Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Platonic Drinking Laws

One would be hard pressed to find a modern scholar digging the fields of the philosophy of law who would pin his career on what Plato considered a primary subject of serious study in his last and longest dialogue entitled, The Laws. It is as if out of the patheon of laws that Plato could have considered, the first activity which he chose to consider because it is connnected to all things social, could conceivably be socially regulated and for which only a proper training and education would allow the community to flourish, was drinking. This is the elder Plato without the mouthpiece of Socrates but who nevertheless has his charm, and attempts to persuade his listeners in the most solicitous fashion, how drinking has more benefits than detriments to society if it is part of a wider social programme of proper education aiming towards aimable friendship. At the end of Book II, however, the Athenian (Plato's mouthpiece), abruptly ends the discourse on proper drinking laws by laying down Draconian drinking laws.

"Ath. I should say that if a city seriously means to adopt the practice of drinking under due regulation and with a view to the enforcement of temperance, and in like manner, and on the same principle, will allow of other pleasures, designing to gain the victory over them in this way all of them may be used. But if the State makes drinking an amusement only, and whoever likes may drink whenever he likes, and with whom he likes, and add to this any other indulgences, I shall never agree or allow that this city or this man should practise drinking. I would go further than the Cretans and Lacedaemonians, and am disposed rather to the law of the Carthaginians, that no one while he is on a campaign should be allowed to taste wine at all, but that he should drink water during all that time, and that in the city no slave, male or female, should ever drink wine; and that no magistrates should drink during their year of office, nor should pilots of vessels or judges while on duty taste wine at all, nor any one who is going to hold a consultation about any matter of importance; nor in the daytime at all, unless in consequence of exercise or as medicine; nor again at night, when any one, either man or woman, is minded to get children. There are numberless other cases also in which those who have good sense and good laws ought not to drink wine, so that if what I say is true, no city will need many vineyards. Their husbandry and their way of life in general will follow an appointed order, and their cultivation of the vine will be the most limited and the least common of their employments. And this, Stranger, shall be the crown of my discourse about wine, if you agree. Cle. Excellent: we agree."

The quote above at the end of Book II of The Laws is a sudden and abrupt departure from the Athenian's charming persuasion. And here is the point of the law that does not cede to education as a social solution. The law in the form of legislation, if necessary, because education fails results in a much less happy society. Plato is saying, "Either we find a graceful medium in which proper education leads to peace and aimable relationships or we lay down the law and regulate the hell out of people's lives. Make your choice." This harsh tone is certainly not found in Socrates. Not even in his death is he anything but charming.

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