Plato recommended common meals, syssitia, in both the Republic and the Laws, one of the few consistencies between the two books separated by the many years of his life. Though he changed much else in his portrait of a perfected city set out in the Republic, he retained the syssitia in the Laws. Why? Moreover, Plato says the practice is so amazing and frightening that a person might be reluctant to mention it. What made the meals so extraordinary? What made common meals so important that even at the end of his life, Plato clung to this one feature first outlined in the Republic when so much else changed? To anticipate the conclusion: syssitia offered a foundation for the whole of civil society, including women. The meals brought citizens together in public, and tempered egotism and greed. They provided a daily lesson in comportment and civility. On these foundations, the meals schooled participants in unity. Common meals had political purposes that were instrumental, educational, and moral. While the Laws abandoned the thoroughgoing communism of property and family of the Republic, commensality remained as the foundation of community in what Plato called the second-best state.
Commensality, Politics, and Plato
Michael Jackson is a professor emeritus of political theory in the Department of Government, University of Sydney (Australia). He has published on Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, and Mill in the canon of political theory.
Damian Grace is a political philosopher who is currently an Honorary Associate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney (Australia). He has published in normative and applied ethics and the history of political ideas.
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Michael Jackson, Damian Grace; Commensality, Politics, and Plato. Gastronomica 1 May 2017; 17 (2): 51–62. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2017.17.2.51
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