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Monday 16 April 2018

Building Better Worlds (IIB)

Last time I looked at Plato's fictitious state of Magnesia from the perspective of its (nearly) all-important laws. It seems to me that Plato decided, though very reluctantly, that the law alone cannot form the basis of a state. It must have culture, education, and active citizenship to endure. But though the laws of Magnesia were not to be the only critical component of the state, they were still a vital element without which the state would collapse. We also saw how Plato viewed morality as objective : freedom is neither a vice nor a virtue in Plato's dialogues, merely a means to attaining virtue. The laws need to be constructed so that freedom does not allow the citizens to stray into vice, and also shapes the opinions and desires of the citizens such that vice was not even desired. The laws have a fundamentally instructive character, with no punitive element for the sake of mere punishment.

In this post I'm going to examine the work in a very different way. Rather than looking at a particular theme, I'm going to look at the whole collection of laws in a statistical (albeit crude and necessarily imperfect, but also, as far as I can determine, novel) approach. Sometimes this only quantifies the impression one gets from simply reading the text, but on other occasions it reveals new aspects that were not otherwise apparent.

Laws : A statistical approach

My hobby : spending vasts amount of time on things that are virtually guaranteed not to go viral.
It's impossible to convey the full experience of reading a Platonic dialogue - you have to do it for yourself. But I've decided that instead of simply saying, "frequently" and "usually and "rarely", and all the other deceptively non-quantitative adjectives, I'm going to do this properly wherever possible. The full text contains a huge amount of discussion, but Plato chose to set out certain statements as the actual laws of Magnesia - 115 in total. So in this post I will give a broad-brush overview, and discuss particular laws and regulations in the third and final post.

Now, these laws are inconsistent. Some parts of the text serve almost as the suggested preambles to the laws whereas others strongly resemble laws themselves, describing crimes and punishments (as well as virtues and rewards) not found in the "actual laws". The laws are of highly varying length - most are one or two sentences, a few span more than a page. Some contain multiple provisions for differing circumstances : who has committed which crime, whether it was voluntary or accidental, etc; most are vague. This being a mere blog post which hardly anyone will ever read, I decided the best approach was to limit myself to the laws Plato directly specifies. Going through the full text and extracting every possible law is too great an undertaking for the likes of me. You can see the resulting text of the laws here.

Plato doesn't give a definition of law in this dialogue, though he discusses this in the prequel dialogue Minos. But that is a work of morality and high philosophy, considering only good laws rather than an everyday, practical, working definition. I shall loosely define a law to mean an action taken by the state in response to some occurrence. This is distinct from a regulation which I shall (again loosely !) take to mean a rule as to how things are ordered, e.g. how many politicians a state should have, how people should react emotionally, things that cannot really be enforced at all (e.g. Plato tries on many occasions to regulate personal reputation and beliefs).

In this section I shall concentrate heavily on the "stated" laws (note the caveat that it's very unclear if Plato or the translator chose these; I suspect the latter) for the sake of a quantitative analysis. However this would be too severe a limit, with important sections of the text describing the way the state should function with no laws described at all. Those aspects will be discussed in the third and final section. It should go without saying that there's a subjective aspect to quantifying laws; this is only intended as a guide.

What are the laws most concerned with ?

Actually, Plato did propose punishing animals by law for misbehaving. Not with shaming them though. And sushi wasn't a thing yet.
It seems like a good place to start would be to summarise what sort of things count as crimes in Magnesia. I approached this by trying to use modern categories and terminologies while also trying to respect the distinct categories of laws Plato was concerned with. Thus "personal finance" counts as a distinct category, rather than something more general about economics or morality, because Plato dedicates so much effort to it.

Most laws only deal with one type of crime at a time, though they do often specify multiple punishments depending on the precise nature of the crime. However, if there are two distinct types of crimes within the same law, I've counted them separately. For example law 17 concerns spending on weddings, which I count as both domestic and personal finance. In contrast, law 35 describes separate punishments for slaves and foreigners committing the same crime, so I've counted this as one crime but two punishments.

Laws dealing with people who simply refuse to obey other laws I usually count only as crimes of disobedience to the state : the criminal is being punished for disobedience, not for their initial crimes again. The text is completely inconsistent as to whether these infractions are merely clauses or separate laws.

You can see the spreadsheet I constructed here, which also contains some more explanations as to the different categories (hover over them), or just look at this lovely pie chart. DISCLAIMER : this is a blog post, not a philosophy paper. I'm aware of mistakes and inconsistencies here, however I'm satisfied that they aren't enough to change the conclusions.
Fundamentally the laws do follow modern practise : if this happens, then the state responds in this way. They are primarily about punishment for wrongdoing rather than rewards for good behaviour, reflecting Plato's general belief that goodness is its own reward which bestows more worldly gains by itself. It also follows from his conviction that an excess of pleasure causes corruption and decay. And since it's easier to corrupt than to improve, rewards need to be used more sparingly than punishments, accepting that punishments actually do cause improvements.

The most obvious thing about the chart is that large chunk about disobedience. That really comes about because the laws have been formatted such that some laws are just extra punishments if you fail to pay a fine or whatever. If we remove all of those cases of "bonus crimes", which arguably should be included as clauses rather than separate laws, it reduces the disobedience slice to 16% (slightly lower than the property slice at 16.7%).

Still, obeying the state is a hugely important aspect of the system. Many of these laws are not about private citizens being kept under the thumb of the government, but about the crimes of public officials failing to carry out their legal duties. These laws are designed to protect citizens from state abuse as much as they attempt to enforce those citizens' obligations. Even the highest state officials were to be subject to the laws, and there was certainly to be no kind of diplomatic immunity whatsoever.

The all-pervasive nature of the state goes much further than this. Indeed, rather than trying to minimise state interference in private lives, Plato was designing a regime that had no scruples about playing the role of an interfering busybody :
The state’s general code of laws will never rest on a firm foundation as long as private life is badly regulated, and it's silly to expect otherwise. 
Which is taken to a much greater degree than in modern Western societies : dictating the size of wedding parties, the exact number of households and children permitted, the financial classes of society, its religious rituals, its music, drinking, stories, culture, meals - even forcibly divorcing happily married couples. It was not so much to be "freedom under law" as "happiness under law", things which Plato did not think equivalent. In this dialogue perhaps more than any other, Plato seems to believe happiness is something you can force on people against their wishes : he might have taken "the beatings will continue until morale improves" quote as an instruction rather than irony.

That large chunk about property deserves a short discussion. A quote from Republic describes the reason for this obsession very well :
Then, we’ll give our guardians this further order, namely, to guard in every way against the city’s being either small or great in reputation instead of being sufficient in size and one in number.
Size matters : too big and the state becomes hard to run and its citizens liable to vice and corruption. The precise size of Magnesia was to be 5,040 households, designed to be conveniently divisible for legal purposes, though that number took account of the local conditions*. If it should ever grow too large, excess citizens could found colonies and childbirth restricted. If it suffered a disaster and became too small, it could encourage breeding and accept external citizens - but not if they had "been brought up by a bastard education, if we can help it; but not even God, they say, can grapple with necessity" (more on foreign policy later).

* The actual size of the population is unclear. Each household should presumably have two adults (perhaps four with granparents) and at least two or three children, giving 20-30,000 people. But there will also be some number of foreigners (tourists, official ambassadors, and expats staying for some years to live and work) and slaves. The foreign population would likely be small, but the slaves could potentially be very numerous - Athens had 3 or 4 per household, whereas in Sparta the ratio was up to 8:1 of slaves to citizens. This gives us a total population size of 40-160,000. Probably something around 50-75,000 is reasonable.

In any case, while Plato says that in the ideal state, "the notion of ‘private property’ will have been by hook or by crook completely eliminated from life", this wasn't to be the case for Magnesia. Hence land and property require extensive legislation to keep citizens from falling prey to the vices of greed or territorial ambitions.

We need to talk about God

Plato's theology was a wee bit more complicated than this, unfortunately.
Naturally religion plays a role in civic virtue, so that too must be regulated. It deserves a somewhat extended discussion, and now's as good a time as any.

In previous dialogues, Plato flirts with atheism and agnosticism, deftly dodging the issue whenever it appeared to be about to cause problems. Here, as in several others, he is absolutely committed to theism as being central to the well-being of individuals and the state. The existence of the gods is simply accepted as true. That being so, it follows that the state must honour the gods, and it makes no sense to speak of separation of church and state : secular crimes can be punished with religious methods, and vice-versa. At the time, virtually everyone was a polytheist, and few believed that some gods were real and others were not. This made it much easier to accept followers of other deities, though Magnesia would have, as in all things, strict state regulations as to which gods should be honoured and in what manner.

And yet, Plato does strongly question what we think of as the standard theology of the day. He clearly saw the abuse of the system of asking for forgiveness rather than permission :
... and there are others — the worst and most numerous category — who hold that in return for a miserable sacrifice here and a little flattery there, the gods will help them to steal enormous sums of money and rescue them from all sorts of heavy penalties.
Plato's view of the gods is one much closer to modern conceptions (even among atheists) than what generally seemed to be supposed at the time. In their mythology, both Greek gods and heroes were no better than powerful humans. Plato, however, is insistent on the point that the gods are fundamentally more virtuous than man. Sacrifices may be a way to honour them, but they can never be a way to cheat the gods. What they really demand - as the state itself demands, as the whole purpose of Magnesia is dedicated towards - is virtue. The idea that the "rulers of the Universe" could be bribed with a dead cow is revealed as absurd :
Look — in the name of the gods themselves! — how would they be bought off, supposing they ever were ? What would they have to be ? What sort of being would do this ? They are not to be compared to a charioteer lined up at the starting point who has been bribed by a gift to throw the race and let others win.
They might be honoured by a dead cow, because it's worth a lot to the mortal sacrificing it, but they could never be bribed with it - because its value to them comes from the sacrifice and the deepest intent in the mortal's soul, not from the carcass of the poor creature itself.

So religion is important because it's another way of administering justice, to say nothing of Plato's lengthy description of how all justice is rewarded, and all injustice punished, in the afterlife - a very different version than the Homeric afterlife were souls exist as no more than empty shades. Now, Plato has a lot to say about religion, and I suspect that one could easily cherry-pick quotes to make Plato appear to believe whatever one prefers. The theist would agree with his arguments and justifiably note that the amount dedicated to proving the gods' existence far outweighs the occasional dabble with atheism. The atheist would say that this demonstrates that Plato was really only trying to convince himself - "methinks he doth protest too much" - and that he was only employing religion as another tool of the state. In any case, with a typical stroke of ambiguous reasonableness*, Plato adds the caveat :
...either he should demonstrate to us that we’re wrong to posit soul as the first cause to which everything owes its birth, and that our subsequent deductions were equally mistaken, or, if he can’t put a better case than ours, he should let himself be persuaded by us and live the rest of his life a believer in gods.
* Which is accompanied by an equally typical stroke of professed moderation followed by an extreme action. He goes on at length about the virtues of persuading atheists to change their ways - "he should argue till the cows come home" - but ultimately finds that prolonged atheism should be punished not with mere fines, imprisonment or exile, but death.

Thus very clearly saying that he would accept the opposite conclusion if a sufficient argument was presented (and given the extent to which, in other dialogues, he presents opposing viewpoints with no conclusion, I see no reason to doubt his intellectual sincerity). His sympathetic, albeit highly condescending, argument towards atheists, e.g. in the direct sequel dialogue Epinomis :
For no one will ever persuade us that there is a more important part of virtue for mortals than reverence towards the gods, although it must be admitted that through ignorance of the worst kind this quality has been absent from the people with the best natures.
...and his admission that these discussions are often highly emotive, make it clear that Richard Dawkins is nothing new. What is unusual to the modern reader is to see someone advocating very deliberately, yet without the merest hint of the "opiate of the masses" concept, for religion as a method of state control :
It’s vital that somehow or other we should make out a plausible case for supposing that gods do exist, that they are good, and that they respect justice more than men do.
And later, in a brilliant passage which (in my opinion anyway) works whether you believe in Zeus, Jesus, Quetzalcoatl or the Flying Spaghetti Monster alike, in an exact and beautiful reversal of more modern religious quackpottery :
Now then, you perverse fellow, one such part — a mere speck that nevertheless constantly contributes to the good of the whole — is you, you who have forgotten that nothing is created except to provide the entire universe with a life of prosperity. You forget that creation is not for your benefit : you exist for the sake of the universe. 
This is meaning of life stuff, and Plato's answer is for once resoundingly clear : virtue and improvement. In a complete reversal of the strong anthropic principle, any sense of entitlement granted by a Universe ornamented by human existence is utterly swept aside, and the burden of duty planted firmly on that of the mortals fortunate enough to inhabit a tolerant Creation. Small wonder that the state should use any and all tools at its disposal. Polytheism perhaps integrates with personal daily life more naturally than monotheism, but it doesn't lend itself so readily to forming a church with political clout. Plato found that lacking such an institution, it was necessary to (in effect) invent one.

Throughout the rest of Plato's musings on theology, there doesn't seem to be much evidence of a belief in busybody, meddling gods striking thunderbolts from Olympus or raping cows of any of that stuff. He's far more concerned with the gods as abstractions, prime movers that order the grand scale of the cosmos rather than playing games with the petty lives of men. He may well have been, at the end, a devout theist, but the purpose of religion in Magnesia is much more about social cohesion than it ever is about ensuring good harvests or preventing floods or whatnot. To go out on a limb, his world building exercises mirror his theology : the Republic has interfering, divine rulers, whereas Magnesia lacks these but has a divine first cause.

What kind of punishments would the laws provide ?

Pretty much all kinds : fines, community service, verbal chastisement, imprisonment, corporal punishment, exile, and death. Let's skip straight to the pie chart. Because of the silly way I constructed this, it's in two spreadsheets : the main one here, and the pie chart itself here. See the second link for more details on the punishments.

Some crimes have multiple punishments. Therefore I recorded each specified punishment separately, e.g., if a law calls for three different fines to be exacted, then that counts as three separate fines as punishment. In a few cases the law allows for a selection of different punishments at the discretion of the judges; for these I divided the number of punishments by the number of punishment methods (e.g., if a law allows for exile or imprisonment, but not both, then I counted each as 0.5; the "judges discretion" column is only for cases which have no such restrictions). Also, while many laws refer insultingly to the nature of the crime, I didn't count this to be "naming and shaming" unless it was explicitly stated that that was the punishment.

Note that the major error in this is deciding what Plato means when he says, "the same punishments as before", because he doesn't always repeat exactly which punishments he means - which can be very confusing for the laws with ~20 clauses ! Still, I've gone through all this (and all the other quantities presented here) multiple times, and I'm satisfied that any remaining errors don't post a threat to the conclusions.

One should bear in mind the incompleteness of the proposal : these are likely what Plato considered the most important laws, and therefore dealt with the most serious crimes (although there are 4 laws which are about nothing but fruit, which somewhat undermines that interpretation). But there are a few observations we can make that may be somewhat vaguely interesting.

Judge's Discretion Is Not Advised ?

There's apparently not a great deal left to judge's discretion - but this is misleading, as there are many cases where the judge will get to decide how much a fine to impose, how much imprisonment, how long a period of exile, etc. There are also a (very) few cases where they're allowed to administer no punishment at all, not shown in the pie chart. So the earlier conclusion about the flexibility of the laws largely stands, especially given the small number of laws.

Don't Worry, I'm Not Going To Hurt You (Much)

Fines are the order of the day. Financial suffering is by far the easiest suffering to bear (unless you reach the poverty line - which as we'll see if absolutely impossible in Magnesia*). Detainment - mostly imprisonment but also rehabilitation - was rare, perhaps due to the small size of the state being unable to support a large prison population. There's scant evidence that it was supposed to be particularly unpleasant**. Overall, about 85% of punishments are non-violent, which supports the stated principle purpose of the laws as reform.

* In modern society, financial penalties are sometimes seen as a sort of tax : pay this money, and your sin is forgiven - go ahead and do it again ! But Magnesia would have very strict limits on personal wealth, making any financial hit more difficult to bear, and repeated violations would become impossible.
** But not quite zero. The state should have three prisons : one general, near the city centre, another near the government buildings which was also to be a kind of rehabilitation centre, and a third which is "in the heart of the countryside, in a solitary spot where the terrain is at its wildest; and the title of this prison is somehow to convey the notion of ‘punishment’". This last one sounds pretty ominous, but there's no description of any special cruelties applied within. In fact elsewhere Plato is emphatic : "But no one, no matter what his offence, is ever to be deprived of his citizen rights completely".

In particular, altering the reputation of a citizen was held as a genuinely powerful way to alter their behaviour. Roughly 25% or so of punishments involve directly publically naming and shaming the criminal, or the more subtle methods of making them perform religious atonement, removing their civic awards or rendering them illegible for future awards (oddly, Plato doesn't seem to think that getting citizens to judge each other will lead to the mass faux-outrage that plagues social media for the slightest infraction). Justice is to be administered by the state sometimes in the form of the citizens themselves (in some cases the law allows citizens to beat up criminals whenever they feel like it, or even execute them) rather than always by legal officials (though they would do the majority of the work).  There's an overarching theme that the people and the state should be one.

With the obvious and undeniable conclusion that Batman would be very welcome in Magnesia. I can't believe Plato didn't realise this !
On the other hand, religious penalties and community service look to be rather unimportant. However, I chose to count all ritual purifications as community service rather than religious disgrace : one could legitimately argue that they are both. And since these purifications - prayers, sacrifices etc. - make up the majority of both punishments, it might be better to see them as a single larger slice.

Yet community service in the modern sense of the word is virtually absent : no-one is forced to work in the kitchens or go around picking up litter. This fits with Plato's obsession with everyone only doing a single job (which is mentioned here but more fully developed in Republic) : it wouldn't make any sense at all for the state to suddenly decide they should actually become polymaths; laws 39 and 40 are explicit on this point. And forcing people to do extra work, rather than different work, isn't feasible either : the state needs to have sufficiency, never excess if it can ever help it. Hence the law becomes largely about exacting penalties on the criminals (e.g. banning them from temples) rather than forcing them to assist the community (e.g. having them clean the temples).

I can't escape the feeling that Plato missed a trick here. Even he didn't think that menial tasks require specialist training to do well. Performing services to assist the community and thus benefit the deviant citizen, sounds (at least on paper), like a much better way to persuade the criminal that their service to the state is a rewarding process - as opposed to preventing them from enjoying its advantages, or even being harmed by it. That, one might naively imagine, would engender hate rather than friendship. But Plato is resolutely insistent on this point (as are most of us today) : that disciplining someone causes them to become better people, and that the stick is more to be feared than the carrot is to be loved. That said, most of the fines collected would go the state, benefiting the community while allowing the offender to resume their duties.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

While there are many civic honours and awards discussed in the text, only a very small fraction of these make it into the actual laws. This ties in well with the themes of too much wealth and pleasure being an incitement to vice, whereas good behaviour is intrinsically rewarding anyway : people need to be punished to make them better, but only rewarded for a few exceptional events (such as slaves providing assistance, which could win them their freedom). It's certainly an interesting irony that hitting people can - apparently - help people more than giving them money*.

* Don't take this too literally. As we'll see next time, Plato was dead against poverty and recognised how it too could induce vice. He was concerned much more with their excess than money or pleasure themselves.

Again, Plato did tend to have a view of  happiness being something you could regulate. It wasn't that pleasure itself was bad so much that certain kinds of pleasure - especially in excess - led to vice (see Philebus for a very interesting but lengthy, complex discussion on false pleasures). He certainly had some very snobbish tendencies :
Pleasure is indeed a proper criterion in the arts, but not the pleasure experienced by anybody and everybody. The productions of the Muse are at their finest when they delight men of high calibre and adequate education — but particularly if they succeed in pleasing the single individual whose education and moral standards reach heights attained by no one else.
Or to put it another way :

A caveat to this is that the awards are perhaps something left to the various institutions, rather than being mandated by law. In modern societies civic honours are a rare thing indeed, and few people conduct their daily affairs with the goal of winning a knighthood. If people are motivated by any kind of reward, it is surely only to earn a good wage under decent conditions. And the nature of that would be fundamentally different in Magnesia, as we'll see next time.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

15% of punishments are brutal by modern standards : whippings, floggings, beatings, brandings, and executions (the method of which was sometimes left entirely at the discretion of the victim or their family). 10% of punishments were for crimes so severe there was apparently no chance of ever reforming the victim (exile and imprisonment were largely intended to be temporary) - this includes genuinely serious crimes like murder, but also today things we don't find offensive at all, like atheism. This high fraction somewhat counters the notion of justice as educational.

It doesn't really help much when we look at the offences in more detail. Of the 27 laws containing execution as at least one possible punishment, only 8 are for violent crimes - and they include, in certain circumstances, accidental killings. The remaining 60% include things like robbing temples, being an atheist, having your own private shrine, getting too wealthy, bribery, harbouring an exile... many things we wouldn't even consider to be crimes today, and others for which a fine, imprisonment or banishment would surely suffice. Of course, accepting that the law will use execution as a punishment at all, then things like "privately starting a war" probably do qualify as capital crimes. It's just that it's more than a little worrying when someone goes on at length about the virtues of persuasion and then decides to kill people for worshipping in the wrong way or earning too much money after being released from slavery. I mean, Plato sometimes just makes me want to slap him. Shame he's dead.

It's a similar story for corporal punishment. Of the 12 crimes where this is an option, only 3 could really be called serious (violence, murder, and - arguably - robbing temples). The rest consist of petty theft (3 for stealing fruit, 1 for accidental petty theft !), dishonesty in business, not caring for the elderly, and officials who don't turn up for meals. Most of even these violent treatments are supposed to be educational - and we don't see any use of torture, mutilation, amputation, eye-gouging or any of the other nasties so often associated with antiquity or even much later periods.

There is one case - one single instance in the entire Platonic corpus - that comes close to Plato advocating pain for the sake of pain : if a slave commits murder, they are first to be whipped and executed only if they survive the whipping. The purpose of this is not described, but presumably it's to teach the other slaves a lesson. Nevertheless :
In general, the unjust man deserves just as much pity as any other sufferer. And you may pity the criminal whose disease is curable, and restrain and abate your anger, instead of persisting in it with the spitefulness of a shrew; but when you have to deal with complete and unmanageably vicious corruption, you must let your anger off its leash.
We should also remember that their are many civilised nations today that still practise capital punishment, and corporal punishment in schools wasn't outlawed in Northern Ireland until as recently as 2003. The last prison flogging in Britain was as late as 1962. More fundamentally, the debate as to whether the response to criminal behaviour should primarily be one of punishment for its own sake (because that's what they deserve), or rehabilitation (because we want everyone to be productive, happy and safe) is hardly settled today. It's unfair to look too harshly on a ~2,400 year-old document - even one written by a genius - by the standards of the liberal intelligentsia today. Instead we should look deeper : Plato's laws are intended for rehabilitation at least as much as they are for punishment. The flawed methods do not sully the laudable goal.

Does the punishment fit the crime ?

Learn punctuation, people ! Unless you only want to baptise violators...
This one can't be answered objectively, but a statistical analysis might still be useful so you can judge for yourself. We've already seen that most violent and capital punishments are inflicted for non-violent, even petty, crimes, but let's expand this : most violent punishments being given for petty crimes does not preclude, for instance, that most petty crimes aren't dealt with by less harsh methods.

So here's another, more complicated database. I've counted up all the punishments relating to each individual crime. This was done partially by hand and partially in an automatic way. First, I wrote a Python script to check for the easy cases : one crime, one punishment; multiple crimes all with the same punishment; one crime with multiple punishments. Those can easily be matched with the existing tables and a new table created. The script also identifies and labels the non-trivial cases of multiple crimes with multiple punishments. For these I went back to the text and manually counted which crimes resulted in which types of punishments. And you have no idea how satisfying this was.

I can't possibly decide on objective criteria for whether a punishment is appropriate to a particular crime, because I'm just a blogger, not Plato. But I will dare to venture some observations on each category. You'll just have to forgive me for being liberal with the terms "crime" and "punishment" since some actions are actually rewarded.

Financial wrongdoings

This one seems clear enough : if your finances are out of order, the state intervenes to put them back in order by taking all that nasty extra money off your hands. It'll also publically shame you and, in extreme cases, kick you out of the country or imprison you.

Public order

Much more variety to this one. Causing a public nuisance usually means suffering publically through shaming and/or a nasty beating - this is the only crime for which corporal punishment is the dominant response. The harmony of the state being extremely important, you might also be thrown out, imprisoned, or even executed. Bear in mind the small numbers here though.

Domestic life

In keeping with the need for an ordered private life to ensure a functioning public society, domestic crimes also result in very public punishments : not just directly in terms of reputation, but also in civic awards, being banned from participation in public ceremonies, and corporal punishment. The most common result, though, is a simple fine - mostly relating to crimes of finance within the domestic setting.

Religious offences

Unsurprisingly, religious penalties are the dominant response to religious crimes - and the only one where they form the major such a large fraction of the punishments. At least a few restraining orders too are in some sense religious, e.g. preventing people from being in places the Greeks would have considered sacred (like the games) but we might not. Although fines are again very important, religious crimes are taken particularly seriously, as shown by the size of the execution bar. The rulers of the universe apparently require a lot of human help in enacting their irresistible will against deviant mortals. Can't imagine why that might be.

Land and property crimes

Again, exactly as we might expect : property and land abuse can generally be easily corrected with a fine. The more serious punishments are largely reserved for ignorant non-citizens like slaves and foreigners, who need a good whipping if they're caught stealing fruit (why Plato at one point suddenly becomes quite obsessed with fruit I've no idea, perhaps he was hungry - he also goes off on one about bees). How the punishments are tailored to the criminal as well as the crime is something I'll get back to later.

Yo Dawg, We Herd You Like Laws

These are crimes of refusal to pay fines, resisting arrest, hiding from the police, etc. that occur in response to other crimes. They also include inaction - if you see a crime being committed, you're supposed to assist the victim and report the criminal. Together with the importance of the state itself, this means there are a very wide variety of crimes, and a correspondingly wide variety of punishments. Such crimes are taken extremely seriously, featuring the highest execution fraction of all. Note also the high amount of reputation punishments (because everyone should know if you're a good citizen) and religious punishments (because though religious crime and punishment hardly dominate the laws, they nonetheless form part of the backbone of the entire legal animal) : again, secular crimes are punished by religious methods.

Causing death

More specific responses apply in the crimes of killing, either accidentally or deliberately, with and without intent to cause injury. The situation is in some ways simpler than it appears : if you deliberately, intentionally kill someone and are not insane (or a child or very old), you die. The rest of the responses are largely to deal with many complex conditions in the case of accidental death, with and without accompanying violence and anger, insanity and so on. One thing that's lacking is any discussion of provocation : it doesn't really seem to matter if you've been harassed by some jerk of a neighbour or not.


So far it seems like the major punishment for most crimes is always appropriate, or at least it's easy to understand why someone might think so. This one is rather different : being violent is both expected and even encouraged in some cases. The corporal punishment bar includes citizens who are allowed to beat up criminals, which might indirectly explain why it doesn't make up a particularly large fraction here. The state only suppresses violence if that violence is causing other social problems* - in other cases, it happily uses violence as a tool. It does not see violence as something to be avoided for its own sake, as modern Western societies generally do. Hence most cases can be remedied just by paying off the unfortunate victim or calling the perpetrator mean names like an "uncivilised boor". The exceptions, which are dealt with more seriously, happen when the violent crime is also religious, or done by a doctor or a slave.

* Most surprisingly of all, "political brawls or some other similar circumstances" are apparently just natural things to be expected. Young men in particular are expected to grin and bear it in the event of a fight. It's a decidedly odd sort of approach to public order from a philosopher.

Business corruption

We return to more obvious punishments. Carry out dodgy transactions and you ill-gotten gains will be removed, everyone will know you're a liar and a cheat, and you might even be beaten for your trouble.

Being a dick

Crimes of purely secular moral issues are punished as such. Be greedy and you'll be fined and shamed; ignore ill-treatment and you'll be ill-treated yourself. Bribery (admittedly this one might be better in a crime of finance, but it's also one of corruption and hence dickishness) is so serious a crime it's punishable by death, since it threatens the functioning of the state. Though towards the end, I get the impression that Plato got a bit lazy and decided to punish everything with death : there's no longer any discussion about first offence or who's committing it or any other provisions. Still, dickishness is largely punished through milder measures.

Military dishonour

There aren't many laws about this, but those that are again seem appropriate : perform badly as a soldier and you'll be forbidden from further military duty that could endanger the state. You'll also be shamed for it. There's no hint of any compassion for cowardice, but the shame itself is supposed to be punishment enough : "we can make him spend the rest of his days in utter safety, so that he lives with his ghastly disgrace for as long as possible". Which betrays a huge naivety in the lack of realisation that some people, inevitably, are going to want to live differently to how Plato wants them to.

Does the punishment fit the criminal ?

The law could respond to the same crime in different ways depending on who the criminal was. There are various categories that could affect the sentence : male or female; citizens or non citizens (visitors, resident aliens, freedmen and slaves); rich or poor; young or old; repeat or first offenders; experts and non-experts. From the text alone it's very tough to get a clear impression if Plato was responding fairly by these distinctions or not, so a quantitative analysis might again help.

Unfortunately most laws don't distinguish different punishments for different criminals or explicitly state that the punishment should be the same for everyone. So I will limit this to the 35 laws (a full 30% - enough that we can say that Plato's justice was not blind) which clearly specify different responses. If only Plato had had access to a spreadsheet ! How much easier it would have been for him to spot inconsistencies, omissions, and deviations from the trends... but don't get me started.

In the absence of detailed data, I've decided to keep things as simple as possible. For each contrasting pair of different perpetrators, not all of which have sufficient data to conclude anything at all, I judged in each case which one got the harsher punishment. That's what the pie charts below indicate - hence a 50-50 split indicates inconsistency, not equality. In contrast, harsher treatment 100% of the time towards one group would be at least consistent discrimination.

This is easy when things are quantitative, e.g. longer prison sentences or harsher fines. For different types of punishment, I used the order of the horizontal axes in the above bar graphs. I think most people today would view capital punishment as worse then prison, which itself is worse than exile, and so on. Plato might disagree, but he's not here so he doesn't get to push me around.

The Battle of the Sexes

Gender equality is something Plato is prone to saying something breathtakingly stupid about one minute, only to follow it with something pretty good the next - more on this next time. Although there are five laws in which men and women are explicitly distinguished, in four of these they're given identical treatment - so we don't have enough data to produce even the most desperate attempt at a graph. The single exception is law 81, which regulates the treatment of parents by their adult offspring. Inadequate care results in a whipping for men under 30 or women under 40. A bit odd, that.

Rich versus poor
I went on quite a bit about Plato's hatred of wealth and excess in general, and this is mostly backed up by the harsher treatment of the rich in the laws. Where the punishment is to be a fine, the rich invariably have to pay more - which, surely, is fairer than insisting that everyone pays the same fine, because that would be hurting the poor more for the same offence.

There are eight laws specifying differences between rich and poor, and of the three cases where the poor get harsher treatment, two are debatable : spending on weddings is regulated, and the limits are lower for the poor. But this is harsher only in absolute terms - relative to their wealth it might be just fine. This would strengthen the conclusion of harsher treatment of the rich. The other case, however, is clearer : anyone stealing should pay a fine, but if they can't afford to, they must be imprisoned until their victim sets them free. So a fine for the rich and indefinite imprisonment for the poor. That one, though a single exception to the trend, seems monumentally unfair : surely, they could just pay the same fine in instalments ?

Bloody foreigners
There's a very mixed attitude to foreigners in Magnesia, with Plato occasionally saying dumb things like, "this unruliness is so characteristic of a foreigner" (it's a fictional bloody state man, this makes no sense - everyone in the world is foreign to it !) but on the other hand acknowledging that the citizens of Magnesia enjoy better education so deserve harsher punishments for wrongdoing (see in particular law 97). Plato is perhaps struggling to balance the need to protect Magnesians with some compassion for those who are suffering from ordinary ignorance.

In general though, I get the impression that Magnesia would generally be welcoming to foreigners. Plato emphasises that the state should learn from the successes and failures of other states, and though it would be quite difficult for citizens to travel abroad, it would be relatively easy for visitors to come both as tourists and as resident aliens. Foreigners are even allowed to take up that most important civic duty of all : teachers.

Slaves are people too, sort-of
Though this category is the most consistent of all, the contradictions here seem all the stranger. Most of the time, slaves do get objectively harsher treatment than anyone else : in the extreme case of law 63, everyone else gets away with a warning (for failing to inform as to the whereabouts of stolen goods), while slaves get death. Yet there's also the opposite case, such as law 97 (stealing public property) where slaves get fined but citizens get death. There doesn't seem to be be any underlying logic to it at all.

What's going on ?

I don't know. While Plato seems to be making a deliberate effort to have the punishment fit both the crime and the criminal, he only really succeeds on the former. As to the latter he seems to be just making stuff up as he goes along. And that's without even considering the woeful inconsistency of some laws themselves, with, most brazenly of all, law 42 explicit in declaring a single punishment for all thieves - which is a completely different punishment for theft specified in law 41 ! Let's also not forget that quote that laws favouring one section of society have no claim to be obeyed.

What's lacking is a discussion on why different people commit crimes in the first place, especially which reasons motivate which demographic. If you could prove that all foreigners were evil (or merely that their actions were peculiarly harmful), you could justify treating them more harshly than natives. Equally, it might be possible to say in in some circumstances that men deserve harsher treatment but in others women need more severe punishments. It's not the discrimination or the consistency that's the problem : it's that no clear approach for adopting the different responses is ever explained.

Elsewhere Plato discusses at very great length the reasons people act unjustly, of which ignorance is a primary factor. Which has many aspects : someone may never have been told right from wrong, or they might be temporarily overwhelmed with emotions or madness and so not known, for a brief period, the difference between the two. In either case, such people need instruction, not punishment, as Socrates puts it in the Apology (a distinctly different take from Plato's view of punishment itself being instructive). In Gorgias he somewhat reconciles the two viewpoints with the idea that people avoid the unpleasantness of punishment for the same reason they avoid unpleasant medical treatment : they don't understand* the overall benefit it will bring.

* As distinct from simple intellectual knowledge. They may have had the facts explained to them, but don't accept them, or judge incorrectly (see Theaetetus for a fascinating discussion) as to which state is better.

Without going in to the details, that's all well and good. But there are several basic points here which Plato fails to discuss :
  • What sort of ignorance was involved in the crime. He makes some provision for anger making one act irrationally, i.e. temporarily ignorant, and quite a bit more for the very old, young, and lunatics, but not all that much in general. Surely this should affect all crimes. Nor is there much general discussion as to whether innate or temporary ignorance is a worse state or on what general principle each should be treated.
  • Whether the same actions by different inhabitants of Magnesia affect the state in different ways, and if they should therefore be punished accordingly. There is some (e.g. "trade should be made over to a class of people whose corruption will not harm the state unduly") but it's not enough, applied inconsistently, and worst of all there's no justification for the inconsistencies.
  • The nature of each demographic, and why they might sometimes need to be treated differently but sometimes equally. Does the superior education of citizens, for example, render them more likely to be responsive to lighter punishments (as are sometimes prescribed), or does it make them more deserving of harsher punishments because they should have already learned their lesson (as is sometimes stated directly) ?
And so on. The point is that without these principles clearly set down, the different demographics are treated with woeful, consistently inconsistent discrimination that makes little or no sense. There are hints ("in spite of the education he will have enjoyed"; "in such circumstances, the homicide should be regarded as involuntary") that some crimes are at least as much an effect of the system as they are the personal responsibility of the criminal due to their nature. The very laws themselves are an attempt to create a system whereby criminal desires are suppressed. But sadly, there's no real discussion on when a criminal is entirely responsible for their own actions, and when the system itself must take some of the blame.

Summary and Conclusions

That's about as far as statistics can take us. Which to be fair is not bad going, all things considered. The main points :
  • The state should interfere with people's private lives. If it doesn't, their immorality and corruption in private will spread into the public sphere, wrecking the entire state. To this end it should employ religion as a tool of manipulation, wherein individuals see themselves as nothing less than servants of the Universe. The entire purpose of the state is to manage individuals to live virtuous lives and to better themselves - if it fails in this goal, it should be utterly destroyed. For this purpose the state demands both action and inaction as it deems appropriate.
  • Punishments, by and large, are basically appropriate to the crime. This is not exactly an eye-for-an-eye, because justice should be about instruction, not revenge. Nothing is inconsistent which is appropriate - we cannot define actions as good or bad solely on their own merits. By modern standards this makes Magnesia a pretty brutal place to live, with violence being just another useful, entirely legitimate tool of state control rather than the harsh tool of the oppressor. After all, the necessity of slavery is accepted without question.
  • Punishments are not appropriate to the criminal. While there is a solid enough basis to treating the different crimes, the notion of how to apply the punishments based on the individual criminal at hand has insufficient treatment. The laws are badly inconsistent as to when particular demographics should be treated harshly or with leniency, and the reasons given often seem at variance. Furthermore the laws themselves suffer from some glaring inconsistencies. It isn't easy to see a simple way to solve these problems.
Statistics can only take us so far. To really understand Magnesia, we should look not just at the big-picture view, but the ground level details of daily life. We've already looked at a few of the individual laws, as well as how religion and justice are used to control people. Next time we'll take a look at more of the laws, as well as that most critical aspect for society of all : education - not only the methods, from schooling to the laws themselves, but the very basis of education itself. Laws, we shall see, were not merely to crudely control the citizen's actions, forcing them to behave virtuously, but to manipulate their beliefs and abilities for the sake of their souls.

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