Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 652a–660d

“Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century AD, from Rome Thermae Decianae (?), Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums,” by Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


If all that has been said so far is our only defense of drinking parties—namely, that they give us a view of the human soul in all its unclothed glory—then we might not have enough to justify their formal sanction by the state. And yet, the Athenian thinks they provide an additional service. Properly run drinking parties can simultaneously protect the education of the state. In order to understand how this works, we must once again examine the goal of education and the means by which it is used to raise the young. This means understanding the nature of virtue and how it is taken up by the soul.

In the very youngest of children (and it does appear that the Athenian is beginning with infancy), “education” is “the initial acquisition of virtue by the child” (653b). The way this education happens is through the means of pleasure and pain. Specifically,

when the feelings of pleasure and affection, pain and hatred, that well up in his soul are channeled in the right courses before he can understand the reason why. Then when he does understand, his reason and his emotions agree in telling him that he has been properly trained by inculcation of appropriate habits. Virtue is this general concord of reason and emotion. (653b)

Plato is obviously on to something here. We cannot explain rationally to a toddler why it is that he cannot have cookies and ice cream for every meal however much he wants them. But we can, over time and with patience and practice, teach that a proper meal with a good balance of nutrition and taste is itself a pleasure. Ice cream is perhaps an appropriate occasional supplement to a regular diet of meat, grains, vegetables, fruits, etc., but it cannot be a replacement without destroying the pleasure it brings as well as the pleasure found in a healthy body consuming a good meal. The toddler lacks the reason to understand this, but he can be taught through pleasure until he reaches the age where reason can look back and understand why those specific practices were used to educate him.

The problem with children (or so I’m told, having been one but not having finished raising one) is that however well behaved they may be as infants and toddlers, at some point they begin to talk back and act out. Fortunately, the Athenian suggests, the gods have given us a tool to use to keep the young on the right track by giving them an enjoyable avenue to focus their energy that simultaneously reinforces the good foundation laid by earlier education: this is the chorus. I think we are safe enough in joining the translator’s title to this section by expanding “chorus” to act as a stand-in for “the arts” in general.

As youthful virtue erodes, it must be renewed by art. But the Athenian is even more specific than this: the ongoing reinforcement of virtue comes not by technical proficiency, but by an affective participation in the life of the arts. In the same way, the good man is not the one who has the proper understanding of ethical theory; the good man is the one who loves to do good even if he cannot quite understand why what he is doing is right or what philosophy motivates his actions. To inject a bit of Jeffersonianism here, the honest farmer who puts in a good days work and tries his best to care for his family but is completely without book learnin’ is always morally superior to the cynical college professor who knows right and wrong like the back of his hand but has no dedication to either. The arts can help us to discriminate between these two types, and they do much to reinforce the virtues of the truly good man.

This, in turn, raises the question of how we know whether or not the arts are doing their job—how are we to properly judge art? As we should expect, the Athenian argues that arts are to be judged by how well they represent virtue and vice.

So we come to the question of how one judges the arts by this standard. If pleasure and pain are the tools, are they also the model for art? What throws us when we hear this question is the fact that we are really bundling two things together—the objective value of the art in question and our subjective experience of it. When we say that the latter is the sole standard for judging the quality of art, we forget the possibility that a good person with bad habits or a bad person with good habits might be the one doing the judging, in which case the judgment is at best suspect. We know that we ought to rejoice in the good and reject the evil, but our artistic tastes are very often so corrupt that we are incapable of enjoying true goodness. All that stands between such a person and a total surrender to evil is social convention (656a).

As a result, we have a vested interest in making sure social convention is protecting the quality and kinds of art being produced. Unfortunately, when we look around the Greek world all we see are states where art is allowed to run amok, with the result that artists create whatever they want without regard to virtue. If we want to see art done right, we’ve got to look to Egypt, where they know how to keep artists in line—so much so that the Athenian can boldly declare that Egyptian art has not changed in ten thousand years (656e). This is not, of course, an endorsement of the content of Egyptian art; it is just to say that the Egyptians have realized the potential and the danger of art and taken the appropriate steps to regulate its role in society.

To recap, the laws ought to set up an education system that makes virtue attractive and pleasurable for the next generation. Art, in turn, both facilitates and reinforces this education when done properly. What gets added here is the answer to the question about the relationship between virtue and pleasure:

I am, then, in limited agreement with the man in the street. Pleasure is indeed a proper criterion in the arts, but not the pleasure experienced by anybody and everybody. The productions of the Muse are at their finest when they delight men of high calibre and adequate education—but particularly if they succeed in pleasing the single individual whose education and moral standards reach heights attained by no one else. This is the reason why we maintain that judges in these matters need high moral standards: they have to possess not only a discerning taste, but courage too. (658e–659a)

“Courage” is necessary because these judges will ultimately have to stand in opposition to the tastes of the mob. Likewise, this ability to judge will probably be most present in the elderly, given that they are the ones who have had access to both life experiences and longer-term education. In the next section, we’ll see Plato codify this elderly standard of virtue.


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

2 Responses to “The Laws: 652a–660d”

  1. gabe

    Are “The Laws” inclusive of tradition? That is to say, is Plato treating the moderating / modulating and inculcating powers of tradition as if they are Laws?

    If not, then here again, it would seem that he more closely resembles Aristotle with a respect for and recognition of the role of practice and experience – thus the elderly (thank goodness for that, BTW) assume a critical role in the exposition, judging, etc of the Laws as they quite simply have more experience.

    • Coyle Neal

      I think Plato is playing a bit fast-and-loose with the role of tradition in the law. It seems that he’s trying to keep the stuff he likes and ditch the stuff he doesn’t (though obviously we’re all guilty of that at times). I suspect he would say that virtue needs to govern all things, whether we’re talking about tradition or law.

      For what it’s worth, he’ll get back to this in a few pages…


Please Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: