On the summer solstice, I like to reflect on Plato’s longest dialogue, the Laws, which Plato set on this very day. This year's solstice, I am struck more than ever by the book's relevance. For I believe that it suggests a remedy to our rancorous, even violent, politics: the rehabilitation of the often-maligned quality of pride.
The dialogue—among three old men, a Cretan, a Spartan, and an Athenian—would take 16 hours to read out loud. Its goal is to come up with the laws for a new city. It takes up the most important political matters: freedom of speech, the point of education, criteria for rulers, punishment of crime, and even sexual regulation—all matters ripe for heated debate.
The three speakers are very different from one another: the Spartan comes from a deeply conservative regime; the Cretan, from a city even older than Sparta; and the Athenian, from a city known for its liberal, expansionist views.
Can we imagine a traditional conservative, a neo-con, and a contemporary liberal keeping up such a discussion for more than a few minutes?
But these three talk for the longest day of the year. They talk while walking uphill under the Greek sun, a condition likely to shorten tempers. What allows them to do so?
Early in the conversation they almost descend into name-calling, something quite familiar today. There is no “Little Marco” or “Deplorables.” But when the Athenian implies that the Spartans may have a penchant for homosexuality, the Spartan angrily replies that the Athenians are all drunks.
Still, they are able to stand down from this momentary hotspot. Perhaps the fact that the conversation starts with the word “God” and the goal of their trek is the “cave and temple of Zeus” unites them? This belief that God watches over politics is not necessarily shared today. But the presence of religion in politics can as easily divide as unite speakers, then as now. The reason for their perseverance appears to lie elsewhere.
If I were to isolate one quality that allows these three very different speakers to maintain this extraordinary conversation, I would call it pride—a quality almost begging for cultivation today.
Pride in their own communities allows the Cretan and the Spartan to push back when the Athenian questions the goodness of their regimes. They don’t just roll over. Nor do they take the easy way out and reply that, “Everyone has his or her own values.” Because they have pride in their way of life, they seek to defend it.
At the same time, because they have pride in their way of life, they want to understand it, warts and all. They don’t just reject, evade, or refuse to answer the Athenian’s questions. Nor do they fall back on claims of authority: “Our god or our law says so.” They are proud enough in themselves not to be slavish adherents to their own ways.
This pride is rooted in their sense of themselves, as the Cretan and Spartan might put it, as “real men.” They don’t whine about the Athenian’s questions. They are not looking for some cheap advantage. They don’t expect political matters to be easy. They stick with the conversation and their trek even though it is tough—perhaps because it is tough.
They also suggest that they are proud of themselves as Greeks. As we would put it today (if we were proud enough to use the word), they take pride in being “civilized.” Unlike barbarians, they settle their differences with reasoned speeches—not blows, much less bullets.
Plato’s Laws thus dramatizes the centrality to political dialogue of pride. It is more fundamental even than the qualities most often praised today, such as civility, tolerance, diversity, and the like. As such the dialogue serves as a powerful teaching tool.
It can also prevent us from two common ways of misunderstanding pride.
First, while pride may form a basis for nationalism, it is not the same as xenophobia, much less racism—the term most often used to silence debate today. Pride does involve a commitment to “our own.” But true pride never forgets that “our ways” and the “right way” are not necessarily one and the same. For these very reasons, pride seeks to understand and to improve our own community.
Second, pride is not the same as arrogance. This is a vice much in the news lately. (And yet those who accuse others of arrogance often do so with great arrogance—and no irony.) Arrogance sees nothing as higher than oneself. Because that is such an unreasonable position, it also usually involves building yourself up by tearing others down.
The very setting of the Laws gives the lie to arrogance or "hubris," to use the relevant Greek word. The summer solstice portends that the days of the year will now be getting shorter—just as the days of our lives are always waning. The three characters are old men, who several times comment on their own mortality. The Spartan and Cretan look up to divine law as their guide in life. Even the “liberal” Athenian says at one point that, “looking away to the god,” human beings seem like the gods' playthings. That earns him a rebuke from the Spartan, who complains that he is running down the human race. Pride means taking things seriously, including ourselves, while also remembering that we are not the highest things in the universe.
Every healthy political community fosters pride. While multiple motivations no doubt have been at play in Brexit, or the election of President Trump, the desire to feel proud of one’s own community—as distinct from a far-off national or international order ruled by others—seems unmistakable. This desire is one worth cultivating rather than condemning. Pride is not the same as hate or fear. It is not merely parochial, petty, or prejudiced. It provides the foundation for making ourselves at home and for taking care of our home. The reminder of the goodness of pride is just one of the many gifts that Plato’s Laws continues to give.