Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 667b–674c

Gallery: CC BY 4.0.


Whenever we’re thinking about the proper production and usage of art, the Athenian wants us to remember that “pleasure” and “correctness” ought to be tied together. Just as there is pleasure in a properly eaten wholesome meal, so there is pleasure in properly created and applied art. In some sense, determining what kind of food is “wholesome” is easy (even in Plato’s day they understood something of a balanced diet). Art, however, requires a little bit of refinement, since it is easy to judge it solely based on the pleasure it gives rather than by its accuracy in reflecting the good. Therefore, when we’re setting up our third chorus (and presumably this applies to the arts more generally as well), we ought to be sure to fill it with people who:

look not for a music which is sweet, but one which is correct; and correctness, as we said, lies in the imitation and successful reproduction of the proportions and characteristics of the model. (668b)

This requires that composer, performer, and audience all understand the nature of the good being represented—otherwise they would not have the proper perspective for judgment in the first place. If we fail, the result is a cacophony that misses everything it ought to hit and appeals only “to the taste of the village idiot” (669e). The point of all this is that our senior chorus needs to have received special education both in the technical aspects of music (harmony, rhythm, etc.) and in the philosophical realities that music is to represent. This education is not to be required of everyone—it may even be possible to exclude composers, since they might not need anything beyond a technical background (though there’s some tension in the Laws on this point). But it does serve at least to lead the conversation back to the question of education in general, and drinking parties specifically.

Again, the Athenian gives us the argument that alcohol may be the best lubricant for social improvement. It makes even old men young again, and under the guidance of a (sober) lawgiver using the tools of modesty and shame it generates a pliability of soul. This newly pliable soul is then able to begin undertaking true education. Yet, even this isn’t the main benefit of alcohol:

…according to the common story wine was given to men as a means of taking vengeance on us—it was intended to drive us insane. But our interpretation is entirely the opposite: the gift was intended to be a medicine and to produce reverence in the soul, and health and strength in the body. (672d)

How does the Athenian come to this conclusion? By arguing that alcohol is a sort-of “reset” button. That is, when we have gone astray from the path of reason, alcohol can help us skim off some of the accumulated vice and take us back so that we are closer to being under the rule of reason. Combined with the pliability of soul it brings, alcohol is a tool from the gods and ought to play a key role in the education of the state.

Alas for the drunkard, he cannot claim Plato as his patron philosopher. The Athenian is clear that his ideas about alcohol are not a blank check to paint the town red:

But if the state treats a drink as recreation pure and simple, and anybody who wants to can go drinking and please himself when and with whom he does it, and do whatever else he likes at the same time, then my vote would be in favour of never allowing this state or individual to take wine at all. (674a)

Our options are responsible drinking or complete temperance—there is to be no middle ground where the lush can squat. Either alcohol will serve the cause of virtue, or it will not be allowed in the state. We can imagine Plato nodding in agreement with J. Gresham Machen on the place and value of tobacco:

The fellows are in my room now on the last Sunday night, smoking the cigars and eating the oranges which it has been the greatest delight I ever had to provide whenever possible. My idea of delight is a Princeton room full of fellows smoking. When I think what an aid tobacco is to friendship and Christian patience, I have sometimes regretted that I never began to smoke. (John Piper, Contending for Our All. [Wheaton: Crossway, 2011], 127n21)

Alcohol, like tobacco, may be used to serve a higher good. And like tobacco, if it is abused can become a conduit for vice that leaves the responsible citizen little choice but to see it driven from the state. In both cases (alcohol and tobacco) we must be careful to make sure that it is virtue which is guiding pleasure, and not pleasure which is surreptitiously defining our virtue.

With this, we bring to a close the first section of Plato’s Laws and prepare to move on to the more explicitly political analysis of Greek history.


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

4 Responses to “The Laws: 667b–674c”

  1. Frank

    There are tidbits of wisdom worth recording in Book II, but on the whole, this is not what I’d have expected in a work entitled “Laws.” Maybe I need to do a better job of leaving the 21st century behind when I read this book. On to Book III!

    • Coyle Neal

      Yeah, I thought that the first time I read through. Plato actually gives a sort-of apologetic for that with an extended discussion of the value of “preambles,” and he does get into the weeds of specific laws. But it’s still not exactly the same thing as reading the Constitution.
      Or, for that matter, the Magna Carta.

      • gabe

        Or for that matter drinking an excellent Walla Walla Valley cabernet.

        Let us hope the reaminder will be more fulfilling.


        Frank, i suspect it was you with the recommendation for Novo Ordum Seculorum. Got it and it is now in the stack.

  2. Frank

    It was me, gabe. That’s an excellent book – I’ll be interested in your thoughts.


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