perceived that these wants
are not fixed, but grow by what they feed upon, and having,
moreover, shown a perfect appreciation of the active connection
between wants and external circumstances, should not have

consequence of a certain propensity in tiviman nature, . . . the propensity to truck,
barter, and exchange one thing for another.' — Wealth of Nations, Bk. I. c. ii.

Turgot, less metaphysically ; ' Le besoin reciproque a introduit I'echange de ce
qu'on avait centre ce qu'on n'avait pas.' — Sur la Formation et la Distribution des
Richesses, § xxxiii.

(1) See the opening of the Platonic Laws.



carried liis imagination further back, and seen tliat the first
term of the series lies long before the epoch of the husbandman,
the tailor, and the shoemaker, each practising his own craft,
and that war is likely as often as not to be the first, and not the
last, necessity or state of man, as it is of all other animals. In
short, the idea of development is only grasped in a very
partial manner. There is a certain absoluteness in the con-
ception, where it ought to have been received as strictly relative
and conditional. Plato here assumes, without discussion or
reflection, a given condition as rudimentary, which is in fact a
condition comparatively advanced. A tribe in the fishing and
hunting stage seems to be wholly ignorant of the division of
labour, even where physical difference of sex might be expected
to have suggested it, and it is not until the primitive race has
emerged from this state, in consequence of some change in the
soil or the fauna of the country in which they happen to find
themselves, that the ' want of a great many things ' begins to
make itself a moving force. Granting a certain state of intelli-
gence and social experience, then Plato's account is satisfactory
enough. But this particular state is not the starting-point, as
Socrates takes it to be.

Another defect in the conception is equally visible. It is
not merely our wants which lead to the social union, but, still
more directly, our inborn social impulses, the products or
essential conditions of our physical organisation. Aristotle was
distinctly in advance of Plato, as Plato stands in this particular
exposition. ' By nature,' he says, * we all have in us the
impulse to join in this union.' ^ This is the initial force.
The gradual growth of a variety of wants, corresponding to the

(1) uirist. Polit., I. ii. 15. (piinti fiiv ovv r) bpfiri tv iraaiv stti rr/v rbiavrriv
Koivwviav. Not, as Adam Smith says, a opfXTj tni t)]v dWayliv, which is
strictly derivative from the other.


gradual modification of social circumstances, is what determines
the direction of this force, and imposes upon it a given form.

It should be said, however, on Plato's behalf, that in the
famous myth in the Protagoraa we may perhaps trace some
discernment of the truth of the social quality being instinc-
tive in man. Hermes carrying Justice and Moderation down
to mortal men, asks Zeus whether these two gifts are to be dis-
tributed imiversally, or only to a few special persons, as the
gift of healing is given, because one physician is enough for a
whole group of people. ' Let these two gifts be distributed to all,'
Zeus replies ; ' for cities would never come into existence, if
only a few individuals partook of these gifts, as is the case with
other arts.'^ This, after all, is the equivalent expression for the
truth which Aristotle states in more real and scientific form.

And if we consider the genesis of specific social virtues, else-
where Plato shows a very exact appreciation of the conditions
which engender and foster them. In the Rej^uhUc, for example,
Socrates, confuting Thrasymachus, points out that even robbers
feel the necessity of justice in their dealings with one another,
because they know that without it they could not succeed in
their enterprises.^ In other words, convenience or expediency
dictates the shape or mode of the virtue — justice, loyalty, or
faithfulness. The capacity for its practice, the faculty of sociality,
essential for even the most temporary unions, which Socrates
does not inquire about, is the universally allotted gift of Zeus,
or, as Aristotle puts it, an impulse which exists in all by nature.
It must be remembered, however, that Aristotle is stronger
and more definite on the necessity of this spontaneous social
impulse, as a factor in the formation of a community. This is

(1) Protag., 322. d. o'v ya^ av ykvoivTo noKtic, el oXiyoi avrwv ftirty^oitv

CJfTTTtj) ci.W(i>v TtXl'uilV.

(2) Plato, Rep., I. 351.


one of tlie instances which Platonic persons who have not read
Plato overlook, where the idol of the intuitionists is less of a
believer in innate impulses than Aristotle.

In the Laws, believed to have been composed by Plato in his
old age, we find another and, in some respects, a more remark-
able account of the growth of societies, than this which we have
just been considering in the Republic. In the last-named
treatise, which is also so much better known to most readers
than almost any other Platonic piece, it must always be borne
in mind that the political matter is strictly incidental. The
Repxiblic is essentially a treatise on morals. Ethically its object
would seem to be to surround Justice with such recommenda-
tions as would make its practice desirable, independently of
the consequences which might flow from it in the way of public
repute, wealth, and power, which the current teaching insisted
on as its sole persuasive. The acute pleading of Adeimantus
points out the dangerous tendency of such teaching, for he
shows how these external consequences might follow an unde-
served character for justice, quite as certainly as they do the
real possession and actual practice of it.^ He therefore invites
Socrates to place a virtue so precious and so exalted on a
securer base, and this base, or supplementary consolation, is
eventually fixed in the supposed fact that a man is happier
intrinsically for being just, quite apart from extrinsic rcAvards,
just in the same way as he is happier for being healthy, apart
from the external advantages which his health may enable him
to procure. The amount of truth which there may be in this
position, it is not within our province here to examine. But
critics have been led into such great injustice to the author of
the Republic, by insisting on regarding it exclusively, or prin-

(1) Bcp., II. 362—367.


cipally, as a constructive political essay, tliat it is most
important to remember the true nature of this famous dialogue.
The ideal state is here an incident ; in the Politics of Aristotle,
on the contrary, the construction of the ideal state is the
designed and express object of deliberation. So it is also in the
Laws of Plato, in which the constitution is devised and dis-
cussed in compliance with the invitation of Kleinias, who
informs his companion that he is one of a body of ten, appointed
to found a new colony at a hitherto unsettled point in Crete.^

In this connection we may notice, in passing, a circumstance
which must naturally have given an impulse to the Greek
fancy for constructing political Utopias. Attention has been
called more than once to the influence which was exercised by
the extraordinary institutions of Sparta, in emboldening the
speculations of the Greek theorisers upon government and
society.^ It was difficult for any theorist to dream of an
amount of power, for the rulers of his ideal state, that was not
more than realised in the system which Lycurgus had estab-
lished in Sparta in times of immemorial antiquity, which had
been implicitly and imswervingly submitted to by many gene-
rations of Spartan citizens, and which had given their state a
permanence and steadiness such as no other community had
rivalled. ' The austerest rule of any association,' it has been
justly said, ' the most violent reforms decreed by the National
Convention, the harmonic Utopias of the Owenists, and in recent
times, the adventurous preachings of Saint-Simonism, have
nothing to compare with the laws of Lycurgus in point of
hardihood and originality^ They seem to be the dream of a
visionary, rather than the fruit of the meditations of a states-
man, and yet they had a prolonged existence and penetrated

(1) Legg., iii. 702. c.

(2) Grote'« I'lao, iii. pp. 209-10.


sufficiently deep into the manners of a celebrated nation to take
a permanent place in the history of science.'^

To this encouraging influence, I think we may add another,
to be found in the Grecian practice, illustrated by this very
case of Kleinias, of sending out bodies of colonists to found
new communities, headed by commissioners who should fix the
site, plan the streets, and frame the ordinances of a constitution.
Plato and Aristotle have constantly been reproached, and in
one sense deservedly, with making too little allowance for the
working of long established sentiment and custom, and starting
from a platform cleanly swept and void. For this attitude,
however, they had the excellent excuse that such a start was
practically made, every time a band of settlers went forth from
the mother country to found a colony in some distant spot,
isolated from familiar influences, and associated with no pre-
existing order which they were bound to respect. They
carried with them, it is true, in their own characters the ideas,
beliefs, and sentiments in which they had been trained ; but a
theorist might be pardoned for assimiing that the blankness
and unfamiliarity of surrounding circumstances, on the one
hand, and the strong will of a philosophical lawgiver, on the
other, might readily be the means of reducing the resistance of
previous usage to so low a degree, as to leave the formation of
the new institutions a process as nearly arbitrary, as the con-
structor of Utopias had any occasion to postulate. For instance,
the precepts which Aristotle lays down for the construction of
his ideal state might not unfairly be described as practical
advice tp commissioners, starting at the head of an expedition
to found a rich colony, and not a mere city in the land of the
fabled Hyperboreans.^ This consideration, then, in addition to

(1) Blanqui's ^!.'!/. de I' Econoniie Politique, i. 48.

(2) See the Fourth Rook of the Politics, from chapter iv.

Y 2


tliat wliicli Mr. Grote has justly stated, namely, that Sparta
exhibited a spectacle far more strange and extraordinary than
the wildest theorist would dare to invent, may mitigate the
sense of unreality with which these speculations are surrounded
to the modern vision, while they partly reconcile us to what
would otherwise be the flagrant philosophical error, of sup-
posing that a constitution can be planted full-grown, without
reference to the inherited idiosyncrasies of individuals, or the
foregoing circumstances of the community.

To return from this parenthesis to the Platonic conception
of the natural history of society which is found in the Laws,
and which differs in several respects from that in the Rej)uhlic.
In the first place it is free from the defect, which has been
already indicated in the previous conception, of omitting to
take into account the successive stages through which the tribe
has to pass on its way to the settled life of the town. The
nameless Athenian, who is the chief expositor in the dialogue,
lays down no theory upon the first beginning of social life, and
appears unable to grasp the idea of there ever having been such
a beginning. He does not get beyond the notion of cycles or
periodoi, whose commencement and end are marked by some

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 25 of 29)