Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 660e–667a

“Clio, Euterpe, and Thalia,” by Estache Le Sueur, Louvre Museum, Paris.


Whether we’re talking about Plato’s philosophy or Christian doctrine, it is often the burden of the believer to convince the skeptic that worldly pleasure and success are not the measures of all things. The “common sense” assumption of the world is that health, beauty, and wealth are goods to be desired (usually in that order) and that, once achieved, they will make us happy. In point of fact, argues the Athenian, an individual might possess all of these things and still be perfectly unhappy:

Suppose a man were to enjoy health and wealth and permanent absolute power—and, if you like, I’ll give him enormous strength and courage as well, and exempt him from death and all the other “evils,” as people call them. But suppose he has nothing in him but injustice and insolence. It is obvious, I maintain, that his life is wretchedly unhappy. (661e)

This is not to say that health and wealth and power are inherently bad. The Athenian makes the point that in the possession of a just man they can amplify his justice and enhance his happiness. The problem is that the same is true in reverse—in the possession of an unjust man, as the Athenian argues in the quote above, they merely multiply his opportunities for injustice and so stretch his unhappiness to the utmost.

Quite reasonably, Cleinias is skeptical of the Athenian’s claim. For that matter, all of us should be a bit skeptical. Even if we embrace the basic points that it’s better to be just than unjust and that the soul of an individual directly affects the way he uses his resources, why should we conclude that it’s better to be poor, sickly, and powerless and unjust; as opposed to rich, healthy, and powerful and unjust?

The problem inherent in this question is that we are trying to sweeten up the unjust soul by assuming that he is even capable of enjoying these good things of life. The reality is that this is not happiness, it is rather further damage being done to the soul as it is further drawn toward wickedness. It is the job of the legislator to give us a proper vantage point so that we can see the true nature of reality and adjust our understanding of the relationship between justice, happiness, and material prosperity accordingly:

Looking at a thing from a distance makes nearly everyone feel dizzy, especially children; but the lawgiver will alter that for us, and lift the fog that clouds our judgment: somehow or other—by habituation, praise, or argument—he will persuade us that our ideas of justice and injustice are like pictures drawn in perspective. Injustice looks pleasant to the enemy of justice, because he regards it from his own personal standpoint, which is unjust and evil; justice, on the other hand, looks unpleasant to him. But from the standpoint of the just man the view gained of justice and injustice is always the opposite. (663c)

Of course, once we realize that the just and unjust souls have differing views of the question, we ought to take the side of the just soul and try to see things from that perspective.

From this discussion, the Athenian returns to the question of education. Let’s assume for a minute that all this business about justice and prosperity is bunk, isn’t it at least good bunk? To the point where it might actually be worthwhile to teach it to children by means of myths and stories and coloring books and all those other sorts of things we use to indoctrinate our young? Shouldn’t there be a Schoolhouse Rock song about how money won’t make you happy? This brings us back to the role of the arts in the state—particularly the role of three choruses.

I maintain that our choruses—all three of them—should charm the souls of the children while still young and tender, and uphold all the admirable doctrines we have already formulated, and any we may formulate in the future. (664b)

This is a working out of what the Athenian had started to discuss earlier with more specifics of how the arts (music and theater, in this case) are to be used to generate virtue in the state. Four tiers are envisioned:

1) The children’s chorus: dedicated to the muses, the young will sing devotion to virtue with well-mannered frivolity—channeling all their youthful energy into the movement and noise that reflects the good life.
2) The young men’s chorus: those under the age of thirty are dedicated to Apollo and have the job of reinforcing the doctrines sung by the children.
3) The men’s chorus: those between the ages of thirty and sixty are dedicated to Dionysus and form the repository of virtue for the state. Their job is to show true happiness in the virtuous life in such a way that it is attractive to the younger citizens. How do we encourage older men to cut loose a little bit? Through the appropriate application of alcohol…
4) The elderly: men over the age of sixty are not required to join the chorus but instead have the role of storytellers. In a sense, they are both inspired by and provide the source material for the songs of the other tiers.

The point of this hierarchy of music is, as we’ve said, reinforcing the role of virtue in the state. Art must exist for the sake of the good, not for its own sake. Which means it will be critically important to decide who we let participate in the making of art—the subject of the next section.


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

8 Responses to “The Laws: 660e–667a”

  1. gabe

    “Art must exist for the sake of the good, not for its own sake.”

    It seems the Soviets also believed / practiced this. This aim, when so baldly stated, would appear to lend credence to the arguments that Plato was at minimum an “absolutist” and possibly a totalitarian.

    Yet, we are somewhat hesitant to so characterize the American educational establishment, which following John Dewey, has established as its primary aim the transformation of American youth and ultimately American culture and tradition, via ideological pedagogy disguised as any one of a number of new “educational” theories / practices.

    Indeed, the young must be provided instruction, and with or without the formal instruction provided by the State, they will be subjected to “educating” influences – either by friends, family or a host of other factors even if they never enter a classroom.

    The issue becomes who, and with what conception of the good or virtue, shall do the educating. It strikes me that people left to themselves and their community may have as likely a chance of learning virtue as are those provided with the benefits of a State supported / endorsed formal education. At a time when the schools and their functionaries, the teachers (advocates, perhaps is a better term) have arrogated to themselves roles that were heretofore, and more appropriately, deemed to be the province of parents, we lose the benefits of a cultural transmission that our forefathers enjoyed. It is (or has been) to be replaced with the new pedagogically inculcated “Progressivist” world view, distinctly different from the traditional cultural perspective.
    Rights are new and far more important than was to be understood by tradition; obligations are now “MANDATED’ by the new Progressive theory of state “concern” for the citizenry.

    Perhaps, we should all get drunk – or at least require that our teaching establishment be compelled to consume enormous amounts of spirits – perhaps, they will change their approach – or better yet – NOD OFF and not damage the minds of our young!!!!

    • Coyle Neal

      So what you’re saying is you only care a tiny bit about what goes on in the schools these days? 😉
      In all seriousness, I agree with you completely. The problem is the assumption that parents/private schools are necessarily less caught up than teachers in a progressive worldview of/approach to education. Sure, they might use the language of traditionalism, but very often even what is taught outside the public schools is the same worldview presented in a slightly different way.
      That’s not universally true, but it is more often the case than I think I’m really comfortable with.

      • gabe

        Nor I am (regrettably) comfortable with.
        I suppose we should expect nothing else as these young parents are themselves the “beneficiaries” of post-60’s education!

  2. wlindsaywheeler

    The totalitarianism canard is brought up in this post and Gabe writes: **The issue becomes who, and with what conception of the good or virtue, shall do the educating. It strikes me that people left to themselves and their community may have as likely a chance of learning virtue as are those provided with the benefits of a State supported …**

    Well, let’s look at the state of education in America…Today, I consider America a failed state. There is NO control over what is taught in education. All our colleges and universities are marxist. Did not Socrates advocate that the poets need to be censored?

    If you don’t have tight control of what is being taught, you end up like America today with all the young people voting in Bernie Sanders saying “We have to have a revolution, and transform America”. Look at the crowds following Bernie and that I read smears that Plato is totalitarian. I don’t get it.

    Who and what conception of the good and The Good must be protected. Because of the Freedom of Speech, the Communist Manifesto is passed around and is required reading in Western Civ classes! A real bloody genocidal ideology is passed around in our classrooms of today and we scorn and belittle the Wisdom that Plato and Socrates provides as totalitarianism.

    Plato and Socrates were both practicing Doric philosophy. Both were philodorians. The most ancient and fertile homes of Greek philosophy was Crete and Sparta and both practiced the xenelasia.

    • gabe

      Yes, but THE problem right now is that IT IS THE STATE that is advancing these very concepts – and that is the fundamental problem.
      Were it so that the ENTIRE populace, or that ALL communities were supportive of this Leftist agenda, then I would concede your point. However, facts on the ground support a different conclusion: one that indicates that we could conceivable be better off if each local community could dictate educational content AND that PARENTS be seen as the principal inculcator of morals and virtue.
      Regrettably, that is not the case in a world where *educrats* have arrogated to themselves the role of moral teachers and have assumed (and stretched the concept of) in loco parentis.

      • gabe

        Oops. I forgot to add this:

        And the current educational establishment may even be destructive of the health of young students.

        From the American Thinker – a piece that may seem a little off topic but does give an indication of the ills flowing froma highly centralized Educational Establishment:

        This resonates with me as I am appalled at the lack of reading / comprehension skills of the young. It may also explain why so very few of the younger generation(s) enjoy / pursue the reading of “good books.”

  3. Frank

    Could we get back to the benefits of taking a nip here and there? 🙂 Not only was this good for my development in college, it appears to work nicely to prep me for a rousing chorus in my middle aged years. This gets better and better!


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