Thursday, September 30, 2010

Plato, Power and Corruption

By John Taylor; 2010 Sep 30, Mashiyyat 04, 167 BE

In Panorthosia, Comenius put great stock in the Biblical admonitions not to "respect persons" and to "call no man master." (Matt 23:10) Corruption, in Comenius' view, is an inevitable consequence of disobeying the divine commands not only to call nobody master but also to "seek and ye shall find," never to delegate one's own obligation to search and serve to anyone else. He built the entire structure of Panorthosia on this egalitarian imperative, which he considered to be of the essence of faith. Before continuing with our discussion of Comenius, I want to explore this crucial issue of power and corruption further. Since it is discussed in detail in Plato's Laws, I will concentrate upon that work in particular.


Generally speaking, it is a bad idea to invest too much in any one individual or elite. The most familiar caveat is Lord Acton's saying that, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Acton thus linked power with corruption after observing a Vatican counsel, but it applies to any concentrated knowledge, influence or power. The sad history of charismatic dictators and authoritarian regimes shows how dangerous inordinate power is when concentrated inordinately into one person, one profession, class or any other homogeneous group.

In his final work, the Laws, Plato holds that power is a good if and only if it is an outcome of wisdom. We call someone a good person if he or she maintains good relationships; this ability to be good to others is the same thing for an individual that we call wisdom in the state. "One needs to reflect that wisdom and friendship, when stated to be the aim in view, are not really different aims, but identical..." (Laws, 693c, R.G. Bury, tr.) Wisdom, then, is when society has a sense of due proportion; and that can only come out of temperance and moderation, which allow us to see holistically the entirety of life.

Power corrupts, therefore, not because it is bad in itself but because it can distort vision, break a just balance and destroy the natural order. Power needs to be given in prescribed doses that are small and diffuse enough that imperfect human beings can bear under it. He writes,

"If we disregard due proportion by giving anything what is too much for it, too much canvass to a boat, too much nutriment to a body, too much authority to a soul, the consequence is always shipwreck; rankness runs in the one case to disease, in the other to presumption, and its issue is crime." (Plato, Laws, 691c, Collected Writings, p. 1286)

Plato's comparison of political corruption to inappropriate technology and to overeating is highly significant in view of recent trends. Obesity is the emblematic illness of the past half century. It has spread to a large proportion of the population. In many nations, both wealthy and poor, a majority are now clinically overweight. Similarly, our technology, powered as it is by burning hydrocarbons, could not be further from due proportion. It became known to experts and leaders in the late 1980's that this combustion was causing global warming, but that knowledge seems only to have accelerated our dependency upon what Plato calls a sailing ship with far to large a sail. This "rankness" in our bodies and our technology clearly is a result of the third factor that Plato mentions here, giving too much authority to the soul. Later in the Laws, Plato explains how the fall of individuals is writ in larger letters in the decline of the state.

"... if he be possessed of absolute and irresponsible power, he will never remain firm in his principles or persist in regarding the public good as primary in the state, and the private good as secondary. Human nature will be always drawing him into avarice and selfishness, avoiding pain and pursuing Pleasure without any reason, and will bring these to the front, obscuring the juster and better; and so working darkness in his soul will at last fill with evils both him and the whole city." (Plato, Laws, Book 9)

The question then arises: how can we devise a government that does not allow anyone -- or any segment of society -- to possess "absolute and irresponsible power"? Comenius' answer was to establish an entire new philosophy designed to remove the dissension and divisions that sicken and weaken most of the body politic.

"Therefore the new philosophy will have as its new ultimate goal the reconciliation of disagreements by discovering, establishing, and bringing to light true ideas of everything, and by referring every particular thing to these, elements of agreement and disagreement should be readily revealed, so pointing the way of return to agreement." (Panorthosia, Ch. 11, para 5, p. 176)

In order to do this, he set up a new division of labour in both leadership and "followership." He envisioned a set of three institutions -- instead of the monolithic political structures we now have -- that are designed from the ground up to prevent absolutism, to be responsible yet as local, non-centralized and non-specialized as possible. Next time we will look at them in more detail.



SMK said...

I am reminded of Plato's Apology of Socrates - search down the page for "Someone may wonder why I go about in private" and read that paragraph.

The Baha'i Principles said...

Interesting... here is the passage in question:

"Someone may wonder why I go about in private, giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not venture to come forward in public and advise the state. I will tell you the reason of this. You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician. And rightly, as I think. For I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago and done no good either to you or to myself. And don't be offended at my telling you the truth: for the truth is that no man who goes to war with you or any other multitude, honestly struggling against the commission of unrighteousness and wrong in the state, will save his life; he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one.