Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 676a–681d

“The Flood,” by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican City.


From education and alcohol, we—perhaps appropriately—move on to politics. Where does government come from and what should it look like? The best method, according to the Athenian, is to “take an indefinitely long period of time and study the changes that occur in it” (676b). In other words, if we want to understand how to do the day-to-day stuff in government, we need to have some kind of unified field theory of politics that ties everything together. We should be able to see how this fits in to the Athenian’s previous definition of art and education—before we can judge art, we need to know what the highest good is. In the same way, before we can participate in government, we need to know where government comes from and where it is headed. This means an intensive study of history and the trends and patterns we see there.

As a side note here, I should point out that Plato’s history in these pages is only “history” in the most generous sense of the word. Even when he’s talking about recent Greek history, Plato doesn’t always get his facts correct. I think we should be generous and assume that he is aware of what he’s doing and has some kind of motivation for doing so, but I also think that we should be aware that if you want to know something accurate about Greek history this section of the Laws should not be your starting point.

One thing that everyone who knows their history can agree upon is that at one point (at least one point ) in the past, the earth has been destroyed by a flood. The survivors are interesting characters, to say the least:

that those who escaped the disaster must have been pretty nearly all hill-shepherds… in general unskilled and unsophisticated. In particular they must have been quite innocent of the crafty devices that city-dwellers use in the rat-race to do each other down; and all the other dirty little tricks that men play against one another must have been unknown. (677b)

So while on the one hand flood survivors lack the sophistication of a civilized society, they also lack the crime and vice that comes along with it. If they’re not quite Jeffersonian pastoralists, I think we’re not too far off if we read something like that character here, with all its potential for virtue and vice.

Over a very long time—thousands of years, perhaps—men slowly begin to reproduce and spread once again. And while there will have remained a memory of the lost glories of civilizations prior to the flood to spur them on, the means of building such a civilization must be created anew. And again, this has both a positive side and a negative side. The positive side is that they do not have the means of vice possessed in civilized states—they are not “driven by poverty to quarrel with each other”; but nor do they have the means of virtue that an organized society brings—they “did not grow rich either” (679b).

The Athenian’s conclusion is that men in such a state are “good,” partly because they lack the means for great evil and “partly because of their ‘naïveté'” (679c). We obviously cannot imagine such people waging total war against each other (they lack the weapons and numbers for such a war in any case), or filing frivolous lawsuits in the courts, or engaging in brutal partisan politics. “Weren’t our primitive men simpler and manlier and at the same time more restrained and upright in every way?” (679e)

I think in the American context we should have some understanding of where Plato is coming from with this scheme. We apply a filter very like this to our view of our own Founding—for better or worse. Which so far isn’t really saying anything terribly interesting. Any society that lasts long enough is going to have a (relatively) simple beginning and move toward greater complexity over time; and from the perspective of that complexity it will look back at the simpler time with a degree of wistfulness and romanticism. This isn’t to say that view is completely wrong, of course—I happen to think that people in the past were more virtuous than we tend to be and that, in part, that virtue was the result of a simpler lifestyle. Anyway, that’s a digression, back to Plato’s scheme.

As men are repopulating the Earth, custom tends to rule rather than law—which is not to say they are without politics. The Athenian names this era the time of “Autocracy” and argues that this is still the form of government in many places around the world. At the very least, this tribal and familial government is enough for a small number of people living in relative isolation.

The problem is, contrary to the wishes of writers like Wendell Berry, people tend not to stay in small numbers or in relative isolation. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Berry jab!) Eventually, families start living near each other and building communities. This leads to more intensive agriculture, the construction of city walls, and eventually something resembling a formal state. Yet once several families live near each other, customs that have been perfectly sufficient for life in relative isolation begin to come into conflict with the customs of other families.

So it looks as if we have unwittingly stumbled on the origin of legislation. (681c)

In order to hammer out conflicts and differences between customs, an external source must be appealed to. This is where lawgivers and kings come in as the community must choose someone to arbitrate disputes. Once this person is chosen, the state has begun the process of transition from autocracy to the third type of political system, where we will pick up next time.


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

3 Responses to “The Laws: 676a–681d”

  1. gabe

    So it would seem that the AS had predated Rousseau with his own version of the Noble Savage.

    “So it looks as if we have unwittingly stumbled on the origin of legislation.”

    would that be legislation or Common Law and the making of tradition.

    Yet, again, however, we see Plato thinking more like Aristotle with the deference he appears to show for “experience” and tradition (latent though it may be).

    This seems to be an interesting adventure we are on. Let us see how it progresses.


    • Coyle Neal

      You’re totally right–I keep thinking while reading that if we didn’t have the Republic but still had the Laws, there wouldn’t be nearly so much ink spilled over the differences between Plato and Aristotle.

  2. Frank

    In my translation, AS says: “They could hardly have wanted lawgivers as yet; … they lived by habit and the customs of their ancestors….” This is a minor point, but habits and customs are the basis for law in various fields: commercial practices underlie the Uniform Commercial Code, custom is the basis for much of international “law” (which may be stretching that term), and so on. Even in his potted history, I think AS fails to acknowledge the presence of some form of law from early on – law didn’t depend on legislators. Again, minor point, and maybe it turns on one’s working definition of “law.”

    I do think AS is right about the “beginning” being a more virtuous time. Sometimes I think our “virtue” ended about the time Turner’s “frontier thesis” no longer held true….


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