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Freedom as Self-Mastery in Plato's Laws

Carl Young

I propose to investigate an argument that Plato makes only in the Laws, namely that self-mastery is a kind of freedom (635b-d). The Platonic concept of freedom is one of the more controversial subjects in the scholarly literature, but there is nearly universal agreement that Plato posits a concept of freedom as self-mastery, and that self-mastery is, what Isaiah Berlin called, “positive liberty” (Berlin 1997: 204, 212-213; cf., Stalley 1998: 145, 151-152; Klosko 2006: 165-169; Edge 2009: 44; Hansen 2010: 27, 21). “Positive liberty,” according to Berlin, is the freedom to be “one’s own master,” and one is free to be one’s own master when the rational self “dominates” one’s pleasures, desires, and passions (Berlin 1997: 203-204). Positive liberty is thus more of “an ethical creed, and scarcely political at all” (Berlin 1997: 210; cf. Laks 2007: 131, Hansen 1996: 94, 2010: 8). By contrast, Berlin defined “negative liberty” as freedom from constraint, coercion, or “interference by others” (1997: 194-206). Negative liberty is “political liberty” par excellence, and it is “a mark of high civilization…a truer and more humane ideal” because it encompasses basic civil liberties like freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and the freedom to live as one pleases (Berlin 1997: 201, 233-242; cf., Hansen 2010: 27, 21; cf., Stalley 1998: 145, 151-152; Klosko 2006: 165-169).

Berlin’s lecture has rightly been called “the most influential single essay in contemporary political philosophy” (Skinner 2002: 238), and thus it is understandable that scholars have accepted his basic description of self-mastery as positive liberty. Nevertheless, since most Plato scholars seem not to have kept current with the debates that have been prompted by Berlin's lecture (Laks 2007 is the exception), they often overlook the important criticisms, refinements, and theoretical developments, of Berlin's original thesis. For example, arguments made Gerald MacCallum (1991: 100-122), and Eric Nelson (2005), have shown that Berlin's initial formulation of positive liberty as self-mastery turns out to be upon closer inspection a special case of negative liberty. Although the constraints it envisions are internal, rather than external, the freedom it envisions is still “negative” (i.e., passions, desires, feelings, etc., constrain, or interfere with, our freedom to act, or live, in certain ways). Reading Plato as a “positive” theorist, then, not only leads to a distorted understanding of Plato’s view of freedom, but also supports those who think Karl Popper was “right to suggest that Plato is opposed to the Open Society” (Stalley 1998: 156; cf. Hansen 2010: 26-27).

I will argue that in the Laws the concept of “self-mastery” (ὁ μὲν κρείττων αὑτοῦ) is first used to define the virtue of “moderation” (σωφροσύνη, 626b-632e). Self-mastery can be applied to both individual souls as well as cities (626c-d, 627b), and therefore, has both a moral and political aspect. This argument is not unique to the Laws but has parallels in the Republic (430e-432a). In the Laws, however, Plato has his chief protagonist in the dialogue, an unnamed Athenian stranger, do something that Socrates in the Republic never does (though he seems on the verge of doing so, 431b-c), namely, use the word ἐλεύθερος to describe self-mastery (635b-d). Specifically, he argues that unless the legislator teaches the citizens how to master their own pleasures and desires, “they will not be free" (ἐλευθέριοι) because “they will be enslaved” (δουλεύσουσι) by those who can master their own pleasures and desires (635d). Thus, self-mastery is fundamentally a kind of individual, moral, freedom, but it is also as a necessary condition for individual, political, freedom, and, by extension, the freedom, and autonomy, of the polis as a whole (cf. 689a-c, 700a-701c). I will conclude by arguing that Plato uses this concept of freedom as self-mastery in the Laws to correct and reform the democratic concept of freedom of “living as one wishes” (cf., Thuc. 2.37.2; Pl. Resp. 557b; Arist. Pol. 1310a32-34, 1316b24, 1317b11-17, 1318b39-41, 1319b30).

Session/Panel Title:

Free Speech

Session/Paper Number

68.1

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