Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 645d–650b

“Drinking Party with a Lute Player,” by Nicolas Tournier, Musee de Berry, Bourges.


The Athenian Stranger has hinted that the symposium, if properly run, has a legitimate place in the education of the young. Cleinias is intrigued and asks for further consideration of the topic. The Athenian first gives a hint of an aspect of the drinking party he will return to later in the dialogue when he notes that the drunkard “reverts to the mental state he was in as a child” (645e). We’ll see more on how alcohol can enable one to be “born again” in a few weeks.

Here, the Athenian makes a different argument: viewed and practiced properly, drinking can be the spiritual and emotional equivalent of going to the gym. That is, although it can temporarily weaken us, over the long term it makes us stronger as it enhances our senses. And as with going to the gym, it must be done in the right way and at the right times in balance with an overall well-ordered lifestyle.

The idea is that alcohol intensifies the passions that drive us, even as it wipes out our internal restraints constructed through “sensations, memory, opinions, and thought” (645e). At first glance, this would seem to be paving the way for the tyrant of the Republic and hence opposed to everything Plato stands for. Plato even points out that the virtuous man will realize this and so be tempted to eschew at least drunkenness, if not alcohol all together.

But! With the proper guidance by a wise legislator (presumably in this case also the guy throwing the party), alcohol becomes a tool in the service of virtue rather than a roadway to self-destruction. We can see this when we realize that the passions which come to dominate the drunk are not inherently wicked but rather have an appropriate role to play in the virtuous life. Taking the example of fear, the Athenian notes that cowardice and shamelessness are both kinds of fear that need to be offset by the virtues of courage and modesty. In other words, cowards have too much fear, while the shameless have too little. Both need to exercise their virtue just as an athlete exercises his body for a race.

Obviously one way to exercise these virtues would be to throw the individuals into the situations where they are required. We could just throw the coward into combat or put the shameless person under intense public shaming. But wouldn’t it be better, the Athenian asks, if we could devise a test that lets people practice without any actual danger to themselves or the state? (648b) This is where alcohol comes in, for it has a role to play both as the test itself and in the development of virtue. In terms of the latter, alcohol reduces men to a childish state and gives us some sort of practice at facing our vices and trying to overcome them. (Plato will have more to say on this later.) In terms of the former, alcohol reveals the naked soul.

In normal circumstances we may not be able to tell whether one person is a coward and another is shameless until the one is thrown into combat and runs away, and the other publicly disgraces himself at the theater. For that matter, both the coward and the shameless man may have even been unaware of their own vices. Alcohol, on the other hand, brings those vices to the forefront and reveals them to themselves and to others.

So this insight into the nature and disposition of a man’s soul will rank as one of the most useful aids available to the art which is concerned to foster a good character—the art of statesmanship. (650b)

After all, the Athenian asks, isn’t it better to know about a man that he is a lecher before we ask him to babysit our daughters? Isn’t it better to find out that someone has a temper while we’re out drinking together, rather than after we’ve signed a business agreement?

All this to say, given our goals in education, we shouldn’t write off a tool that might help us understand how any given individual can best be taught. Which is going to lead Plato back into the nature of education, which in turn will lead him back to alcohol.

As an ending note: if the folks who think that the Laws and the Republic are doing the same thing are correct (and they may very well be), then this section on alcohol is a depressing one, as it would appear that the elderly Plato is throwing his hands up in the air and saying “you know what, fine. You people clearly can’t understand the myth of the metals or the myth of Er, so you know what great philosophy is like? Booze, that’s what.” A more charitable interpretation might be that Plato had been spending the intervening years between the two works reflecting on how one might exactly determine the content of one’s soul, given that most people might not want the brutal process of elimination outlined in the Republic. Drinking, on the other hand…


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

9 Responses to “The Laws: 645d–650b”

  1. gabe

    I’m kind of partial to the “elderly Plato” – heck, he can share a glass with me anytime.

    It is however an interesting proposition, albeit one that may not be successful. In a controlled environment, and here the Party host must play a pivotal role, you try to a) determine a man’s vices and b) do so in such a fashion as to allow him to become aware of them – and finally, perhaps, c) and allow him to incorporate this new knowledge into his self (and social) perception.

    Some vices may be readily observed – anger, envy, etc.
    Virtues however may not be so obvious. Spiritedness, perhaps – but wisdom, reason, etc may be masked by boisterous, an all-too-agreeable (or disagrreable) outward display not uncommon among imbibers of the sacred grape.

    I don’t know if Plato eventually ends up here but – it would seem as if the drinking party would serve as a poor substitute for the Laws, comprised as they are of the tradition / experience of the Common Mind.

    Or have i had one too many grapes today?

    take care

    • Coyle Neal

      All the philosophers agree that the “Party host must play a pivotal role.” For example, Kant:

      “Kant expresses the political dimension of dinner parties in terms of the rules that regulate the topics of conversation as well as the guests’attitudes towards each other.
      These rules can be divided according to the matter / form distinction.
      (i) Matter: the content of the conversation-
      (1) Common interests: “choose topics for conversation which inter-est everybody.”
      (2) No private interests: “this conversation ought not to be business.”
      (3) Communal conversation: “a conversation of taste . . . must always bring culture with it, where each always talks with all (not merely with his neighbor).””


  2. Frank

    So all those keg parties I attended in college were just as necessary for my education/development as the classes I attended. That’s a relief.

    I really wasn’t sure how AS would tie Book I together – it seemed that, topically, we were all over the map – but this section of readings worked nicely. I’m not sure I’m convinced about the utility of mixing alcohol and social events, but we’ll see.

    His point about good men fearing an evil or bad reputation – that’s interesting, and I wonder if that holds true today. Your populist can say some shameful things, yet he’s not after a good reputation as classically understood – he’s after a good reputation as understood by the mob. That’s not to say what really is a “good reputation” is situational – I think there are constants that are true over time – its that I don’t think what Plato says applies to all politicians in the way that he means it. Some fear a bad reputation, if that means getting on the wrong side of the majority – they may not fear a bad reputation, if that means adhering to the rule of law, for example (“we can’t wait on Congress”).

  3. Frank

    Coyle, one other thing. Imposing my order on it, I’d summarize Book I as follows:

    (1) Man is at war with himself – there is good and bad in each of us. 626, 644-45.

    (2) Drinking (in the right context) is one way to discover those competing passions in a man. 649-50.

    (3) Good men are able to rule themselves, while bad men are not (I think he means that good men can master their passions, find that “Golden Mean,” etc.). 644

    (4) “Reason” is the key to mastering or affections (passions? the bad in us?). 644-45

    (5) Education makes good men, and good men act nobly. 641

    (6) By “education,” we mean education in virtue (the four virtues – 631) from youth up, so that a man is trained to rightly rule or obey. 643-44 (Since “wisdom” is one of the virtues, and “reason” is so important, I assume education will help develop “reason” as well.)

    Is that fair? Did I misstate anything or miss other key points?

    • Coyle Neal

      Frank, I think you’ve got it–though you’re also right that isn’t not necessarily all tied together well. I’m happy to chalk that up to being unfinished, but I think it may also be the case that Plato is just trying to get everything in.

      And I like your point about there being a need to nuance our ideas of what a “good reputation” means. Plato is pretty clear that he means a good reputation for virtue, as judged by the virtuous–but he doesn’t explicitly tie it in to his discussion of leadership. (If I remember correctly, it comes up in his discussion of art more than anything else.)

  4. gabe


    Curious here!

    Aristotle seems to say that it is not reason (or not sufficiently in itself) that allows one to master passions and / or law / politics, but to a real extent – observation. One ought to first observe and learn what the cultural mores / norms are, learn what the laws / politics are – how they are practiced by the contemporary practitioners and why (tradition, etc?). This would appear to differ from his master – or does Plato also pay deference to “experience”?

    Just some idle thinking here as I put my grandson down to sleep – “No more observation for you!!!!!! (apologies to Seinfeld).


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