Plato and the art of political weaving

Plato’s political views are usually associated with ‘The Republic’ and its detailed analysis of the perfect political and social community. The possibly apocryphal dialogue on ‘The Laws’ sheds further light on the necessity to establish just laws in order to channel the virtuous inclinations of human nature and curb its dangerous excesses. A third, late dialogue is ‘Politikos’ dedicated to the expert on political matters as distinguished from the sophist who resorts to specious arguments to win his case or the ‘rhetor’ or orator who relies on his mastery of language to cajole and convince his listeners.

In ‘The Statesman’, Plato no longer emphasises the key role of pure ideas in the Philosopher King’s exercise of power but instead the art or ‘techne’ required of a successful statesman. His main objective remains the general harmony and happiness of the citizens, only achievable through the enactment of just legislation, reflecting a spirit of moderation. Once again, the single ruler is preferred to the possible vagaries of an oligarchic regime of a few or a democratic one, as delineated in ‘The Republic’.

Plato introduces here a mythological section which describes, during the age of Cronus, an original, self-sufficient mankind spontaneously produced by the earth itself before being abandoned to its own fate during one of the myriads of revolutions endlessly destroying and reshaping the cosmos. Yet mankind finds the ability and energy to survive thanks to god-given gifts corresponding to the divisions of human activities between creative and auxiliary arts. Comparing the craft of the weaver and the craft of the ruler, Plato points out that both ultimately rely on supportive trades such as the carder and loom maker in the first example or the army strategists counselling the royal figure, in the second.

More surprising is the close parallel between both crafts. A good weaver is capable of discarding wool of bad quality and bring together the best strands of yarn in order to produce a most colourful and attractive tapestry. In the same way, ‘the kingly art blends and weaves together: taking on the one hand those whose natures tend rather to courage, which is the stronger element and may be regarded as the warp, and on the other hand those which incline to order and gentleness, and which are represented in the figure as spun thick and soft, after the manner of the woof.’ (309a).

Although ‘The Statesman’ is generally regarded as a minor dialogue whose purpose is to encourage the pursuit of dialectical thinking, it offers a complementary aspect to our appreciation of Plato’s political philosophy. Distinct from the purely intellectual qualities ascribed to the Guardians, Plato describes here a political craftsman whose psychological knowledge of his people is briefly compared to the herdsman’s understanding of his animals. However, the ‘philosophical’ conduct of human affairs belongs to the highest and noblest kind of all activities. Just like God restored order and ‘tender care’ to a post-Cronus world ‘in danger of universal ruin’, Plato’s statesman, through his expert ‘weaving’, unites into a harmonious political pattern all the multifarious virtues at play within the community.

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