The Relevance of Plato’s Minos

Lungs not in the greatest shape – been taking repeated nebulizer treatments and inhaler puffs yesterday and today. More on this later. Not taking any chances: this will be delivered in little more than an hour but was promised to many others ahead of time. Paper here – it is considerably different than these remarks, written last night.

My co-author Tim and I are grateful to be afforded the opportunity to present our views. Deciphering the Minos is not the most accessible of topics. Ours is not the most accessible of papers. We hope our content more than our style will merit recognition. As is clear below, it is a Platonic thought which implies that things most relevant to democratic society may never easily be seen by such society, if seen at all.

The Minos itself has a question and declaration which tempt us to think things more understandable than they are. Socrates begins the dialogue asking “What is law, for us?” “What is law?” seems a philosophical question of especial relevance. Those even mildly familiar with Socrates know his procedure was to ask what each of the beings were. “What is justice?” and “What is courage?” stand out as typical examples of his inquiry. “What is law?” is itself both an unusual and fundamental question. Xenophon puts it in the mouth of an Alcibiades speaking Socratically. Socrates himself, in Xenophon, never utters it directly. We note, regarding the matter at hand, Socrates has asked “What is law, for us?”

Still. Lots of people ask “What is law?” Sometimes they are 13 year old nihilists who figured out that getting grades while living in a caste system that would make Louis XIV’s France blush might not yield anything worthwhile. Sometimes they’re people seeking justice in a system in which they haven’t given up hope yet. Does “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” implicitly ask “what is law?” It certainly sets a standard to judge all law.

The power of “What is law?” as a question stems from philosophy, even if the question itself is not strictly speaking philosophical. All of us ask it in one way or another inasmuch we seek justice or attempt to clarify our views about justice. Even dogmatists ask it, getting wholly conventional answers that may be far from useless.

So the dialogue asserts its relevance on an everyday level in its opening words. The discussion is far from complete, but it has started. We scholars would leave “what is law” open to a variety of answers, but it has practical, immediate relevance to human beings. Perhaps that is why the philosopher himself declares an answer. Is law the “wishing to be the discovery of what is?”

The temptation is to think a formula can replace thoughtfulness. The formula here: if we expose the pretensions of something, we reveal what it is. Law is the wishing to be the discovery of what is. It’s settled: all law does ape, not merely knowledge, but even our approach to knowledge. It attempts to replace science and often does. Socrates’ interlocutor does not even understand what Socrates says. He immediately challenges the proposition as if what was said was that law is the discovery of what is. If law is merely the discovery of what is, shouldn’t all people have the same burial customs? Shouldn’t there be a commonality to our speculation? The interlocutor is clearly not a philosopher. He can’t even remember what was said correctly. Obviously law is an obscenely large claim, and philosophers declare that much true.

What is strange is that the non-philosophic interlocutor has hit on a set of concerns that are the same as those of us who heard Socrates correctly. Again, we’re wondering about the limits of law. Maybe we can dismiss the interlocutor based on what he wants. Tim and I have taken a lot of time to show he may need more respect for law and its source. But if we settle on that reasoning, then what is the difference between cynicism and philosophy? After all, the interlocutor is where we are. We’re just proclaiming ourselves more moral.

So why does Socrates declare law the “wishing to be the discovery of what is?” Isn’t philosophy the exact same thing? A brief recap of the dialogue is necessary at this point. (It is as if philosophy does not exist as a body of propositions or set of questions, but something actually lived.) The Minos opens with “What is law, for us?” It rapidly moves from whether law is like gold or stone, material objects, to the type of political opinion law is. That consideration brings forth law as the wishing to be the discovery of what is. So ends one third of the dialogue. The next third starts from the companion’s mistaken assumption of what Socrates said and his objection about burial customs. It ends with the companion willing to consider that there are kings who distribute a good, albeit unwritten, order for bodies and souls. It goes without saying we learn a lot about the companion’s character from the center of the dialogue. He is politically ambitious and does not really see the value of law, especially law coming from a democratic regime. Democrats, unlike all-knowing kings, change their minds. The last third is a look at such a king, the mythical Minos. The companion admits after this that he doesn’t know what is good for the soul. He has been moderated, to a degree. We’re left wondering why such an elaborate process was necessary.

Law as “wishing to be the discovery of what is” is the primary problem. It opens up the possibility that political problems are resolvable by knowledge or consistent will alone. But any given regime had better be able to deal with necessities and procure goods. That depends on being able to act and have success. Fortune is the key issue: no wonder Machiavelli might like it subservient for a perpetual republic. We might say, after all this, that law is merely a mode of governance. We would say this in the Wittgensteinian spirit of not saying more than we know. A careful read of the myth Socrates posits in the dialogue opens a criticism of that position. As I want to focus on the relevance and accessibility of our project, I will leave that aspect of the paper unsaid here. Our immediate concern: a democratic, changeable will can certainly make legitimate laws. But a democracy’s defense of itself can get horribly cynical. Maybe it is because no one knows what is good for the soul there is legitimacy in the will of many. It would take one who could elaborate such a position properly – literally, one with knowledge of ignorance – to defend the regime.

 

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