Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

The Laws: 716a–722c

A Greek physician


Before we get to the preamble of our new law code, the Athenian argues that it is appropriate to give a motivational speech to those who are about to settle the new state—a preamble to the preamble, as it were. This speech is a reminder that the good life is centered around justice, which in turn is found by living according to the divine standard. We must live godly lives if we wish to reap divine rewards. Our purity and morality are best maintained by a life in which the different authorities mentioned earlier are properly respected and honored, even as they themselves fulfill their own functions in the state:

If we do that, and live in accordance with these rules, each of us will get the reward we deserve from the gods and such beings as are superior to ourselves, and live in a spirit of cheerful confidence for most of the years of our lives. (718a)

This life according to the rules is a life that must be founded on self-control and personal justice—a wicked man who attempts to do the same thing only makes himself worse (716e). This is the political and moral equivalent of the unbeliever trying to fake his way through the Christian life. Whatever external forms may be present and participated in, the result is nothing but increased misery and wretchedness.

Having addressed the new colonists, we finally come to the beginning of an attempt at legislation. Almost, anyway. First we have to talk about how to talk about laws in general, and what sorts of preambles ought to be attached (preambles themselves will be covered in the next post). To be fair, the Athenian isn’t just dragging things out—the goal here is not only to lay down a clear code of laws, it is also to reveal to the population the spirit behind those laws so that obedience is easier, if not actively enjoyable.

To that end, it is often the obligation of the legislator to clearly and carefully explain the reasoning behind the law. This process is helped along by the fact that laws are themselves to some extent self-explanatory and self-justifying:

The laws’ method will be partly persuasion and partly… compulsion and chastisement; and with the good wishes of the gods they will make our state happy and prosperous. (718b)

For example, we can understand that the speed limit is 65 mph and that going beyond that might involve punishment. In one sense, everything we need to know to obey is contained within that simple statement about the law. Yet, in another sense, if that’s all the legislator does, he has failed:

I should like the citizens to be supremely easy to persuade along the paths of virtue… (718d)

The law should not only inform us how to obey, it should also encourage us to do so by convincing us that it is better for us in the ultimate sense. To that end, establishing a speed limit should involve the rationale behind the rule (public safety) along with an explanation of how the specific number was chosen and what sorts of variations might be acceptable.

This is not to say that the Athenian believes this needs to be done with every law, but it is still an important overall principle. When a legislator is clear about why he has given the law its specific wording and how it is good for us, the law—and by extension, virtue itself—becomes more attractive and we begin to want to obey.

To help us understand this, the Athenian uses the example of a doctor, who on some occasions explains the whole process of medicine to us to help us understand why we need to take his advice—and on other occasions simply commands us to do what he says. (Plato’s slave/free examples are interesting, but not strictly necessary to pull into our own time—doctors today still are pretty evenly split into the “just do what I tell you”/”do what I tell you for these reasons” camps.) Both of these have their place, but in a state where the citizens are pursuing virtue, the approach that provides reasoning and explanation is generally preferable.

As an example, the Athenian picks the first laws the state will need to pass: those concerning the family. The short version of the law (the imperative alone) runs like this:

A man must marry between the ages of thirty and thirty-five.
If he does not,
he must be punished by fines and disgrace. (721b)

As with the example of the speed limit above, this really is sufficient for day-to-day life. And yet, the Athenian claims that he prefers this longer version:

A man must marry between the ages of thirty and thirty-five,
reflecting that there is a sense in which nature has not only somehow endowed the human race with a degree of immortality, but also planted in us all a longing to achieve it, which we express in every way we can. One expression of that longing is the desire for fame and the wish not to lie nameless in the grave. Thus mankind is by nature a companion of eternity, and is linked to it, and will be linked to it, forever. Mankind is immortal because it always leaves later generations behind to preserve its unity and identity for all time: it gets its share of immortality by means of procreation. It is never a holy thing voluntarily to deny oneself this prize, and he who neglects to take a wife and have children does precisely that. So if a man obeys the law he will be allowed to go his way without penalty, but if a man disobeys and reaches the age of thirty-five without having married,
he must pay a yearly fine (of a sum to be specified; that ought to stop him thinking that life as a bachelor is all cakes and ale), and be deprived of all the honours which the younger people in the state pay their elders on the appropriate occasions. (721c–e)

The problem is that if we do this for every law, all the legislator will ever do with his time is write up defenses of laws. Which is why the Athenian thinks legislators tend to rely exclusively on the short versions of laws and the threat of punishment that comes with disobedience. The reality is that compulsion is used exclusively, without persuasion ever being touched. To correct this imbalance, the Athenian believes that a tool needs to be employed that is far too often ignored: the preamble. We will pick this up next time.


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

2 Responses to “The Laws: 716a–722c”

  1. gabe

    Boy, oh boy!!!

    The Athenian Stranger would surely be in some very deep doo-doo if today he were to offer his justification for marriage!!!!

    This may be a case where it is better to simply state the Law and shut up – lest he be vilified on (un)social media!!! Ha!

    On a more serious note, however, will mostly hold off until the Preamble section but:

    My joking aside about AS and marriage: Therein lies the danger; when one offers broad justifications for a statute, redolent of flowery high minded prose, it often does lead to the opportunity for the *clever* to stretch, distend and distort the ACTUAL intent and purpose of the law.

    Look to the Preamble of the US constitution; for that matter look to the Declaration and how it has been used to stretch constitutional clauses.

    Just a thought.

    But if I were AS, I would find a convenient “safe space” in today’s world!

  2. Frank

    AS has an interesting take on drafting legislation. Apparently no one follows his advice today – which might be good, considering the U.S. Code is long enough as it is.


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: