Platonic Xenophobia

Platonic Xenophobia (Plato on the refugee crisis)

The Syrian immigration crisis has forced many in Europe and elsewhere to start asking some fundamental questions about who they are.

Are they coldhearted, xenophobic, narrow-minded racists with a short memory about the horrors of indifference to the plight of others, or are they justice-seeking, justice-loving humanitarians, who can recognize the face of the human in the stranger and compassionately utter the Christ-like words, “welcome brother, I am you?”

Many discussions of the crisis operate with this stark either-or as something obvious and unproblematic. We are presented with Good, Tolerant Europeans (the good guys) throwing open their doors to the dispossessed, on one hand, and Far-Right Nationalist Bigots (in Hungary and in the Opposition Parties of Europe, the bad guys) marching with their jackboots and – well you get the picture.

But let us beware of oversimplifications and turn to classical political thinkers for at least a third option, neither the Bleeding Heart nor the Cold Shoulder, but the Middle Road of Common Sense and Political Experience.

In a mature work called The Laws, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato depicts the following scenario: an old Athenian man visits Crete to talk in private with an old Cretan man and an old Spartan about their laws and law as such: what it is, what it aims to accomplish, and what compromises it has to make to the ideal to be the best possible practicable code of law.

In the course of their discussion, the Athenian Stranger learns that the Cretan has been tasked with founding a colony. Together, the men inquire into the conditions that would foster the best possible regime for that colony. For instance, the Athenian says that it should not be founded too close to the sea, because the sea “infects a place with commerce and the money-making that comes with retail trade, and engenders shifty and untrustworthy dispositions in souls.” As much as possible, then, the city should be self-sufficient. And there should be a guaranteed minimum property level for all of the inhabitants, as well as a guaranteed maximum property level (four times the original holding), to avoid the vices of both too great poverty and too much inequality (there is no pretension in Plato of rendering everyone materially equal, however: he is far too astute an observer of human nature for that).

One of the first issues the men consider is whether the colonists of the new colony should come from all of Greece or not. The Cretan thinks they should – why not. The Athenian cautions him, noting that sometimes colonists share moral habits and sometimes they don’t. They do when they settle a place as “a friend coming from friends” due to land shortage or the like, or when “a part of a city is compelled to move to some foreign place because of civil strife.” In cases like this – when the habits of the group coming in to the new city are more or less the same – “it is in one sense easier to settle and lay down laws, but in another sense more difficult. The tribal unity and the similarity of language and of laws, since they imply a sharing of the sacred things and all such matters, create a certain friendship; but then again, they do not easily accept laws and regimes different from their own. Sometimes, even when they have suffered from civil strife as a result of the wickedness of their laws they still prefer, out of habit, to live with the same habitual customs that corrupted them before. So they give trouble to [the city] and become disobedient. In contrast the tribe that has been collected from all over would probably be more willing to obey certain new laws; but for it to breathe together and grow to be constantly united…would require much time and trouble.”

The “bad” Europeans and the “good” ones worry about this old Platonic problem: the “bad guys” – actually the more Platonic of the two groups – worry that when refugees from Syria swarm European cities, they come with “habitual customs” entirely inconsistent with the basic moral habits encouraged by the constitutional states they are entering. The migrants have a certain “sharing of the sacred things and all such matters” that creates a friendship different from the European friendship, with its own “sacred things.” The “good” Europeans, for their part, think that if you gather enough peoples, customs, habits, and ways under a big enough umbrella, you can tip the scales away from what varies in man toward what is everywhere human in him (the logic of the good European thus compels him to extend a hearty welcome to the non-European). It is at this point that Plato’s Athenian Stranger calls for “moderation”: enough flexibility to make sure that people are not fated by their moral customs to remain untouched by the improvements available through legal habituation, but not so much flexibility that conflicting or altogether incompatible moral habits are allowed to dwell together, making any sort of political regime – and the good sort, especially – impossible.

Before we collapse our moral assessment of the Syrian refugee crisis into an oversimplified dichotomy of good, tolerant, universalist Europeans, on one hand, and bad, intolerant, parochial racist bigots, on the other, we should consider whether “Platonic xenophobia,” or an understanding of the effect of moral customs and habits on a political regime does not provide us with a sounder, more moderate perspective on the age-old problem of migrants and the law. We should never forget, and Plato cannot remind us too often, that sometimes there is nothing more “humanitarian” than to avoid the temptation to ignore the partial, political character of what it is to be human. Reflection on the nature of political order, morals, and laws – and reading Plato is as good a form of such reflection as one could hope for – might prevent us from falling prey to that temptation too often.

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