Plato: The equality of the lot

Badiblogger draws attention in a comment on the Literature page to the fact that Plato’s Laws discusses sortition.

In a passage in book VI Plato explains that it is sometimes necessary – contrary to the requirements of justice – to bow to popular pressure and use “the equality of the lot”:

The old saying, that “equality makes friendship,” is happy and also true; but there is obscurity and confusion as to what sort of equality is meant. For there are two equalities which are called by the same name, but are in reality in many ways almost the opposite of one another; one of them may be introduced without difficulty, by any state or any legislator in the distribution of honours: this is the rule of measure, weight, and number, which regulates and apportions them. But there is another equality, of a better and higher kind, which is not so easily recognized. This is the judgment of Zeus; among men it avails but little; that little, however, is the source of the greatest good to individuals and states. For it gives to the greater more, and to the inferior less and in proportion to the nature of each; and, above all, greater honour always to the greater virtue, and to the less less; and to either in proportion to their respective measure of virtue and education. And this is justice, and is ever the true principle of states, at which we ought to aim, and according to this rule order the new city which is now being founded, and any other city which may be hereafter founded. To this the legislator should look – not to the interests of tyrants one or more, or to the power of the people, but to justice always; which, as I was saying, the distribution of natural equality among unequals in each case. But there are times at which every state is compelled to use the words, “just,” “equal,” in a secondary sense, in the hope of escaping in some degree from factions. For equity and indulgence are infractions of the perfect and strict rule of justice. And this is the reason why we are obliged to use the equality of the lot, in order to avoid the discontent of the people; and so we invoke God and fortune in our prayers, and beg that they themselves will direct the lot with a view to supreme justice. And therefore, although we are compelled to use both equalities, we should use that into which the element of chance enters as seldom as possible.

9 Responses

  1. >” and so we invoke God and fortune in our prayers, and beg that they themselves will direct the lot with a view to supreme justice.”

    We must excuse Plato his error here, as of course he had not read those modern commentators who have proved that the Athenians did not use sortition as a means of letting the deity decide.


  2. Maybe, but Plato himself is clearly aware here that those prayers don’t amount to much and that the lot is indiscriminate and is therefore really a “secondary-sense” equalitarian procedure.


  3. I always loved Plato. Many years ago, after I left gymnasium, i even translated his Hippias Minor. However, although I understood all the different words of this text, I was not able not understand it as a whole. Would you be able to say in a few words what the message is Plato wants to communicate.


  4. Plato’s message is that some people deserve more than others. Of course the inferior people, those who deserve less, don’t realize that, and insist on having equal shares. This is clearly unfortunate and unjust, says Plato, but sometimes making some concessions to the majority is unavoidable.


  5. Thanks a lot for your explanation. This, however, gives a lot to think and discuss about.


  6. The modern notion of equality (Plato’s first example) is generally attributed to the Christian doctrine of everyone being equal in the eyes of God. This of course conveniently ignores the parable of the talents — “For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who doesn’t have, even that which he has will be taken away”, which is Plato’s second sense of justice. Three observations:

    1. The word “talent” is the highest denomination of Greek currency and the association of money and skill has this origin. Athenian politicians always measured their income in talents, not obols.

    2. Perhaps the equality referred to in the Declaration of Independence was type 2 — this is certainly how it has turned out in practice! Jefferson’s original wording was religious, until secularized by Benjamin Franklin into “self-evident”. The phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” has always struck me as distinctly odd, because everyone is born extremely unequal, both biologically and circumstantially. Equality is a religiously-derived normative goal, not a natural kind, and it’s surprising that the document was approved and signed when it contained such a fundamental mistake. But I suppose it served a rhetorical purpose and that was all that mattered at that time.

    3. Plato’s hostility to democratic equality (ie the lot) is not open to dispute as his wording is unambiguous. This was fuelled by the sentencing to death of his teacher Socrates by an allotted court. Aristotle was less opposed, a mixture of democracy and aristocracy being the most workable constitution (although not, in his eyes, the best).


  7. Actually, Plato’s view of lot IS still subject to dispute…See for example this article by French historian Paul Demont
    The article focuses on the PRE-democratic use of lot in Greece, and discusses various other statements by Plato about lottery equality.


  8. That last anonymous comment was from me, Terry, but not logged-in at the time.


  9. Thanks Terry, that’s a really fascinating article, which counters the modern view of the necessary connection between democracy and allotment. I didn’t know that the kleroterion machines were all recovered from the Hellenistic (non-democratic) period, rather than the fourth century.

    The author’s suggestion of the enduring connection between lot and religion (born out by the fact that the kleroterion was a “sanctuary”) might also be of practical use. One of the concerns of those of us proposing the modern use of sortition is the problem of power without accountability, so there might be some value in the idea that citizens are “chosen by lot” as opposed to just being “randomly selected” (i.e. just a statistic). We shouldn’t dismiss too lightly the historical association of allotment with elaborate public rituals — this might be of ongoing value, especially if combined with a modern version of the Heliastic oath. If citizens are chosen to legislate then it’s important that every step possible be taken to ensure that they are conscious of the awesome responsibility involved in the role. Public ceremonial is an essential part of this, hence Rousseau’s emphasis on the vital role of civic religion. If representatives are not accountable to the electorate then they need to be accountable to a [secularised version of] the polis divinities. This was the natural law narrative of the accountability of the representative in the pre-democratic period and would be an important element in countering the harlot’s prerogative (power without responsibility) that would be the inevitable consequence of selecting legislators by lot.

    Anyway, great article! — recommended reading for everyone on this blog. Hopefully Gil might invite the author to speak at one of the Sciences Po sortition seminars.


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