Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 681e–689e


In our postflood world, we have passed through small, familial government-by-custom into autocracy. This second type of government is functionally government directly by a lawgiver. Now we come to what the Athenian calls the “third type of political system, one which in fact admits all systems and all their modifications and exhibits equal variety and change in the actual states as well” (681e). The Athenian doesn’t tell us much about this type of state, other than that it is typified by Troy (Ilium) and characterized, so it seems, by forgetfulness. That is, despite the flood they still build their city near the floodplains of several rivers.

If forgetfulness is indeed its chief characteristic—and to be fair the Athenian does not explicitly say that it is—then its end is hardly surprising. Troy itself was of course destroyed by the Greeks. But the Greek states which united together to destroy Troy were themselves overcome by internal revolution:

The younger generation revolted, and the ugly and criminal reception they gave the troops when they returned to their own cities and homes led to murder, massacre and expulsion on a large scale. (682e)

So in this upheaval the Greeks take the name of “Dorians.” We should note that Plato is simultaneously drawing on events from his own life in Athens in the wake of the Peloponnesian War, mythtragedy, and a fairly fluid interpretation of Greek history. Sparta, Argos, and Messene arise out of this upheaval, leading to the questions:

Can we see what kind of laws are responsible for continued preservation of the features that survive and the ruin of those that collapse? What detailed alterations will produce happiness in a state? (683b)

These questions are related to the governments of the three cities, which Plato identifies as a sort-of internationally enforced constitutional monarchy (hence the title of “The Dorian League”). The basic idea was that each monarch in the three cities would impose set limits on his own rule, while the people would swear to obey so long as those limits were respected. If any one king or any one people in any one state broke that agreement, the other two states would intervene and restore the limits.

Historically, we can see that something went terribly wrong with this plan. All of Plato’s readers would have been well aware that Sparta and Argos were long-standing enemies, while Messene had been functionally enslaved by Sparta. (As one commenter pointed out, these “Helots” were not exactly slaves individually. And this is true, as far as it goes—they were more serfs that from time to time the Spartan teenagers would terrorize and brutalize in night raids. I maintain the rightness of the word as it applies to the polis of Messene, however, which had no will of its own and existed at the whim of Sparta.) In a sense, the Athenian’s statement that “only the third settlement survived—that of your state, Sparta” (685a) should be read as something of a jab. Sparta did survive, mostly by crushing the other two underfoot. So we have to ask, what went wrong—especially when so much was right and fair at the beginning? The lawgivers had the advantage of a population eager to obey and willing to work hard and sacrifice (684c–e). What’s more, the laws were specifically written with the protection of the state from enemies foreign and domestic in mind, such that the resulting military was the greatest in the Greek world (Sparta again). Again, what went wrong?

The problem is, the entire political structure was set up with an eye to physical power alone. The magnificent armies built by these states were built with the goal of the state (or its people, or its leaders, or both) being able to do whatever it wants without oppression or response from the outside world. The problem is that “whatever we want to do” might be something wicked. Simply being given the power to perform an action is no guarantee that the action will be a virtuous one. All of us, the Athenian argues, believe

That events should obey whatever orders one feels like giving—invariably, if possible, but failing that, at least where human affairs are concerned. (687c)

We all demand instant obedience by those around us, by the state, by nature itself, and feel ourselves to be wronged when that obedience is not forthcoming. We assume that events should reflect our desires—an irony, the Athenian notes, given that we do not want the same thing for our children. Rather, we want their desires to be correct desires in the first place. Likewise in prayer we often err in mixing up what we should be asking for with what we want at any given moment. So we might ask for “courage,” thinking “I’d like to know how to make a lot of money by taking risks in the stock market.” When our prayer is answered by being given the experience of having to escape a burning building, we begin to realize the danger of prayer.

I maintain that, if you lack wisdom, praying is a risky business, because you get the opposite of what you want. (688c)

The Dorian League generated sufficient power to do whatever it wanted but took no account for whether those wants were governed by rational virtue.

The upshot of this is that even cities with many strengths sow the seeds of their own destruction when they fail to remember that vice can direct even good laws and institutions in bad directions if it is not wrestled under the control of reason and virtue. This is especially “crass” when virtue is rationally recognized and still rejected—the sorts of people who do this should never be given power. Only the well-balanced and virtuous should be allowed to rule:

Anyone who lives a rational life shares in this wisdom, but the man who lacks it will invariably turn out to be a spendthrift and no saviour to the city—quite the reverse, because he suffers from this particular kind of ignorance. (689e)

We simply cannot assume that unfettered power is an end in itself, virtue must govern the state if we are to have a lasting government.

As a quick closing note to this post, I am not sold on the Justin Martyr-esque argument that Plato was a sort-of proto-Christian who maybe had even stumbled onto a copy of the Old Testament. But when I read passages like these I do understand where the temptation to draw that conclusion comes from. Plato could very well have been describing the Old Testament view of sin (corrupted desires), and his discussion of prayer does line up well with the book of James:

Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. (James 4:3)

Which isn’t to say I think the apostle had read Plato either. But it does make for interesting discussions among those of us who enjoy both.


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

5 Responses to “The Laws: 681e–689e”

  1. gabe

    This is an interesting one:

    “That events should obey whatever orders one feels like giving—invariably, if possible, but failing that, at least where human affairs are concerned”

    Here we find Plato providing a critique not too dissimilar from Oakeshott’s discussion of the “fallacy” of *demonstrative political discourse* (arguments) in which the aim is to demonstrate conclusively via axiom (or maxim) the rightness of the preferred (selected) policy prescription.

    That is to say that AS has noticed that the League predicated its polity upon an “apprehended” good – in this case military might – that clearly was not sufficient to satisfy the populace or the three parties to the League. Everything followed from that, i.e., “events should obey” our orders. Regrettably, they did not.
    Thus, again, we see the problem with The Lawgiver.

    Oakeshott speaks the following of Plato on “justice”

    “The design of the demonstrative political discourse is to be able to demonstrate the *correctness* or the incorrectness of a proposal…This may be done only if contingency is removed from the situation because so long as it remains IN the situation it must reappear in the response [proposal]. Plato proposed to do this by interpreting every political situation, not as an emergent event or complex of events, but as an ideal divergence from an ideal justice…
    Demonstrative argument can be concerned only with relations between abstract ideas, between *dikaiosune and democracy”.

    This peddling of abstract ideas, is according to Oakeshott (and in this case AS) why the League – any such polity for that matter will fail. In short Plato’s inability (unwillingness) to recognize / accept politics as a matter of dealing with contingencies is what prevents him from “engaging” in politics.

    Yet, again, it is unclear to me at this point in lour little journey, which Plato we are dealing with. The one rightly criticized by Oakeshott or this new and more “experienced” and experience loving Plato.

    What say you?

    • Coyle Neal

      Excellent quote/catch from Oakshott! Obviously if this is Plato’s last writing (and I think the general agreement is that it is), then it would be whichever version of Plato is most experienced by definition. For that matter, I think he sounds more and more like an Aristotle than like Socrates. I suspect this is one of those places we’d love to have something–anything–definitively biographical about his life.

      • gabe

        Goodness, we COULD get conspiratorial and do, as some have attempted with Shakespeare, a whole thesis on “multiple Bards.”

        But I ain’t into conspiracy theories!!!!

  2. Frank

    gabe, sometimes you’re working on a triathlon while I’m still learning to crawl.

    This passage is key, apparently:

    “That events should obey whatever orders one feels like giving—invariably, if possible, but failing that, at least where human affairs are concerned. (687c)”

    My translation lacks the letters – instead of 687a, 687b, etc., I simply have 686, then 687, then 688, etc. Lacking that guide to compare texts, if I’m reading this right, the foregoing quote is rendered thus in my translation (I’ve added a bit for context):

    “AS: Well, now, and does not the argument show that there is one common desire of all mankind?

    Meg.: What is it?

    AS:The desire which a man has, that all things, if possible, – at any rate, things human, – may come to pass in accordance with his soul’s desire.”

    So Coyle: he’s saying we all want what we want, but sometimes some of us want bad things – is that it, in a nutshell? He says the Dorian kings’ “misfortunes were due to their general degeneracy….” AS also states that the greatest ignorance is when we hate what we know is good, but love what we know is evil. I don’t disagree with the sentiments, but AS doesn’t really dwell on how we got into this mess, does he? Some of us just don’t follow “rational virtue.”

    • Coyle Neal

      Right, it seems that at this point he’s not going into WHY people want things that are bad, he’s just pointing out that a good system driven by bad desires–or even driven primarily by desire at all, rather than reason–is going to end poorly no matter how well structured it might be.
      Again, where all this comes from is something of a challenge to Plato–but then again who isn’t it a challenge to? I suspect there’s a reason the fall of man is mostly narrative in the Bible, rather than philosophical exposition (not because it’s not explainable at all, but because it’s not easily understood by fallen man).


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