Front Page Titles (by Subject) Plato and Constitutions - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4
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Plato and Constitutions - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Plato and Constitutions
“Plato and the Anatomy of Constitutions.” Social Theory and Practice 5(Fall 1978):95–130.
Amid systems, statistics, and voting studies, modern social sciences have little room left for “political theory.” Professor Spencer argues that ignoring philosophy is a major error for any science of politics. Using Plato as an illustration, he attempts to show how an integration of the empirical and philosophical realms might proceed.
To demonstrate the generative relationship that exists between ideas and institutions, Professor Spencer scrutinizes two hypothetical constitutions conceived by Plato: the one projected in the Republic; the other in the Laws.
Spencer first divides the philosophical content of all constitutions into two categories: (1) the constitutive principles, and (2) the formative principles (or ideological elements derived from moral ideals), which determine a constitution's legitimate institutions.
In general, the Republic reflects a much more optimistic view of human potential than is evidenced in the Laws, a much later work. The constitution of the Republic rests upon the notion of the almost infinite plasticity of human nature, which can be carefully molded and refined through education.
Plato's guardians work toward the ideal of the balanced soul, in which spirit and appetite submit to the voice of reason. This particular hierarchy produces the virtue of justice in individual souls. The same hierarchy prevails in the organization of the ideal state. The submission of guardians and people to the rule of the philosopher-king engenders a harmonious public justice conspicuously absent from the democratic polity.
The more sublime education of the Republic's philosopher-king cultivates perception of the good, of absolute truth and beauty. The state is organized so as to provide a setting in which the philosopher may more easily pierce the cloud of illusion to achieve true vision.
Insofar as institutions are concerned, detailed written laws are not at all necessary in the constitution of the Republic. The philosopher-king rules by the formative principle of charisma; his enlightened vision ensures the righteousness of his sovereignty. His individual soul, thus, underwrites the legitimacy of the state.
In the Laws, on the contrary, a less buoyant view of human perfectibility prevails. Here, Plato retains only the ideal of spiritual balance, of justice. Nothing higher or deeper can be expected of recalcitrant human material.
This significant change of constitutive principle radically alters the character of the constitution proposed in the Laws. The perfecting role of education vanishes in favor of propaganda which molds public opinion toward justice. Distributing honorific positions also goads men toward greater virtue. In addition, since no one can arrive at a full vision of the good, charisma no longer serves as a legitimizing political principle. Plato's “second-best polity” must necessarily be “a government of laws, not of men.” Elaborate legislation promulgated by just men as a group replaces the vision of the individual philosopher-king as this commonwealth's operational mode. Thus, a change in ideals effects change in political institutions.
This type of analysis, Professor Spencer claims, may be applied to actual governmental documents such as the U.S. Constitution. Pursued rigorously, Spencer believes that the study of political anatomy will elucidate, in the face of behaviorist scepticism, the contribution of moral values to political order.