Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 637a–645c

Symposium scene by the Nicias painter. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.


To quote Homer, alcohol is the “solution to all of life’s problems.” Contrary to this sage, however, Megillus lauds the Spartan law forbidding alcohol as evidence that his city has the best view of pleasure. You will never, he argues, see Spartans making fools of themselves while under the influence—unlike certain other cities we might name… Athens. Maybe we’re drunks, the Athenian Stranger replies, but at least our women can keep their legs together! And just when the conversation is in danger of getting ribald, the Athenian reminds us that we are supposed to be considering a specific topic: namely, the “merits and faults of legislators” (637d). And in having this discussion, we should note that there is a legitimate role for alcohol to play that has been overlooked.

What the Spartans have missed is the fact that it is drunkenness that is the vice, not drinking itself. (As someone with Baptist inclinations, I can sympathize with the error.) And when it comes to drinking, we see that there are all sorts of possible cultural practices and codes of laws that we could follow. Everything from the total temperance of the Spartans to the grandiose drunkenness of the barbarians is on the table.

Yet, Megillus retorts, the Spartans regularly defeat all of these folks on the battlefield. Does that not suggest their laws concerning alcohol, and by extension their entire code of laws and way of life, are the superior ones?

This discussion becomes a jumping-off point for the broader analysis of education. Because victory in war is no guide to whether or not a state has a good government—larger states with wicked constitutions conquer virtuous smaller ones all the time—we must, the Athenian argues, have some other explanation than the battlefield. But in order to get to that explanation, we have to set aside our presuppositions and judge based on the merits of the law under consideration. Failing to do so leads the Athenian to the best line so far in the book:

You might as well condemn cheese out of hand when you heard somebody praising its merits as a food. (638c)

That is, we don’t want to hear the word “drunkenness” and automatically be against whatever is being proposed. What’s more, our own experiences and observations cannot be the final and definitive guide. The fact that you have seen someone drunkenly vandalizing a storefront and I have seen someone enjoying a glass of wine over dinner are both ultimately poor foundations for a law.

This leads to a second point, in addition to setting aside our own prejudices, we have to examine the object under consideration at its best. That is, we should not judge the drinking party by the fraternity kegger that got out of hand and burned down the school; we should judge the drinking party by the one that has a host of consummate skill who manages the affair so well that by the end everyone has benefited morally and intellectually, if not also physically, from their attendance.

Under these conditions, we can see that drinking parties may be of great use to the state in advancing education. And once we’ve put it in those terms, we can all see the benefits:

The good education they [citizens] have received will make them good men, and being good they will achieve success in other ways, and even conquer their enemies in battle. (641c)

Though we do have to be careful—victory leads to arrogance, and arrogance can undermine the efforts of education.

But where, the Athenian is asked, do drinking parties fit in specifically?

…the genuinely correct way to regulate drinking can hardly be explained adequately and clearly except in the context of a correct theory of culture; and it is impossible to explain this without considering the whole subject of education. (642a)

And so the Athenian sets off on an extended reflection on the nature and purpose of training and raising up the young.

So what is the purpose of education? In the most specific sense, the point of education is to train an individual from childhood with the skills for and delight in “the occupation in which he will have to be absolutely perfect when he grows up” (643d). That is of course true on all of the smaller levels—carpentry, blacksmithing, etc. But in the context of the current discussion,

what we have in mind is education from childhood in virtue, a training which produces a keen desire to become a perfect citizen who knows how to rule and be ruled as justice demands. (644a)

When this is properly done, education becomes the path to virtue. If it is not properly done, it is our obligation to dedicate ourselves to correcting this flaw in the state.

What, then, does education that is properly put together look like? To help us understand, the Athenian gives us an allegory:

…let’s imagine that each of us living beings is a puppet of the gods… we have these emotions in us [pleasure and pain, confidence and fear, etc.], which act like cords or strings and tug us about… One of these dragging forces… demands our constant obedience, and this is the one we have to hang on to, come what may; the pull of the other cords we must resist. This cord, which is golden and holy, transmits the power of “calculation,” a power which in the state is called the public law… (644e–645a)

The job of education is to convince us to cling to this golden cord. By our educational training we are to learn both to recognize its gentle guidance and to truly enjoy the life lived according to its leadership. Where drinking parties specifically fit into this education scheme we will see in the next section.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

4 Responses to “The Laws: 637a–645c”

  1. gabe

    “This cord, which is golden and holy, transmits the power of “calculation,” a power which in the state is called the public law… (644e–645a)

    The job of education is to convince us to cling to this golden cord. By our educational training we are to learn both to recognize its gentle guidance and to truly enjoy the life lived according to its leadership.”

    I call this the “Common Mind.” It is the imbued force of tradition (social values, mores, and common law) that provides readily recognizable standards of behavior, defines both rights AND obligations, and enables one to set a course through life and civic association(s).

    What is one to make of a society (such as it is) that knowingly and willingly denigrates, distorts and dismisses this Common Mind; one in which the word tradition has become a pejorative, a term of derision and an impediment to the attainment of the new and ever just shortly over-the-horizon utopia of an ever pleasurable society?

    Do we teach tradition? – only in the sense that the young are informed of tradition in the most vile and misanthropic terms.

    Law, as an example, is now sui generis – we are all LAWGIVERS if one is to believe the current understanding and are equipped with all those powers of (self) discernment necessary to live a virtuous life – and after all, in a self centered / generated society isn’t all that is necessary an understanding of self.
    You know what they say about a man being his own lawyer – how much worse has it become now that we are all our own LAWGIVERS!!!!!

    With that, IAM going to open up a bottle of some rather fine Walla Walla Valley Merlot, vintage 2009 (an excellent year – what the heck, if they can be their own LAWGIVERS, i can be my own wine critic).

    I’ll have a glass for you, Coyle, if you do not indulge. Well, I’d probably have it anyway.

    take care

    • Coyle Neal

      I might have to steal your “Common Mind” phrase.

      And for the record, I do indulge from time to time (I make a mean hot buttered rum), but it’s a rarity by temperament rather than conviction or compulsion. Also, booze is pricey. So there’s that too. 🙂

      • gabe

        If you ever want some recommendations on some very solid AND inexpensive wines (red is all I drink BTW) let me know.

        Bastardizing a phrase from that silly and biased film, “Inherit the Wind,” – if it was good enough for the Apostles, then it’s good enough for me!!”

        BTW 2: The phrase is actually the title of a rather fine book I read some while back.

  2. wlindsaywheeler

    It is important to keep in mind the military side of things. Most academics have no clue on things military, having never served.

    Plato has a point and so does Megillus. The Spartans HAD to be teetotalers. Why? Each Spartiate was a killing machine. Alcohol does different things to different people; some people dance when drunk, others fall asleep, some go giddy, while others—get downright belligerent. Do you want a drunken killing machine running around? How many other soldiers would be harmed trying to stop him? It is better that no one touched drink. Can anyone take a chance that one of the his killing machines would be the belligerent type? No.

    Plato is trying to meld two different cultures the Ionian and the Dorian. Doric Greek laws were meant ONLY for the Doric Greeks and their culture. You can’t take a fish out of water—so you can’t take the Doric Greek out of his culture. The Doric Greek was not meant to live outside of his culture–naturally he would die due to the failings Plato notes.

    Plato makes a good point but then Plato is trying to create “One size fits all” and it can’t be done.


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