Monday, March 16, 2009

The Pilgrim Critique of Plato's Republic

When the Pilgrims first came to the New World, their economic structure was originally very close to that of the state socialism of the former Soviet Union. Being a private company with shares of the company equally distributed between the families that sailed to the New World aboard the Mayflower, the Pilgrims initially organized their settlement along very egalitarian lines. (The most notable exception being the servants of the families well off enough to own them.) With the survival of their community at stake, every family gained a share of the produce harvested from the fields, the game brought back by hunters and trappers, the goods traded by the native Narragnsetts, and the debts racked up by the new community as they purchased goods from the European traders. 

This communal mode of organization served the Pilgrims well at first, especially when they ran into grave difficulties such as the great sickness of 1620. With disease striking the entire community and over half dead, ``that of 100 and odd persons, scarce 50 remained,'' that any survived at all is largely a function of the entire community pooling all of their resources [Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. Edited by Samuel Eliot Morison. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1952), 77.]. Each family gave according to their abilities and took according to their needs, so to speak. Yet the Pilgrims soon found this radically communal situation to untenable over the long term. Once the great sickness had passed, people began to make excuses so as to avoid labor in the common fields. This, predictably, led to low yields at harvest which created a new crisis of shortage of food.

The solution to this new crisis by the Pilgrims was partial privatization of farming sometimes around the year 1623.  Every family was given a plot of land on which they could grow as much as they could and keep the harvest for use by only their own household.
So they began to think h ow they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust  to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have through great tyranny and oppression.
This experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato's and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. [Ibid 120-21.]
Bradford's main point, of course, is to highlight the increase in productivity and willingness to work that came about by using private rather than communal plots of land for farming. The governor did not have to resort to force or punishment to goad those who formerly complained of being ill or otherwise occupied into working. The enticement of keeping the fruits of one's own labor was motivation enough to bring about a far larger harvest. And for the Pilgrims, such bounty meant the ability to live through the winter. Yet, we should also note that the Pilgrims did not entirely abandon the collective model in other areas. Nor did they give the plots of land they worked to the households to hold in perpetuity. Inheritance of the land was explicitly denied.

Criticism of Plato's Republic was not new to the Pilgrims. Aside from several works contemporary with the colonization of the New World such as Jean Bodin's de Republica, Plato's pupil Aristotle criticized the Republic on the grounds that collective farming will inherently lead to an  increase in conflict within the community, ``if both in the enjoyment of the produce and in the work of production they prove not equal but unequal, complaints are bound to arise between those who enjoy or take much but work little and those who take less but work more'' [Politics, 1263a]. Plato goes on to argue that Plato's attempt to redefine `mine' to mean `ours' results in what later authors would call `the tragedy of the commons.' When everything is common to all, no one person feels the responsibility that comes with ownership to the same extent as when `mine' actually means `mine.' Further, Aristotle claims that Plato made this mistake because he mistook the city for the family writ large. Seeking to make the relations that exist within the family the same as the relations between citizens, Aristotle argues, Plato fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be a city.

And even Plato himself moved away from the radical communism of the Republic in his later work on politics the Laws. In the Laws, the Athenian Stranger (whom some suggest is Socrates) architects a city where every household owns two plots of land, one close to the city and another on the outskirts and are free to use these plots as they see fit contributing a certain portion to city in the form of taxes. In this system, rather than the extreme egalitarianism of the Republic, society was modeled in four bands with each band having a floor and a ceiling with regards to wealth. Households that fell under the floor would be subsidized by the city. Households that exceeded the ceiling would have excess goods confiscated.

So Plato was obviously aware that his idealized city in the Republic was not without problems which would materialize if anyone used it as the model for an actual city. And in fact we have to ask if the Republic is even meant to be taken as a blueprint for a city. In the beginning of Book II of the Republic, Socrates posits that the city is a macrocosm of the soul and that, since a city is larger than a man, it will be easier to see what justice is in a city than it is to see what justice is in the individual soul. So if justice can be found in the thought experiment of an ideally ordered city, then perhaps the interlocutors of the dialog might be able to better understand justice in the soul. Hence, it would appear that the idealized city of the Republic is not meant to be a model city which can be used as a guideline for a political constitution. Rather, it is supposed to be a though experiment by which we who read it can follow in order look inside our own souls. The radical unity of the city that Plato proposes in the Republic is supposed to be the model for the unity that ought to obtain within our own souls rather than a model for an actual city.

Which leads to an interesting question. If the political life of a city really is analogous to the soul and if the radical unity of pure communism is untenable in actual political life, does that not imply the soul can also suffer an excess of unity? In the Platonic tradition, especially in the Neoplatonic school of thought, the unity of the soul plays such a role of tremendous importance. But in the experience of the Pilgrims, and that of countless others over the last twenty-five hundred years since the Republic was written, is that aside from unity, a city also needs diversity. By the end of the late Colonial period in the US, the Federalists gave explicit voice to this idea in their conception of political life consisting of competing interests reaching a public good by each pursuing their own private goals. Does the soul of a human being, then, need an analogous level of diversity in order to be healthy or would such a split within the soul be schizophrenic? Or, rather, does this point out to the failure of Plato's idea that the constitution of a city tells us something of the constitution of the soul?

Those questions are not easy questions to answer. Searching for answers to them invariably leads to more questions. All these years after Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics, there is still no unproblematic definition of what political life entails, its relation (or lack thereof) to the human soul, or even what it means to be a city. That there are no completely satisfying answers to these questions should not inhibit us from searching for them. For in searching for these answers, we do find answers to unexpected questions. Take the Pilgrims as an example. If they thought through the implications of Plato's Republic perhaps in those early years they would not have repeated his mistake regarding an extreme form of communal production of food. They may not have been any wiser about political life but at least their bellies would have been more full.

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